An Afternoon of Conversation at the Home of Miss Fish ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
“He can sit by himself all day long in a room and look at picture books and not bother a thing,” grandma said.
The ladies looked admiringly at the boy and smiled.
“He’s a mighty cute little thing,” Miss Fish said. Her name didn’t quite fit her; instead of looking like a fish, she looked more like a chicken.
“Yes, of all my grandchildren,” grandma said, “he’s the best behaved.”
“And who is his daddy again?” Miss Doty asked.
“That’s a question that remains unanswered to this day,” grandma said gravely. “I wish I knew.”
They all looked at the boy, as if his parentage might be written somewhere on his body if only they could see it.
“It doesn’t matter at all,” Miss Fish said. “It’s all after the fact.” She was taking up for the boy. She didn’t much like Miss Doty and didn’t think it was right for her to bring up the question of who the boy’s daddy was, since everybody knew he was illegitimate.
“What do you mean, ‘after the fact’?” grandma asked. Miss Fish was one of her best friends and she believed that whatever she said was important.
“Well,” Miss Fish said, “he’s here, ain’t he? It doesn’t matter now who his daddy is. It’s not like anybody can go back and fix it if it ain’t right. Whether his daddy is a bum or president of the bank won’t make any difference in his life.”
“If his daddy was president of the bank, he could put him through college,” Miss Doty said, refusing to let the matter lie.
“Maybe not,” Miss Fish said. “The president of the bank wouldn’t give him jack shit because he wouldn’t want people to know he was his daddy. He would most likely have a wife and children and a position to uphold in the community.”
“I wouldn’t let him get away with that,” Miss Doty said.
“Well, anyway,” grandma said, “he’s like all the other children who are born, whether they have a daddy or not. Precious in the eyes of the Lord.”
“He shouldn’t be held responsible for the transgressions of others,” Miss Fish said.
The boy looked at them, thinking about all the talking they did. Sometimes he followed along with what they were saying—if what they were talking about happened to be of interest—and other times he just let the words wash over him like water over the spillway. For them, talking was like breathing. If they didn’t do it, they would die.
“I think he looks a little like Dr. Kane,” Miss Doty said. “Didn’t Marion have a little fling with him before his divorce went through and he married some other woman?”
“Not that I know of,” grandma said.
“You should ask her some time. I think it’s an interesting avenue to pursue.”
“I thought we decided it didn’t make any difference,” Miss Fish said.
“Well, still,” Miss Doty said. “If the question has an answer, then why not find out what it is?”
“I think people should just leave it alone and accept things for what they are. Acceptance is the greatest thing in the world.”
“To you, maybe,” Miss Doty said.
“Good God!” Miss Fish said. “Do you always have to have the last word about everything?”
“I just meant…”
It being her house, Miss Fish stood up and went into the other room. In a few moments she returned bearing a tray of drinks, cocktails for the ladies and a glass of grape juice for the boy.
“I don’t usually drink hard liquor,” grandma said, but she took it willingly, smacking her lips as she sipped.
“What is hard liquor anyway?” Miss Doty asked, sticking her tongue into the cocktail to see if she was going to like it.
“A step up from beer, I guess,” grandma said.
“You can feel it coursing through your veins,” Miss Fish said. “It relaxes you.”
“As long as you don’t overdo it,” grandma said.
“What happens if you overdo it?” Miss Doty asked.
“You get drunk.”
“You know, I’ve never been drunk in my life,” Miss Doty said. “Have you?”
“Never,” grandma said.
“Once or twice when I was younger,” Miss Fish said. “We used to have these parties at our house.”
“What happens when you get drunk?”
“Well, you feel good for a while and after the good feeling wears off you feel terrible. You have a headache and you’ll very likely be vomiting your guts out.”
“I don’t want to drink it then,” Miss Doty said, setting the glass down on the table.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” Miss Fish said. “One drink ain’t going to hurt you! Don’t be such a pantywaist.”
“What’s a pantywaist, anyway? I’ve heard that expression before and I never knew what it meant.”
“Go look in the mirror,” Miss Fish said and she and grandma laughed.
“Oh, you mean if I see my own reflection, I’m seeing a pantywaist, is that it?”
“Just a little joke,” Miss Fish said. “Don’t get excited.”
“Well, I think you should mind the joke at the expense of someone else’s feelings.”
“Lighten up, old girl!” Miss Fish said.
When grandma and Miss Fish finished their drinks, they had refills but Miss Doty would only limit herself to one. She said she was beginning to feel sick already and she didn’t want to spend the night vomiting her guts out.
The boy finished his grape juice and set the glass down. He was bored and beginning to feel sleepy. He hoped that he and grandma would go home soon. He thought about saying something that would make her realize it was time to go but could think of nothing. Finally, he said simply, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Help yourself,” Miss Fish said. “Through the dining room, down the hall to the door on the left.”
He stood up and walked slowly through the quiet house. He always found it very interesting to be in somebody else’s house and to look at their things. It was more than just what he saw but also what he smelled; in this case it was dust, mouse droppings, soap, and a musty smell like rot underneath the house. He lingered in the hallway and then went into the bathroom and shut the door and locked it.
The bathroom was large and cheerful, with white tile everywhere and yellow towels. There was an old-fashioned tub with claw feet and a window with pebbled glass and a frilly yellow curtain. He stood on his tiptoes and opened the door to the medicine cabinet over the sink. Inside were all kinds of bottles and jars, toothpaste, shaving cream, and other stuff that old people use. He flushed the toilet, ran some water in the sink, and went out of the bathroom into the hallway again.
He heard grandma and the ladies talking and laughing in the front room, so he knew that, for the moment at least, they had forgotten about him. He turned to the left and continued down the hallway until he was in a bedroom with an imposing four-poster bed. He walked around the bed to the dresser with its round mirror on which flecks of dust stood out in the bright sunlight. He paused, listening for sounds of approaching footsteps, and opened the top dresser drawer slowly so as to not make a sound.
Inside the drawer was a jumble of scarves, gloves, shawls. Seeing nothing of interest in that drawer, he closed it and opened the middle drawer, re-closing it quickly when he saw it contained stockings and old ladies’ underwear. He bent over and opened the bottom drawer, which had the advantage of being hidden from view to anybody who might come unexpectedly into the room. In this drawer were a photo album, some small boxes, and, partly concealed by a wool blanket, a jewelry case with a brocaded lid. He opened the lid of the case and saw inside a disorderly profusion of costume jewelry and on top of it a small amount of cash in one-dollar bills.
He counted the money and, of the eight dollars there, he folded up four and put them inside his shoe. He was about to close the case again when he saw a necklace that captured his attention. It had a large green stone, an imitation of some kind of precious gem. Being partial to green as he was, he lifted it up to get a better look. It was the most beautiful green color he had ever seen, shot through with light and just a touch of other colors, yellow and even blue if it caught the light just right. He was going to put the necklace back after admiring it but, when he thought sure somebody was coming, he slipped it into his pants pocket, almost before he realized what he was doing. Then, as quickly and as quietly as he could, he rearranged the stuff back in the drawer to make it appear as if it had never been disturbed and closed it.
When he returned to the front room and resumed his chair, nobody paid any attention to him, so he was sure they didn’t suspect that he had done anything other than use the bathroom. Miss Fish was telling a story about a fight between a husband and wife on her street.
“…so drunk he didn’t even know what he was doing. He was swinging an axe over his head and chasing her around the house like they were a couple of cartoon characters and he was going to cook her for dinner. She was so scared of him she wet her pants. I’m not making it up! You could see it, plain as day. It was really a funny thing to see but it didn’t seem so at the time.”
“And was he really going to kill her?” Miss Doty asked.
“He would have if the police hadn’t come when they did. They got him down on the ground—you know the way they do. And the bad thing about it was that he was wearing a bathrobe with nothing on underneath. Everybody saw him on the ground naked after his bathrobe came untied and slipped off, even the little children.”
“Ugh!” Miss Doty winced and covered her face, as if she shared in the embarrassment.
“I don’t like it when people air their private grievances in public,” grandma said.
“Well, who does?” Miss Fish said.
“And they took the son of a bitch off to jail?”
“They locked him up in the state mental hospital where he belongs,” Miss Fish said with satisfaction. “End of story.”
When grandma and the boy were finally walking home, he looked up at her and said, “I know who my real daddy is.”
“I don’t believe you do,” she said.
“Yes, I do, too.”
“Who is it then?”
“It’s a secret.”
“You shouldn’t keep secrets from me.”
“It’s the only one.”
That night, tucked safely away in his room after everybody had gone to bed, he took the green necklace out and put it around his neck and, standing in front of the mirror, pretended he was a simpering old woman drinking a cocktail and gossiping about the neighbors.
He counted out the four dollars again, lining them up on the bed to better see them. When he began to grow sleepy, he stowed the necklace and the four dollars in the deep recesses of his closet where nobody would ever find them. Young as he was, he was already well acquainted with the art of concealment.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp