The Man with Six Kids Whose Wife Ran Off and Left Him ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
They go to the shops on Saturday afternoon and usually end up in a bar somewhere Saturday night. Leona at one time had a husband but he left her so long ago she barely remembers. Val never married but lives with her mother, whom she loves and despises at the same time. She’s thirty-seven years old but still cherishes the illusion that someday a man will come along and want to marry her.
It’s a hot Saturday in July. Leona and Val sweat as they walk along the sidewalk, avoiding brushing shoulders with any of the other sweating strangers. A small child, three or four years old, squeals and gets a pounding from his mother, which makes him squeal even louder.
“Lord, they sure can make a big noise to be so little,” Leona laughs.
“Little son of a bitch!” Val says. “My mother would have ripped my head off if I had screamed that way in public.”
“They’re not taught to behave, the way we were.”
They stop off at the drug store to pick up Val’s mother’s pills and Leona lingers over the cosmetics counter, looking for a color of lipstick that she thinks will look good with her complexion. The salesgirl comes out from the back and watches them, so they leave the cave-like coolness of the store and go back out into the bright light.
A little farther down the street they find themselves standing in front of a movie theater. A double feature is playing tonight, but it doesn’t begin for two hours. They think they might come back and see both shows, but Leona says she can’t sit still that long on such a hot night and anyway she just isn’t in the mood for cinematic entertainment.
They go into a place called Glad Rags, a store where everything has been owned by somebody else. Leona is looking for a couple of “nice dresses,” as she says, to wear out on dates, and she doesn’t have much money. She goes to the racks of ladies’ dresses, extending all the way to the back of the store, and Val follows along behind her.
“Can I help you find something, honey?” a fat saleslady asks.
“Just looking today, honey,” Leona says.
Val smiles at the saleslady but she ignores her.
Leona picks a red cocktail dress off the rack with a glittery bodice and holds it up. “What do you think about this one, honey?” she asks Val.
“You probably shouldn’t wear that one to church, honey.” Val says.
She picks a blue chiffon and twirls around with it.
“That would have been perfect for you twenty-five years ago!” Val says.
A yellow one with puffy sleeves.
“That one looks like the bathroom curtains.”
A blue one, very immodest.
“Part of that one is missing.”
Finally she finds two that she liked: a sedate black for funerals and a medium-green for happier occasions.
She finds the fat saleslady again and says, “Where can I try these on, honey?”
“There’s a screen back there by the wall, honey. You can go behind there.”
Val sits in the chair for weary husbands and Leona takes the two dresses behind the screen. Val hears grunting and sighing and in a few minutes Leona emerges.
“I guess I’ve put on a little more weight than I thought,” she says. “Neither one of them fits.”
“How can you ever expect to find a man?” Val asks.
“Don’t worry about me, honey! A little face powder does the trick every time.”
“It’s the face powder that catches ‘em and the baking powder that keeps ‘em at home,” Val says.
“Come again, honey!” the saleslady calls to them as they go out the door.
“Where to now?” Val asks.
“There’s that man I told you about,” Leona says, pointing with her nose.
“The one in the green pickup truck that just pulled into the parking space.”
“What about him?”
“His wife just left him and he’s got six kids.”
“Where’d she go?”
“I don’t know. Ran out on him. And now he’s got six kids to take care of on his own.”
“If it wasn’t for all those kids, I think I’d make a play for him. He’s kind of handsome, don’t you think?”
“Maybe he can get rid of the kids and clear the way for you,” Val said.
“What’s he going to do? Take ‘em out back and strangle ‘em one by one?”
“Well, no. Not that exactly. He could put them in an orphanage.”
“It doesn’t work that way, honey,” Leona said. “Once you bring ‘em into the world, they’re yours to take care of as long as you’re still aboveground.”
“Sounds awful, doesn’t it, honey?”
“Yeah, life’s a bitch.”
“The important thing is not to have ‘em in the first place and then the person you’re married to can’t run out on you and leave you holding the bag.”
“Truer words were never spoken.”
They have a sandwich and a soda at the diner and by the time they are finished the long summer twilight has begun.
They go down the stairs that connect the lower street to the upper and there come to a place called Louie’s Hot Spot. Val has never been there but Leona says it’s a lot of fun, so they go inside and sit down at a table for two.
After a couple of drinks, Val is ready to leave but Leona is obviously enjoying herself. She sways in time to the music and looks appreciatively at the men around her; if they ignore her, she doesn’t seem to mind.
Somewhere about the third drink, Leona sticks her fingernails into Val’s wrist and says, “Guess who just came in?”
“I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” Val says.
“The man with six kids whose wife ran off and left him.”
“Well, everybody has to be someplace.”
“He just sat down at the bar. After he gets his drink, I know he’ll turn around and look to see if there’s anybody here he knows.”
“He’ll see me sitting here.”
“Do you owe him money?”
“No, silly! I’m going to make myself look available so he’ll ask me to dance.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Not unless you’re about to have a seizure.”
Within five minutes, the man with six kids whose wife ran off and left him approaches the table coolly and leans down and whispers in Leona’s ear.
“Why, I’d love to!” she says, standing up.
She gives Val a secret little smile and moves to the dance floor with him.
Val moves around to the other side of the table so she can watch. They look rather silly together, he so skinny as to hardly have any shape at all, with Leona’s belly obtruding between them. They move awkwardly in time to the music like a couple of self-conscious teens at their first dance.
“Not a pretty sight,” Val says, but not loud enough to be heard.
When the song ends, Leona glides over to the table as though she is still dancing and says to Val, “He’s asked me to go for a ride with him. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No. I don’t mind.”
“You can make it home by yourself all right?”
“I think I’ll find the way.”
“His name is Virgil Miller,” Leona says “He’s just the sweetest thing. And I think he’s kind of lonely.”
“What about the six kids?”
“They’re spending time with grandma.”
“How lucky for you!”
“Isn’t it, though?”
“If you end up murdered, we’ll know who did it. I even have his name now.”
After Leona leaves, Val finishes her drink so as not to appear rushed. If any of the men in the place take any notice of her at all, she sees no outward sign of it.
When Val gets home, her mother is wrapped up in her pink chenille bathrobe watching Have Gun, Will Travel on television. She insists that Paladin is somebody she knew during the war. Earlier in the evening she would have watched The Jackie Gleason Show and Oh! Susanna. In the morning at the breakfast table she’ll have to tell Val all about them. On Sunday she’ll be excited about The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show, not understanding why Val doesn’t want to watch with her.
“Did you get my pills?” she asks, not taking her eyes off Paladin’s face.
“Yes, mama, I got your pills,” Val says, not realizing until that moment how tired she is.
“Put them on the table where I’ll be able to see them.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“Did you have a good time tonight?”
“Yes, mama. I met a handsome millionaire.”
“As handsome as Cary Grant?”
“Oh, much better looking than that!”
“Did he ask you to marry him?”
“Well, not exactly. He asked me to go to the Riviera with him, but I told him I wouldn’t be able to get away right now.”
“He had tears in his eyes. I hated to hurt him that way, but I believe in time he’ll understand.”
“They usually do.”
On the swell of dramatic music from the TV, Val goes into her bedroom and shuts the door. She changes into her pajamas, gets into bed and turns off the light. She can still hear the drone of the TV and some traffic sounds, but more than that. When she listens closely, she knows that what she hears is the sound of life passing her by.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp