Each Dark Door ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Jenks owned a three-story apartment building downtown. Every first of the month she visited the building and collected the rents due her. Most of the renters paid their rent on time (they were afraid not to pay, knowing she was the aunt of the deputy sheriff), but always there was somebody who didn’t have the money and would hide when she knocked or would confront her with a sad story about being sick and not being able to work or having a sick baby who needed medicine. More likely than not, those were the ones who had spent all their money on drink, lost it in an impromptu poker game, or never had any to begin with, because, well, things hadn’t been going so well lately.
A first of the month came when Mrs. Jenks was laid up in bed with her bad gallbladder and wasn’t able to leave the house. Instead of worrying herself sick about collecting the rents on time, she sent her granddaughter Virginia to do it for her. Virginia was sixteen.
Armed with the money pouch (held firmly against her body with her hand through the strap), Virginia started with the first door on the left on the first floor and worked her way down the left side, and when she was finished on the left she moved over to the right.
The hallway was musty-smelling and dark at all hours and was in no way pleasing or inviting. There were twelve closed doors with each door seeming to hold the possibility of menace. Some of these people are trash, grandma said, but if they pay their rent on time I can tolerate their trashiness as long as they don’t carry diseases or have bugs. If anybody gives you any guff or is rude, you be sure and write down their names. They might find themselves served with an eviction notice next week if they’re not careful.
Some didn’t answer their doors, as grandma had said, but were obviously there because Virginia could hear them moving around inside. Most of them were forthcoming, though, even if they were trash. They invited her inside with a smile while they counted out the money they owed or sat at the kitchen table and wrote out a check. She was offered things to eat and drink, including a vodka martini, which she politely declined.
At an apartment on the third floor, a blonde woman wearing a red-and-yellow Japanese kimono answered the door. She invited Virginia inside and asked her to sit down while she and her roommate, a dark-haired woman wearing men’s pajamas, got the rent together.
“We’ll have to pay you in small bills,” the blonde woman said. Her name was Hortense and her roommate’s name was Hazel.
“That’s all right,” Virginia said.
“We’ll need a receipt,” Hazel said. “We don’t want anybody saying we didn’t pay up on time.”
They counted out the money and when they handed it to Virginia she put it in the canvas money pouch and wrote it down in the pay book and gave them a receipt.
“Would you like a cup of coffee or something?” Hortense asked Virginia after the transaction was completed.
“I’d like a drink of water.”
“Well, come on into the kitchen.”
On the table were remnants of breakfast, even though it was past lunch time. Hortense motioned for Virginia to sit at the table while she got a glass and filled it with water.
“The first of the month sure comes around fast,” Hortense said. “Just when you’re thinking your rent is all paid up, here it is the first of the month again and you have to fork over more dough.”
“Yeah, ain’t life a bitch, though,” Hazel said. “A bitch from beginning to end.”
“Life’s a bitch, so I became one!” Hortense said, laughing like a hyena.
Virginia didn’t get the joke, but she smiled anyway and felt uncomfortable.
“When you knocked on the door, we were just finishing breakfast. If you had knocked a half-hour earlier, we wouldn’t have heard you because we were asleep.”
“Tell her the rest,” Hazel said, “or she’ll think we sleep this late all the time because we’re lazy.”
“We work nights,” Hortense said. “We don’t get off until two or three in the morning and sometimes later than that, so that’s why we sleep so late.”
“What kind of jobs do you have?” Virginia asked.
“We’re ‘B girls’ at the Crescendo Club.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’re hostesses,” Hazel said. “We dance and drink and pretend we’re having a good time. We cozy up to the men without dates and get them to stay longer and spend their money on drinks.”
“Sometimes we go to their hotel rooms and sleep with them,” Hazel said, “if they’re not too vile and there’s enough money in it for us.”
“You shouldn’t be telling her that!” Hortense said. “She’s just an innocent young girl!”
“She has to learn some time, doesn’t she?”
“It’s all right,” Virginia said. “I’ve read Peyton Place. I know all about that stuff.”
“Your mother let you read a book like that?”
“She didn’t know I read it.”
“How old are you?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No. My parents don’t let me date yet.”
“You don’t know anything about men yet, do you?”
“Well, don’t rush things.” Hortense said. “You don’t want to end up like us.”
“And why is a pretty little thing like you collecting the rent money in a hell-hole slum like this?” Hazel asked.
“I’m doing it for my grandma. She’s sick. She’s going to have her gallbladder out.”
“That old water buffalo that owns the building is your grandma?”
“You don’t look a thing like her!”
“I don’t look like anybody,” Virginia said.
“I’ll bet you have brothers and sisters, don’t you?”
“One brother. He goes to veterinarian school.”
“Is he good-looking?”
“You’re not supposed to ask a girl a question like that about her own brother,” Hazel said.
“Well, I had a brother and I always thought he was very good-looking,” Hortense said.
“That’s because you’re twisted,” Hazel said. “Your whole family is twisted.”
“What about your mother and father?”
“What about them?”
“What do they do?”
“My father’s an accountant, I think, and my mother’s a housewife.”
“Does your pa go out drinking at night and slap your ma around when he comes home?”
“No, he mostly sleeps in the chair.”
“Is your ma pretty? Does she have lots of pretty clothes?”
“No, she’s tired all the time.”
“What do you want to be when you get through with school?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I always thought I’d like to be a writer, but I’ll probably end up being a housewife like my mother.”
“What’s your favorite subject in school?”
“I don’t know. English, I guess.”
“You don’t like math, do you?”
“How did you know?”
“You’re the artistic type, I can tell.”
“I guess so.”
“You have awfully pale skin,” Hortense said. “Have you ever thought about wearing a little lipstick?”
“My mother doesn’t let me wear makeup.”
“Would you like to try a little lipstick and see how it looks? Your mother doesn’t have to know.”
“I guess so.”
She went into the bedroom and came back with a tube of lipstick and a little mirror. She titled Virginia’s head back and slathered the blood-red stuff on her mouth. When she was finished, she told her to blot her lips and look at herself in the mirror.
“See? Doesn’t that make a difference?”
“It makes me look like somebody else,” Virginia said.
“That tube is practically new. You can have it. I have a whole drawer full.”
Hazel pulled Virginia’s hair to the back of her head. “Your hair is so lifeless,” she said. “You could use a good cut and some curl.”
“My mother cuts my hair.”
“What does she use? A steak knife?”
She twisted and pinned the hair so that it stayed up, exposing Virginia’s rather large ears.
“What do you think?” she asked, holding the mirror up so Virginia could see herself.
“I don’t know,” Virginia said doubtfully.
“She looks like a regular uptown sophisticate!” Hortense said.
“You know, I have a daughter just a little younger than you,” Hazel said, “but I haven’t seen her since she was seven. I have a son, too. He’s nine.”
“What of it?” Hortense said. “Everybody’s got kids! It’s the disease of the human race.”
“Well, if we stopped having kids, that’d be the end of the world,” Hazel said.
“An excellent idea, if you ask me!”
“Can you imagine being the last person on earth to die? There’d be nobody to come to your funeral.”
Virginia stood up. “Well, thank you for the glass of water and the lipstick and the advice about my hair, but I think I’d better be going now. Grandma will be wondering what happened to me.”
“So soon?” Hazel said. “We don’t very often have company.”
“Wait a minute,” Hortense said. She slipped a bracelet off her own wrist and put it on Virginia’s. It was a band of alternating red and yellow stones, worthy of the Queen of the Nile.
“How beautiful!” Virginia said.
“Wear it to remind yourself to come back and see us again real soon. Next time we’ll have a real party!”
When Virginia left Hortense and Hazel’s apartment, she walked down the three flights of stairs to the street, smelling the various smells of the building along the way, some good but mostly bad. She held the money pouch, much fatter than when she started, pressed tightly against her body the way grandma showed her, so nobody would come up behind her and grab it out of her hand. It would finish grandma off if anything happened to it. It would have to pay all the bills for the month.
The weather was fine and the park was close at hand. She decided to stop for a while before going on home. Grandma wouldn’t mind waiting a little longer for her money.
She sat on a bench in the sun, placing the money pouch firmly against her left hip where she could feel it without seeing it. She breathed deeply. The fresh air smelled good, of freshly cut grass and water from the fountain. Since it was Saturday, there were lots of people about: children playing games, men walking dogs, mothers airing their babies. In a little while a young man came along and sat down on the bench beside her.
“Hi there!” he said with a smile. He was older than she was, the kind of boy her mother would warn her to stay away from. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
She was thinking about getting up and walking away when he surprised her by offering her a cigarette out of his pack. Without thinking, she accepted it and waited for him to light it. She had never smoked before and was a little flattered that he would think her the kind of girl who smoked. In her lipstick and with her new pinned-up hairdo, she felt sophisticated and grown-up. She could more than hold her own against any forward man in the park.
“Do you come to the park often?” he asked.
“You’re full of questions,” she said. “Don’t you know it’s not polite to ask strangers questions?”
“I didn’t mean any harm,” he said. “I’ll leave if you want me to.”
She smiled at him, liking him better than before. “It’s all right,” she said. “I don’t really mind.”
“My name’s Boyd Pitkin,” he said.
“Your name doesn’t really interest me.”
“What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“I think so.”
“Are those diamonds you’re wearing?” he asked, pointing at the red-and-yellow bracelet Hortense had given her.
“No, silly! Diamonds are clear and sparkly, like little pieces of ice.”
“Well, how would I know? I’m not an expert on diamonds.”
“Well, now you know.”
“Would you like to go someplace else?”
“I don’t know. Someplace where we can be alone.”
“Why would I want to be alone with you?”
“Can you give me one good reason why not?”
“How do I know you’re not a murderer?”
“Do I really look like a murderer?”
She turned and looked at him closely. He needed a shave, but he looked clean and healthy. He wasn’t exactly handsome but his brown eyes were appealing and he had good teeth.
“Murderers don’t always look like murderers,” she said.
“I’ve got my car parked just over the hill,” he said. “Would you like to go for a drive?”
“I don’t believe you’ve got a car.”
He took keys out of his pocket and jingled them close to her face. “I’ll take you wherever you say.”
“No, thanks. I shouldn’t be talking to a strange man in the park. I have to go home now.”
“Well, it was lovely meeting you, Rita. Maybe we’ll meet again at some time in the distant future.”
“I doubt it,” she said saucily, and it was the last thing she would say to him.
She was nearly home when she realized she didn’t have the canvas money pouch. She ran breathlessly back to the bench in the park, but, of course, the man—Boyd Pitkin, if that was really his name—was gone. Hoping against hope, she searched the ground, behind and under the bench, but the pouch was gone forever. Not knowing what else to do, she sat down, leaned forward with her nose touching her knees, and wailed like a wild animal.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp