I Want People to See Us Together ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Note: This is a re-post of a story I posted just one month ago, slightly revised.)
Leigh Abbott was forty-eight years old. He thought he still looked young until he looked in the mirror and saw the gray pallor of his skin, the dark circles around his eyes, and a hairline that receded more with every passing year. Young was not the word for the way he looked. Ghoulish was more like it. Better to stay away from mirrors.
It was now thirty years since high school. He still lived in the same house and thought the same thoughts as he did then. He slept in the same bed and wore the same clothes and shoes. The bathroom was the same and the kitchen. The pictures on the wall in his room were the same, as were the dresser and chest of drawers. The closet door, badly in need of painting, still had the same crack; the carpet, still the same ugly green, had the same unidentifiable stains. When he chose to be honest with himself, he saw that he was in a state of stasis, rather than one of flux.
His father had died, his sister and his brother. He was the last male heir in a line that went back to the stone age. When he died, without issue, the line was finished. He sensed the disapproval of all the male progenitors, including the two that he knew, and it put a smile on his face. He welcomed extinction.
His mother was over eighty, still much the same as when he was a small child. The skin sagged more, the shoulders drooped, the hair silvered, but she was still as indomitable as ever. She would live to be a hundred at least. She might be the first woman in history to not die at all.
Night after night he sat and watched TV with her in the darkened living room. She liked the westerns and the love stories, the game shows and the musical variety. Anything light and wholesome, life-affirming. She didn’t like movies—they were mostly too long for her—or anything with smart-mouthed children, sexual innuendo or off-color jokes. Dancing was all right, as long as it was the wholesome kind, like the dancing cowboys in Oklahoma.
Whenever Leigh suggested watching a program that interested him, something other than the usual fare, she agreed, but when he saw after ten minutes or so that she was bored and unhappy, he turned back to what he knew she would like. He could have gone on to bed or gone into another room and read a book, but she didn’t like watching TV by herself. What’s the use of having a family, she would say, if I have to sit here all by myself in the dark?
She no longer drove, so he had to take her wherever she wanted to go, whether it was to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones or to the beauty parlor to get her hair re-crimped and re-tinted. He usually waited in the car at the beauty parlor, no matter how long it took, no matter how hot or cold the weather. He absolutely refused to wait inside and have all the ladies looking at him and wondering, maybe even laughing at him and tittering behind their hands.
His mother was at the age where a lot of her friends and distant relatives were dying. Trips to funeral homes or to various unfamiliar churches became commonplace. He sat through services honoring people he never saw or heard of before. There affairs were always accompanied by introductions and hand-shaking with people whose hands he would have preferred not to touch.
On Saturday morning, he did the grocery shopping, but his mother always accompanied him to make sure he got the most for his money. Don’t get that one, she’d say. Get this one. It’s twenty-nine cents less. If he wanted to buy a cake with white fluffy icing, she told him the sugar would make him jittery and would only add to his waistline. When you get older, she said, you gain weight easier and you can no longer eat the way you used to.
Of course, mother, he’d say. I know you’re right. I bow to your superior judgment.
On Sunday, there was always church. He preferred to just drive her there and go back and pick her up an hour-and-a-half later, but she wouldn’t allow it. I want you to go with me, she’d say. I don’t want to sit there by myself. Church is for families. I want people to see us together.
So, he’d get up on Sunday morning, dress in either of his outdated suits, put on a dress shirt that was frayed at the collar and a clip-on tie that was thirty years old, and suffer through a long service that meant little to him. He tried to feel elevated or enlightened by what he heard and saw in church, but for him it just wasn’t there.
And then, when the service was concluded, he stood by and wore a tight smile as his mother greeted her old-lady friends. This is my wonderful son, she’d say. He’s the light of my life.
She thought she knew him so well, but there was, by necessity, a part of himself that he kept hidden.
It started in high school. There was a boy named Eliot Ellsworth. He was one year older than Leigh. He was sexually precocious; he talked about improbable experiences that he had with older women. Not only that, but he experimented with drinking and drugs. He carried a switchblade knife in his book bag. He said he would stab to death anybody who insulted him. Leigh was scandalized but entranced. Eliot was so different from anybody else. Leigh felt important, for the first time in his life, when he was with Eliot.
One weekend Eliot’s parents were out of town and Eliot had the house to himself. He called Leigh and asked if he’d like to come over. Leigh couldn’t get there fast enough, telling his mother he was going to an impromptu boy-girl party. She didn’t approve, but she didn’t try to keep him from going.
Eliot was drinking beer and smoking pot. Leigh accepted a beer, but he was reluctant to smoke pot. Eliot seemed like an expert. He showed Leigh how to draw the smoke into his lungs. Leigh choked and Eliot laughed. Leigh hated smoking pot but he pretended to like it because he didn’t want Eliot to stop being his friend.
After two more beers, Leigh’s inhibitions began to melt away. They went into Eliot’s bedroom and closed the door, even though there was nobody else in the house. They smoked another joint and Eliot took his pornography collection out of a drawer and showed it to Leigh. Leigh had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but he wouldn’t have gone home at that moment for anything in the world.
Eliot asked Leigh if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures with another boy. Eliot ended up staying the whole night.
When he got home in the morning, his mother was in tears. He told her an improbable story about having to stay the night with a friend who was sick. She knew he was lying. She barely spoke to him for two weeks and turned her back on him whenever he came into the room.
He met with Eliot several more times when Eliot’s parents were away. He thought about Eliot all the time. When the phone rang, his heart skipped a beat. He was grateful above all to Eliot for showing him his true nature. He knew then, for the first time in his life, that when people come into our lives, it’s for a reason.
Then graduation came and Eliot was finished with high school. He landed a job in another state and went away. Leigh never saw him again. Leigh wrote him several letters, hoping they might get together again, but Eliot never wrote back.
There were a few others after Eliot, all of them easily forgotten. None of them meant to Leigh what Eliot had meant. In his mid-twenties, Leigh decided from that moment on that he would live the life of a celibate. There would be only one Eliot in his life.
All the dull years went by and Leigh found himself perilously close to fifty. He still felt, on the inside, like a high school boy. He bought a computer to help relieve the tedium of television and of being alone all the time with his mother. She didn’t approve of computers because it kept Leigh occupied in another room away from her, but she indulged him in his little hobby. He joined, anonymously, an online club for like-minded men. His mother would never know.
He began corresponding with a man in Russia named Sergei. (How Russian can you get?) Sergei told Leigh all about his life in Russia. He was thirty-two years old and had never married. His mother and father were dead. He had learned English as a child in a missionary school. He lived in a house with his two older brothers and one sister. He was lonely and still hoped to find the one person on earth who was right for him. The pictures that he sent of himself showed a smiling, handsome, dark-haired, trim young man in front of a dilapidated house.
Leigh located the one picture of himself that he thought was flattering and sent it to Sergei. As soon as Sergei saw the picture, he said, he felt an instant connection.
Leigh told Sergei the truth about himself, no matter how distasteful. All his family was dead and he had always lived alone with his mother, who would probably never die. He told him his true age and that he only had a high school education. He read books and liked foreign films but he didn’t consider himself very smart. And, yes, he too still hoped to find the one person in life who would make his heart sing.
Sergei wanted to come to America and become a citizen. He was proud to know a man like Leigh, he said; it made him want to make his home in America that much more. Leigh wrote that if he wanted it badly enough, he would make it happen.
They corresponded, via the Internet, for close to a year. Leigh looked forward to Sergei’s messages. If a day passed without a message from Sergei, he felt downhearted and irritable; he had to restrain himself to keep from snapping at his mother whenever she asked him pointless questions.
Then Sergei sent a message saying he had lost his job in the car manufacturing plant where he worked. His brothers told him he couldn’t go on living in the house with them unless he paid his share of the rent and paid for the food he ate. It’s a cruel world, he said. I wish I was dead.
The time was perfect for him to come to America. It was the one thing he had always wanted to do. He believed it was his destiny. There was just one thing standing in his way. He didn’t have enough money for the plane fare to cross the vast ocean; he needed about twenty-two hundred dollars. If Leigh could lend him that much money, Sergei would come to him and they would be together. Of course, he would pay back the money just as soon as he could. He heard that good-paying jobs were easy to come by in America. Much better than Russia.
Leigh had three thousand dollars in the bank, all the money he had in the world. If he sent twenty-two hundred to Sergei, he would have eight hundred left. It would be enough for them to go away together. They would both get jobs.
They’d go out West together somewhere. They’d drive day and night. They would eat in roadside diners and spend the night in small, out-of-the-way motels. They’d have the best time they ever had in their lives. He’d send his mother a postcard to let her know he was fine but never coming back. She’d be hurt at first but would come to accept it. There comes a time when every boy has to leave his mother. My time is long-past due, don’t you think?
He went to the bank and transferred twenty-two hundred dollars to the place in Russia that Sergei had designated. He felt a thrill when the woman at the bank told him the transaction went through successfully.
He went right home right away, his heart singing, and sent Sergei a message telling him the money was on its way. Please let me know when you have the money, he said, and on what day you plan to come. I will pick you up at the airport. Even though I feel we already know each other so well, I can’t wait for the moment when we finally meet in person.
At the supper table Leigh’s mother complained of a pain in her back. She was afraid she had kidney stones. She was going to go to bed right after supper. Leigh was uncharacteristically happy and smiled at everything she said. She didn’t notice anything different about him.
After she went to bed, Leigh began putting things in his battered old suitcase. Just the necessary items; clean socks and underwear, two new toothbrushes and toothpaste. Of course, if Sergei needed anything like that, he’d be more than welcome to use what was Leigh’s. Better not take too much. Travel light or don’t travel at all.
The next day he didn’t hear from Sergei or the day after that. On the third day, he sent Sergei another message asking him if he received the money. By nightfall he was dismayed but not alarmed that Sergei didn’t write back.
On the fifth day after he sent the money, he was concerned that maybe something had happened to Sergei. Maybe he was sick or hurt. Of course, there was nobody to let him know if anything had happened. He needed to be patient but it wasn’t easy. After he sent the money, he expected things to happen quickly. What could be the reason for the delay?
One week after sending the money, Leigh awoke in the morning with the realization that he had been played for a sucker. The whole thing with Sergei had been perpetrated to swindle him out of money. Maybe Sergei didn’t even exist.
He imagined a group of people sitting around a table in Russia, scheming to snare unsuspecting fools in America. This looks like a good one, they’d say. Play on his loneliness and vulnerability. Send him a picture of an attractive man. Get him to share confidences. Make him feel a connection that, of course, doesn’t exist. Go in for the kill. I think we can get at least two thousand out of this one. Damn, if this isn’t a sweet way to make money without having to work for it!
He continued sending messages every day to Sergei. Of course, they were unanswered. Sergei, he knew now, didn’t exist.
For several days, Leigh didn’t have the will to get out of bed in the morning. His life was nothing and it was going to stay that way until he died and they put him in the ground alongside his father. When his mother came in at ten o’clock in the morning to see if he was all right, he told her didn’t feel well and wanted only to rest. He would stay in bed until the time that he felt like getting up. He had nothing to get up for. You need to see the doctor, she said. Do you need me to call him for you? I need only for you to go away and leave me alone, he said.
On his third day in bed, he began vomiting blood. He was dying, he knew, and he didn’t much care. His pictured his mother having a yard sale after he was gone, selling his clothes and shoes and things. Nobody would want anything that he had ever owned. He didn’t even want it himself.
He had a disturbing dream in which he and his father were buried in the same coffin, except that he wasn’t quite dead yet. His father, who had been dead for fifteen years, had worms and maggots crawling out of his eye sockets. Leigh couldn’t get away from him. All he could do was scream and flail his arms and legs. When he woke up, he realized he had been sleeping too much. He was about to sleep himself to death.
He got out of bed and took a shower and after he was dressed in clean clothes he got into his car and drove away without a word to his mother. On his way to wherever he was going, he stopped at a restaurant he had never noticed before and had a chicken dinner.
After he left the restaurant, he drove out of town on a road that he hadn’t been on since he was a child. As he remembered the road, he remembered also a high bluff overlooking a river. It used to be a picnic spot. He had been there a couple of times with his parents when he was in fourth or fifth grade. Now, if only he thought about it hard enough, he could remember how to get there.
He came to a turn-off and a voice in his head told him to take it. He made a left-hand turn and after a while found himself going up a hill. Yes, he recognized the hill. He saw himself in the back seat of his father’s old black Mercury and his mother and father in front, arguing about some little thing, as usual. He remembered the same huge tree beside a ditch with some of its roots exposed and a field with some cows standing behind a wire fence.
He took another turn and, after an ascendant half-mile, he was at the place he remembered. The picnic tables had been removed and the road was partly washed away, but it was the same place. He parked the car and got out.
About fifty yards from where the picnic tables used to be was the bluff. It was a drop of a hundred feet or so, equivalent to the height of a ten-story building. At the bottom of the bluff were rocks and small trees. When the river was at its highest peak, it came right up to the foot of the bluff. A fall or a jump from the bluff would certainly kill a man instantly.
His mind went blank as he stood two feet from the edge of the bluff and looked down, feeling the wind on his face and smelling the river. Here was the resolution of his unhappy life. It could all be over in less than a minute if he only had the courage to step forward.
He was thinking these bitter thoughts when he heard a slight sound to his right and slightly behind him. He turned and saw a dark-haired man standing there looking at him. His first thought was of Sergei, but he knew, of course, that that was ridiculous.
“Thinking about jumping?” the man said.
Leigh managed a tight little smile, put his hands in his jacket pockets, and turned and headed for the car.
“Wait a minute!” the man said. “Stay and talk for a while!”
“I came up here to be alone,” Leigh said. “Now that I’m not alone anymore, I’d rather be someplace else.”
“Hey, man! Isn’t that a rather cutting thing to say to somebody you just met?”
“How is it that you just happened to come along while I was here? The odds are about a million to one that we would both be in the same place at the same time.”
“That’s how fate works, I guess, man.”
“Don’t call me ‘man’. It sounds supercilious.”
“Did my mother send you to spy on me? How much is she paying you? I can just hear her: My boy has been acting a little strangely lately and I want to know what he’s doing when he’s away from home.”
“Mother problems? I know what that’s like, except my mother is dead.”
“Well, I’m going now,” Leigh said. “It’s been lovely talking to you.”
“I know you!” the man said.
“Even if we’ve never met before, I know you! You’re a universal type. A middle-aged man living with his mother, pretending to be something he’s not. She browbeats you, doesn’t she? She still treats you like a child. She doesn’t acknowledge that you’re not the same person you were when you were eight years old.”
“Are you a psychiatrist?” Leigh asked.
“No, I’m not a psychiatrist, but do you know what I’d like right now?”
“No, and I don’t care.”
“I’d like a shrimp salad and a bottle of imported beer.”
“Sea food makes me vomit and I don’t drink beer,” Leigh said.
“I have a room at the General Sherman Motel,” the man said. “You’d love it! It looks just like the motel in Psycho. I haven’t seen Norman Bates yet, but I’ll bet he’s around somewhere.”
“I’m leaving now,” Leigh said.
“How about if you take me by my motel to get cleaned up and then we’ll go on and get something to eat?”
“I have exactly two dollars,” Leigh said. “I just gave all my money away to a person I didn’t know. You’re looking at the stupidest person alive.”
“Hey, we’ve all been that, man!”
Leigh stepped around him and got into his car, put the key into the ignition and turned it. As he was putting the car in gear, the man jumped in on the passenger side.
“You know, you’re very annoying,” Leigh said. “If I find my mother sent you, I’m going to kill you, you know.”
“Forget about mother for a while. She’s not here”
“How do I know you’re not a serial killer? How do I know you won’t lure me into your room at the General Sherman Motel and hack me to pieces with a big knife?”
“That’s just a chance you’ll have to take, man!”
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp