My Mother is Away ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Opal Ring awoke at seven o’clock with the sunlight streaming through the window and the birds singing their happy song. She rolled out of bed feeling good for a reason that for the moment escaped her and then it came to her: her mother was gone for the day, taking care of some business, and she had the house to herself. She had always liked being alone and it was going to be a good day.
She went downstairs to the kitchen and smoked a cigarette while she brewed the coffee. She fixed herself some toast and eggs. When she sat down at the table to eat was when she saw him out the window.
He was of medium height, thin and broad-shouldered, dressed in white painters’ overalls. His dark hair shone in the sunlight as he leaned back and reached above his head; his arm moved back and forth rhythmically as he applied the paint to the old wood of the garage.
She was transfixed. She had to speak to him, to see the face that went with the part of him she could see. Wearing only her kimono with nothing underneath and her tattered house slippers, she went outside and down the slope of the back yard.
“Yoo-hoo!” she said. “I saw you out the kitchen window and I wanted to come out and say hello.”
“Hello,” he said. He looked at her once, quickly, and then looked away.
“I didn’t know you were going to be here today. I guess my mother forgot to tell me.”
He took a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it and handed it to her. She looked at the paper and nodded her head. “This is the place, all right,” she said, handing the paper back.
He said nothing, so she looked closely at him. He looked even better up close than he did from inside the house. Clean-looking and maybe a little older than she at first thought.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before,” she said. “Are you new in town?”
“If you do a good job on the garage, maybe my mother will have you paint the whole house.”
He looked up the slope of the yard to the house. “Doesn’t look like it needs it,” he said.
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“No,” he said. “It’s bad for you.”
“Well, I’m not supposed to smoke, either, but I do anyway when my mother isn’t around. It’s not as if I’m a child or anything but she doesn’t like to see me smoking and she nags me about it.”
“I’m supposed to have this job done by the time my brother picks me up. If I don’t get it done today, I’ll have to come back tomorrow and my brother won’t like it.” He took a handkerchief out of his pocket with his left hand and wiped his face without stopping the brush in his right hand.
“Well, don’t let me keep you from your work, then.”
She watched him paint for a minute more. She was going to go back into the house, as there seemed nothing left to say, but she didn’t very often have the chance to talk to someone and wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
“Would you like a drink of water?” she asked.
“Brought my own,” he said, pointing to a bottle underneath the tree.
“Don’t you ever take a break?”
“Not when I don’t need to.”
“What will you do when you get finished painting this garage?”
“There’ll be another job somewhere else, I guess. My brother lines up the jobs. If it’s a small job like this one, he mostly leaves me to do it while he works on something else.”
“I don’t have a job,” she said. “I had a job once but it was just temporary. I was a phantom shopper. Do you know what a phantom shopper is?”
“No, I guess I don’t.”
“It’s sort of a department store spy. If they catch you spying, they’ll break both your legs. Another time I worked for a cleaning service, but I had to quit that job because the chemicals we used to clean with made me break out all over. The doctor said I had an allergic reaction. Have you been painting long?”
“About two years.”
“Are you planning on doing that all the rest of your life?”
“I haven’t thought about it. I hope not.”
“One of these days I’ll get me a job that lasts,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind doing what you do, but I guess there aren’t any women that do that, are there?”
“I haven’t heard of any.”
“I think I’d like a job on TV,” she said. “I’d either like to be soap opera actress or a news reporter. If I can’t get a job on TV, then I’d like to work behind a counter in a department store or be a super market checker. I’d be good at that.”
She sat down on the ground and put her knees up, forgetting for the moment that she wasn’t wearing any underwear. “Did I tell you my mother is gone for the day? I like it when she’s gone. We get on each other’s nerves. She’s always watching me to make sure I don’t do something she doesn’t like. She still thinks of me as eight years old. Are you married?”
“I’m not married either. I’ll probably get married one day but for now I like being single. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I don’t think it’s polite to ask a complete stranger personal questions.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like to know about people, is all. Some people call it friendly and others call it nosy.”
He put down the brush and wiped his hands with a rag. “Look,” he said, “if my brother comes back and sees I haven’t finished the job, he’ll be mad.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry so much. What’s your brother going to do, kill you? Is he some kind of a monster?”
“He’ll think I’ve been wasting my time. He’ll think I’ve been talking when I should have been painting.”
“Tell him to ask me! I know you’ve been working yourself silly without stopping for one second. I’ve got eyes in my head. I can see.”
“I can’t work as well when I have distractions.”
“Do you mean me? Just go on and paint and pretend I’m not here. I don’t keep you from working, do I?”
“Oh, no!” he said.
“You make me tired just by watching you,” she said. “I guess I’m not much for working. My mother says I’m lazy. Well, if I’m lazy, she’s lazy too. She doesn’t do any more work than I do. I do all the housework and most of the laundry and most of the cooking. Do you like to cook?”
“I can cook when I have to, but I don’t like it.”
“Do you have a large family?”
“I don’t either. My mother and I are all that’s left of our family. My mother is all I have and I’m all she has. Sad to say. I don’t even have many friends. When I was in high school I had friends but that’s been years ago. The friends I had then have all drifted away. Some of them got married and some moved away. One or two of them are even in jail.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t like to be in jail, would you? If they were going to lock me up for thirty years for a crime I committed, I think I would just prefer the death penalty, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“They just do the lethal injection thing now. I hear about that all the time on TV. It probably doesn’t even hurt. I’m pretty sure it’s a painless death. They used to cut people’s heads off or shoot them in the heart but they had to stop doing that. People were complaining.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a little break for a while? Aren’t you tired.”
“You must be hungry. Would you like a sandwich or something? You can come into the kitchen and sit at the table and I’ll make you a tuna salad sandwich.”
“No, I’m not hungry and I’m not tired.”
“Well, if you want to take a break, let me know.”
“You’ll be the first to know.”
“I know you’re going to go away soon and I won’t ever see you again. I know you think I’m a terrible pest with all this talking. I don’t know what’s the matter with me today. You just seem like a sympathetic person that I can talk to.”
“Nobody ever talks to me when I’m working,” he said, “unless they’re complaining about something. They just want the job done and all they’re interested in is what it looks like after it’s finished. They never think about the person doing the work.”
“I hope you do come back tomorrow, but if you do my mother will be here then.”
“Will she complain?”
“I’ll try to finish up today.”
“I have one tiny favor to ask of you before you go,” she said.
“I’m not going yet,” he said.
“I know, but before you do go.”
“What is it?”
“I have this old trunk upstairs in my bedroom. The lock has been busted for a long time. The key won’t turn in the lock. There are some important papers in it that I need to get out. I’ve had a feeling ever since I first laid eyes on you that you would know how to get that old trunk opened, but I hated to bother you.”
“Can’t you bring the trunk out here?”
“It’s too big to carry downstairs.”
He stopped painting, put the brush down, and wiped his hands on the legs of his overalls. “All right,” he said. “I’ll take a little break and look at the trunk.”
She took him into the house, through the house to the stairs and up the stairs. At the doorway to her bedroom, she paused and turned and faced him.
“The room is a mess,” she said.
He shrugged. She pushed the door open and motioned for him to go in ahead of her. She went in after him and closed the door.
She felt a little lightheaded having him in her bedroom. If she didn’t watch herself, she would do and say something stupid that would make him want to run away. She liked him very much but she was going to have to be careful when and how she let him know.
“The trunk is over here,” she said.
Pushing some clothes and clutter out of the way, she went to the far side of the room and opened the door to an enormous closet that was like another small room. “Please come in,” she said. “Here’s the trunk.”
She turned on the light and pushed an old feather boa and a moth-eaten fox stole to the floor that were on top of the trunk. He knelt down in front of the trunk and tried turning the key, first one way and then the other. He asked her for a hammer and a screwdriver and when she went downstairs to get them and brought them back he inserted the screwdriver into the lock and tapped lightly with the hammer until the lock, as if by saying the magic words, opened.
She squealed and clapped her hands together like a girl of eight. “I knew you could do it!” she said. She wanted to pat him on the back but was afraid somehow of touching him.
“It’s an old lock,” he said. “Needed some loosening up.”
“I want to give you something,” she said.
She had a bag of five-dollar gold pieces that she had had since she was a little girl. She had given away a few of them over the years to special friends. She was looking through the dresser drawer for the little wooden box the gold pieces were in when she heard a sound and turned around. Her mother had pushed the door open and was standing in the doorway.
“What’s going on here?” her mother said. “Who is this man?”
“He’s nobody,” she said. “He’s the man painting the garage.”
“What is he doing in your bedroom?”
“We were talking and I asked him if he would take a look at the lock on my trunk.”
“Since when was there anything wrong with the lock on your trunk? That was just an excuse to get him up here, wasn’t it?”
“I’ll go,” he said.
“Yes, that’s right. You go. And if you ever come messing around my daughter again, I’ll have you arrested.”
She stood aside to let him pass. As he was going down the stairs, she hollered out after him, “And I’m going to have you fired for this! Don’t think I won’t!”
“You have to ruin everything, don’t you?” Opal said.
“So I was right!” her mother said. “You were about to take him to bed, weren’t you?”
“Of course not! I was going to give him something out of my dresser drawer.”
“That’s none of your business!”
She tried to go out of the room but her mother grabbed by the arm and spun her around and started slapping her in the face and then pummeling her with her fists. She gave the kimono a wrenching pull and it came away with a loud ripping sound in one tattered piece. When she saw that Opal was naked underneath the kimono, she believed her suspicions were confirmed. She hit Opal in the face with her fist with all her might. Opal fell back, glancing off the bed to the floor. She hit her head in such a way on the night stand that she was knocked unconscious.
When she awoke she thought it was morning until she realized she was lying on the floor naked and then it all came back to her. She got up and put on a bathrobe and went to the window and looked out into the back yard. The garage looked the same as it always did except that it was half painted and would remain that way. He would never come back and finish it after what her mother said to him. She knew she would never see him again. And she hadn’t even thought to ask his name.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp