The Ship Sailed On
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
Wallace Weems didn’t like offices. They were places of confinement and discomfort. He squirmed in the chair, picked up a magazine and, finding it of no interest, threw it down again. He looked at his watch and then at the clock on the wall, confirming that it was fifteen minutes after the time of his appointment. He had arrived on time, and he wondered why they couldn’t extend the same courtesy to him.
He was thinking about getting up and going home, when, finally, the young secretary came out from behind a partition and told him Mr. Strang would see him now.
“How are you?” Mr. Strang asked, shaking his hand without smiling. “Have a seat. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
He sat in the leather chair in front of Mr. Strang’s desk and wondered if he was going to have to wait some more, while Mr. Strang fumbled through some papers on his desk. Finally he set the papers aside and sat down at his desk.
“I was sorry to hear of your mother’s passing,” Mr. Strang said.
“I represented her interests for more than twenty years.”
“I wanted to come to her services, but I found myself unable to get away.”
“There weren’t any services to speak of. Just a simple cremation.”
“Oh. That’s very sad.”
“Not so sad, really. Just a fact of life.”
“So, what are your plans now that she’s gone?”
“I don’t have any plans. I haven’t had time to think about it. She’s only been gone a few days. I still find myself in a state of shock.”
“That’s perfectly understandable.”
“Even though she was over ninety years old, I had convinced myself she would never die.”
“That’s not quite true. I mean, I knew she would die someday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to think about it. My own death seemed more real to me than her death.”
“It was your own way of coping, I suppose.”
“It helped you get through the difficult years with her.”
“When I graduated from high school, she was almost fifty years old and in failing health. She had a bad heart and cirrhosis of the liver from heavy drinking. She had smoked two or three packs of cigarettes a day since the seventh grade. She believed she would live for only two or three more years.”
“I also believed it. I tried to get away from her, but when I saw she was probably going to die soon, I thought I could wait. Two or three years. That’s not so long. I could ease her dying and keep her from being all alone. No more than three years and I’d be free and clear. I’d sell the house and go someplace far away. I always wanted to travel. I thought about Europe or Australia. I had always been attracted to Australia, for some reason.”
“It didn’t quite work out that way, did it?”
“No, it did not! The two or three years turned out to be more than forty years! Forty years is a big chunk out of your life. While I waited for her to die, I missed all my chances. The boat sailed without me. I missed the chance for a college education or a career or a happy marriage. I didn’t even have any friends. I gave everything up for her!”
“Do you think she appreciated your sacrifice?”
“Of course she didn’t! She was selfish that way. She didn’t see me as a real person.”
“Surely, that’s an exaggeration!”
“No, it isn’t. She only saw me as an extension of herself. She was a person without empathy. She was unable to see anything from my standpoint.”
“Yet you loved her.”
“I wanted to kill her! I used to fantasize about pushing her down the basement steps or putting rat poison in her soup. I wanted to drop her from the highway overpass into rush-hour traffic. I wanted to take her on an ocean cruise and push her overboard in shark-infested waters.”
“Yet you never acted on these impulses.”
“Of course not! What do you think I am?”
“Well, cheer up! You’re not quite sixty. That’s not so old. You have a lot of years remaining to you. The best part is your mother left you some money. You can travel or do whatever you want now, without accounting to anyone.”
“She left me money?”
“Yes, she did.”
“She never talked to me about money, except to complain about not having enough. She always wanted me to think we were one step away from starvation and bankruptcy. We ate plenty of baloney and Ramen noodles because they were cheap.”
“She had money.”
“She wanted me to think we were poor because if I had known there was money, I might have robbed her and gone far away where she’d never find me. It makes perfect sense.”
“Well, your troubles are over. She left you in excess of one million, two hundred thousand dollars.”
“She left you a fortune of over a million dollars.”
“She left me what?”
“One million, two hundred thousand dollars.”
“Are you sure there’s not some mistake?”
A few weeks later, he was on an ocean liner to the European continent. He wanted to see Paris, Rome and London. He might have flown on a plane and been there in a dozen hours, but he had always imagined himself on a mighty, ocean-going ship, and he couldn’t see it any other way.
He loved being at sea. It was everything he ever dreamed of. He was seasick on the first night out, but he refrained from eating dinner and the next morning he felt better than he had ever felt before. It was the beginning of a new life for him. He was casting off the old life like a snake shedding its skin.
He hadn’t spoken yet to any of the other passengers, but he studied them furtively and wondered what they were thinking. Some of them looked at him appreciatively and smiled knowingly. Surely they found him of some interest, or they wouldn’t bother looking at him at all.
The third night out he enjoyed a lavish dinner in the dining salon. When he was finished with his dinner, he didn’t feel like returning to his cabin alone, so he went into the bar and ordered a champagne cocktail. He found he was enjoying the music and the atmosphere, so he stayed for over an hour and had several drinks.
He returned to his cabin, more drunk than he had ever been in his life. As he switched on the lights and locked himself in, he wasn’t surprised to see his mother sitting in the chair beside the bed.
“Well, well, well!” she said in her raspy smoker’s voice. “What have we here?”
“Leave me alone, mother,” he said. “I’m enjoying myself and I’m just getting started”
“On my money!”
“It’s not your money anymore, mother. It’s my money now.”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve! Squandering my money! How much did this little trip of yours cost?”
“None of your business, mother. It doesn’t in any way concern you. You’re dead.”
“You’ll never be rid of me!”
“It’ll be easier than you think.”
“Why did you have me cremated? You know how I hate cremation!”
“I wanted to make sure you were really and truly gone.”
“I’m not gone! I’m right here beside you!”
“I want to show you something, mother.”
He opened his suitcase out on the bed and pulled out a modest-looking oblong box from underneath the pants and shirts.
“Do you know what this is, mother?”
She watched, fascinated, as he set the box on the bed and took off the lid, revealing a quantity of gray ash nestled in a plastic bag.
“This is you, mother! It’s you!”
“I think you’ve taken leave of your senses!”
“Not at all, mother. And do you know what I’m going to do with you? Come along with me and I’ll show you.”
Carrying the box of ashes, reeling from the liquor he had consumed, he left his cabin like a mad man and went out onto the deck. The wind was blowing and the sea was rough, but he was not to be deterred.
“Watch me now, mother!” he said. “This is where you and I part company!”
He lifted the plastic bag out of the box and began emptying his mother’s ashes over the railing. He leaned out a little too far and when the boat gave a little lurch he lost his balance and fell headlong into the sea.
He struggled to right himself in the frigid water. He emitted one pitiful little scream, but it was already too late. No one had seen him fall. No one heard him scream. The ship sailed on. The waves closed over his head. His absence was not noted for two carefree days.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp