And Now a Word from Our Sponsor ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Gloria Dawkins has been a widow for fifteen years. She is all alone in the world and loves her TV. She knows all the shows and loves them all. They make her laugh and sometimes they make her cry. They lift her up and take her out of herself. They make her think of something other than her aloneness. TV is her never-failing companion. People may die or go off and leave you, but TV is forever. Just get up and go out of the room or go to the store and buy something or go into the hospital and have an operation and when you come back TV is still there for you.
A certain TV station never goes off the air. It broadcasts all night long to accommodate its constant viewers, like Mrs. Dawkins, and its night shifters who get off work at one or two in the morning. Old movies usually run through the night.
It’s two in the morning. Mrs. Dawkins is lying on the couch, watching a movie with her favorite movie star of all time, Miss Joan Crawford. Joan’s perfect face is marred by a terrible scar that draws her eye down and makes her look like a ghoul. She’s had the scar since childhood and it turns her into a criminal and a blackmailer. She’s currently blackmailing an adulterous woman, whose husband is a doctor. While Joan is tormenting the woman she’s blackmailing, she meets the woman’s husband and it’s Melvyn Douglas. Since he is a doctor, he immediately takes a professional interest in the scar on Joan’s face. He has worked on cases like it, he says, and he believes he might be able to help.
The movie is interrupted by a stream of commercials for cat food, cars, soap, bug killer, shampoo, toothpaste, hemorrhoid suppositories, nasal spray, breakfast cereal, wrinkle cream, lawn mowers, fruit drink, hair dye for men, eye bag remover, exercise equipment, coffee makers, popcorn and lift chairs. Mrs. Dawkins’s attention wavers during the interval and she falls into a very deep sleep.
She had thought often about how she would die, but she never believed it would be so easy. Without pain and without consciousness of what is happening, she goes from sleep to death in the wink of an eye. Without a twinge of pain, her heart simply stops beating and her breathing ceases. It’s a death that anybody might envy.
Well, the TV plays on, of course. There’s nothing to stop it.
The weeks go by and the months and we see just how alone Mrs. Dawkins is. No visitors drop by to check on her, no relatives or neighbors. Nobody ever gives her a thought or cares if she lives or dies. It’s just her and her TV, which plays on, through the change of the seasons. Summer ends and fall turns to winter, and then spring comes around again. It’s been a year now, and still the TV plays on.
One year and then two, and still the TV plays on ceaselessly. The shows come and go: the game shows, the movies, the news bulletins, the sporting events, the cartoons, the police dramas, the soap operas, the situation comedies, the beauty pageants and award shows.
For many long months Mrs. Dawkins is a horrible mess lying there dead, but after a while the mice, ants, bugs (and the occasional crow that somehow gets into the house) consume all her flesh and she’s just a skeleton lying there in her pajamas and bathrobe. Not horrible at all, just a skeleton lying there in her clothes with an afghan she made herself covering her legs. If you had a camera you would want to take a picture of her. A ghoulish picture but really not without a touch of sweetness.
Three years pass and still the TV plays on. Nobody knows that Mrs. Dawkins is lying there dead. Nobody ever thinks of Mrs. Dawkins. Nobody knows she exists. The people who knew her have all died or gone away.
Huey Belasco is a bum. Not a hobo or a homeless man but a bum. He steals what he can, drinks what he can, injects into his body whatever he can. Some other bums are after him for stealing their money. It wasn’t that much—only about six dollars or so—but they will kill him if they get the chance. They’re after him and they’re getting closer. He picks Mrs. Dawkins’s little house among all the other houses in her falling-down neighborhood and breaks in.
It’s easy to force the lock on the back door. He’s met with a terrible smell that he can’t identify: a closed-up smell, like a tomb, but also it’s something else, like socks that have been worn a long time without being washed.
He finds himself in a small kitchen, dark but with just light enough to see where he’s going. Wait a minute! He hears something! A low murmur. It’s a TV turned low. Somebody is home after all. He starts to leave again, but he knows he’d rather deal with what’s inside the house than what’s outside.
He goes from the kitchen into the next room, which is a small dining area. Just beyond that is the living room where the TV is. The glow from the TV lets him see the rest of the room. There are a couple of chairs, some pictures on the wall, a table with a lamp, and a couch.
Slowly walking around the couch, he doesn’t make a sound. When he sees Mrs. Dawkins—or what’s left of her—from the glow of the TV screen, he lets out a little yelp and jumps back. He thinks for a moment he is going to be sick. After he recovers himself, he takes a closer look at Mrs. Dawkins and right away he knows she has been dead for a long time. There isn’t even much of a smell because all her flesh is gone. That tells him that nobody—nobody living, that is—has been in the house for months or maybe years and he will be safe there for the time being.
He is so exhausted from running and feels so bad from his lung and stomach troubles that he lays down on the floor right there in the living room and goes to sleep.
When he awakes, it’s daylight again. He looks at Mrs. Dawkins, as if expecting to see that she has moved, but of course she is the same. He goes into the kitchen and looks to see if there is anything to eat. In the freezer are some rectangular packages of vegetables, covered with ice. Even to a starving man, they aren’t very appetizing.
He opens the doors of the cabinets and finds some cans of stuff, spaghetti and fruit and soup. Finding a can opener in the drawer by the sink, he opens a can of chicken noodle soup, a thing he always liked when he was a child, and, taking a spoon from the same drawer where the can opener was, begins eating right out of the can.
Then a thought occurs to him. There’s a stove. There must be some pans somewhere. He finds a pan, empties the can of soup into the pan, sets it on the burner and when he turns the knob the burner comes to life with a blue flame. He heats the soup and when it is warm enough he sits down at the little table and eats it out of the pan as if he is in his own home.
After he finishes eating, he goes into the bathroom and looks into the medicine cabinet above the sink. There are several bottles of pills, none that he knows the use of except sleeping pills. Sleeping pills he can use. For later.
He hasn’t had a bath in so long he can’t remember the last time. He takes off his stinking clothes and fills the tub with water and steps in. With a bar of soap he lathers his body all over. Then he soaks for an hour or so in the warm water and when he gets out he dries himself with a towel that’s hanging above the tub and goes into the bedroom. Now that he’s clean, he doesn’t want to put his filthy old clothes back on. He needs something to wear.
He rifles through the closet and finds only women’s clothes. Well, that’s all right; he’s worn them before. He selects a dress of soft brown material and steps into it and puts his arms through the arm holes and fastens the dress in the back while looking at himself in the dresser mirror. A perfect fit. He doesn’t look too silly, he thinks. Only moderately silly. Nobody will ever see him and even if they do he’s past caring.
He sits for hours in the comfortable chair opposite the couch where Mrs. Dawkins reclines and he feels at home for the first time in years. The TV is still on, of course, but he doesn’t pay much attention. The sound of it is comforting in a way. He would never think of turning it off or changing the channel. It’s the way she wanted it and it’s the way it will stay for as long as there’s a God in heaven.
Looking at Mrs. Dawkins, he begins to wonder what she was like when she was alive. Did she have a husband? Children? What did she like to do besides watch TV? Wearing her clothes, eating her food and enjoying the hospitality of her house as he is, he begins to feels a connection to her. The more time he spends in her company, the more he begins to think of her as mother and protector.
He never though much of his own mother, or she of him. She was a drug addict. She used to hit him in the head with her fists, throw lighted matches at him, and lock him in the closet and then forget he was there. She died of a drug overdose when he was fifteen. He lived with an uncle, his mother’s brother, for two years after his mother’s death, but he ran away when he was wanted in connection with a gas station holdup and has been on the run ever since.
Now, at age twenty-seven, he knows his time on this earth is drawing to a close. He is sick most of the time. Sometimes he can’t breathe. He coughs up blood and has blackout spells. He has tuberculosis, he knows. He’s been on the streets for the better part of ten years, a life he abhors and would never wish on anybody. He envies Mrs. Dawkins in a way. She has left this awful world behind and has journeyed to a place where nothing bad can ever happen to her again.
He spends five days in Mrs. Dawkins’ company, without ever knowing her name. He eats her food and sleeps on her bed and studies her skeleton face by the hour. He sees the lights of police cars outside the house and he knows they have come for him. No—wait a minute!—that’s something that’s happening on the TV. He hears footsteps and voices just outside around the house and his heart pounds because it’s real and not on the TV, and he’s sick all over again and then he’s so weak he can’t stand and he cries for it all to be over.
It’s two o’clock in the morning, exactly five days since he came into Mrs. Dawkins’ company. He’s thankful for many things, but mostly he’s thankful to have come to a place where he can lay his head down for the last time. A place that’s not an alley or a filthy city sidewalk or a derelict building or even a hospital. He feels at peace with himself and with the world and he knows he may never find a better time than this to take his leave.
He pours the sleeping pills from the bathroom into his palm and counts them. There are eighteen. He’s weak and sick already, so he believes eighteen will be enough. He washes them down with a part bottle of sherry he found in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Right away he begins to feel an overpowering drowsiness.
He lays down beside Mrs. Dawkins on the couch; there’s enough room for both of them; neither of them are very large or take up much space. He puts his right arm over her abdomen and his nose close to where her left ear would be if she still had an ear. He feels a sublime peace unlike any he has ever known before. They will meet in the by and by, he knows, and he will have the chance to tell her all that happened.
The TV plays on, of course. There’s nothing to stop it.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp