Red is Your Color ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
From where I sit at my desk I see Kurt out the window cutting the grass. He wears loose-fitting khaki shorts with a belt and a white shirt tucked into the shorts. With his old-fashioned haircut—sheered very close on the sides but longer on the top and combed straight back—he might have stepped out of another time and place, say Gunga Din or The Lives of the Bengal Lancers. I wonder, as I have many times during the summer since he came to stay with us, if he knows how beautiful he is.
In a little while I hear the mower cut off and he comes into the house quietly. Then I hear the shower running in the bathroom. I imagine the spray of warm water over the muscles of his arms and chest. I finish some work and when I go into the front room he is lying on the couch in his bathrobe with his eyes closed. The robe is open about halfway up his thigh.
He opens his eyes when I come into the room. “What do you want for dinner, Paul?” he asks.
“I don’t care,” I say. “We might go out for some sea food or chop suey if there’s nothing in the house to eat.”
“If it’s all the same to you,” he says, “I’d rather stay at home.”
“Don’t you feel well?” I ask.
“I feel fine. I just like being at home, that’s all. I’ll rustle up something for us to eat.”
“You really don’t have to cook for me. I’m used to managing on my own.”
“I know,” he says. “I don’t mind doing it.”
I’m sitting in the back yard doing nothing when he comes out and tells me dinner is on the table. I notice right away that he has changed into crisp black pants and a striped red shirt. I want to say something about how neat he always looks but I can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t sound completely stupid, and then the moment is gone.
He pours wine into my glass and cuts a huge chunk of meat in two that he has broiled and puts half of it on my plate. “I think you like it a little pink,” he says. “That’s the way I like it too.”
I take a bite of the meat and after I’ve swallowed it I see he is looking at me.
“I have some news,” he says, “to brighten your day.”
“What news is that?” I ask.
“I’ll be going away by the end of August.”
I try to keep him from seeing I don’t like his news. “Why would that brighten my day?” I ask.
“You must be getting tired of having me around.”
“No,” I say. “I’m not tired of you at all.” I want to say more, but the words become tangled in my brain before I can get them out.
“I’m sure mother will be glad to hear I’m finally getting somewhere with my life,” he says. “I was determined to be gone by my twenty-first birthday.”
“That’s in September, isn’t it?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “I hope to start a new job in the East around that time.”
“You’re welcome here any time,” I say weakly and then I avoid looking at him for the rest of the meal.
When we’re finished eating, he stands up. “I think I will go out for a little while this evening,” he says.
“You don’t mind being here all alone?”
“Of course not,” I say. “And don’t worry about the dishes. I’ll take care of them by the time you get back.”
“You’re a sport,” he says, and then he’s gone.
While I’m rinsing the dishes off at the sink and loading them into the dishwasher, I can’t help but wonder where he might be going and who he might be going to see, which, of course, is absolutely none of my business. He’s an adult, more an adult than many men two or three times his age, and I’m not his keeper. I’m only his stepfather and I don’t matter.
I watch an old World War II movie on TV and after that I take a shower and get into bed and begin reading a massive novel that I don’t like very much and am thinking about giving up on.
About 11:30 I hear Kurt’s car pull into the driveway and after that little sounds, a creak on the stairs, that tell me I’m not alone in the house. I try, once again, to keep from wondering where he’s been for five hours. I turn off the light and look at the cracks in the ceiling that look like the coastline of South America.
When I married Kurt’s mother, Eleanor, five years ago (my first marriage, her third), Kurt was in high school and living with his father about three hundred miles away. He came to visit us a few times during summer and the holidays. He was a handsome, likeable boy but, as is usually my way with children, I thought little about him and stayed as clear of him as I could.
After high school he didn’t want to go to college right away so he traveled around using some money he inherited from his grandparents. We lost track of where he was for about a year and a half. (His explanation was that he was in “retreat” abroad, about which he offered no details.) When he resurfaced, he needed a place to stay for a while so Eleanor invited him to stay with us. I didn’t like the idea but had no real choice in the matter.
From the first he proved an agreeable companion. With Eleanor away a lot on her frequent business trips, he and I were left alone in the house together. He was someone to talk to, eat meals with, laugh at the neighbors with. He even tried to teach me two-handed bridge, for which I had no aptitude at all. After a while I was glad to have him with me. I came to know him and like him in a way I never expected.
And then it became something else for me. I began to imagine him and me living together for always. I began to think less and less about Eleanor and to wish, secretly and guiltily, that she might never come back and spoil what he and I have together. I found myself thinking about him all the time, dreaming about him; concocting fantastic, implausible schemes whereby he and I might go away and live together forever. Whenever I close my eyes I see him on the high dive in his red swimming trunks, washing the car without his shirt, doing chin-ups on the limb of the pear tree in the back yard.
I’m the worst person in the world for having such thoughts, of that I have no doubt. If hell existed, I’d be assured of a special place there. I can never let Kurt—or anybody—know what I’m thinking about. Above all, I have to make sure that Eleanor never knows. It would be bad enough if it was somebody else, but the fact of its being her own son would probably finish the old girl off.
I begin trying to stop thinking about him all the time, to stop wanting him so much. I avoid being alone with him or looking directly at him. Whenever he comes into the room, I will as often as not go out of the room. I stop initiating conversation with him; I talk only when necessary. For these reasons, he believes I’m tired of him and will be glad when he goes away.
Three days later Eleanor calls and says she will be home the next day, which is Friday. I’m to pick her up at the airport at noon. To “celebrate” my last evening alone with Kurt, I ask him if he’d like to go someplace for dinner. I make a lame joke about how I’ll pay for it.
We go to an upscale, but casual, restaurant. While we’re eating, I venture to ask him if he has a girlfriend, which seems a reasonable question for a stepfather to ask his stepson.
“Never very interested,” he says.
“You just haven’t met the right girl yet,” I say. “You’ll know when you do.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess that’s it.”
After dinner we go straight home. Kurt settles himself in front of the TV to watch a baseball game. I sit beside him on the couch for a while but soon I get bored with the game, say good night, and go to my bedroom and close the door. I undress and get into bed and read until about eleven o’clock, at which time I turn off the light and go to sleep.
A sound in the hallway—or was it outside?—wakes me up. I look at the clock; it’s a few minutes after midnight. I turn over to go back to sleep when the door to my room opens, the light from the hallway spilling in. I see Kurt standing in the doorway in just his underwear, his hand on the knob.
“Anything wrong?” I ask.
“No,” he says.
He comes around to the other side of the bed and takes off his underwear; pulls back the covers and starts to get in.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“Getting into bed.”
“Did you have a bad dream?”
He laughs, settling himself in the bed beside me.
“I don’t know about two grown men in the same bed together,” I say.
“Nobody will ever know.”
“Don’t you have pajamas?”
“I do but I don’t always wear them.”
“What would your mother think?”
“I don’t care.”
I think I should get up and go to the other room like a prissy schoolmarm, but I don’t. “You know, then,” I say.
“You can do whatever you want,” he says. “Or nothing. It’s up to you.”
“I die,” I say as I reach out and touch him on the chest.
When I wake up in the morning, he’s asleep in the bed beside me. I get out of bed quietly and go downstairs. I make coffee for him and breakfast for both of us. In a little while he comes downstairs in his bathrobe, his hair tousled, and sits down at the table. We eat silently.
He insists on going with me to the airport to pick up his mother. Always thoughtful, he wants to stop on the way to buy something for her. I wait in the car and when he comes out of the store he has a bouquet of little red flowers.
“It seems red is your color,” I say.
Eleanor’s flight is on time. We stand in the crowd, waiting for her to emerge from the throng of disembarking passengers.
“When will mother go on another one of her trips?” he asks.
“Not until fall, I’m afraid.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come to my room tonight after she’s asleep,” he says. “She’ll be tired from her trip and will go to bed early.”
“All right,” I say.
We see her from fifty yards away and advance toward her. She hasn’t seen us yet. We put on our best welcoming smiles and wave to attract her attention.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp