His Last Good Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
He stepped off the bus onto the hot asphalt and looked around at the strange place he was in that he had never seen before. He walked a few blocks and was amazed at the sight of the monoliths that rose hundreds of feet into the air and blotted out the sun. Other people didn’t look up and didn’t seem to notice anything at all other than what was in front of their faces and maybe not even that. When he spotted a well-dressed old couple walking toward him—his idea of mother and father—he took off his hat and approached them with a smile. “Where do people go around here to die?” he asked. The woman looked insulted and the man angry and they passed on as quickly as they could. He didn’t see anything wrong with asking this question. The rebuff was his first experience with the coldness of the city.
His name was Ellis Gage and he had ridden six hundred miles for two days on the bus. It was incumbent upon him to leave home because he had killed his stepfather. He had seen enough movies to know that nobody gets away with killing another person and he wouldn’t get away with it either.
This is how it happened. His mother was away tending to a sick relative and he was left alone in the house with the man who had been his stepfather for five years, Nelson Niles. Nelson had been drinking all day, as he often did. In the evening after supper, a thunderstorm came up. Rain pelted the house and lightning ripped the sky. Nelson became blubbery. He said he was lonely. He didn’t like to admit it, he said, but he had always been afraid of thunderstorms.
“Go to bed and sleep it off,” Ellis said. “The thunderstorm is nothing.”
The lights went off but Ellis didn’t mind. He liked storms and he planned on getting into bed and listening to the rain. There’s no sweeter music to drop off to sleep by.
“I want you to sleep in my bed with me,” Nelson said.
“I don’t like sleeping alone.”
“Mother will be back in a few days,” Ellis said.
“Yes, but she’s not here now. I want you to sleep with me.”
“Just get into bed and close your eyes and soon you’ll be asleep.”
“You’re like a son to me.”
“You sleep in your bed and I’ll sleep in mine.”
“There’s nothing wrong with it. Nobody will ever know.”
“We can have us a fine time.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m sorry.” He rubbed his head as with a headache. “I can see how you misunderstand. It’s the liquor talking.”
“Why do you drink so much?”
“I was born this way. My daddy was an alcoholic and his daddy before him and his before him. All the way back to Adam.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“Not excusing. Only explaining.”
“I’m going to bed now and I think you should do the same,” Ellis said.
He went into the kitchen to make sure the door was closed and locked and then he went up the stairs. By the time he was at the top, though, Nelson was right there behind him in the dark, quick as a cat. He grabbed Ellis in a hug and tried to put his mouth on his in a drunken semblance of a kiss.
Ellis was caught off-guard. “Get off me!” he said. “What’s the matter with you?”
Nelson was not to be deterred this time, though. Even though he let go of Ellis, he wouldn’t let him pass into his room. “When your mother and I got married,” he said, “you were underage, but you’re not underage anymore. We can do whatever we want. I’ve always been drawn to you in a way that nobody ever knew about. When I found out your ma was going to be gone for a few days, I knew the time had come to do the thing I’ve always wanted to do.”
“You stink!” Ellis said. “You make me sick! I could kill you and no jury would ever convict me after I told them what you just said to me.”
“Oh, don’t push me away!”
They grappled at the top of the stairs. When Nelson tried to kiss Ellis again, he pushed him, not to hurt him but only to get away. Nelson misjudged the distance between himself and the top of the stairs. He staggered and tried to right himself and in doing so lost his balance and fell headlong to the bottom. Ellis believed he could hear his bones cracking as he fell.
A tremendous lightning flash rocked the house. Ellis went down the stairs slowly, feeling his way along the wall. He didn’t want to touch Nelson but he did so only to the extent that he had to. He put his ear to Nelson’s chest and wasn’t able to detect a heartbeat; his face to Nelson’s face and could feel no movement of air.
He had never been in any kind of trouble with the law. He believed they would put him in jail now and never let him out. They wouldn’t believe it had been an accident. They would think he had meant to do it. They might even execute him. It would be the end for his mother. Her husband and her son both gone. She’d take to her bed and never get up again.
After a night of thinking, he decided what he would do. He would go away to spare his mother and do away with himself. He wasn’t sure how he would do it, but he would figure it out when he needed to. It would be better to take care of his own end, he believed, than to be captured and hauled off to jail. He couldn’t stand the thought of being locked up. There was only one way out and he was going to take it.
Packing a small bag, he took what money he had out of his dresser drawer and left the house before dawn. The rain had stopped but there were still a tumult of clouds in the sky and a low rumble like a growl. He walked the three miles into town to the bus station. By the time he was able to get on the bus, he was so exhausted from a night without rest and from his long walk that he fell asleep next to a window with the hot wind in his face.
In the city, he checked into a modest hotel and on his first night there he counted his money out on the bed. Factoring in the cost of the room per day and of eating every meal in a restaurant, he figured he would last about a week in the city. It took him more than a year to save that money, but it didn’t matter. He would have as good a time as he could in the time left to him because it would be the last good time he would ever have.
The first couple of days he spent mostly in his room, lying on the bed and smoking cigarettes. (He had recently picked up the habit in spite of his mother’s objections.) He thought about his life but mostly he thought about his mother coming home after her trip and finding Nelson (dead for several days by then) at the bottom of the stairs. Of course, she would wonder where Ellis was, but he hoped she didn’t connect his being gone with Nelson’s death in any way. She would think that Nelson had fallen down the stairs because he was drunk while Ellis was away visiting his friend Delroy, who had a cabin on the river.
When he became so hungry he could no longer stand it, he would go out and get something to eat. There was a restaurant on the first floor of the hotel but, finding the food there tasteless and overpriced, he preferred to go to a café three or four blocks from the hotel where there was a waitress named Rosalie.
Rosalie was older than him, about thirty, and married, but it didn’t make any difference. She made him feel good because she smiled at him and told him what was good from the bill of fare and what wasn’t. She had thick auburn hair and when she smiled she showed front teeth that overlapped. She joked with him and asked him questions, not too personal, about where he was from and where he was headed. He told her he had always wanted to see the city and had decided finally to have his little fling. She laughed when he said the word fling as if she had never heard it before and set down a piece of apple pie in front of him with vanilla ice cream on top. She told him if he wanted anything else to give her a holler. He wanted to ask her to go someplace with him other than the café where they might talk, but he saw the wedding ring on her finger and knew that doing so would be too forward and might spoil the friendly feeling between them. He always left her a tip, though, more than he could afford, and would catch her eye and give her a friendly wave as he left.
As his days in the city began to pile one of top of the other, he began to think about how he might do himself in. He didn’t want to create a public spectacle, so that eliminated the possibility of jumping out a window or throwing himself in front of a bus. He had heard about people going to sleep and not waking up from the right combination of strong liquor and pills. He could get himself a bottle of whiskey, all right, all right, but he didn’t know what kind of pills to get and if he knew he wasn’t sure he could get them.
He began walking the streets to see as much of the city as he could before checking out. He visited a museum, where he looked at some paintings; when he discovered a park with a zoo, he began to spend a lot of his time there with the monkeys and lions. People rarely spoke to him, as if he wasn’t there at all, but when they did they were cordial and friendly enough; they had no reason not to be. Rosalie remained the only person in the city, though, with whom he had any real connection.
The day came when he realized, on counting his money again, that he only had enough to make it through the next day, which was Sunday. Sunday seemed a good day to die.
He didn’t want to spend Saturday night, his last night on earth, moping around in his room, so he spent the whole night walking the streets, which were always thronging with people. And in everything he saw—drunks and prostitutes, a bar brawl spilling out into the streets, two women engaged in a fistfight, a well-dressed crowd pouring out of a theatre, a taxicab smashing into the back of a truck—he was as detached as a ghost. At a newsstand, when he saw a length of thin rope on top of a pile of newspapers, he asked the vendor if he might have it. The vendor thought for a moment and told him he could take it for the price of thirty cents.
When he got back to his hotel room, the sun was just coming up. He was glad to see it was going to be a sunny day. He ate a light breakfast and went up to his room and took a hot bath. He slept for a couple of hours and when he awoke he put on his clean clothes and sat down at the desk to write his mother a farewell letter.
With pen in hand, he couldn’t think of what to write. Trying to explain to her what he was going to do and why didn’t make any sense. If it didn’t make any sense to him, it certainly wouldn’t to her. He could simply apologize and tell her goodbye, but he believed she deserved more than that.
The only thing that would do would be for him to speak to her on the phone one last time. And he wouldn’t tell her what he was going to do because that would only alarm her. Just hearing her voice, though, would give him the courage he needed. It would be the fitting end to his time on earth that he needed.
His heart was pounding as he picked up the phone. He had to go through the hotel switchboard to make the call, but it only took a minute and after the phone rang just two rings his mother answered.
“Did I wake you up, mother?” he asked casually.
“Ellis, is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Where in the world are you?”
“Delroy invited me up to his cabin. I’ve been here for a few days.”
“Thank goodness. We didn’t know where you were.”
“Nelson and me.”
“Yes, he was drunk and had a bad fall while I was gone but he’s better now. He broke his shoulder and three ribs. He’s such a baby. He wants his pain pills regularly. I don’t know what he’d do if he ever had any real pain.”
“You said Nelson?”
“Yes. Who else? Are you all right? You sound a little funny.”
“I’m fine now.”
“Nelson didn’t remember a thing because he was so drunk. He said you were in the house before he fell and gone after he fell. He didn’t know where you were. He was worried about you.”
“I’m fine, mother.”
“When are you coming home?”
“I don’t know. In a day or two.”
“So you’re having a good time?”
“The best time I’ve ever had. I’d like to stay for a few more days but I’m afraid I’m out of money.”
“Oh, honey! Do you want me to send you some?”
“No, that’s all right, mother. I don’t want to take your money.”
“Well, it certainly is good to hear your voice, son, and I’m so relieved you’re all right.”
“Why wouldn’t I be all right?”
“I guess I still think of you as my little boy, as big as you are.”
“I’ll be home soon, mother. Don’t worry about me.”
He hung up the phone and laughed. He danced around the room as if he had an invisible waltzing partner, as there was no one there to see him. How happy he was! How agreeably his dilemma had resolved itself! He loved his mother so much and, yes, he even loved Nelson. He loved Rosalie, his friend Delroy, the news vendor who sold him the rope and everybody else he had ever seen or known.
He put on his shoes, his hat and jacket and took the elevator down to the hotel lobby. He went out to the sidewalk. He would go down to Rosalie’s café and have a good lunch. She would be happy because he was happy. Maybe she would sit down across from him while he ate and talk to him. Maybe she wasn’t really married but only wore the ring to discourage any unwanted advances from male customers.
He had to cross the street but was too impatient to wait until he got to the intersection so he crossed in the middle of the block. He looked both ways but didn’t see the speeding taxicab. When it hit him, he was thrown through the air about ten feet. A woman screamed. People ran toward him. Somebody covered his face. There was nothing else to be done.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp