Wednesday, April 27, 2011
FICTION: Send Me a Postcard by Allen Kopp
Since Paul’s mother lost her job at the hospital, she’s not the same anymore. She stays in bed a lot of the time during the daylight hours, something she never did before. If she’s not in bed, she’s sitting in front of the TV in her bathrobe smoking cigarettes and watching soap operas and game shows with the sound turned all the way down. He stands in the doorway looking at her and she doesn’t seem to know he’s there until she sees his shadow on the wall.
“What are you doing?” she asks, craning her neck around to look at him. “You creep around the house like a thief.”
“I’m just looking at you,” he says. “What’s for dinner?”
“Oh, is it time for dinner?” she asks, looking at the clock. “I didn’t think it was that late.”
He goes into the kitchen and fixes himself a peanut butter sandwich. He is glad to see she has been to the store and bought some fresh bread while he was at school. He puts the sandwich on a plate and goes back into the living room where she is.
“Just help yourself to whatever you can find in the kitchen,” she says. “I don’t feel like cooking dinner.”
“Did you eat anything?” he asks.
“I don’t have any appetite,” she says. “I’ll have something later.” She reaches for her pack of Lucky Strikes and takes one out and lights it and inhales deeply.
He looks at her skeptically but she doesn’t know it. “Smoking is bad for you,” he says.
“So I’ve heard.”
“I’m not ever going to smoke.”
“Bully for you.”
“How about if we go to a movie tonight? There’s a western at the Criterion and a comedy at the Gem.”
“How about if we stay at home and watch TV? There’s a western on one channel and a comedy on another one, and you don’t have to pay to see them. I’m not made out of money, you know.”
He marvels at how mothers always say they’re not made out of money, but he says nothing because he doesn’t want to argue. He would someday like to see a mother made out of money, though. That must be a sight worth seeing.
“I have to write a book report,” he says.
“How lovely for you.”
“Do you want to help me?”
“What’s the book?”
“A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.”
“Isn’t that kind of a grown-up book for eighth grade?”
“I read grown-up books all the time.”
“Oh, yes, I forgot. You’re already quite the little man, aren’t you?”
“I chose that book to read from the list. I’m the only person in the class who read it.”
“Isn’t that about the French Revolution or something?”
“Yes, they’re killing all the aristocrats. They’re mad at them because the king and his wife are rich and they don’t care that the peasants are starving, so the peasants want to kill all the aristocrats, whether they’ve done anything wrong or not. Do you know how they kill them?”
“Let me guess,” she says. “They cut off their heads with a thing with a big blade that drops down.”
“It’s called a guillotine. It was invented by a Dr. Guillotine. He was a Frenchman. They make them stick their heads through a hole and tie their hands behind their backs and then they let the blade drop down and wham! it slices off their heads.”
“Sounds divine,” she says. “I’ll be sure and add that book to my reading list.”
“They say it doesn’t hurt, but I don’t know how having your head cut off could not hurt.”
“Why don’t you try it some time and let me know?”
“I saw Daddy when I was walking to school today.”
“He drove past in a black car.”
“It must have been somebody else. His car is blue. Was it a new car?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can tell a new car from an old one, can’t you?”
“I think it was a new car.”
“Well, the next time you see him tell him to throw some of that money our way that he’s spending on a new car.”
“I wouldn’t ask him for money.”
“Why not? He’s your father, isn’t he? You wouldn’t be on this earth if it wasn’t for him, so he’s supposed to pay your way. That’s the way it works.”
He notices how many of his conversations with his mother always come around to the subject of money. He tries to steer her in another direction.
“Are you still looking for a job?” he asks.
“Off and on,” she says. “If it’s any of your business.”
“Do you want me to read the want ads to you? I’ll bet there are some good jobs in there.”
“If I wanted to read the want ads, don’t you think I could read them myself? You’re just a two-bit punk and you don’t know anything.”
“’You’re just a two-bit punk and you don’t know anything,’” he says, in exact imitation of her voice.
“You’re getting just a little too big for your britches!”
“’You’re getting just a little too big for your britches.’”
“Stop it!” she says.
“Don’t you know you’re driving me crazy?”
“’Don’t you know you’re driving me crazy?’”
“Do you want me to get up from here and come over there and slap you silly?”
“No, I don’t,” he says solemnly, using his own voice again.
“You remind me more of your father every day.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Run away from home and join the circus. You could be one of their freaks.”
He knows she’s only teasing him, but remarks like that hurt him a little, he has to admit. It’s as if she doesn’t want him around her anymore.
“When I’m old enough, I’m going to join the navy.”
“Good for you,” she says. “Serve your country. See the world. Send me a postcard.”
A man and woman are kissing on the TV. Their noses are pressed together.
“Can we change channels?” he asks.
“No!” she says. “I’m watching this!”
He goes into the kitchen and gets an apple and goes out the back door with it and around the house and sits on the front steps, between the bushes that grow on both sides. He throws the apple up in the air a couple of times and catches it and then takes a bite out of it. The juice is running down his chin when he sees a black car pull up to the curb in front of the house, the same black car he saw that morning.
Somebody in the car motions to him. Fascinated, he stands up, throws down the apple, and crosses the lawn toward the car.
“Hello, son!” his father says brightly, rolling down the window.
“Did you get a new car?” he asks. He can’t think of anything else at the moment to say.
“No, it’s a friend’s car. I’m just borrowing it. How are you?”
“I’m all right. When are you coming home?”
His father turns off the engine and puts both hands on the steering wheel. “I’m not,” he says. “How’s your mother?”
“Don’t tell her I was here.”
“All she has to do is look out the window and she’ll know you’re here.”
“Well, this is just between you and me.” He reaches into his pocket and takes out some money and hands his son a twenty-dollar bill. “Get yourself something good to eat,” he says.
“Well, I just wanted to see you for a minute and see how you are. I’ve got to be going.” He reaches to start the engine again.
“Daddy, can I come and live with you?”
“No, I’m afraid that’s out the question right now. I’m staying with friends. We’ll talk about that later when I’m more settled.”
“Mother hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you. She loves you very much.”
“She’s crazy. She’s going to smoke herself to death and she doesn’t eat any food.”
“Well, she’s just going through a rough patch right now. You’ll understand when you’re older and not hold it against her.”
“I’m going to run away from home.”
“No, you’re not. You just stay put for now. We’ll talk more about a different kind of arrangement later, after things have settled down.”
He starts the engine and looks over his shoulder to see if any cars are coming. He makes a u-turn in the middle of the street and speeds off in the opposite direction from which he came with a little squeal of tires.
When Paul goes back into the house, his mother is waiting for him at the door.
“Who was that you were talking to?” she asks.
“Nobody. A man looking for the hospital.”
“That was a black car, wasn’t it?”
“I think it was.”
“Did he try to get you to get into the car with him?”
“Of course not.”
“Did you tell him how to get to the hospital?”
“I tried to.”
At ten o’clock that night his mother is still in front of the TV, but now she’s asleep with a bottle of gin on the table beside her. On the TV is a skinny old man in a tuxedo doing a tap dance in front of a wall of mirrors that reflect the people watching him.
He goes into his room and shuts the door, moving the bureau in front of the door so nobody can come in. He starts to work on his book report; writing it should be easy because he’s already read the book, but he can’t seem to concentrate. Luckily it’s not due for a few days.
He turns off the light, finding the dark comforting; it makes him feel safe. Far off in the distance he hears a siren. The wind is blowing against the house as if to blow up a rainstorm. He settles under the covers and sighs. The last thought he has before going to sleep is about the guillotine. He wonders if it really hurts or if it’s just like a whisper on the back of the neck. Of one thing, though, he is certain. He will never know for sure.