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Until We Meet Again

Until We Meet Again image 3

Until We Meet Again ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

During the years that Florida Seamungle took care of Freddy, her invalid husband, he wasn’t able to speak or barely to blink his eyes. She did everything for him: got him up in the morning and put him to bed at night, bathed him, dressed and undressed him, lifted him in and out of his wheelchair (he had always been a small man), cooked his food and fed it to him (all he had to do was swallow), and talked to him as if he might answer. In the evenings after the supper dishes were washed and put away, she propped him up in front of the TV to watch the fights or a western movie. At other times she read the newspaper to him or verses from the Bible or an article out of a magazine.

When Freddy finally died in his sleep, Florida had his body cremated without fanfare. She put his ashes in a large-sized Hellman’s mayonnaise jar and kept the jar on a shelf of the curio cabinet next to the TV where she could always see it.

Florida thought she could go on with her life (what was left of it), but she found it was just too bleak and lonely—empty, so empty—without Freddy. She had been married to him for fifty-two years and most of them were good, fine years. She wasn’t able to erase all those years and go on her merry way as if nothing had happened.

At a place called Under the Sun on Skid Row Boulevard that sold just about anything she bought a full-sized male mannequin (also known as a doll) with fully articulated arms and legs. She took the mannequin home with her in a taxi.

Of course the mannequin looked nothing at all like Freddy. Everything about him was shiny. He had shiny black hair (complete with pompadour) painted on his head, shiny black eyes (sparkling, like the glass eyes of a stuffed mountain lion), and a shiny skin with red spots on both cheeks. His shiny lips were slightly parted, showing tiny, perfect teeth which, of course, were shiny.

At first Florida was put off by the difference between the mannequin and Freddy, but after a few days she came to accept the difference and appreciate it. The mannequin was a young man and at times she was able to think of herself as a young woman worthy of him (even if the mirror told her otherwise). And, even though he was inanimate, he was for the most part no more inanimate than Freddy had been.

Florida Seamungle was happy again or, if not happy, she felt useful and not quite so lonely. At mealtimes, she propped the mannequin up at the table and put little dabs of food on his plate which, of course, she ended up eating herself or putting down the garbage disposal. She was delighted that her grocery bills were smaller because the mannequin really didn’t eat all that much.

As she chewed her food, with the radio playing lively dance music in the background, she looked over at the mannequin and smiled and he always smiled back. He was never grumpy or out of sorts. He never dribbled food out of his mouth down his front. He was the perfect dining-table companion. How fortunate she was to have found him!

She left him in his place at the table while she washed the dishes, and when she was finished she wheeled him into the living room and lifted him onto the couch, propped his feet up and covered his legs with an afghan. (He had always been susceptible to chill, especially in the lower extremities.)

They both liked the same programs on TV. If she laughed while watching, she looked at him to see if he was also laughing. If she cried, he also cried, and if she became bored with a program and wanted to change the channels, he was always compliant.

After the weather report, she switched off the TV, took the mannequin into the bedroom and got him into his pajamas and into bed. She pulled the covers up under his chin, kissed him on the forehead and turned off the light. She always left his door open a couple of inches so she would hear him if he stirred.

After several months of unchanging days, the line between Freddy and the mannequin became blurred for Florida and then disappeared altogether. The mannequin became no longer a substitute for Freddy but Freddy himself. Florida forgot that Freddy had died (she put his ashes in the basement where she wouldn’t have to look at them). He had been with her all the time. It was a leap that she made in her mind as easily as breathing.

In October the days were warm and the sky as blue as it had been all year. Florida wanted Freddy to have some time outdoors before winter set in again. She dressed him warmly and took him for a stroll in the park where he might observe the beauty of nature. The little outing went so well, and they both enjoyed being out of the house so much, that she took him again the next day and then the day after that.

On the third day of Florida pushing Freddy through the park, a woman came and stood in front of the wheelchair and Florida was forced to stop. She thought the woman was going to ask her for change because she was that kind of woman, a bum or a homeless person.

“What’s the matter with you?” the woman asked.

“What?” Florida asked.

“What, are you deaf? I said, ‘What. Is. Wrong. With. You’?”

“Why, nothing’s wrong with me,” Florida said with a smile.

“Are you an escapee?”

“Am I a what?” Florida asked.

“You are such an asshole!” the woman said with exasperation. She was very short and fat, wore a filthy knit cap on her head and a man’s wool overcoat, even though the day was warm. She brandished a lighted cigarette like a knife.

“I beg your pardon?” Florida said.

“Every day for the last three days I’ve seen you pushing that dummy around in that chair.”

“Dummy?” Florida asked.

“Yeah! Him!” the woman said, pointing at Freddy.

Looking down at Freddy to see how the woman might be affecting him, Florida said, “He’s my husband.”

“Your husband!” the woman said with a hoot of laughter. “One of us is nuts and I don’t think it’s me!”

“If you’ll just let us pass?”

“It’s time you woke up and smelled the roses, dear!” the woman said. “That dummy ain’t nobody’s husband!”

A small group of people, sensing that something interesting was happening, had gathered around to listen.

“We’ve been married for fifty-two years,” Florida said. “Not that I think it’s any of your business.”

“Well, I hope you’re married for another fifty-two and I hope he don’t give you a bit of trouble, neither.”

“That’s silly,” Florida said.

The people who had gathered around laughed and the woman with the cigarette bowed like Sir Walter Raleigh and receded (or seemed to) behind a tree.

Florida felt the people looking at her, laughing. She wanted to get herself and Freddy away as quickly as she could, back to the safety and security of their own home. How ugly the world was! How cruel people could be!

Feeling shaken, she stopped the chair and sat down on a bench to rest before going home. The air had suddenly grown colder and the sun, shining so brightly just a little while ago, had receded behind the clouds.

“It was a mistake to bring Freddy out into the world,” she said. “He doesn’t need this any more than I do.”

She pushed her fingers lightly into Freddy’s upper arm and he tilted crazily against the arm of the wheelchair in such a way that only a person not in his right mind would think he was a real man.

“You aren’t real, are you?” she said. “I’ve only been fooling myself all along.”

She began to be afraid somebody might report her and they—the bureau of crazy people, maybe—would come and take her out of her home and make her stay in a mental home against her will. They might even shoot volts of electricity into her head, the way she had seen on TV. The thought made her feel light-headed with apprehension.

She dumped the mannequin (not really her Freddy, after all) out of the wheelchair under a tree and hurried away before she changed her mind.

On her way out of the park, an old man shuffled toward her.

“Can you spare a dollar?” he asked.

She looked at him and smiled. “Freddy?” she said.

“Name’s Boo-Boo,” he said. “At least that’s what my friends call me.”

“Would you like to come home with me?”

She touched the sleeve of the jacket he wore that was slick with dirt and said, “Gunsmoke is on tonight. That’s your favorite show.”

“What time is it?” he asked.

“I think it comes on at eight,” she said, misunderstanding the question.

“You really want me to come home with you?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.”

“Could I have a bath and some clean socks?”

“Anything you want.”

She pointed to the wheelchair. He sat in it and twisted his head around and smiled up at her.

“This is all right!” he said.

She touched him reassuringly on the shoulder and began pushing toward home. She thought how light he was, how easy to push, and how much she had missed him in the time he had been away.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Marcel Proust ~ A Capsule Book Review

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

French author Marcel Proust lived from the Belle Époque (born 1871) to the Roaring Twenties (died 1922.) Of all the writing that he did in his relatively short life, he is best known for his monumental seven-volume novel (approximately 4300 pages), In Search of Lost Time, or, as it has previously been translated, Remembrance of Things Past. Many people believe In Search of Lost Time to be the ultimate in novelistic art and Proust the greatest writer of his time.

Proust didn’t always enjoy such a lofty reputation, however. Early in his writing career he was dismissed as a socialite and a snob, incapable of producing anything of lasting value. He was slight of stature (one hundred pounds), always in poor health from asthma (there were times when he was virtually an invalid); had piercing dark eyes and a small black moustache. His homosexuality (which he took pains to conceal in certain quarters) led him into inappropriate liaisons, often with heterosexual social climbers who used him to get from him what they could.

Unlike other writers of his generation (the so-called “modernists”), Proust’s literary style is one of wordy, flowery sentences and the persistent use of metaphors. He practically invented a new style of writing fiction in which “involuntary memory” and autobiography play a large part. He frequently wrote about male partners with whom he shared dalliances and turned them into female characters in his writing. The “Narrator” of the novel (presumably Proust himself) is a raging heterosexual, even though many of his characters are gay.

Proust had a hard time finding a publisher for the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, which he called Swann’s Way. When it was published in 1913, it was dismissed as long and pointless by some leading critics. It wasn’t until subsequent volumes came out that people came to see it as a groundbreaking literary masterwork. (Apparently one has to read all seven volumes to get the full effect and understand Proust’s vision.) The final volume (volume 7) wasn’t published until 1927, five years after Proust’s death at the age of 51.

Edmund White, who has studied Proust at great length and taught courses about him, wrote this biography, Marcel Proust, for the Penguin Lives series. For the literature student who wants an overview of the life and times of Proust without spending too much time and effort, this book is an excellent choice. Edmund White concludes the book with an analysis of why Proust is even more popular today than ever before. In his words, “Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.”

Marcel Proust 2

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day

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They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day ~ A Short Story
by Allen Kopp 

It was a lonely, rocky place with liquid water and an atmosphere like earth’s. They had only each other to keep from going crazy while collecting the data they would take back home. Vance was older with other missions to his credit; Fiske younger, not long out of training.

Fiske was tired, had caught a bit of a cold. (“How do you catch a cold when there’s nobody to catch it from?”) Vance told him to relax while he prepared the evening meal. When the food was ready, Fiske was asleep. Vance touched him lightly on the shoulder. Fiske opened his eyes and sat up.

“Come and eat before I give it to the hogs,” Vance said.

“The nearest hog is millions of miles away,” Fiske said.

“We don’t know that for sure. I think I heard some rooting around outside last night.”

“Why didn’t you wake me earlier? Wasn’t it my turn to cook?”

“Thought you needed to sleep.”

“You’re too good to me.”

Before eating, Fiske did what he always did, marked another day off the calendar.

“How many to go?” Vance asked.

“A hundred and thirty-seven.”

“A cakewalk.”

A storm was brewing, so after the meal was finished Vance went outside to make sure everything was secure and nothing would blow away. When he came back inside, Fiske was checking the day’s transmissions from earth.

“Anything important?” Vance asked.

“Usual stuff. Status updates. Nothing very interesting.”

“No personal messages?”

“No.”

“Want to play a hand of cards before bed?”

“Not tonight,” Fiske said. “Headache.”

Vance opened the medicine chest and gave Fiske a couple of pills. “These will help you to sleep,” he said.

When they were in bed, Fiske turned his face toward the wall and made little snorting sounds.

“Having trouble breathing?” Vance asked.

“No, I guess I’ll live.”

“Are you crying?”

“Of course not.”

“If you want to cry, it’s all right.”

“I said I’m not crying!”

“What’s the matter, then?”

“I didn’t get a message from Linda. Again.”

“She’s probably busy with that day job of hers and taking care of her mother.”

“I think it’s more than that. It seems she no longer has anything to say to me. We were going to get married as soon as I got home.”

“Were?”

“I’m not so sure now that it’s the right thing to do.”

“Maybe you weren’t meant to marry Linda. Isn’t it better to know now before it’s too late?”

“Does it make any difference to you?” Fiske asked. “Not having anybody to go back to on earth?”

“What makes you think I don’t have anybody to go back to?”

“I don’t know. I just figured.”

“There is somebody, but I don’t talk about it to the people I work with.”

“You can talk about it to me.”

“It’s better if I don’t. You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?”

“Ever been married?”

“Once. We went our separate ways after five years.”

“Must have been tough.”

“Not really. Not as bad as having a tooth pulled.”

“Do you ever see her? Talk to her?”

“No. That was the point of getting the divorce.”

“You don’t know where she is?”

“I don’t care.”

“Couldn’t you at least have remained friends with her?”

“No.”

“You’re a hard case.”

“Not really.”

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep tonight,” Fiske said. “I keep thinking about Linda.”

“Read a book. Get your mind on something else.”

“I’ve never been much of a reader. I’m more of a doer.”

“Get up and do some work, then.”

“This storm has me on edge. Just listen to the wind howl!”

“I don’t mind it,” Vance said. “I’ve always liked being snug inside with a storm raging outside.”

“I’ve accepted that we’re going to die here.”

“From the storm? I don’t think so. We’ve seen worse storms than this.”

“People die on alien planets all the time.”

“I have no intention of dying.”

“What do you miss most about earth?”

“I don’t know,” Vance said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables, I suppose. Bananas. How about you? What do you miss most? Besides Linda, I mean?”

“Oh, everything,” Fiske said. “Trees and grass. Birds and flowers.”

“When people colonize this planet,” Vance said, “they’ll bring those things with them.”

“Maybe people have no business living in places like this,” Fiske said.

“Earth is no longer big enough. It’s time for the human population to expand beyond our puny little planet.”

“Humans! We think we’re so important but we’re not. The earth would be better off without us.”

“You don’t want to see other planets colonized?”

“Not especially. I just want to go home.”

“Go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Fiske said. “I would never have been able to stand this place without you.”

“That sounds strangely like a compliment,” Vance said.

“I just want you to know how I feel before it’s too late.”

The next day radio communication with earth was lost. Vance believed it was a temporary aberration that would correct itself in a day or two, but Fiske took it as another sign that he and Vance were going to die.

“They’re not coming to get us,” Fiske said.

“What do you mean?” Vance said. “Of course they’re coming, but it’s not time yet. They’ll come at the designated time.”

“We’ll be dead long before then.”

Fiske became ill with his lungs and Vance, not being a doctor, didn’t know what to do with him. All he could do was keep him comfortable the best he could.

“Soon you’ll be at home with Linda,” Vance said.

“That’s all over,” Fiske said. “I won’t ever see her again. She’s nothing to me. Only you matter to me now. I only want to be with you at the end.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying.”

Two weeks later, radio communication with earth still had not been restored.

“Maybe everybody on earth is  dead,” Fiske said.

“That’s absurd,” Vance said. “Of course they’re not dead.”

“I wouldn’t care if they were.”

“You’ll feel better in a couple of days,” Vance said, “and you’ll stop having those gruesome thoughts.”

“It’s just you and me now and I’m happy.”

Soon Fiske was not able to leave the bed. Vance lay beside him for hours at a time and when Fiske needed something Vance got up and did it. If Fiske was shivering, Vance held him in his arms until they both slept.

Vance soon became ill in the same way that Fiske was. He was no longer able to take care of himself or Fiske either. He believed for the first time that he and Fiske were indeed going to die and it seemed proper and fitting that it should be so, just the way Fiske had said.

Sometimes when he slept he had frightening dreams about being in a place of inky blackness where he couldn’t move his arms and legs and where he called out for help but no help was forthcoming. Once when he awoke from one of these dreams, he stood up to get a drink of water and as he was crossing the tiny space in the dark, something odd about the radio registered in his brain. All the controls were turned off. He hadn’t thought to turn them on. That’s why radio communication with earth had been lost for all those weeks. He laughed at himself and returned to bed.

Fiske stirred in his sleep and Vance leaned his weight against him, threw his left arm over him and put his nose near Fiske’s ear the way he was used to doing, but something wasn’t right. Fiske didn’t have the bulk, the volume, of a human man. Vance turned on the light and gasped when he saw that what he thought was Fiske was a pillow and a rolled-up blanket.

He stood up and looked around the room to see what had become of Fiske. He called Fiske’s name but there was no answer, just the way it had been in his dream. It wasn’t until he saw his own reflection in a mirror that he knew that Fiske wasn’t there, had never been there.

Vance had been the only man to volunteer for the mission that could accommodate only one person. He didn’t mind the loneliness, he said. He had known loneliness before and loneliness was nothing.

Hadn’t there been someone named Fiske back on earth?

Oh, yes. Fiske was a dark-haired younger man with fetchingly arched eyebrows that Vance had been drawn to. Fiske was like no other, sensitive and sweet. The two of them became close in a way that nobody would have guessed, even if they had tried. When Vance saw that Fiske meant to marry a debutante named Linda, he was wounded. He had had too much to drink, made a scene at a party and embarrassed Fiske and himself. Everybody was talking about it. That was why he volunteered for the lonely mission. He hoped he would die and never have to face those people again.

His fever broke and he drank some water and ate some food, after which he slept for many hours. When he awoke, he sent a transmission back to earth to the effect that he had been sick but now believed he would live. My head is bloody but unbowed, he said. I am master of my fate and captain of my soul.

Copyright 2015 by Allen Kopp

That Ol’ Country Boy was Just Horsin’ Around

~ That Ol’ Country Boy was Just Horsin’ Around ~ 

In Paper Moon, one of the best movies of the 1970s (and one of the prettiest to look at with its crisp black-and-white photography), there are some very funny scenes involving hoochie-coochie dancer Trixie Delight (Madeleine Kahn) and her “lady’s maid” Imogene (P. J. Johnson). In this scene in the car, Imogene is about to reveal some information to Trixie’s latest love interest Mose (Ryan O’Neal) that Trixie would rather he didn’t know.

“Tell him about the time that man tried to crack yo’ head open wif a bottle, Miss Trixie,” Imogene says.

“Oh, Imogene, you silly old thing! That ol’ country boy was just horsin’ around,” Miss Trixie says.

Mose gives Trixie an inquiring look and she says to him with an embarrassed little laugh, “Ask me real nice and I’ll tell you about that sometime.”

Paper Moon, Oh, Imogene, You Silly Old Thing

Paper Moon, Miss Trixie

Later in the movie, Trixie is trying to persuade Addie to let her sit in the front seat (“cause that’s where grownups do the sittin”).

“Somehow or other I don’t manage to hold on real long,” Trixie says. “I might get a new pair of shoes…a new dress…a few laughs…times are hard.” (Choking back tears.) “So if you fool around on the hill up here, honey, you don’t get nothin’, I don’t get nothin’, he don’t get nothin’. So how about it, honey, just for a little while? Let ol’ Trixie sit up front with her big tits.”

Paper Moon, So if you fool around on the hill up here, you don't get nothin', I don't get nothin', he don't get nothin'

 

Cardinalis Cardinalis

~ Cardinalis Cardinalis ~

The Northern Cardinal, also known as the Redbird, is one of the most beautiful birds in North America. With its distinctive red coloring, it stands out among all the birds. In this picture, the female is on the left and the other is the male.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis Cardinalis)

Virginia Woolf ~ A Capsule Book Review

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was one of the leading lights of English literature of the twentieth century. Her famous novels include Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has added to her fame, or at least to her name recognition, even though it has nothing to do with her. She was married to Leonard Woolf, a publisher and writer, from 1912 until her death in 1941. They never had any children.

Besides being a brilliant writer, Virginia Woolf was a feminist (extreme in her views that women had always been held back by men), lecturer (she would spend a year preparing a series of lectures she was going to give), snob (she believed America or Americans had never produced anything of value), pacifist (her lack of patriotism and indifference in World War I were mitigated by her fear of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II), and a lesbian. One of her long-term lesbian lovers was the writer Vita Sackville-West. Vita was married to Harold Nicholson, a writer who was also a homosexual. In spite of their sexual proclivities, Vita and Harold had two sons, Ben and Nigel. Nigel Nicholson was born in 1917 and knew Virginia Woolf when he was a child and she was an adult. (We should assume, I suppose, that he didn’t know the nature of his mother’s relationship with Virginia Woolf until many years later.) Nigel Nicholson wrote this brief (190 pages), engaging biography, Virginia Woolf, for the Penguin Lives series.

During Virginia Woolf’s life, she was as famous for her day-to-day activities as for her writing. She was a leader and outspoken member of the Bloomsbury Group, an aggregation of writers, thinkers and intellectuals whose works and outlook influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism and modern outlooks on pacifism, feminism and sexuality. Members of the Bloomsbury Group were well-known for their love affairs and espoused what later would be called “free love.” The Bloomsbury Group included (among others) writers E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey and painters Dora Carrington and Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

What most people today know about Virginia Woolf (thanks, in part, to the novel and movie, The Hours) is that she had “bouts of insanity.” She suffered from a form of mental illness, probably manic depression or bipolar disorder, that could today be controlled by medication. After a number of suicide attempts throughout her life, she drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in 1941 at the height (for Britain) of World War II, age fifty-nine. Her life and legacy live on in her work.

For students of twentieth century English literature, Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicholson is a fascinating, easy-to-read overview of the author’s life and times. Nigel Nicholson has the added advantage of having known Virginia Woolf firsthand and says in 190 pages what other writers would say in 500.

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp  

The Ten Thousand

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The Ten Thousand ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I had a new Siamese kitten named Percy, the cutest little thing you ever saw. He wasn’t used to his new home yet, so, at eleven o’clock at night when I opened the kitchen door to get something off the back porch, he ran out between my legs like a shot, presumably to get back to where he came from. He ran across the yard, to the fence and turned right. As I shambled down the alley in my pajamas and robe after him, some dogs began to bark and lights came on in houses. I figured somebody would end up calling the police, but I didn’t care; all I cared about at that moment was not letting Percy out of my sight. Finally I caught up with him at the end of the alley, where he had stopped to think about which way he was going to go from there.

I grabbed Percy before he had a chance to start running again and held him to my chest in both hands, a tiny ball of warm, soft fur. I scolded him for being a bad boy and trying to get away from me, but he started purring so I couldn’t be mad at him for long.

Every house had a garage that opened onto the alley. The doors of one of these garages were open and I couldn’t keep from looking inside. A man was standing beside his car with a massive bundle in his arms. I didn’t know his name but I had seen him and his wife around in the neighborhood.

“Oh!” I said. “Everything all right there?”

He heaved the bundle to the ground as if he couldn’t hold it any longer and looked at me. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “I was just loading my laundry into my car.”

I took a step closer.

“Well, good night!” he said, cheerily.

Still I stood there looking at him as he opened the trunk of his car and lifted the bundle and tried to put it inside. I could see how heavy it was from the way he was straining.

“Lots of laundry,” I said.

He laughed. “Well, you know how it is. Good night to you, now!”

“Laundries don’t usually stay open this late at night.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I’m going to drop it off in the morning on my way to work.”

The bundle was about six feet long and appeared to be stiffening. When he tried to stuff it into the trunk, the end of it caught on the lip of the trunk.

“That doesn’t look like any bundle of laundry I’ve ever seen,” I said.

I could tell he was losing patience with me. “Look,” he said. “It’s late. Why don’t you just take your cat and go on home?”

“I might feel inclined to call the police when I get there.”

I was playing with him, enjoying the unexpected feeling of power I had at that moment.

“No reason to do that,” he said.

“I think it might be interesting to tell them what I just saw.”

“You didn’t see anything.”

“I saw a man loading a suspicious-looking bundle into his car late at night. I think it’s my civic duty to alert the authorities and let them figure out what’s going on.”

“Nothing’s going on!”

“Is that a body you have in your trunk? A dead body?”

“What would make you think that?”

“It’s pretty hard to make a dead body look like anything else.”

“It’s my laundry. I already told you that.”

Percy, growing tired of the conversation, yawned and began to squirm.

“Well, my baby here wants to go home,” I said.

“Don’t go just yet,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid I’ve given you the wrong impression and I want a chance to make it right.”

“Why would you care what impression I have?”

“What you saw here is perfectly innocent.”

“All right. So it’s perfectly innocent.”

He slammed the lid of the trunk. “Would you like to come inside and have a drink?” he asked.

“I don’t really drink that much. And, anyway, I have to get my cat home.”

He waved his arm dismissively without looking at me again.

“Well, good night, then,” I said as I walked away.

I had been home only long enough to give Percy a drink of water when there was a knock at the kitchen door. I went to the door and asked who was there.

“It’s Clifford Lakey,” a voice said. “Your neighbor. We just spoke in the alley?”

I opened the door a couple of inches and saw the side of his face.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I was wondering if we might have a talk.”

“It’s late,” I said. “I was just about to go to bed.”

“I know but it’s important.”

I let him in and to my surprise he sat at the kitchen table as if he owned it. He put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and slumped his shoulders. He had dark circles around his eyes and a bad gash on his head. He exuded an odor like a wet dog.

“You hurt your head,” I said.

“It’s nothing. I can hardly feel it.”

“Well, what can I do for you on this Thursday night that’s almost Friday morning?”

“I did a stupid thing,” he said.

“We all do stupid things.”

“I did the stupidest thing you can do, but now it’s done I’m not sorry I did it. I’d do it again.”

He took his hand out of his pocket to wipe it across his brow and I saw it was shaking. “I’m so tired,” he said.

I sighed. I had been going to yawn, but I thought it might be too much. “Maybe we could postpone this conversation to a more suitable hour,” I said.

“You saw something tonight that I wish you hadn’t seen.”

“Your laundry?”

“You and I both know it wasn’t laundry.”

I went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of apple juice. I poured some into two glasses and set one in front of him. He gulped it down and I refilled his glass.

“I don’t care what it was,” I said. “I mind my own business.”

“Now that you’ve seen what I didn’t want you to see, I want to make to you a proposal.”

“Propose away,” I said.

“I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you’ll promise not to tell anybody about what you saw.”

“It was the body of your wife, wasn’t it?”

“A thousand dollars,” he said. “How does that sound?”

“I’d have to have it in cash.”

“Of course,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”

“What’s there to think about?”

“I would be compromising my integrity if I kept still about what I saw.”

He leaned forward, elbows on table, and covered his eyes with his hands. I thought he was going to cry. “My head hurts terribly,” he said.

“Would you like some aspirin?”

“No. What I need is help disposing of it.”

“Disposing of your laundry?”

“Since you already know about this, you seem the logical person to help me.”

I sighed wearily. “I have to get to bed. It’s way past my bedtime.”

“Would you do it if there was more money involved?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’d rather not get involved with a person disposing of his laundry late at night.”

He looked around the room. “You live here alone?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s your profession?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Lot of money in that?”

“No.”

“I’ll give you ten thousand,” he said.

I stood up from the table, walked to the middle of the room and whirled around like there was something wrong with me. “You’ll give me ten thousand dollars to help you dispose of your laundry?”

“And to keep quiet about it ever after.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d be taking an awful risk.”

“It’s my final offer.”

“I’d have to have it in cash.”

“I know. I don’t have the cash in the house but I could get it by the end of the day tomorrow.”

“By four o’clock?”

“All right,” he said.

“If I don’t have the money by four,” I said, “I’m afraid I’ll start having trouble with my itchy dialing finger.”

“You’ll have it by four, I promise.”

“In cash?”

“In cash.”

After I put Percy to bed and got myself dressed, I met Clifford in the alley. We both got into his car and he began driving.

He drove and drove and drove. He seemed to know where he was going, but I didn’t have a clue. Nothing looked familiar. It was too dark. I didn’t recognize anything.

We crossed into another state. I looked at my watch and saw it was almost two in the morning. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“I know a place,” he said.

We didn’t even bother with small talk, just sat in silence. I was sorry I had agreed to help him. The only thing that would make it worth all this bother and lost sleep was when I held the ten thousand dollars in my hand the next afternoon.

He turned off the highway onto an old country road that was so hilly and curvy I thought I was going to be sick. I asked him to stop and let me stand still by the side of the road for a couple of minutes, but he said we were almost to the place where we were going and soon everything would be all right.

Finally he turned the car onto a dirt road that went downhill.

“This doesn’t seem right,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I grew up near here. I know these back roads.”

“Let’s get this finished and go back home,” I said. “I don’t feel very well.”

The dirt road grew so rough and washed out that I was afraid we were going to get stuck. Finally he pulled up to a place where the road widened and turned off the engine. The dark and quiet were profound, the way death must be.

“We’re here,” he said. “It’s just up the hill and past those trees.”

“Where are we?” I asked.

“It’s an old homestead. People used to live here but they all died out about fifty years ago.”

“Probably from loneliness,” I said.

I helped him get the bundle out of the trunk and together we struggled with it up the hill through the brush.

“I didn’t realize your wife was such a big woman,” I said.

He laughed as if I had made a joke.

We came to a place where there was an old falling-down house and barn, the shell of an ancient pickup truck, dead and rotting trees, thick undergrowth everywhere.

“This place gives me the creeps,” I said.

There was a concrete slab between the house and barn. Over it was a rusted metal plate.

“This is it,” he said.

We laid the bundle down and I helped him pull the heavy metal plate to the side a few feet.

“It’s an old well,” he said. “Not a drop of water but it goes down hundreds of feet.”

I thought we would just dispose of the bundle and leave, but he opened it partway and shone his flashlight on it. What I saw was not what I expected.

“It’s a man!” I said.

“Yes.”

“You said it was your wife.”

You said it was my wife.”

“Well, I just assumed. Who is he?”

He sighed and spit on the ground. “If you must know,” he said, “he’s a hustler I picked up on a street corner downtown. I don’t know his name.”

I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. “I’m sorry, but you don’t seem like the type to pick up nameless hustlers on street corners.”

“When I took him home with me, he tried to rob me. We struggled. He hit me in the head with a bottle. It was him or me. I killed him in self-defense.”

“Why don’t you go to the police and tell them what happened?”

“For obvious reasons.”

He re-covered the hustler’s face and we heaved the body down the well. That was the easy part. I listened for it to hit bottom but heard nothing.

“No better place to dispose of a body,” he said.

“You’ve done this before,” I said, certain of the fact.

“What’s past is past.”

“Your wife?”

“She left about six months ago. I didn’t kill her but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to.”

“So you pick up hustlers from street corners downtown and kill them?”

“He was the first hustler I ever killed.”

I was feeling light-headed so I sat down on the edge of the concrete slab, hands on thighs, and leaned forward. When I sat up again, he was pointing a gun at me.

“You’re going down that well, too,” he said.

“What?”

“You didn’t think I was just going to hand over ten thousand dollars to a clown like you, did you?”

I was insulted by the clown remark. “Why am I a clown anymore than you are?” I asked.

“The ten thousand would have satisfied you for a while, but it would have occurred to you eventually that you could get more. Blackmail is an ugly thing.”

“So is murder.”

“Nobody will ever miss you.”

“How do you know?”

I stood up, thinking about rushing him for the gun, but I was afraid it would go off and I would be on the receiving end. “This is not right,” I said. “You won’t gain anything by killing me.”

“I won’t? How do you figure?”

“Just forget the ten thousand. I don’t want it.”

“It’s not about the ten thousand,” he said.

“If you’re worried I’ll go to the police and tell them anything, I won’t. I promise.”

“Forgive me if I’m not able to believe you,” he said.

He pulled back the hammer on the gun before firing. I surprised him, and also myself, by bending over and retching on the ground. It seemed that everything I had eaten in the past twenty-four hours came up. Having my life threatened was too much for me.

“I’m not well,” I said, after I was finished vomiting. “I think I’m having a heart attack.

I groaned, grabbed my chest and slumped to the ground. I guess he wasn’t able to shoot a person in the midst of a major heart episode. He lowered the gun and bent over me with what seemed like real concern.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “I didn’t mean…”

I rushed him then, caught him off-guard. I tackled his legs with all my might and brought him down. He fell hard on his back. When I saw he had dropped the gun, I went for it, but so did he.

He had the gun in his hand and was scrambling to stand up again when a metal rod came to my hand in the dark as if it had been placed there by Providence. I hit him in the head with the rod, not as hard as I would have liked, and he went down again. When he started to get up, I hit him again and then again. I kept hitting him in the head until it was a bloody pulp. He made a gurgling sound in his throat and I knew he was dead.

I was sick and trembling but I managed to drag Clifford’s body over to the well and push it in; replace the well cover the way it was. Then, not wanting anything more to do with the place, I ran down the hill to the car.

I didn’t know which direction to take to go back home, but I drove until I came to a gas station. I told the attendant where I wanted to go and he took out a map and wrote out some directions for me. I would have given him a big tip if I had had any money with me.

I didn’t get home until nine o’clock in the morning. I pulled Clifford’s car into his garage and turned off the engine. Wiped down the steering wheel and door handles with a rag to remove my fingerprints. Closed the garage doors as quietly as I could and slipped up the alley to my own house like a wraith. When I opened my back door, Percy was there to greet me.

A few days later the local newspaper ran a story about Clifford Lakey’s disappearance. Police were investigating but so far had no clues. His estranged wife was living in California and had not been ruled out as a suspect. The implication was that she had hired a professional killer to do away with her husband. That seemed as logical an explanation as any other. I somehow felt she would have a hard time proving she didn’t do it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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