On the Face of It ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
In the morning when Blanche Mims stepped outside to sweep away the autumn leaves that had gathered around her front door, there was a very small man dressed in black formal attire, a midget, standing in the yard looking at her. She stopped sweeping, adjusted her glasses, and snorted through her nose.
“Looking for somebody?” she asked.
“I’ve found her,” he said.
So, he was one of those! He had heard about her in town and wanted to see for himself. She went back inside as fast as she could, slamming the door. She peeked out at him as he got back into a long gray car and drove away. Oh, but he had an evil grin!
She was not like other women, so she had good reason for caution. She had what was, by any measure, a monstrous deformity: her face was not in front of her head but on top. Her nose was exactly at the top of her head, her mouth tucked in underneath her nose. Since her eyes were always pointed skyward, she had to wear a special kind of glasses made with tilted mirrors so she could walk upright and see in front of her. On the sides of her head, all the way around (covering her ears), was thick hair, the color and texture of a lion’s mane. For several years she had been a headliner in a traveling freak show and was, for a time, billed as The Lion Woman. (To her credit, she was, except for the misplacement of her face, exactly the same as anybody else.)
She continued to see the midget every day for nearly two weeks. He either drove by slowly or stopped the car and got out and stood looking at the house for a while before driving on.
“There’s been a strange man hanging around outside for several days now,” she said casually to her mother, Olga Mims, one evening when they were getting ready for bed. “A tiny man.”
Olga laughed. “I’ve seen the little bastard,” she said. “That’s a hearse he’s driving. He’s an undertaker.”
“What’s he looking for?”
“Maybe he’s trying to drum up some business.”
“In Scraptown? Nobody comes to Scraptown if they don’t have to.”
“Why don’t you ask him the next time you see him?” Olga said as she removed her wig and put it on the head of the mannequin that she kept by her bed to keep her company at night.
All day long the next day Blanche kept an eye out for the little man, but she didn’t see him. The day after, though, he parked his hearse under the trees across the road and got out and stood in the front yard and looked up at the house. He was wearing a top hat and a cape as if he thought he was Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and was smoking a cigarette in a long holder. She decided it was time to confront the little son of a bitch. She ran her fingers through her mane-like hair to smooth it down and went out the door.
“May I help you?” she asked in a too-loud voice.
He took off his hat, took the cigarette holder out of his mouth, made a sweeping gesture with his arm and bowed. “I am so pleased to finally make your acquaintance,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Ferris Peabody, mortician. At your service.”
“What makes you think I need a mortician?” she asked.
“I don’t,” he said. “This is purely a personal call, rather than a professional one.”
“All right,” she said. “I think you’d better state your business and be quick about it, or I’m going to call the sheriff and have you removed from my property.” She bent over from the waist so she was really facing him, rather than looking at him through the mirror glasses.
“You have a lovely face,” he said. “It’s too bad the world doesn’t see more of it.”
“What’s the gag? Do you have a hidden camera somewhere?”
“Nothing of the kind, I assure you.” He bowed again as though addressing a queen.
“If this is some kind of trick, I don’t think it’s the least bit funny and I want you to know that I keep a loaded gun in the house.”
“No gag and no trick,” he said.
Hearing their voices, Olga came out of the house. She was wearing a seventy-year-old sailor suit that was too big for her, complete with hat. She smiled at the little man and saluted like a real sailor.
“How-do, ma’am,” he said. “Ferris Peabody at your service.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Olga said.
“You are, I take it, the young lady’s mother?”
“I was the last time I looked.”
“You have a sense of humor, ma’am, I can see. I like that and I think it’s so important in this cruel world we live in.”
Already Olga was fascinated by the little man and found him inexpressibly piquant.
“You still haven’t told me what your business is,” Blanche said.
“I come to pay a social call.”
“Why would you do that? I don’t even know you.”
“So that we may come to know each other.”
“If you’re selling funeral plans, we’re not interested.”
“I’m not, I swear.”
“Well, come on inside,” Olga said. “We don’t have to stand out here like a bunch of statues.”
Blanche opened her mouth to object but she saw no reason to be overly rude and, besides, she was curious enough to want to know what the little mortician was going to say.
They went into the parlor and sat down, Blanche and Olga on the old horsehair sofa and he on the overstuffed easy chair facing the sofa. Since he was about the size of a three-year-old child, he had some difficulty getting on the chair but, once he was settled, he smiled broadly, pleased to have been asked inside.
“I have some beer on ice, if you’d like one,” Olga said.
“I’d love one,” he said.
Blanche sat upright on the sofa so that when he looked at her all he could see was the lion’s mane. She was deliberately being cold to him, which he could read in her posture.
“You’re probably wondering how I drive the hearse,” he said to Blanche with an ingratiating smile, “being deprived of height the way I am.”
“I haven’t given it a single thought.”
Olga came back from the kitchen. She had poured the beer into a glass, which she only did for special guests. She handed it to him and watched carefully as he took a sip of the beer.
“Ah, so refreshing!” he said.
She smiled, ever the gracious hostess, and sat back down.
“Now, to get on with my story,” he said.
“I didn’t know you were telling one,” Blanche said.
“I became acquainted with your cousin, Philandra Burgoyne, about a year ago when she came to me for her after-death needs.”
“Oh, yes,” Olga said. “How is dear Philandra?”
“She’s fine,” he said. “She’s dead.”
“Isn’t that odd? I hadn’t heard that she had passed over.”
“She was very large at the end of her life. There was no coffin available that would accommodate, so we had to bury her in a piano crate.”
“I would have gone to the funeral, had I only known.” Olga said.
“The funeral was quite spectacular, if I do say so myself, but that’s not what I came to tell you. To get right to the point, I had many deeply heartfelt conversations with Philandra in the last few months of her life. I was her spiritual advisor, in a way, as there was no one else to fill that position.”
“You must have been a great comfort to her,” Olga said.
When Blanche sighed with boredom, he turned and faced her. He had no way of knowing if she was even listening to him. It was rather like talking to a mop. “When Philandra told me about you, I knew I had to come and pay you a visit, get to know you any way I could.”
“How flattering,” Blanche said. “I still don’t understand where you’re going with this.”
“I have a successful business,” he said. “I began The Ferris Peabody Mortuary and Funeral Parlor from the ground up. I have a very select clientele. People like us.”
“People like what?”
“Unique people. People like you and me and your cousin Philandra. People that the world thinks of as freaks.”
“Oh, well, thank you very much for calling me a freak!”
“To the world that’s what we are because the world only sees what’s on the outside and never considers what’s on the inside.”
“Ho-hum,” Blanche said, covering her mouth to yawn.
“I’ve taken care of the after-death needs of Hortense the Hippopotamus Girl, Isador the Invisible Irishman, Allesandro the Monkey Boy, Lulu the Flipper Baby, and Otto Osgood the Only Human on Earth with an Exoskeleton, to name but a few.”
“Otto and I used to be sweethearts,” Olga said. “He was very proud of his physical endowments.”
“I don’t believe you ever knew him,” Blanche said.
“Well, maybe not.”
“The point I’m trying to make,” he said, “is that my business is successful and getting more so. I have everything I need, except for one thing, and that’s where you come in.”
“You want me to die,” Blanche said, “and let you take care of my after-death needs so you can drop my name whenever and wherever it’s convenient, the way you drop the names of those other freaks? You little name-dropper, you!”
“I want someone to share my success with.”
“Get a dog.”
“The clock is ticking away. I’m no longer young and neither are you.”
”Speak for yourself!”
“You would complement my business in a way that nobody else could. My clients would feel comfortable with you. The women folk like it better if a woman is seeing to the arrangements. You know, what shroud goes with the casket lining and all that. What panties to wear. What shoes.”
“Are you offering me a job?”
“More than that. I’m offering to marry you.”
“Phht! And wouldn’t we make a fine pair! A woman whose face is in the wrong place and a man who doesn’t even measure up to the yard stick! We could put on a show for Halloween, but I don’t know what we’d do the rest of the year.”
“You’ve been hurt by life and so have I,” he said.
“Me too,” Olga said. “I’ve been hurt by life a lot.”
“In my world you wouldn’t be an outcast. You wouldn’t have to hide yourself away in a little house built into the side of a hill because you wouldn’t be any more freakish than anybody else.”
“Oh, and where is this world, anyway, where everybody’s a freak but doesn’t know it?”
“It’s closer than you think.”
“It sounds delightful, your world, but there’s just one problem.”
“How can I believe you? How do I know you’re not just some evil dwarf come to carry my soul to hell?”
He laughed heartily. “I assure you I’m not,” he said.
“I think you should listen to what he’s saying,” Olga said.
“I want to show you something,” he said. “Maybe it will help to convince you.”
He took her by the hand and led her to a mirror on the wall. After he had positioned a chair behind her to stand on so they were of more or less equal height, he placed his hands on both sides of her head and said, “Watch closely.”
She adjusted her mirror glasses and sighed. All she saw was her lion mane of hair, which is what she expected to see, but after a few seconds she saw something different. Her face was somehow projected on the front of her head so that she looked like a normal person whose face was where it should be and not a freak.
“How do you do that?” she said.
“Never mind how I do it. Just know that I can.”
The image in the mirror faded and she turned around and looked at him as he got down off the chair. “That’s just a trick,” she said. “I’ve had enough tricks in my life.”
“I think there’s something to that,” Olga said.
“Come with me now,” he said.
“I can’t marry you without knowing anything about you.”
“We can put off marrying for as long as you like.”
“And you won’t touch me?”
“You’ll have your own private boudoir with the strongest lock you ever saw on the door.”
“And I can come back home if I so choose.”
“It’s not a prison.”
“Can she come too?” Blanche asked, tilting her head toward Olga.
“I can’t leave now,” Olga said. “Poor Butterfly is about to have her babies.”
“She loves her cats more than anything,” Blanche said.
“We can come back and get her and her cats, too, just as soon as she’s ready,” he said.
“That will give me time to get my wig washed and styled and get my nails done,” Olga said. “What should I wear?”
“You can wear whatever you want,” he said.
“Can I come as a clown? I’ve always loved clowns.”
“You can come as a clown, a sailor, a chicken, or anything you want.”
“I have the cutest clown getup you ever saw!”
“Do I need to pack a bag?” Blanche asked.
“No,” he said. “You’ll have everything you need when we get to where we’re going.”
“What are we waiting for, then?”
Suddenly Blanche Mims seemed in a hurry to leave her little house built into the side of a hill in the section of town known as Scraptown. She gave Olga a little squeeze about the shoulders and followed the tiny mortician outside to his long gray hearse waiting for them under the trees.
Olga stood and watched as they drove away, waving and blowing kisses. She saw the hearse as it disappeared from view down the hill in the lane. Unlike other cars, though, it just never reappeared at the top of the next hill.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp