During the Storm ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Aunt Glam didn’t have a television set, but she had other things almost as good: an enormous back yard wherein grew a cherry tree, poppies, peonies, roses, irises, bougainvillea, honeysuckle and other growing things that Dermott didn’t know the names of; a screened-in porch on the second floor at the back of the house (more about that later) where you could sit in private and watch the fireflies and listen to the crickets and the tree frogs in the evening and feel the breeze on your face that carried with it the smell of grass and damp earth; an attic snuggled up under the timbers of the roof containing a lifetime of books, clothes, cast-off furniture, trunks, boxes, barrels and objet d’art. (Aunt Glam didn’t believe in throwing anything away.)
Dermott was allowed to roam freely in the attic, to spend as much time as he wanted, as long as he promised not to break anything or light any matches. He loved the smells, the feeling of solitude, the interesting junk (three dress forms of different sizes that looked like headless women standing against the far wall). After supper he liked to go sit by himself among the orderly chaos until it was nearly dark and he felt compelled to go back downstairs because he could feel the dead people—remote ancestors—whose pictures adorned the walls looking at him. He was able to shrug off the haunted feeling during the day but after dark he preferred being somewhere else, although usually not in the same room with his mother.
She was doing a lot of crying these days. A week earlier, after telling him to pack a bag for an extended vacation, she dragged him along with her to the bus station in a taxi cab. They boarded a bus and spent four hours traveling to Aunt Glam’s house, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Dermott didn’t remember much of the bus ride because his mother had given him a double dose of Dramamine to keep him from being carsick and Dramamine always put him to sleep. Aunt Glam was there to meet them at the bus station in St. Louis, all smiles and good cheer.
The first two or three days at Aunt Glam’s were all right but after that he started to want to go home. He missed his room and his bed, his books and toys, but most of all he missed Gabby, his dog. He hoped that Gabby was all right without him and hadn’t wandered into the street where drivers drove too fast without paying any attention to the speed limit. He also hoped that his father was remembering to put food in Gabby’s bowl and give him fresh water so he wouldn’t get too thirsty in the hot weather.
While Dermott was occupying himself in another part of the house or in the yard, his mother and Aunt Glam spent endless hours at the kitchen table, talking, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Dermott’s mother poured out all her marital troubles to Aunt Glam, who seemed more than willing to listen and give advice where she could. If Dermott’s mother started out dry-eyed, she usually ended up bawling and sobbing, which Dermott found embarrassing and somehow beneath her dignity. Whenever he happened to walk into the kitchen during these conversations, his mother and Aunt Glam usually stopped talking or one of them changed the subject. If he asked his mother why she was crying, she would either say that it was her time of the month or she just had the blues a little bit but that it would soon pass.
He didn’t want to talk about going home in front of Aunt Glam, so he waited until he was alone with his mother; she came into his room after he had gone to bed but before he went to sleep. She was wearing a chiffon housecoat the color of a school bus.
“How long are we going to have to stay here?” he asked.
She sighed loudly and turned her head away. He could smell her cigarette breath.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I’m worried about Gabby. I’m afraid daddy isn’t watching out for him.”
“I’m sure Gabby’s all right.”
“Can I call daddy?”
“Not just yet. I don’t want him to know where we are. He might come here and make a scene.”
“I don’t have to tell him where I am.”
“I can’t afford for you to make any long-distance calls.”
“Aunt Glam won’t mind.”
“No unnecessary expenses right now.”
“Everything is always about money, isn’t it?”
“That’s the way the world is, I’m afraid.”
“I want to go home.” He thought he was going to cry and he didn’t care if he did.
“I’ve applied for a couple of jobs downtown. If I get either one of them, we’ll get a small apartment and move here. We can’t stay with Aunt Glam forever.”
“Do you mean I’ll have to change schools?”
“Well, of course! You can’t live here and go to school somewhere else.”
“If I can’t go to school where I always have, then I’m not going at all!”
“You’ll like it here. There’s lots to do. Always something going on.”
He turned away from her and covered up his head, signaling an end to the conversation.
The next day he wouldn’t look at her and spoke to her only when he had no other choice. He was concocting a plot in his head where he would leave without telling anybody and hitchhike home. Taking the bus was out of the question because he didn’t have and couldn’t get the price of a ticket. He could picture Gabby waiting for him on the front steps. If he could just see Gabby, everything would be all right again.
Two days later nothing much had changed. Dermott was still moping about the house, spending a lot of time in the attic reading or doing little jobs for Aunt Glam such as emptying the ashtrays or scouring the sink. His mother was still crying and still undecided about how she was going to spend the rest of her life. She was drinking highballs and taking pills that sometimes made her slur her words. Dermott was seeing a side of her he had never seen before. For the first time in his life he was feeling a coldness toward her that a short time earlier he would not have believed possible.
One morning she got up early and put on high heels and a good dress that she wore for special occasions and left the house. She didn’t say where she was going but Dermott figured she was going to see about a secretarial job or a job in a department store.
When she came back seven hours later, she was carrying her shoes and she seemed unable to walk in a straight line. Her clothes looked as if she had been wearing them for a week. The glazed look in her eye was something Dermott had never seen before.
“Well, where have you been?” Aunt Glam asked. “We were getting worried.”
“I went to see a divorce lawyer,” she said as she began removing her clothes in the front room. “I put the wheels in motion.”
“What wheels?” Dermott asked.
“The wheels of justice, silly,” she said. “What do you think? All I have to do is give him a call and he’ll file the papers.”
Dermott didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Did the divorce lawyer serve drinks?” Aunt Glam asked.
Dermott’s mother laughed. “Oh, that!” she said. “I met an old friend and we had a couple of cocktails.” Without another word, she went upstairs to her room and slammed the door.
Aunt Glam grilled a huge steak and fried some potatoes for dinner, filling the house with wonderful smells, but Dermott’s mother wouldn’t come downstairs when the food was ready. When Aunt Glam went to check on her, she said she wasn’t hungry and only wanted to go to bed.
The next day Aunt Glam said they were all being too gloomy and spending too much time in the house. They needed to get out and get their minds on something other than their own problems. She pulled her ancient Cadillac out of the garage and took Dermott and his mother to the zoo to see the elephants and the lions. Afterwards they ate lunch in a Chinese restaurant with genuine Chinese food and waiters in silk lounging pajamas. Then it was off to a matinee to see a movie about a woman whose husband was driving her crazy so he could get her money and marry her sister.
After Dermott and his mother had been at Aunt Glam’s for two weeks, the weather turned stiflingly hot, with the nights just as hot as the days. Aunt Glam made up the daybed on the sleeping porch for Dermott to sleep in. At first he didn’t like the idea but he said he would give it a try. He could always come back inside anytime he wanted to.
He found that he loved sleeping on the porch. It was almost like camping out but with none of the discomforts. He felt up high, almost like being in a tree house, and as safe as if he had been in the house. He didn’t need to feel afraid of any hobos or anybody sneaking up on him around the side of the house in the dark.
In his second night on the porch, a thunderstorm woke him up. The wind blew furiously and the rain pelted down. He got out of bed and stood at the screen, feeling the tiny droplets of water on his face and arms. As a flash of lightning like a million flashbulbs illuminated the tree next to the house, he jumped back and started to run inside, but then he thought he saw something, there beside the tree, that caused him to stop and take a closer look.
Someone was standing about halfway between the house and the tree, looking up at him. His first thought was to go wake his mother and Aunt Glam and tell them there was a prowler in the yard who might be going to try to break in. He wasn’t really sure there was anybody there, though, until another flash of lightning revealed, unmistakably, the dark form of a man. He was going to duck out of sight and run into the house, until a flashlight was shone in his direction and he heard someone speak his name in a soft, though insistent, voice. He cupped his hands around his eyes against the screen.
“Who’s out there?” he said in a steady voice, knowing he had the advantage of being up high where he could get away quickly if he needed to. “Is anybody there?”
“It’s me,” his father said. “Get dressed and come down to the corner where the mailbox is. I’ll be waiting for you in the car.”
He went back inside quietly and slipped into his clothes and shoes without turning on the light. He was glad his father had come. He wasn’t able to remember a time when he had ever been glad to see him before. At last, he could find out about Gabby and home. He felt a tremendous sense of relief.
He ran the half-block to the corner where his father’s car was parked. The rain was still pelting down, but he didn’t care how wet he got. He was going home.
As he opened the door and slid onto the front seat, his father threw his cigarette out the window and straightened up in the seat. The radio was playing softly.
“Seems like you’ve been gone a year,” his father said, patting him on the leg. “How are you?”
“How did you know I’d be sleeping on the porch tonight?” Dermott asked.
“I didn’t. I was just walking around the house to see if there were any lights on when I saw you at the screen.”
“If Aunt Glam had seen you, she would have called the police.”
“I know.” He started the car, turned on the headlights, and drove slowly down the deserted street. “Did you know it’s two in the morning?” he said. “I’ve been driving all night to get here.”
“Is Gabby okay?”
“He’s not quite himself lately because he misses you so much.”
“He’s not sick, is he?”
“Are we going home now?”
“I wanted to call you but mother wouldn’t let me.”
“How is your mother?”
“She’s been acting weird lately.”
“You got out of the house without her knowing it?”
“She’s asleep. So is Aunt Glam. They won’t know I’m gone until they wake up in the morning.”
“Hah-hah! Will they think you ran away and joined the Foreign Legion?”
“I don’t know what they’ll think.”
“What was that woman thinking? Taking a child away from his home and away from everything he knows without so much as a by-your-leave? She could at least have had the decency to tell me she was leaving.”
“She’s going to get a divorce and she says we’re going to move here. She says I’ll have to go to school here.”
“She could do whatever she wanted if I was dead, but I’m not dead. She still has to answer to me, especially when it comes to you. I’m your father. If I say you stay in your home, then that’s where you stay.”
“And I can keep going to the same school?”
“Can I call her when we get home and tell her where I am?”
“Why don’t you lay down on the seat and try to go to sleep? We’ll be home before you know it.”
When they pulled into the driveway at home, it was a new morning; the rain had stopped and the birds were singing. Dermott was so happy to be at home that he wasn’t thinking about what his mother and Aunt Glam would think when they woke up and found him gone. After he greeted Gabby and found that he was all right and had indeed been well cared for in his absence, he got into bed with his clothes on and slept until about noon. When he woke up and, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, a fried baloney sandwich and a can of fruit cocktail, he went to the phone without asking for permission to make a long-distance call and called Aunt Glam’s house. Even after twenty-five or thirty rings, there was no answer. He imagined that they were out looking for him, but still he wasn’t very worried; he would clear everything up later.
In late afternoon he was in the back yard, playing fetch-the-stick with Gabby, when he looked up and saw his father come out the back door. He knew from the way he was standing still, looking at him, that something was wrong. He let Gabby have the stick and crossed the yard toward his father to hear the bad news that he knew he wasn’t going to be able to avoid.
Tranquilizers taken with a certain amount of alcohol can prove fatal for some people. For weeks his mother had been taking an increasing number of pills, washed down with generous gulps from a bottle of whiskey that she kept hidden under the bed. The storm must have woke her up and she took more pills on top of the pills she had already taken to try to calm her nerves and make herself go back to sleep. When Aunt Glam found her in the morning, it was already too late. The doctor declared it an accidental suicide.
After the funeral Aunt Glam told Dermott he could come and live with her if he wanted to. She was kind of lonely in that big old house and she had gotten used to having him around. He thanked her and told her he would come and visit her sometime but that he had no plans to ever leave his home and his dog again.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp