A Man is Only as Good as His Word ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Tierney stood in the corner of the yard, his work finished for the day. When he saw Wolfram come out of the house, he motioned him over and held out both fists.
“Guess which one,” he said.
Wolfram smiled, something he hadn’t done all day. “That one,” he said, pointing to the right fist.
Tierney unclenched both fists and in his right palm was a dull cold coin.
“What is it?” Wolfram asked.
“It’s an old Roman coin. It’s yours if you want it.”
Wolfram picked the coin up from Tierney’s palm and held it close to his eyes to get a better look. “Thank you,” he said.
“It’s not for spending,” Tierney said. “It’s just a keepsake.”
“Don’t tell the others.”
Tierney had given Wolfram other small gifts before: an insect trapped in amber that he said was millions of years old; a shark’s tooth, a monkey’s paw that was supposed to be good luck. Wolfram didn’t question the giving of the gifts but was only glad to get them.
He left Tierney and went in to dinner, the Roman coin in his pocket. He wanted to take it out and look at it again, but he knew that everybody would want to know where he got it.
“I saw Wolfram out the window talking to Tierney,” Eden said, about ten minutes into the meal.
“What were you talking about, Wolf?” mother asked.
“Nothing,” Wolfram said.
“If you were talking, you must have been talking about something.”
“We were just exchanging pleasantries,” Wolfram said. “I’m the only one in the family that ever talks to him.”
“Well, I talk to him!” mother said. “I have to tell him what I want done, don’t I?”
“I think you should discharge him,” Eden said. “He gives me the creeps.”
“Why?” mother asked.
“He’s always looking at me and when I look back at him, he looks away. All innocent like.”
“Has he ever said anything indecent to you?” mother asked.
“Well, no, but he just has this look about him.”
“Who would want to look at you, you silly old thing?” Wolfram said. “If he’s looking at you, he’s probably only trying to figure out what kind of a freak you are.”
“That’s enough of that kind of talk at the table!” mother said. “Nobody is going to discharge Tierney until and unless there’s a good reason.”
“The lawn and garden have never looked better,” father said, obviously bored with the conversation. “Tierney does a very commendable job and we pay him very little money. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“So Tierney stays,” Wolfram said, giving Eden a victorious look.
Eden was seventeen, three years older than Wolfram, and he despised her. She was always sticking her nose into his business. He had even caught her going through his closet and the drawers of his dresser when she thought he was out of the house. She had made herself the family detective. Wolfram wished Eden would choke on a peach pit and die.
“He does seem like a rather mysterious character,” Isabel said. “Nobody knows where he lives or what he does after he leaves here.”
Isabel was Wolfram’s other sister. She was twenty-one and engaged to be married to a man named George Jasper. Because she was in love, she always appeared to be partly absent, present in body but someplace else in spirit.
“Well, he’s discreet,” father said. “What’s wrong with that? If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s somebody always coming up with personal excuses for not doing the work they’ve been hired to do.”
“I like Tierney,” Wolfram ventured to say.
“You would!” Eden said. “You’re a junior version of him. When you get older, no girls will want to have anything to do with you because they’ll be afraid of you.”
“I don’t care how much you insult me,” Wolfram said. “And if all the girls are like you, why would I want to have anything to do with them, anyway?”
He was secretly flattered that Eden had compared him to Tierney.
That night he slept with the Roman coin in his fist. When he awoke in the morning, the coin was gone but he found it again underneath the quilt by his side.
During the next week, Wolfram had some troubles at school. He said he was too sick to do calisthenics and, when he was excused and told to go to the nurse’s office, he was found a short time later smoking a cigarette behind the building. Then there was a heated argument with a teacher that ended with him calling the teacher an idiot and being forcibly ejected from the classroom. The next week he was accused of cheating on a geometry test (looking up the answers from the textbook while the teacher was out of the room), a charge he vehemently denied.
The school principal called Wolfram’s father and told him they were going to have to take disciplinary action, which might include suspension.
“Don’t worry,” Wolfram’s father had said firmly. “He’ll be disciplined from this end. I assure you there will be no further problems.”
That evening there was a big row between Wolfram and his mother and father. His mother cried and said she was afraid he was going to end up in the penitentiary, while his father paced the floor, trying, as he said, to figure out where he “had gone wrong.”
“It’s nothing,” Wolfram said, trying to keep a straight face. “They blow everything up out of all proportion. I didn’t do anything that everybody else doesn’t do all the time.”
“Yes, but you were the one that got caught!” his father exclaimed. “How could you be so stupid?”
“How could you be so careless?” his mother sobbed.
Eden lurked around the corner in the next room, taking in every word, delighted in every fiber of her body.
“One more stunt from you,” his father said, “and it’s off to military school! If I can’t instill discipline in you, we’ll see if they can!”
“I have no intention of going to military school,” Wolfram said calmly. “I’ll kill myself first.”
As much as Wolfram tried to appear unmoved by his conversation with his parents, he was visibly shaken when he sought out Tierney in the barn as Tierney was leaving for the day.
“I have to get out of here,” Wolfram said.
“What happened?” Tierney asked.
“Oh, trouble at school. My parents are threatening to send me to military school.”
“And you don’t want to go to military school.”
“If you have to get away, maybe military school is where you need to be.”
“My father has some idea it would straighten out all my problems, but I told him I’d kill myself first.”
“He knows you don’t mean it.”
“But I do mean it!”
Tierney put his hand on Wolfram’s shoulder, close to his neck, and squeezed reassuringly. “I have to get a move on now,” he said. “We’ll talk more later.”
When Wolfram went back into the house, his mother was waiting for him. She said, “I absolutely forbid you to have anything more to do with that man!”
“What man?” Wolfram asked.
“You know what man I mean. Don’t act innocent with me. I believe he’s a corrupting influence on you. I believe your downfall began when you started spending so much time with him.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, mother.”
“I want to know what he says to you.”
“He doesn’t say anything that would be of interest to you or father.”
“Does he show you pictures of naked women?”
“Mother, how can you be so oblivious to everything that’s going on around you?”
Wolfram still managed to speak to Tierney at least once every day he was there, but he no longer sought him out for long talks. He was told to come straight home from school and begin his homework. Then there was dinner and then more homework and then lights out. On weekends he was made to do yard work and housecleaning. He never made a move that wasn’t observed, noted and passed on. When his grades slipped even further from where they had been, his father hired a former elementary school teacher, a Miss Dahrenheim, to come in two evenings a week and tutor him in the library. Miss Dahrenheim was under strict orders to report any signs of insolence, laziness or insubordination in her young pupil. Always the threat of military school, tantamount to a prison sentence, was held over his head.
One day in early autumn, Tierney waylaid Wolfram as he was coming home from school. “I need to have a word with you,” he said.
“What is it?” Wolfram asked, heart thumping.
“I’m locked out of my room and I don’t have anyplace to stay tonight. I thought I’d bed down in the barn after everybody has retired.”
“It’s cold in the barn.”
“I don’t mind the cold.”
“Mother would let you stay in the guest room.”
“I would never ask. I think it’s best not to involve them in this, don’t you?”
“You can stay in my room.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
Wolfram laughed. “More trouble than I’m already in?”
“It’s off to the military academy with you,” Tierney said, making a slicing motion across his throat with his index finger.
“Look, I want you to stay in my room,” Wolfram said. “Please. Nobody has to know anything about it. They’ll all be asleep by ten o’clock and they won’t know a thing.”
“Yes, if your father finds me creeping up the stairs after hours, he’ll shoot me and the world will applaud him for it.”
“No, you can climb up to the flat part of the roof and over to my window. There’s a ladder there all the time. It’s easy.”
“Well, if you think it’s all right.”
“I know it is. Just don’t make any noise. Mother has ears like a cat’s.”
“Well, we’ll see how it goes then.”
“After ten o’clock,” Wolfram said.
“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.”
That night it was raining. At nine-thirty, Wolfram finished his homework, unlatched the window and got into bed. The small light he left burning would tell Tierney he was expecting him.
A few minutes after ten, he heard a slight rustling and then the sound of the window being inched up slowly. Tierney squeezed himself in through the small opening and reclosed the window as quietly and as deftly as he had opened it.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Tierney said. “I feel like I’m breaking in.”
“Nobody ever comes in here,” Wolfram said. “They’re all asleep, anyway.”
Tierney removed his coat, cap and shoes.
“You can take my bed,” Wolfram said. “I’ll sleep in the chair.”
“No, the floor is fine for me,” Tierney said. “I won’t take your bed.”
“It’s all right. I don’t care to sleep in the chair.”
“The rug beside your bed will do well for me. That way, if I hear anybody coming, I can skedaddle out the window.”
“Nobody ever comes in here,” Wolfram said.
“I’m just glad to get in out of the rain, where it’s warm.”
Wolfram gave him the other pillow off his bed and a spare blanket, said good night and turned off the light.
After Tierney had settled down on the rug between the bed and window, he said, “I’m going to be moving on from here soon. I haven’t told anybody yet.”
“Where to?” Wolfram asked.
“I don’t know yet. Maybe Chicago.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Tierney laughed. “I don’t think I’d get very far,” he said. “Child abductors aren’t very popular in this state. I don’t think I would care to spend the next thirty years behind bars.”
“I could say I wanted to come.”
“You’re a minor. You don’t have anything to say about anything until you’re at least eighteen.”
“You could say I’m your son.”
“Go to sleep. You’re a child. You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I know if I stay here I’m going to end up in military school or dead.”
“You’ll be fine, even in military school.”
“Would you want to go?”
“No, but that’s not the issue here.”
“I’m not like other people.”
“When I’m old enough, I’ll come to wherever you are, whether it’s Chicago or some other place.”
“Now, why would you want to do that? You live in this beautiful house and you have a fine life here. Your parents care for you and that means a lot. It’s something a lot of people don’t have.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“No, you’re not. Do you want to get me in a lot of trouble?”
“Of course not.”
“Maybe when you’re old enough, if you’re still interested, we can talk about it then.”
“When I’m sixteen?”
“No, that’s too young. You need to be at least eighteen. You’ll want to finish high school. If you don’t finish, you’ll never forgive yourself.”
“Did you finish high school?”
“Yes, a long time ago. In another life, it seems.”
“So, when I’m eighteen, then?”
“You’re young. You’ll forget all about it.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Four years is a long time when you’re as young as you are. You’ll change completely in the next four years. You’ll find a pretty girl and you’ll want to marry her.”
“No, I won’t.”
“You’ll forget, in the next year or so, that this conversation ever took place.”
“No, I won’t.”
“You’ll forget about me.”
“I can’t say. I can’t put it into words.”
“I’m keeping you awake.”
“No, you’re not. I’ll finish high school in four years. I’ll stay here until then.”
“Do you promise?”
“In four years I’ll send you a letter telling you where I am. If I’m still alive, that is. You can say then whether or not you’re still interested. You don’t even have to send me an answer if you’re not.”
“You’ll really write to me?”
“In four years.”
“Yes, but I would bet a million dollars you’ll have other things on your mind by then. That’s the way it is when you’re young. Four years is a long time.”
“Four years, four years, four years,” Wolfram said, and then he drifted off to sleep.
When he awoke in the morning at the usual time, the rain had stopped and Tierney was gone. He had folded the blanket and arranged it neatly on the chair with the pillow. He left a note on Wolfram’s desk that said, simply, I was never here.
The four years progressed slowly and uneventfully. Wolfram was kept busy all the time with chores and school work. He attended summer school for two years running to make up for classes he had failed.
In the spring of 1914, right before he graduated from high school, Wolfram received a letter with a Denver postmark. He never doubted for a minute that it would come. He sent back a reply the same day.
He pawned the Roman coin, swearing to the pawnbroker that he was over twenty-one, even though the old man knew it was a lie. It brought him enough money to buy his train ticket West, with enough left over to buy some new clothes and some boots. When he boarded the train for Denver, it was to begin a new life completely removed from the old one.
Tierney met him at the train in Denver. He still looked the same, but Wolfram had changed a lot. He was no longer a boy but a man. He and Tierney spent the next sixty years together until they were parted by death. When one of them died, they both died.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp