A Cup of Contempt ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in The Ultimate Writer, November 2011.)
On a Thursday evening after the supper dishes were washed and put away and her mother was dozing comfortably in front of the TV, Laura Portell took down the mixing bowl and the mixer, along with the ingredients she would need, and set about making her favorite brownies from her grandmother’s recipe. She had made the brownies many times before and knew the recipe from memory. The only difference was that, this time, she emptied a little phial of poison into the batter before baking—one of the most potent and fast-acting poisons known to man—and gave it a few forceful stirs to mix it in thoroughly.
When the brownies had cooled sufficiently after baking, she cut them into squares and put a cherry on top of each one and arranged them carefully in a foil-lined tin. She covered the tin and hid it in a nook in the cabinet so her mother wouldn’t find it and be tempted to help herself. She allowed herself to picture in her mind her mother lying dead on the kitchen floor and decided it was a scene she wasn’t prepared to deal with.
On Friday morning she awoke feeling uncharacteristically happy. She got out of bed without grumbling and dressed herself with more care than usual in her second-best suit with the cream-colored blouse that she usually saved for funerals and other somber occasions. During breakfast she sipped her tea and nibbled her toast and eggs quietly, paying little attention to her mother’s whining complaints about a barking dog in the neighborhood that had been keeping her awake. When it was time to leave for work, she took the tin of brownies from its hiding place and slipped it into her briefcase and went out the door to catch the bus on the corner two blocks down the street.
She was the first to arrive at the office, as she was most mornings. She unlocked the door and turned on the lights and started the coffee brewing. She never drank coffee herself but always made it for the others. She sprinkled a little water on her ivy plant and sharpened some pencils and sat down at her desk and began looking dreamily out the window, her mind pleasantly devoid of thought other than the blueness of the sky.
Dexter Whitworth, the second vice-president, arrived after a few minutes. He hurried past her desk in a state of agitation, uttered the word “coffee” without looking at her, and went into his little office and slammed the door.
She poured his coffee into his favorite cup, stirring in two teaspoons of sugar just the way he liked it. She took one of the brownies out of her tin and placed it on a saucer and took the coffee and the brownie on the saucer into him and set them down in front of him on his desk. He looked at the brownie without looking up and said, “See that I’m not disturbed.” He picked the brownie up in his fingers that were like fat little sausages, pushed it into his maw and began chewing. When he realized she was still standing there, he looked at her irritably and said, “That’ll be all for now.”
As she continued to stand there, smiling at him, he chewed the brownie and swallowed. He looked at her and started to say something else but before he could speak again he gave her a startled look, as if he had just stepped on a nail, and closed his eyes. His entire body convulsed and he slumped in the chair. He fell forward onto the desk and then to the floor.
She went around the desk and leaned over him. His eyes were closed and his face distorted; he shuddered violently and exhaled finally. She stuck the toe of her shoe into his ribs to make sure he was dead, delighted at how well the poison worked.
The next person to arrive was Nina Pinta, the office manager. Having been with the company since its inception, she attributed the success of the enterprise to her own business acumen. She was over fifty but she always told everyone she was thirty-five. She had been married and divorced several times and was always relating stories about her latest boyfriend, usually a scientist or a stage actor or an important writer. She had a braying, self-important voice and was known for her outspoken opinions on every subject from politics to personal attire. Anybody who ever challenged her or differed with her on some point or other usually found themselves without a job before they knew what was happening.
“Tell Dexter Wentworth I need to see him right away,” Nina Pinta said as she walked past Laura. “And get me some coffee post-haste!”
Laura prepared the cup of coffee to Nina Pinta’s specifications (ten percent cream with one-half teaspoon of sugar), placed a brownie carefully on a saucer, and went in to Nina Pinta.
“Just put it there,” Nina Pinta said, leaning over a little mirror to brush mascara onto her eyelashes.
Laura set the cup of coffee and the saucer with the brownie on it on the desk and turned to go.
“Where is Dexter Wentworth?” Nina Pinta asked, picking up the cup and slurping noisily from it.
“I believe he’s on a long-distance call,” Laura said. “He said he didn’t want to be disturbed.”
“I need to see him mucho. Just as soon as he gets off the phone.”
“That will be all for now. If I want anything else, I’ll ring.”
“I brought you a brownie with your coffee. I made them myself.”
“I’m not supposed to eat brownies,” Nina Pinta said in her authoritative, you-should-already-know-this voice. “I’m on a diet!”
“These are special brownies. They are completely non-fattening.”
“Is that so?” Nina Pinta said.
“Did it ever occur to you, Miss Pinta, that I’m not a servant?”
“What was that?” Nina Pinta asked. She opened her mouth very wide and pushed the brownie inside past her long teeth and began chewing, wrinkling her brow at Laura.
“Oh, nothing,” Laura said. “I was just thinking out loud.”
Nina Pinta swallowed the brownie and stood up and began walking around the desk. After she had taken three steps, she stopped abruptly and bent forward from the waist and grabbed at her windpipe with both hands. She sank to her knees and then folded up on the floor like a jellyfish. Lying on her side, she clawed at her throat. Then she kicked out her legs and gasped and broke wind and in a few seconds she was dead.
“Oh, dear me!” Laura said. “That just ruins your whole day, doesn’t it, dear? Well, not to fret. You just lie there and in a little while you’ll feel mucho better.”
When Laura returned to her desk, Hogue Grudnick was just coming in to work. He had been embezzling money from the company for ten years and, as a result, was the proud owner of a yacht and three houses. He wore a toupee the color of a new penny and had recently undergone plastic surgery, making him look like an angry baby.
“I’ve got to have those reports today!” he barked at Laura.
“They’re all ready for you to sign, sir.”
“Well, bring them in to me in five minutes and get me a cup of coffee. And bring me something to go with my coffee. I haven’t had any breakfast.”
A few minutes later, after Hogue Grudnick was lying dead on his back on the floor with froth coming out of his mouth, Laura tore the papers out of the report folders and covered his body with them. When he appeared to be nothing more than a very large pile of papers on the floor, she resisted with some effort the desire to strike a match and set him ablaze.
While Laura was in Hogue Grudnick’s office, Lotus Blossom had arrived at the office. She was Mr. Imperium’s executive assistant and had been with the company for a very long time. She believed herself to be the backbone of the company. As she approached Laura’s desk, the corners of her tiny red mouth turned down with her customary expression of disdain.
“Where everybody?” she asked.
“What’s that?” Laura asked. “Are you asking where everybody is? When you leave out at least one word in every sentence, I can’t always be absolutely certain of what you’re saying.”
“Don’t you think it funny that nobody here but me?”
“Yes, but you no count,” she said. “Where Mr. Imperium?”
“Well, unless he’s learned how to make himself invisible, he isn’t here yet.”
“You try get cute with me?”
“I would never do that!”
“When Mr. Imperium get here, you tell him Lotus Blossom need see him at once!”
Lotus Blossom didn’t drink coffee, so Laura made her a cup of strong tea and put some lemon in it. When she took the tea—along with one of her brownies—into Lotus Blossom’s office, Lotus Blossom had her upper dentures out and was examining them in the light. On Laura’s entrance, she pushed the dentures back into her mouth and tongued them back into place as quickly as she could.
“What you want now?” she asked. “Is Mr. Imperium ready speak to me?”
“I made you a nice cup of tea,” Laura said, setting the cup down on the desk.
Lotus Blossom sipped the scalding tea and regarded Laura through the tiny slits of her pig-like eyes. “You no like Lotus Blossom very much, do you?” she asked. “If you no like your job, we can always fire you. Hire somebody who appreciate job. Humph!”
“I brought you a brownie with your tea,” Laura said brightly. “I made them especially for today.”
“What special about today?”
“In a little while you’ll know.”
When Lotus Blossom was dead on the floor, Laura picked up the cup of tea that Lotus Blossom had only just started to drink and poured it over her head and face.
“Oh, my!” she said. “I’m afraid you’ve spilled your tea all over yourself. Isn’t that a shame? Well, dear, I don’t think it’s going to matter much now, is it?”
When Mr. Imperium came in, much later than usual because he had been practicing the speech he was going to give that day at the Captains of Industry banquet, he regarded Laura with suspicion.
“Where is everybody?” he asked. “Don’t tell me nobody’s here but you!”
“I really couldn’t say, sir,” she had, “although I would imagine they’re getting acquainted with Satan about now.”
“Nothing, sir. I was just being whimsical.”
“Well, get me a cup of coffee and come into my office right away. I made a few changes to my speech and I want you to retype the whole thing before lunchtime.”
“Right away, sir!”
When she took the coffee and brownie in to Mr. Imperium, he was sitting at his desk going over his speech for the fiftieth time that morning.
“This is going to be the best speech I ever gave!” he said. “I’ll make those sons of bitches sit up and take notice! They’ll know I’m a force to be reckoned with!”
“Isn’t that just lovely,” she said, setting the coffee cup and the brownie on his desk in front of him.
“What’s this?” he said, pointing at the brownie. “Sweets for the sweet? Don’t you think I’m already sweet enough?”
“I brought these brownies today, sir, and I thought you would like one with your coffee.”
Mr. Imperium made a comical face like a sad clown. “It’s not going to make me fat, is it?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you,” Laura said with a smile.
He ate the brownie very fast and took a slurp of his coffee. He looked at Laura and opened his mouth to say something, but the words never came out. He collapsed onto the floor, made a few convulsive kicks with his legs, and then he was dead.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to give your speech this afternoon after all,” Laura said. “Isn’t that a shame? The people at the Captains of Industry banquet are going to be terribly disappointed!”
After Laura had dispatched everybody in the office, throughout that last Friday morning, she still had a few brownies left in her tin. She took one of them out and wrapped it in a paper napkin and put it in the pocket of her coat and left the office for the final time.
When she was out on the street, she began walking away from the building where she had worked for seventeen years. She had no destination in mind, knowing only that she wanted to move, to walk, to get some distance behind her.
She walked for many blocks. She walked for what seemed hours until she found herself in a part of the city that was unfamiliar to her. She spotted a small café on the other side of the street where she could sit for a while and collect her thoughts and get something to drink. She crossed over and went inside and sat at a booth toward the back that seemed private.
From the moment she entered the place, it seemed strangely familiar to her, and then she remembered that she had been there with her father when she was twelve years old. He had taken her to see a movie downtown and afterwards they had eaten lunch in the very place where she now sat. It had been a happy occasion and the place looked just as it did all those years ago—green walls and green vinyl tabletops and white and green squares on the floor. She loved being alone with her father, just the two of them. She was more like him than anybody else. He never spoke harshly to her or judged her. He was the one person in the world who seemed to always understand her.
She ordered a pot of tea and when it came she took the brownie out of her pocket and unwrapped it from the paper napkin. It was the perfect picture of a brownie, as perfect as a brownie could be; it could have been a picture in a magazine, it was so perfect. She was proud of it.
She drank the tea, finding the taste of it as wonderful as anything she had ever tasted. In a little while—in just a very few minutes—she would eat the brownie and everything would be all right again. She felt unburdened, untroubled, light of heart. Her father was watching her, waiting for her. There was much evil in the world. She was not sorry for anything. Not sorry at all.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp