“Mrs. Allen” by Dan Lawrence

1969 – Since starting seventh grade less than a month before, school had seemed an endless, deadening grind to Al. The same classes and extracurricular activities smudged the weekly calendar like greasy thumbprints. If junior high school marked the beginning of the life of the mind, as Mr. Jenkins, his history teacher, never tired of saying, then as far as Al could tell, it also marked the end of all other life. His quest to keep things interesting usually led to incomplete homework assignments and trouble with the neighbors, both of which resulted in unhappy parents. 

His sense of being free to act in the world had never failed him in elementary school, when learning had been synonymous with play, but now the endless facts to memorize, tedious problem sets, and papers with predestined beginnings, middles, and ends made it hard to get through the day, much less the week. And no day was harder than Wednesday, when the adventures of the past weekend had been overshadowed by routine and two whole days still loomed between him and the adventures of the weekend to come.

After softball practice, Al dragged himself home, dreading what lay ahead: first dinner with parents who were tireless in their efforts to get Al to live up to his potential; then homework that he couldn’t face and wouldn’t complete.

“Hi Al,” called his mom from the kitchen when he pulled the front door shut behind him. 

“Hi Mom,” called Al, dumping his books and jacket on the sofa. On his way to the kitchen, he noticed a place-setting on the dinner table and the unmistakable smell of food, though it was too early for dinner. “What’s up?” he asked, hanging from the chin-up bar suspended in the doorway between the kitchen and the pantry. 

“Mrs. Weiskopf called this afternoon. The woman who usually babysits her mother called in sick. She wanted to know if you could do it.”

“Babysit her mother!” Al guffawed, relieved that that was all Mrs. Weiskopf, a widow whose kids were grown, had called about. She’d been pretty much invisible to Al except for that time a couple of years before when he’d tried out his new pocketknife on her ancient German Shepherd’s dog run and had had the bad luck to be seen. He’d spent a whole weekend raking her yard to pay for a new one, even though the dog had died of old age before she’d been able to rig it up.

“You know how it is with older people. They get a little … vague.”

“You mean she’s senile!” Al laughed. 

“It’s nothing to laugh about, Al, and poor Mrs. Weiskopf.…”

“What did you tell her?” interrupted Al suspiciously. 

“I know you can use the money, and since it’s a school night anyway.…”

“Oh Mom,” complained Al, trying to work up some righteous indignation. “You didn’t even ask me.” 

“She’s going into the city with Miss Randolph.” Miss Randolph was a spinster his mom professed to admire whose penetrating gaze gave Al the creeps. “You’re to be there at six,” she said with finality. “She said she might not be back until late, but her mother goes to bed promptly at eight, and.…”

Al walked out of the kitchen. It was rude, but he figured he could get away with it under the circumstances. “Dinner in 15 minutes!” his mom called after him. He didn’t reply. It felt good to be in a position to disapprove of her for a change, not that he really minded what she’d done. He’d make a few bucks, and he might as well not do his homework at Mrs. Weiskopf’s as at home. He might even be able to spend the evening watching TV, which he could never do at home on a weeknight.


“Her name is Mrs. Allen,” said his mom from the kitchen while he ate his chicken, canned corn, and salad and drank his milk. He didn’t respond, and she left it at that. 

When he took his plate and glass into the kitchen ten minutes later, he announced, “I’m out of here!”

“Be sure to take your books,” said his mom.

Al pulled on his jacket, grabbed a random selection of books, and headed out the door. 


It felt good to be out in the early October dusk, the air crisp, the leaves swishing around his legs as he walked. It felt good to be exempt from the nightly inquisition from his father about his schoolwork. It felt so good that he was tempted to just keep walking into the gathering night, but he resisted the temptation, turned in at Mrs. Weiskopf’s gate, and pressed the bell.

“Hi Al,” said Mrs. Weiskopf as she opened the door. She was all dressed up. When older ladies dressed up, it always looked to Al like they were on their way to a costume party. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

“No problem,” said Al. The house smelled faintly of perfume and rotting flesh. 

“Mother’s had her dinner and washed up and now she’s watching television, so all you have to do is sit with her until she gets sleepy. Then you can just study if you want until I get back,” she said, nodding to his books.

“OK,” said Al.

“You can put your books here,” she said, patting a table in the hall, “and hang your jacket on the coatrack. Then I’ll take you up to meet Mother.” 

Al followed her upstairs. As she put her hand on a doorknob at the top of the stairs, she turned to Al. “Now you musn’t be alarmed if she says or does anything unusual tonight.” Loud voices came from behind the door. “Her mind wanders sometimes, that’s all.” 

As they entered a small room with a TV blaring deafening news reports at one end and a twin bed at the other, Al wondered how many ways there were not to say ‘senile.’ The broad head and shoulders of Mrs. Allen were propped up by pillows at one end of the bed. “Mother,” shouted Mrs. Weiskopf. “This is Al. He’s going to stay with you tonight.” Mrs. Allen turned a gaze on her that wavered between bewildered and hostile. She turned the same gaze on Al as Mrs. Weiskopf went over and turned down the TV. “This is Al, Mother,” she repeated. “He’s going to stay with you tonight.” Al smiled and nodded, suddenly having serious misgivings about the whole deal.

Mrs. Allen’s gaze stopped wavering as she fixed her daughter with a withering stare. “It’s not like I don’t know my own brother,” she said scornfully, and returned her attention to the TV. 

Mrs. Weiskopf adjusted the volume back to deafening and gestured for Al to follow her into the hall. “She gets a little confused from time to time,” she said, trying out a new variant, and smiled tightly. The doorbell chimed. “Nothing to worry about,” she tossed over her shoulder as she started down the stairs. “And she loves to watch television. Just turn it off at eight, and she’ll go right to sleep.”

“OK,” said Al to her retreating back. 

“Help yourself to anything in the fridge!”

“Thanks,” said Al, but by then he was talking to himself.

He paused before letting himself back into Mrs. Allen’s room and sitting on the wooden straight chair beside the door. He watched TV with her, companionably he hoped, glancing over at her from time to time. For the most part she focused on the TV with the same kind of attentive incomprehension he felt in chemistry class. Occasionally gazed in his general direction, as if his being there reminded her of something that had slipped her mind. During the second commercial break, after a long, puzzled gaze, she shouted, “Would you like some tea?”

“No thanks!” Al shouted back. “I just ate!”

“I’m having some,” she said, looking back at the TV. Al wasn’t sure whether she meant she thought she was currently having some tea or was anticipating some, which might implicate him. “If you want anything, just tell the girl downstairs.”

The news went on and on, boring as always. He didn’t see why he should have to sit with her while she watched it. At best he was a puzzling distraction. “I think I’ll go talk to the girl downstairs!” he shouted, getting up. Mrs. Allen, eyes glued to the television, gave no sign of having heard. Al left the room and headed straight for the kitchen. 

An open packet of Sen-Sen sat on the windowsill above the kitchen sink along with two candlesticks, miscellaneous tchotchkes, and something that looked like part of an old plumbing fixture. On the counter, an enameled tin breadbox held a package of honey wheat bread. The inside of the refrigerator resembled a desert with a few minor landmarks: two cans of diet Pepsis, some aging iceberg lettuce, a few American cheese slices, a half-empty pitcher of water, and a squeeze bottle of mustard. Rising to the challenge, Al constructed a cheese sandwich, not that he was especially hungry, and opened a can of the diet Pepsi, which he despised. He sat at the kitchen table, eating and daydreaming about the girl who sat across from him in English. She was also in his P.E. class and looked great in gym shorts. He remembered how easily she had climbed the rope in the gym, touching the ceiling and laughing down at her friends, among whose number he felt conspicuously absent. He ate slowly, lulled by the hum of the refrigerator mingled with the low grinding sound made by the clock on the stove. 

When he was nearly done, he suddenly snapped alert and thought uneasily of Mrs. Allen. He downed the last of the Pepsi and went to investigate. On entering her room, his first impulse was to say, “excuse me,” and beat a hasty retreat as Mrs. Allen struggled with her nightgown, which seemed to have the upper hand. It was halfway over her head, one of her arms sticking straight up and the other bound to her side so that she could neither advance nor retreat. She hadn’t given up, though, wiggling first one arm, then the other, and tossing her head in the cotton nightgown like a cat in a bag.

“Here, let me help!” shouted Al above the TV, pulling the nightgown down decisively over her head. 

Mrs. Allen observed him blandly. “Who are you?”

Al considered trying to explain, then decided against it. “I’m your brother,” he said. 

“Will you take off my nightgown?”

 “No!” he exclaimed, aghast. “I think you should keep your nightgown on.” His mom would pay for this.

“But I don’t want to,” she said petulantly. “They make me wear it, but I want to wear my evening dress.” 

Al had trouble squaring the childish tone with the aged face, the withered body. He couldn’t quite bring himself to treat her like a child. “When your daughter gets back, maybe she can help you. I don’t know how to do that kind of stuff, so why don’t you just watch TV.”

“You mean that horrible girl who works downstairs?” scowled Mrs. Allen warming to the subject. “She’s the one who made me put it on in the first place. She tries to keep me in bed all the time so I won’t catch her with her boyfriends!” She was getting all worked up about it. It made Al nervous. What if she totally lost control? He ignored her and sat in the chair by the door, directing his attention to the TV and pretending to be absorbed in the program. She looked at it too. The next time he glanced at her, her eyes were closed, so he tiptoed to the TV and slowly turned down the volume until it was silent. Then he pushed in the power knob and heard the static sound as the light on the screen gathered to a center point and went blank. 

When he turned around, Mrs. Allen was staring at him feverishly. Al braced himself. “Isn’t it wonderful that the Russian are giving us all the gold?” she asked merrily. 

“What?” asked Al.

“They said so on the television.” She nodding to it, smiling. “And after they give us the gold, there won’t be any more wars.”

“Oh,” said Al. “That’s nice.”

“Isn’t the war terrible?” she asked, suddenly not merry at all. “My brother’s in the war. In Italy.”

“Yes,” Al agreed. “War is terrible.”

“Tell me the truth,” she said, now on the verge of tears. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

‘Oh boy,’ thought Al. “I don’t know,” he said after a pause.

She eyed him skeptically. “Are we dead?”

“No!” replied Al emphatically. “We are not dead!” Then, worried that he’d overreacted, he added, “Not yet.” He removed some of the pillows from behind her back. “It’s bedtime now.” 

“You’re the nicest young man I know,” sighed Mrs. Allen, sliding under the covers. “I still want you to meet my mother.”

“OK,” said Al. “But not right now.”

Mrs. Allen’s hand reached out tentatively. Al hesitated, and then took it in his own. It was boney, and the skin was loose over the bones, like a chicken’s claw, but it was warm, and her grip was firm. When it loosened some, he took his hand away, padded to the door and switched off the overhead light.

Closing Mrs. Allen’s door firmly behind him, he stepped out into the strange house and felt its mysteries beckoning. A half-open door down the hall revealed a bathroom, and Al decided to start his explorations with the medicine cabinet. He had recently developed a fascination with drugs, prescription and otherwise, and this would be an opportunity to enlarge his knowledge firsthand. With a failing old woman in the house, it should be a regular pharmacy. When Al gently opened the cabinet door, he was not disappointed. The shelves were packed with bottles and vials of all kinds. He took them out one by one, reading the labels. Most were medicines he didn’t recognize for boring maladies such as swelling, eye irritation, indigestion, cough, and itching. Out of the whole bunch, now set out on the bathroom radiator cover, only two looked promising: One was Seconal, which he recognized as a barbiturate; the other was labeled ‘for severe pain.’ 

Al dropped his pants and sat on the toilet. He picked up the Good Housekeeping that lay nearby and flipped through it, aimlessly at first, then in the futile hope of finding something resembling a dirty picture. Disappointed but not deterred, he resolved to scour the house for smut. Mrs. Weiskopf and her mother didn’t seem likely consumers, but it was hard to believe that any house didn’t contain something that could be made to serve the purpose. As he considered where to start his search, he became aware of voices. It sounded like people talking inside the house, too intermittent for TV. He lurched to the bathroom door, pants around his ankles, quietly closed and locked it, and returned to the toilet. As he finished up, he listened closely. He could still hear voices. 

He got up, buckled his belt, and started piling the vials and bottles back into the medicine cabinet in what he hoped was a reasonable facsimile of their original order, trying not to hyperventilate. He closed the cabinet door, wiped the radiator cover with a piece of Kleenex, and took a couple of deep breaths as he checked his work. The two promising pill bottles he’d set aside were still out. He crammed them into the cabinet, ventured stealthily out into the hallway, and stood at the top of the stairs, listening. The voices were coming from Mrs. Allen’s room – just one voice. He went to her door and opened it softly. 

The room was still dark, and the voice that came from the bed sounded too strong to be Mrs. Allen’s: “Oh, how I love you all, and as we sit here waiting for our orders, I wonder what you are doing at home. I must not do that. It is hard enough to sit here waiting.…”

Al flipped on the light. Mrs. Allen was sitting up in bed again, apparently reading from a piece of paper she held sideways in her hands. Scattered over the coverlet were a jumble of old letters, some tied in packets, many loose. How she’d managed to get hold of them in the dark was beyond Al. She looked over at him without surprise. “Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”

“What are you doing?” asked Al.

“You’re that boy who’s staying with me tonight. What’s your name again?” She sounded completely normal and in command. Al felt himself slipping from the role of caretaker back to that of kid.

“Al,” said Al.

“That’s right. Al.” She looked down at the letters and her faced changed as she played her hands gently over them. “Can I trust you, Al?” she asked.

Al shrugged, not at all sure he wanted to be trusted.

“These are my most precious letters. If that girl downstairs ever finds them, she’ll destroy them. Will you do me a favor?” she asked, taking an old shoebox from the bedside table and putting the letters into it.

“Like what?” asked Al warily.

“Take these letters down to the basement and hide them where she’ll never find them.”

“But then you won’t be able to read them anymore!” objected Al.

She laughed at him, a burnt, cracked sound that suggested that she hadn’t laughed in a long time. “I know them all by heart,” she said, holding the box of letters out to him. Maybe he could just leave them downstairs so that Mrs. Weiskopf could bring them back up again tomorrow. He took hold of the box, but Mrs. Allen wouldn’t it let go, and her grip was surprisingly strong. “You have to promise you won’t ever tell that girl where they are.”

Al shrugged again, not wanting to commit.

“Promise!” commanded Mrs. Allen.

“OK,” he said finally. “I promise, but only if you promise to go to sleep now.” Mrs. Allen let go of the box and slid down in the bed to show how well she would hold up her end of the bargain.

Al took the box to the door and switched off the light. “Goodnight,” he said.

When he got downstairs with the box of letters, he wasn’t sure what to do. He knew that even though she’d sounded pretty normal, the pact he’d made with Mrs. Allen was a based on some kind of brain disease – but it still felt real. He knew that the adult thing to do would be to leave the box of letters where Mrs. Weiskopf could find them, but that would mean breaking his word to Mrs. Allen. 


Al bounded up the basement stairs two at a time, slammed the door behind him, and threw the bolt. The basement had been shadowy and malignant feeling. He’d held it together while hiding the box of letters behind some old paint cans, but on his way back to the stairs, he’d quickened his pace, and that thin wedge of fear had opened a floodgate of panic. He panted for a minute with his back against the basement door, then made his way through the ground floor, switching on lights and thinking uneasily of the movie he’d seen the year before about the babysitter who kept getting phone calls from a psycho killer who turned out to be inside the house. 

He returned to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. Nothing much had changed. He opened and closed the cupboards, hoping that something inside would spark his appetite, but his most promising finds – a sheath of Saltines closed with a rubber band and a nearly empty jar of Nutella – hardly seemed worth the effort. One of the cupboards, at floor level, was closed with a plastic ratchet lock that clamped the door handles together. That had to be the liquor cabinet. Al bet he could break into it and then lock it up again so that no one would ever know the difference. He sat down on the floor and examined the lock to see how it was put together, then started loosening one side of the ratchet, tooth by tooth. It was slow, absorbing work, and when the lock finally sprung free, nearly half an hour had passed. Al opened the cabinet and took stock: two cans of mixed nuts, an ancient bottle of Maraschino cherries, five cans of beer still in their plastic yoke, and partly full bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka, vermouth, sherry, brandy, and crème de menthe. 

Crème de menthe was Al’s favorite, not that he’d tried many of the others. He uncorked the bottle and smelled it, then took a swig and shivered pleasurably. After re-corking the bottle, he took out the gin and was unscrewing the cap when he heard the front door open and the rise and fall of voices. “Crap!” he hissed aloud. He looked up at the wall clock; it was a little past nine. He shoved the liquor back in the cabinet and fiddled with the lock. There was no way he could get it to stay on the handles, not without more time. He’d have to say he’d knocked it off by mistake. Mrs. Weiskopf would never believe him, but he’d just have to tough it out. Maybe she wouldn’t tell his mom.

He stood up, brushed his shirtfront with his hands, and made his way to the entry hall. What he saw when the front door came into view didn’t match his expectations, so it took him a moment to work out that it was Mrs. Allen, talking pleasantly out the open front door to no one in particular. “Won’t you come in for tea?” she asked graciously. It was freaky. His heart was already racing, and now, in spite of himself, his panic turned to anger. He was gratified by her startled reaction when he put his hand on her shoulder. “Oh!” she gasped in alarm as she turned to look at him. “I was just asking Mr. Phillips in for tea.” 

“Well you can’t have tea now,” said Al, pulling her away from the door, through which cold air spilled into the house, and shutting it. “It’s too late for tea.” He felt like dragging her back to her bed roughly, like a jailer. The way she looked at him, this large, frail, befuddled creature, reminded Al of a circus animal dressed up like a person: Mrs. Allen, the Amazing Nightgown-Wearing Bear. At least she was wearing her nightgown. She didn’t resist as he took her arm, brittle as chalk, and helped her up the stairs, step by step, wondering how she’d managed to get all the way down without falling. He didn’t talk to her or let her rest between steps. It seemed unkind, but he was anxious to get back to the kitchen and fix the liquor cabinet lock before Mrs. Weiskopf got home.

Halfway up the stairs, Mrs. Allen stopped stubbornly and said, “There goes the telephone. It’s for me.”

It took Al a moment to realize what she was saying before replying firmly, “No. The phone is not ringing.”

“Yes it is,” insisted Mrs. Allen. “I know you can hear it.”

Al took a couple of deep breaths. “OK,” he said. “Wait here.” After making sure she was holding onto the bannister, he ran up to Mrs. Allen’s room. He felt like an idiot picking up the receiver, but it seemed important to go through the motions. “Hello!” he shouted into it. “Yes?… OK!… Bye!…” He slammed down the receiver and ran back to Mrs. Allen. “They’ll call back later,” he said.

“Who was it?” asked Mrs. Allen. 

That stumped him. 

Mrs. Allen got a cagey look. “Was it you who called?” she asked.

“How could it be me?” asked Al, fed up. “I’m right here!”


Back at the liquor cabinet, Al took a swig of gin and a swig of vodka before setting to work. A few minutes later, the lock was back in place. He got up and tapped out a couple of Sen-Sen from the packet on the windowsill, chewing them thoroughly. After surveying the kitchen critically from the doorway, he switched off the light. Taking his schoolbooks into the living room, he opened them assiduously before him on the coffee table, then went over and turned on the TV. He twirled the dial in search of the least demanding program he could find. He settled on an early Sixties spy movie with a three-line plot punctuated by shapely girls in miniskirts, sat down on the sofa, and emptied his mind into it.


An hour or so later, Mrs. Weiskopf came home. Al greeted her at the door, trying to radiate conscientious enthusiasm. 

“Everything go all right?” she asked half-heartedly. She seemed preoccupied or depressed. 

“Just great!” gushed Al.

“That’s good,” she muttered into her purse as she searched for her wallet. Al stood by, looking alert and deserving. “Mother behave?” she asked tiredly.

Al tried to hide his doubts as he met her eyes. “No problems,” he said. He wanted to keep things simple and go home.

“Good,” she said distractedly, thumbing through her wallet. “Now get your things together. Miss Randolph is waiting outside to give you a lift up the hill.”

Al was a little disappointed that Mrs. Weiskopf hadn’t noted his books spread out on the coffee table, but on the whole her inattention was probably a good thing. He gathered his books, then returned to the foyer to put on his jacket. “Here,” said Mrs. Weiskopf, handing him some bills. “This is what I owe you, plus a little.”

“Thanks,” said Al.

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Weiskopf. “And say hello to your mother for me.”

Al stuffed the bills into his pocket as he sprinted down the steps and out the front gate to the waiting car. 

“Hi Miss Randolph,” said Al as he jumped in the front seat and slammed the door. 

The smile she directed at him only made her penetrating gaze seem more ominous. It was like being in a car with Spock. “Hello, Al,” she said, putting the car into gear. “Did you have a nice evening?”

“It was fine,” said Al. “No problems.”

Miss Randolph fixed her gaze on him two or three times as they drove along. “Have you been drinking?” she asked matter-of-factly.

“No!” exclaimed Al, taken by surprise. “Of course not!”

“I smell liquor,” said Miss Randolph.

“That’s strange,” said Al.

“Let me smell your breath.” Al leaned over and exhaled heavily on her face, hoping it would gross her out, but she didn’t seem fazed. “Smells just like liquor,” she said.

“I did drink a Pepsi,” said Al. “And I ate a cheese sandwich. I put a lot of mustard.…”

“No,” Miss Randolph interrupted, stopping in front of his house. “That’s not it.” She fixed him with her gaze again. 

She clearly expected a response. Al looked back at her and remembered that annoying thing his mom was always saying about the better part of valor. He shrugged. “Well,” he said, grabbing his books and opening the car door. “Goodnight.”


Al was never asked to sit for Mrs. Allen again, which was fine with him. In fact, after his mom asked him the next morning how it had gone, he never heard anything more about it. That was a big relief. Did it mean that Mrs. Weiskopf hadn’t noticed anything amiss, that Miss Randolph had decided not to rat him out? Or did it mean that his mom was picking her battles? Or, as Al half suspected, was everyone just too embarrassed for him to talk about it? He didn’t know and, as long as it didn’t come back to haunt him, he didn’t really care. 

Six months later, his mom told him over dinner that Mrs. Allen had died. Later, as he sat in his room not doing his homework, he’d felt a little uncomfortable remembering that night. Had anyone found her box of letters? That whole experience could not have been better designed to rub his face in how crappy he was at behaving like a grownup. It embarrassed him to think about it, not that he’d gotten any better. He still wasn’t grown up. He wasn’t even sure he had it in him, not that it usually crossed his mind. He was preoccupied with the rock band he’d started with some friends. He played bass. It was a blast. They even played some of the school dances, and the girl who sat across from him in English class usually stood right up front. The other guys in the band said he should ask her out. When he was ready, maybe he would.

Dan Lawrence received his MFA from Columbia University, where he was a Graduate Fellow and Fiction Editor of Columbia Journal. After a career as a magazine editor with Time Inc. and Reed Elsevier, he recently returned to writing fiction. In the past year or so, nine of his stories have been published in literary magazines and anthologies. He was a finalist for the 2022 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2022 Watertower Press Novel Writing Contest, the Summer 2021 Novel Slices Contest, and the 2020 James River Writers Best Unpublished Novel Contest. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife and three sons and is the founder and principal of Richmond Editorial Service.