For Sentimental Reasons ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(I posted this story before, in a slightly different version, with a different title.)
Hearing Russell’s footsteps on the stairs, Vee set a glass of orange juice on the table and cracked two eggs into the skillet. When he came into the sunny kitchen, she smiled and wished him a good morning and asked him if he’d like bacon with his eggs. Not waiting for an answer, she took four slices out of the refrigerator and laid them carefully in the skillet beside the eggs.
He helped himself to some coffee and sat down at the table. He looked across the table at Vee’s husband, Milt, but Milt didn’t look back. He was absorbed in the morning newspaper. He loved reading about crime in the city. It seemed to somehow make him happy.
“You’re such a sharp dresser!” Vee said to Russell from her place at the stove, pointing to his natty black pants and red-plaid shirt. “A lot of college students go around looking like bums all the time.”
Russell smiled modestly and downed his orange juice.
“Did you say something?” Milt asked, looking around the edge of the newspaper.
“I was just saying to Russell here how he always looks so dapper, even early in the morning.”
“Oh, Russell!” Milt said, putting down the paper. “I almost forgot about Russell! He is a quiet boy!”
“He’s hardly a boy!” Vee said, setting Russell’s plate down in front of him. “He’s a fully grown man! Just look at those arms!”
“I work out when I have the time,” Russell said.
“Whatever makes you happy,” Milt said. “Say, I was just reading in the paper where a family of six was murdered in their own beds. No sign of forced entry. Police don’t have a clue who did it. Can you beat it? What is the world coming to? And over on Polk Avenue, in those old apartment buildings near the post office, a woman stabbed her common-law husband in the neck and went off to work and left him on the floor to bleed to death.”
“Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?” Vee asked. “It’s a beautiful morning!”
“I heard yesterday about an old woman who lived alone. Somebody broke into her house and after they stole her money and jewels, they killed her. Slit her throat. She had two big dogs. They didn’t have any food for a long time so they ate her body, right down to the bones! Did you ever hear of anything so awful?”
“Russell doesn’t want to hear that gruesome talk!” Vee said. “He’s young and full of life!”
“It’s all right,” Russell said. “I don’t want you to do anything different on my account.”
“How do you like your room?” Milt asked.
“I like it fine, sir.”
“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’. This isn’t the army.”
“No, sir. I know it’s not the army.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-four in October, sir.”
“It’s probably hard for you to believe right now,” Milt said, “but I was twenty-four not so long ago.”
“Russell’s a graduate student,” Vee said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
“He’s earned his undergraduate degree. Now he’s in graduate school.”
“Oh, right! I guess you can’t have too many degrees.”
“I should be able to get my master’s degree in two more semesters,” Russell said.
“So you’ll only need the room for two semesters,” Vee said.
“As far as I know.”
“Oh, I hope you’ll stay longer than that! You’re the best boarder we’ve ever had!”
“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble renting the room to somebody else,” Russell said. “It’s a comfortable room, conveniently located, and you are an exceptional cook.”
Vee smiled with pleasure and set down her cup. “It’s sweet of you to say so,” she said. “Most people don’t usually have anything good to say.”
“We don’t want any beatnik types with their bongo drums,” Milt said.
Vee laughed. “You’re so behind the times, dear!” she said. “There aren’t any beatniks anymore!”
“You know what I mean!” Milt said. “We only want the decent-living, clean-cut types. The ones who don’t make a sound at night because they’ve got their noses buried in books all the time.”
“I think he’s saying he approves of you, Russell!” Vee said.
“We don’t need to overdo it,” Milt said.
Russell finished his breakfast and stood up. He offered to carry his plate to the sink, but Vee told him she’d take care of it.
“I won’t be here for dinner,” he said, as he left. “I’m going to be working late at the library.”
“It’s all right, darling!” Vee called. “Have a wonderful day!”
“Darling?” Milt said.
Milt left to go to work. The day was long and dull for Vee. She washed the breakfast dishes and when she was finished she lay down on her unmade bed and read an article in a magazine about a woman who was spontaneously turning into a man, and when she was finished reading she dozed for a while until a big truck passing on the street in front of the house woke her up.
She carried her broom and dustpan up the stairs and let herself into Russell’s room with her spare key. It was her duty as landlady to tidy up, empty the trash, sweep the floor, put clean towels in the bathroom and clean sheets on the bed.
Not only was Russell neat in his dress, but also in the way he lived. The covers on his bed were pulled up over the pillows. There were stacks of books and papers on the desk, but, other than that, no clutter anywhere; no dirt and no piles of dirty clothes. In the bathroom, the towels hung neatly; there were no splashes on the mirror; the bathtub gleamed, as if it had just been scrubbed.
Before going back downstairs, she lingered for a while over Russell’s belongings. She ran her fingertips over his alarm clock and his jade elephant that she admired every time she was in his room. She picked up a couple of the books and opened them, read a few words, and set them back down exactly where they had been. She opened the closet door and marveled at the perfect order: coats, jackets, shirts, pants. On the floor were four pairs of shoes aligned with precision. On the inside of the closet door was a rack of belts and ties, the ties arranged according to color.
One thing she expected to see in Russell’s room but didn’t: a picture of a lovely young woman. Of course such a handsome, intelligent, smartly turned-out young man would have a girlfriend, a real homecoming queen type, who would be waiting for him to come home and marry her when the time was right. Beauty is always rewarded with beauty, isn’t it? Isn’t that the way the world works?
In the afternoon she took a long bubble bath and washed her hair and set it. When she was finished, she dressed in fresh clothes. There was no reason for her to look slouchy all the time. She wasn’t an old woman, not yet, and she didn’t want to get old before her time. Of course, it didn’t help being married to an old stick like Milt, but she wasn’t going to let him drag her down even more than he already had.
At dinnertime she set three places at the table, even though she knew Russell wouldn’t be there. Milt didn’t notice the extra plate or that she had fixed herself up and looked better than usual. He came into the kitchen and sat down at the table at six-thirty, the time they always ate. She served up the food and they sat in silence; she stared absently out the window into the back yard or at the empty plate and unused silverware across from her. Milt didn’t talk about his day; they were all the same and had been for twenty-five years or more.
When dinner was over she washed the dishes and Milt, bone-tired as usual, retired to his spot on the couch in front of the TV. He would watch one mindless show after the other, all evening long, until it was time for the ten o’clock news and then he’d turn off the TV and get into bed, literally asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Vee went to her room at eleven o’clock and closed the door. She lay for a long time without sleeping, listening to the sounds outside: the wind in the trees, distant traffic on the highway, the faraway barking of a lonely dog.
At one o’clock, she had been dozing lightly but awoke when she heard the floor creak upstairs over her head. It meant Russell was home. She imagined him taking off his clothes and getting into bed. He’d be tired out from his long day, a day well-spent, and would go to sleep quickly.
An hour later she was still awake. She got out of bed and, without turning on a light, put on her bathrobe and stepped into her slippers. She crept slowly out of her room, careful not to make a sound, feeling her way along the wall, and up the stairs to the door of Russell’s room.
The door wasn’t locked. She turned the knob and stepped into the room. There was just enough light coming in at the window that she could see him sleeping in the bed, lying on his back. The blanket was pulled up to his waist. He wore an undershirt.
She stood for a minute beside the bed, watching him sleep. He had his right arm over his head with his left arm resting at his side. She was reaching out her hand to touch him when he opened his eyes.
He reached over and turned on the lamp beside the bed and looked at her with alarm. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is anything wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong. I…”
“There’s not a fire, is there?”
“No, there’s no fire.”
“Why are you coming into my room late at night without knocking?”
“Please don’t be mad at me! I missed you at dinner and I just wanted to make sure you made it in all right.”
“Of course I made it all right!” he said. “Why wouldn’t I? You don’t have to watch out for me.”
“I know. I wouldn’t blame you for being terribly angry, but…I just couldn’t seem to help myself.”
“You’re special to me.”
“What are you talking about? You woke me up to tell me that?”
“I can’t stop thinking about you. I like looking into your beautiful dark eyes and talking to you and being in the same room with you.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“I just like being near you.”
“Oh, I think I get it now! I’m not going to have sexual intercourse with you. Now or at any other time.”
“No, it’s not that!” she said. “That’s not what I want!”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to turn off the light. I want you to close your eyes and pretend I’m somebody else. I want to touch your face and your hair. I want to feel your arms and your chest, your legs and your feet. I want to feel you all over.”
“That’s a very odd request. Do you always do that with your boarders?”
“Oh, no! This is the first time!”
“Does Milt know about it?”
“Milt doesn’t know a thing.”
He threw back the blanket that covered his lower body and stood up from the bed. He pulled his undershirt off over his head and stepped out his pajama bottoms and turned off the light.
“All right,” he said in a whisper, lying back on the bed as though waiting for a medical examination. “Please make it quick, though. I’m cold and I feel kind of funny about this.”
“I promise you, nobody will ever know,” Vee said.
In the morning Vee was in the kitchen cooking breakfast when Milt came in, yawning, and took his place at the table.
“Did you hear anything unusual last night?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“I heard a dog barking but it didn’t keep me awake,” she said.
“With all the crime in the city, you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. You can’t be too careful these days.”
She handed him the morning paper to get him to stop talking it and he opened it and began reading a story on the front page about a triple homicide.
“One of the people killed was a niece of the mayor’s wife! Can you beat it?”
“Eat your eggs while they’re hot,” she said.
He was halfway finished with breakfast when he noticed someone was missing from the breakfast table.
“Hey, where’s what’s-his-name?”
“Our little boarder.”
“Do you mean Russell?”
“Yeah, Russell. Where is he?”
“He had an early class or something?”
“No, he left. He moved out.”
“Moved out? What are you talking about? He just said yesterday he liked it here and wanted to stay. Did something happen?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Did he skip out on the rent?”
“He was paid up until the first of the month.”
“What is wrong with these people? He’s the third boarder we’ve lost in less than a year! They’re here and everything is fine, and then the next day they’re just gone without so much as a wave goodbye! It must have something to do with all this crime!”
“I’ll place the ad in the paper again,” she said, “but I don’t think we’ll get anybody as sweet as Russell ever again. Not in a million years.”
She turned her head away and went out of the room so Milt wouldn’t see her tears. She stayed in her bedroom until he left for work and then she went into the kitchen and began gathering up the dirty dishes to wash them. She hoped that Russell might come by later in the morning so they could have a private talk, just the two of them, without Milt, and she could apologize for what happened and set things right. Oh, how she hoped!
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp