Let Me Count the Ways ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Nils picked Dorcas up at the hairdresser’s in the rain. She slid across the seat and gave him a wet peck on the cheek.
“Damned rain,” she said. “I spend three hours at the hairdresser’s and it’s all ruined in a few seconds.”
“You look fine,” he said. “You have that plastic thing on your head. Doesn’t that keep it dry?”
“Rain is just such a nuisance!”
“I like the rain,” he said as he accelerated the car into the flow of traffic.
“You would! Anything to be different.”
“I know others who like rain, too.”
“Have you been smoking again?” she asked.
“No,” he lied.
“It seems I smell a cigarette.” She opened the ashtray and looked inside.
“It’s on my clothes,” he said. “I stopped at the drugstore and while I was standing in line to pay there was an old lady next to me puffing on a cigarette.” He lifted his sleeve to his nose and took an extravagant whiff.
“What did you buy at the drugstore?”
“I bought some gum, a candy bar and a birthday card.”
“Who is the card for?”
“My friend Spencer that I grew up with.”
“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to associate with Spencer anymore.”
“I’ve known him since first grade. He may be something of a bum but I like him.”
“I don’t think he’s the kind of person we should have as a friend. He still lives with his mother and he doesn’t seem to be interested in getting married and having children at all.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“He looks at me funny.”
“He looks at me like he’s imagining what it would feel like to strangle me.”
“I can’t imagine why he would do that.”
“He gives me the creeps. If you’re not man enough to tell him to leave us alone, I’ll do it.”
“I don’t want to tell him to leave me alone. He’s my friend.”
“Oh, baby doll,” she said. “Please, let’s not argue.”
“I’m not arguing.”
“Just think what it’ll be like after we’re married.” She moved over to him so their hips were touching suggestively. She took his right hand off the wheel and entwined her fingers in his. “We can be together twenty-four hours a day and nobody to keep us apart. Man and wife.”
“I’m not able to visualize it yet,” he said. “I need some time.”
“Aunt Violet told mother she wanted to give us an old orange couch she has in her basement. She thinks she’s doing me a great big favor but, honestly, I don’t want the ugly old thing.”
“Why not? Maybe we could use it someplace.”
“I think I’ll just get mother to tell her tactfully that we just don’t have room for it. I want everything in our home to be brand new.”
“What about that saying ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’?”
“Oh, silly! That’s about something else altogether!” She looked at him disgustedly and moved back over to the door. “Sometimes I just don’t think you’re very bright,” she said.
“I’m sure you’re right.”
By the time they arrived at Dorcas’s mother’s house, it was raining even harder. Nils helped Dorcas into the house, keeping her dry by holding the umbrella over her head. He would have carried her if she had asked him.
“I didn’t think you were ever coming,” Dorcas’s mother complained. “I’ve been waiting dinner for you.”
Dinner was fish and rice with Brussels sprouts. Nils found the fish terribly underdone, almost raw, and could hardly eat it. Dorcas’s mother seemed to have never acquired the knack for cooking. He took a few bites to be polite.
“Good fish!” he said cheerfully, but Dorcas and her mother ignored him.
“I had a pelvic exam this week,” Dorcas said. “The doctor says everything looks fine. I want to start having children as soon as I’m married.”
“You were always so practical,” Dorcas’s mother said admiringly. “So level-headed.”
“Why did you have a pelvic exam?” Nils asked. He believed his position as prospective bridegroom entitled him to ask the question.
“I just told you,” Dorcas said. “I want to start having children right away.”
“Have you talked about this with the man you’re going to marry, darling?” he asked. He looked at Dorcas’s mother to see if his little riposte had made her smile, but she was looking at him with the sour face of disapproval.
Dorcas heaved a weary sigh. “I told you as soon as we got engaged that I wanted to be pregnant by Christmas.”
“Yes, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with me!” he said. (He hated words like pregnant and pelvic exam.)
“I’m not even going to bother with any kind of birth control at first,” Dorcas said. “I was measured for one of those stopper things for later on after we’ve had a few children.”
Nils was embarrassed. “Do you think it’s a good idea to be talking about those things while we’re eating dinner?” he asked.
“I don’t know why not!” Dorcas said. “I can talk about anything in the world with my own mother!”
“It’s all part of being practical!” Dorcas’s mother said.
“How many are you planning on having, anyway?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Dorcas said. “Maybe six. I believe in a large family, the way people used to do a long time ago.”
“Catholics,” Dorcas’s mother said.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“What don’t you know?”
“I don’t think I’m ready to be a parent.”
“Well, of course, not yet! We’re not even married yet! But I can tell you that after we’re married you’ll be a father within a year, God willing.”
“Maybe he should have a pelvic exam, too,” Dorcas’s mother said reasonably. “To make sure he can accommodate. Some men have a low sperm count. He’s never had syphilis, has he?”
Dorcas smiled prettily. “You’ve never had syphilis, have you, sweetheart?” she asked.
“I think I have a case of it now,” he said.
“Oh, you’re horrid!” she said. “You know how I hate gallows humor!”
To change the subject, he said, “Did I tell you I asked Spencer to be best man at our wedding and he accepted!”
“Oh, Nils!” she said. “Why him?”
“Because he’s my oldest and best friend. Isn’t that who you have as your best man?”
“Yes, but him! I think we can find somebody more suitable. How about that fellow you work with?
“Isn’t his name Carson or something?”
“Yes, he’s the one. He’s very good looking and he’d look so good in the pictures as a member of the wedding party.”
“I don’t really care that much for him. We work together and that’s all. We’re not friends.”
“Oh, really!” Dorcas said. “You can always find some way to be difficult, can’t you?”
“I think he’s got a point,” Dorcas’s mother said. “He should be able to have the best man he wants.”
“Not if it’s somebody of whom I disapprove!” she said.
“I don’t have that many friends to choose from,” he said.
“If it’s going to be Spencer,” she said, “make sure he dresses properly. Go shopping with him and buy him an appropriate suit. I don’t want him looking like the yokel he is. And make sure he doesn’t wear his cowboy boots! Tell him it’s not going to be a hillbilly wedding.”
“Anything you say, dear,” he said.
“Have you talked to him yet about the two of you moving in here with me?” Dorcas’s mother asked.
“Oh, yes!” Dorcas said, almost choking in her excitement. “Mother and I thought it would be a really splendid idea if we lived here with her for a while after we’re married.”
“What?” he said. “Why would we do that?”
“Well, she’s all alone now and she has this big comfortable house. She can help us and we can help her.”
“I thought we would have a place of our own,” he said.
“That means renting an apartment. You know how I hate the idea of living in an apartment building with the kind of questionable people who live in those places. The very idea of an apartment suggests instability and impermanence.”
“I was going to surprise you by taking out a lease on a beautiful apartment near work,” he said. “One that allows animals.”
“Oh, Nils!” she said. “Without my even seeing it?”
“It was going to be a surprise.”
“You know how I hate surprises!”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Dorcas’s mother said. “I promise I won’t butt in any more than I have to. You’ll have the entire upstairs to yourselves.”
“Yes, but it won’t be our upstairs. It’ll be your upstairs.”
“Mother is offering to let us live here rent-free for the first years of our marriage,” Dorcas said. “I never dreamed you’d have any objections to such a generous offer! I might have known!”
“Don’t you want just the two of us to be alone?”
“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything so selfish and inconsiderate! It seems I’m seeing you in an entirely different light!”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” Dorcas’s mother said. “Think it over and talk about it when you’re alone.”
When Dorcas’s mother got up from the table and went into the kitchen, Dorcas turned to Nils and said in a whisper, “You hurt her feelings, you dope!”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“She’s getting older and she needs me here to take care of her.”
“You don’t have to get married to do that.”
“And another thing,” Dorcas said. “If we’re living here when she dies, she’ll leave the house to me.”
“She’ll live thirty more years,” he said.
Dorcas’s mother came back from the kitchen bearing a pecan pie that she had bought and not made herself. She was smiling but it was apparent she had had a little private crying spell in the kitchen. “Who wants dessert?” she said cheerily.
“I’ll cut the pie,” Dorcas said.
“No pie for me,” Nils said.
“Pecan pie gives me heartburn.”
“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard!” She cut a generous portion and set it firmly down in front of him. “Now, eat it!” she said. “You ate hardly any dinner.”
“I don’t really care for it,” he said, but Dorcas and her mother pretended not to have heard.
“You know, mummy,” Dorcas said as she forked chunks of pie into her mouth, “I was thinking that before we move in we might have some work done on that bathroom upstairs.”
“I think the bathroom is fine as it is,” Dorcas’s mother said.
“Oh, nothing major,” Dorcas said. “Just repaper the walls and give the woodwork a fresh coat of paint.”
“You could do it yourself.”
“I could but I don’t want to.”
“I’d like to do it,” Nils said.
Dorcas and her mother turned and looked at him as if he had just sprouted horns and grown a tail.
“What did you say?” Dorcas asked.
“I said I could do it.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because it’s going to be my bathroom too, isn’t it? I’d like to feel that I’m a part of the preparations.”
“No, offense,” Dorcas said, “but I’d hate to think what it would look like after you’d finished with it. We’ll find something else for you to do.”
“Some men are handy that way,” Dorcas’s mother said.
“Well, this one isn’t!” Dorcas said. “He has absolutely no taste!”
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Nils said. “I think I have very good taste.”
“Oh, honestly, darling!” Dorcas said with a dismissive laugh. “All anybody has to do is look at the way you dress to see you have no taste.”
“What’s wrong with the way I dress?”
“You have no sense of color or style. After we’re married all that is going to change because I’m going to pick out your clothes from now on. I don’t want my husband looking like a clown!”
“I don’t think I look like a clown,” he said.
“Well, you do, but nobody has ever had the nerve to say it to your face before. If it hurts your feelings, I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.”
“What other aspects of my life are you going to take over after we’re married?” he asked.
“Why, absolutely everything, darling!” she said. “Isn’t that what wives do? They civilize and domesticate their men. They teach them manners, rid them of their bad habits and bring them down to earth where they belong.”
“That’s what I had to do with my husband,” Dorcas’s mother said.
“My friend Freda said that before she married her husband he ate nothing but pizza and cheeseburgers. Can you imagine how unhealthy that is? When she took him in hand, he lost forty pounds and started taking an interest again in the way he looked. Then my friend Judith said that her husband wanted to be a professional dancer. Well, she disabused him of that notion pretty fast after they were married.”
“I have a cat and a dog,” Nils said to Dorcas’s mother in a way that made it sound like a confession.
“I said I have a cat and a dog.”
“Yes, we know you do,” Dorcas said. “That’s one of the little things we need to discuss before we’re married.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Nils said. “I was talking to your mother.”
“Something about a cat and a dog?” Dorcas’s mother said.
“I have a cat and a dog. I’ve had my cat, Chester, for six years and my dog, Skippy, for eight years.”
Dorcas’s mother looked at him as if he had just confessed to murdering a busload of people. “I can’t have animals in my house,” she said.
“She’s allergic,” Dorcas said.
“Well, isn’t that just too bad?”
“You can find a good home for them,” Dorcas said. “There’s still time. And if you don’t, there’s always the pound.”
“Do you know what you’re saying?” he said. “Do you think I could in good conscience put them in a pound?”
“I don’t know why not!” she said. “I’d be happy to do it for you.”
“Would you be happy to stick a knife into my heart? It would amount to the same thing!”
“Oh, you’re being childish and melodramatic! When are you going to grow up?”
“Not until you take complete control of my life, dearest.”
“So we’re agreed then about the two animals? You’ll find homes for them?”
“They have a home.”
“Are you saying you’re not going to agree to get rid of them?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“So they’re more important to you than I am?”
“I would rather die than part with them. You can draw your own conclusions.”
“One day, very soon, while you’re at work, I’ll gather them up and dispose of them. You won’t even have to be bothered with it. How will that be?”
“If you touch either one of them, so help me, I’ll kill you!”
“Did you hear what he just said to me, mother? You’re my witness! What do you think of a man who threatens to kill his fiancée?”
“I think it’s better to be threatened by him before the marriage than after.”
He stood up from the table, wadded his napkin and threw it in the plate. “Let me give you a little advice about cooking fish,” he said to Dorcas’s mother. “Make sure it’s cooked all the way through. I’m not an Eskimo! I don’t eat raw fish!”
“Where do you think you’re going?” Dorcas said. “Sit back down. We’re not finished eating yet.”
“I think you got some of that wonderful pecan pie on your dress,” he said, dumping the remainder of it in her lap.
She jumped up as if the pie were hot coals. “Are you insane?” she said. “What’s gotten into you?”
“You won’t be seeing me again,” he said.
“Why not? What do you mean? You can’t back out of the marriage now! I’ve already sent out the invitations!”
As he was going out the door, he said, “I can’t say it’s been a pleasure knowing you because it hasn’t. You can keep the engagement ring. It’s not real anyway.”
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp