I’m Leaving and I Don’t Know When I’ll be Back ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
For the indigent of the city, the vast cemetery was a natural place of refuge. With its hills, valleys, trees, mausoleums and grave markers of every size and description, it offered many quiet places to hide. No matter how many times the trespassers were forced out, they always came back, like fleas on a dog.
Vicki-Vicki left home in May and came to the city. One more fight with her drunken mother would have been a killing affair. They were natural enemies. They openly admitted hating each other. Get away from me before I kill you or you kill me.
With a high school diploma and a willingness to succeed, Vicki-Vicki thought she’d find a job easily enough. She always wanted to leave her home town and go to the city. She pictured having her own little upstairs apartment within the sound of church bells. She’d work hard and make good, hardly ever missing work. She’d love being alone, taking long baths and fixing her own breakfast in her sunny kitchen. Sometimes she’d have a guest over for the evening for a candlelit meal.
There were no jobs, though. She heard the same thing every place she went: We don’t want anybody right now. We only hire girls with experience. You have to know how to type. You have to know how to keep the books. For every job, we’ve got ten applicants.
She turned easily to thievery—shoplifting, snatching purses and coats in public places—and then finally to prostitution. At first she was appalled at the prospect of having sexual relations with men for money, but after fifteen or twenty times she felt nothing, putting herself in a kind of a trance, accepting the money and buying herself a meal or a room for the night and never giving another thought to where the money came from.
She went along in this way through the summer months, but now the summer was waning. While the days were still warm, the nights held a hint of what was to come. Go back home, the voices inside her head told her. You don’t want to be out here when winter comes.
It was October and the sun was warm. She washed her face and hands and as much of the rest of herself as she could at the fountain of the stone angel. She dipped her arms to the elbow, brought her hands to her cheeks and trailed them down to her neck and chest. Some people, she had noticed, never bothered to wash themselves, but she wasn’t one of those. She liked the feel of the clean water against her skin. She wished she had some soap. It had been a long time since she had a real bath. She had a vision of a bathtub full of hot water behind a locked door and she could have wept for longing of those things.
She heard a sound like a sigh and looked up. The immovable eyes of the stone angle eight feet above her head had become movable and were looking at her with disapproval. You shouldn’t be here, the angel was saying. This is a terrible life you’ve chosen for yourself.
The sun, which just a few moments ago was shining brightly, became obscured behind gray clouds. The warm air took on a chill, reminding her of how bad she felt. She had a sore throat that just wouldn’t go away and a knot in her stomach that could only be from not eating. More than anything, she wanted to sleep the night in a warm, clean bed behind a locked door where she could feel safe and be alone.
There was one person who could help her. His name was Diego, or at least that’s what people called him. She was with him two times and he had been supposed to pay for the first time and then for the second time. If he paid her for both times, it would be enough to get something to eat and a room for the night.
Where to find Diego was the question. She knew he had a job and could pay her if he would. That was the trouble with letting people pay you later. They rarely did. It’s always a good policy to get the money first.
She had to find somebody who knew where Diego might be. That could be just about anybody. Everybody knew who he was. He was good-looking and not like anybody else. Nobody knew much about him. He had slicked-back hair and wore an army jacket and army boots. She liked him at first but then less and less the better she got to know him. He only used her and then tossed her aside when he was finished. She thought he’d take her to get a room, but he only took her to an alleyway. Five minutes and it was all over. She wanted something to feel good about and with Diego there was nothing.
She didn’t know what time it was but she thought it must be around six o’clock, the time that people who lived normal lives would be having dinner. She needed to think about where she would spend the night in case she didn’t find Diego and get her money. The idea was to find a snug little place away from the wind that hadn’t already been claimed by somebody else.
She went to the oldest part of the cemetery, the part she liked best. The gravestones were close together, some of them very large, and they made her feel safe. If nothing else offered itself, she could pile up some leaves in the space between stones and burrow under the leaves like a woodland animal and she should be able to sleep the whole night through. Unless it rained, of course.
She saw a figure rise up out of the shadowy space between two close-together trees and she nearly screamed. When she realized it was a woman relieving herself, she wanted to look away but the woman called to her.
“Hey, girlie,” the woman said. “I know you!”
It was the one known as Vera the Mouse. She was a terrible drunk and she was one of those who never washed.
“What are you doing here?” Vera the Mouse asked, pulling up her pants and emerging from between the trees.
“Same as you,” Vicki-Vicki said, managing a tight smile.
“Looking for a place to flop for the night?”
“Better not think about staying here!”
“They’ve hired some extra guards to go through tonight with clubs.”
“Who told you that?”
“Word’s been circulatin’. They’ll either knock your brains out for the rats to eat or they’ll haul your ass off to jail. Personally I’d rather they’d kill me on the spot. One good splat! Just make it quick!”
“Have you seen Diego?”
“Don’t know no Diego,” Vera the Mouse said.
“I thought everybody knew him.”
“Is he the one with the scar on his face?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“I ain’t seen him today. What do you want him for?”
“He owes me money.”
“Did you have in mind to get yourself a room for the night?”
“That’s the idea.”
“Two can stay for the price of one. Would you consider letting me tag along?”
The thought of sleeping in the same room with Vera the Mouse almost made her gag. “I don’t think so, Vera. Not this time.”
“Oh, I get you! If it was me, I’d let you tag along.”
“I can’t do anything until I find Diego and get my money.”
“I wouldn’t count on it if I was you.”
“If you see him, will you tell him I’m looking for him?”
“I suppose I can do that, although I might not like it.”
“And if you’re still around, you can go along with me. I’m not sleeping in the bed with you, though.”
“Think I’m a lez?”
“I get the bed and you get the floor.”
“I can live with that arrangement,” Vera the Mouse said, and when she went away she had a smile on her face.
Vicki-Vicki had a sudden sick spell and thought she was going to faint. She sat down on a low concrete wall and just as she was recovering her equilibrium, she heard someone coming toward her through the leaves. She ducked behind the wall and when she peeked over the top of it she saw the young man she knew as Julian. He was tall and thin and wasn’t bad-looking but his hands and face were crusted with dirt and one of his eyes was half-closed all the time.
“Julian!” she whispered, loud enough that anybody might hear.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
When he saw it was Vicki-Vicki he smiled and waved, as if they were old friends.
“I thought you might not remember me,” she said. “Where you off to?”
“Trying to find people to warn them about the raid tonight.”
“Yeah, I heard,” she said. “You haven’t seen Diego anywhere, have you?”
“No, I ain’t seen him today but If I do I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”
“He owes me money.”
“Oh. You’d better get out of the cemetery before dark if you know what’s good for you. If I was you, I’d go to the city. Gonna be cold tonight.”
“Yeah, I’m cold already.”
“I’ve got some money,” Julian said. “Four dollars. You open for business?”
“Some other time, Julian. I don’t feel so good now.”
“If you was to find Diego, you’d probably need to look in the city. I think that’s where everybody is tonight.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. I don’t really feel like walking all that way, though.”
“You can have my four dollars and catch yourself a bus.”
“No, you keep your money, Julian, but thanks anyway.”
Before he left he gave her small pack of restaurant crackers. They were stale and tasteless but she ate them gratefully.
It was fully dark now and the wind was blowing steadily. The raid wouldn’t be for several hours, maybe not until midnight. She was safe until then. She lay down in the narrow space between rows of identical gravestones and covered herself with leaves. Though completely covered, she could still breathe. The leaves smelled good after all the bad smells she had smelled. She shivered for a while but soon began to feel warm, slipping as easily into sleep as a warm bath.
When she awoke it was to the sound of men’s voices. She didn’t know how long she had slept, but it must have been a long while. The voices were far away but coming closer. They were talking and laughing as if they were having a good time.
As long as she lay very still, they wouldn’t know she was there. They wouldn’t bother to look in all the spaces between the gravestones. They would just make a quick sweep and, finding no one, move on. She would laugh later at how they had missed her.
The voices had moved farther away, but she heard footsteps near her head. One of the men had detached himself from the others and was searching through the leaves between the gravestones. She felt a hand scrape away the leaves over her face and felt a rush of cold air.
“Come out of there!” a loud voice said, causing her to quake.
“Diego?” she said, sitting up.
“You can’t be here!”
“I said get up! You’re trespassing! You’re disturbing the dead by being here!”
“I don’t hear them complaining.”
She stood up all the way. The man towered over her. The sound of his voice affected her physically. She looked to see if he had a club, but if he did she didn’t see it.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“I was looking for someone.”
“By hiding in the leaves?”
“No, I was feeling a little sick so I stopped to rest a while.”
“Get out! This is no place for you! Go home!”
“I’m leaving,” she said, “and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“Go to one of the shelters in town. There are people there who can help you.”
He handed her a small paper sack, which she took without knowing what was in it.
“If I see you here again,” he said, “I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.”
He took off the jacket he was wearing and dropped it on the ground beside her. Before she realized what had happened, he was gone.
“Take me with you!” she called out to him but he couldn’t have heard her.
In the bag were a ham sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a little bottle of milk. She ate the sandwich in just a few bites—it had an exotic flavor like something she had never tasted before—and drank the milk without stopping.
After drinking the milk, she vomited and gagged but most of the milk stayed down and after she wiped her mouth she felt better. She put on the jacket and, although she felt lost in it, it was wonderful, retaining the warmth and smell of the man’s body. She pulled the collar up around her mouth and nose and could have fainted with the ecstasy she felt.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp