(This is an expanded version of a short story I posted before.)
Margaret Pendler was to be passed over again for promotion, after seventeen years with the company. A younger, prettier girl named Stephanie with only three years got the nod. Stephanie with her blond hair and tight skirts that showed the contours of her can; shapely, nylon-clad legs that she was all too willing to show off; a touch of cleavage, perfect teeth and lips the color of a valentine.
After Margaret received the news right before morning coffee break, she sat at her desk holding a pencil in her right hand, her left hand on her cheek, barely moving. Not even pretending to do any work. When the girls, all atwitter at Stephanie’s promotion, went for coffee, Margaret stayed behind.
In one minute or less, she had lost all interest in everything around her. When Mr. Dauphin came in, she didn’t even look up and smile as she always did. He was her favorite and she had even believed, at infrequent intervals, that she was in love with him. Never mind that he had been married three times and was working his way through all the pretty young things in the office.
At lunchtime she was still sitting exactly as she had been two hours earlier. Her coworkers had been giving her curious glances but she ignored them. If anybody had said anything to her, she might have pulled a knife out of the drawer and stabbed them.
Finally, when the lunch hour was almost over, she stood up and said, to no one person in particular, “I have no wish to be here.” She took her purse and her raincoat and left, without bothering to straighten the clutter on her desk or even to push the chair in. Without a word to anybody, she went down the stairs and out the building, her intention being never to return.
At home her mother, Georgina, was going through trunks, trying on clothes and wigs for a social function she was going to go to at her lodge. She held up a forties-vintage green dress with huge fabric-covered buttons and a long red wig and said, “What do you think of this?”
“Is it a costume party?” Margaret asked.
“No. I just want to look different from anybody else there.”
“That ought to do the trick.”
“What do you think of these?” She held up a silk Pagliacci lounging set.
“Oh, I think you ought to put those on now,” Margaret said.
“I think I will.”
Georgina went behind the screen to change. “I think I’m getting married again,” she said in a too-loud voice, believing that if she wasn’t seen she wasn’t heard.
“Who’s the lucky fellow?” Margaret asked.
“His name is Herman Mudge. I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure. He hasn’t actually asked me yet, but I think he will.”
“Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
“What do you think about having a stepfather?” Georgina asked, stepping out from behind the screen and turning around one time so Margaret could see the silk Pagliacci lounging set.
“Stunning,” Margaret said. “Is he younger than you?”
“Is who younger than me?”
“He’s eighty-three. I’m seventy-nine. I think that’s a nice age difference, don’t you? My father was four years older than my mother.”
“Where are you going to live after you get married?”
“Why, here, of course. He’s got a small room in a hotel. You don’t think a newly married couple can live there, do you?”
“Well, I hope you’ll both be very happy,” Margaret said.
“I want cornflakes for supper and macaroons,” Georgina said.
After the evening meal was finished and the dishes washed and put away, Georgina installed herself on the couch in front of the television set for her endless parade of police dramas and situation comedies. Soon she was asleep with her head thrown back, her mouth open because she had trouble breathing through her nose. Her dentures had slipped down and were partway out of her mouth, giving her a rather strange and unnatural appearance.
Margaret went upstairs to her bedroom, threw some clothes into a suitcase and left the house, her intention being never to return. She took a taxi to the bus station where she stood in line for fifteen minutes to buy a ticket to the nearest large city. After she had her ticket, she sat on a hard plastic chair for nearly two hours until time for her bus.
When her bus was finally announced, she stood up and ran for the door as if it might leave without her. Heart pounding, she boarded and took a seat next to the window near the back. As the bus roared off, she laughed, relieved that the ordeal of waiting was at an end.
She slept at intervals during the trip but it was a troubled sleep, the kind she had when she was sick with one of her bronchitis infections. At about four-thirty in the morning the bus arrived at its destination. Stiff from the long hours of sitting, she had a cup of coffee and a light breakfast in the coffee shop of the sprawling bus depot and set out walking, not certain where she was going.
The St. George Hotel had nothing to recommend it other than its neon sign glowing invitingly in the early-morning light and its height of fifteen stories. She went inside and asked for a room on one of the upper floors. When the desk clerk asked her how long she would be staying, she said she didn’t know.
Her room on the twelfth floor was dark and musty-smelling like a long-undiscovered tomb. She turned on the lights, hung her coat in the closet and slung her suitcase on the bed. Crossing the room to the lone window, she pulled back the heavy curtain and looked down at the street a hundred and twenty feet below. She calculated the approximate spot on the sidewalk where she would land when she jumped. Someone would scream (they always did in the movies). There would be loud excited voices, a screech of brakes. She wouldn’t hear any of it.
But she didn’t have to be in any hurry. She would work up to the thing, to the jumping. When she decided the time was right, she would do it. She had the nerve all right, the nerve to just let go. And it would all be over in a matter of seconds. Lights out. Lower the curtain. What was any of it for, anyway?
She stayed in the room for two days and on the third day she ventured out to have dinner in the restaurant downstairs. The day after that she took a walk, had lunch in a diner, bought a pair of gloves and two books and went to a movie. It was when she was having a drink in the bar before going to her room and going to sleep that he approached her. He was a small man, about thirty-five, dark hair and three or four days of stubble on his face. He stood beside her and offered to buy her a drink.
“I have a drink,” she said, not looking at him.
“Are you having a good time?” he asked.
“I was until you came along.”
“I saw you the day you checked in,” he said. “I was sitting in the lobby watching you but you didn’t see me.”
“What of it?”
“Women don’t usually check into this hotel alone. They’ve usually got kids with them or a man.”
“I’m waiting for my husband to get here.”
“What does he look like? Maybe I’ve seen him.”
She stood up abruptly. “I don’t know what your game is,” she said, “but I’ll thank you to leave me alone.”
She brushed past him and took the elevator up to her room.
The next day she saw him and the day after that. She didn’t look directly at him but she knew he was there. He seemed to just appear wherever she was. Once when she saw him standing by the elevator, she asked the desk clerk who he was.
“I don’t see anybody there, ma’am,” the clerk said. “The person you’re talking about must have gone up.”
The next night at ten o’clock she was in her room, getting ready to get into bed when there was a soft knock at the door. “Who is it?” she asked. When no one answered, she went to the door and opened it a couple of inches. She wasn’t surprised when she saw him standing there.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
“No, you may not.”
He pushed the door open farther and when she did nothing to stop him, he came inside and closed the door again as if it were his door to do with as he pleased.
“My husband went to get some cigarettes,” she said. “He’ll be back in just a minute.”
“You don’t have a husband. You know it and I know it.”
She looked at him and took a deep breath. She wondered why she wasn’t more afraid.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Are you a murderer who preys on women alone?”
He laughed and took off his hat, took a step toward her. “Now, do I look to you like a person who would do that?”
“Did my mother send you? Are you a private detective?”
“I could be just about anything, I suppose. Anything or nothing.”
“If it’s money you want, I don’t have any.”
He surprised her by taking hold of her arm and leading her to the window. “Look down,” he said. “It’s a long way to the sidewalk. Your body bursts like a balloon, but instead of water it’s blood. Those who see it never forget. You’ll be dead but they’ll have to carry the horror of what you did around with them for the rest of their lives.”
“Why should you care about that?”
“That’s not the question you should be asking.”
“Get out my room or I’m going to call for help.”
When he made no move to leave, she picked up the phone and put it to her ear. A few clicks and then someone came on the line.
“There’s an intruder in my room,” she said. “Yes. A man. Room twelve sixty-eight. Yes. Thank you.”
She put the phone back in its cradle and said to him, “They’re sending someone up. You’d better be gone when they get here.”
He crossed the room to the door and opened it.
“Wait!” she called. “Don’t go!”
“You change your mind awfully fast.”
“I’m afraid I won’t see you again and I won’t ever know who you are.”
He reclosed the door. “You don’t know?”
“If I knew, would I be asking?”
“I’m the devil come to take your soul back to hell.”
“Where’s your pitchfork?”
“I’m an angel sent to try to keep you from destroying yourself.”
“Which is it? You can’t be both!”
“I’m whatever you want me to be. Maybe I’m nothing at all. Maybe I’m not even here.”
“I’m not in the mood for riddles,” she said. “Just go. I want you to stop bothering me.”
“I’ll go,” he said. “If that’s what you want.”
Instead of leaving, though, he leaned against the wall near the door, hands in pockets, and looked at her. He was like a man waiting for a bus or doing nothing in particular, as if time were nothing at all.
She went to the window and pushed the curtain out of the way and looked down to the street once again. How long would it take her to reach the sidewalk? She would close her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see anything. Just a few seconds and it would all be over.
The window wouldn’t raise as she thought it would, no matter how hard she pushed and pulled. So, there it was, a pane of glass, the only thing between herself and oblivion. It wasn’t going to stop her, though. Nothing was going to stop her now.
She kicked at the glass and hit it with her fists until it shattered, letting in the noise from the street and a sickening stench of gasoline, asphalt and burning rubber.
With the glass gone, the way was open for her. It was so easy now. The only question remaining was if she should go out feet first or head first. Would somebody cover her up right away or would people stand and gape at her until an ambulance arrived? What would her mother say when she received the phone call? Who would call her mother, anyway? Would she come and identify the body? Would sweet Mr. Dauphin with his doe-like eyes and the other people from the office come to her funeral?
“Are you losing your nerve?” he asked from across the bed over by the door.
“What did you say?”
She had forgotten he was in the room with her and, remembering, felt a little embarrassed, as though a stranger were watching her in her most private and intimate moment.
“I asked if you were having second thoughts.”
“I asked you to leave.”
She hadn’t realized that blood was pouring from the juncture of her thumb and forefinger. She held out her hand and watched the blood as it dripped onto the floor.
He got a towel from the bathroom. “Here,” he said. “You probably need some stitches.”
“You’re with me in my final moments,” she said. “The only one.”
“You’re not going to jump,” he said.
“You’re going to go down to the desk and apologize for breaking the window and you’re going to offer to pay for it.”
“What did you say your name is?”
“You can call me by any name you like.”
She knelt on the floor and leaned against his leg because it was the closest object. “You thought I was going to jump out the window?” she asked.
“It looked that way.”
“Take me away from here, will you?”
“A place so far away I’ll never get back.”
“No, not there. Farther away than that.”
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp