I’ll Call You a Cab ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mr. Welter opened his eyes and blinked at the ceiling. For a few seconds he didn’t know where he was. He turned his head to see what time it was but the clock he always depended on wasn’t in its usual place. From the light coming in at the window he knew it wasn’t early and wasn’t late but was probably about the middle of the day. He wondered why he was in bed and then he remembered he was recovering from what the doctors called a light stroke.
He was further confused by the sound of voices coming from downstairs when he thought he was alone in the house. Oh, yes, he remembered now. His daughter, the widowed schoolteacher from Kansas City or Kankakee or some such place, had come to take charge of things. He got slowly out of bed and went downstairs.
Janey and the woman from next door, Mildred Bixler, were standing in the living room. Janey was holding one end of a tape measure and Mildred the other end. They were measuring the distance from the window to the wall.
“What the hell is going on?” he said, standing on the bottom step.
Mildred turned around and looked at him and smiled. “How are you feeling today, Mr. Welter?” she asked loudly.
“You know you’re not supposed to be out of bed, daddy!” Janey said.
“I asked what’s going on?”
“Mildred wanted to take some measurements to see how her furniture is going to fit in this room,” Janey said.
“Why would her furniture fit in this room?”
“She’s going to buy the house.”
“She’s not going to buy this house.”
He gathered his bathrobe around his middle and sat on the couch and began reading the newspaper, pointedly ignoring Janey.
“Now, daddy, you know we’ve been all through this before,” she said. “We must sell the house.”
“I’ll go now,” Mildred said, gliding quietly toward the door on her bird-like legs.
“I don’t must do anything,” he said.
“You’ve had a stroke, daddy, and you can’t live here by yourself any longer. I’m here to help you get your affairs in order, but you’ve got to cooperate.”
“You ‘get your affairs in order’ before you die, don’t you? I’m not planning on dying.”
“Of course you’re not going to die! You’ll live for a long, long time yet, but you’re not able to live by yourself anymore.”
“Your doctor, for one.”
“He wears cologne. He knows nothing.”
“Everything will work out fine, you’ll see. We’ll sell the house and get you set up in a nice community for older people. You’ll have lots of friends and you won’t have to do a thing except enjoy yourself. You won’t spend all your time watching old movies on TV and eating soup out of cans.”
“I like eating soup out of cans.”
“I only have two weeks at the most before I have to go back home.”
“You can go now if you want. I’ll call you a cab.”
“We must use this time to sell the house and get you moved. Otherwise, you’ll be doing it all on your own and I don’t think you’re able.”
“I’m not moving and I’m not selling the house.”
“Then I’ll sell it for you.”
“Since when can you sell property that doesn’t belong to you? That’s a new one on me. When did they change that part of the Constitution?”
She leaned over and put her face close to his, forcing him to look at her. “I can have you declared incompetent. Is that what you want?”
“How about if I have you declared incompetent while we’re at it? If you can do it, so can I.”
“I’m not here to argue and match wits with you.”
“What are you here for, then?”
She threw up her hands and sighed toward the ceiling. “You are the most impossible man who ever lived!” she said.
“You never knew my father.”
“If mother was here, she would know what to do with you.”
“She’s dead, though, isn’t she?”
“So you want me to leave, then? Go back home and leave you to fend for yourself?”
“I’m going to call your doctor and tell him how you’re behaving. I think he will most certainly recommend that you see a psychiatrist.”
“You’re the one that needs a psychiatrist.”
“Remember when I was in fifth grade and you and mother were having one of your terrible fights? I wanted a bicycle with streamers on the handlebars more than anything in the world. You promised to buy me the bicycle if I told you whether mother had seen a divorce lawyer or not. Well, I told you, and when I came home from school the day you promised me the bicycle, you were asleep. As soon as you woke up, I asked you where it was and you laughed at me and told me you forgot it, but even if you had remembered it you never had any intention of buying it for me anyway. That was the cruelest thing that anybody ever did to me.”
“I know something I’ll buy for you right now,” he said. “A ticket home.”
“When I was in junior high school you made fun of me because I was so skinny and flat-chested. A lot of the girls my age already had enormous breasts but I had none. You said you believed I was really a boy and had been a boy all along. Do you know what that did to my self-esteem?”
“It was your generation that invented self-esteem. There was no need for it when I was young.”
“Well, I’ll tell you something, daddy. I’m not going home but I am going to go see a lawyer. I’m going to have you declared incompetent but, not only that, I’m going to have the lawyer draw up a paper that gives me power of attorney over you. Do you know what that means? It means I can sell the house or have you committed to an institution or ship you off to Siberia if I want to!”
“I’m hungry. Make yourself useful and go on into the kitchen and rustle me up some pork chops and fried potatoes.”
“You killed mother! I know you did!”
“I always suspected you were crazy,” he said. “Now I know it.”
“Oh, you didn’t kill her with a gun or with poison, but you killed her just the same. I know she died before she should have. You wore her down.”
“She had a bad heart.”
“You made it worse!”
“And you were always the model child, weren’t you? How about the time you got caught shoplifting jewelry when you were fifteen? Your mother wanted to let you spend the night in jail to teach you a lesson, but I insisted we go right down to the police station and bring you home to spare you the humiliation.”
“I was confused. I wanted attention.”
“Or how about the time you ran away from home when you were still in high school and we found you in a cheap hotel room on skid row with a strange man twice your age?”
“Nothing happened. There was no real harm done. I learned my lesson.”
“Or how about your graduation party when you vomited all over the table and passed out because you were drunk? Do you think your mother and I weren’t humiliated in front of our guests?”
“We all do stupid things when we’re young. I’ve forgiven myself and I think you should, too.”
“And then that first husband of yours! You married the first guy that came along to ever give you a tumble. You didn’t know where he came from or who he was. Your mother and I had to hire a private investigator to find out what you should have found out for yourself.”
“I was naïve. I didn’t know yet what terrible liars men are!”
“And then you married Ricky. He was a decent enough guy but just not the right one for one. He didn’t like girls very much; he only married you because you reminded him of his dead mother. He made you wear her wig and her clothes and he started calling you by her name. That’s a little creepy, isn’t it?”
“There’s no reason to go over all that again, daddy.”
“And then there was Fritz. I thought he was strange from the beginning but your mother and I hoped you had finally found the right one.”
“Of the three of them, Fritz was the one I loved.”
“And you came home one day and found him hanging from a rafter in the garage. When people kill themselves that way, they’re not only doing away with themselves, they’re also making a statement. What statement was he making? That you drove him nuts and he couldn’t take it anymore?”
She sank onto the other end of the couch and covered her face with her hands. “That’s enough!” she sobbed. “You are the meanest, cruelest man on the face of the earth!”
“Why don’t you just go on home now and we’ll stop sniping at each other?”
“I’ve already told you I’m not leaving. You’re not going to get the best of me.”
He started to get up to go back upstairs to get away from her but faltered and turned over an ashtray containing cigar butts.
“Oh, look what you’ve done!” she said. “You and your nasty old cigars.”
“I’ll clean it up,” he said.
“No! You stay right where you are. You’ll only make it worse.”
She took the broom and dustpan and swept up the cigar butts, sniffling back the tears as she worked. When she was finished she went back into the kitchen.
He waited a few minutes to see if he could hear the sounds of her cooking the food he had asked for. When he heard nothing and didn’t smell any cooking smells, he got up and went in to see what she was doing.
She was standing in the doorway to the basement, reaching above her head to change a light bulb. The door, which never stayed open on its own, she was holding open with her left foot. She was balancing herself on her right foot just on the edge of the twenty-three steep steps that went down into the basement.
He was irritated that she had not yet begun to cook his food and gave the door a firm push to close it. He heard her give a little cry of alarm and then a terrible clatter as she fell down the steps. He pictured her going down the steps head first in a kind of roll the way people did in the movies. He imagined he could hear her bones breaking, most especially her neck.
He waited a few seconds and put his ear to the door but heard nothing. She didn’t cry out for help, so he figured she was dead or at least unconscious. He wouldn’t go down just yet. If he needed to call for help, he would, but for now he didn’t want to see her and wanted nothing more to do with her.
Feeling terribly hungry, he went to the refrigerator and looked inside to see what he might lay his hands on that required no preparation. There were some deviled eggs, olives, a piece of ham. He ate everything he saw and when he was finished he was feeling tired so he went back upstairs to bed.
He didn’t leave his bedroom for the rest of the day. He slept soundly through the evening and the night, and in the morning woke up to the singing of the birds. His first thought was of Janey, lying on the cold concrete floor down in the basement. He turned his head to the side and listened, but for what he was listening he wasn’t sure.
Everything was the same in the kitchen; nothing was amiss. The four chairs were pushed up to the table. The faucet dripped slightly. The refrigerator made its humming sound. The minute hand on the clock swept around in its efficient circle.
He ate a little breakfast and washed the dishes and put them away, taking his time. There was no need to be in any rush. When he was finished, he knew the time had come to check on Janey.
He opened the basement door and switched on the light, hesitating on the top step to look down into the cool darkness. He gripped the railing and slowly descended the steps.
When he emerged from the basement into the kitchen a few minutes later, he was shaken and confused. He had heard her fall. He saw in his mind how she would have fallen, with her arm twisted under her and her cheek pressed into the floor and her eye opened, but she hadn’t fallen that way at all. He looked everywhere—under the steps, behind the furnace and washing machine, in and among all the basement clutter. Something was wrong but he didn’t know what it was.
He walked through the house calling her name but there was no response. He went outside into the back yard, thinking she might be there. He was happy that he hadn’t killed her, but, if he hadn’t, where was she? She had been right there in the house with him. They had argued, as they almost always did. They both said things to provoke each other. He felt sorry for the things he had said but so happy that he hadn’t killed her.
He went next door to the back door of Mildred Bixler, whose husband had recently died. He knocked timidly on the screen door and waited for Mildred to appear. When she did, she was sleepy-eyed and dressed in her pajamas and bathrobe.
“Mr. Welter!” she said. “Is anything the matter?”
“Have you seen her?” he asked.
“Janey, my daughter.”
She glanced over his shoulder and then back at him. “No, I haven’t seen her,” she said. “I think you’d better come inside.”
She held the door for him and led him into the kitchen, where she pulled a chair out from the table for him to sit down.
“Would you like me to fix you some breakfast?” she asked.
“No, I want to know where Janey is.”
She poured a cup of coffee for him and set it on the table and sat down across from him.
“You and Janey were measuring in my living room yesterday afternoon,” he said. “I thought maybe she told you where she was going.”
“Measuring?” she asked. “Measuring what?”
“You were measuring to see if your furniture was going to fit in.”
“Mr. Welter, honey, nobody was doing any measuring. I think you’re a little confused.”
“No, I came down from upstairs and I asked what the hell was going on and Janey said you were measuring because you were going to live in my house.”
She looked at him sadly and patted his hand. “Mr. Welter,” she said, “I think you must have dreamed it.”
“So, you don’t know where Janey is?”
She got up from the table and went and stood with her back to the sink and looked at him. “Janey is no longer with us,” she said.
“Don’t you remember the funeral? It was three years ago, just about two years after your wife died.”
“My wife died and Janey died? Both of them?”
“Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
“You were there. You’re just a little confused. These things happen, especially after waking up from a long sleep.”
He began crying. “I thought I killed her,” he said.
She went to him and put her arm around his shoulder. “Nobody killed anybody,” she said.
“What should I do now?”
“Do you want me to call somebody for you? Your doctor?”
I’ll tell you what,” she said. “You come and lie down in my guest room and rest for a little while and then we’ll see how you feel. Later on, after you’ve rested, we’ll get your doctor on the phone and ask him what’s to be done.”
“I don’t want to lie down,” he said. “I’m not tired.”
“You just sit tight and give me a couple of minutes to tidy up.”
As soon as she was gone from the room, he went back to his own house. He knew he wasn’t presentable to appear in public, so he dressed himself as fast as he could before somebody came for him. He grabbed his wallet and car keys from the dresser and went out the back door to the garage.
He hadn’t driven in a long while but the car started right away. As he backed out of the driveway, he knew from the way the steering wheel felt in his hands that he still knew how to drive. It was something that would always be with him.
He felt a sudden urge to see California. He had relatives there, and wouldn’t they be surprised to see him? He loved the Pacific Ocean and hadn’t seen it for as long as he could remember. He would have a nice vacation and then when he came home again his entire family would be waiting for him and there would be no more talk of selling the house.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp