~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
We had just finished supper when we heard a car out front. The kids, sensing excitement, went tearing out the door, knocking aside anything in their path. I went out, too, with mama right behind me.
What we had heard was a new-model Ford car with my brother Tafford driving. After seeing the car and then seeing Tafford, the next thing I saw was that somebody was in the car with him and that somebody was a woman.
“Tafford got himself a wife!” mama said.
“Tafford got himself a new car!” I said.
Lupe, Willoughby, and Wiley were jumping up and down and screaming. As soon as Tafford stopped the car, they were all over him, kissing and hugging him and tugging on his arms.
“You can help me carry in the stuff I got in the back of my car,” he said.
“Oh, what did you bring us?” Lupe cried.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Mama went down the steps off the porch and ran to Tafford and threw her arms around him. “I was afraid you was dead, son!” she said.
Tafford laughed. “Why would I be dead?”
“When we don’t hear from you for so long, I imagine all sorts of things.”
“Well, I’m here now and that’s what matters, ain’t it?”
Mama hung onto Tafford’s arm. “Who’s that woman?” she asked.
“Come on out of the car, Auburn, and meet my family!” Tafford said.
She got out of the car and stood beside it, looking confused, trying to smile, tugging at her clothes. She wore a flowered dress and white shoes but the thing you noticed first about her was her hair the color of a lemon. It hung in billowy cascades around her ears to her shoulders. I had never seen hair like it before in my life.
“Mama,” Tafford said, “this is Auburn Delacroix. She’s going to be staying with us for a few days.”
She took two steps toward mama and held out her hand. Mama wasn’t used to women shaking hands, but she took hold of it anyway.
“I’m so happy to make your acquaintance,” Auburn Delacroix said.
“How do you do,” mama said without smiling and then to Tafford she said, in a whisper that all of us heard, “She ain’t your wife, is she?”
Tafford threw his head back and laughed. “Hah-hah-hah! That’s a good one, mama! No, she ain’t my wife. We’re just taking a little trip together. And not as man and wife, neither!”
Tafford introduced Auburn to me, Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby, shaking hands with all of us, and then Wiley and Willoughby got into Tafford’s car and wallowed around on the seats while Lupe sat behind the wheel and pretended to drive.
“Hey!” Tafford said. “Stop that, you kids, and help me carry these things in!”
Auburn had two suitcases that I carried inside, while Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby carried in the packages from the back of Tafford’s car. As soon as they got them inside, they began tearing them open to see what was in them. When they found cookies and donuts, they began stuffing them into their mouths like hungry wolves, even though they just had supper.
“They’re a bunch of barbarians!” Tafford laughed, while Auburn stood beside him looking uncomfortable.
As soon as mama came inside, Auburn went to her and whispered something in her ear.
“It’s out back,” mama said. “Go through the kitchen and out the back door. You’ll see it.”
“When we have visitors, I’m a little embarrassed we don’t have indoor accommodations,” mama said when Auburn was out of the room.
“Don’t think a thing about it,” Tafford she. “She ain’t anything special.”
When Auburn came back in, she wanted to wash herself, so mama gave her a washrag and a bar of soap and hustled the rest of us out of the kitchen so she could have a little privacy.
Since Tafford and Auburn weren’t “man and wife” and wouldn’t be sleeping in the same bed, mama decided the best place to put Auburn was in the attic room. The room hadn’t been cleaned in a while, at least two years, so mama put all of us to work sweeping the floors, putting clean linens on the bed, and removing any junk that had accumulated in the interim. We were all sure we had been ill-used from the unexpected work.
“I don’t want to hear any grumbling,” mama said, “while we got a guest in the house.”
After Auburn finished with her “privacy” in the kitchen, mama offered to heat up the leftovers from supper, but Tafford said they had eaten in Pecksville on their way in and wouldn’t need anything else till breakfast.
So we all sat around “visiting” for a couple of hours and by then it was nearly ten o’clock. Tafford said they were tired from the long day, so it was time to say good night. Mama showed Auburn up the stairs to the attic room while I followed behind carrying her suitcases. I set the suitcases down on the floor at the foot of the bed and went back down to my own room, where Tafford was already asleep.
The next morning Auburn was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and she looked better than she had the night before. She wasn’t dressed yet but wore a thing that ladies wore before they got dressed, called a kimono. She smiled when I came into the room.
“I’ve forgotten your name already,” she said. “I’m just terrible at remembering names!”
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m Tyler. My name is Tyler.”
“Tyler and Tafford! Ain’t that cute!”
“Wasn’t meant to be cute!” mama said.
I was getting the impression Mama didn’t like Auburn very much.
“What are the two younger boys’ names, now?”
“Willoughby and Wiley,” I said.
“Two W’s and two T’s. And in the middle of all these boys is one girl.”
“That would be Lupe,” I said.
“As in Lupe Velez?”
“I don’t know. Who’s Lupe Velez?”
“She’s a Mexican movie actress, just the cutest little thing you ever saw. She’s got these big dark eyes and…”
“No,” mama said, “we didn’t name her after no Mexican movie actress. That was a name her papa picked out. I can’t say I ever liked it very much but it was his wish.”
“And now he’s dead?” Auburn asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“At a young age?”
“Not yet fifty.”
“And left you with five children to take care of?”
“I wouldn’t have had ‘em in the first place if I hadn’t been able to take care of ‘em.”
Tafford came into the room and poured himself a cup of coffee. Auburn smiled at him but he didn’t smile back.
“Did you sleep well, son?” mama asked.
“I didn’t wake up a single time. You could have fired a gun over my head.”
He sat down at the table with his cup and lighted his own cigarette.
Mama brought the food to the table and we began eating.
“Aren’t you going to call the kids?” Auburn asked.
“They’ve already ate,” mama said. “They get up early in summertime and they don’t want much breakfast.”
“Where are they now?”
“Down at the river, probably. They spend a lot of time down there.”
“And you think that’s safe?”
“Sure, why not? They’ve learnt to look after themselves.”
“I wonder if I could take a little bath out back after breakfast?” Auburn asked. “All I need is a pan of water and a piece of soap and a little privacy.”
“I don’t know why not,” mama said. “As long as the kids ain’t around. Nobody will be spyin’ on you, I’m sure.”
We all pitched in to help get ready for Auburn’s bath. Mama told me to get the washtub and fill it with water from the pump, while she heated the kettle to add some warm to it. Tafford set up a screen in the yard at the corner of the house so Auburn could have complete privacy from prying eyes, wherever they might be.
I didn’t want to be anywhere near the back yard while Auburn was taking her bath so I went out front and pulled some weeds out of mama’s flowerbeds and when I was finished with that I sat in Tafford’s car and pretended it was mine and I was driving around the city having a good time keeping one step ahead of the law.
When I went in for supper, Auburn was helping mama get the food on the table. She wore pants and a loose man’s shirt that showed how thin and small she was. She had washed her yellow hair with her bath and had tied a red ribbon around it that held it back from her face. She had painted her nails, too, and put on some makeup. I had the idea that she was trying to get Tafford to pay attention to her, but if that was what she was about it wasn’t working because he barely looked her way.
Mama had a time getting the kids to wash their hands and faces and, with that little drama concluded, we all sat down and began eating.
“What did you do with yourself all day long?” Auburn asked Tafford, flashing him a pretty smile.
“I’m on vacation,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything.”
Madge put her arm around Lupe and made over her because she was the only girl in a family of boys.
“How you doin’, darling?” she asked.
“Fine,” Lupe said, licking gravy off her knuckles.
“I bet you’d like to have a new hairstyle, wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve been thinking ever since I first saw you that I’d like to cut and style your hair. With your mama’s permission, of course.”
We all looked at mama to see what she’d say.
“I don’t see anything wrong with her hair,” mama said. “It could be a little cleaner, I guess.”
“It needs some body, is what it needs,” Auburn said.
“She’ll never know it needs anything until you tell her it does,” Tafford said.
“Well, if she wants to, I don’t object, I guess,” mama said. “If you can get her to sit still long enough.”
“How much will it cost?” Lupe asked.
Auburn laughed. “Not one red cent, baby doll!”
The next day it rained, so Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby hung around in the house or on the porch. They tried to keep themselves entertained, but more often than not they ended up fighting and mama or Tafford had to separate them. Tafford asked them if they’d like to go for a ride in his Ford and Wiley and Willoughby started jumping up and down and screaming.
“I want some ice cream,” Wiley whined.
“Stop at the store and get me some canned salmon and a box of soda crackers,” mama said.
“Bring me some movie magazines,” Auburn said. “Whatever they have that’s new.”
“Maybe I won’t do any of that,” Tafford said as he walked out the door.
Lupe didn’t want to go for a ride in Tafford’s Ford in the rain because she was mad at Willoughby for getting her in a headlock and not letting her go until mama made him.
“Now is a good time to have a go at that hair,” Auburn said, and Lupe agreed.
She took Lupe into the kitchen and had her stand on a chair and lean over the sink while she washed her hair with shampoo that smelled like flowers. Then she had her sit at the table, draped the damp towel around her shoulders, and took the scissors and started snipping away.
She cut off about half of Lupe’s hair and then she put curling things in what was left. Lupe sure did look silly with those things in her hair. It looked like a bunch of brown butterflies had landed on her head and died.
While they were waiting for Lupe’s hair to dry, Auburn painted Lupe’s fingernails and toenails bright red and put lipstick on her lips and a little rouge on her cheeks. The funny thing was that Lupe submitted to all the beauty business and held as still as a statue and didn’t grumble.
When Auburn had taken the curling things out of Lupe’s hair and combed the hair out, she looked like a miniature version of Auburn, only her hair wasn’t lemon-colored like Auburn’s. Auburn handed Lupe the mirror so she could get a good look at herself.
“I look like somebody else,” Lupe said.
“Don’t you like it?”
“I’d like it better if it was somebody else.”
“Why, I think you look beautiful,” Auburn said. “You look like a blossoming young woman, which is what you should look like at your age. If I had a camera, I’d take your picture and send it to all the movie magazines. I’m sure someone would offer you a contract to star in the motion pictures.”
When Wiley and Willoughby came back, they look one look at Lupe and started having fun with her.
“You look so stupid!” Wiley said.
“You look like a turd!” Willoughby said.
“You still look like a boy! Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that!”
“We ought to take her picture and hang it out in the garden. Don’t need no other scarecrow!”
Lupe chased Wiley and Willoughby from room to room, her fists doubled up, the curls on her head bouncing. When she tried to punch or kick them, they managed to stay out of her reach, laughing the whole time. We all laughed, too, including mama. When Lupe began crying with frustration, we laughed harder. Finally she ran out of the house into the pouring rain and down the road.
“She’ll ruin her coiffure!” Auburn said.
When she came back, her hair was all flat again with the curls gone. The makeup had washed away in the rain, too. There wasn’t anything she could do about the nail polish on her fingernails and toenails, though; she’d have to wait for it to wear off. Mama told us if we made any more fun of her, we’d get slapped.
Tafford and Auburn had been with us a week and showed no signs of leaving. When Auburn wasn’t in the attic room upstairs, she was taking baths behind the screen in the back yard or sitting at the kitchen table or on the front porch smoking cigarettes and reading magazines. Sometimes she helped mama with the housework or cooking or washing, and for that reason mama had warmed up to her some.
One sleepy, hot day when there wasn’t much to do between meals, Tafford asked me if I’d like to go for ride. There was something he wanted to talk to me about, he said. Sure, I said.
We’d gone out a couple of miles from home. Tafford knew the roads well. He pulled over by some railroad tracks and asked me if I’d like him to show me how to drive.
Ever since I was about ten years old, I had dreamed of driving and owning my own car and getting away on my own the way Tafford had done. It didn’t need any coaxing to get me behind the wheel of the Ford.
In about five minutes, he explained to me how to drive. He told me what to push and what to pull and how to keep the car on the road without running it into a ditch.
“Just takes a little confidence,” he said. “If you’re scared all the time you going to hit something, then you probably going to hit something.”
“I can do it!” I said.
Driving was about what I expected. After about ten minutes or so, I drove like I had been driving my whole life. It wasn’t that hard. All you had to do was watch where you were going, keep control of the car and not let it wobble. Anybody with half a brain could do it.
“I like driving!” I said after a few miles.
“Better find a place to turn around and go back,” Tafford said. “I ain’t got much gas in the tank.”
He took over driving from there and drove to a place overlooking the river where we both got out and leaned against the front of the car and watched the river. It was so peaceful and private I could have stayed there the whole rest of the day.
“Are you going to tell me the truth about Auburn?” I asked.
“I don’t know much about her. Only what she told me in the car on the drive down.”
“She’s not a friend of yours?”
“I don’t even know her.”
“If she’s not your girlfriend and not your wife and not a friend, then why is she with you? There has to be a reason.”
“I think it’s better for you if you don’t know.”
“Why is it better?”
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”
“What does that mean?”
He sighed and took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “Remember I told you I work for a businessman in the city?”
“I’m what’s known as an operative. That means I do whatever the boss or his cronies want done.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“It’s always something different. I collect payments, make deliveries, deal with clients. Sometimes I’m just a driver. I pick people up and take them to their hotel or wherever they need to go. Sometimes I’m only a messenger boy or a go-between.”
“That sounds all right.”
“Most of the time it is. Not always.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes I’m asked to do things I don’t want to do and don’t like doing. When there’s a thing I don’t want to do, I have to do it anyway. I don’t have a choice. It’s part of my job.”
“What does any of that have to do with Auburn?”
“In an upcoming trial, Auburn is what’s known in some quarters as a hostile witness.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that the answers she’s gives to questions she’s asked could put a man away for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life. And the thing you have to understand about this man is that he’s not just any man. He’s one of the richest and most powerful men in the city.”
“You mean like the mayor?”
“Not the mayor, but pretty important anyway.”
“I think I get it. The people you work for wanted to get her out of the way, so that’s why you brought her down here.”
“Well, that’s part of it.”
“What’s the rest of it?”
“It’s not just a matter of getting her out of the way for a few days.”
“Wait a minute! Are you saying you have to…”
“That’s right. I should have already done it by now, but I wanted to give the poor kid a few good days before I…”
“Hold on a minute! You brought Auburn down to our house to…”
“I’m not going to do it in the house, dumbbell! Not with mama and the kids there!”
“Why don’t you stay at home with us and not go back to the city and send a telegram to the people you work for and tell them they’ll have to get somebody else to do their dirty work?”
“That wouldn’t work.”
“You don’t know what these people are like. If I went back on them, they would kill me as easily as swatting a fly. They would see it as their duty.”
“Wait a minute! Are you saying that if you don’t go ahead and, uh, do what they want you to do, they’ll kill you?”
“There’s no other way to say it.”
“Have you killed anybody before?”
“No, this’ll be the first.”
“You can’t do it! You can’t kill Auburn! That’s the craziest thing I ever heard of!”
“You’re still just a kid. You don’t know what the world is like.”
“I’m fifteen. I know a thing or two.”
“I’m only telling you these things because I trust you, even though you are just a kid. I am swearing you to secrecy. You cannot breathe a word of this to mama or anybody else. If you think you can tip Auburn off to give her time to get away, you will be signing my death warrant. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
“I understand. I won’t tell anybody.”
“Do you promise?”
“Not to mama or anybody else!”
“Especially not to mama! I think it would just about kill her!”
“I might need your help in getting Auburn’s things out of the room upstairs so I can make mama and the kids believe she had to leave in a hurry without saying goodbye.”
“I guess I can do that.”
“I’m relying on you.”
“I know. I’ll do whatever you say, but I’m not doing anything that will put me in jail.”
“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to jail.”
“How are you going to do it? Are you just going to shoot her in the head when she’s not looking?”
“Of course not! There’s a right way and a wrong way.”
“What’s the right way?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m going to have to decide quick. It’s already taking longer than it was supposed to.”
“Are you going to poison her?”
“No, I need to make it look like an accident.”
“Get a tree to fall on her?” I said, unable to keep from laughing. “Push her down the well?”
“There’s nothing funny about any of this!” Tafford said, but then he was laughing too.
Tafford and Auburn had been with us for two weeks and showed no signs of leaving. It was no longer fun for me, though, knowing what I knew. I could hardly look at Auburn now without a sick feeling. I wanted to tell her what Tafford had told me, but I didn’t dare. I promised Tafford and, besides, I would never have gone back on him. Brothers stick together.
One day at the dinner table mama asked me if I was feeling all right. I hadn’t been saying much and had been staying off by myself a lot. I told her I was fine, but she still had to put her hands on my face to see if I had a fever. She asked me if I was constipated. That embarrassed me, but it gave the kids a good laugh.
I could see that Auburn had really taken a shine to Tafford. Any time he came into the room, she was all smiles. She made herself look pretty every day by fixing up her hair and her face and wearing bright colors. She wouldn’t let Tafford see her in her nightgown, with wet hair, or without her lipstick and face powder. Tafford, for his part, hardly seemed to notice she was there. He didn’t pay any more attention to her than he did to Lupe.
Auburn helped mama some with the cooking and the housework, but that didn’t take up much of her time, so she spent most of the rest of the time taking naps, bathing, smoking cigarettes and reading movie magazines. She liked to sit on the front porch in the evenings and listen to the mourning doves and the whippoorwills. She told me she had always lived in the city and loved being in the country. Any place other than the city.
She began taking walks by herself, leaving early in the morning and staying gone most of the day. A couple of times when she came back she had armloads of wild flowers that she arranged in Mason jars that mama brought up from the cellar. I thought she seemed happy, but I was sure she felt bad because she wasn’t clicking with Tafford the way she wanted to.
I had a stomach ache and fever. I had bad dreams when I slept. I guess I was just nervous; it affects some people that way. I vomited some and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Mama said I had the summer ague. She made me drink plenty of water and eat cabbage and oranges. She wanted to take me to the doctor in town, but I’d just about rather die than do that.
When Tafford and I were alone in my room at night, we didn’t talk about Auburn or about what he had told me at the river. Since he didn’t seem worried, I hoped he had found another way to resolve the situation with her. I didn’t believe he would ever be able to kill her. It just wasn’t like him to do such a thing, whether it was his job or not.
One Saturday at the beginning of August, Auburn left right after lunch. She said she was going for a little walk. Lupe wanted to go with her, but mama wouldn’t let Lupe go because she had some chores for her to do, so Auburn went on alone.
It was getting close to suppertime and we were all aware that Auburn hadn’t come back yet. She was alone out there in the woods and she had been gone for hours. Mama was holding supper.
“Do you think she’s all right?” mama asked Tafford.
“Why wouldn’t she be?”
“What if she doesn’t come back before dark?”
Mama wanted Tafford to go out and look for her, but he said he wouldn’t know where to look and, anyway, the mosquitoes would eat him alive.
Supper was getting cold, so we all sat down at the table to eat. Lupe looked like she was going to cry because Auburn wasn’t there. Wiley and Willoughby weren’t engaging in their usual shenanigans. They didn’t want to rile mama.
We were just about finished eating when we heard a truck outside the house. We didn’t ordinarily hear trucks outside the house, so we all went out to see who it was.
It was mama’s nearest neighbor, an old man named Ben Goldsmith. His son, Karl, was with him. They got out of their truck and stood looking at us as we all trooped out of the house. Mama knew right away something was wrong.
“What’s going on?” Tafford asked.
“You all have had a young, yellow-haired woman visiting at your homestead for a while now?” Ben asked.
“Yes, we have,” Tafford said.
“Is she a relation?”
“No, just a friend.”
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”
“What is it?” mama asked.
“We fished her out of the river, Karl and me, not over an hour ago. It looks like she fell in accidentally and wasn’t able to save herself. There was nobody else around.”
“Oh, no!” mama said.
Ben went around to the back of his truck and we all followed him. He reached in and pulled back a canvas tarpaulin and there was Auburn, on her back, her head near the cab of the truck. Her yellow hair was flat with the wet and her skin the color of tallow but, except for that, she looked just the same.
“Is that her?” Ben asked.
“Yes, that’s her,” Tafford said.
Lupe began wailing like a wounded animal. Mama tried to comfort her but she pulled herself out of mama’s grasp and ran off behind the barn. Wiley and Willoughby seemed to be in a daze. They had never seen a dead body before.
“What do you suppose…” mama said, but she wasn’t able to finish the sentence.
She went back into the house and called the sheriff and told him what had happened. In a little while a police car arrived in front of our house with the sheriff and a deputy. First they looked at the body in the back of Ben’s truck—the sheriff put his fingers on Auburn’s neck to see if he could detect a pulse—and then they came inside to get a “statement” from Tafford and Ben.
Tafford told them what he knew about Auburn, her name and where she was from, but he didn’t know much else about her. He didn’t know if she had any family. Ben told them how he and Karl and seen her floating face-down in the river and how Karl and had swum out about fifteen feet to pull her to shore.
When the sheriff was finished asking his questions, he called an ambulance from town and they came and took Auburn away.
That night, when Tafford and I were alone in my room, I asked him if he thought Auburn had drowned herself on purpose.
“We’ll never know, will we?” he said.
Two days later, Tafford decided he had had enough vacation, so he dressed himself up in his suit and loaded his stuff in his car and bade us all farewell. He could go back to the city now and tell his people there that he had done the job he set out to do. I thought he was just about the luckiest man in the world.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp