My Father’s Pajamas
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
Susan pulled into the driveway of a two-story house and turned off the engine. The man sitting beside her, whose name was Knox, rubbed his hands along his thighs and looked nervously over at the house.
“I’ll just leave,” he said. “I’m not going in there with you.”
“Don’t be silly,” Susan said. “My mother is probably watching us out the window this very minute. She’ll wonder who you are.”
When she saw he was still hesitating, she said, “It’s all right. You can leave whenever you want.”
She got out and motioned him to follow. She led him across the yard and up the front steps to the porch. Before she inserted her key into the lock, she turned to look at him to make sure he was still there.
“As you can see,” she said. “It’s a big house. There are four bedrooms upstairs and another bedroom off the kitchen. We have plenty of room for houseguests.”
“I don’t think I should…”
She plucked at his coat sleeve and pulled him inside behind her.
The house was overheated and had an old smell about it, as if to announce to anybody entering: Old people live here.
Knox stood inside the doorway awkwardly, his hands in the pockets of his coat. A very old woman entered from another room and stopped in midmotion and when she saw Susan and Knox.
“It’s me, mother!” Susan said. “I’m back! And I’ve brought somebody with me this time.”
“Who is this?” the old woman asked. She had a great shock of white hair sticking out all over her head. The thick glasses she wore magnified her eyes many times, giving her a rather freakish look.
“His name is Knox,” Susan said. “I met him in the park. I invited him to come home with me and he very graciously accepted.”
“Who?” the old woman asked.
“Knox!” Susan said loudly. “His name is Knox! Don’t you think he’s nice-looking? That wasn’t why I chose him, of course, but I suppose it had something to do with it. He has blue eyes, mother. Same as you.”
“What?” the old woman said.
“And he’s just the right age. I don’t mean I know how old he is, but he looks the right age.”
“Hello,” Knox said to the old woman. “I’ll only stay a minute.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“I’ll show Knox upstairs to the guest bedroom,” Susan said. “He can take a shower or do whatever he wants while I fix dinner. I’ll get some of father’s clothes out of his closet for him to wear.”
“What?” the old woman said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“I know you heard every word I said, mother! There’s nothing wrong with your hearing!”
“You’ll have to excuse my mother,” Susan said to Knox when they were upstairs. “She’s a bit eccentric and she is old.”
The guest bedroom was commodious in every way, with its own bathroom, a huge walk-in closet and lots of natural light.
“I think you’ll like this room,” she said. “It’s always been my favorite room in the whole house.”
“I can’t stay here,” Knox said.
“Does this look like the kind of room I belong in?”
Susan laughed. “You’re going to have to forget all that,” she said. “It might help to keep an open mind and be open to new experiences.”
“Your mother doesn’t like having me in her house and I can’t say I blame her,” Knox said.
“Don’t worry so much. I know how to get around her.”
She went to the closet and brought out a pair of pants, a shirt, a belt and a pullover cashmere sweater. She laid the things on the bed and then took some things out of the dresser drawer, which turned out to be a man’s underpants, an undershirt and a pair of black socks.
“These things belonged to my father,” Susan said. “He’s been dead for years. Wear them in good health.”
“I can’t wear your father’s clothes,” Knox said.
“I shouldn’t even be here.”
“I’m going downstairs now to cook dinner. You can take a bath, a shower, or do whatever you want. I know you’re thinking you only want to leave, but I hope you’ll at least stay for dinner. I’m thawing out some trout that I bought and there’s a lot more than my mother and I can eat.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “None of this seems right.”
“Maybe you need to think of it as your lucky day. The day I found you in the park.”
“My lucky day.”
“In the bathroom beside the sink is a brand-new razor that’s never been used. There’s also a toothbrush, a washcloth, a towel and lots of soap and shampoo. I think that’s everything you need. I’m going back downstairs now. I’ll close the door so you can have your privacy. I know men like their privacy. You can lock the door from the inside if it makes you feel better.”
“I don’t think I should do this,” he said.
“Put these clothes on that I laid out for you. I’ll wash your old clothes, or we can put them in the trash if you want. I won’t insult you by telling you how awful they are. Now, if there’s anything else you need, just let me know. I’ll be in the kitchen. Oh, and tomorrow I’ll trim your hair if you’ll let me. But please wash it first.”
“Trim my hair.”
“Yes. I’ll let you know when dinner is ready.”
While she was in the kitchen, slicing potatoes, her mother came charging in with the crazed look in her eye.
“Who is that man?” she demanded.
“I told you, mother. His name is Knox.”
“What is he doing in my house?”
“I invited him.”
“How long is he going to stay?”
“As long as he wants. We haven’t discussed any long-term arrangement yet.”
“I’m going to call the sheriff.”
“There’s an intruder in my house and I want him removed!”
“He’s not an intruder if I invited him, now, is he?”
“What do you know about him?”
“Where does he come from?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who are his people? What does he do for a living?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you going to wait for him to slit our throats?”
“He’s not going to do that!”
“We don’t know anything about him, so we have to assume the worst.”
“All you have to do is look at him to know he’s not that sort.”
“I’m going to call the sheriff.”
“You’re not calling anybody!” Susan said, turning to her mother with the knife in her hand. “I might slit your throat if you don’t stop being so silly!”
“As long as that man is here, I’m not staying in this house another minute! I’m going to go stay with my sister Edith.”
“Your sister Edith is dead.”
The old woman starting crying. “So, I guess that means I don’t have any place I can go!”
“You don’t need a place to go!”
“I don’t know how you can treat your mother this way!”
“This is not about you, mother!”
“What is it about, then? Are you starting to go through the change?”
“I want a friend, that’s all.”
“What about your Sunday school class?”
“They’re just a bunch of gossipy old women. I don’t have anything in common with them.”
“Maybe you should try harder.”
“Look, mother! I spend all my time in this house with you. You’re the only person I ever see or talk to.”
“That’s not true!”
“I cook your food and wash your clothes. I keep your house clean. Life is passing me by. Maybe I want more from life than being your nursemaid.”
“Well, what do you want?”
“I don’t know! I’m going to find out.”
“Are you going to marry that man?”
“I might. It’s too soon to know.”
“He might be a rapist!”
“He might be a lot of things. He might have a wife and eight children. You can’t go through life being afraid of everything and everybody.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“What kind of an answer is that? Are you sick? Do you need to see a doctor?”
“When I need to see a doctor, mother, I’ll let you know.”
“Is that man going to spend the night in this house?”
“I don’t know what he plans on doing. I want him to stay but I can’t force him.”
“Are you going to let him make love to you?”
“Of course not, mother! I don’t think you need to worry about that.”
“Well, I’m going to a hotel! Will you please call me a cab?”
“You know how to call a cab, mother. You’re just being melodramatic.”
“No, on second thought, I’m not going to a hotel and leave you alone in the house with that man! When there’s an unsavory character in my house, I want to know what he’s doing every minute.”
Dinner was uneventful. Knox ate the food that Susan put in front of him with his head down. She was gratified to see that he had put the clothes on that she laid out for him. He had taken a bath and washed his hair and he did look much improved. He still needed a haircut, though, and a manicure.
Susan’s mother sat with her arms close to her sides, feigning fear. She cried the entire time she ate and sniffled into her hanky for effect.
“How do you like the fried potatoes, mother?” Susan asked.
“Greasy. I can’t eat them. They give me heartburn.”
“Do you like the fish? It’s just the way you like it.”
“No, it tastes funny. I think it’s going to make me sick.”
“Would you like some salad?”
“No, I’ll just eat some of my candy before I retire for the night.”
“Too much candy isn’t good for you.”
“What do you care?”
She stood up then, nearly falling, and made her way out of the room.
“Your mother doesn’t like me,” Knox said.
“No matter,” Susan said. “She doesn’t like me, either. I’ve always been a disappointment to her.”
“I should go,” Knox said.
Once again he gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “I don’t belong here.”
“It’s dark now and raining. Spend the night. You’ll have the guest room all to yourself. You won’t be bothered. There’s a lock on the door. You can lock yourself in.”
“I can’t pay you for any of this.”
“Tomorrow we’ll have a little talk while I’m trimming your hair. You can tell me about yourself, as much or as little as you want.”
“Maybe there’s nothing to tell.”
“Everybody has something to tell.”
“Maybe there’s nothing worth telling. I’m less than nothing. I’m nobody. I’m not worth mentioning. I’m not worth a second of your time.”
They sat for a while longer without saying anything. The house was quiet. Knox went to sleep sitting at the table. While he was sleeping, Susan looked at his hands and fingers, his face, his hair, his nose and mouth. If he knew she was scrutinizing him that way, he would have spoken sharply to her and walked out the door.
A crash of thunder woke him and he stood up from the table. Now is the moment of truth, Susan thought. Instead of leaving, though, he crept up the stairs and went into the guest room and locked the door. She hoped he would find the pajamas and dressing gown she left out for him. She wanted him to have all the good things she might give him.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp