Never Touch the Ground ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
It was a hazy day in mid-August. Wesley John Garbutt was downtown buying a pair of shoes. That’s the way it was these days. When he needed something, his father gave him the money and he went by himself to get it.
He found a pair he liked and when he tried them on they didn’t pinch so he bought them and was just leaving the store when he saw a woman walking along the sidewalk a half-block away with her back to him. She had auburn hair and was wearing a business suit, the kind you might see Barbara Stanwyck wearing in one of her black-and-white movies. He was going to yell to her to get her to turn around, but he wasn’t sure it was who he thought it was and didn’t want to draw attention to himself if he was wrong. Instead he walked very fast after her, dodging people left and right, and in a minute came around to her left side.
“Mother?” he said.
“Wes?” she said. She turned to look at him. She was wearing dark glasses so he couldn’t see her eyes. She smiled but didn’t seem glad or surprised.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, genuinely surprised to see her.
“I was going to call you and your father in a day or two.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“I thought it best not to.”
“It was a spur-of-the-moment trip. I didn’t even know we were coming until the day before. I was going to call you while I was here and see if I might see you.”
He shifted his package awkwardly from one arm to the other.
“What have you got there?” she asked.
“Doesn’t your father go with you to buy shoes?”
“He doesn’t need to. I can do it on my own.”
“Oh, that’s right. You’re almost grown now. I can see.”
“Are you on your way to an appointment?” he asked.
“I just came from one. I went to see the doctor.”
“Are you sick?”
“Just a checkup.”
“Don’t they have doctors out there where you live?”
“Of course they do. I just thought I’d see the one I used to go to when I lived here.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?”
“All these exhaust fumes are giving me a headache,” she said. “Have you had lunch yet?”
“There’s a little restaurant down in the next block. Let’s go have some lunch.”
They sat at a booth beside a window. She lit a cigarette and smiled. “How have you and your father been getting along?” she asked.
“All right, I guess.”
“Don’t you know for sure?”
“He’s been in a bad mood with me most of the summer.”
“He signed me up for swimming lessons and I refused to go.”
“You refused to go?”
“Didn’t you want to learn to swim?”
“I just didn’t. I hate the thought of all those naked strangers.”
She laughed. “It would probably be good for you,” she said. “Help you to emerge from your shell like a little baby bird.”
“Would you want to take swimming lessons?” he asked.
“No, it’s a thing I would never choose to do. I want to drink water and wash in it, but I don’t like the idea of being fully immersed in it.”
“That’s my point exactly. Don’t you think I ought to be able to say whether or not I take swimming lessons?”
“Well, fifteen-year-olds usually do what their parents tell them to do.”
“Not always. Not when it comes to swimming lessons.”
“He probably thought it would be a good way for you to get out of the house and not spend so much time on your own.”
“I like being alone. I love it when he’s gone and I have the house all to myself.”
“So he’s been yelling at you a lot?”
“Not really. More the silent treatment. I very subtly threatened suicide when he said I had to take the swimming lessons whether I wanted to or not.”
She looked at him and frowned and blew out a big stream of smoke over his head. “You wouldn’t really do that, would you?”
“The important thing is to make him think I might.”
“You really shouldn’t threaten suicide, you know. It makes people think you’re crazy. There’s insanity on your father’s side, you know.”
“As long as it worked, that’s what matters.”
The waiter brought their food. She picked at a spinach salad while he devoured a fillet of sole.
“I’m just curious,” she said. “How did you make him think you would do it?”
He laughed and wiped his mouth. “I asked him if he knew about the new thirty-story office building that just opened. He said he drives by it sometimes. I told him that anybody can go up to the observation deck on the top floor, even a stupid ninth-grader like me. I didn’t say I would or that I ever had. Just that I could if I ever felt like it.”
“I see,” she said. “You didn’t actually say anything about jumping off. You just implied that it was something that might have crossed your mind from time to time.”
“I thought so.”
“So you think dying in a horrible way is preferable to swimming lessons?”
“No, I don’t think it’s what I would choose.” She pushed her salad away and ordered a cocktail.
“I always could talk to you,” he said. “I can’t talk to him.”
“He’s your father. I know it’s not easy, but the two of you need to try to get along.”
“Yeah, he’s all I have now, since you ran out on me.”
“Your father and I both agreed that it was better for you…”
“How’s Ben, anyway?”
“Your new husband.”
“His name is Richard.”
“Oh, yeah. How is he?”
“He’s all right.”
“How are his two daughters? Still alive, I suppose?”
“Yes, they’re still alive.”
“If either one of them dies, you be sure and let me know since it’s because of them I can’t come and live with you.”
“Do you wish them dead?”
“Not until this minute.”
“Don’t have bad thoughts about them. If you ever got a chance to know them, I think you’d like them.”
“I doubt it. I think I should probably go on hating them on principle, don’t you?”
“You’ll do whatever you want no matter what I say.”
“About your trip to the doctor,” he said. “I’ll bet you’re going to have a baby, aren’t you?”
She laughed and reached for her cigarettes. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Well, that’s what happens with newlyweds, isn’t it?”
“Maybe when they’re young. I’m over forty and Richard is almost fifty.”
“Well, I won’t be surprised to hear that I have a new little half-brother.”
“Never on this earth,” she said.
“If it’s not that, then why did you see the doctor?”
“I told you. It was a checkup.”
“You must have had a reason to want a checkup.”
“Are you sure?”
She turned her head away and looked out at the street. “Nothing for you to worry about, I said.”
“You think I need to be protected like a little kid? I’m not supposed to know the truth when something’s wrong?”
“It’s just that I don’t want you to worry.”
“What is it, mother?”
“I’ve been having headaches and dizzy spells. Sometimes I just black out for no reason. We were afraid it might happen when I was driving the car or something, so we thought I should have the doctor…”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“Richard and I. We thought I should consult a doctor about it.”
“What did the doctor say?”
“He took some blood, wants to do some tests. You know how doctors are. It’s nothing, I’m sure.”
“Will you let me know what you find out?”
“Of course I will.”
“I want to come and live with you so I can take care of you,” he said.
She smiled and patted his hand like a benevolent mother superior. “We’ve been all through that,” she said. “Maybe you think it sounds cruel when I say we don’t have room for you, but it’s the truth. We only have two bedrooms. Richard’s two daughters share the same room and they’re constantly fighting. You wouldn’t believe how jealous they are of each other and how competitive. I’m sure they would gladly kill each other if they thought they could get away with it.”
“Yes, it is pretty awful sometimes.”
“Then why don’t you come home and forget Richard and his two horrible daughters?”
“It doesn’t work that way, dear. Your father and I are divorced. I can’t just drop my second husband and go running back to my first one whenever the whim takes me.”
“I’m sure it happens all the time.”
“Not to me.”
“Oh, all right,” he said, willing to drop the subject because he knew it was an argument he would never win.
“In a year or two we’ll talk about having you come to live with us.”
“Why don’t you wait until I’m thirty-five?”
“Sarcasm is unbecoming in a child your age,” she said.
“Is Richard planning on getting rid of one of the daughters?”
“No, but we might get a bigger house.”
“Well, we’ll see. Nothing definite yet.”
“So, in the meantime, for the next year or two, I have to stay here and live with him?”
“Life is hard for all of us sometimes.”
The waiter came and he ordered a piece of lemon meringue pie for dessert and his mother another cocktail. “Aren’t you looking forward to starting the tenth grade?” she asked cheerfully.
“No!” he said. “I hate school.”
She looked at him as if he had slapped at her hand. “Since when?”
“You didn’t hate school when you were little. Your third-grade teacher said you were a joy to have in her classroom. You made good grades and you always had a smile on your face.”
“And after that, everything turned to shit,” he said.
“What turned to shit?”
“Would you like to see a counselor? I think we could arrange it.”
“No, thanks! I’m not crazy!”
“Nobody said you’re crazy.”
“I’ve been thinking about how you used to take me to school on the first day and meet the teacher and she would show me where I was going to sit while you stood there and watched. Some of the kids cried but I never did. I remember one little boy asking his mother through his tears if he had to stay there all day, like it was a punishment or something.”
“You were always so well-behaved. I never had any trouble with you.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t have any others.”
“Well, now I have two stepdaughters.”
“Ugh!” he said. “I’d put rat poison in their food.”
“I somehow don’t think you’d get away with it.”
“I didn’t mean I’d poison them. I meant you could poison them.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
After they left the restaurant, they stood on the sidewalk in the bright sunlight. She blinked and looked up and down the street as though trying to remember where she had left her car.
“Do you need anything?” she asked. “Do you have plenty of clothes for school?”
“No, I don’t need anything,” he said. “I have plenty of clothes.”
“Do you need a warm winter coat?”
“Mother, it’s summer! Nobody even thinks about a winter coat in August.”
“Winter will be here before you know it.”
“No, I don’t need a winter coat.”
“How about a nice new suit?”
“I have two suits and I hardly ever wear them. If I need a suit, he’ll give me the money and I’ll go buy it on my own the way I did with the shoes.”
“I used to always take you shopping when you needed anything,” she said.
“And then you left.”
“I’d like to buy you something while I’m here. There must be something you want that you don’t have.”
“I want a cell phone but the boss says I can’t have one.”
“Costs too much?”
“No, I don’t think it’s that. He thinks I’ll spend too much time talking on it and not do my homework.”
“Would you do that?”
“Of course I wouldn’t.”
“Who would you talk to if you had a cell phone?”
“I don’t know. Somebody else who has a cell phone, I guess.”
“Would you call me on it sometimes?” she asked.
“All right, then. We’ll buy you a cell phone.”
A half-hour later he emerged from the store with his very own cell phone in a plastic bag. He knew that some people at school would be impressed, but he didn’t care so much about that. If they didn’t like him anyway, a phone wouldn’t make that much difference.
“Call me on it in a few days when you figure out how it works,” his mother said.
She kissed him on the cheek, smelling like cigarettes and Evening in Paris perfume, and then she let go of his arm and quickly walked away.
That evening at the dinner table his father said, “Did you get a good pair of shoes?”
“Yes,” Wesley John said.
“Did you have any money left?”
“No, shoes are expensive.”
He ignored the sour look his father gave him and said, “I met somebody downtown today that you used to know.”
“My mother, your former wife.”
“What is she doing here?”
“She and her new husband just came for a little trip. A few days, that’s all.”
“Where did you see her?”
“I met her on the street after I finished getting my shoes. She was all dressed up and she said she had been to the doctor.”
“Is she sick?”
“A checkup, she said.”
“Did she mention me?”
“No. Why would she?”
“She wanted to know if there was anything she could buy me and I told her I wanted a cell phone.”
“She bought you a cell phone?”
“I already told you you couldn’t have one. Cell phones are too much of a distraction.”
“Mother didn’t think so.”
“She thinks she can get your sympathy by buying you something I already said you couldn’t have.”
“It wasn’t like that. She wanted to buy me some clothes and I said I didn’t need any.”
“You can’t have a cell phone. You’ll have to take it back and get her money refunded.”
“I don’t want to take it back!”
“This is not going to be like the swimming lessons! If you won’t take the phone back, I’ll take it back myself!”
“Never mind! I’ll just throw the stupid thing in the trash! I don’t want it anyway if it’s going to cause so much trouble!”
As much as he hated displays of temperament, he left the table and went to his room and slammed the door and locked it, not intending to emerge until the next morning.
Alone in his room, he began worrying about his mother and about what might really be wrong with her. He remembered a story he saw on TV about a woman with a brain tumor who had dizzy spells and blackouts. He was almost sure that his mother had the same thing. If she did, she’d be dead soon and he would probably never see her again because she lived so far away now that she was remarried.
As he went to sleep that night, he imagined the two of them, himself and his mother, joining hands and jumping off the thirty-story office building together, but not dying in a horrible way. They’d never touch the ground but instead would float off together to a convivial place something like heaven where second husbands and stepdaughters are not allowed.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp