In the Fullness of His Years ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
A man named Cyril Johns, age seventy-eight, lived in the basement apartment of an eighteen-story apartment building. He once was the janitor of the building but had been forced to stop working because of his age. Upon his retirement, the owner of the building gave him a deluxe television set and allowed him to keep his basement apartment for a nominal rent. He had, of course, to turn over all his tools and keys to the man hired to replace him.
He used to have lots of friends, people to help pass the time and make the day brighter, but just about everybody he knew had died or moved out of the neighborhood. He no longer had anybody to play cards with or talk over the baseball scores or how the fools in Washington were messing up the country. The TV droned on, but he ignored it.
The new people were a speeded-up version of the old ones. They were mostly young, with lots of small children. They would sooner knock a person down than wait for him to get out of the way. The young mothers eyed him in a funny way, he thought, as if he had it in mind to grab one of their screaming brats and gut it like a catfish. They had never been taught to show respect for an old person.
Patsy Ruth was different. She smiled at him, spoke to him, asked him how he was. She didn’t mind when he touched her frail-looking little boy, named Frankie, on the face or picked him up and held him in his arms. She didn’t have a dirty mind like the others. She knew he meant no harm.
When they finally had a chance to speak, Patsy Ruth told him she had grown up on a farm.
“That’s why you’re not like the others,” he said.
“I’m having a hard time adjusting to this place,” she said. “I’ve never lived in the city before.”
“If I can ever be of any help,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life.”
She was afraid to ride downtown on the bus with Frankie alone. She asked Cyril if he would go with them the first time and then afterward she wouldn’t be afraid.
“I’ll pay you for your time,” she said.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind.”
They took Frankie for his doctor’s appointment and afterwards had lunch at a nearby café.
“It was good of you to come with me,” Patsy Ruth said. “I hate being such a baby.”
“What’s wrong with the little fellow, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“He was born at seven months. He’s always had weak lungs.”
“Won’t he outgrow it?”
“That’s my hope, but we don’t know yet. He might be sick his whole life.”
Knowing his mother was talking about him, Frankie looked at her with his bright, inquisitive eyes. “When I’m five I can go to school,” he said solemnly.
“So, you want to go to school?” Cyril asked.
“Sure,” Frankie said. “I want to learn how to read.”
“He sees the other kids playing,” Patsy Ruth said. “He wants to join in but they’re twice his size and I’m afraid they’d hurt him.”
“They wouldn’t hurt me, mother.”
“When you’re older, you can play with the bigger kids.”
“Because I’ll be bigger myself.”
When they left the café, Cyril insisted on picking up the tab.
“I should be buying your lunch,” Patsy Ruth said.
“I get a check in the mail every month that I don’t have to work for,” he said. “I have more than I need.”
For five days after the doctor’s visit he didn’t see Patsy Ruth or Frankie in the courtyard and began to be worried that something was wrong. He coaxed the manager with a five-dollar-bill to give him Patsy Ruth’s apartment number.
He took the creaking elevator up to the fourteenth floor and found the apartment. He knocked and Patsy Ruth opened the door only as far as the chain would allow. When she saw it was him, she unfastened the chain.
“I thought it might be you,” she said, smiling.
“I didn’t think you’d mind if I came by to see how you were doing.”
“Of course not. Come in.”
She moved some stuff off the couch to make a place for him to sit. “Sorry the place is still such a mess,” she said. “We’re still getting settled, deciding where to put things.”
“When I didn’t see you for a few days, I thought maybe the tyke wasn’t doing very well.”
“No, the tyke is fine. We’ve been staying indoors because of the rain and cold wind.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s taking his nap.”
“I wanted to tell you if you want me to go downtown with you and Frankie on the bus again, I’d be happy to.”
“I might take you up on that.”
“I hope you do.”
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
He followed her into the kitchen and sat at the Formica-topped table next to the window while she boiled the water.
“You’re living among the clouds,” he said, looking out.
“I know. I can’t get over the feeling I’m going to be sucked out the window into the void.”
“If there’s a bad enough storm, you’ll want to go down to the bottom floor. That’s what people usually do. Until the storm passes. Of course, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“I’d rather not even think about storms.”
“When it comes, it’ll seem worse than it is.”
“My husband will be home in a couple of hours and I need to start my dinner.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll go.”
“No, stay a while.”
When the tea was ready she brought it to the table and sat down across from him.
“Of course, I don’t have to worry about storms,” he said, “living in the basement apartment as I do.”
“Must be pretty lonely down there for you.”
“I’m used to being on my own. My wife has been gone for fifteen years. It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but she’s not the one I miss the most. It’s friends I miss. You know, my pals. They’ve all either died or moved to a better place.”
“You could move to a better place, too.”
“I don’t know where I’d go. I’ve lived here for so long I’d feel like a fish out of water. You stay where you feel at home.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel at home here,” she said. “This place scares me.”
“Too many people. Too impersonal. Too much crime, dirt and noise. And then there’s Frankie.”
“What about him?”
“If he’s ever going to have a chance to get better and live a normal life, it won’t be in a place like this. He needs clean air and wide-open spaces where people aren’t so crowded up together. And then, when he’s older, I worry about the kind of influences he’ll have here.”
“Why don’t you move back to the place where you grew up?”
“My husband would never agree to that.”
He had been going to suggest that she leave her husband and take Frankie and go live in the country, but he knew that wasn’t the right thing to say. You don’t go around giving married women that kind of advice.
“You can always hope for something better,” he said.
“Ever since we came here, my husband and I have been fighting. We’ve been married for eight years. It never has been what I would call a happy marriage, but since we came here it’s been worse. You reach a point where you can’t fight and argue any more and then there’s silence, which, I suppose is not as bad as the fighting. He sometimes doesn’t even come home at night. When I ask him where he’s been, he gives me a threatening look and tells me he’s been working so Frankie and I will have a home and food to eat.”
“I’m sorry for you.”
“Don’t be. We all choose our own path in life. Or it chooses us.”
“Well, listen, I have to go,” he said. “I have some phone calls to make. Thanks for the tea.”
He lied, of course. He didn’t have any phone calls to make, but it was a lie that allowed him to make a graceful exit. He was hurt by talk of how bad her marriage was.
He began seeing Patsy Ruth every day and, if for some reason he didn’t, he was disappointed. He began spending more time on his personal grooming, getting more frequent haircuts, cleaning his nails, making sure the collar of his shirt looked clean and, if it didn’t, putting on a fresh one. He didn’t think about what he was doing. He just did it because he wanted to.
He went downtown on the bus with Patsy Ruth and Frankie a couple more times and had lunch at the same place. They went to an afternoon movie and stood in line in the rain to buy their tickets, he holding out the tail of his coat to keep Frankie dry. Most often, though, they sat on a bench in the sun and talked. She told him about her past life, growing up with six brothers and sisters in a small farmhouse. Her older sister drowned when she was seven and one of her brothers spent time in prison. For his part, he told her about getting married when he was too young, getting divorced, and a few years later getting married again. After his wife died, he was through with women.
“I guess I’m a born bachelor,” he said. “I never minded being alone.”
When Patsy Ruth had him to dinner one night so he could meet her husband, he felt strained and awkward. He couldn’t speak to Patsy Ruth as freely as he was used to doing with her husband looking on. He was afraid, with a movement or a word, that he would betray what he was thinking, and what he was thinking was how mismatched they were and how tragic that they were married. He left the first chance he got and went to a bar and drank.
And then he became sick. It was a reoccurrence of an old problem with his liver. The day before he went into the hospital, he met Patsy Ruth and Frankie in the park. He told her he was going in for some tests, not letting on how sick he was. He gave her the key to his apartment, asked her to keep an eye on things for him and water his plants.
“I’ll be home in a few days,” he said.
“I’ll miss you,” she said.
“Me, too,” Frankie said.
“If I die,” Cyril said.
“You’re not going to die!”
“I know, but if I do, I want you to know something.”
“What is it?”
“In the closet is an old suitcase with your name on it. If I die, I want you to go immediately to my apartment and take it before somebody else gets it.”
“What’s in it?”
“Never mind. You don’t need to know that now, but you’ll find out soon enough.”
“All right, but I wish you’d tell me what this is all about.”
“I just want you to know that I’ve had the best time with you and Frankie that I’ve had in years.”
Those were the last words he ever spoke to her.
As he lay in his hospital bed looking at the ceiling, he knew he was dying and he didn’t mind so much. Almost everybody he had ever known was dead and now it was his turn.
He dozed and when he woke, a nurse stood beside his bed.
“I used to gamble,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“I used to place bets on horses and sporting events. I had an instinct for it. I won a lot more than I lost.”
She smiled and looked at her clipboard.
“Every time I got an extra twenty or fifty or hundred-dollar bill, I’d stash it in an old suitcase in my closet. Last time I counted, I had over two hundred thousand dollars.”
“My goodness!” she said. “You should have invested it. You could have been drawing interest.”
“No. That isn’t my way of doing things. If I can’t see my money and hold it in my hands, it doesn’t seem like it’s mine.”
“Somebody might have robbed you.”
“I was never worried about that.”
“Is your wife keeping an eye on it for you while you’re away?”
“My wife died many years ago.”
“I believe people meet for a reason, don’t you?”
“I’ve never really thought about it. I suppose so.”
“The money is for my daughter and grandson after I’m gone. My grandson is only four and he isn’t well. My daughter needs to take him away so he can breathe the air and have a chance to grow up. That’s what the money is for. I believe people meet for a reason, don’t you?”
“You rest now, Mr. Johns,” the nurse said and then she was gone.
He turned his head toward the window. He could see a patch of blue sky and white clouds. Two pigeons lighted on the window sill and seemed to look in at him. He smiled. He knew he was dying and he didn’t mind it so much.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp