A Good Meal and Cheap ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Her name in the real world was Margaret Jessel but, to separate “this” life from “that” one, she now went by the name of Toots. She sat on a bench in the park in the sun, her arms folded across her chest. When she heard someone coming, their feet crunching the leaves, she opened her eyes and squinted into the face of her friend, a girl she had come to know as Vicki-Vicki.
“How are you feeling, old girl?” she asked as Vicki-Vicki sat down beside her.
“I feel like I’m about a hundred years old,” Vicki-Vicki said.
Toots laughed. “That’s what happens when you’re living in a graveyard.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say I’m living there.”
“Well, it seems to me you’ve learned the first lesson of living without four walls.”
“What lesson is that?”
“How to stay alive with winter coming on.”
Vicki-Vicki gazed out at the duck pond and sighed. “I think I’ll freeze to death this winter,” she said. “Not long ago that thought would have scared me, but now it gives me comfort.”
“You’re too young to look for comfort in death,” Toots said. “Just look at me. I’m fifty-six years old, I look twenty years older, and I just keep right on a-goin’.”
“Do you think there’s a God?”
“I don’t know. I’d like to think there is. If there isn’t, that means there’s no meaning to anything and if there’s no meaning to anything, that means all the crap we go through is for nothing.”
“I’ve been thinking about going back home.”
“Maybe you should.”
“I’m worried about my brother and sister. I wish I could know how they’re faring without me there to look after them.”
“If I gave you the money for a bus ticket, would you use it to go home?” Toots asked.
“And then what do I do after I get there? I wouldn’t be any better off there than I am here.”
“There’s the conundrum of life,” Toots said.
“I see ghosts in the cemetery,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“If there’s a God, then there’s probably ghosts, too.”
“They seem to be trying to tell me something.”
“Get off the streets and go home while you still have the chance. That’s what they’re trying to tell you.”
“I like living on the streets.”
“No, you don’t. Nobody likes it. The only way to stand it is to numb yourself to it.”
“I don’t think I can ever do that.”
“Give it a few more years.”
“I don’t have that long.”
“Well, cheer up, old girl,” Toots said. “I know something you don’t know.”
“You have a place to flop tonight.”
“Better than that,” Toots said with a grin. She opened her coat and showed a lady’s patent leather pocket book.
“You sly dog!” Vicki-Vicki said. “Where did you get that?”
“I found it!”
“Stole it is more like it.”
“Well, I come about it when I was in the bus station. If it wasn’t in an entirely honest way, it ain’t altogether my fault.”
“Somebody looked the other way and you picked it up and ran.”
“No! I’m more subtle than that! I was in the ladies’ room performing my ablutions when some ladies come in with their luggage and bundles. They were talking and laughing and having a good time. They didn’t even notice I was there. They laid all their stuff against the wall and then one went into one stall and locked the door and another into another stall. I eyed the pocket book from across the room in the mirror. I hurried up and dried my hands and before you could say Benjamin Franklin, I made for the door, bent down and picked up the pocket book in one graceful motion on my way out, and from there on, it was easy. I hung the pocket book from my arm as if it belonged to me, made my way through the crowds to the street unnoticed and when I got to the street, I went into the alley, put the pocket book under my coat, and here I am!”
“That was sure lucky for you and unlucky for the lady who owned the pocket book.”
“Yeah, but what are you going to do? She’s probably got dozens in her closet at home. She was just that type. She was all snooty and everything.”
“Well, did you look inside?”
“Did I? There’s over two hundred dollars!”
“I don’t believe you,” Vicki-Vicki said. “Nobody has that much money.”
“Oh, yes they do. Lots of people do. Two hundred dollars is nothing to people like that.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“I used to be one of them.”
“Well, what are you going to do with all that money?”
“I’m going to get myself a room tonight—a real room in a hotel—and get myself all cleaned up.”
“That sounds wonderful!”
“It would be more wonderful if I had someone to enjoy it with me.”
“You mean me?”
“Do you see anybody else sitting here?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Vicki-Vicki said. “It’s your money. It’s for you to enjoy.”
“I’m inviting you, though, you see.”
“No, you spend your money on yourself.”
“I can get a room for two for the same price I can get a room for one. And they’ve got plenty of hot water that don’t cost extra. Wouldn’t you like to take a hot bath?”
“Of course I would!”
“Well, come on then! What are we waiting for?”
“I’m supposed to have a date tonight.”
“I don’t know his name.”
“So it’s that kind of a deal, is it?”
“Wouldn’t you rather sleep in a real bed and have a nice hot bath than to have a date with some stranger?”
“Yes, I guess I would.”
“So what’s stopping you?”
“A promise is only as good as the person who makes it,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Yeah, that’s a hot one, kid! Let’s go!”
They made their way up the hill to where Toots had parked her old car, a seventeen-year-old heap of indeterminate make and model.
“You’re the only bum I know who has her own car,” Vicki-Vicki said, laying her hand on the dash as if petting it.
“Here today, gone tomorrow,” Toots said.
“What do you mean?”
“Today this car is in my possession, but that’s only until somebody steals it from me.”
“You stole it from somebody else, didn’t you?”
“I don’t even remember. All I know is I hope nobody stops me and asks to see my registration or license because I ain’t got either one.”
“They might put you in jail.”
“No, they won’t. Not for not havin’ no license. If I get stopped, I’ll just pretend I’m crazy. That usually works. They don’t want to get involved.”
“I’ll remember that,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“It probably wouldn’t work with somebody as young and pretty as you are,” Toots said.
“I’m not pretty. I used to be but I’m not anymore.”
“Maybe not exactly pretty but you’ve got a cute way about you.”
“How far does cute get you in the world?”
“I see the men looking at you.”
“They’re mostly old and ugly,” Vicki-Vicki said. “They make me wish I was dead.”
“Just don’t give ‘em no encouragement.”
“I’ve seen your type before,” Toots said. “A man will be your downfall. I just know it.”
“Could we please change the subject?”
With a wrenching sideways motion and without slowing down much, Toots pulled into a gas station and hailed the attendant like a woman of substance and asked him for two dollars’ worth of gas.
“Why not get a full tank?” Vicki-Vicki asked. “You’ve got all that money.”
“And have somebody steal it from me?”
“You stole from somebody and somebody else will steal from you, and a person we never saw before will steal from that person and on and on. Isn’t it funny the way the world works?”
“It’s just side-splitting comedy all the time,” Toots said.
It was about dinner time, so after leaving the gas station Toots drove to a nice quiet place where they could get a good meal and cheap. It was a cafeteria kind of place where you go in and pick up your tray and silverware and get in line and pick up the food you want from the tables in front of you and when you get to the end of the line you pay the cashier and after you’ve paid your money and been handed your change, you sit down and eat.
“Get anything you want,” Toots said. “The sky’s the limit.”
She kept the patent leather pocket book dangling from her arm in plain view so nobody would look askance at them and think they weren’t able to pay. After they loaded up on fried chicken and other unaccustomed delicacies, Toots paid with a flourish and they sat next to a window and enjoyed the best meal either of them had had for a long time and watched the daylight outside as it faded into night.
After they left the cafeteria, Toots stopped at Millie’s Package Store to pick up a bottle of Old Crow bourbon and then it was on to the hotel.
The Edison was a six-story brick structure dating from the 1920s. It was on the edge of the less savory section of the city but still maintained an aura of respectability. Toots parked the car in the “customer parking only” space behind the hotel and she and Vicki-Vicki walked around to the front and went inside.
“I want a room for tonight, my good man,” Toots said to the desk clerk.
“Pay in advance.”
“Since I said so.”
While Toots was fumbling with the money to pay for the room and signing the register, Vicki-Vicki looked around and saw someone she knew in the hotel lobby, a man she had met when she first came to the city. She couldn’t remember his name at first but then remembered it was Sid Gooch.
“Vicki-Vicki!” he said, stepping forward and giving her a hug.
“Hello,” she said. “How are you?”
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
“What a memory she has!”
Toots turned around and looked at him. “Who is this?” she said.
“He’s an old acquaintance of mine,” Vicki-Vicki said. “His name is Sid Gooch.”
“How are you?” Sid asked, stepping forward and taking Toots by the hand. To Vicki-Vicki he said, “Is she your grandma?”
“No, just a friend,” Vicki-Vicki said. “We’re on vacation.”
“Well, well, well!” Sid said. “It certainly is nice to see you!”
The clerk gave Toots the key to room four-two-eight and she took hold of Vicki-Vicki’s arm and pulled her toward the elevator.
“I’ll be around if you get lonesome later!” Sid Gooch called.
“He looks like the unsavory type,” Toots said after the elevator door closed.
“I’m the unsavory type, too,” Vicki-Vicki said.
“What’s going on between the two of you?”
“Nothing at all.”
“I heard that crack he made about me being your grandma.”
The room was clean and tidy. With so little furniture in it, it seemed unusually large. Vicki-Vicki crossed the room to the window and opened it.
“Thinking of jumping?” Toots asked.
“Not just yet.”
“If you change your mind, let me know.”
Toots took the bottle of Old Crow out of the patent leather pocket book and kicked off her shoes and lay down on the bed and began drinking. Vicki-Vicki went into the bathroom, locked the door and turned on the hot and cold spigots on the bathtub. She took off all her clothes, piled them in a heap on the floor and got into the tub, slowly at first because the water was so hot. She soaped herself all over, including her hair, and then rinsed and did it all over again.
When she was finished with her bath, she wrapped herself in a big white towel and, since she didn’t have any clean clothes to put on, she rinsed her underclothes out in the sink and draped them over the edge of the tub to dry. She would sleep in the raw if she had to but she didn’t feel comfortable doing that with Toots in the room. While she was doing these things, she thought ahead to tomorrow and what the day would likely bring. She would keep company with Toots for a while and see how she planned on spending the rest of the two hundred dollars.
Toots was asleep on the bed, breathing heavily through her nose. She had drunk about half the bottle of Old Crow and was in danger of spilling the rest, so Vicki-Vicki, still wrapped in a towel, took the bottle from her hand and set it on the bedside table beside the patent leather pocket book.
The room was quiet and she didn’t want to make any noise to wake Toots. With nobody to talk to, she might as well get into bed and try to go to sleep herself. Oddly enough, she didn’t feel tired or the least bit sleepy.
She sat at the foot of the bed and leaned back against the metal frame and begin picking at her fingernails with a bobby pin when there came a soft tapping at the door. She stood up and opened the door an inch or two to see who it was. She was not very surprised to see Sid Gooch peering in at her.
“Is grandma here?” he asked.
“She’s asleep,” Vicki-Vicki said. “And she’s not my grandma.”
“Could you use a little company?”
She opened the door a little farther and said, “As you can see, I’m not dressed.”
“That’s the way I like you best!”
“Not here, Sid!”
“Let’s go someplace else, then.”
“I don’t know. I’m supposed to be keeping Toots company.”
“She won’t even know you’re gone,” he said. He leaned in and took her by the upper arm and whispered in her ear, ”I saw her bankroll.”
“What of it?” Vicki-Vicki said.
“Looked like she had quite a lot of money there in that pocket book of hers. Bet she stole it.”
“It doesn’t matter if she stole it or not. It’s hers. ”
“Some of it might be yours. Or mine. You never know.”
“I’m not going to touch her money. She just bought my dinner.”
“I don’t think she’d mind if you took at least part of it. What are grandmas for?”
“We could have a really nice time. The night is young.”
He whispered in her ear again. She was shocked and also stimulated by the words and by his hot breath on her skin.
“You’ll have to give me a few minutes to get dressed,” she said. “My clothes are still wet.”
“I’ll wait right here for you.”
She found those six words more comforting than anything she had heard in a long time. She went back into the bathroom and struggled into her clothes, afraid that Toots would wake up and ask her what she was doing.
But Toots didn’t wake up and Vicki-Vicki slipped into her shoes and grabbed the patent leather pocket book with nearly all of the two hundred dollars inside and went out the door as quietly as she could. Sid was waiting for her, as he said he would, leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette. Instead of waiting for the elevator, they ran down the stairs, trying to be quiet but hardly able to keep from laughing.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp