Queen of the Monkey Women ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Ear Hustler Magazine)
I’ve lived in the same small, dreary town my entire life. You’ll hear me use the word “dreary” a lot in describing my life. I graduated from high school three years ago. After high school I tried taking some college classes, but I hated them and stopped going. I work in an insurance office, where all day long I sit at a desk, hold a pencil in my hand with a frown of concentration on my face, and try to give the impression that I’m working. Trying to appear that you’re working is probably harder than actually working, but you get better at it with practice.
I live with my parents. My mother is depressed and takes a lot of pills. My father is gone most of the time, and when he’s at home he’s usually sleeping or hiding out in the basement or back yard to avoid my mother. He’s probably cheating on her and, if it was anybody other than my father, I would probably say he has every right.
Since it’s Saturday night I want to go downtown and see a movie. I call my friend Vernon Pinkston, who I’ve known since second grade. When I hear his voice, I remember that the last time I saw him we hadn’t parted on the best of terms. We had an argument about—what?—I don’t remember.
“Who is this?” Vernon asks.
“Sabu, the Elephant Boy,” I say. I think he’ll laugh but he doesn’t.
“I don’t know anybody by that name,” he says.
I know he knows who I am but is just playing with me. “It’s Warren Peace,” I say.
“What do you want, Warren?” he asks. “I’m busy.”
“Queen of the Monkey Women is playing at the Regency tonight. Do you want to go? It’ll be fun.”
“No,” he says.
“I told you. I’m busy.”
“Busy doing what?”
“I’m having some friends over.”
“What friends?” I ask, trying to sound like I don’t care.
“You don’t know them. They’re from work.”
Since Vernon works in the produce section of a food market, I can only imagine what his evening with his “friends” will be like. They’ll probably sit around and talk about sorting cabbages.
“Well, okay, I’ll ask somebody else then,” I say, and he hangs up without saying anything else.
I’m getting the distinct impression that Vernon doesn’t like me very much. If truth be told, I don’t like him, either. He was always a fat loser. His mother was old when she had him and that’s why Vernon is the way he is. He was still wetting his pants in high school. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s walked around with a bewildered look on his face.
I don’t want to go to the movies alone. Since it’s Saturday night, there’ll be a lot of young kids there, screaming and throwing popcorn. I consider just staying at home and getting into bed and reading, but I did that last night and the night before. I get dressed and put on my coat and shoes and leave the house without really knowing where I’m going.
I stop at the corner market and buy a pack of cigarettes and some gum and head downtown. It’s mid-October and the wind is cold; I put my hands in my pockets to try to keep them warm.
I haven’t eaten since morning so I stop at Willy Fong’s place for a plate of chop suey. I sit at a tiny table toward the back against the wall, and when the waiter comes out he doesn’t look real. He’s a grown man but he’s tiny—maybe three-quarters size—dressed in traditional Chinese garb that’s almost like silk pajamas. He looks like a doll. The only thing missing is the pigtail.
After I tell the doll what I want to eat, he leans down toward me and says in a confidential tone, “You want see girls in back?”
I look at him, not sure if I heard him right. “No,” I say, embarrassed.
“You want see boys in back?”
He bows and smiles and walks away. I wonder what the girls and boys are doing in back while they’re waiting for somebody to want to see them, and then I light a cigarette. In a few minutes my chop suey arrives.
The pot of tea the waiter brings me tastes better than the chop suey and I drink all of it. I push the food around on my plate. I think it has some shrimp in it. I’m allergic to shell fish and just the thought of it makes me want to throw up. I pick the shrimp out and push it to one side of the plate. I take my time and when I’m finished I smoke another cigarette and pay my tab and go back out into the night.
Down the street is the Rio Rita Roller Rink, always a lively place. I haven’t been there since high school. I buy my ticket and go inside. The place is crowded and noisy, as I knew it would be on a Saturday night. The people who aren’t skating are talking and laughing and having a good time.
I go to the counter where they have the skates and show the man my ticket. When he asks me what size skate I want, I realize it’s Mr. Elmo, my old history teacher from high school. He recognizes me as he hands me the skates and smiles.
“How are you, Warren?” he says.
“You work here?” I asked, genuinely surprised.
“I own the place,” he says.
I check my shoes and my coat and sit down and put the skates on and take a couple of turns around the floor to loosen up. The recorded organ music sounds good. They’re playing March of the Wooden Soldiers, a corny old tune but good to skate to. After that it’s American Patrol and then That Old Black Magic.
I spot a girl I knew in high school named Mimi Boynton. She looks like she’s gained fifty pounds at least. Her hair looks like it’s been whacked off with a machete and she’s wearing ugly red capri pants and a white sweatshirt. I know she sees me and recognizes me. She says something to the girl she’s with and the girl turns and looks at me and they both laugh. At what, I wonder?
When I sit down for a minute to take a breather and tighten the laces on my skates, Mimi Boynton comes and stands beside me. I grimace at the effort of bending over and look up at her.
“Hello, Warren,” she says. “Remember me?”
“Sure,” I say. “High school.”
“On the next couples promenade, would you skate with me?” she asks.
“No, no,” I say. “I’m with some people. They’re waiting for me over by the concession stand.”
“Oh, I see,” she says, embarrassed.
She stands there looking at me for a minute as though she expects me to say something else, and then she says, “Well, it was nice seeing you again,” and turns around and goes back to where her girlfriend is waiting for her.
“Yeah, you too,” I say, but I don’t think she hears me.
I skate for about an hour, until the place starts to give me a headache, and then I decide to leave and go someplace else. When I turn my skates back in, I want to ask Mr. Elmo to give me a job (anything has to be better than working in an insurance office), but he’s busy and I don’t get a chance to speak to him. I tell myself I’ll call him on Monday and then I leave the place.
Outside, traffic is stopped for a red light and somebody hollers at me from a car window, but I ignore it and keep walking. I walk down the street a couple of blocks and cross the street to a little bar I remember being in once before. I’m thirsty from all the skating and decide to go in and buy myself a beer.
The bar seems dark and quiet after the roller rink. The juke box is playing, but it’s not very loud so people can talk and be heard. I sit at the bar and tell the bartender I want a beer. He looks at me skeptically and I think he’s going to give me some trouble, but he serves me anyway. I don’t like the taste of beer very much, but I drink the first one down fast and order another one.
After I’ve started on my second beer, I light a cigarette and look around. The place is not very crowded for a Saturday night. Three or four drunks sit hunched over the bar and a few people sit at the small tables, talking intimately. I hear a woman complaining drunkenly to the bartender about her drink, but the man she’s with quiets her down and they soon leave.
In a little while somebody comes in and sits on the stool to my right. When I turn my head slightly to catch a glimpse, I see it’s a middle-aged woman wearing a black dress and a black hat with a see-through veil that covers her eyes and nose. Oddly enough, there’s a cluster of red cherries on the hat and that’s what you look at first thing because it stands out on the black. She orders a drink and puts a cigarette in her mouth but she can’t seem to find a match, so she turns to me.
“You got a light, hon?” she asks.
I give her my matches and she lights her cigarette and gives me back the matches and smiles. I consider getting up and leaving, but I don’t.
“Could I buy you a drink?” she asks.
I hold up my beer that’s still about half-full and say, “Just leaving.”
“Well, what do you think about me?” she says. “I just came from an undertaker’s conference. Don’t I look the part?”
I look at her and shrug my shoulders. I don’t care what she is.
“You’re not an embalmer, are you?” she asks.
“No,” I say.
“You look like you might be an embalmer. I know the type.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“I want to open my own funeral home but I don’t have the capital. I’m looking for an embalmer with money to go partners with me.”
When I don’t say anything, she says, “What do you do? Do you go to school somewhere?”
“I work in an office, but I’m not going to be there much longer.”
“Oh,” she says.
That seems to end the conversation, so I start to get up to leave.
“Are you sure I can’t buy you a drink?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I have to get home.”
She looks at me and narrows her eyes as if she’s looking at me from a long way off. “Got a wife at home waiting for you?” she asks.
“I live with my parents.”
“Oh,” she says knowingly. “So it’s like that, is it?
I don’t like her tone. “Like what?” I ask.
“Even though you’re a grown man, they still treat you like a baby.”
“It isn’t that way at all,” I say. “I’ve been roller skating and I’m tired. I still have to walk home.”
“How about if we go for a drive along the river?” she asks. “It’s a lovely night and there’s a full moon.”
“No,” I say. “Not for me.”
“There’s a full moon for everybody,” she says, and I can see she’s already drunk.
“Well, good night,” I say, standing up.
“Wait a minute,” she says, putting her hand on my arm. “I’d really like you to stay a little longer. I need somebody to talk to. These other people here are duds. They’re all drunk.”
I sit back down and she says to the bartender, “Bring this young gentleman here another drink. He’s going to stay and talk to me.”
She lights another cigarette and seems for the moment to forget I’m there. After a minute or so, she turns and looks at me as if she’s seeing me for the first time and says, “I think you’re kind of cute in spite of what everybody else says.”
“I think you need to go home and sleep it off,” I say.
“Did I tell you I’m very lonely? You probably can’t tell by looking at me, but I’ve been married three times.”
The bartender sets the drink on the bar in front of me and I take a sip, even though I don’t want it.
“Men are such bastards,” she says, “but of course you are one so you already know.”
I don’t say anything but put my hands on the bar and look straight ahead.
“I’ve offended you,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Nothing you say matters to me.”
“You’re sweet,” she says.
“I’m not what you think I am,” I say. “You’ve got me all wrong.”
“Now, don’t go jumping to conclusions,” she says. “Just relax and have another drink.”
I light a cigarette and then she puts her cigarette out and takes a fresh one and wants to light the fresh one from mine.
“I like you,” she says, “and you ought to be very flattered because there aren’t many people I like.”
“You don’t even know me,” I say.
“That’s true, but I can tell a lot about you just from the way you move and from the way you shift your eyes about.”
“You can’t tell anything about me,” I say. “And I don’t care whether you like me or not. How do you know I’m not a psychopathic killer?”
“Because you’re not,” she says.
“Well, I could be,” I say.
She laughs and pats me on the arm indulgently the way you would a small child.
“I’ve really got to be going,” I say.
“Past your bedtime, is it?” she asks.
“If you must know,” I say, “it is.”
“I’ve got a bottle of Kentucky bonded bourbon in my car. We can have a party.”
“No,” I say. “I hate bourbon.”
“Finish your drink and we’ll go for that drive.”
“I’m not what you think I am,” I say. “I’m not anybody you want to know.”
I don’t know why I leave with her, but I do. I suppose you could say it’s because nobody has asked me to do anything with them for a long time and I just wasn’t ready to go home.
When we get outside, she hands me the keys to her car, an ancient Cadillac the color of brown eggs parked down the street from the bar.
“You drive,” she says.
“Where to?” I ask.
“I’ll tell you.”
We get into the car and I start it and pull away from the curb as she makes herself cozy on the seat beside me. She takes off her hat with the veil and the cherries and throws it in the back seat and takes her bottle of bourbon out of the glove compartment and uncaps it and takes a drink and offers me the bottle, which I refuse.
She has me drive outside of town, to an old country road that I haven’t been on since I was a child. The road is hilly and curvy and I have to pay close attention to keep the car on the road. After I’ve driven a few miles, she tells me to turn off to the left. I hesitate at first because it seems there’s nothing there, but after I turn off I see there’s another road downhill that seems to go off nowhere into the woods.
“Where does this road lead to?” I ask.
“You’ll see,” she says, taking a swig of the bourbon.
“I don’t like it here,” I say.
We come to an old cemetery and she tells me to slow down and turn off the road. I do as she says and stop just short of an old wrought iron gate, part of which is missing.
“This is the place,” she says.
“Why are we here?” I ask, turning off the engine.
“I love this spot,” she says. “It’s the perfect place to think.”
“We probably aren’t supposed to be here,” I say, looking over my left shoulder.
“Come with me,” she says.
She takes a blanket out of the back seat and heads into the cemetery. She seems to be able to see where she’s going, so I just follow her. She goes far in, where some of the old grave markers are taller than our heads. When she comes to a little clearing cut off from view of anybody who might be on the road, she spreads the blanket on the ground and lays down on it, leaving plenty of room for me beside her.
“It’s so restful here,” she says. “There’s no noise. Only the sounds of nature.” She points up into the trees where a brisk wind is rustling the leaves.
I stand looking off into the distance, thinking I see movement. Something or somebody is watching us, but it’s so dark that I can’t be sure of anything. The full moon seems to have gone behind a cloud, or maybe it’s the trees.
“What’s the matter?” she asks. “Why are you standing there like a statue?”
“I’m sick,” I say.
I bend over and vomit on the ground near her feet on the blanket. I didn’t drink enough to be sick. I didn’t touch the bourbon. I’m sure it’s the shrimp from Willy Fong’s chop suey.
“I need to go home,” I say. “I’m sick and I’m not what you think I am and I didn’t want to come here in the first place.”
I turn my back on her and take a few steps away because I’m going to vomit again and I don’t want her looking at me. After I’ve vomited for the second time and am recovering a little bit, I turn to her but she’s gone. While I had my back turned she had picked up her blanket and left.
I almost panic at being left alone in such a dark and unfamiliar place and I start running in the direction of her car, thinking I can catch her before she drives away, but I run headlong into a grave stone and fall on the ground and hurt my knee. As I pull myself up and see that my pants are torn and my knee is bleeding. I hear the Cadillac start and then I see the headlights moving through the trees fifty yards away. As she drives off, I realize I don’t know where I am but—worse than that—I don’t know what I’m doing there.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp