Never Marry ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Shockley had been a widow for many years. Just when she was thought to be past such things, she began “keeping company” with an old man named Wallace Timpkins, who worked as a janitor at the grade school. Nobody was more chagrined at Mrs. Shockley’s recent flowering than her forty-year-old unmarried daughter, Edith. She watched in disbelief as her mother and Wallace sat on the couch on the evenings when he came for dinner, whispering and grappling together like a couple of adolescents. Edith was embarrassed for her mother. She knew that she, of all people, had to rescue her from the spell that Wallace seemed to have cast over her.
When Wallace Timpkins proposed marriage to Mrs. Shockley and she told him she needed a few days to think about it, Edith knew the situation was spiraling out of her control. Having dinner together and sitting on the couch afterwards was one thing, but talk of marriage seemed to be taking it a step too far. She had hoped her mother would come to her senses about Wallace but, if she married him, it would be too late; she would be stuck with him for as long as she lived and where would that leave Edith? She had no intention of being put out of her home.
One rainy Saturday morning when Edith had washed Mrs. Shockley’s hair at the kitchen sink and was putting it up in rollers at the table, she broached the rather sensitive topic of a union with Wallace.
“You wouldn’t really marry him, would you?” she asked.
“I don’t know why not,” Mrs. Shockley said. “He’s free and I’m free. We’re both of age.”
“Yes, but why would you even want to marry him?”
“Why does anybody get married?”
“I know why he wants to marry you.”
“He needs a cook, laundress and housekeeper and he can’t afford to hire one.”
“What a terrible thing to say!”
“How do you know he isn’t already married?”
“His wife died. He told me all about it.”
“How did she die?”
“She was hit by a train.”
“How do you know he didn’t push her?”
Mrs. Shockley sputtered with laughter and turned around so she could see Edith’s face. “Why would he do that?”
“So he would be free to marry you.”
“Oh! This conversation is getting out of hand!”
“You know nothing about him.”
“I know enough.”
“How long as he worked at the school?”
“Where was he before that? Has he ever been in prison?”
“Why don’t you ask him yourself? He’s coming over tonight for dinner.”
With that revelation, Edith went upstairs to her room and locked herself in, refusing to finish rolling up her mother’s hair. Let her do it herself for once and see how she likes it, she thought.
For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, Edith remained in her room. She didn’t come down for lunch but instead sampled generously from a box of chocolate candy she kept in her dresser drawer. After that she took a long nap, waking up to a pounding headache and the smell of cooking food. She went downstairs silently and set the dining room table for three.
Wallace arrived just as dinner was ready. He seemed, Edith thought, to have a sixth sense where food was concerned. As she brought the chicken in from the kitchen and set it in the middle of the table and Wallace pulled out her chair for her to sit down, she thought: the dinner is already ruined for me. Mrs. Shockley was giggling like a schoolgirl and Wallace had only been there for five minutes.
Edith sat and nibbled at her food (what appetite she had was gone), looking coldly at her mother and Wallace. Mrs. Shockley spread some butter on a roll and held it up to Wallace; when he took a bite of it, the butter rolled down his chin. He began laughing to himself and when Mrs. Shockley asked what was so funny, he leaned over and whispered something in her ear, which caused her to erupt into a fit of laughter. When Wallace’s left hand wasn’t engaged in stuffing food into his maw, it was usually someplace or other on Mrs. Shockley’s body. Edith thought she was going to be sick. She needed to say something to remind them that she was also in the room.
“Being a janitor at a school must be terribly exciting,” she said, with an archness that Wallace and her mother both missed.
“What was that?” he asked, taking his eyes off Mrs. Shockley to look directly at Edith.
“I said it must be so exciting to be a janitor.”
“No, it’s not exciting,” he said. “It’s a living, that’s about all I can say. There are the good days and the bad days.”
“How long do you intend to be a janitor?” Edith asked.
“Until I retire, I guess.”
“And when might that be?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Why all the questions?” Mrs. Shockley asked.
“I don’t know,” Edith said. “I guess I’m just trying to get better acquainted.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Wallace said, “since we’re all going to be living in the same house together.”
“Why do you say that?” Edith asked.
“I haven’t told her yet, dear,” Mrs. Shockley said.
“Told me what?” Edith asked.
“I’ve accepted Wallace’s proposal of marriage. We’re going to be married in about six weeks, when school is out.”
Edith wasn’t even mildly surprised. She had been expecting the news. “This is rather sudden, isn’t it?” she asked.
“We decided the time is right,” Wallace said. “We neither one of us are getting any younger.”
“Do you think it’s wise for two people of your age to get married?” Edith asked.
“You’re beginning to sound rude,” Mrs. Shockley said, reaching over and taking Wallace’s hand in hers. “I was hoping you would be happy for us.”
“I am happy for you,” Edith said. “I just think there are some practical considerations that must be taken into account.”
“Like what?” Mrs. Shockley asked.
“Where are you going to live?”
“Wallace is going to move in with us, dear,” Mrs. Shockley said. “He lives in a rented place. We own our home.”
“I see,” Edith said. “And where does that leave me?”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“Where am I supposed to live?”
“You’ll live here with us, of course.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“This has always been your home. I never thought of having it any other way.”
“I see,” Edith said, tears forming in her eyes. “While the two of you are mooning around, giggling and pawing at each other in a nauseating fashion, I’ll be doing all the housework, all the cooking, cleaning, washing and sewing. I’m to be relegated to the role of unpaid servant, is that right?”
“Well, of course not!” Mrs. Shockley said. “What a ridiculous notion!”
“I think she just needs some time to get used to the idea,” Wallace said. “It’s a bit of a shock for her.”
“I just might be getting married myself,” Edith said defiantly.
“Who would marry you?” Mrs. Shockley said with a laugh.
“Do you realize how insulting that is?” Edith asked. “As if nobody in the world would ever want to marry me!”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Mrs. Shockley said. “It’s just that we’ve already gotten so used to the idea that you will never marry. It seems your time has come and gone.”
“Oh!” Edith said. “So that’s what you think of me, is it?”
“I think we just need to calm down and take a deep breath and watch what we say,” Wallace said.
“You don’t need to be giving me orders in my own house!” Edith said.
“There’s no need to be so touchy about everything!” Mrs. Shockley said.
“Let’s talk about something more pleasant,” Wallace said, “and talk about the marriage stuff later. There’s no hurry.”
“My mother and I own this house,” Edith said. “If she dies, the house belongs to me. If she marries you, does that mean you own the house?”
“We haven’t thought about anything like that,” Mrs. Shockley said.
“We can work out those details later,” Wallace said. “Let’s not spoil this lovely dinner.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, with Edith snuffling back tears. When it was time to serve the dessert, Mrs. Shockley started to get up to go into the kitchen.
“You just stay put,” Edith said, “and keep Mr. Timpkins company. I’ll get the dessert and make the coffee.”
“All right, dear,” Mrs. Shockley said.
Edith went into the kitchen and squeezed the tears out of her eyes. She took the banana cream pie out of the ice box where it was chilling and sliced three big pieces. While she was waiting for the coffee to brew, she took the flashlight out of the drawer and went quietly down the basement steps.
She went to the far corner of the basement—shining the light in the murk—behind the furnace and past the hot water heater, to the little shelf where her father used to keep paint cans. Now the shelf was empty except for a box of rat pellets that her mother had bought when she mistakenly believed she saw a rat under the basement steps. She shook two of the pellets into her hand and went back upstairs.
The pellets were hard like stale cookies. She crumbled them up with a butter knife and, after she had poured three cups of coffee, dissolved the rat pellets into one of the cups. She put the three slices of pie and three cups of coffee on a tray—the cup with the rat pellets in it separated from the other two—and took them into the dining room.
Her mother was talking about a murder case she had been reading about in the paper and Wallace was, as usual, hanging on her every word. After Edith set the coffee and pie in front of Wallace, she resumed her seat and watched him closely after he began taking small bites of the pie and sipping the coffee. She didn’t know how many pellets it would take to kill him but, if he was going to die, she hoped he would not die until later, until after he had gone home. Maybe the small amount she had used would only make him sick. Maybe it would have no effect at all.
When they were finished eating, Mrs. Shockley began clearing the table, but Edith told her to take Wallace into the living room and have a nice “visit” with him while she washed all the dishes herself and put everything away. Mrs. Shockley readily complied, believing that Edith was over the “unpleasantness” that had occurred earlier.
While Edith was in the kitchen, she could hear her mother and Wallace talking and laughing in the front room. He played the piano while she sang in her quivery soprano. After a while she heard nothing, so she was sure they were locked in an intimate embrace on the couch. In that way did all their evenings conclude.
She went upstairs to her room and read for a while and then readied herself for bed. She was aware when Wallace Timpkins left to go home about eleven-thirty. She heard her mother come upstairs a short time after that and go into her bedroom and shut the door.
She slept well and soundly and was awakened at dawn by the ringing of a bell. It took her a few seconds to realize the ringing was the phone in the hallway, halfway between her room and her mother’s room.
After several rings, her mother opened her door and come out into the hallway to answer the phone. Edith listened carefully to the voice of her mother as it went from a barely audible murmur to a gasp and a cry of distress. She turned over on her side and covered up her head. When her mother came into her room to tell her the news, she would pretend to be asleep and would not be smiling.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp