Faux Chinchilla ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Midwest Literary Magazine Spring Anthology 2010)
Sometimes the dead came out of their graves and spoke to her. She wasn’t afraid of them because they were always polite and wanted only to know about her life. One twelve-year-old boy in particular, whose name was Alvin Arbuckle, had taken a liking to her. On the first occasion that he came out of his grave and introduced himself, he took her by the hand and walked her to his weathered marble headstone in the shade of a huge oak tree and stood back and watched with proprietary interest as she traced with her dirty fingers his name and the start and end dates of his life. She asked him what it was like to never grow any older and he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. When she asked him how he died and if he remembered what dying felt like, he decline to answer—he wasn’t giving away any of the secrets of the dead.
She was sick most of the afternoon, hiding out in a clump of overhanging bushes, and she thought she was probably going to die, but after she slept she felt better and emerged from the bushes around dark. She walked around for a while, imagining herself one of the dead, until she came upon a ragged-looking man she didn’t know but had seen. He handed her a piece of paper and touched the brim of his hat, like a porter or a footman, and turned and walked away without saying a word.
She looked at the piece of paper as if she didn’t know what to do with it and then she unfolded it and read these words: Whoever sees this, tell Vicki-Vicki to meet me at the east gate at six o’clock. The note wasn’t signed but there was only one person who could have written it.
Suddenly Alvin Arbuckle appeared at her side. “I don’t think you should meet him,” he said.
“He might buy me dinner.”
“Stay here where you belong.”
“He may never ask me again.”
The last was spoken with an air of finality. Alvin Arbuckle knew she wasn’t going to argue, so he withdrew, seemingly on a puff of air.
Not having a watch or any way to tell time, she thought it might already be six o’clock, if not later, so she hurried over to the east gate. When she saw no one was there, she determined to wait for as long as it took. She waited until her legs ached and nearly buckled under her. She vomited one time on the ground beside a tree but luckily no one was passing by at the moment.
After she had waited for what seemed a very long time but couldn’t have been more than half an hour, Ricky Fingers pulled up in a shiny black sedan. He honked the horn in greeting, causing her to jump, but she didn’t mind because she was so happy he was there.
“Vicki-Vicki!” he said as he got out of the sedan. “You got the message!”
“Hello, Ricky,” she said, feeling shy in his presence.
He opened the passenger-side door for her and gestured her in. When she was comfortably situated on the seat, holding the skirt of her dress demurely over her legs, he slammed the door shut and went around to the driver’s side and got in beside her.
“How is life in the big city treating you?” he asked with a toothy grin.
“Oh, all right,” she said. She had been going to tell him she had been sick but decided against it.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you to meet me,” he said.
“Well, yes,” she said. The truth was, she hadn’t thought until that moment that there might be any reason for it other than his wanting to be with her.
“I know how good you are at shoplifting,” he said.
“Where did you hear that?” she asked.
“Those things have a way of getting around.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to be known for. After all, it is a crime.”
“So it is,” he said, “but we won’t let that stop us, will we?” He laughed then and turned his head and spit out the window.
He drove downtown and found what he said was a strategic parking spot on a corner next to a chain-link fence. When he got out of the sedan and began walking up the block, Vicki-Vicki had no other choice but to get out of the car and follow him.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“You’ll see,” Ricky said.
He took her to a women’s clothing store with wide display windows. There, in the corner of the window, was a fur jacket on a dummy with yellow hair. At the feet of the dummy was a large sign that read: Nobody will know it isn’t real!
“It’s fake chinchilla,” he said dreamily.
“Imagine that!” she said.
“I want you to lift it for me.”
“How do I get it off that dummy without getting caught?”
“Not that one, dumbbell! They have a whole rack of them inside the store. I want you to go inside and ask to try one on. While you’re standing in front of the mirror admiring yourself and trying to decide whether or not you’re going to buy it, I’ll come in and attract the saleslady’s attention. While she’s looking the other way, you run out the door with the jacket.”
“I don’t know, Ricky. It sounds kind of risky. I don’t want to go to jail.”
“It’s foolproof! It can’t miss! Just run out the door in one fluid motion and, before the bitch knows what’s happened, you’re all the way down the street with the jacket.”
“What if I get caught?”
“You won’t get caught! Trust me.”
She went inside and found the rack of fake chinchilla jackets and asked the saleslady if she could try one on. The saleslady, noting Vicki-Vicki’s ragged appearance, was going to ask her to leave but decided instead to help her find the jacket in her size and then helped to slip it on over her shoulders.
“Could I look at myself in the mirror with it on?” Vicki-Vicki asked.
The saleslady pointed to a bay of enormous mirrors so that, when Vicki-Vicki stepped into the bay, she could see the coat—front, back, and side—because of the way the mirrors were tilted toward each other.
The jacket, she thought, looked good on her—better than anything she had ever owned in her life; it was so soft and so beautiful, she wanted it for herself. She could easily imagine wearing the jacket through the entire winter. It might mean the difference for her between life and death. It was a life-changing jacket.
When the door opened and closed, she knew it was Ricky coming in, so she just kept looking at herself in the mirror. She heard him speaking to the saleslady and the saleslady saying something in return, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying.
In a minute the saleslady went to the back of the store, leaving Ricky standing at the counter. When Vicki-Vicki looked at him, he mouthed the words and gestured with both hands for her to get out the door with the jacket—fast—before the saleslady came back.
Hardly aware of what she was doing, Vicki-Vicki dashed for the door, opened it, and began running down the street. She ran as fast as her legs would carry her for two blocks and then she stopped, gasping for breath, and looked over her shoulder. The saleslady wasn’t coming after her, so she walked, rather than ran, the rest of the way to Ricky’s car.
When Ricky returned to the car a few minutes later, he laughed when he saw her crouched down on the floor in the back seat, still wearing the jacket. He helped her off the floor and into the front seat.
“Don’t tear the coat,” he said.
“That scared me so bad!”
“You did fine. It was perfect. That old bat probably still doesn’t know what happened.”
“What did you say to her?”
“I told her I was there to pick up a package. She was looking all over the place for a package that wasn’t there! Hah-hah!”
“I don’t think she got a good look at me. I don’t think she would recognize me again. Do you?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ricky said. “There’s a million girls look just like you.”
She was happy it was over and happier still that she did what Ricky wanted and she had pleased him. She looked at him and wanted to move over next to him and take hold of his arm in both hands and put her head on his shoulder, but she was still feeling shy with him. He looked so clean. He seemed such a gentleman compared to any of the others in the graveyard set.
“Where are we going now?” she asked. “Can we get a hamburger?”
“We’ll have to make it another time,” he said. “I’ve got a date tonight.”
“A date? Who with?”
“You’re not jealous, are you?” He looked at her and winked.
“No, I’m not jealous.”
“I’ve got a date with the lady that owns this car. Her name is Roselle. Don’t you think that’s a pretty name?”
“Yeah, that’s a pretty name.”
“I’d love to have you meet her sometime. She’s a real peach and she’s got a nice apartment over near the river.”
“So, do you want me to drop you someplace? I can drop you off back at the cemetery or I can drop you someplace else.”
“I like the cemetery,” she said. “I have friends there.”
He drove back to where he had picked her up and stopped at the curb, careful not to scrape Roselle’s tires. He put the sedan in park but didn’t turn off the engine. He turned toward her and she thought he was going to take her in his arms and kiss her, but instead he reached over the back of the seat to get something.
“A little something for your trouble,” he said, as he handed her a crumpled paper bag.
She looked at the bag, hardly wondering what was in it, and got out of the car and started to close the door.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Ricky said.
“Oh, yeah.” She took off the fake chinchilla jacket and arranged it carefully on the seat so it wouldn’t get messed up. Some girls would have thrown it in the floor and not care how dirty the floor was.
“Well, see you around sometime,” Ricky said as he drove off. He waggled his fingers at her and tooted the horn and then he was gone.
The gate was closed for the night, but she knew where there was a gap in the fence just big enough for her to crawl through. Once inside, she kept to the edges where it was darkest to avoid being seen by the night watchman. She went to the oldest part of the cemetery and found a spot on the ground among the stone angels and obelisks where she felt sheltered from the wind. She sat down and leaned her back against a huge granite marker and opened the bag. In it were half a dozen oranges, just past being too ripe.
She took one of the oranges in her hand and held it up and looked at it in the moonlight before peeling and eating it, letting the pieces fall to the ground around her. After she had eaten it, she ate another one, and then—her hunger satisfied for the first time in days—closed the bag and set it aside and lay on her back.
She felt the earth spinning under her. She had the illusion that the stars were moving but remembered that somebody had told her long ago that they were fixed for all time in one place and didn’t move. She held her hands up and pretended to hold the moon between her fingers, as she and her sister used to do when they were little.
Soon Alvin Arbuckle was sitting cross-legged on the ground beside her. She started to give him an orange but remembered that dead people don’t eat fruit. She looked at him and blinked her eyes to let him know she knew he was there.
“Winter is coming on,” he said. “You don’t have a coat.”
“He thinks I’m only good for stealing things,” she said. “That’s all I am to him.”
“Maybe you’d better leave this place and go back home.”
“It doesn’t matter where I am.”
He lay down beside her and began twiddling with the hair on the side of her head just above her ear. He wanted to comfort her but ended up only annoying her. She pushed his hand away and drifted off to sleep to the sound of the night birds calling.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp