Ugly as Sin ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Foo-Foo’s head, encased in rollers, rested on the back of the seat, her face turned toward the open window. Believing she was asleep, Dobby pulled out one of the plastic pins that held a roller in place. The hair that was rolled around the roller unrolled and the roller fell out, hitting Foo-Foo on the arm. She opened her eyes and picked up the roller and started looking for the pin, believing it had fallen out on its own. Dobby pretended to be engrossed in the passing landscape while Foo-Foo got down on the floor looking for the pin. That one strand of her hair hung loose along the side of her face. She looked so silly down on the floor looking for the pin with her big rear end sticking up that Dobby couldn’t keep from laughing, and then she knew the pin hadn’t fallen out on its own.
“Mama, make him quit,” Foo-Foo said.
“Hah-hah-hah!” Dobby laughed, slapping his knee.
“Quit pestering your sister, Dobby,” Lola Mae said mildly from the front seat without turning around. She was sitting next to her husband, Sylvan, who was driving the car. Bertha, her mother, sat to the right of her next to the window. They had been on the road since six o’clock in the morning and it was now getting close to the middle of the day.
“Mama, I’m sick,” Foo-Foo said. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Watch for a good place to stop,” Lola Mae said to Sylvan, “and we’ll have a bite of lunch.”
Sylvan kept his eyes on the road, pretending not to have heard, but in a little while he came to a place at the top of a hill where there was a snug little space to pull the car off the road. He stopped and turned off the engine without saying a word. Foo-Foo jumped out of the car before it was all the way stopped. She ran off into the brush and disappeared behind a tree.
“Watch out for snakes!” Lola Mae called to her.
Sylvan and Lola Mae and Bertha got out of the car slowly, stiff from riding for so long. Dobby jumped out of the back seat and ran across the road and went down into the brush.
“Now where is he off to?” Lola Mae said.
Sylvan went around to the back of the car and opened the trunk and squatted down with his hand on the lip of the trunk and rubbed his eyes. He stayed that way for a minute and then he took the basket out of the trunk that the food was in and swung it around and set it on the ground. Lola Mae opened the basket and began taking out the food. Dobby came running back and Lola Mae handed him a sandwich.
“Don’t run off like that again,” she said. “You understand? There might be snakes in those woods.”
“I needed a little privacy,” Dobby said.
“Nobody’s going to look at you. You didn’t have to go so far away.”
Foo-Foo came running up, tugging at her pants. She took the big cooler of water out of the trunk and opened it and poured some water into a paper cup and drank it. Then she went over and snatched a sandwich out of Lola Mae’s hand.
“I’ll bet you got chiggers, both of you,” Lola Mae said. She unscrewed the lid on the thermos and poured herself some coffee.
Sylvan took a sandwich and walked a few feet away and looked out over the hills into the distance. Some white fluffy clouds, tinged with gray, floated serenely above the landscape. Lola Mae came up behind him, handing him some coffee, and stood beside him.
“Nice view,” she said.
“I guess so,” he said.
“It’s so peaceful and quiet here.”
He didn’t say anything else so Lola Mae turned and went back and got a sandwich out of the basket for Bertha and also one for herself and went and sat beside Bertha on the embankment above the ditch that ran alongside the road. She handed the sandwich to Bertha and Bertha looked at it as if she didn’t know what to do with it.
“Do you want me to unwrap it for you?” Lola Mae asked.
Bertha didn’t answer. She laid the sandwich on the ground beside her and reached into the pocket of her dress and took out a package of cigarettes. She lit a cigarette with the little silver lighter she carried.
“Give me one of those,” Lola Mae said.
“I want a cigarette too,” Dobby said.
“You’re too young to smoke,” Lola Mae said.
“I know kids younger than me that smoke,” Dobby said.
“Well, good for them. Just because they smoke doesn’t mean you’re going to.”
“Mama, he smokes anyway whenever there’s nobody around to stop him,” Foo-Foo said.
“He’d better not let me catch him.”
“Aw, smoking won’t hurt me,” Dobby said.
“Smoking might not hurt you,” Lola Mae said, “but if I catch you doing it, I’ll hurt you.”
Dobby looked at Foo-Foo and held his middle finger up at her. She stuck her tongue out at him and gave him a smug look.
“Stop that fussing and get your grandma and me some water,” Lola Mae said to Foo-Foo.
“I want another sandwich,” Dobby said.
“Well, you know where they are,” Lola Mae said.
“I want a soda too.”
“There you’re out of luck because all we have is water and coffee.”
“Why didn’t you bring any sodas?”
“Why don’t you shut up?” Foo-Foo said.
“When we see a store, I want to stop and buy a soda.”
“Do you have money for sodas?” Lola Mae asked.
“Well, neither do I, so we’ll be drinking either water or coffee today. Be thankful we’ve got that.”
“I bet I could steal a soda and nobody would ever know the difference.”
“Don’t even think such a thing if you want to go on living,” Lola Mae said.
Sylvan came back and sat down on the embankment a few feet away from the women. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. His feet were pointing downward into the ditch.
“Are you tired, honey?” Lola Mae asked him.
“No,” he said.
“Do you want me to drive for a while?”
“The last time you drove my car you ended up in a ditch.”
“That wasn’t my fault.”
“Let me drive,” Dobby said. “I know how.”
“Yeah, and we’ll all end up dead,” Foo-Foo said.
“I’ll drive,” Bertha said, looking off down the hill. She held her cigarette close to her lips between her thumb and forefinger.
They all looked at her because, as far as they knew, she had never driven a car before. Foo-Foo laughed and Dobby made circles in the air around his right ear.
“You think I can’t drive, don’t you?” Bertha said.
“I didn’t know you ever had,” Lola Mae said.
“I used to drive all the time when I was younger.”
“Did you drive a car with an engine in it?” Dobby asked. “I didn’t know they had engines back in them days.”
“Those days,” Foo-foo said.
“Shut up!” Dobby said.
“I think you would be a little out of practice, don’t you, Mama?” Lola Mae asked.
“It’s one of those things a person never forgets,” Bertha said.
“Nobody is driving my car except me,” Sylvan said, and that was the end of the discussion.
They finished with the lunch and got back into the car. This time Bertha sat in the back seat between Foo-Foo and Dobby. Lola Mae sat next to the window in the front seat with her arm propped up. She let the breeze blow in her face and muss up her hair.
“You know what I like about riding in the car on a hot day with gasoline fumes and the smell of hot asphalt in my nose?” Lola Mae asked.
“No. What?” Sylvan asked.
“Not a thing.”
“I’d like to take a nap but I can’t stretch out,” Bertha said. “Somebody is going to have to get out of the car so I can lay down.”
“How much longer will it be until we get there, Mama?” Foo-Foo asked.
“About two hours, I think,” Lola Mae said.
Foo-Foo groaned and Dobby held out his arm to an oncoming truck, seeing how close he could get to touching it.
“I know a certain somebody that’s going to lose an arm,” Bertha said. “And I don’t think that somebody is going to like being a cripple for the rest of his days.”
“What are you talking about, Mama?” Lola Mae asked without turning around.
The rest of the way didn’t go smoothly. Dobby got carsick and they had to stop while he lost his lunch in a ditch. When they got going again, the back left tire went flat and when Sylvan went to put on the spare, it was flat too. After that they ran out of gas and Sylvan had to walk a mile or so to the next town and then walk back carrying two gallons of gas in a rusty can that the station owner made him promise to return. Finally in late afternoon they arrived at their destination.
When Sylvan pulled up in front of the big old house and stopped, a young woman—more a girl than a woman—went running out to greet them. It was Sylvan and Lola Mae’s other daughter, Skippy. She had been standing at the door watching for them for at least three hours.
“What took you so long?” she asked, nearly in tears. “I thought maybe you weren’t coming after all.”
None of them had seen Skippy in three months and she looked different. Her hair was cut very short and dyed a funny color halfway between blond and brown. And she was very thin. The sharp points of her bones seemed to stick out through her clothes.
“We had a little trouble,” Lola Mae said. She had just stepped out of the car and when she got a good look at Skippy she stopped in her tracks. “What did you do to your hair?”
“A girl here fixed it for me. Do you like it?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“You look just like a movie star,” Foo-Foo said.
“Where’s the baby?” Dobby asked.
“It’s inside,” Skippy said. “Where do you think? Do you think I carry it around with me all the time?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“It’s a boy.”
“You already knew that, Dobby,” Lola Mae said.
“I guess I forgot.”
“What’s his name?” Bertha asked.
“He doesn’t have a name yet.”
“Why not?” Lola Mae asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I just haven’t got around to naming him.”
“You’d better give him a good name,” Sylvan said.
“I will, Daddy,” Skippy said. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I don’t want a grandson of mine to have a name that sounds like a girl’s name.”
“Well, come on inside, all of you,” Skippy said. “There’s someone waiting to meet you.”
Miss Hillis was standing inside the foyer. She was the manager and the driving force behind the home. She personally reviewed every case and decided who got in and who didn’t. She was a tall mannish woman dressed in a man’s pinstripe suit with a white shirt and a flowered tie. Her hair was drawn back to the back of her head in a large honey-colored bun. Stuck into the bun were what looked like two crisscrossed knitting needles. She shook everybody’s hand, including Foo-Foo’s and Dobby’s.
“It’s been a joy to have Skippy with us during these weeks,” Miss Hillis said in her deep voice, smiling and showing her big teeth.
“I hope she was no trouble,” Lola Mae said.
“Not at all. We had a lot of fun, didn’t we, Skippy?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Skippy said.
Lola Mae looked at Skippy strangely.
“Well, dinner is about ready,” Miss Hillis said. “I hope you will all stay. We’ve got plenty of food. We have only three girls in residence at the moment but the cook is still cooking for ten.”
“Well, if you’re sure it’s no bother,” Lola Mae said.
“The new arrival is in the parlor if you would care to go in and make his acquaintance. Dinner will be served in about fifteen minutes.” She flashed another big smile and then she turned and went to another part of the house, leaving them to themselves.
Skippy led them into the parlor where the baby was sleeping in a bassinet in front of the window. Lola Mae went over and looked down at him. She didn’t say anything for a minute and then she picked him up. She held him out away from her to show him to the others and also to get a better look at him herself. He began whimpering from being disturbed.
“He’s got blue eyes,” Lola Mae said. “Who do we know with blue eyes?”
“Don’t start that, Mama!” Skippy said.
“Trying to guess who the father is because I won’t ever tell you. It’s nobody’s business but mine.”
“Well, what’s done is done,” Lola Mae said. “The only thing you can do is pick up the pieces and get on with your life the best you can.” She handed the baby to Bertha who seemed uncertain what to do with it.
“Isn’t it the ugliest little thing you ever saw in your life?” Skippy said. She was looking at herself in a mirror hanging on the wall, tugging at one stubborn lock of her hair.
“I think it’s cute,” Foo-Foo said. “Let me hold it.”
Bertha handed the baby off to Foo-Foo and Dobby stood by jealously. He had never seen a tiny baby before and he was fascinated by it as he would have been by a newborn calf or a litter of kittens.
“I want you to think of a name for it, Mama,” Skippy said to Lola Mae.
“I think you should name it,” Lola Mae said.
“I never named a baby before. I don’t think I could give it the right kind of a name. I can think of lots of dogs’ names or cats’ names, but I just can’t seem to think of a baby name.”
“How about naming him Earl?” Bertha asked.
“Give the little fellah to me,” Sylvan said. He took the baby from Foo-Foo and held it against his chest and studied its face.
“Let’s name it Monroe,” Dobby said.
“That’s a stupid name,” Foo-Foo said. “Why would anybody want to be named Monroe? I’ll think of a good name.”
“You’ll give it one of your stupid doll names,” Dobby said. “I wouldn’t want to go through life with a name you gave me.”
“Shut up,” Foo-Foo said. “I could give it just as good a name as anybody.”
“He reminds me of somebody,” Sylvan said.
“Who, honey?” Lola Mae asked.
“When I was five years old, I had a little brother two years younger than me. He was killed when he was playing under a rabbit hutch and the hutch fell and hit him in the head. This little fellah looks just the way I remember he looked. His name was Quincy.”
“You never told me that before,” Lola Mae said.
“Call him Quincy then. I don’t care,” Skippy said.
“Do you want to call him Quincy?” Lola Mae asked Sylvan.
“It seems to fit him,” Sylvan said.
“Quincy. I think that’s a good name for him,” Foo-Foo said.
“Well, Quincy it is then,” Lola Mae said. “At least for the time being.”
Sylvan laid him gently back in the bassinet and Miss Hillis called them all into dinner. They went into the dining room shyly and sat at the places at the big table where Miss Hillis told them to sit. The other two girls who were living in the home at the time were already sitting at the table. Their names were Ruby and Vernelle. Vernelle looked closely at Dobby and dismissed him as too young. She then made eyes at Sylvan through the entire meal, even though he was more than old enough to be her father, but he was a man and to Vernelle that’s all that mattered.
After dinner was finished, Skippy made tearful good-byes to Miss Hillis and to Vernelle and Ruby, and Sylvan loaded Skippy’s suitcase into the trunk of the car. Foo-Foo and Dobby and Bertha got into the back seat and Lola Mae got into the front seat next to Sylvan, with Skippy sitting next to the window. Lola Mae held the baby on her lap. Sylvan started the car and they were on their way again.
“Are you tired, honey?” Lola Mae asked Sylvan.
“No,” he said.
“Do you want me to drive?”
“Don’t start that again.”
“Don’t you hate the thought of driving all the way home tonight?”
“What other choice do I have?”
“I have a wonderful idea.”
“Yeah? What is it?”
“Remember that old hotel in town where they used to have the debutante balls way back when?”
“I remember it,” Bertha said.
“No,” Sylvan said. “That’s your wonderful idea?”
“Let’s get a room for the night and drive home tomorrow.”
“What do we use for money?” Sylvan asked.
“Oh, I’ve got some money,” Lola Mae said. “We’ll scrape by.”
“Since when?” Sylvan asked.
“Oh, boy!” Foo-Foo said. “A hotel! I’ve never spent the night in a hotel before.”
“That’s because you’re a hick,” Dobby said.
“We could have stayed at the home tonight with Miss Hillis,” Skippy said. “They’ve got about sixteen bedrooms. All you needed to do was ask. I’m sure she would have been glad to have you.”
“That woman gave me the creeps,” Lola Mae said. “I wouldn’t want to stay there if I could help it.”
“What do you think about me?” Skippy asked. “I just spent eight weeks there.”
“Where is this hotel then?” Sylvan asked.
“You can’t miss it. Just find the town square. The hotel is across the street from the courthouse.”
“How do you know all this?” Sylvan asked.
“Well, I used to live in this town about a thousand years ago, for one thing.”
Sylvan found the hotel and parked and they all got out of the car slowly. They stood on the sidewalk as though in a daze. Skippy got her suitcase out of the trunk and then they all went inside. Lola Mae carried the baby while Skippy pointedly ignored it.
The night clerk was writing in a notebook when they went into the lobby of the hotel. He stopped writing, his pen in midair, and looked at them with a frown. Sylvan went up to the desk and said they wanted a room for the night. The clerk pointed with his pen to a little sign on the counter that said Pay in Advance. Lola Mae handed the baby to Bertha and stepped forward and opened her purse and took out some wadded-up bills and paid for the room. After Lola Mae had paid, the clerk had Sylvan sign his name in the register and then he gave him the key to a room on the third floor.
“Check-out time at noon,” the clerk said, going back to writing in his notebook.
They rode up in the clanking elevator and found their room at the end of the hall next to the fire escape. When Dobby saw the fire escape, he wanted to climb down to the street on it and climb back up.
When they were all in the room, Lola Mae put the baby to bed. Foo-Foo went into the bathroom and closed the door to take a bath. Dobby was going to take a bath too when Foo-Foo was finished, but Foo-Foo took so long that Dobby fell asleep waiting. Bertha got into one of the big beds with her clothes on and covered up without saying a word and soon she was snoring. Sylvan said he wanted to take a walk down the street and buy some cigarettes and stretch his legs.
Skippy stood in the front of the dresser mirror combing her hair. When she was satisfied with the way it looked, she opened her suitcase and began taking things out and then putting them back in again. She seemed nervous and jittery. “Give me a cigarette,” she said to Lola Mae.
“Since when did you start smoking?” Lola Mae asked, handing the pack to Skippy.
“I need to talk to you about something before Daddy gets back,” Skippy said.
“What is it?” Lola Mae asked.
“Well, it’s like this,” Skippy said. “I don’t want to go back home. I have other plans.”
“What? What other plans?”
“I got acquainted with a girl at the home. She was the one that fixed my hair this way. Her name was Rita Trent. Her family owns a restaurant close to here. She told me they would give me a job as a waitress if I wanted it. If I take the job, Rita and I want to get an apartment together to share expenses.”
“You and the baby?”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“You want me to take the baby home with me and take care of it so you can go off with this Rita Trent.”
“It would just be for a little while. When I get settled, I’ll come and get him.”
“I don’t know.”
“Probably never, is what I would say.”
“I just don’t think I can do it.”
“I’m not ready to give up all the things I want to take care of a baby I never wanted.”
“You should have thought of that before you indulged yourself in sin.”
“I can’t take care of it. I hate it. I’m afraid I’ll hurt it and then I’ll go to jail. I’ve heard about people doing that. Every time I’m in the same room alone with it I see myself taking a pillow and smothering it.” She began crying. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing a daughter of mine talking about killing her own baby,” Lola Mae said. “It’s a sin to talk that way.”
“It’s easy to talk about sin when it involves somebody else, isn’t it?” Skippy said.
Sylvan came back into the just then, slamming the door and coughing loudly. He didn’t look at Lola Mae or at Skippy. He was carrying a six-pack of beer in a paper sack. He took one of the beers out of the sack and opened it and sat down and kicked off his shoes and put his feet up and took a long gulp of the beer and lit a cigarette, his sixtieth or so of the day.
“You go to sleep now,” Lola Mae said to Skippy, “and you’ll feel better after you’ve rested. We’ll talk about this when we get home. It won’t be so bad. You’ll see. You’ll get used to being a mother in no time at all.”
Skippy dried her eyes and stood up and began getting ready for bed. Foo-Foo finally came out of the bathroom and got into bed. Lola Mae went into the bathroom and closed the door and washed her face and ran a comb through her frizzled hair. When she came out of the bathroom, Skippy was asleep in the bed with Bertha, with the baby sleeping between them. Foo-Foo was asleep on the daybed in front of the window and Sylvan was asleep in the chair. Dobby was asleep on a pallet on the floor.
Lola Mae turned off all the lights and got into bed and looked at the light from the street shining through the window onto the ceiling. She listened to the strange and unfamiliar sounds of a hotel at night. A bus went by on the street below. A door slammed and then there was distant laughter and water running in the pipes. People moved about quietly in the hallway. Somewhere a phone rang. While she was listening to all these sounds, she fell asleep.
When she awoke it was just barely daylight and she didn’t know at first where she was. She threw back the covers and got out of bed slowly. As she was looking for her shoes that somehow got pushed under the bed, she realized something in the room was amiss. She went over to the bed where the baby was sleeping. It was lying on its back with its arms and legs drawn up to the middle of its body like a dead insect. She bent over and peered into its tiny face. She could hear the faint in and out of its breathing and, placing her hand on its leg, feel its living warmth. Bertha was asleep on her side with her arm up over the back of the baby’s head.
When Lola Mae turned from the bed and walked over to the window, she realized at that moment what it was that seemed wrong in the room. Skippy was gone. She looked to where she had left her suitcase, and the suitcase was gone too. There was a note on the dresser. Lola Mae knew what the note said without reading it. Feeling as if she might be sick, she went into the bathroom and splashed some water on her face. When she came out of the bathroom, she went over to Sylvan and leaned her knee against his leg until he opened his eyes and looked at her.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“She has more important things to do.”
“Did she take the kid with her?” He looked over to the bed where the baby was sleeping.
“What are we supposed to do with it?”
“What can we do with it?”
Sylvan shook his head and went to the window and looked out. Far off down the hill he saw someone walking away from the hotel. The person he saw was a woman. She was carrying a suitcase and she was headed toward the bus station. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it must be Skippy.
A huge slow-moving truck coming up the hill toward the hotel blocked his view. By the time the truck had passed, the person carrying the suitcase was no longer there. He turned from the window and slipped into his shoes and lit his first cigarette of the day.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp