Small Men ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
All morning long Mr. Honegger pushed and prodded them. They were behind and their competitors were taking away their business. Every fifteen minutes or so he came out of his office and stood where they could see him so they wouldn’t be inclined to slacken the pace. They gave him looks fraught with meaning, as if they might kill him if only they had the chance, but he didn’t seem to notice and if he did he didn’t care. When he went back out of sight again, they breathed easier and let their shoulders slump.
“I wish that bastard would choke on his cigar,” someone would invariably say (or a variation), and the rest would laugh.
“If Bernadette was here, she’d stab him,” someone else would say and it was a remark that always brought a round of suppressed giggles.
Bernadette’s stabbing someone had become a sort of joke at the Handy Dandy Laundry. She was currently in jail awaiting trial for stabbing and almost killing the laundry’s truck driver, Sterling Fingers, right there under their noses on a Friday in May. Whenever any of them were having trouble with a husband, a parole officer or a pesky son-in-law, they would always say, “I’ll get Bernadette to stab the son of a bitch for me when she gets back.”
“I don’t think she’s coming back.”
“Oh, no? Why is that?”
“She almost killed a man.”
“Who’s to say he didn’t have it coming?”
Virgie Smalls, at twenty-one, was the youngest of the ladies of the laundry. The nearest one to her in age was Flo O’Leary at age thirty-seven. All the rest were in their forties and fifties and they were a rough bunch. Some had been in prison and behaved as if they still were (tattoos on their biceps, a chaw of tobacco in their cheeks and heads tied up in rags). At least two of them had worked as prostitutes in their younger days. Almost all of them had a drinking problem or some kind of addiction.
Finally it was lunch time. Virgie took her paper sack and sat apart from the others. She took her sandwich out of her bag and began reading a paperback novel. This was one of the reasons the other ladies didn’t like her. They thought she was snooty when really she only wanted a few minutes to herself. She had always been solitary that way.
Soon Josephine Day, the new girl from Puerto Rico who was just learning to speak English, came and sat across from her. Virgie looked up from her book and smiled but kept on reading.
“What book?” Josephine asked.
“It’s a murder mystery,” Virgie said.
“Why you read at lunch?”
“I’ve always done it.”
“I learn English better by reading book. Learn which words go where.”
“Don’t like read, though.”
“Hey, pigeon!” one of the other ladies, Ruthie Joy, the ever-present cigarette dangling from her lip, called to Josephine. “Come over here and sit with us!”
“That’s okay,” Josephine said. “I sit with Virgie.”
“Virgie doesn’t like you,” Ethel Diamante said, and all the other ladies laughed.
Josephine turned to Virgie. “You don’t like me?”
Virgie leaned forward and spoke in a whisper so only Josephine could hear. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She thinks she knows me but she doesn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will after you’ve been here longer.”
The ladies’ conversation consisted mostly of stories about their run-ins with authority, relations with men, bowling scores and the criminal activities of their children. None of it interested Virgie and she tried to tune it out as much as she could. When the conversation inevitably turned to Bernadette Crowder and Sterling Fingers, though, she listened to what they were saying.
“When’s that little son of a bitch Sterling coming back to work?” asked the woman known only as Fly.
“Never, I hope,” Nellie Felton said. “He gives me the creeps.”
“That’s because you want him so bad and you know you can’t have him,” Ethel Diamante said and all the ladies hooted with laughter.
“He’s like that little midget in that white suit on that TV show about an island.”
“He’s short but not that short.”
“Well, I think he’s kind of cute,” Bebe Fallon said. She only had one eye so she continually kept her head tilted to the side.
“That’s because you can’t see, bitch!” Ruthie Joy said, and the others rocked with laughter.
“No, really,” Bebe Fallon said. “I like small men.”
“There’s no accounting for tastes.”
“Do you think Bernadette’s really going to jail?”
“Well, there were witnesses. I don’t see how she’s going to get out of it. It was assault with a deadly weapon. That don’t get you a slap on the wrist.”
“Maybe if she killed all the witnesses.”
“How is she going to do that, you dope, if she’s in jail?”
“She could get somebody else to do it.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work.”
“Well, you never know. I’d hate to be one of the witnesses.”
“We’re not even supposed to be talking about it,” Lena Ellery said, who had been a witness and had been questioned several times by the police.
“You’re going to have to testify in court, aren’t you, babe?” Fly asked.
“Don’t remind me,” Lena Ellery said. “I hate courtrooms.”
“I’ll bet you’ve never even been in one, have you?”
“Only on TV.”
Lunch was over and it was back to work. By a concerted effort, Virgie avoided looking at the clock but she knew she had to get through a lot of hours before it was time to go home.
A few minutes after lunch Mr. Honegger came and stood close to Virgie and looked down at her until he had her attention.
“I want to see you in my office,” he said in her ear to keep the others from hearing.
“What for?” she asked, but he was already walking away.
When she was seated across from him in his quiet office, with cool air blowing out the air conditioner vent, he looked at her solemnly and shook his head.
“You’re not like the others, are you?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t mix in much.”
“Does it matter?”
“Not in my book. Not as long as you do your work.”
“Are you firing me?”
“No, but I can see how you would think that.”
“What is this about, then?”
“I need a floor supervisor, somebody to keep an eye on the girls. I have too much work to do to keep going out there every few minutes to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“It’s twenty dollars more a week.”
“You couldn’t use twenty more a week?”
“You’re saying you want me to be floor supervisor?”
“Out of the people I have now, you’re the logical choice.”
“Why is that?”
“You seem—I don’t know—more sensible than the others.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t want it?”
“Those women would resent me. They already do resent me.”
“Why do you think that?”
“It goes back to your original statement. I’m not like them.”
“That’s why you’re my choice for the job.”
“I don’t follow.”
“If they liked you on a personal level, if they were friends with you, they’d think they could get around you. You wouldn’t carry tales about them to the boss if they liked you and you liked them.”
“I don’t like them. They don’t like me.”
“That’s why I think you’d be a good floor supervisor.”
“They’d never respect me.”
“You’d have to earn their respect.”
“How would I do that?”
“I don’t know. Make them fear you.”
Virgie couldn’t keep from laughing. “They’d chew me up and spit me out,” she said.
“Will you at least think about it?”
“I already have and the answer is no.”
When Virgie went back to the line, Ethel Diamante asked her what Mr. Honegger said to her.
“He wanted to ask me how my mother is,” she said.
That evening at the dinner table, Virgie told her mother about the floor supervisor job.
“I think you’re a fool to turn it down,” her mother said. “You certainly could use the extra money.”
“I don’t want it.”
“It’ll make it harder for me to get away when the time comes.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I think you should go into that Mr. What’s-his-name’s office in the morning and tell him you’ve thought it over and decided to take the job.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“Stubborn. Just like your father.”
“I’ll tell him you’re available. But I have to warn you. He’ll want you to start right away.”
“That isn’t funny.”
Her mother refused to speak to her for the rest of the evening and went into her room before dark and closed the door.
At nine o’clock someone knocked, causing Virgie to let out a little yelp because it was so unexpected. She went to the door and said, “Who is it?”
“Sterling Fingers,” a voice said.
She opened the door and looked at him. “We’ve been wondering how you are,” she said.
“The Handy Dandy people.”
“Were you wondering a little more than the others because you care and they don’t?”
“If that’s the way you want to look at it.”
“You were the only one that helped me the day I was stabbed. Those other clods just stood around with their eyes popping out of their heads.”
“None of them had ever seen that much blood before. I think they were in shock.”
“Do we have to stand here and talk through the screen door?”
“I can’t ask you in. My mother has retired for the night.”
“You come out here, then.”
She hesitated for a moment and then stepped out the door. They both sat on the porch swing.
“So you live with your mother,” he said.
“I live with my mother, too. She’s a case.”
“How’s your, uh, injury?” she asked.
“Do you want to see my scar?”
“No, thank you.”
“I still feel weak and I have shooting pains and nightmares. Except for that, I’m doing all right. I still might die, though.”
“If you’re in danger of dying, why did they let you leave the hospital?”
“They needed the bed.”
“When are you coming back to the laundry?”
“Yet to be decided. Maybe never. I might just go away and get a fresh start in a new place.”
“You know Bernadette’s in jail?”
“I’m not counting on her staying there, though.” He lifted up his jacket and showed her his gun that he had taken to wearing in a shoulder holster. “It’s why I’m wearing a jacket on a hot night.”
“You’re afraid of Bernadette? She’s kind of stupid, you know.”
“When she finds out she missed my aorta she’ll be back to take another shot at it, stupid or not.”
“I don’t think she’d dare to try it again.”
“I have nightmares about her coming after me. She kills me and then I kill her, but neither one of us is dead and we have to do it all over again. I think it’s a sign that she has murder in her heart.”
“Do you have murder in your heart?”
“Only when it comes to Bernadette.”
“Why don’t you get yourself a lawyer? He could get a court order or something to make sure Bernadette stays away from you if she gets out of jail.”
“A court order isn’t going to stop her.”
“From what I’ve heard, she’ll probably be in jail for a long time.”
“Forever, I hope,” he said.
“Mr. Honegger called me into his office today.”
“What did that old turd want?”
“He offered me the job of floor supervisor.”
“No! Did you take it?”
“I turned him down.”
“He’ll probably fire you on some pretext, now that you’ve crossed him.”
“I don’t much care.”
“You don’t belong in the laundry, anyway. You’re not like the others.”
“That’s what he said.”
“In about six years, though, you’ll be just like them.”
“How would you like to be like Ethel and Ruthie Joy and Bebe Fallon?”
“Bebe Fallon likes you. She was talking about you today at lunchtime.”
“What did she say?”
“She said she thinks you’re cute and she likes small men.”
“That’s her one eye talking.”
He left, not knowing if he would ever see her again. Virgie, for her part, stood on the porch and watched him walk away on the sidewalk until she could no longer see him. Then she went into the house and upstairs to bed. Tomorrow it would all start over again, as if today and the day before hadn’t been enough.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp