I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live as if there isn’t and die to find out there is. ~ Albert Camus
The Door That’s Always Closed ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
My name is Charles Anson. I moved in with my mother in her apartment after my father died. At first I hated the idea of living with her at the age of thirty-seven, but soon I got used to it and thought of her home as my home. And I have to admit my life was easier than when I had my own place. My mother had a cook and housekeeper, so I no longer had to buy my own food or cook it and no longer had to do any housecleaning, which I was never very good at anyway.
My mother didn’t give birth to me until her mid-forties, so to me she seemed old before her time. She had developed a bad heart in the years after my father’s death and told me she was happy to have me there with her—I was her only family that counted, she said—even though we argued quite a lot at times about my drinking habits and the late hours I sometimes kept. My mother had a bad temper, which my father could have told you about if he had still been alive. I remember when I was little and heard them fighting late at night. It wasn’t unusual to hear glass breaking or wood splintering. When my father got enough of being goaded, he would end up breaking something. In the morning when I asked about whatever it was that got broken, my mother would laugh and say my father had a little accident while sleepwalking. I knew it wasn’t the truth but it was a good way to gloss over an ugly situation.
I went to work every day and when I came home my mother was there and dinner on the table and all was well. After dinner, I would usually step out if I felt like it, and I see now that my mother was a little jealous that I didn’t spend all my time with her when I wasn’t working. She watched movies on television and she was always happy to have me watch with her, but it wasn’t my idea of a good time. I could only take so many Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movies.
Most of the time when I came home from a night on the town, sometimes at one or two in the morning, my mother would have all the lights on in the place and also the TV but would have retired to her room. This made her feel safer when she was alone, she said. I would turn everything off, starting with the TV, and make my way to bed, sleep for about four hours, get up and begin my day all over again, as so many of us working stiffs do. My mother had told me I didn’t even need to work, that she had plenty of money for us both to live on, but I couldn’t see myself hanging around all day with just her to talk to and having to ask her for money anytime I wanted to go out and have a few drinks.
On weekends I always tried to spend either Saturday or Sunday with my mother, just the two of us. She liked to go for a drive and I would very often take her to the cemetery where my father was and take her to a hamburger place for lunch. If it was a Sunday, we would try to take in a museum or a concert. If we ever went to a movie, she always said she preferred seeing movies on TV, and when I told her most people who liked movies wanted to see them at the theatre and not on TV, she only shook her head as if she didn’t understand.
“Movies today are not like the old ones they have on TV,” she said.
“To each his own,” I said.
All in all, my life was agreeable. I didn’t spend most of the money I made so I was able to invest. The market was doing well, so I did well. I didn’t miss the things I didn’t have that other people had, like a marriage and children. I had learned early in life that not everybody in the world is the same and I found it out more and more as I got older.
My mother went on for years with her bad heart, but she came to a point where she couldn’t go on any longer. She looked pale and drawn all the time and spent most of her time lying down. She stopped fixing herself up and having her hair done up. Most days she didn’t even bother to get dressed.
She went to the hospital for a few days and when she came home she swore she would never go back, no matter what. She wanted to be in the privacy of her own home and not have a bunch of strangers around her at the end. I hired a nurse to be with her during the day when I was at work and another at night. They just did their work quietly and effectively and didn’t bother me. I paid them when the time came and left them to do whatever needed to be done.
I decided to quit my job in early summer. I didn’t need to work, as I said before, and all the time I was away I was worried that the end would come for my mother and I wouldn’t be there when she needed me. I dismissed both nurses and told them I would take over from there.
My mother moved into one of the guest bedrooms—she didn’t want to mess up her own room where all her treasures were—and became entirely bedridden. Her doctor sympathized with her desire to be at home and gave me lots of pills to give to her. He told me I didn’t have to hold back in administering her medicine and nobody would ever know the difference. I knew what he was talking about without having it explained.
We kept her heavily sedated and I knew she wasn’t in any pain. Every so often she would open her eyes and look at me and I knew she was happy with the way things had turned out. She drifted away peacefully on a blazing day in August. She was breathing and then she wasn’t.
Now, when a loved one dies, there are things that need to be done. I was supposed to call the doctor and get a death certificate and then call the funeral home and have them come and get her. I found I wasn’t able to do those things, though. I could not speak the words to anybody that she was gone. All I did was close the door and lock it. I placed a beautiful Chinese screen she was fond of in front of the door to make it look like there was no door there at all.
I knew it was wrong to just leave my mother in the room that way, but it seemed the only thing I could do. I was distraught. My world had been ripped asunder. How could I go on living day after day, year after year? I had nothing to live for.
I kept the apartment dark and I started drinking heavily and taking my mother’s pills. If I didn’t know what they were for, it didn’t make any difference. If I took too many and went to sleep and didn’t wake up, it was all the same to me. I was in a state between living and dying. Time lost all meaning for me.
Then, after two weeks or so, I suppose I snapped out of it, at least partway. I looked at myself in the mirror and vomited. After that, I cleaned myself up and went out and had a good meal in a restaurant. The next day I hired some cleaning people to come in and clean the apartment and air everything out from top to bottom. Except for the room my mother was in, of course.
I began eating regular meals again and gained some weight. I bought some cook books and learned to fix dishes I had never fixed before, like leg of lamb and Hungarian goulash. I bought myself some new clothes and began going out more, but always alone.
In the evenings I would pass the time reading novels, listening to classical music or watching old movies on TV as my mother had loved to do. I became as knowledgeable in movie lore as she had ever been. I saw all the films of Ramon Novarro and Ruth Chatterton. Kay Francis came to seem like an old friend.
To keep from feeling so alone, I bought a life-sized human female doll. It was supposed to be a young and beautiful woman, of course, a substitute companion for lonely men, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted it to resemble my mother. I put makeup on it to make it look older, put one of my mother’s wigs on it and dressed it in my mother’s clothes. I created an illusion. At night in the dark, with just the light from the TV screen, I would have sworn it was her sitting there if I hadn’t known better. I know she would have been pleased.
From there I took the next logical step and began dressing in her clothes myself. It made me feel close to her as though I were absorbing her essence into my body. She wasn’t a rotting corpse behind a closed door. She was right there with me and had been all the time.
After I dressed in her clothing a few times, I started experimenting with makeup. I applied it to my own face exactly as she would have applied it to her face. She had a couple of wigs on the top shelf of her closet and I got them down and tried them with different outfits. I would spend the entire day dressed as her. If it made me feel better and less alone, what did it hurt?
As I stood and looked at myself in her full-length mirror, I realized for the first time how much like her I was. My face was the same shape as hers, down to the dimple in my chin, and I had the same coloring. My beard stubble was light and nonexistent for at least a day after I shaved. I was the embodiment of my mother. I saw nothing of my father in me. He had been large with fleshy ears and a nose like a lump of cauliflower. When I was a child, I used to wonder how the two of them ever came to be together.
I spent hours practicing her walk, her laugh, the way she spoke, lit a cigarette or downed her vodka and tonic. I could match her signature so well that the most highly trained handwriting expert in the world would never have been able to tell the difference. But for whom was I doing all this? Was it was just tricks to be performed for my own amusement or was it something else?
One day when I was feeling brave and more than a little bold I decided to try a little experiment. Dressed as my mother—in her clothes, shoes, wig, hat and coat—I went down in the elevator and down the street to the market on the corner and bought a bag of groceries. I expected people to look at me and know I wasn’t what, or who, I appeared to be. If anybody noticed me at all, though, they looked away without giving me a thought. It was exactly the effect I hoped for.
On my way home, a neighbor woman stopped me on the sidewalk. She put her hand on my arm and leaned in familiarly.
“I heard you were sick,” she said. “I’m glad to see you looking so well.”
“I’m much better now,” I (my mother) said. “My son has been taking care of me.”
I began going out more as my mother. People who had known her for years weren’t able to tell the difference. I kept them from looking at me too closely but, even if they had, I don’t think they would have suspected anything. People see what they want to see and are not all that observant.
Take my mother’s lawyer, for example. He had some documents he wanted her to sign. Now, my mother and her lawyer had known each since high school. Making him believe I was her would be the ultimate test. I was sure I could do it but I was little anxious he would take one look at me and know I was somebody other than my mother. Would he then think I had murdered her or something equally bizarre? I knew I was taking a chance, but I was willing to risk it.
I didn’t need to worry. The lawyer held onto my gloved hand longer than was needed and led me to a chair in front of his desk.
“I’ve never seen you looking so radiant,” he said.
“Why, thank you!”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“Lots of broccoli and blueberries.”
“It has to be more than that.”
“Well, we all have our little secrets.”
“You can’t fool me about your age. I know exactly how old you are because I’m the same age.”
“It’s only a number,” I (my mother) said. “I stopped counting a long time ago.”
After I signed the papers, he invited me to lunch but I lied and told him I had an appointment to see my doctor. I wasn’t sure I could keep up the illusion through a long, liquor-infused sit-down.
When I went out of the apartment now, about half the time it was as my mother. People were attentive and polite to a well-dressed woman alone. I got the best tables in restaurants and some man or other was always more than willing to give me a seat on a crowded subway or bus. People lit my cigarettes, opened doors for me and held elevators. I could always get a smile out of even the most sour-faced old buzzard.
Sometimes, but not often, I thought about my mother lying on the bed in that room behind the screen. I couldn’t visualize her as a rotting corpse. You hear stories about a dead body being closed up in a house and people realizing it’s there only because they can smell it. There had been no odors in my apartment and no complaints from any of the neighbors. I had heard stories about the bodies of saints that aren’t subject to the laws of decay. I could almost believe that my mother was one of those. Wondrous are the workings of heaven and not of nature.
I dreamed often about my mother, a happy dream in which I could hear her voice and see her laughing face. She was always excited about something she had seen or read, a trip she was taking, a play she was going to or an old friend she had met again by chance. She was the only truly good person I had ever known. Everybody loved her.
When I was myself, Charles, I felt dull and uninteresting. My clothes were ill-fitting, no matter how much I paid for them or with what care I chose them. In conversation I was a nonentity. I had nothing to say to people and no desire to be with them.
I went to a lecture on Nebuchadnezzar at a museum, not as my mother but as myself. There I ran into an old acquaintance named Hulga Bosworth. We had dated for a while right after college. It was never what I would have called a romance but more just something I did back then because it’s what everybody else was doing. Hulga told me she had been married and divorced two times. When I asked her if she thought she was ever going to get it right, she just laughed.
She gave me her phone number and a few days later, when I was feeling low, I called her and we spent the next couple of hours filling each other in on our lives. We went out to dinner the next day and a couple of days after that we went to a piano recital. She told me on our second outing that she had never stopped thinking about me and hoped we would somehow meet again. When I said I was surprised that she had ever given me another thought, she laughed and said my modesty was one of the things she had always loved about me.
Hulga and I started spending a lot of time together. Since we were both alone, getting married seemed the next logical step. I wasn’t in love with her but we were compatible and I didn’t relish the idea of spending the rest of my life with nobody to talk to or eat dinner with. When I asked her if she’d like to get married, she didn’t hesitate before saying yes.
It wasn’t to be, though. When she told me I would have to give up my apartment, I refused.
“But darling,” she said, “we don’t need ten rooms for just the two of us.”
“I’m not moving,” I said. “This is my mother’s apartment. She expects me to keep it up while she’s away.”
“Isn’t your name on the lease?”
“It doesn’t matter if it is or not. I’m not moving.”
“You’re being childish.”
“Women always think that men are being childish when they refuse to take orders.”
We had a terrible argument, during which she demanded that I open the door to the room behind the Chinese screen.
“It hasn’t been opened in years,” I said.
“I want to see what’s in it.”
“Maybe it’s none of your business. Did you ever think of that?”
“It seems that since we’re to be married, your business is my business.”
“Not always,” I said.
She cried and threw an expensive vase at me and stormed out the door. The next day when she called to apologize I wouldn’t take her call or the calls that came after.
It was for the best, I knew. I didn’t want to enter into a bad marriage and then have to end up giving her half of everything I owned in a divorce settlement.
After that I drowned Charles in the bathtub, burning his tuxedo as a symbolic gesture, and lived my life as Margaret, mother of Charles. I never did like Charles anyway and I was sure nobody else did. But I continued in the hope that someday there would be somebody for me. If not my mother then somebody like her. Somebody to close the door and lock it when the time came and make sure nobody ever got in.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
The Stranger ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
French writer Albert Camus was born in Algiers in 1913 and died in an automobile accident in 1960 at the age of 47. His novel The Stranger was published in 1942 and first appeared in English in 1946. It’s the simple story of an ordinary French Algerian, named Meursault, and the act of senseless violence that changed his life.
When the story begins, Meursault’s mother has died in the rest home where he put her because he couldn’t take care of her properly at home. When he travels to her funeral it is a very hot day. He loved his mother in his own way but is not able to cry over her death. In the ordeal of sitting up with her body overnight and the funeral the next day, he shows no emotion. He stands before her coffin, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, observing the other mourners. His lack of emotion is noted by those in attendance and plays a significant part in what is to come.
Meursault has a friend named Raymond Sintès. When Raymond has a dispute with an Arab girlfriend, Meursault helps Raymond by writing her a letter. This leads to an altercation between Raymond and the girl, which leads to Raymond hitting her. A few days later when Meursault and Raymond go to the beach with some friends, the girl’s brother is waiting for them. There is a fight, during which Raymond is slightly injured. Meursault takes Raymond’s gun from him to keep him from doing anything rash. Later in the day, after they have all calmed down, Meursault returns to the beach with the gun and shoots the Arab five times and kills him. Meursault can’t explain why he killed the man, except to say that it was very hot.
Meursault is put in prison to await trail. He is detached about prison as he is about everything else. He is appointed a lawyer, who assures him that he will be acquitted. When the trail begins, it doesn’t go well for Meursault. The prosecution brings in all the people from Meursault’s mother’s funeral who testify that Meursault didn’t cry. The prosecutor in his eloquence portrays Meursault is a cold, calculating murderer and an unfeeling monster. The jury finds him guilty and he is sentenced to die by the guillotine. While awaiting death he allows himself to imagine some miracle occurring by which he is acquitted, but he knows it isn’t going to happen.
Meursault confides to a prison chaplain that he believes in nothing, that life is meaningless and random. There is no plan, no design that gives life a larger meaning. Meursault believes he understands the indifference of the universe toward man, and this allows him to come to terms with his own death. “…I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world,” he says. “Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”
The Stranger is divided into two parts, before the murder and after. It’s a first-person narrative, told in Meursault’s own voice. We’re being told Meursault’s version of what happened. This makes the story seem immediate and relevant. While Meursault is detached in all things, his story is not detached and the reader doesn’t feel detached either. It’s a very readable classic, never dull or ponderous. In tenth grade when we were given a list of books to read to write a report on, I chose Pride and Prejudice. If I had known then how good The Stranger is, I would have chosen it instead. The Bennett sisters are chloroform in print.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
Mad Max: Fury Road ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
Mad Max: Fury Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world (yes, another one), in an arid desert wasteland, where warring factions made up of grotesques battle each other in enormous vehicles (1000 horsepower) called “war rigs” that seem to be made up of parts of old cars and trucks. These people have reverted to a kind of primitive state in which one person, named Immortan Joe (the most grotesque of them all), “owns” all the people because he “owns” all the water. A woman named Furiosa has “stolen” some of Immortan Joe’s “breed stock” (five scantily clad girls, one of whom is carrying his child) to free them and also to take them with her to the “green place” of her birth. We can see that Furiosa has not had an easy time of it; her left arm is missing below the elbow. She keeps the girls hidden in her war rig as she tries to flee with them.
Enter Max Rockatansky, or Mad Max (Tom Hardy). Max tells us right at the beginning that he is driven by his instinct for survival in this hellish world and is haunted by the people he wasn’t able to save, including, apparently, his own small daughter who appears in his vision at odd times. This is about all we ever learn of Max. He is taciturn in the way of movie heroes, not nearly as menacing as the other men in the movie, and is more than capable of taking care of himself and anybody else he wants to take care of. He joins forces with Furiosa and the breed stock girls, helping them to get to where they think they want to go and flee from their menacing pursuers. We see that Furiosa likes Max but there’s no room here for romance—everybody is in too much danger and too hot and sweaty.
Mad Max: Fury Road has everything you would expect from an action-adventure movie: loudness, fiery explosions, a pulsating music score, unintelligible dialogue, lots of frenetic action, death-defying stunts, and good against not-so-good. This one also has character names such as Slit, Nux, Rictus Erectus, and Toast the Knowing. I see on IMDb that it’s not a remake of the 1979 Australian movie with Mel Gibson but a different story using the concept and setting of the earlier movie. Everything that was at one time a movie hit (that is, made money) will eventually find its way into the forefront again if you give it enough time.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
All the Light We Cannot See ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s a World War II story (yes, another one) set mostly in the small French coastal town of Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a French girl, blind from the age of six. She lives with her widowed father, who is employed as a locksmith at an enormous Paris museum. Marie-Laure is very bright and seems to live life to the fullest despite her blindness. She reads books in Braille—Jules Verne is her favorite writer—and she and her father are happy in their lives. All of that changes, however, when Germany occupies France and Marie-Laure and her father flee to the town of Saint-Malo and the home of Marie-Laure’s father’s uncle, whose name is Etienne.
Marie-Laure and her father are happy in Saint-Malo with Uncle Etienne and his housekeeper, Madame Manec, in spite of the deprivations of war. After a time, though, Marie-Laure’s father is called back to Paris by his employer (apparently a trick) and is captured and imprisoned by the Germans. Marie-Laure has no other choice but to continue to stay with her great-uncle in the narrow, six-story house in Saint-Malo. The town is right in the way of the fighting, though, so war comes to their doorstep when the Allied forces invade France to liberate it from the Germans. Etienne is forced to give up any radio transmitter in his home, but he keeps one secretly and continues to broadcast information that will be of help to the resistance movement. Marie-Laure is also part of the resistance, as she carries information, baked into loaves of bread, that he can transmit.
Marie-Laure’s story is juxtaposed with that of a German boy named Werner Pfennig. Werner and his sister Jutta live in an orphan home in a dreary mining town in Germany. Werner is also very bright and teaches himself the principles of mechanics and radio technology. When people see that he can repair radios that nobody else can, he is chosen to go to a “Hitler Youth” school. He has been looking for a chance to escape his dreary, futureless existence (and an enforced job in the coal mine when he turns fifteen) and this is his one chance, although he isn’t at all political and he hates to leave behind his sister, Jutta, as she is his only family.
Werner and his small contingent happen to be in Saint-Malo when it is heavily bombarded. They are buried for many days beneath a hotel that has collapsed. With what little he has to work with, he is able to put together a radio receiver that allows him to hear radio transmissions. He hears the voice of Marie-Laure as she reads from Jules Verne. When he and the others miraculously and unexpectedly escape from their imprisonment, he goes looking for the girl whose voice he heard. We knew all along that his life and Marie-Laure’s life were in some way going to intersect. He plays an important role in her life, but not in the way one might expect.
All the Light We Cannot See is a very readable book, with short chapters, most no more than two or three pages long. It’s not what you would call a long-winded book despite its 530 pages. The characters are engaging and believable and, even though it’s a wartime story, it’s not about war but about innocents whose lives are caught up in war. World War II continues to provide an unending source of storytelling material. What would the twentieth century be without war? Not nearly as tumultuous or as interesting.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
(This is an expanded version of a short story I posted before.)
Margaret Pendler was to be passed over again for promotion, after seventeen years with the company. A younger, prettier girl named Stephanie with only three years got the nod. Stephanie with her blond hair and tight skirts that showed the contours of her can; shapely, nylon-clad legs that she was all too willing to show off; a touch of cleavage, perfect teeth and lips the color of a valentine.
After Margaret received the news right before morning coffee break, she sat at her desk holding a pencil in her right hand, her left hand on her cheek, barely moving. Not even pretending to do any work. When the girls, all atwitter at Stephanie’s promotion, went for coffee, Margaret stayed behind.
In one minute or less, she had lost all interest in everything around her. When Mr. Dauphin came in, she didn’t even look up and smile as she always did. He was her favorite and she had even believed, at infrequent intervals, that she was in love with him. Never mind that he had been married three times and was working his way through all the pretty young things in the office.
At lunchtime she was still sitting exactly as she had been two hours earlier. Her coworkers had been giving her curious glances but she ignored them. If anybody had said anything to her, she might have pulled a knife out of the drawer and stabbed them.
Finally, when the lunch hour was almost over, she stood up and said, to no one person in particular, “I have no wish to be here.” She took her purse and her raincoat and left, without bothering to straighten the clutter on her desk or even to push the chair in. Without a word to anybody, she went down the stairs and out the building, her intention being never to return.
At home her mother, Georgina, was going through trunks, trying on clothes and wigs for a social function she was going to go to at her lodge. She held up a forties-vintage green dress with huge fabric-covered buttons and a long red wig and said, “What do you think of this?”
“Is it a costume party?” Margaret asked.
“No. I just want to look different from anybody else there.”
“That ought to do the trick.”
“What do you think of these?” She held up a silk Pagliacci lounging set.
“Oh, I think you ought to put those on now,” Margaret said.
“I think I will.”
Georgina went behind the screen to change. “I think I’m getting married again,” she said in a too-loud voice, believing that if she wasn’t seen she wasn’t heard.
“Who’s the lucky fellow?” Margaret asked.
“His name is Herman Mudge. I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure. He hasn’t actually asked me yet, but I think he will.”
“Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
“What do you think about having a stepfather?” Georgina asked, stepping out from behind the screen and turning around one time so Margaret could see the silk Pagliacci lounging set.
“Stunning,” Margaret said. “Is he younger than you?”
“Is who younger than me?”
“He’s eighty-three. I’m seventy-nine. I think that’s a nice age difference, don’t you? My father was four years older than my mother.”
“Where are you going to live after you get married?”
“Why, here, of course. He’s got a small room in a hotel. You don’t think a newly married couple can live there, do you?”
“Well, I hope you’ll both be very happy,” Margaret said.
“I want cornflakes for supper and macaroons,” Georgina said.
After the evening meal was finished and the dishes washed and put away, Georgina installed herself on the couch in front of the television set for her endless parade of police dramas and situation comedies. Soon she was asleep with her head thrown back, her mouth open because she had trouble breathing through her nose. Her dentures had slipped down and were partway out of her mouth, giving her a rather strange and unnatural appearance.
Margaret went upstairs to her bedroom, threw some clothes into a suitcase and left the house, her intention being never to return. She took a taxi to the bus station where she stood in line for fifteen minutes to buy a ticket to the nearest large city. After she had her ticket, she sat on a hard plastic chair for nearly two hours until time for her bus.
When her bus was finally announced, she stood up and ran for the door as if it might leave without her. Heart pounding, she boarded and took a seat next to the window near the back. As the bus roared off, she laughed, relieved that the ordeal of waiting was at an end.
She slept at intervals during the trip but it was a troubled sleep, the kind she had when she was sick with one of her bronchitis infections. At about four-thirty in the morning the bus arrived at its destination. Stiff from the long hours of sitting, she had a cup of coffee and a light breakfast in the coffee shop of the sprawling bus depot and set out walking, not certain where she was going.
The St. George Hotel had nothing to recommend it other than its neon sign glowing invitingly in the early-morning light and its height of fifteen stories. She went inside and asked for a room on one of the upper floors. When the desk clerk asked her how long she would be staying, she said she didn’t know.
Her room on the twelfth floor was dark and musty-smelling like a long-undiscovered tomb. She turned on the lights, hung her coat in the closet and slung her suitcase on the bed. Crossing the room to the lone window, she pulled back the heavy curtain and looked down at the street a hundred and twenty feet below. She calculated the approximate spot on the sidewalk where she would land when she jumped. Someone would scream (they always did in the movies). There would be loud excited voices, a screech of brakes. She wouldn’t hear any of it.
But she didn’t have to be in any hurry. She would work up to the thing, to the jumping. When she decided the time was right, she would do it. She had the nerve all right, the nerve to just let go. And it would all be over in a matter of seconds. Lights out. Lower the curtain. What was any of it for, anyway?
She stayed in the room for two days and on the third day she ventured out to have dinner in the restaurant downstairs. The day after that she took a walk, had lunch in a diner, bought a pair of gloves and two books and went to a movie. It was when she was having a drink in the bar before going to her room and going to sleep that he approached her. He was a small man, about thirty-five, dark hair and three or four days of stubble on his face. He stood beside her and offered to buy her a drink.
“I have a drink,” she said, not looking at him.
“Are you having a good time?” he asked.
“I was until you came along.”
“I saw you the day you checked in,” he said. “I was sitting in the lobby watching you but you didn’t see me.”
“What of it?”
“Women don’t usually check into this hotel alone. They’ve usually got kids with them or a man.”
“I’m waiting for my husband to get here.”
“What does he look like? Maybe I’ve seen him.”
She stood up abruptly. “I don’t know what your game is,” she said, “but I’ll thank you to leave me alone.”
She brushed past him and took the elevator up to her room.
The next day she saw him and the day after that. She didn’t look directly at him but she knew he was there. He seemed to just appear wherever she was. Once when she saw him standing by the elevator, she asked the desk clerk who he was.
“I don’t see anybody there, ma’am,” the clerk said. “The person you’re talking about must have gone up.”
The next night at ten o’clock she was in her room, getting ready to get into bed when there was a soft knock at the door. “Who is it?” she asked. When no one answered, she went to the door and opened it a couple of inches. She wasn’t surprised when she saw him standing there.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
“No, you may not.”
He pushed the door open farther and when she did nothing to stop him, he came inside and closed the door again as if it were his door to do with as he pleased.
“My husband went to get some cigarettes,” she said. “He’ll be back in just a minute.”
“You don’t have a husband. You know it and I know it.”
She looked at him and took a deep breath. She wondered why she wasn’t more afraid.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Are you a murderer who preys on women alone?”
He laughed and took off his hat, took a step toward her. “Now, do I look to you like a person who would do that?”
“Did my mother send you? Are you a private detective?”
“I could be just about anything, I suppose. Anything or nothing.”
“If it’s money you want, I don’t have any.”
He surprised her by taking hold of her arm and leading her to the window. “Look down,” he said. “It’s a long way to the sidewalk. Your body bursts like a balloon, but instead of water it’s blood. Those who see it never forget. You’ll be dead but they’ll have to carry the horror of what you did around with them for the rest of their lives.”
“Why should you care about that?”
“That’s not the question you should be asking.”
“Get out my room or I’m going to call for help.”
When he made no move to leave, she picked up the phone and put it to her ear. A few clicks and then someone came on the line.
“There’s an intruder in my room,” she said. “Yes. A man. Room twelve sixty-eight. Yes. Thank you.”
She put the phone back in its cradle and said to him, “They’re sending someone up. You’d better be gone when they get here.”
He crossed the room to the door and opened it.
“Wait!” she called. “Don’t go!”
“You change your mind awfully fast.”
“I’m afraid I won’t see you again and I won’t ever know who you are.”
He reclosed the door. “You don’t know?”
“If I knew, would I be asking?”
“I’m the devil come to take your soul back to hell.”
“Where’s your pitchfork?”
“I’m an angel sent to try to keep you from destroying yourself.”
“Which is it? You can’t be both!”
“I’m whatever you want me to be. Maybe I’m nothing at all. Maybe I’m not even here.”
“I’m not in the mood for riddles,” she said. “Just go. I want you to stop bothering me.”
“I’ll go,” he said. “If that’s what you want.”
Instead of leaving, though, he leaned against the wall near the door, hands in pockets, and looked at her. He was like a man waiting for a bus or doing nothing in particular, as if time were nothing at all.
She went to the window and pushed the curtain out of the way and looked down to the street once again. How long would it take her to reach the sidewalk? She would close her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see anything. Just a few seconds and it would all be over.
The window wouldn’t raise as she thought it would, no matter how hard she pushed and pulled. So, there it was, a pane of glass, the only thing between herself and oblivion. It wasn’t going to stop her, though. Nothing was going to stop her now.
She kicked at the glass and hit it with her fists until it shattered, letting in the noise from the street and a sickening stench of gasoline, asphalt and burning rubber.
With the glass gone, the way was open for her. It was so easy now. The only question remaining was if she should go out feet first or head first. Would somebody cover her up right away or would people stand and gape at her until an ambulance arrived? What would her mother say when she received the phone call? Who would call her mother, anyway? Would she come and identify the body? Would sweet Mr. Dauphin with his doe-like eyes and the other people from the office come to her funeral?
“Are you losing your nerve?” he asked from across the bed over by the door.
“What did you say?”
She had forgotten he was in the room with her and, remembering, felt a little embarrassed, as though a stranger were watching her in her most private and intimate moment.
“I asked if you were having second thoughts.”
“I asked you to leave.”
She hadn’t realized that blood was pouring from the juncture of her thumb and forefinger. She held out her hand and watched the blood as it dripped onto the floor.
He got a towel from the bathroom. “Here,” he said. “You probably need some stitches.”
“You’re with me in my final moments,” she said. “The only one.”
“You’re not going to jump,” he said.
“You’re going to go down to the desk and apologize for breaking the window and you’re going to offer to pay for it.”
“What did you say your name is?”
“You can call me by any name you like.”
She knelt on the floor and leaned against his leg because it was the closest object. “You thought I was going to jump out the window?” she asked.
“It looked that way.”
“Take me away from here, will you?”
“A place so far away I’ll never get back.”
“No, not there. Farther away than that.”
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp
After-School Break-In ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
We could see the long-abandoned Layton house from the school yard. There were tall weeds everywhere. A dead tree had come uprooted and lay against the house as though resting. The front porch was sagging and the windows were covered up from the inside. Everybody said the house was haunted, with dead bodies inside, stacked one of top of the other. At night you could walk by and hear moans. I had never heard the moans myself, but I was sure it was true.
I asked grandma if she ever knew the Laytons. She remembered them from long ago, she said, but she believed they were all dead.
“Their bodies are piled up inside the house,” I said.
“Who told you that?”
“That’s what everybody says.”
“Why would they be?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”
“They were crazy but not that crazy.”
“Well, somebody has to own the house,” I said.
“It’s not for you to worry about.”
“I heard some kids talking. They’re going to break in some Saturday night and look around.”
“I don’t know their names. They’re older than me.”
“Well, breaking into a house is a felony, even if it’s an empty house. You know what a felony is, don’t you?”
“I guess so.”
“You stay away from there. I don’t want to have to come down to the jail and bail you out.”
“No jail for me!” I said. “No ma’am!”
At our monthly after-school cub scout meeting, the scout leader failed to show up. After fifteen minutes, everybody left but six of us. I figured I would just go home, but one of our group decided it would be a good time, while nobody was around, to break into the Layton house.
“I don’t feel like it,” I said. “I’ve got a sore in my mouth.”
“Always the pantywaist,” Nelson Green said with a jeer. I never did like him and I knew that one day I would have to push his face in.
“You have to come with us,” Charles Bender said. “We all have to stick together.”
“Well, all right,” I said, “but I don’t think it’s right to break into somebody’s house.”
“Nobody lives there,” Terrell Quigley said. “It’ll be fun. We can finally see what the inside looks like.”
“I’ll probably just wait outside,” I said.
We waded through the weeds up to our waists to the back door. Nelson Green turned the knob but it was locked, of course. Then he and Thad Bruner began pushing their shoulders against the door like the police do on TV when they’re trying to get somebody to open up.
“It’s no use,” I said. “We couldn’t get in there no matter what.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Nelson said.
He went and got a dead limb and he and a couple of the others used it on the door like a battering ram. The limb crumpled up like a toothpick and we laughed.
We heard a car passing and crouched down until it was gone.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Somebody is probably watching us now.”
“Oh, nobody’s paying any attention and, even if they are, so what?” Nelson said. “They need to mind their own damn business.”
“If they see us here, they’ll call the police.”
“No, they won’t. Nobody gives a shit.”
“Come and look at this,” Roy Fisk said.
At the side of the house was a window no more than three feet off the ground. What made this window different from the others was that it didn’t seem impenetrable. The glass hadn’t been replaced with panels of wood and there appeared to be only a thin white curtain behind the glass.
Nelson and a couple of the others began pushing upward on the window. It wouldn’t budge at first but after a few seconds it gave way with a screech and a shower of paint chips. When they raised the window high enough, Nelson hoisted himself through.
“Go around to the back door,” he said. “I’ll open it.”
We heard him undoing the lock and in a second the door swung open with a creak.
“See how easy it is?” he said.
We all went inside and Nelson reclosed the door.
“This is great!” Terrell said.
“It’s certainly the high point of my day,” I said.
We were standing in a bunch in the kitchen as though waiting for somebody to tell us what to do. There was an old sink, a dirty-looking old stove, a table with a leg missing and not much else.
The next room was the dining room, which was empty of furniture expect for a broken chair laying on its side and some slabs of wood.
“Cozy,” I said.
In the living room was a filthy couch and chair. On the floor were some food papers and empty beer cans and a couple of empty liquor bottles.
“Somebody’s been having a party here,” Thad said.
“It smells terrible,” Roy said.
“That’s probably the dead bodies,” Nelson said.
Over to our right was a staircase going up to what appeared to be the most sinister part of the house.
“Up there is where they are, I’ll bet.”
“I want to see them,” Thad said. “I’ve never seen a dead body.”
“Well, go on up, then, if you want.”
“I don’t want to go up by myself.”
“You big baby!”
“We don’t have to go up there,” I said. “The downstairs is enough.”
“Who all wants to go upstairs?” Nelson asked.
“We’ll go later,” Charles Bender said.
“Well, while we’re all standing around here like a bunch of scared babies, I’m going to have a smoke.”
He took a pack of Viceroy cigarettes out of the pocket of his jacket, along with a book of matches, and lit up. He blew the smoke out in our faces. “Man, that tastes so good!” he said.
“Well, are you going to give us one or not?” Roy asked.
“Buy your own!”
“That’s not very nice.”
“I’ve smoked before,” Terrell said.
“Come on,” Charles said. “Give us one.”
“Well, all right,” Nelson said. “But you’ll owe me.”
He held out the pack and everybody took one. I was last.
“I have to go home,” I said. “I have a doctor’s appointment.”
“You do not!” Nelson said. “You’re just using that as an excuse.”
“Well, whether I have a doctor’s appointment or not, I’m going home now.”
“Do you think you can find your way to the door by yourself, you big baby?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
That evening at supper I thought my mother was looking at me in an odd way.
“Today was the day for your cub scouts meeting, wasn’t it?” she asked.
“How did it go?”
“The scout leader never showed up so we left.”
“What did you do then?”
She continued to look at me as I twirled the spaghetti on my plate with a fork.
On Sunday evening I was watching the usual fare on TV, trying to think of a way I might get out of going to school on Monday, when we heard the sirens going off, which could only mean a tornado was headed our way or something was burning.
We all went outside, as we did when something unusual was going on and we wanted to know what it was. There was a definite smell of smoke in the air.
“What is it?” my mother called to the neighbor woman who was standing in the corner of her yard with her hair in rollers.
“The old Layton house is on fire,” the neighbor said.
“I knew something like that was going to happen with that house sitting empty for so long,” my mother said.
Before we went to bed that night, our water was reduced to a trickle because the fire department was using all the available water for fighting the fire. I wanted to go down and watch the Layton house burn, but my mother wouldn’t let me.
“They don’t need a bunch of people standing around gawking,” she said.
“I won’t gawk!”
The next morning at school, Nelson Green cornered me in the hallway as soon as he saw me.
“Not one word about you-know-what if you know what’s good for you!” he hissed in my ear.
“You don’t have to threaten me,” I said. “I’m not stupid.”
“Yes, you are.”
“What did you do after I left? Did you leave cigarettes smoldering?”
“Of course not! We left right after you did. Honest.”
“You didn’t set anything on fire?”
After the fire was extinguished, the Layton house was no more, a vile black hole. Police found in the charred rubble, not a whole stack of bodies, but one body, burned beyond recognition. Everybody wanted to know who it was. Nobody could talk about anything else.
The question was answered a few days later when people realized they hadn’t seen Benny Bump, the notorious town drunk, for a number of days. When Benny’s dental records (had he ever seen a dentist in his life?) were compared with the teeth of the body found in the rubble, they were found to match.
Benny Bump was probably in the house when we were, watching us, laughing at us. He was the one who left the food wrappers and bottles. He probably slept on that old couch and he was the one who made the moaning sounds when people passed by at night. There always has to be an explanation for everything.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp