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Remembering Gertrude Bines

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Remembering Gertrude Biles

Remembering Gertrude Bines ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

El-Vee had a lucrative beauty parlor on Main Street between a hardware store and a delicatessen. All day long, every day, she stood on her feet, curling, cutting and dyeing hair while listening to an endless stream of blather, innuendo, distasteful personal revelation and catty gossip from her customers. At closing time she was so tired and frazzled, so sick of the sound of the human voice, that she wanted to pull out her own hair, but she looked at all that beautiful cash in the cash drawer and that was what made it all worth the effort.

One Friday afternoon (Friday was always her busiest day), while she was just finishing up on up on Mrs. Coolidge’s hair—a foot-high confection of swirling, pink-tinged white cloud—she heard the roar of a truck outside and loud voices and, looking out the window, saw that a new business was moving in across the street. As she was to learn a few days later, when the place opened for business, it was called Gertrude’s Wig Shop. It boasted in signs in the windows its stock of wigs of all kinds, hairpieces, hats, scarves, turbans, babushkas, and other assorted headwear for women and girls.

At first she wasn’t sure how a wig shop was going to affect her beauty parlor business, or if it would affect it at all. When they put up a huge sign across the front of the wig shop that proclaimed in large red letters You Don’t Need a Beauty Parlor—You Need a Wig!, she was disconcerted, believing it was a direct shot across the bow of her ship. When she saw a full-page ad for the wig shop in the newspaper, she began to be worried. The ad read, in part: Don’t Spend Beaucoup Dollars Getting Your Hair Styled Every Week! Buy a Wig Instead that Stays Styled! Nobody Will Ever Know It’s Not Your Real Hair!

Wondering if such tactics were legal, she consulted a lawyer, a boy she had known since seventh grade named Leroy Follett.

“I can’t see there’s any harm in it,” Leroy said. “Certainly nothing for you to take legal action against. Just think of it as healthy competition.”

“What if it takes away some of my customers?”

“You have the right to do the same to them.”

“How do I do that?”

“When you find out,” Leroy said, “you let me know.”

When she began to see a falling off in her business and hence in her profits, she attributed it to curiosity. Her customers would flirt with the idea of buying a wig but then would return to their old habits of having their twigs twisted every week. Wigs were fakery, no matter how good they looked. There was nothing like one’s natural hair, even if it was brittle, ugly, thinning and unhealthy-looking. To try to lure in new customers—and retain her old ones—she hired a manicure girl and offered free manicures. Then she hired a cosmetologist to give facials and makeup tips. These two extra people ate into her profits, of course, but she believed that hiring them would prove beneficial—in the long term if not in the short term.

After a few weeks, she and her two new employees were doing a lot of sitting around doing nothing in the long gaps—sometimes two hours—between customers. She began to worry about how she was going to meet expenses for the month when she decided to go across the street to the wig shop herself, something she had vehemently avoided doing before, to see what all the excitement was about.

She winced when she saw how busy the store was and how many people were spending money. When a sales clerk came forward and asked her if she needed help, she said she needed to speak to Gertrude herself.

Gertrude was a large, broad-shouldered woman with red hair and lots of makeup. As she approached El-Vee, she wore her fixed, professional smile.  “Help you?” she asked.

“Are you Gertrude?” El-Vee asked.

“Yes. How may I help you?”

“I just want you to know you’re hurting my business.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“My name is El-Vee Persons. I own the beauty parlor across the street. You’re taking away my customers.”

“Oh, boo-hoo! And just what do you want me to do about it?”

“Move to another location.”

“Hah! Now, why would I do that. Because you want me to?”

“I could always bust you in the nose,” El-Vee said.

“I could always have you arrested for assault.”

“My brother is a career criminal with mob ties.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Not exactly, but it’s something you might want to keep in mind. You can’t destroy another person’s business and expect them to stand idly by and allow you to do it.”

That night, as El-Vee was trying to get to sleep, a thought came to her unbidden from deep in the recesses of her mind. Gertrude was somebody she had known at one time, although she couldn’t remember the last name. She got out of bed and pulled a box from the back of the closet.

She hadn’t looked at her old high school yearbook or even thought about it in a dozen or more years. She turned on the light and sat down on the couch and began thumbing through the pages. Soon she found what she was looking for: seventeen-year-old Gertrude Bines in the eleventh grade—elaborate red hairdo, self-satisfied smile and a “beauty mark” on her cheek.

It all came back to her. She and Gertrude had been rivals in high school. Rivals for homecoming queen, rivals for yearbook editor and rivals for love. (They fought over the school’s star football player who turned out to prefer members of his own gender). They both seemed to be good at the same things. If one of them could bake a lemon cake, the other could make a lemon chiffon cake. If one of them could make a party dress, the other could make an evening gown. El-Vee hated rivalry then and she hated it now. Rivalry only made life more difficult and ruined everything. In a perfect world, she thought, she would always be at the top of the heap and there’d be no such thing as rivalry. With a flick of a switch, she’d make it disappear.

She contacted her brother, Everett Persons (the one of her three brothers who flirted with gangsterhood), and asked him to meet her at a restaurant out on the highway for supper. She was buying, she said, and she had something she wanted to talk over with him.

After she explained the situation to Everett, he said, “I’m afraid she’s got you over a barrel, sis. She’s not doing anything wrong.”

“Yes, I know,” El-Vee said. “It’s just healthy competition.”

“I could have her roughed up a bit for you. Break her legs.”

“No, I don’t like that. How much to kill her?”

“You’d want a professional job. Between five and ten thousand, depending on who you got to do the deed.”

“Any other ideas?”

“We could start a little fire to put her out of business,” Everett said, “but there’s no guarantee she wouldn’t just clean up at the expense of her insurance company and reopen.”

“No, I don’t like a fire, either. It could hurt others besides her.”

“How about a little fear and intimidation? Death threats? A brick through the front window?

“I don’t know if any of that would work.”

“Well, I’ll think about it and talk to a couple of my friends and get back to you. I’d advise you to go slow with this thing. Don’t do anything you can’t undo or that you’re going to be sorry you did.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me!” El-Vee said.

“And if you decide to do the deed yourself, I’m sure I can get some of my associates to dispose of the body for you.”

One morning a few days later when El-Vee was alone in the beauty parlor before her first customer arrived, Gertrude Bines came rushing in.

“I need to speak to you,” she said.

“Sorry,” El-Vee said. “We’re all booked up. You’ll need to call for an appointment.”

“My store was broken into last night,” Gertrude said.

“What do you want me to do about it? Bust our crying?”

“They didn’t steal anything. All they did was break some things and make a mess. I believe it was some kind of warning or intimidation.”

“Did you call the police?”

“They’re there now.”

“Well, good luck with finding out who did it.”

“I think you know who did it,” Gertrude said.

“That’s silly. How would I know?”

“I think you’d do anything to get back at me.”

El-Vee laughed and began washing some brushes. “I’d like to stand here and chat all day,” she said, “but I’ve got lots of work to do. So, if you’ll excuse me?”

“I wondered if you recognized me when you came into my shop the other day,” Gertrude said. “We used to know each other in high school.”

“I didn’t give it a thought,” El-Vee said.

“I was the prettiest and most popular girl in school,” Gertrude said. “You were a distant second. Or maybe third.”

“What a memory you have. Those things don’t matter to me any more.”

“Isn’t it ironic that we should meet again all these years later after we detested each other so much when we were younger?”

“I didn’t go to college,” El-Vee said, “so I don’t know what words like ‘ironic’ mean.”

“I think you know what I’m talking about. I can see it in your body language.”

“Well, I guess I’m just not as smart as you are.”

“Why don’t you admit you’re defeated?” Gertrude said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“All your former customers are buying wigs from me. They don’t want their natural hair anymore. A wig is easier and is cheaper in the long run, too.”

“Well, to each his own.”

“Why don’t you admit your business is kaput? I have bested you once again, as I did at every turn in high school. I think you’d do better if you moved to another location.”

“I’ve been here for five years,” El-Vee said. “I have no intention of moving.”

“Even after I’ve taken away all your customers?”

El-Vee walked around behind Gertrude and began looking at the back of her hair. “You’re not wearing a wig,” she said. “You need a trim.”

“My hair is perfect,” Gertrude said.

“No, really,” El-Vee said. “You have a few little loose hairs right at the back of the neck. Sit down and I’ll take care of it for you. No charge.”

Gertrude sighed and sat in the chair. El-Vee put the cape around her shoulders and turned the chair around just so.

“You do remember me from high school, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

“My memory is not as sharp as it should be,” El-Vee said. “When I was in the state mental hospital a few years back, I had electroshock therapy. What they call shock treatments. It removes certain memories from your mind the same as if they never existed at all. I guess you were just one of those bad memories that was just swept away.”

“We needn’t have any bad feelings,” Gertrude said.

“Needn’t we?”

“I’d like to think we were friends.”

“Why would you want to be friends with me?”

“I just don’t like ill will, is all.”

“There’s no ill will here. Anything that happened between us is forgiven and forgotten.”

“Then you do remember me?”

El-Vee snipped at the back of Gertrude’s hair. Her hand was trembling a little so she took off more than she intended. “I remember lots of people,” she said. “It’s all a mixed-up blur.”

“I want to make you a business proposition,” Gertrude said.

“Go ahead and make it,” El-Vee said.

“I’ll buy out your shop and you can come and work for me.”

“Doing what?”

“I haven’t got that far yet. We’d think of something.”

“You’d do that for me?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve never worked for anybody else before.”

“Don’t let pride stand in your way.”

“I don’t think I could stand to work for you,” El-Vee said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like you. I don’t like your type. I don’t like your looks. I despise everything about you. I detest everything you stand for and represent.”

Gertrude met El-Vee’s eye in the mirror. “You do remember me, then, don’t you?”

“Yes, I remember you.”

El-Vee picked up her longest, sharpest scissors and plunged them into Gertrude’s neck, severing the carotid artery. With blood gushing from her neck, Gertrude fell to the floor and flopped around like a fish out of water. She tried to pull herself up but couldn’t. She burbled blood out of her mouth until she lay still and stopped breathing.

When El-Vee was sure Gertrude was dead, she dragged her body by the ankles across the floor, opened the door to the dank cellar that was never used, and pushed her down the stairs. After cleaning up the blood the best she could, she was ready to receive her first customer of the day.

At nine o’clock that night El-Vee called her brother Everett at home. “There’s a big dead rat in my basement at the beauty parlor,” she said. “I need you to take care of it for me.”

“Tonight?”

“Can you manage it?”

“I don’t know why not.”

“Go in the back way. Nobody will see you.”

The next morning El-Vee was snipping away at an old lady’s hair when she looked up to see three men coming across the street toward her: an older man in a suit, flanked on both sides by young, uniformed police officers. She stood up straight, took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself, and went to the door to meet them. If she was kind to them and cooperative, they would have no reason to suspect she had done anything wrong.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Begin Again ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Begin Again

Begin Again ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Gretta (Keira Knightley) is an English girl, a singer/songwriter who is going along for the ride with her handsome, successful pop singer boyfriend named Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). Dave has girls crawling all over him and—guess what?—he’s unfaithful to Gretta with an Asian girl named Mim. Gretta slaps the you-know-what out of Dave (he deserves it) and leaves. She is staying with a platonic male friend when she is coerced into singing a composition of her own in a New York club. A frizzy-headed, unkempt, down-on-his-luck recording executive named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) just happens to be present in the club the night Gretta performs. He desperately needs a successful artist that he can promote to his boss and he sees in Gretta the raw talent that nobody else can see or appreciate. The best scene in the movie is when Gretta is singing her song (about being alone in the city) with just a guitar and Dan is visualizing an arrangement with other instruments. He “sees” the piano being played, although there is nobody playing it, along with double base, violin, cello and other instruments.

When Dan meets Gretta, he has just been fired from his job for a five-year run without discovering a successful recording artist. And his personal life is no better than his professional one. He lives in a dark, depressing apartment; he is estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener); his fourteen-year-old daughter goes to school dressed like a whore. He talks Gretta into recording an album of her songs and, since they don’t have the money for a recording studio and musicians, they will record at various locations around New York City with musicians who are willing to work for free.

You might expect a romance to develop between Dan and Gretta, even though he is a lot older than she is, but that isn’t where this story is going. He gives her confidence in her musical talents and she gives his professional career a much-needed boost, but we don’t have to see them smacking their lips together and rolling around together in bed. (Thank goodness!) You have to hand it to the creators of this film for eschewing the customary romantic sparks.

Begin Again is a pleasant, lightweight movie that won’t give you a headache unless you already have one. There’s lots of music in this movie, some of it good and some of it on the annoying side. I like Keira Knightley’s singing voice and screen persona. She has appeared in costume dramas (Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice) and more contemporary fare (Never Let Me Go and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). I hope she never gets her teeth fixed because it’s natural not to have perfect teeth. There are too many unnatural-looking, perfect teeth in the world.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo

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Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

I always wanted to watch Petticoat Junction on TV and couldn’t. We only had one TV and I never got to choose what was watched, except on the rare occasions when I happened to be at home by myself. Our TV was almost always tuned to westerns, war or police dramas, or, of course, the news. Comedies were unacceptable. Anybody who wanted to watch a situation comedy had severe mental problems, or worse (especially if it had the word “petticoat” in the title). If you were a “normal” person you didn’t want to see a show that you could laugh at and talk about at school the next day. Life was just too serious for that. If you weren’t seeing men on horses shooting guns or men fighting battles with other men, you just weren’t entertained. That’s the way the cards were stacked at our house.

Anyway, Petticoat Junction was so cheery and so far removed from reality that it made you forget your problems for a while. It was set in the country (as opposed to a city or town), presumably somewhere in the United States, but what state or what part of the country it was in was never specified. (The nearest town was called Hooterville, if that helps at all.)

In this country setting was a hotel called the Shady Rest, run by an old woman named Kate. The actress Bea Benadaret played Kate. She also played the part of cousin Pearl Bodine in The Beverly Hillbillies and did the voice for Wilma Flintstone. No matter which side of the fence you are on regarding Miss Benadaret, you have to admit that is quite an impressive track record for any thespian!

So, Kate the country hotel owner didn’t have a husband but had a trio of perky daughters, named, appropriately, Billie Jo, Betty Jo and Bobbie Jo. They were the reason we watched the show in the first place. They were apparently in their teens but, unlike teens in the real world, they were perfectly groomed—never a hair out of place—and were never sullen, angry or angst-ridden. They never seemed to go to school or do much of anything, but they did, however, swim in the water tank beside the train tracks, as evidenced in the show’s opening every week, slinging their petticoats over the side—hence the title Petticoat Junction.

Also part of the Shady Rest family was irascible Uncle Joe. He had a big belly and wore a bow tie and a funny hat; took a lot of naps in the rocking chair on the porch and could be counted on to say funny and inappropriate things, stimulating the laugh track more than anybody else. He was played by the gravelly voiced character actor Edgar Buchanan, who, during his movie career, was in a lot of westerns and played the helpful friend, Applejack, of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in the tearjerking movie Penny Serenade in 1941.

When Kate needed food for her guests at the hotel, she bought it from Sam Drucker, a skinny, baldheaded man who wore a garter on his sleeve and a long apron. His general store, right out of the nineteenth century, had a potbellied stove, a phone with a crank (just turn the crank and you’ll get Sarah, the telephone operator), a display of brooms for sale, and shelves of canned goods behind the counter. Sam Drucker might have been a love interest for Kate as there seemed so few eligible men around, but, on second thought, he probably wasn’t.

And then there was the train, the Cannonball, which we usually saw or heard about when the action moved outside the hotel. More often than not, the Cannonball brought interesting guests to the hotel, such as a sick child and her overly protective mother, an old beau of Kate’s from her youth, or the mean old miser who wanted to buy the Shady Rest and tear it down. The engineer and the conductor of the train were two old country gents who, like Uncle Joe, could be counted on to elicit laughter. Their names were Smiley Burnett and Rufe Davis. They weren’t very smart but we didn’t care because nobody else was smart, either.

As the sixties wore on, Petticoat Junction changed, and not for the better, either. It went from black and white to color, as did every other show on television. The actresses who played the three gals weren’t always the same. When there was a different Billy Jo, Betty Jo, or Bobbie Jo from what we were used to, I think we weren’t supposed to notice, but we did, and it was disturbing. (One of the gals, we heard later, was the girlfriend of Nat King Cole.) When Bea Benadaret became ill and died, the show tried to continue without her, but her absence was felt too much to retain the feeling it once had.

Given the popularity of Petticoat Junction, it was inevitable that there would be an offshoot. It was called Green Acres and it had the same pastoral setting and even some of the same characters as Petticoat Junction, including Sam Drucker. It was about a sophisticated New York couple who moved to the country and set themselves up on a farm. The best thing about Green Acres was Eva Gabor, the Hungarian-accented Park Avenue socialite who had to adapt herself to being a farm wife. (“Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue!”)

Eventually the kind of gentle, unsophisticated rural humor of Petticoat Junction fell out of favor with audiences and was replaced by more caustic, politically conscious offerings like All in the Family. The simple sixties passed away and became something else entirely. Would I want to go back and live the sixties over again? Not if it means I have to repeat the hellish ninth grade.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Jude the Obscure ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

English writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is known for a handful of novels including Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, and the Mayor of Casterbridge. His novel Jude the Obscure was released in book form in 1895 after appearing in serialized form in a magazine.

Jude the Obscure is a fascinating study of class distinction, conscience, and morality in the Victorian era. Young Jude Fawley is a country lad without family or connections, raised by an elderly aunt who cares little for him. He longs to become an educated man, or even a minister, but, because of who he is and where he lives, he has little chance of ever being more than a stonemason, a trade he has chosen to provide enough money to support himself. He views the college town of Christminster (Oxford), twenty miles away, as a center of learning and all that is fine in life. Jude’s old schoolmaster, Richard Philottson, whom he admires and looks up to, has gone to Christminster. (Mr. Philottson will play a significant role in Jude’s future life, and not in a good way, either.)

While Jude is saving his money to eventually go to Christminster and enroll in school, his way is made more difficult by one Arabella Donn, an unrefined country girl who, because she is has nothing else to do, “sets her cap” for Jude. (He would have been better off if he had never met her.) After he is “intimate” with her, she tells him she is going to have his baby, so he marries her, to discover sometime later that there is no baby; the pregnancy was just a ruse to trap him into marriage.

The marriage is an unhappy one, so Jude and Arabella eventually go their separate ways, although they remain married. When Arabella immigrates to Australia with her family, Jude believes (wrongly, as it turns out) that he has seen the last of her. He eventually makes his way to Christminster, several years later than he intended, and finds that the doors to higher learning are mostly closed to him. He is advised to stick to his trade and not try to rise above his station. (Thanks for the encouragement!)

While in Christminster, Jude finds his old schoolmaster, Mr. Philottson (who doesn’t remember him from all the boys he taught), but, more importantly, he finds his cousin Sue Bridehead and is instantly drawn to her in a way he knows he shouldn’t be. Sue is attractive but, we discover later, emotionally unstable and volatile, with an overly developed sense of right and wrong in the world.

Jude falls in love with Sue Bridehead, in spite of his better judgment. Sue also loves Jude in her strange, on-again, off-again way. Mr. Philottson aids Sue in finding a teaching position and becomes romantically interested in her himself, even though he is eighteen years older than she is. Jude and Mr. Philottson, in effect, become rivals for Sue.

Jude wants to marry Sue (even though they are first cousins) but can’t because he is still married to Arabella, who he believes he will never see again because she has gone to Australia. Sue would marry Jude, but, when he tells her in a moment of candor that he is already married, her sense of morality is outraged and she agrees to marry Mr. Philottson instead, even though she finds him physically repugnant.

As expected, Sue and Mr. Philottson’s marriage is not a happy one. Mr. Philottson knows that Sue really loves Jude, so he agrees to magnanimously “release” her from her marriage vows and grants her a divorce. This act will essentially ruin his teaching career and his standing in the community.

In the meantime, Arabella has turned up again unexpectedly in England. She seeks Jude out and asks him for a divorce because there is someone else she wants to marry. Jude will finally be free, he believes, to marry his one true love, Sue Bridehead.

But, wait a minute! There’s something else. In the final stages of her marriage to Jude, Arabella became pregnant, which she didn’t know about until she had left for Australia. She brings the child back to England and expects Jude to take him off her hands because, she says, he is the boy’s father.

Jude takes the boy (who is called Father Time because he seems old beyond his years), believing that he and Sue will get married and raise the boy as their own. This would have been a happy conclusion to the novel, but, of course, it wasn’t meant to be.

Jude and Sue are both free of their original marriages and are free to marry again, but Sue prevents it. She views marriage as a trap and believes that marriage between her and Jude will spoil their love. They live together as man and wife, giving the outward appearance they are married when in fact they are not. (We know this kind of arrangement will not go over well in Victorian England.) When they are discovered to be “living in sin,” Jude has trouble finding work or a place for them to stay.

They eventually have two children (with a third on the way) that are “bastards” in the eyes of the world. When tragedy strikes the children, Sue believes that she and Jude are “cursed” because of the way they chose to live. She believes the only way she will ever be redeemed in the eyes of God and society is for her to return to her original husband, Richard Philottson (even though her heart tells her otherwise), and for Jude to return to his first wife, Arabella.

Jude Fawley is a flawed, tragic character in that he is never able to find true happiness or fulfillment of his dreams. He is undone, not by one woman, but by two. He is a victim of his own weakness and humanness. He dies believing he should never have been born in the first place.

Sue Bridehead is too flighty and “moral” for this world. She seems uncertain of what she wants out of life. She prates on and on about doing one thing and another, only to end doing nothing. (She doesn’t seem to know how to help herself or anyone around her.) She wants to be Jude’s wife and then she decides against it. She wants to marry Richard Philottson and then she wants out of the marriage, only to return to him in the end. She’s a dizzy dame that any man with any sense should stay away from. (She says toward the end of the book that her attractiveness to men has been her undoing in life.)

The only character who seems to find happiness is the amoral Arabella, who uses people to suit her purposes. She’s the only person who seems unscathed by the tragic events that take place. At the end of the novel, she’s flirting with a doctor. We get the impression that she will be all right no matter what and will not be bothered too much by anything that happens.

Jude the Obscure is highly readable classic of English literature, a nearly perfect novel with plenty of heartbreak. At 320 pages, it moves along at a fairly fast clip. Of course, it contains some language and syntax that seem archaic to us today, but that’s to be expected for the time in which it was written. Reading it does not require a tremendous expenditure of time and effort. A lot of writers of Thomas Hardy’s time said a lot less in a lot more pages.

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp 

The Wrath of the Grapes

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The Wrath of the Grapes

The Wrath of the Grapes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

She wore a soiled white uniform and her duty shoes were worn-down and scuffed the color of dirt. Every time she passed the mirror she stopped and examined herself, tucking her long gray hair behind an ear or checking her teeth. She swatted at the furniture with a rag in an approximation of dusting and emptied the ashtrays into a bag. She threw the loose clothing and towels into the closet and closed the door.

“I’ll put those in the laundry next time,” she said.

“Hmm?” the woman on the chaise longue said. She was dozing and had forgotten for the moment that she wasn’t alone.

“Anything else before I go?”

She opened her eyes and pulled herself partway up. She was haggard, old beyond her years. “I must get up,” she said.

“I wouldn’t get up if I was you, dearie,” the pickup woman said. “You’re wobbly on your feet.”

“Bertha Belvedere is coming to interview me for The Hollywood Beacon. They’re going to do a lavish treatment of my life in advance of my next picture.”

“If you say so.”

“Is Neville still here?”

“I ain’t seen him.”

“If you see him anywhere about, tell him I’m not to be disturbed for the next little bit.”

“I don’t think he’s here, but if I see him I’ll tell him what you said.”

“Thank you for cleaning my room. If I need you again, I’ll call.”

“You owe me fifteen bucks. I ain’t doin’ this for fun, you know.”

“We’ll settle up next time. I’m a little short right now.”

The pickup woman sighed and, with a clink of empty liquor bottles, she was gone.

The woman on the chaise longue was Nema Gerova, the famous film actress. Life hadn’t been very kind to her lately. Her last four pictures had lost money. Her kind of Old World sex appeal was worn out, passé. The public wanted jazz babies with fresh faces, youth and vitality. The studio unceremoniously canceled her contract, informing her in a five-word telegram.

Almost overnight, it seemed, she went from Monotone Studio’s brightest young star—a string of impressive money-making hits to her credit—to a drug-addled, drunken floozy with four ex-husbands and a hundred pounds of unwanted weight. The picture business had built her up to heights she never dreamed possible and then brought her crashing down to the black abyss. What an ugly, cruel world it was! A world all too willing to forget she ever existed.

She looked over to the table and felt some comfort in what she saw there. As if they had been part of the set design of one of her pictures, a nearly-full bottle of gin stood artfully beside a glass. She poured two fingers of the delectable nectar into the glass, drank it down, and poured again. When she was beginning to feel herself going into that fuzzy world of not caring or feeling, she remembered that somebody was coming. Who was it? Oh, yes,  a female journalist to talk to her about her life and her upcoming picture, The Wrath of the Grapes.

She needed to make herself more presentable. She stood up and made her way across the room to the dressing table and looked at herself in the mirror. She hardly recognized the person looking back at her. Her face was pale and puffy, her eyes merely two slits. With shaking hands, she dabbed some rouge on her cheeks and lipstick on her lips. She ran a comb through her hair and, going back to her chaise longue, had another drink, just one, to steady her nerves.

An hour passed and more. She was in the delicious gray area between waking and sleeping when she heard a tiny knock at the door.

Entrez,” she said cheerily, pulling herself upright.

The door opened and in came Bertha Belvedere, a pig-like woman of great dignity. She wore an expensive-looking suit, a fox fur piece and a black hat trimmed with feathers.

“How do you do, dear?” she said in her simpering tones.

“Bertha, darling!” Nema said. “How wonderful to see you! Please forgive me if I don’t get up.”

Bertha squeezed both of Nema’s hands in hers before seating herself on the love seat facing the chaise longue. “I’ve so been looking forward to my interview with you,” she said as she took pen and pad out of her bag.

“As have I,” Nema said. “it’s just been ages since I’ve seen you. You’re looking so well.”

“As are you, my darling!”

“And I was so thrilled when I heard your paper wanted to do an article on me and my next picture, The Wrath of the Grapes. I’m sure it will help to get word out to the dear public about what a splendid picture it is and how much they shouldn’t miss seeing it.”

“Tell me,” Bertha said, grasping the pen in her hoof-like hand, furrowing her brow. “When will the picture be released? I haven’t been able to get any definite answer yet to that question.”

“Well, we haven’t actually started on the picture yet,” Nema said, “but I’m told it will be any day now.”

“What? I understood it was just wrapping up!”

“Well, there were delays, as there usually are with these things, but we’ll get going with it real soon.”

“And do you really believe you’re right for the part of Caroline in the picture, who sacrifices her lover for the greater good?”

“I feel it right down to my bones. I was born to play the part of Lady Caroline.”

“I heard several other actresses were vying for the part.”

“That’s true but I beat out all of them.”

“And who will direct the picture?”

“We don’t actually have a director yet, but my husband, Neville Marks, will produce. He’s in negotiations in with several of the top directors, all of whom want to do the picture. It’s just a matter of ironing out the details.”

“And who will be your leading man?”

“Well, we don’t know that yet, either, but you can bet it’ll be somebody top-notch, with not only the physical presence to carry the part but also the acting experience to convey the deep emotional torment of Captain Witherspoon.”

“Can you tell me who might be in consideration for the role so I can inform my readers?”

“Well, so far as I know, there’s Herman Dare, Dalton Dixon, Matthew Robinette, and a couple of others.”

“Oh, my, but that is an impressive pool to draw from!”

“Yes, we want only the best,” Nema said, placing a cigarette in her holder and lighting it.

“I hesitate to bring up an unpleasant topic,” Bertha said, “but your last few pictures haven’t been as successful as you might have wished. I’ve heard that Monotone Pictures lost money last year and will lose even more this year. Do you believe The Wrath of the Grapes will be successful enough to lift the studio out of its financial doldrums?”

“I have the utmost confidence that The Wrath of the Grapes will be the biggest hit of the year and will restore Monotone Pictures to its rightful place of prominence in the motion picture industry.”

“Not to mention what it will do for your own career.”

“Of course! A motion picture career is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Although my last couple of pictures haven’t sold well with the public, I assure you it’s only a temporary aberration and The Wrath of the Grapes will put me right back up there on the top where I belong.”

“And you don’t believe that Monotone will cancel your contract?”

“Of course not! That’s just an ugly rumor being perpetrated by the hordes of people in the industry who are jealous of my success. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my contract has been, or ever will be, canceled. Just the other day, Mr. T. T. H. Gottschalk, head of the studio, assured me that my position there is inviolable.”

“How reassuring it must have been to hear that!”

“Yes, yes, yes!”

“Now, getting on to other matters, I wonder if you might tell us something of your early life and of how you got your start in pictures. It’s a well-known story, of course, but I thought it would be fun to hear it from your own lips.”

(The truth was that she was born, out of wedlock, to an alcoholic mother in a tenement slum on New York’s Lower East Side, but that wasn’t the story she liked to tell.)

“I was born in Budapest to an American mother and a Hungarian father. My father was a physician and my mother a magazine illustrator. We moved to New York when I was ten years old. In school I performed in amateur theatricals and eventually enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When I was seventeen years old, I entered a beauty contest in Atlantic City at the urging of friends and, when I won the contest, was given a screen test in Hollywood. My mother and I went by rail across this huge continent in the middle of July. Can you imagine?

“The screen test turned out well and I was offered the lead in a film they were just then preparing entitled The Call of the Virgin, even though I had no acting experience. The producers took a chance on me based entirely on my looks and my personality. And I had such a wonderful director—Carleton Fiske—that it didn’t matter that I had never acted before. He extracted—there’s no other word for it—the performance from me as if it had always been inside me. I became an overnight sensation and a big, big star and married Carleton Fiske, even though he was thirty-eight years older than me.”

“Bless your heart!” Bertha said.

“He died soon after but I always felt that he was the one person, more than any other, who was responsible for my success in films.

“My first year at Monotone Pictures, I starred in four pictures. My next picture after The Call of the Virgin was Night Wind and it was just as big a hit as the first one. Then came Queen of the Dust Bin and The Lady is Indiscreet, all making vast amounts of money for the studio. And everything had come so easily to me, as if it had always meant to be. You hear about people struggling to achieve success, but I never had to struggle at all. It just seemed to come naturally to me!”

“It happens that way sometimes,” Bertha said in her knowing way, “but it is very, very rare.”

“Yes, very rare.”

“Now, if you will indulge me for a bit, I want to ask you about your domestic life. Our female readers especially love knowing about that side of the lives of our Hollywood luminaries.”

“What side is that?”

“How is your marriage with Neville Marks?”

“It couldn’t be better. He and I are very, very close. Soul mates, you might say. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have his strong shoulders to lean on and his wise counsel guiding me in my career.”

“Is he at home today? I was hoping to get his take on The Wrath of the Grapes and to get a couple of snaps of the two of you together in your happy home.”

“I’m sorry. He’s out scouting locations for our picture.”

“Of course. Well, perhaps next time.”

“Yes. Next time.”

Here she fell into one her dozes and when she awoke she was alone, as she had been alone ever since the pickup woman left. She had another drink and then another, and then she stood up and made her way across the room, the act of walking a delicate balancing act for her.

She went to the window overlooking the back of the house and from it saw the open door of the garage and the empty space in the garage that had recently held the car of her husband, Neville Marks.

He left her three days ago for a much-younger woman, a twenty-one-old ingénue who had recently made a splash in her first picture, just as Nema had made a splash in hers all those years ago. And his leaving her had been the cruelest cut of all, the one thing she could not tolerate and go on living.

She went into the bathroom and, standing at the sink, swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills that her doctor had told her to take sparingly because they were very strong and dangerous if not taken according to directions. She washed them down with plenty of cold water and, when she was finished, she went to the bed and lay on her back to await the coming of the blessed blankness, weeping, as she did, for the poignancy of her own passing.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Bye Bye Blackbird

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Bye Bye Blackbird ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The year Nellis Folts was eleven years old was the year he decided he would enter the school talent contest. He chose Bye Bye Blackbird for the number he would perform, and he wouldn’t just stand there and move his lips to some stupid record the way some people did. He would actually sing the song. He asked Miss Mullendorfer, the assistant music teacher, to accompany him on the piano and she readily agreed, saying that she thought it was “simply splendid” that a boy like Nellis, who was usually so standoffish, was going to participate in something she knew was going to be “lots of fun.”

“I’m not doing it for fun,” he said. “I’m doing it for the prize money.”

That evening when Nellis told his mother at the dinner table that he was going to perform in the talent show, she was less than enthusiastic.

“Are you sure you want to be up there on the stage in front of all those people?” she asked. “They’ll laugh at you.”

“I know. They laugh at me anyway.”

“I didn’t know you could sing.”

“Well, I can.”

“I’ve never heard you.”

“I want you and father to come to the talent show. You can hear me sing then.”

“I’m sure your father will be too tired to go out after having worked all day, but I’ll try to come if it’s a night I’m free.”

“You’re free every night.”

For two weeks before the talent show, he practiced Bye Bye Blackbird every night in front of a full-length mirror in his bedroom, with hand gestures and a couple of dance steps that he made up himself. He sang in a quavery tenor that sometimes verged on the soprano:

Pack up all your cares and woes.
Here I go, singin’ low.
Bye bye blackbird!
 
Where somebody waits for me,
Sugar’s sweet and so is she.
Bye bye blackbird!
 
No one here can love or understand me.
Oh, what hard-luck stories they all hand me!
 
So make the bed, light the light!
I’ll be home late tonight.
Blackbird byyyye byyyye!
 

(At the end of the song, he held out his arms and went down on one knee.)

For his clothes, he would wear black pants, a white shirt, and, from a trunk in the attic, a decades-old yellow sport jacket with wide shoulder pads and a red-and-yellow bow tie. Just the thing.

The night of the talent show brought with it heavy rains and thunderstorms. Nellis’s mother heard on the radio that storm warnings had been issued, but Nellis was not to be deterred. At six o’clock, one hour before the talent show was to begin, he put on his yellow plastic patrol-boy raincoat and, with his satchel containing the clothes he was going to perform in, walked the half-mile to school. He was soaked all the way through when he got there but was gratified to see that a lot of people had already shown up and taken their seats in the auditorium. The school was abuzz with excitement, in spite of the weather.

Without speaking to anyone, Nellis went into the deserted boys’ room to prepare. He took off his raincoat and set his satchel on the floor and opened it. His hair was still wet, so he took a wad of paper towels and dried it off the best he could and poured some Vitalis into his palm, rubbed his hands together and smoothed down his thick mess of dark hair. He then combed his hair exactly the way Sammy Davis Junior would have combed his if he had been there. He felt certain that anybody who owned a television set could not fail to make the comparison.

After dressing, he checked himself in the mirror and, when he was satisfied with the way he looked, especially the bow tie, he went “back stage,” where he and all the other contestants had been told to gather at seven o’clock sharp to draw their numbers out of a hat to determine in what order they would appear on stage. When he picked his number from the hat and realized he was last, his heart did a little thump-jump inside his ribcage. But no matter, he told himself. He didn’t mind being last; he would be freshest in the minds of the judges.

To begin the show, Mrs. Pepper, the music teacher, went out on the stage and waved her flabby arms to shush the audience. She was only four-and-a-half feet tall and almost as wide. Somebody in back of the auditorium whistled at her and yelled “Oh, baby!” but she pretended not to hear.

“Welcome to the annual school talent show!” Mrs. Pepper said in her whiny voice, training her myopic gaze on the middle distance. “It looks like we’ve got a capacity crowd! I’m happy to see that so many of you have braved the bad weather to be with us tonight! And I don’t think you’ll be disappointed! We’ve got a great show for you!”

The public address system squawked and sputtered, eliciting whistles and hoots from the audience.

She tapped on the microphone before continuing. “To make our competition a little more interesting,” she intoned, “our first-place winner, as decided by our three judges, will win a prize of fifty greenbacks. Our second-place winner will win twenty-five greenbacks, while our third-place winner will receive a complementary pass for dinner for two at the Lonesome Pine Restaurant and Grill on Highway 32.”

“Woo-woo-woo!” somebody in the audience yelled. Mrs. Pepper frowned for a moment before resuming her smile. “So, without further adieu,” she said, “we now bring to you our little show.”

The first contestant was Cecelia Upjohn, wearing lots of makeup, even though she was only twelve years old, and a skin-tight, glittery costume with red-white-and-blue diagonal stripes. She twirled her baton to a recording of I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, all the time with a fixed, doll-like grin on her face. When she tossed the baton high above her head, she somehow caught it without even looking at it. She finished her routine with a perfect split, one leg in front and the other behind as she went down on the floor with seemingly no effort at all. The audience rewarded her with resounding applause.

Then Ralph Krupperman with his hair the color of a new penny and Belinda Cornish took to the stage to do their Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine. He wore a tuxedo with a swallow-tail coat and she a curly blond wig and a satiny white dress that clung to her immature body and dragged the floor. He flung her around and around at a dizzying pace to keep time with the music as the tails of his coat flapped and she tried hard to keep from falling. After a frenetic five minutes, the music ended and the routine was over. Ralph and Belinda clasped hands and smiled like onscreen lovers as they took their bows and exited stage left to polite applause.

When Curtis Bellinger came onto the stage, a questioning murmur arose from the audience because he carried a chair in one hand and a saw in the other. (What was he going to do? Saw the chair in half?) He carried the chair to the middle of the stage and set it down. Then he sat on the chair, put the saw between his knees, and, producing a violin bow, began playing Some Enchanted Evening. The audience was transfixed as the mournful sounds of the saw carried over their heads and out the doors into the rainy night. When the song was over, the audience applauded enthusiastically—more for the novelty and daring of the act than for its musicality.

(As Curtis Bellinger was leaving the stage, a huge crack of lightning caused everybody to gasp and the lights to flicker, but the lights stayed on, and the moment of danger, if that’s what it was, was forgotten in the wake of the next act.)

Three large-for-their-age girls, who looked enough alike to be sisters but weren’t, came onto the stage, their hair in snoods and dressed in women’s army uniforms. They stood side-by-side, looking silly and self-conscious as they waited for their music to begin and, when it did, they began swiveling their hips and moving their arms like marionettes. They moved their lips to Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy, while everybody (even the most naïve person in the audience) knew they weren’t really singing.

The next act was Gus Goldblatt, a fifth grader who already weighed over two hundred pounds and wore men’s clothes. His grandfather had started teaching him the accordion when he was only two years old and since that time he had become steadily more proficient with that instrument. He favored the audience with Lady of Spain, segueing smartly into I’m Just a Vagabond Lover. The audience was most appreciative.

Gus Goldblatt’s exit brought Bertha Terhune to the stage. She was dressed in a black, full-body leotard with red ribbons in her hair and what appeared to be a bedroll under her arm. She curtsied in the direction of the audience, and, spreading out the bedroll that was really a tumbling mat, began her routine. She did a series of cartwheels, then forward somersaults and backward somersaults. She jumped into the air one way and then the other, twirled, twisted, leapt, spun, and turned, all with the agility of a flea and so fast that she was only a blur. The audience hooted and whistled.

Nellis watched all the acts from the wings as he waited to go on. He stood near a window and was aware of the storm, but what the weather might or might not do was the least of his worries. He knew he could remember all the words to Bye Bye Blackbird, but what he was worried about was “putting the song over,” as they say. The audience had sat though a lot of acts. Would they be ready for his? Would they laugh at him, as his mother had said? Would they boo him off the stage? Suddenly he wanted the whole thing to be over and to be back home where it was safe and quiet. He took deep breaths, felt light in the head, and hoped he wouldn’t be sick.

Miss Mullendorfer was standing beside him with her sheet music when Mrs. Pepper came to him and told him it was time for him to go on. He took a deep breath and walked out onto the stage. When he was installed behind the microphone, he looked out at the audience and tried to smile and they looked back at him, waiting to see what he was going to do. Two hundred eyes trained just on him, waiting for him to begin. Could he remember how the song began?

When Miss Mullendorfer from the piano played the little intro she had worked out, Nellis opened his mouth to let out the first notes. That’s when the storm hit with all its force and fury. The row of windows behind the audience blew inward as if from an explosion. The audience screamed, a prolonged wail of terror, and, as if being awakened from a dream, jumped to their feet and began running in every conceivable direction, except toward the exits and safety.

Nellis was stunned. He didn’t know what was happening. He looked over at Miss Mullendorfer at the piano to see if she might give him some cue as to what he should do, but she was gone. He was all alone on the stage, grasping the microphone stand in both hands. The thing sputtered and sparked. He might have been electrocuted if the power hadn’t failed at that moment, bringing him to the reality of the situation. He was just able to make his way out of the building in the dark as the roof was picked up and deposited someplace else and the walls around him began to collapse like a house of cards.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Goldfinch ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Goldfinch ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction book this year. It’s a contemporary American story with a Dutch painting from the seventeenth century at its core and a central character, one Theodore Decker, for whom chance or fate or luck—whatever you choose to call it—plays a significant role.

Theodore, or “Theo” as he is called, is twelve years old when the story begins. He is with his mother at a New York City art museum (his parents are divorced and his father has long since departed) when a terrorist’s bomb kills his mother and several other people and destroys a large part of the museum. Theo, through circumstance (chance?), narrowly escapes being killed himself.

Right before the blast, Theo’s mother goes off alone to look at something in another part of the museum. Theo is compelled to stay behind because he is intrigued by a young girl with red hair with an old man, possibly her grandfather. (When the blast occurs, Theo doesn’t know right away that his mother is killed but thinks she will have gotten out safely and will wait for him at home.) Theo goes to the aid of the old man and the girl with red hair (the man dies but not before giving Theo a ring he is wearing; the girl is badly injured). This chance meeting (chance again) significantly alters Theo’s future.

In the after-explosion confusion, Theo finds his way out of the wrecked museum alone and is largely ignored by the rescue people. Before he leaves, however, he sees a small, priceless painting, The Goldfinch (that he and his mother had been looking at a short time before), hanging out of its frame. He slips the painting into the school bag he is carrying, in effect stealing it. He doesn’t know why he takes the painting or what he plans to do with it. (Chance makes the thief.)

The Goldfinch is an actual painting by gifted Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, who was a student of Rembrandt’s. Fabritius was killed at age 32 in 1654 when a gunpowder storehouse exploded in Delft, destroying one-quarter of that city. All but a dozen or so of the paintings of Fabritius were destroyed. (These two violent explosions, one real and the other fictional, bookend the painting.)

Finding himself without family or anyone to care for him, Theo remembers a school friend, one Andy Barbour, that he at one time felt close to. The Barbours are a snooty, upper-crust Park Avenue family, but they (rather reluctantly) take Theo in—for the time being, anyway—because he has no place else to go. He shares a room with his old friend Andy Barbour and tries to resume his life the best he can, living without his mother with a strange family. While he is living with the Barbours, he allows the ring that the old man at the museum gave to him to lead him to the home, in another part of the city, of one James Hobart (or “Hobie,” as he is known). Hobie is the partner in the antiques business of the old man killed in the museum blast. He is kind to Theo and begins to introduce him to the antiques business, specifically furniture restoration.

Through Hobie, Theo becomes acquainted with the red-haired girl who made such an impression on him the day of the museum bombing. Her name is Pippa and, when Theo discovers her, she is recovering from her injuries, as is he (his more emotional than physical). Over the years, his obsession for Pippa grows, even though their lives take divergent paths.

When Theo’s good-for-nothing father, Larry, reappears to assume his parental duties, he has a creepy girlfriend in tow named Xandra. (It seems that Larry is interested, above all, in how he might benefit from his late wife’s estate.) Larry and Xandra take Theo out of the Barbours’ home to live with them in Las Vegas.

Theo’s life takes a decided turn for the worse in Las Vegas. His father is volatile and unreliable; Xandra a self-obsessed bitch who is in no way a mother figure. Theo befriends a Russian boy his own age, Boris, who is, at best, a terrible influence on him. Boris leads Theo down a path of illegal drug use, shoplifting, binge drinking, and other disgusting activities that teenagers without parental authority are sometimes left to engage in.

Theo’s father eventually meets his sad end (we saw it coming), causing Theo to take the wrapped-like-a-mummy The Goldfinch (which he has kept hidden in his room all this time) and take a bus to New York City, with Xandra’s tiny dog, Popper.(It seems that Xandra isn’t even responsible enough to care for a small dog.) He ends up at the home/business of Hobie, who was so kind to him when he was younger. Not having anyplace else to go, he lives in a room at Hobie’s house and learns the front end of the antiques business, while Hobie works with the behind-the-scenes restoration.

In a short time, Theo turns the antiques business into a success but not without some shady business dealings on his part that Hobie doesn’t know about. Outwardly he shows all the signs of success (expensive suits, hobnobbing with wealthy antiques patrons), but inwardly he is never really happy (his philosophy of life being that it’s better never to have been born). He begins using drugs heavily and becomes engaged to a frosty society bitch named Kitsey Barbour (even though he secretly pines for Pippa), who just happens to be the daughter of the family who took him in after his mother died.

During these years of growing into young adulthood, Theo believes he has The Goldfinch with him, although he never takes it out anymore and looks at it. He puts the painting, or what he believes is the painting, in a storage locker for the safekeeping of art objects. Hearing of other cases where art thieves receive stiff prison sentences, he is naturally afraid of what will happen to him if it is discovered he has the lost painting. He isn’t even able to explain why he took it in the first place. He would never be able to sell it or own it in the usual sense.

When Theo’s friend Boris from his Las Vegas days shows up in New York (he hadn’t heard from Boris since he left), Boris tells him, much to his surprise, that he (Boris) “stole” the painting from him when they were still high school students in Las Vegas. The wrapped-up article that Theo believes is the painting is, in reality, an old civics book. (“I thought you knew,” says Boris.) It seems that gangsters and high-level drug dealers use stolen art as “collateral” to get financial backing for their enterprises. In trying to recover the painting, Theo is drawn into the shadowy world of art theft.

The problem with the painting (what to do with it, how to turn it in to authorities without winding up in jail, etc.) is eventually resolved for Theo, after many twists and turns and a near-suicidal trip to Amsterdam at Christmas. Boris is such bad news for Theo most of the time but more often than not turns out to be his salvation. He (Boris) is a kind of tarnished, bad angel, who goes recklessly through life in his own way, ignoring all the rules that “good” people follow.

The Goldfinch is an interesting—if overly long—reading experience. It is so long, in fact (771 pages), and reading it requires so much time and effort that the less dedicated reader might give up before he/she begins. That’s not to say that it’s a boring book or that it’s not written in an easy, readable style. It is compulsively readable most of the time and only in the last couple of hundred pages did my interest begin to flag. (The eighty or so pages in Amsterdam seem to be overly drawn out.) When I was wanting the book to finally end, it seemed to me to go on and on and on. It’s a book, though, that if you do undertake to read it, you will feel at the end that you are better and smarter for having done so.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp  

Hillbilly Women on the Moon

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Hillbilly Women on the Moon ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

“I heard you was gettin’ married to a Mr. Chin,” Mrs. Vogel said. “Had a diamond engagement ring and everything.”

“Nope,” Mrs. Chuffey said, blowing a perfect cloud of smoke into the air. “Ain’t marryin’ nobody.”

“Why don’t you go ahead and marry him, then, if’n that’s what he wants?”

“He’s got scales all over his body,” Mrs. Chuffey said. She shuddered and closed her eyes to show how much this quality offended her. Took a pull on her jug and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“You could all ways get used to a few scales,” Mrs. Vogel said. “Many a woman has had to put up with more.”

“I’d like to see you married to a reptile!”

“He ain’t asked me!”

“No, and he won’t, neither!”

“There’s no use gettin’ all uppity about it!”

“Even if I wanted to marry him, I couldn’t. I’ve got my retarded granddaughter, Ollie French, to take care of now, ever since her mama upped and drownded herself.”

“Oh, yeah, I forget about Ollie French,” Mrs. Vogel said. “I guess Mr. Chin wouldn’t want to be a-livin’ in the same house with her.”

“No, it ain’t that. He’d like living in the same house with Ollie French. He’d like it too much! He’d be in a position where he might easily take advantage of her, especially since she’s gone so batty in the head.”

“And her only a child,” Mrs. Vogel said.

“She’s twenty-two. That ain’t exactly a child. But, as dumb as she is, she’s got her womanly wiles.”

“Somebody said they seen her down at the river and she was trying to swim acrost in her clothes and she sank like a stone. Some fellow that was there called out to her, ‘Hey, Ollie French! Why don’t you take off all them clothes? It’ll help you to swim better’. And you know what she done, don’t you? She took off every stitch but she still couldn’t swim acrost. The current was too much for her. But there she was naked in front of all them people and they was all a-laughin and a-hootin at her.”

“Being naked in front of people don’t bother her none,” Mrs. Chuffey said. “She ain’t got no more modesty than a toad.”

“Some people is like that,” Mrs. Vogel said dreamily.

“Speaking of the devil hisself,” Mrs. Chuffey said. “I see her coming from up the road a piece.”

Mrs. Vogel swiveled her head and shaded her eyes with her hand. Sure enough, there was Ollie French coming toward them. She had on a clean-looking dress and was carrying a little book that turned out to be a Bible.

“She’s growed up into a right fine girl,” Mrs. Vogel said.

“It don’t do her much good, though, Mrs. Chuffey said. “She ain’t got the sense the good Lord gave a goose.”

Mrs. Vogel clicked her tongue and, by this time, Ollie French was crossing the door yard, just a few feet away from them.

“How you?” Mrs. Vogel asked politely, spreading her skirt over her knees.

Ollie French sat down on the step to the left of Mrs. Vogel. “I’m happy,” she said. “Do you know what happened to me this afternoon?”

“No, child. What?”

“My future was laid out for me.”

“What you talking, you crazy thing?” Mrs. Chuffey asked.

“No, it’s true, granny. I know now what I want to do with my life. I won’t have to sit around this old place forever waiting to die. I won’t ever have to try to swim acrost no rivers naked, ever again! I won’t have to hope for a decent man to come along and want me to marry him. He don’t exist, anyway!”

“Are you gonna become a nun?” Mrs. Vogel asked.

“No, better than that. I have been accepted to become a missionary in Darkest Africa!”

Mrs. Chuffey scoffed. “What do you know about bein’ a missionary?”

“I don’t know much yet, but I’m learnin’.”

“Well, they eat people over there. You know that, don’t you?”

“I ain’t worried.”

“When you leavin’?”

“I’m not sure yet, but it’s gonna be soon. They gonna be a-sendin’ me a letter a-tellin’ me when to come to ‘em. Ain’t it excitin’? I’m so excited I can barely breathe.”

“Who’s gonna do your work around here after you gone to Darkest Africa?” Mrs. Chuffey asked.

Ollie French shrugged and looked down. She was afraid Mrs. Chuffey was going to try to stop her going.

“Who’s gonna fix my dinner and my breakfast? Who’s gonna tote wood and wash my clothes and sweep the floor and pull the weeds and make the beds and keep things tidy?”

“You could always git you a hired gal,” Mrs. Vogel said. “I know of three or four gals right now that’d jump at the chance to do some work that they get paid for doin’.”

“I ain’t got no money to pay no hired gal,” Mrs. Chuffey said. “I don’t need me no hired gal, anyway, when I got my own little Ollie French to do them things.”

“I’ll do them things as long as I’m here,” Ollie French said firmly, “but after I’m gone you’ll have to make other arrangements.”

“Other arrangements!” Mrs. Chuffey said. “Well, we’ll just see about that!”

Ollie French stood up and went quietly into the house.

“She sure has changed since she got religious,” Mrs. Vogel said.

“She ain’t the same gal,” Mrs. Chuffey said. “I don’t hardly a-recognize her.”

“I’m thinkin’ now that maybe she ain’t as retarded as people always thought.”

“Retarded is good enough for her. She don’t need to be anything but retarded. It’d serve her well for the rest of her life if’n she would only kin to it.”

“Maybe the good Lord wants her to be more than just an ol’ retarded gal doin’ chores for her granny.”

“What about me? Is the good Lord a-thinkin’ about me? Who’s gonna help me out with the work around the house with my little Ollie French gone off to Darkest Africa?”

“The Lord will provide for you, too. Don’t he all ways?”

“It just ain’t a good idea for her to be thinkin’ about goin’ off to Darkest Africa or anyplace else. Any way you look at it, it ain’t a smart thing. She needs to stay right here with her own people the way she was intended.”

“Well, things ain’t always up to us,” Mrs. Vogel said. “Sometimes things is out of our hands.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

“Church sometimes does funny things to people,” Mrs. Vogel said. “It changes ‘em and makes ‘em want to do things you don’t even begin to understand.”

“I’m gonna go have a talk with them church people and tell them to leave my little Ollie French alone,” Mrs. Chuffey said. “I’m afraid they preying on her feeble mind. She needs her granny to stand up for her and say ‘enough is enough’.”

“When you goin’?”

“Tomorrow, I guess. Why?”

“Do you want me to go with you?”

“You can if you want.”

“Remember what you said earlier about Mr. Chin?” Mrs. Vogel asked. “About how you declined his marriage invitation and all?”

“I remember. What about it?”

“Well, I’ve been thinkin’.”

“About what?”

“There’s a full moon tonight. Awful sweet for romancin’.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I was thinkin’ how you might put in a word for me with Mr. Chin, if’n you was willin’. I don’t mind a few scales on a man.”

“Not so fast!” Mrs. Chuffey said. “With Ollie French goin’ to Darkest Africa, I might marry Mr. Chin after all. He could help with all the work around here that needs to be done.”

“Do you think he’d be willin’ to do that?”

“It don’t hurt to ask. I’d be willin’ to put up with his scales if he was willin’ to work for me.”

“With marriage as part of the bargain?”

“We’ll see.”

Mrs. Vogel stood up and stretched her arms above her head. “I’d best be gettin’ on home,” she said. “After I eat my supper and clean up the dishes, I’m gonna get into bed and look at the full moon through my window glass and dream about all the things that might have been.”

“It’ll keep you awake,” Mrs. Chuffey said.

“Don’t nothin’ keep me awake,” Mrs. Vogel said.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Buster’s Version

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Buster’s Version ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

I was walking home from school with my friend Buster Dahl. We went slow because Buster wore a brace on his leg. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with him but I had heard my mother tell somebody on the phone that he had tuberculosis of the bones. I didn’t know what that meant but I knew it sounded bad.

“Walking home is the best part of the day,” Buster said.

“Better than lunch and recess?”

“Oh, shit!” he said.

I was going to ask him what was wrong but just then I saw what he saw: Herman Dexter headed toward us.

“Just act natural,” I said, but what I meant by that I didn’t know.

“Why doesn’t he just die?” Buster said.

We were all afraid of Herman. He was three years older than we were and an acknowledged psycho.

“So, they’re allowing vermin on the street these days?” Herman said with his cruel smile when he saw us.

“We just saw a gorilla,” Buster said. “It was your mother. She was looking for you.”

“Oh! Funny!” Herman said. “I wish I had thought of that!”

Herman kept us from moving past with his blockish body. My skin crawled with revulsion at being that close to him. He had yellow, spaced-apart teeth and black splotches on his fat cheeks and forehead. I didn’t know if it was dirt or something more sinister.

“We’re not going to bother you,” Buster said, “so how about if you just let us pass and not bother us?”

“And miss the fun?”

“No fun here,” I said.

“No?” Herman asked. “I always think it’s fun beating the shit out of little kids.”

“If you want to beat the shit out of somebody, why don’t you beat the shit out of somebody your own size?” Buster said.

“Well, that’s just no fun at all!”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Herman,” Buster said. “How many years was it you spent in third grade?”

I thought he was laying it on a little thick—the last thing we wanted was to make Herman mad—but I didn’t say anything. If we just waited it out, he would let us pass without too much damage.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Herman said. “What’s it like to be a cripple?”

“I’m not a cripple,” Buster said.

“Then take that thing off your leg and let me see you run around the block.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I just told you to, you little creep!”

“I may be a creep,” Buster said, “but at least I’m not a retarded creep. I only spent one year in third grade.”

“Take that thing off your leg and let me see it,” Herman said. “I want to beat you over the head with it.”

“Leave him alone, Herman!” I said.

“Oh, do you want some too, you little mama’s boy?”

He came toward me and insinuated his dirt-caked knuckles under my nose.

“We’re not bothering you,” I said. “We just want to go home.”

“Hah! Not a chance!”

“You’re a menace to society, you know that?” Buster said. “They ought to lock you up in the insane asylum and throw away the key.”

“If they do, I know I’ll see you there!”

I took Buster by the arm and tried to steer him around Herman but Herman was too quick for us. He held out his arms as though trying to enfold us in a big hug.

“You’re just a piece of dog shit,” Buster said. “Your whole family is dog shit!”

We all knew the story of Herman’s family. Father in prison, mother a snaggle-toothed drunk, two crazy sisters, one a prostitute and the other one a man living in a woman’s body. (It would be a few years before we could figure that one out.)

“You think you’re better than me?” Herman said. “Huh? You think you’re better than me, punk?”

I could see that impugning Herman’s family had made him madder than any of the other insults that Buster had hurled at him. He charged at Buster and viciously pushed him backwards. With Buster lying on the ground, struggling to get up, Herman straddled him like a wrestler and held his arms above his head. Buster struggled to get free but was no match for Herman.

“Let him up,” I said, pushing Herman by the shoulder with my knee to let him know I meant business.

“Make me!” he said.

“He’s not as strong as you. You’re going to hurt him.”

“Shut up!”

“If you hurt him, you’re going to be in really bad trouble!”

I could see that my words had some effect on Herman because he let go of Buster’s arms but stayed on top of him. With his arms free, Buster grabbed for the vintage book satchel he always carried, undid the strap, and pulled something out that to me looked like a yoyo. He held the yoyo-like object up and squirted it in Herman’s face. Herman flopped over on his back and began screaming.

Oh! Oh! Owwwww! It hurts! Oh, my god! What did you do to me? You blinded me!” He rubbed furiously at his eyes and I could see the tears streaming down his face.

With Herman writhing on his back on the ground and unable to see us, Buster and I got away as fast as we could.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Pepper spray. Police strength. My sister gave it to me.”

“Will he be able to see again?”

“Sure, it wears off after a while.”

“He’ll be really mad now!”

The next day the teacher came and told me the principal wanted to see me in his office right away. I went downstairs on shaky legs. I was afraid of the principal but not in the same way I was afraid of Herman Dexter. He sat me down in a chair in front of his big desk.

“I understand there was a fight yesterday between two boys, Herman Dexter and Buster Dahl.”

“Not exactly a fight,” I said, looking at the cigarette burns on his desk.

“You were there? You saw it?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve heard Buster’s version and I’ve heard Herman’s version. Now I want to hear yours.”

I told him everything that happened without adding anything. It took about five minutes. When I was finished, he told me to go back to my classroom and not talk to anybody about the incident because Herman’s mother was threatening legal action against the school.

When I was walking home that day, Buster Dahl caught up with me. “Thanks,” he said.

“What for?” I asked.

“You told the principal the same story I did. I’m cleared now. It was a clear case of self-defense.”

“What about Herman?”

“Who cares as long as he leaves us alone?”

Not long after the incident with the pepper spray, Herman Dexter was involved in an accident. He fell off the back of a moving truck and broke both his legs. He would be out of commission for a long time. There was even a rumor going around that he wouldn’t be returning to school at all. We knew there was a God.

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp

Their Thousand Friends

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Their Thousand Friends ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Bougainvillea Dankhurst had never had a husband but had been familiar with wayfaring men so that she had two children, a boy and a girl, that she never wished to have. When she had to go away to deliver herself of a third child, she left the children, Sir Isaac and Edith, with an old woman of her acquaintance, a Mrs. Bertha Gessler, who lived deep in the woods.

Mrs. Gessler was an eccentric and something of a hermit. She liked children well enough but wasn’t used to mixing with people and found Sir Isaac and Edith trying in the extreme. They were loud, unruly, and undisciplined. They slammed doors, spilled their milk on the floor, taunted Mrs. Gessler’s three cats, screamed for no reason, chased each other through the house, opened doors and drawers they had no business opening, tore up whatever they got their hands on, and threatened to stab Mrs. Gessler in the heart and burn her house down whenever she tried to discipline them.

“Some children should never have been born,” she said to herself. “If they were my brats, I’d string them up in a tree and wouldn’t let them down until they decided to behave themselves.”

When Sir Isaac carved a profanity in the banister and Edith threw a bibelot through the window and broke it (the window and the bibelot), Mrs. Gessler locked them out of the house. She would let them back in to eat their meals and to sleep, but at all other times they would have to stay outside until their mother came to get them. The weather was warm and there would be plenty for them to do. They might sit underneath a tree in the shade and contemplate how bad they were. If nothing else, they could go exploring in the woods. If a bear ate them, then so be it. Things like that happened all the time.

Sir Isaac and Edith had been outside half a day without incident when a thunderstorm rolled in from the southwest. The rain fell in great torrents, the thunder boomed, and the lightning flashed. Mrs. Gessler couldn’t very well keep them outside in a storm. If it was up to her she wouldn’t mind seeing them drowned or burnt to a crisp from blasts of lightning, but since they were somebody else’s children she had to see them safely delivered into their mother’s arms.

She let them come back into the house but tied their hands and feet. They could stand or sit as they saw fit or move around inasmuch as the ropes would let them. Though their limbs were restricted, their mouths were still in full working order.

“I’m sure it’s against the law to tie people up against their will,” Edith said. “When my mother finds out, she’ll have you arrested.”

“I’m sure she’d do the same if she could,” Mrs. Gessler said.

“What if I have to use the toilet?” Sir Isaac asked.

“Hold it as long as you can and when you’re sure you can’t hold it any longer I’ll let you loose long enough to relieve yourself.”

“You’re a horrible old woman and I hate you,” Edith said.

“Tell it to the Lord and ask for his forgiveness.”

“Just wait until I get loose!”

“Something bad is going to happen to you,” Sir Isaac said with a smirk. “I just know it!”

“Such hateful children!” she said.

She left them alone and when she went to check on them several hours later they were asleep, lying side by side. Sir Isaac was on his back with a slight smile on his lips; Edith on her side, a sofa cushion underneath her head and her tied hands underneath her chin. At the sight of them like a couple of trussed-up slabs of meat, Mrs. Gessler felt a pang of conscience. They were, after all, only children. If they didn’t know how to behave themselves, it was because they had never been taught any better. She untied them and took them into the kitchen to feed them their supper.

“What’s this slop?” Edith asked when Mrs. Gessler set a bowl of vegetable soup in front of her.

“Never mind what it is,” Mrs. Gessler said. “Eat it because it’s all you’re going to get.”

“Don’t you have any chocolate cake?” Sir Isaac asked.

“No, you get an apple for dessert.”

“What if we don’t like apples?” Edith said.

“I never heard of anybody not liking apples.”

“Don’t you have any peanut butter?” Sir Isaac asked.

“Eat your supper and I’ll read you a nice Bible story before you go to bed.”

“What do you take me for?” Edith said. “Bible stories? Do you think we’re infants?”

“Are you going to tie us up again?” Sir Isaac asked.

“I won’t if you conduct yourself like the little lady and gentleman that I know you are.”

“Whew!” Edith said. “You are naïve!”

“I want my mother!” Sir Isaac said.

“She isn’t here.”

“Well, I’m going home!”

He pushed his chair away from the table and began to stand up, but when Mrs. Gessler gave him a sharp rap on the wrist, he sat back down.

“You’re not my grandmother,” Edith said.

“Nobody said I am,” Mrs. Gessler said.

“Have you ever heard of the crime of arson?”

“There’ll be no arson here.”

“Well, we’ll just see about that!”

Edith picked up the sugar bowl and flung it across the room against the wall. Mrs. Gessler picked up a full glass of water and flung it in Edith’s face.

“Oh, how I hate you!” Edith said as the water dripped from her hair, chin and nose onto the table and the floor.

“Get the broom and clean up that sugar!” Mrs. Gessler.

“I won’t and you can’t make me!”

Sir Isaac stood up and began flailing his arms and running around the table, screaming, “I want to go home! I want my mother! I want to go home!”

Edith, taking her cue from Sir Isaac, began throwing the dishes that were on the table to the floor and breaking them, all the time screaming as one possessed.

Mrs. Gessler knew of only one way to control them. She raised her arms above her head, uttered a few words in a Slavic tongue that she remembered from her youth, and watched as Sir Isaac and Edith were transformed into scampering mice. She corralled them into a small cage and clamped the door shut.

“I guess that’ll hold you,” she said as she set the cage in the middle of the table where she could see it and took the broom and dustpan and began cleaning up the mess.

Sir Isaac and Edith ran around inside the cage for a few minutes as though looking for a way out. Finally wearing themselves out, they settled down, tucked their tails under their bodies and made pitiful little squeaking sounds.

The next few days passed peacefully enough. Order was restored to Mrs. Gessler’s house. Her cats came out of hiding and approached the cage with great interest. They stuck their paws inside and batted playfully at the two mice, but Mrs. Gessler wouldn’t allow them to maul or eat Sir Isaac or Edith or scare them so badly that they would lose their wits and not ever regain them.

Finally the day arrived when Mrs. Gessler glanced up from her sewing and saw Bougainvillea Dankhurst coming up the lane. She was carrying a bundle in the crook of her arm, which, of course, would be her new baby. Mrs. Gessler welcomed her warmly.

After admiring the new baby, a pink and rosy-cheeked girl-child, Mrs. Gessler took Bougainvillea into the kitchen, where the cage containing the two mice still sat in plain view on the table. Bougainvillea stuck her fingers through the tiny bars of the cage, laughing when the mice tickled her with their noses.

“You keep mice as pets?” she asked.

“You could say that,” Mrs. Gessler said, “but, strictly speaking, it’s not the absolute truth.”

“They’re very cute,” Bougainvillea said. She held the baby up to see the mice, but, of course, the baby was too young to see them or to know what they were.

Mrs. Gessler gave Bougainvillea a piece of cake and a cup of tea. They were having a very pleasant conversation until Bougainvillea asked where the children were.

“I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of a shock for you,” Mrs. Gessler said.

“They’re not dead, are they?” Bougainvillea asked.

“Oh, my, no!” Mrs. Gessler said. “Nothing of the sort.” She glanced meaningfully at the two mice in the cage.

“You don’t mean?” Bougainvillea said.

“I’m afraid I had no other choice, dear.”

“How could you do such a despicable thing?”

“I might ask you how you came to have two such despicable children!”

Bougainvillea looked at the cage, then at Mrs. Gessler, and laughed most heartily. “I would have done it myself a long time ago if I had known how!”

“That’s what I told them.”

“Can you turn them back?”

“Well, that’s a little bit of a problem, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Gessler said. “I haven’t been able to remember that part of the spell.”

“Oh, dear!”

“But it’ll come to me. I know it will.”

“So I brought two children and am going home with two mice!”

“Just feed them little pieces of bread and cheese and a little water now and then. They’re very happy with that.”

After Bougainvillea left to go home, carrying the cage in one hand and her new baby on the other arm, she came to see that it all made perfect sense. Sir Isaac and Edith were really terrible children and she had never been able to control them on her own. She loved them, of course, and would never have done anything to harm them, but now that they were tiny and confined to a cage and required very little care, she saw what a blessing it was.

The new baby, who she named Saint Margaret, was what she really cared about. Her wild days were over. No longer would she allow wayfaring men to lift up her skirts and have their way with her. Since there were to be no more children, she was perfectly contented with Saint Margaret alone. She saw herself growing old with the lovely and beatific girl tending to her needs through to the end of her days. Sir Isaac and Edith didn’t fit into the picture at all.

She could have kept them as pets always, but she began to feel sorry for them living in the tiny cage. That seemed far crueler than anything else that had been done to them. She took the cage out into the woods not far from where Mrs. Gessler lived and set it on the ground and opened its door. She hurried off then, lest she should change her mind or begin to feel sorry that she would never see them again.

Finding they had no limit to how far they could go was a delightful revelation to Sir Isaac and Edith. They ran and jumped and chased each other. They found that the fallen leaves provided the best playing environment they could ever imagine, as they could completely hide themselves whenever they felt like it and jump out and scare the wits out of each other when least expected. It was the most fun they had ever had. They played until they were exhausted and then made themselves a bed of leaves underneath a tree.

The night was not so delightful, however. An owl was after them to eat them for its dinner and, since they had never seen an owl before, they didn’t know how to escape, but they learned very fast. They discovered the owl was rather stupid and easily distracted. While they ran in opposite directions, the owl couldn’t seem to make up its mind which of them to pursue, so it gave up and flew away to its perch in a nearby tree. There were other terrors in the night, including empty bellies (they hadn’t learned yet how to look for food), frightening sounds, and a sudden rainstorm that soaked their bed to a soggy mess.

When morning came, they knew they had to find a better place to live or they wouldn’t last another night. They set off toward the rising sun because it seemed the most hopeful direction and by noontime they came upon a huge old barn that looked promising.

They entered the barn and made themselves at home, eating delicious grain and sleeping on straw. Most of all, they felt safe. When they awoke, they discovered the barn contained a huge population of mice, a veritable mouse city. They were welcomed into the fold because there was plenty of space for everybody and lots of food to eat.

Sir Isaac was content to eat and sleep and play with his newly acquired mouse friends, but Edith had other things on her mind. She couldn’t forget the way that old Mrs. Gessler had treated them and had turned them into mice without asking their permission. She wouldn’t be able to settle down and enjoy her life of ease in the barn until she had exacted revenge.

She gathered a bunch of the mice together, a thousand or so, and persuaded them to go with her to Mrs. Gessler’s house. The mice considered it a great adventure, an opportunity for fun, and willingly assented. With Edith as their general, the mice waited out in front of Mrs. Gessler’s house until the time was right.

When Mrs. Gessler opened her door to sweep the dirt out, the thousand mice rushed her all at once. They were all over her, in her hair and her clothing, before she knew what was happening. They bit her and clung to her and buried their claws in her flesh. She was so surprised and so frightened that her heart stopped and she died on the spot.

The mice nibbled away at Mrs. Gessler, along with all sorts of birds and animals of the forest, until the flesh was eaten away and all that remained were rags and bones. The mice, Edith and Sir Isaac especially, loved running in and out of the grinning mouth and the eyeholes. The skull, with all the brain matter gone, afforded an excellent opportunity for hide and seek.

Sir Isaac and Edith were happy living in the barn—for them it was a sort of mouse heaven—but their lives were all too brief. When they were on another adventure, they died in a rush of water that carried them away and dumped them into the river, along with other of their mouse friends. It was a quick death and, except for the moment of terror they experienced, a relatively painless one.

Bougainvillea Dankhurst could never have known what happened to her children, Sir Isaac and Edith, but throughout her long life she never again saw a mouse that she was carried away on a wave of bittersweet memories.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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