Shall We Have a Cigarette on It?
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
“This is a lovely old house,” Jerry said, sipping his martini. “How many rooms does it have?”
“I never bothered to count them,” Charlotte said. “There are so many.”
“It isn’t any of your business how many rooms my house has,” Charlotte’s mother said. “That’s an impertinent question.”
“Mother, I thought we agreed that you were going to try to be civil this evening,” Charlotte said.
“I made no such agreement.”
“I apologize, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said with his humble smile. “I had no business asking such a question. It’s just that I admire these old houses so much.”
“Yes, and I’ll bet you’d like to see it knocked down and a parking garage or an office building put in its place!”
“That would be a great pity, ma’am.”
“Or maybe you can see yourself living in it. A life of ease and idleness.”
“Not at all, ma’am.”
Charlotte could see that her mother was determined to make Jerry feel uncomfortable. He would handle it with his customary grace, though, of that she was certain.
“Charlotte tells me she met you on a cruise to South America.”
“That’s right,” Jerry said.
“I don’t approve of cruises on which idle young women with too much money and too much time on their hands indulge themselves.”
“Not everybody on the cruise was rich, mother,” Charlotte said, “and they weren’t all young. I was talking to one middle-aged woman who told me that she and her husband saved for five years to be able to afford it.”
“What were you talking to her for?”
“Well, you know. Too much time on our hands.”
“I’ll bet there was lots of drinking and other activities on board that ship that decent people would rather not know about.”
“No doubt,” Jerry said.
“I suppose Charlotte told you all about herself.”
“As much as I needed to know.”
“Did she tell you that she had a nervous breakdown and, in so doing, was a patient in a sanatorium for almost a year?”
“It was only at the urging or her psychiatrist that I allowed her to go on the cruise at all without a chaperone. He said it was vital for her mental well-being. I never heard such hogwash but I allowed her to go nonetheless.”
“It was very kind of you.”
“I don’t believe in psychiatrists. Most people with mental problems have nothing to do but gain control of themselves and their emotions. When I was young, we weren’t allowed the luxury of nervous breakdowns and special doctors to treat them. We all bucked up and did whatever had to be done!”
“I don’t think Jerry wants to hear all that, mother,” Charlotte said. “We’ve already said all that needs to be said on the subject.”
“I’ll say whatever I want to say and ask whatever questions I want to ask in my own home!”
“No less than you deserve, ma’am,” Jerry said.
“And, under the guidance of her ‘progressive’ psychiatrist, Charlotte changed completely. She became a daughter I no longer recognized.”
“Don’t you think it was change for the better, ma’am?” Jerry asked.
“I do not! When a mother no longer recognizes her daughter, how can that be change for the better?”
“You decide for yourself, Jerry,” Charlotte said. “You saw the picture of what I looked like before.”
“She was fat!” Mrs. Vale said. “Comfortably fat! After her so-called illness, she lost thirty pounds. She changed her hair and eyebrows and began buying expensive clothes which, of course, she expected me to pay for!”
“You seem to forget that I have money of my own,” Charlotte said.
“Everything you have still belongs to me! Don’t you ever forget that! With one stroke of my pen, I could strip you of everything!”
“Yes, but you won’t, though, will you?”
As if on cue, Theda, the maid, appeared in the doorway. “Dinner is ready to be served!” she said, loudly.
“You don’t have to shout, Theda!” Mrs. Vale said. “You’re not announcing train departures.”
“Since there are just the three of us tonight,” Charlotte said, “we’re having dinner in the small dining room.”
“You have more than one dining room?” Jerry asked.
When they were seated at the table that seated fifteen (the small dining room), Theda began serving the dinner, first the soup and then the fish.
“The finest food I ever ate!” Jerry said.
“Don’t think there’s any reason for you to get used to it!” Mrs. Vale said.
“Mother, stop picking on my guest,” Charlotte said. “You needn’t attack him every time he opens his mouth.”
“It’s all right, Charlotte,” Jerry said. “She’s just exercising a mother’s prerogative.”
“I don’t think it’s anyone’s prerogative to be rude.”
“I’m not rude!” Mrs. Vale said. “I’m only being forthright!”
“And an admirable quality it is, too!” Jerry said.
Mrs. Vale gave a tiny smile. Charlotte believed that she was beginning to warm toward him, if ever so slightly.
“And what about you?” Mrs. Vale asked. “Have you had any nervous breakdowns?”
“Not yet,” Jerry said.
“But you will have at some time in the future?”
“He was making a joke, mother,” Charlotte said.
“Well, I want to know something about the men my daughter invites into my home for dinner.”
“What do you want to know about me, Mrs. Vale? You may ask me anything.”
“Are you going to marry Charlotte?”
“I’m already married, you see.”
“So, you’re not just after her for her money?”
He laughed and wiped his mouth. “No,” he said.
“Tell me about this wife of yours. If you’re running around with other women, why doesn’t she give you a divorce?”
“Her religious scruples prevent it. And, anyway, we’ve been separated for a long time.”
“So, you’re married to a woman you’re not living with? Not sharing the same bed?”
“Mother, really!” Charlotte said.
“I haven’t laid eyes on her in two years.”
“Have you and Charlotte been intimate?”
“Jerry, you don’t have to answer that question!” Charlotte said. “Mother, that’s not an appropriate line of questioning. I’m not fifteen years old!”
“You sometimes act as if you were!”
“I think what you want to know is if Jerry and I are serious about each other and how we plan to proceed if we are. Isn’t that it?”
“All right, then, you tell me!”
“Jerry and I are very much in love. We won’t be able to marry for some time, but that’s all right with me. We plan on going abroad and living together.”
“Not on my money you won’t!
“Really, mother, are you going to start in on money again?”
“I won’t have my daughter living in sin with a man she’s not married to!”
“I am of age and I may do whatever I wish.”
“I don’t think you have any real desire to be reduced to a pauper at any age.”
“No need to worry, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said. “I have plenty of money for the two of us to live comfortably.”
“I won’t allow my daughter to blacken her name and the memory of her father by cavorting with a married man.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said, “that seems a hopelessly old-fashioned view to take.”
“Who are you to judge me? You don’t know Charlotte the way I do. You don’t know the family history that’s behind her.”
“Maybe it’s time to forget all that and begin anew.”
“Never! Not as long as I’m still living. I’ll call my lawyer tomorrow morning and have my will changed!”
“You go right ahead, mother,” Charlotte said. “I’ve had enough of your bullyragging and intimidation.”
“So, are you saying you don’t care about my twenty million dollars?”
“You can do whatever you want with it. We can meet with your lawyer and make a few suggestions.”
“So, it doesn’t frighten you anymore when I threaten to disinherit you?”
“Not in the least.”
“Because I’m in love.”
“Love! What could you possibly know about love?”
“Mother, if you don’t stop saying such mean things, I’m going to stick a knife through your heart.”
“You haven’t got the guts!”
Theda brought in three cups of coffee, along with dessert, and withdrew again to the kitchen.
“No dessert for me,” Charlotte said. “I’m watching my figure.”
“What happened to the little girl who used to eat a whole pie at one sitting?” Mrs. Vale asked.
“She’s all grown up, mother. She’s somebody else now.”
“I’ll eat yours if you don’t want it,” Jerry said. “I love banana cream pie.”
“Watch out you don’t get fat,” Charlotte said.
“I’ve got a ways to go,” he said.
Mrs. Vale drank her coffee and called Theda in from the kitchen to give her another cup. When she was halfway through the second cup, her eyes closed, she gave a little shudder and fell forward. Her head banged loudly on the table and she fell onto the floor in a heap. Charlotte and Jerry sat quite still, Charlotte sipping her coffee and Jerry eating the pie.
After a couple of minutes, Theda opened the door to the kitchen a few inches and peeked around the edge of it. “Can I come in?” she asked.
“Yes, please do, Theda,” Charlotte said.
“Did it work?”
“I think so,” Charlotte said. “I don’t see her breathing.”
“One of us should check to make sure,” Jerry said.
Theda put the tips of her fingers to Mrs. Vale’s neck. “I don’t feel no pulse,” she said.
After Jerry and Theda had pulled Mrs. Vale away from the table and laid her on her back on the floor, Theda put her ear to the old woman’s chest. “I don’t hear no heartbeat, neither,” she said. “You’d better listen for yourself, Miss Charlotte.”
Charlotte took off her earring and leaned over until her ear was touching the sunken chest. “She’s quite dead!” she said with a smile.
“Ah!” Jerry said. “Success!”
“Glory be!” Theda said. “It sure enough worked!”
“She really was a vile old woman,” Jerry said. “You didn’t exaggerate to the slightest degree, did you? But wherever did you find such an effective poison?”
“We Boston spinsters have our secrets too, you know,” Charlotte said.
“I won’t shed no tears over her!” Theda said. “She sure was mean to me! There’s never been a day since I worked here that I didn’t want to kill her myself!”
“And, Theda, you must never breathe a word of this to anybody!” Charlotte said. “You do understand that, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am! You don’t ever have to worry about me! I didn’t see nothin! I didn’t hear nothin’ and I don’t know nothin’! Forever and forever, a-men!”
“And I’ll give you enough money so you’ll never have to work hard again. You can go back home and do whatever you want for as long as you live.”
“I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate it, ma’am! I’m gonna buy me a dozen pairs of silk stockings and some gardenia perfume. It sure do smell elegant!”
“You’ll be able to buy anything you want now.”
“And who knows? I might even find me another man to marry.”
“The field will be wide open for you now,” Jerry said.
Charlotte and Jerry went into the library, Charlotte’s favorite room in the house. She went to the French doors that opened onto the terrace and opened them. The room was instantly filled with night smells from the garden.
“Just think!” Jerry said. “Free of that old buzzard at last!”
“Yes, finally, free of all encumbrances,” Charlotte said.
“I was thinking we might live here, at least for a while.”
“I don’t think so,” Charlotte said. “I want to get away, go abroad somewhere. There are too many unhappy memories for me in this house. Wherever I turn, I’ll always see mother there.”
“Of course, darling. Whatever you want.”
“Tomorrow I’ll call everybody and tell them mother’s dead. We’ll plan an elaborate funeral, of course, and I want you to be there by my side.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Jerry said. “I’ve been thinking, though.”
“Shouldn’t you have your mother cremated? You wouldn’t want anybody suspecting poison at any time in the future. They could have her body disinterred and make a big fuss over trying to find traces of it in her system.”
“I’ve been told by an expert that the poison is absolutely untraceable and no traces of it remain in the body.”
“It seems you’ve covered all the bases,” Jerry said. “Brilliantly planned and executed, if I may say so!”
“And the twenty million dollars?” Charlotte said. “It’s all mine now.”
“I’m getting hard!”
“I won’t have to listen to her threats ever again about cutting me off without a penny.”
“Too wonderful to be believed!”
“It is rather wonderful, isn’t it?”
“Shall we have a cigarette on it?”
He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them together, and handed one to Charlotte. Her eyes glistened with tears as she took it from him.
Standing there, side by side, framed in the doors to the garden, they looked up at the sky. A half-moon was just visible over the treetops, surrounded by a million diamond-like stars.
“And will we be happy?” he asked.
“Oh, Jerry!” she said. “Let’s not ask for the moon! We have the stars!”
Copyright © 2023 by Allen Kopp