I Want People to See Us Together ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(I posted this short story previously in a different version.)
Carl Piccarelli was forty-eight years old. He thought he still looked young until he looked in the mirror and saw the gray pallor of his skin, the dark circles around his eyes and a hairline that receded more with every passing year. Young was not the word for the way he looked. Ghoulish was more like it. Better to stay away from mirrors.
It was now thirty years since high school. He lived in the same house and thought the same thoughts as he did then. He slept in the same bed, with the same mattress and box springs, and wore the same clothes and shoes. The bathroom was the same and the kitchen. The pictures on the wall in his room were the same, as were the dresser and chest of drawers. The closet door, badly in need of painting, still had the same crack. The carpet, still the same ugly green, had the same unidentifiable stains. When he chose to be honest with himself, he saw that his life was badly in need of change, of forward movement.
His father had died, his sister and his brother. He was the last male heir in a line that went back to the stone age. When he died, without issue, the line was finished. He sensed the disapproval of all the male progenitors, including the two that he knew, and it put a smile on his face. He welcomed extinction.
His mother was over eighty, still much the same as when he was a small child. The skin sagged more, the shoulders drooped, the hair silvered, but she was still as indomitable as ever. She would live to be a hundred at least. She might be the first woman in history to not die at all.
Night after night he sat and watched TV with her in the darkened living room. She liked the westerns and the love stories, the game shows and the musical variety. Anything light and wholesome, life-affirming. She didn’t like movies—they were mostly too long for her—or anything with smart-mouthed children, sexual innuendo or off-color jokes. Dancing was all right, as long as it was the wholesome kind, like the dancing cowboys in Oklahoma.
Whenever Carl suggested watching a program that interested him, something other than the usual fare, she agreed, but when he saw after a few minutes that she was bored and unhappy, he turned back to what he knew she would like. He could have gone on to bed or gone into another room and read a book, but she didn’t like watching TV by herself. What’s the use of having a family, she would say, if I have to sit here all by myself in the dark?
She had given up driving, so he had to take her wherever she wanted to go, whether it was to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones or to the beauty parlor to get her hair re-crimped and re-tinted. He usually waited in the car at the beauty parlor, no matter how long it took, no matter how hot or cold the weather. He absolutely refused to wait inside and have all the ladies looking at him, thinking what a mama’s boy he was.
His mother was at the age where a lot of her friends and distant relatives were dying. Trips to funeral homes or to various unfamiliar churches became commonplace. He sat through services honoring people he never saw or heard of before. These affairs were always accompanied by introductions and hand-shaking with people whose hands he would have preferred not to touch.
On Saturday morning, he did the grocery shopping, but his mother always accompanied him to make sure he got the most for his money. Don’t get that one, she’d say. Get this one. It’s twenty-nine cents less. If he wanted to buy a cake with white fluffy icing, she told him the sugar would make him jittery and would only add to his waistline. When you get older, she said, you gain weight easier and you can no longer eat the way you used to.
“Of course, mother,” he’d say. “I know you’re right. You’re always right.”
On Sunday, there was always church. He preferred to just drive her there and go back and pick her up an hour-and-a-half later, but she wouldn’t allow it. “I want you to go with me,” she’d say. “I don’t want to sit there by myself. Church is for families. I want people to see us together.”
So, he’d get up on Sunday morning, dress in either of his outdated suits, put on a dress shirt that was frayed at the collar and a clip-on tie that was thirty years old, and suffer through a long service that meant little to him. He tried to feel elevated or enlightened by what he heard and saw in church, but for him it just wasn’t there.
And then, when the service was concluded, he stood by and wore a tight smile as his mother greeted her old-lady friends. This is my wonderful son, she’d say. He’s the light of my life.
She thought she knew him so well, but there was, by necessity, a part of himself that he kept hidden.
It started in high school. There was a boy named Evan Alexander. He was one year older than Carl but seemed much older. He talked of improbable sexual experiences he had had with married women. Not only that, he openly experimented with drinking and drugs and didn’t seem to worry about the consequences. He was so handsome, so daring and different that Carl felt important, for the first time in his life, just having Evan as a friend.
One weekend Evan’s parents were out of town and Evan had the house to himself. He called Carl and asked if he’d like to come over. Carl couldn’t get there fast enough, telling his mother he was going to an impromptu boy-girl party. She didn’t approve, but she didn’t try to keep him from going.
Evan was drinking beer and smoking pot. Carl accepted a beer, but he was reluctant to smoke pot. Evan seemed like an expert. He showed Carl how to draw the smoke into his lungs. Carl choked and Evan laughed. Carl hated smoking pot but he pretended to like it because he didn’t want Evan to stop being his friend.
After two more beers, Carl’s inhibitions began to melt away. They went into Evan’s bedroom and closed the door. They smoked another joint and Evan took his pornography collection out of the closet and showed it to Carl. Carl had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but not to the point where he wanted to leave.
Evan asked Carl if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures. Carl had heard about boys doing things with each other, but he never expected to be offered the opportunity to do them himself. He ended up staying the whole night.
When he got home in the morning, his mother was distraught because he had been gone all night and hadn’t bothered to phone. She was just on the point of calling the hospitals, she said. He told her an improbable story about having to stay the night with a friend who was sick and afraid to be alone. She knew he was lying. She barely spoke to him for two weeks and turned her back on him whenever he came into the room.
He went to Evan’s house several more times when Evan’s parents were away. He thought about Evan all the time. When the phone rang, his heart skipped a beat. He was grateful to Evan above all things for letting him discover his own true nature. He knew now what had been bothering him through all his growing-up years. When people found out the kind of person he was, they would call him names and think ill of him, but he didn’t care. His mother, if she knew, would go to bed and die. He didn’t care about that, either.
Then graduation came and Evan was finished with high school. He landed a job in California and went away, vowing never to return. Carl didn’t want to believe that he would never see Evan again. He wrote chatty, confiding letters, even going so far as suggest that he himself come to California so the two of them could continue their friendship, but Evan wasn’t receptive to the idea.
There were others after Evan, all of them easily forgotten. None of them meant to Carl what Evan had meant. In his mid-twenties, Carl decided from that moment on that he would live the life of a celibate. He didn’t want to go through life looking for another Evan and never finding him.
All the dull years went by and Carl found himself getting perilously to fifty. He didn’t want to be fifty any more than he had wanted to be forty. He had nothing to show for all the years he had lived. He had to do something, he believed, or his life was over.
He bought himself a computer and taught himself how to use it. It would help relieve the tedium of television and of being alone all the time with his mother. She didn’t approve of his having a computer because it kept him occupied in another room away from her, but she managed to keep her complaining on the subject to a minimum. After a while, he joined, anonymously, an online club for like-minded men. His mother never went near the computer, so he felt safe in indulging in these, for him, secret activities.
He began corresponding with a man in Russia named, appropriately, Sergei. Sergei told Carl all about his life in Russia. He was thirty-six years old and had never married. His mother and father were dead. He had learned English as a child in a private school run by English nuns. He lived in a house with two older brothers and one sister. He was lonely and still hoped to find the one person on earth who was right for him. The picture he sent showed a smiling, handsome, dark-haired, young man standing in front of a falling-down house.
Carl located the one picture of himself that he thought was flattering and sent it to Sergei. As soon as Sergei saw the picture, he said, he felt an instant connection.
Carl told Sergei the truth about himself, no matter how distasteful. He didn’t want any secrets between them. All his family was dead and he had always lived alone with his mother, who would probably never die. He told him his true age and that he only had a high school education. He read books and liked foreign films but he didn’t consider himself very smart. And, yes, he also hoped to find the one person in life who would make his heart sing.
Sergei wanted to come to America and become a citizen. He was proud to know a man like Carl, he said; it made him want to make his home in America that much more. Carl wrote that if he wanted it badly enough, he would make it happen.
Carl and Sergei corresponded for several months. Carl looked forward to Sergei’s messages. If a day passed without a message from Sergei, he felt downhearted and irritable; he had to restrain himself to keep from snapping at his mother whenever she asked him pointless questions.
Then Sergei sent a message saying he had lost his job in the car manufacturing plant where he worked. His brothers told him he couldn’t go on living in the house with them unless he paid his share of the rent and paid for the food he ate. It’s a cruel world, he said. I wish I was dead.
The time was perfect for him to come to America. It was the one thing he had always wanted to do. He believed it was his destiny. There was just one thing standing in his way. He didn’t have enough money for the plane fare to cross the vast ocean; he needed about twenty-two hundred dollars. If Carl could lend him that much money, Sergei would come to him and they would be together. Of course, he would pay back the money just as soon as he could. He heard that good-paying jobs were easy to come by in America, that everything was better in America.
Carl had three thousand dollars in the bank, all the money he had in the world. If he sent twenty-two hundred to Sergei, he would have eight hundred left. It would be enough for them to go away together. They would both get jobs.
They’d go out West somewhere. They would drive day and night, eating in roadside diners and spending the night in small, out-of-the-way motels. Sergei would be seeing America for the first time. It would be the best time that either one of them ever had. He’d send his mother a postcard to let her know he was fine but was never coming back. She’d be hurt at first but would come to accept that it as the natural order of things for an almost-fifty-year-old son to leave his mother.
He went to the bank and transferred twenty-two hundred dollars to the place in Russia that Sergei had designated. He felt a thrill when the woman at the bank told him the transaction went through successfully.
He went right home right away, his heart singing, and sent Sergei a message telling him the money was on its way. Please let me know when you have it, he said, and on what day you plan to come. I will pick you up at the airport. Even though I feel we already know each other so well, I can’t wait for the moment when we finally meet in person.
At the supper table Carl’s mother complained of a pain in her back. She was afraid she had kidney stones. She was going to go to bed right after supper. Carl was uncharacteristically happy and smiled at everything she said. She didn’t notice anything different about him.
After his mother went to bed, Carl began putting things in his battered old suitcase. Just the necessary items: clean socks and underwear, two new toothbrushes and toothpaste. Of course, if Sergei needed anything, he’d be more than welcome to use what was Carl’s. Better not to take too much, though. Travel light.
The next day he didn’t hear from Sergei or the day after that. On the third day, he sent Sergei another message asking him if he received the money. By nightfall he was dismayed but not alarmed that Sergei didn’t write back.
On the fifth day he was worried that something might have happened to Sergei. Maybe he was sick or hurt and there was nobody to let him know. He tried to be patient but it wasn’t easy. He expected things to happen quickly after he sent the money. What could be causing the delay?
After one week, he awoke with the bitter realization of what had happened to his twenty-two hundred dollars. Sergei didn’t exist. The whole thing had been a ploy to steal money from him, and he fell into the trap like a know-nothing fool. There were, of course, people who made their living that way, swindling money out of unsuspecting Americans. Once they have your money you never hear from them again.
For several days, he stayed in his room with the door locked. He turned the computer off and wouldn’t turn it back on. He didn’t bathe or brush his teeth. He knew his mother was mad at him and he didn’t want to be in the same room with her; he didn’t want to hear the claptrap coming from her TV. Late at night after she had gone to bed, he crept into the kitchen without turning on any lights and got himself a sandwich or a piece of fruit. He felt like nothing—less than nothing. He felt like a ghost.
He began vomiting blood. He was dying, he knew, and he didn’t much care. He was amused by the thought of his mother having a yard sale after he was dead to sell his clothes, books and all his possessions. Nobody would want anything that had ever belonged to him. He didn’t want it himself. It was all worthless junk.
He had a disturbing dream in which he shared the same casket with the rotting corpse of his father, dead fifteen years. He screamed and clawed at the sides and ceiling of the casket for somebody to come and let him out, but he knew it was no use. Nobody would hear him and if they did they wouldn’t care.
After he made up his mind to kill himself, he began to feel better. He got out of bed, took a shower and put on clean clothes. He left the house at seven in the morning, before his mother was even out of bed. Realizing he was hungry for the first time in days, he stopped at a pancake house and ate a huge, calorie-laden breakfast.
He drove all over town, to the places he knew as a child. The school where he had attended grade school was still there and didn’t look much different; the same swings, sliding board and merry-go-round, the same blacktop and chain-link fence. He drove to the house his family had lived in up until his fifteenth year, when they were all still alive, and stopped and parked on the street and just looked at the house until an old woman walking a dog began giving him the evil eye.
He spent some time in the park, sitting on a quiet bench in the sun. He regretted all over the loss of his money and how guilelessly he had parted with it. There had always been people like him in the world on which others—Sergei, if such a person even existed—had profited. But the good thing was that he had learned his lesson. He would never be a victim again. Of anyone.
In the attic was a network of cross beams and also old ropes hanging down, left over from the previous owners. It would be so easy for him to put one of the ropes around his neck and jump off a chair into the oblivion that he desired. His mother would be the one to find him, of course, but it would take her a while because she never had any reason to go to the attic. The smell of his rotting body would probably be the thing that would give him away.
There were many ways that a person might commit suicide. Jumping from a tall building? No, too gruesome and too public. Gunshot to the head? No, too bloody, and what if you don’t die right away? Pills? How many and what kind? Getting into a bathtub full of water and slashing the wrists? Well, that’s a possibility but it would hurt terribly. He wanted something clean, painless and aesthetic.
He had read in the newspaper about the son of a successful novelist who bought a length of rubber hose from a hardware store and drove far out into the country away from his home and connected the rubber hose from the exhaust pipe into the car’s interior through an almost-closed window. Breathing in the car’s exhaust through the rubber hose killed the novelist’s son, and it must have been quick, too.
On his way home, Carl stopped and bought a thirty-foot length of rubber hose. When he went to pay for it, the old man running the store asked him what he intended to use it for, but he said he was buying it for somebody else and didn’t know its intended use.
With the rubber hose in the trunk of his car where his mother would never see it, ready to be used whenever he wanted it, he felt calm and almost happy. He wasn’t just going to let the years roll over him anymore and not fight back. He had a plan and he was going to put that plan into action. He had even thought of where he would go to do it, a forgotten place far out of town on a country road, on a river, where they used to go on picnics when he was little. People went there long ago, but nobody went there now.
Now that he had decided on the place, he had only to decide on the day and time.
When he got home after being gone all day, the house was quiet and dark. His mother was in her room with the door closed. When he went into his own bedroom, he noticed right away that something was different. The computer was turned on; he hadn’t had it on for about ten days. The chair of his desk was pulled out and his papers were rifled.
He was putting things back in order when his mother appeared in the doorway. Her hair was disheveled and her pale face tear-stained.
“I want you out of this house,” she said.
“I said I want you to get out of my house.”
“Is something wrong?”
“I know what you are and I know what you’ve been doing behind my back.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re not the only one who can use a computer, you know.”
“You’ve been spying on me?”
“You’re a filthy abomination.”
“You had no right to spy on me.”
“I have every right to know what’s going on in my house.”
“I believe it’s my house, too,” he said.
“I’m glad your father is dead. It would have broken his heart to know what his son had become.”
“I’m not going to fight with you, mother.”
She went toward him with her fists doubled up. She was going to strike him in the face but instead broke down in wailing sobs. “How could you do such a thing to your mother?”
“Whatever I did, mother, it was none of your business, and it had nothing to do with you.”
“I want you out of this house. Tonight!”
“I’m not going anywhere, mother!” he shouted as she turned and went back to her bedroom and slammed the door.
His hands were shaking and his mouth dry. He hated ugly scenes. He was reminded of the terrible fights she used to have with his mild-mannered father. He always believed that his father went to his grave before his time because of her.
Not knowing what else to do, wanting to get his thoughts in order and wanting to be out of the house, he drove to a seedy bar on the other side of the park, sat at the bar and drank three beers in quick succession. The noise in the bar, the smoke and the music were somehow comforting to him.
He went back home at nine o’clock, expecting that she might have the door barred to him in some way, but he let himself in with his key and saw to his relief that nothing had changed. No lights were on. She was still in her room with the door closed.
He locked himself in his room and went to bed as if nothing had happened. He slept soundly and awoke to the sunlight streaming in and the birds singing. He put his bathrobe on over his pajamas and went into the kitchen and cooked bacon, eggs and French toast, enough for two.
By nine o’clock, his mother still wasn’t up. He didn’t hear her moving around in her room; he didn’t hear the toilet flush. He went to the door of her room and knocked gently.
“Mother, I’ve cooked breakfast!” he said.
Finding the door unlocked, he opened it and went in. The room was dark and smelled faintly of something foul. She was lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.
At first he thought she was dead but when he saw her still breathing, he laid her out flat, put a pillow under her head and covered her with her favorite yellow blanket. He went into the kitchen and called an ambulance.
He followed the ambulance to the hospital in his car and sat in a room of chairs until the middle of the afternoon before a doctor came out to tell him what was wrong.
“She’s had a massive stroke,” the doctor said. “It’s bad.”
“Will she recover?” Carl asked.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think she’ll last more than a few days.”
She died three days later. The funeral was well-attended by all the sobbing old ladies, bosom friends of his mother, that Carl had met, either at church or at the funerals of others. They all expressed their tearful condolences; a couple of them kissed him on the cheek. Some of them had spinster daughters or granddaughters they wanted him to meet.
The money from the sale of the house and all its furnishings, combined with Carl’s mother’s estate, brought him enough money to live comfortably without having to work for a paycheck ever again. He donated his clothes, shoes, coats, hats, suits, socks, underwear—even his pajamas—to charity and bought everything new. Out with the old. In with the new.
He bought an extravagant red car with a powerful engine his mother would have hated. He bought an expensive set of suitcases and filled them with books, childhood mementoes, pictures and other things from the house he wanted to keep.
He loaded the suitcases into the back of his car, all of his past life fit snugly between the front and back seats. As he drove away, he took one last look at the house he had lived in all his life. He could see his mother standing on the front lawn clutching her chest, looking at him with everlasting disapproval.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp