map An Old Story

by Kathryn Kulpa

Published in Issue No. 28 ~ September, 1999

This is an old story, told before but in different form. It was called a funny story once, because it had jokes in it, and funny pictures. Whether it is indeed a funny story will have to be decided again by each person who reads it.

Once there was a man who had thought himself a bad man for so long that he could no longer say how he had come to think of himself that way. He had thrown himself into a way of living that he felt was a surrender to his innate wickedness. And yet within himself there was a hard and difficult morality that told him, always: “The wicked shall be punished.”

But no one would punish him, and so he tried to punish himself. Years ago his family lawyer had told him that he had enough money to make a complete mess of his life and still be very comfortable. He was not comfortable, though; he did not deserve to be. He lived in rented rooms, with furniture picked off the street or pressed upon him by well-meaning friends and a look, always, of having just moved in or being about to leave. He smoked too much and drank too often, and if someone at a party offered him some pills he would take them and not ask what they were. Something in his manner was like that of a stranger, hopelessly lost, but having ceased to ask directions. Women felt that he would not reproach them if they hurt him, and this made them want to be tender with him, very tender, but he knew that he was a wicked man. He was a wicked man because he did wicked things. He did wicked things because he was hopelessly and forever a wicked man.

He slept with women he didn’t like. They were bad–as bad as he was–or why would they be with him? Sometimes he would make the mistake of sleeping with his women friends. After that he would arrange his life so he wouldn’t have to see them again. They were spoiled for him now. He had spoiled them.

He had spoiled everything.

He loved a woman once. She died. An old story. The famous dead girlfriend excuse. Only in his case something inexcusable. He had killed her.

His ghost girl. Blonde on blonde. White arms and white sheets. Holding her thin wrist to his lips he teased her about the veins so clear beneath the skin. A blue blood, he said, that’s why they called them blue bloods, those thin-skinned aristocrats. She took her arms away and hugged her knees. You’d laugh if you knew how far from true that is, she said.

But she hadn’t told him that night, nor did she tell him about herself on the nights that followed. Not for the longest time did she trust him with her life. I always thought if people knew what I really was they’d leave me, she said.

And then, of course, he left her.


He wished he could remember her as a whole. Not blurred in quick cuts, hands tugging at the hem of a t-shirt, sleepy puffy lips biting a piece of hair. Was it his memory or her life that had been out of focus? A girl who loved to sleep, to dream. She dreamed awake sometimes, conversations drifting past her, eyes turned away from a movie screen to examine the half-moons of her fingernails, but he could never be sure. The next words out of her mouth might make him laugh. She had an unexpected gift for mimicry, a dry, biting humor she showed to him sometimes, and perhaps only to him.

In a childhood photograph she’d showed him once she floated in a pool, overexposed, her body radiating light. That ridiculous nickname they gave her. Sunny. She was not like sun but like summer lightning. The way emotions flashed across her face like streaks of light in the darkness, leaving it always sad in repose.

He remembered the unforgiving light of the funeral in Houston, tears trickling from behind the oversized sunglasses her father wore, making shining trails on his dry, browned face, like irrigation ditches seen from above.

“She was just like our own,” he said.

And her mother, skin shiny only with make-up, stared far past them as if she was looking at something, a cottonwood tree, a bus on the highway, or something none of them could see.


She had no secrets of her own to reveal. Only other people’s secrets. Mysteries that never quite got solved. Child of a woman dead by suicide and a father whose name that young woman never spoke. She was an orphan, an enigma.

A displaced person. Her mother the Danish au pair in Texas, tending the children of the newly rich. And then, with child herself. The wife wanted to send her back, Sunny told him, but the husband let her stay. It didn’t matter. Childbirth drove her mad. Two weeks later they forced the bathroom door. A Jacuzzi full of pink water: she’d opened both wrists.

No one in Denmark wanted the child. And so the family in Texas kept her, one more girl in a string of three. There was another nanny later, a gray-haired Irish lady with a generous lap. Only the oldest daughter would remember the blonde girl who told the saddest princess stories, who sang songs in another language and cried in her room. Was she pretty? Was she nice? Sunny would ask later, and the older sister would shrug, trying to recall someone who had passed through her life and out of it, just a hand fastening the buttons of her dress, just a background shadow in a birthday party home movie. She was gone, leaving nothing of herself for the daughter she left behind. Not a note, a letter, a photograph. Only a hole where something should have been. Only the fact of her leaving.

Sitting up cross-legged in bed Sunny stared down at the wrists he had kissed that one time. She linked her hands around each wrist as though hiding invisible scars.

And now you can leave me, she told him.

I can’t yet, he said, my foot’s asleep.

Both of them laughing at such drama.


As a fool makes promises so he had promised himself to her. I want to be with you forever, he said. But said it in that moment after sex when time stops and forever is a sun-slant through the window, a Sunday afternoon.

He ran away. His soul a coward’s soul, his heart desperately wicked. He left her as she had known he would leave her. He left her but he came back. And then he called her and asked her to come to him, as if his love was a present he could give or not give her. As if she should rush out in the rain to meet him. And she did rush out on that rainy night. Such a fifties ballad way to die, spinning out on Dead Man’s Curve. Teen Angel. Our Last Kiss. Would it have made her laugh?

He hoped she died cursing him. He hoped she’d been coming to tell him how much she hated him. On nights alone he would lie sleepless until the room grew light. He would watch shadows on the ceiling and beg her ghost to haunt him.

And once, in a dream or waking vision, he saw her. A marble goddess reflecting all light, a sad-eyed madonna painted by men who knew what suffering was. And he tried to tell her everything. But the marble lips never moved. The eyes grew no less sad, no more. Her face faded into the blank light of an overexposed photograph. He found no absolution there.

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Kathryn Kulpa began writing at the age of five and has not managed to outgrow it yet. Her fiction has appeared in various publications, including Seventeen, Leviathan, Madison Review, Parting Gifts, Indigenous Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. She recently completed a short story collection, Pleasant Drugs, and is at work on a novel. She lives in Middletown, Rhode Island.