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Chauncey Peeps

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Chauncey Peeps ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

From the time she was a small child, Juniper Trent wanted to be a mother. She was a lonely child and so treated her roomful of dolls like living children or like the younger brothers and sisters she was never to have. She gave them all names, scolded them when scolding was needed—dressed, bathed, fed them—and treated them with the kindest loving care of which she was capable. In short, she taught herself how to be a mother, and, by the time she was in her early twenties, believed she was ready to embark on real—rather than pretend—motherhood.

She married the first boy who asked her, one Frederick Peeps, and, in a little over a year, she had her own real-live baby. He was a fine animal specimen in every way but not exactly what she or her husband expected. He was covered in dark hair, had a snout and a long tail, a large mouth and perfectly formed teeth. He resembled a baby ape more than a human child and, in fact, an ape is what he was. The doctor explained in his dry manner that these things sometimes happened, a little trick of nature, but there was no reason to believe that the monkey baby wouldn’t live a full and happy life.

She named him Chauncey and, after she recovered from the shock of his being so different from what she expected, she was delighted with him, as pleased and as proud as a mother could be. Her husband was a little pouty at first, wondering just who this woman was who could produce such a child, but took only a few days to get used to the idea of having a son unlike any other and came to love him as much as a father could, taking singular pride in his first steps, his first words and in his first bicycle ride.

Mrs. Peeps took Chauncey with her wherever she went. She soon became used to people staring and whispering, of wanting to get a closer look. Just about everybody who saw him wanted to touch him, to take his picture, or to have him grip their thumb with his furry little hand. They cooed in his face and made faces at him and, in so doing, made complete fools of themselves. Soon Mr. and Mrs. Peeps were receiving invitations to parties and dinners on the condition that they bring their unusual little Chauncey with them. They were invited to join the country club, the lodge and several church congregations, none of which held any appeal for them. They weren’t in any way “group” people or the joining kind.

Chauncey developed rapidly, physically and emotionally. He could read the newspaper at age three, recite Tennyson at age four, and, before he was five, perform the soliloquy from Hamlet. The summer before he started to school, he was juggling and doing acrobatics, singing, dancing and performing pantomime skits. His mother believed he was a natural-born performer.

When it came time for Chauncey to go to school, Mr. and Mrs. Peeps took a long, hard look at the situation. They had both attended public school as children and they knew what a cruel place it can be for someone who is different. They couldn’t stand to think of Chauncey being bullied, taunted, mistreated and made unhappy. They would rake together the money and send him to a special school for oddly turned, one-of-a-kind or freakish children.

He became a student at the Sore Bone Academy when he was six years old. For his entrance examination, he recited The Gettysburg Address (with much feeling) and did impressions of movie stars, including Marie Dressler and Zasu Pitts. The examining board, of course, was delighted, and accepted him on the spot without the usual expect-to-hear-from-us period. (They were privately thinking about the notoriety that such a talented and unusual child might bring to their school.)

At the Sore Bone, for the first time in Chauncey’s life, he had the chance to consort with other children who were as unique as he was. His classmates included an albino boy, Siamese twin girls, a boy with webbed hands and feet, a girl with a “twin” sticking out of her side, another girl with telekinetic powers who could make objects fly around the room, a boy with an exoskeleton and a tail, a girl who was covered all over with silky white hair, a boy whose head was attached backwards to his body, a girl with four working arms but no legs, a boy with the bodily proportions of a beach ball, and on and on. After one came to know them, they were more than just “freaks.” They were all bright and friendly in their own way and all fortunate to be shut away from the cruel world at the Sore Bone. Chauncey fit right in and became a student leader.

He excelled in all his studies and was encouraged to become the clown that he knew he was always meant to be. As he grew older, he began living his life as a clown instead of just as a monkey boy. He developed his “Mr. Peeps” persona that would serve him well in the years to come.

He had a complete clown wardrobe that his mother ran up for him on her sewing machine in her little attic room at home. And what a wardrobe it was, complete with junkyard tuxedos, top hats, the traditional red-and-white striped one-piece suits with ruffled colors, oversized suits containing compartments inside for the traditional rubber chicken and other clown paraphernalia, hobo pants with patches in the knees and seat, a long frock coat that dragged five feet behind him as he walked, and female clown dresses with voluminous padding for boobs and hips for when he performed in drag.

The school years passed happily and then it was time for graduation. Of all the clown students in his class, Chauncey (alias “Mr. Peeps”) was at the top of his clown class. As he accepted his diploma in his deep-purple cap and gown festooned with rubber chickens, his mother and father sat in the audience and beamed their happy smiles.

With school behind him, Chauncey had some important decisions to make. Was he going to be a clown all his life, or was he going to set his clownhood aside and pursue some more serious profession, such as lawyering or doctoring? He knew that many doctors and lawyers are also clowns, but he didn’t think he had it in him to combine the two professions. It had to be one or the other.

Just when he was beginning to enjoy his summer vacation, a bad thing happened. His father was run over by a pie wagon in Philadelphia. It was one of those events that just happens for which no planning is possible. After the funeral, Chauncey promised his mother that he would never leave her, no matter what. He would abandon all thoughts of pursuing a profession to stay at home with her. They had plenty of money and he was tired of the world anyway.

“We will defer all important matters for the time being,” his mother said. “I want to take a little vacation and get away from it all.”

They planned on going to a spa in the mountains to take the curative waters when, on the day before they were to catch their train, Chauncey received a telephone call from the Valeria Brothers Combined Shows. They knew his work, were great admirers, and were prepared to offer him a lucrative clown contract. He and his mother put off their trip for the time being, and he traveled alone two days later to meet with Valeria Brothers to discuss the job.

They gave him more money than he ever imagined and for his very first job! He knew that if he signed with them he was going to have to travel around from place to place, wherever the circus was performing, and he wasn’t altogether happy with that prospect. When he expressed a reluctance to leave his mother behind, they told him he could bring her along if she didn’t object to the nomadic life. The circus might even employ her in some capacity if she was interested.

When he told his mother the news, she was happy for a fresh start in life. What had seemed like the end of things was really the beginning of a new kind of life for her and her monkey boy.

Chauncey’s first experience at performing with the Valeria Brothers Combined Shows was a swing through the Southern states. And he was an instant success! As word of him spread, the Valeria Brothers saw their box-office receipts increase wherever they went. His mother became a sort of wardrobe mistress for Chauncey and for some of the other performers. She repaired their costumes when needed and saw that they were cleaned and pressed and ready for the next performance.

It  was in the circus that Chauncey found true love. He was instantly drawn to a midget fat-lady clown who went by the name of Ima Pigg. She was about the same age as Chauncey and very naïve, having been sheltered by her wealthy family. When her father died and her mother remarried, she had stepped out into the world on her own and joined the circus and never looked back. Chauncey was her first romantic attachment and she was his.

In a few months, Ima Pigg became Ima Peeps. The wedding was  performed before a capacity audience in the middle of the regular show. The Valeria Brothers realized they could have sold three times as many tickets if only they had had the space for that many people. They considered making marriage ceremonies part of the regular show.

Within a year, Ima Peeps gave birth to her own little monkey boy and named him Chauncey Junior. He was a tiny duplicate of his father. Chauncey and Ima were very happy, as was Chauncey’s mother, the wardrobe mistress.

But the work of performing in the circus came first. The Valeria Brothers were constantly pushing Chauncey to try new routines. They didn’t want him to get stale. They had him juggling swords and live hand grenades and hanging from his teeth from a trapeze thirty feet in the air. It wasn’t enough for him just to be a clown anymore. The audience expected more from him. He had to do things that had never been done before.

One night to a packed house, when Chauncey and several of his clown colleagues were performing a stunt with rings of fire, the fire got out of control and began to spread very fast. All the lights had been turned off, making the situation more frightening for the audience when they began to see the fire coming toward them. They began screaming and running for the exits, trampling whoever got in their way. Eight people died and many others were injured without the flames ever getting to them.

Of the performers, Chauncey and three other clowns were killed. Those who were present stated later that Chauncey was a hero. He was able to get several people out of the way of the flames at the expense of his own life.

His mother left the circus and went home. She was heartbroken, of course, but not alone. Ima Peeps went with her and her grandson, Chauncey Junior. When she looked at him, she saw her monkey boy and she knew he wasn’t really dead. Everything that had happened before was being made to happen again.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Tattooed Baby

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The Tattooed Baby ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

“Banjo sure is a pretty baby,” Willem said.

“He’s the most beautiful baby in the world,” Delores said.

“Why does he have such fuzzy hair?”

“He has hair like his daddy.”

“Who’s his daddy?”

“My husband, of course! Alvin Wilfred Seagast.”

“Oh, yeah,” Willem said. “I forgot about him.”

Willem had seen Alvin, of course, but never gave him much thought. He carried a briefcase and drove a black car. He didn’t say much; kept his head down most of the time and didn’t look at people. At family dinners he was polite but would go off by himself the first chance he got. Willem’s mother said he was odd, came from an odd family.

“You’re not just going to ask me questions all day, are you?” Delores asked.

“Is Banjo the only baby you have?”

Delores huffed out a big breath. “Do you see any other babies around?”

“Do you want to play a game with me? How about Parcheesi?”

“I have too much to do to play games. Why don’t you see if Rosie is home? Maybe she’ll play with you.”

“I don’t like playing with Rosie. She cheats.”

“I’ll bet she doesn’t. She’s probably just a better player than you are.”

“Ever since she got a Ouija board for her birthday she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

“I’m sure that’s just your imagination. I don’t know what difference a Ouija board could make.”

“She thinks she’s a hot patootie.”

“Where do you hear expressions like that?”

“I hear it all the time.”

“Well, it sounds vulgar and I don’t want you saying things like that around Banjo.”

“Why not? He doesn’t know what words mean yet.”

They both looked at Banjo’s tiny face. He wrinkled his brow and pushed an air bubble out between his lips.

“What does it mean when he does that?” Willem asked.

“I don’t think it means anything in particular.”

“Since you’re my cousin, does that mean Banjo is my cousin, too?”

“Yes, he’s your cousin, too.”

“If you had another baby, would it be my cousin, too?”

“Why do you keep talking about ‘other babies’?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you’re bored. Why don’t you go outside and play. It’s almost time for Banjo’s nap. I don’t want you making noise and keeping him awake.”

The phone rang. She set Banjo down in the playpen and went into the kitchen to answer it. In a minute she came back smiling.

“Willem, darling,” she said, “I’m going out for a few minutes. Will you keep an eye on Banjo for me?”

“Sure.”

“I won’t be gone more than ten, but don’t leave him alone until I get back. If he cries, give him his pacifier.”

“Okay.”

She checked herself in the mirror and then was gone. Willem ran to the window for a peek. He saw her get into a pretty yellow car that a man was driving. The car sped away.

“Who was that?” Banjo asked but, of course, there was nobody there to answer.

Banjo pulled himself to a standing position and looked curiously at Willem. “Mama?” he said.

“She’ll be back right away,” Willem said. “She had something she had to go and do. Something she forget about earlier.”

He threw Banjo’s floppy pink bunny in the playpen with him and hoped he wouldn’t start crying. Banjo picked the bunny up and stuck one of its ears into his mouth.

“Hey, I know something we can do until she gets back!” Willem said.

He had some tattoos in his pocket that came with bubble gum. He took them out and looked at them. There was a heart, a scorpion, a skull and crossbones, a spider, a coiled snake, and others with sayings on them, like “OH YOU KID!” and “BE MY BABY.”

He went into the bathroom and got a clean washcloth, wetted it in cold water and took it back into the front room. Banjo looked up at him and smiled, showing his tiny teeth. Willem wetted a spot on Banjo’s forehead and then pressed the paper with the tattoo on it firmly to the spot. When he pulled the paper away, Banjo had a perfect skull and crossbones right in the middle of his forehead.

“Hey, that looks great!” Willem said.

He went and got a mirror. When Banjo saw himself, he squealed and laughed and bounced on the balls of his feet. Willem then put a coiled snake on his own forearm and a star on Banjo’s cheekbone. He was going to put a heart with an arrow through it on Banjo’s forearm when he heard a car door out front.

When Delores came into the house, she smiled at Willem and looked over to the playpen to make sure Banjo was all right. When she saw the skull and crossbones and the star, her smile faded.

“What on earth?” she said.

She ran over to the playpen and picked Banjo up with enough force that she scared him and made him start to cry. “What did you do to him?” she screamed.

“It’s just tattoos!” Willem said. “They wash right off!”

“How could you do such a thing?”

“I thought it would be cute!”

“Whenever you have your own children you can mark them up all you want, but until then keep your hands off mine!”

“I only thought…”

She carried Banjo into the kitchen and set him on the counter beside the sink, managing to scare the wits out of him. She began scrubbing at the tattoos with a bar of soap and a dishrag. When she saw how easily they came off, she settled down right away, but she was mad at Willem for the rest of the day and would hardly look at him.

Willem felt bad that Delores was mad but defiantly kept his own tattoos, a coiled snake on one arm and a heart with an arrow through it on the other, and hoped that she had plenty of opportunity to notice how cute they looked.

Alvin came home from work and it was time for dinner. Willem expected Delores to tell Alvin about the tattoos while they were eating, but she didn’t mention it. After dinner Alvin and Willem were in the front room watching television while Delores was in the kitchen washing dishes.

“How have you been, old man?” Alvin asked Willem.

“Okay,” Willem said.

“Did you have fun today playing with Banjo?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s something, isn’t he? I’d have a whole houseful of kids if it was practical.”

“They cost a lot of money, my mother says.”

Alvin finished his beer and filled his pipe. He looked at the television and then he looked at Willem. “I like your tattoos,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“No. What is it?”

“We’re pals, aren’t we?”

“I guess so.”

Alvin reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of bills. He peeled a two-dollar bill off the roll and handed it to Willem.

“What’s this for?” Willem asked.

“We’re pals, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”

“I was just wondering if you saw anybody around today.”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you notice any strange fellows around the house today? Fellows you don’t usually see, I mean.”

“Well, um, let me think.”

“I want you to keep your eyes open and let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary.”

“Like what?”

“Like somebody coming around to the house to see Delores when I’m not here.”

“Sometimes Rosie’s mother comes over and they have coffee and pie together.”

“No, I don’t mean Rosie’s mother. I mean a fellow. A man.”

“Like in a yellow car?”

“In any color car.”

“Sure, if I see anything like that, I’ll let you know.”

“But you have to make sure that Delores doesn’t know. It’ll be our little secret.”

“Okay.”

Willem looked at the two-dollar bill in his hand, admiring it and realizing he had never seen one before. He didn’t know if he would be able to spend it or not. He might have to hang on to it until he was an old man.

“I want you to put that in your pocket and not take it out again until you get home,” Alvin said.

“Okay.”

“And there’s more where that came from, as long as we’re pals and we keep our mouths shut.”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Shall We Have a Cigarette on It?

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Shall We Have a Cigarette on It? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

“This is a lovely old house,” Jerry said, sipping his martini. “How many rooms does it have?”

“I never bothered to count them,” Charlotte said. “There are too many.”

“It isn’t any of your business how many rooms my house has,” Charlotte’s mother said. “That’s an impertinent question.”

“Mother, I thought we agreed that you were going to try to be civil this evening,” Charlotte said.

“I made no such agreement.”

“I apologize, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said with his humble smile. “I had no business asking such a question. It’s just that I admire these old houses so much.”

“Yes, and I’ll bet you’d like to see it knocked down and a parking garage or an office building put in its place!”

“That would be a great pity, ma’am.”

“Or maybe you can see yourself living in it. A life of ease and idleness.”

“Not at all, ma’am.”

Charlotte could see that her mother was determined to make Jerry feel uncomfortable. He would handle it with his customary grace, though; of that she was certain.

“Charlotte tells me she met you on a cruise to South America.”

“Yes,” Jerry said.

“I don’t approve of cruises on which idle young women with too much money and too much time on their hands indulge themselves.”

“Not everybody on the cruise was rich, mother,” Charlotte said, “and they weren’t all young. I was talking to one middle-aged woman who told me that she and her husband saved for five years to be able to afford it.”

“What were you talking to her for?”

“Well, you know. Too much time on our hands.”

“I’ll bet there was lots of drinking and other activities on board that ship that decent people would rather not know about.”

“No doubt,” Jerry said.

“I suppose Charlotte told you all about herself.”

“As much as I needed to know.”

“Did she tell you that she had a nervous breakdown and, in so doing, was a patient in a sanatorium for almost a year?”

“Yes.”

“It was only at the urging or her psychiatrist that I allowed her to go on the cruise at all without a chaperone. He said it was vital for her mental well-being. I never heard such hogwash but I allowed her to go nonetheless.”

“It was very kind of you.”

“I don’t believe in psychiatrists. Most people with mental problems have nothing to do but gain control of themselves and their emotions. When I was young, we weren’t allowed the luxury of nervous breakdowns and special doctors to treat them. We all bucked up and did whatever had to be done!”

“I don’t think Jerry wants to hear all that, mother,” Charlotte said. “We’ve already said all that needs to be said on the subject.”

“I’ll say whatever I want to say and ask the questions I want to ask in my own home!”

“No less than you deserve, ma’am,” Jerry said.

“And, under the guidance of her ‘progressive’ psychiatrist, Charlotte changed completely. She became a daughter I no longer recognized.”

“Don’t you think it was change for the better, ma’am?”

“I do not! When a mother no longer recognizes her daughter, how can that be change for the better?”

“You decide for yourself, Jerry,” Charlotte said. “You saw the picture of what I looked like before.”

“She was fat!” Mrs. Vale said. “Comfortably fat! After her so-called illness, she lost thirty pounds. She changed her hair and eyebrows and began buying expensive clothes which, of course, she expected me to pay for!”

“You seem to forget that I have money of my own,” Charlotte said.

“Everything you have still belongs to me! Don’t you ever forget that! With one stroke of my pen, I could strip you of everything!”

“Yes, but you won’t, though, will you?”

As if on cue, Cordelia appeared in the doorway. She was as black as ebony and almost as wide as she was tall. “Dinna is suhved,” she said in a loud voice.

“Since there are just the three of us tonight,” Charlotte said, “we’re having dinner in the small dining room.”

“You have more than one dining room?” Jerry asked.

When they were seated at the table that seated fifteen (even though it was the small dining room), Cordelia began serving the dinner, first the soup and then the fish.

“The finest food I ever ate!” Jerry said.

“Don’t think there’s any reason for you to get used to it!” Mrs. Vale said.

“Mother, stop picking on my guest,” Charlotte said. “You needn’t attack him every time he opens his mouth.”

“It’s all right, Charlotte,” Jerry said. “She’s just exercising a mother’s prerogative.”

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s prerogative to be rude.”

“I’m not rude!” Mrs. Vale said. “I’m just direct!”

“And an admirable quality it is, too!” Jerry said.

Mrs. Vale gave a tiny smile. Charlotte believed that she was beginning to warm toward him, if ever so slightly.

“And what about you?” Mrs. Vale asked. “Have you had any nervous breakdowns?”

“Not yet,” Jerry said.

“But you will have at some time in the future?”

“He was making a joke, mother,” Charlotte said.

“Well, I want to know something about the men my daughter invites into our home for dinner.”

“What do you want to know about me, Mrs. Vale? You may ask me anything.”

“Are you going to marry Charlotte?”

“I’m already married, you see.”

“So you’re not just after her for her money?”

He laughed and wiped his mouth. “No,” he said.

“Tell me about this wife of yours. If you’re running around with other women, why doesn’t she give you a divorce?”

“Her religious scruples prevent it. And, anyway, we’ve been separated for a long time.”

“So, you’re married to the woman but not living with her? Not sharing the same bed?”

“Mother, really!” Charlotte said.

“I haven’t laid eyes on her in two years.”

“Have you and Charlotte been intimate?”

“Jerry, you don’t have to answer that question!” Charlotte said. “Mother, that’s not an appropriate line of questioning. I’m not fifteen years old!”

“You sometimes act as if you were!”

“I think what you want to know is if Jerry and I are serious about each other and how we plan to proceed from here. Isn’t that it?”

“All right, then, you tell me!”

“Jerry and I are very much in love. We won’t be able to marry for some time, but that’s all right with me. We plan on going abroad and living together.”

“Not on my money you won’t!”

“Really, mother, are you going to start in on money again?”

“I won’t have my daughter living in sin with a man she’s not married to!”

“I am of age to do whatever I wish.”

“Are you of age for me to cut you off without a penny?”

“No need to worry, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said. “I have plenty of money for the two of us to live comfortably.”

“I won’t allow my daughter to blacken her name and the memory of her father by cavorting with a married man.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said, “that seems a hopelessly old-fashioned view to take.”

“Who are you to judge me? You don’t know Charlotte the way I do. You don’t know the family history that’s behind her.”

“Maybe it’s time to forget all that and begin anew.”

“Never! Not as long as I’m still living. I’ll call my lawyer tomorrow morning and have my will changed!”

“You go right ahead, mother,” Charlotte said. “I’ve had enough of your bullyragging and intimidation.”

“So, are you saying you don’t care about my twenty million dollars?”

“You can do whatever you want with it. We can meet with your lawyer and make a few suggestions.”

“So, it doesn’t frighten you anymore when I threaten to disinherit you?”

“Not in the least.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m in love.”

“Love! What could you possibly know about love?”

“Mother, if you don’t stop saying such mean things, I’m going to stick a knife through your heart.”

“You haven’t got the guts!”

“Try me!”

Cordelia brought in three cups of coffee, along with dessert, and withdrew again to the kitchen.

“No dessert for me,” Charlotte said. “I’m watching my figure.”

“What happened to the little girl who used to eat a whole pie at one sitting?” Mrs. Vale asked.

“She’s all grown up, mother. She’s somebody else now.”

“I’ll eat yours if you don’t want it,” Jerry said. “I love banana cream pie.”

“Watch out you don’t get fat,” Charlotte said.

“I’ve got a ways to go,” he said.

Mrs. Vale drank her coffee and called Cordelia in from the kitchen to give her another cup. When she was halfway through the second cup, her eyes closed, she gave a little shudder and fell forward directly onto the banana cream pie. Charlotte and Jerry sat quite still, Charlotte sipping her coffee and Jerry eating the pie.

After a few minutes, Cordelia opened the door to the kitchen a few inches and peeked around the edge of it. “Can I come in?” she asked.

“Yes, please do, Cordelia,” Charlotte said.

“Did it work?”

“I don’t believe she’s breathing,” Charlotte said.

“One of us should check to make sure,” Jerry said.

Cordelia put the tips of her fingers on Mrs. Vale’s neck. “I don’t feel no pulse,” she said.

When they had Mrs. Vale pulled back from the table, Cordelia put her ear to the old woman’s chest. “No heartbeat, neither,” she said. “You’d better listen for yourself, Miss Charlotte.”

Charlotte took off her earring and leaned over until her ear was touching the sunken chest. “She’s dead,” she said.

“Ah!” Jerry said. “Success!”

“Well, ain’t that something!” Cordelia said. “It sure enough worked!”

“And you won’t ever tell anybody about this, will you, Cordelia?” Charlotte asked.

“On my word of honor! I never did like her anyway. She sure was mean to me! I won’t shed no tears for her!”

“I’ll give you enough money so you can go home to your people and you’ll never have to work hard again.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’m gonna buy me a dozen pairs of silk stockings and some gardenia perfume. It sure does smell high!”

“You’ll be able to buy anything you want now.”

“And who knows? I might even find me another man to marry.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Jerry said.

Charlotte and Jerry went into the library, Charlotte’s favorite room in the house. She went to the French doors that opened onto the terrace and opened them. The room was instantly filled with night smells from the garden.

“Just think,” Jerry said. “Free of her at last!”

“Yes, free of all encumbrances,” Charlotte said.

“I was thinking we might live here, for a while at least.”

“I don’t think so,” Charlotte said. “I want to get away. Go abroad.”

“Yes, darling. Whatever you want.”

“Nobody ever called me ‘darling’ before.”

“The poison is absolutely untraceable. Nobody will ever suspect a thing. She was just an old woman who died from a sudden heart attack.”

“Brilliantly planned and executed!”

“And twenty million dollars?”

“It’s all too wonderful!”

“Shall we have a cigarette on it?”

He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them together, and handed one to Charlotte. Her eyes glistened with tears as she took it from him.

Standing there, side by side, framed in the doors to the garden, they looked up at the sky. A half-moon was just visible over the treetops, surrounded by a million stars.

“And will you be happy?” Jerry asked.

“Oh, Jerry,” she said. “Let’s not ask for the moon! We have the stars!”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Miss Snooty Britches

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Joan Crawford and Ann Blythe in Mildred Pierce

Miss Snooty Britches ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Why is it we never seem to get along anymore?” Mildred said to her daughter, Veda, who was eating a banana.

“Oh, you know, mother,” Veda said. “I just don’t like you very much.”

“Why not?”

“It isn’t only you. I don’t like anybody and I don’t like my life.”

“Your father and I work very hard to give you and your sister a lovely home and all the things you want and need. If you don’t like your life, it isn’t my fault or his.”

“Don’t you get it, mother? We’re not rich! We don’t even have one servant! How can I hold my head up when my mother bakes cakes and pies to sell to the neighbors and my father works in a real estate office?”

“We do the best we can. When I was your age, I lived with my family in a boxcar down by the river. At night the police would come and raid us and make us get out, no matter how bad the weather.”

“Yes, mother, I’ve heard all that a million times before, but your life is your life and it doesn’t have anything to do with my life.”

“I’m proud that I was able to give you a better life than I had.”

“Oh, mother, don’t you see? It’s not just my life within these four walls! It’s this awful town and its men in overalls and women in uniforms! Its dollar days and its smell of grease!”

“The town was good enough for you not too long ago. What happened?”

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m really quite beautiful. I make the other girls in school look like the leftovers from a dog fight. I’ve had people tell me I could make it in the movies if only I gave it a try. Why, if I set one foot in Hollywood, those casting directors would be all over me!”

“Then why don’t you give Hollywood a try?”

“Because I’m seventeen years old and I would like to at least get a high school diploma before I take the world by storm.”

She threw her banana peel on the floor and went to the piano and began playing Chopin’s Valse Brilliante. After she had played a few bars, her face took on a dreamy, faraway look.

“That’s pretty,” Mildred said, not looking up from the cake she was decorating. “What’s it called?”

“It’s something you would never have heard of,” Veda said sniffily.

“For your information, young lady, I’m not a complete boob!”

“Pretty nearly, though. And while we’re on the subject, that dress you bought for me is truly awful. I’ll bet you bought it in the bargain basement because it smells cheap. I wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing.”

“I thought you would like it. The saleslady said it’s the latest thing.”

“It’s hideous! Why don’t you wear it?”

“It isn’t the right style for me. It’s too young.”

“Maybe if you wore it you would catch the eye of a really interesting man. One with money.”

“Veda, how can you speak to me that way? You know I would never look at another man as long as I’m so happily married to your father.”

“Mother, who are you trying to kid? Father has been stepping out with Mrs. Biederhoff for months now! It seems you’re the only one who doesn’t know about it. He’s probably over at her house right now, drinking cheap gin and playing gin rummy!”

“So help me, Veda!”

“If I were you, I would divorce that loser so fast it would make his head spin!”

“How can you say such things, Veda?”

“But, to be quite honest, my sympathies lie entirely with you, mother. Mrs. Biederhoff definitely comes from the lower classes. But, then, so does father.”

“I suppose you think I’m low class, too?”

“Well, you never speak of your people or where they came from. You might have descended from rag-pickers for all we know.”

“Oh, Veda, it breaks my heart to hear you speak that way.”

Veda stood up quickly from the piano. “Oh, mother, really! When are you going to grow up and see things as they really are? If you would dump father, you would have a chance at attracting a better type of man.”

“I don’t want a better type of man. Burt is plenty good enough for me.”

“You say that as if you don’t really mean it. You’re not bad-looking in your way. You have a decent figure. Your problem is you have no taste in clothes and no style. With help from the right person on how to dress and how to fix your hair and makeup, you could be quite a stunning woman instead of a frump.”

“Do you really think I’m a frump?”

“I don’t want to be mean, mother, but I learned at a young age that it’s better to face the truth about yourself and others than to live in a fog of self-deception.”

“How do you get that way, Veda?”

“How about Wally Fay, for example? I know he isn’t very good-looking, but he’s a forward-thinking businessman and is bound to be rich some day.”

“Is money all you ever think about?”

“Can you honestly tell me that anything is more important? You can do anything with money and without it you can do nothing.”

“I would never think of Wally Fay that way,” Mildred said. “He’s your father’s business partner.”

“What difference does that make? If you have any sense at all, you’ll use Wally Fay as your one-way ticket out of this horrible existence you call life. I frankly don’t know what he sees in you, but you know he’s always been in love with you.”

Just then Kay arrived home from school. “Hello, mummy!” she said cheerily, planting a kiss on Mildred’s cheek.

“Hello, darling! How was school today?”

“School was the nuts but the baseball game after school was the berries. We beat the pants off the other guys.”

“Oh, mother!” Veda said. “How can you let her go around like that? She’s dirty and she smells like an animal.”

“What’s with you today, Miss Snooty Britches?” Kay said.

“She’s in one of her moods,” Mildred said. “She thinks she’s better than the rest of us and she doesn’t like her life.”

“Oh, brother!” Kay said. “It must be her time of the month.”

“How do you know about that? You’re nine years old!”

“Oh, I get around more than you think.”

“Well, you go upstairs now and get into a hot bath and put on some clean clothes.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Mother, she’s horrible!” Veda said after Kay had left the room. “The language she uses! Can’t you see what’s happening to her? Her environment is ruining her. Pretty soon she’ll be knocking over gas stations.”

“She does have a good time, though, doesn’t she?” Mildred said. “I remember when I was her age I…”

But she was interrupted in mid-sentence when Burt’s car pulled into the driveway with a squeal of brakes. She ran outside, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“Burt, your daughter is impossible,” she began.

“Mildred, I need to talk to you privately,” he said.

“She’s just been telling me all the things that are wrong with me, you, Kay, and with the town.”

“I don’t care about that, Mildred. I said I need to talk to you!”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

He took hold of her arm and pulled her into the garage. “I just stopped by to tell you I’m leaving you.”

“What?”

“I’m in love with Maggie Biederhoff and I have been for some time. I’m going to get a few of my things and I’m moving in with Maggie tonight.”

“But, Burt, what about the children?”

“You can sue me for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility and infidelity and I won’t contest it. You can have the house and everything. I wont stand in your way.”

“What are you saying, Burt?”

“I’m saying I’m finally taking control of my own life.”

When Mildred went back inside, Veda was standing there with a smirk on her face.

“Do you believe me now?” Veda asked.

“You were listening?”

“I heard every word!”

“You shouldn’t listen in on other people’s private conversations.”

“I say ‘good riddance’!”

“Veda, he’s your father!”

“He may be my father but he’s just another no-good bum who can’t do any of us any good!”

Mildred groaned and sat down at the kitchen table. “Get me a glass of water, will you, dear?”

“I think you need a good stiff drink!”

“You have your degree in mixology. Why don’t you fix it then?”

Mildred sniffled and made a goose call into her handkerchief. When Veda set the drink down in front of her, she downed it and had another.

“This is the best thing that’s happened in a long time,” Veda said.

“Why, what do you mean?”

“You’re free! Or at least you will be as soon as you get a quickie divorce!”

“Maybe I don’t want to be free.”

“Now you can go after Wally Fay or some other man who’s going places!”

“Veda, I’m not like you! I can’t go after some man I don’t love just for his money!”

“I want you to invite Wally Fay over for dinner. Wear a negligee or something filmy. Show a bit of nip. Men love that sort of thing. After dinner, I’ll take Kay to a movie and you can make your moves on Wally. Tell him you’re finally free of father. Give him what he’s always wanted from you and in ten minutes he’ll be eating out of your hand.”

“Veda, you make me sound like a whore!”

“Well, isn’t that the general idea?”

“I’m going to take a bubble bath and get into bed,” Mildred said. “I have a terrible headache. I don’t even want any dinner. You fix a little something for Kay and tell her I’ve retired early. Don’t tell her yet about your father’s leaving. I want to tell her myself when the time is right.”

“Do you mean you’re not going to telephone Wally Fay?”

“I am not!”

“Now that father is gone, you’re not going to finally fall into Wally’s arms?”

“I don’t really like Wally and I never have. He’s a pig.”

“Mother, you’re impossible!”

“And I’ll tell you something else, Miss Snooty Britches! I’m not going to take advice from you about men or anything else! You’re seventeen years old! What do you know?”

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing I do know. If you’re not going to pursue Wally in the way that fate has laid out for you, then I’m going to go after him for myself!”

“Veda, he’s old enough to be your father!”

“So? He can give me a beautiful home and all the things I want in life. When he’s pawing me and trying to get his hands under my clothing, I can just close my eyes and pretend he’s somebody else.”

Mildred laughed. “I’m afraid that’s not going to work, dear,” she said.

“It’ll work if I make it work!”

“Now I have something to tell you.”

“What is it?”

“I had decided I was never going to tell you this, but now that Burt has left me and we’re no longer a family, I think the time has come.”

“Mother, you’re not going to tell me that Wally Fay is my father?”

“Have you never noticed the resemblance? You have his mouth and his chin.”

“Does Wally know?”

“I never told him. I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep from telling Burt.”

“Then if Wally doesn’t know, I’m all right.”

“What are you saying?”

“One of us is going to marry Wally Fay. If it’s not going to be you, it’s going to be me.”

Mildred stood up from the table and slapped Veda in the mouth. Veda fell back against the wall but righted herself and returned the slap with equal vehemence. Mildred opened the drawer where the knives were kept and pulled out the knife she used for cutting up chickens. She threw the knife but Veda sidestepped it handily and reached for a skillet that she brought down on Mildred’s head. When Mildred regained consciousness, the fighting continued until neighbors called the police.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Dizzy Street

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Dizzy Street

Dizzy Street ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The girl Dory sat on the high porch, partly hidden behind an overgrown azalea bush. She held her Bible opened on her lap but wasn’t looking at it much. She was enjoying the morning, noting especially the trilling of the birds in the sweet spring air. A robin landed on the railing not three feet from her face and she watched it with interest as it blinked its tiny eyes and moved its head from side to side. After a passing car made the robin fly away, she concentrated on her Bible again and read a couple more verses.

In a little while a man she had never seen before came along on the sidewalk. He wore a suit, a rare sight in the town, and carried a little briefcase, like a lawyer or somebody important. When he saw her he smiled. She looked away quickly, not wanting him to think she had taken undue notice of him. He stopped directly in front of the house and, facing her, raised his right hand as though taking an oath. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I’m looking for Dizzy Street,” he said.

“This is it.”

“Methodist church?”

“All the way down at the end of the street.”

She pointed and he looked in that direction.

“Suppose you show me,” he said.

“You can’t miss it. Just stay on this street.”

“Are you too busy to get up from your chair and show me? You can walk, can’t you?”

She didn’t much care for his tone, being the complete stranger that he was, but she stood up and went to the porch railing and pointed again down the street. “Just stay on this street,” she said. “Go down that way and you’ll come to the church. A dog could find it.”

“Maybe I’m not as smart as a dog,” he said.

“I think you’re fooling me,” she said. “Why are you looking for the church? Are you a minister or something?”

“Now, do I look like a minister to you?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“No, I’m a salesman,” he said.

“What are you selling?”

“Books.”

“You’re selling books at a church? People don’t go there to read.”

“Yes, but they go there to sing songs and I happen to be selling hymnals.”

“Oh.” She was disappointed for some reason. “Just stay on this street and you’ll come to the church.”

“Maybe I find you more interesting than the church at the moment.”

“My mother’s in the house taking a bath. As soon as she’s finished, she going downtown to see her doctor and I’m going with her.”

“Is she sick?”

“In the head, is all.”

“Are you going to tell me your name?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like your looks.”

“What’s wrong with my looks?”

“I don’t know. You look shady. Dishonest.”

“That’s because I’m really thirsty. Might I trouble you for a drink of water?”

“I suppose so, although it isn’t convenient.”

“Can I come in?”

“No! My mother is taking a bath, I said!”

“Can’t I come into the kitchen? She’s not taking a bath in the kitchen, is she?”

“No, but she wouldn’t like it if I let you in.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a stranger. How do I know you won’t rob the place?”

“I won’t. You have my word.”

“Yes, and how much is that worth?”

“If I can’t come in, won’t you bring the water out here to me?”

“I suppose I might, but I don’t know why I should.”

“Because you’re a good Christian, that’s why.”

She went inside and when she came out she handed the glass over the porch railing to him. Their fingers touched when he took it from her. He drank all the water and handed it back, smacking his lips.

“Why don’t you come down here where I can see the rest of you?” he said.

“You’ve had your water,” she said. “You can move along now.”

“And what if I don’t?”

“I can go inside and after a while you’ll get so bored at not having anybody to torment you’ll just go on your way.”

“I think if you were going to go inside you would have done so by now.”

“If my mother sees you here bothering me, she won’t be very friendly toward you.”

“Does she own a shotgun?”

“No, but she has been known to take her shoe off and hit people in the head with it.”

“I can run faster than she can.”

Just then her mother appeared at the screen door, wearing a dressing gown. “Come inside now,” she said. “I need you to help me get dressed.”

“In a minute, mother,” the girl said. “This man is lost and I was just giving him directions.”

The mother eyed the man through the screen as if he were a stray dog. “Go on now,” she said. “There’s nothing for you here.”

“I was just going, madam,” he said with a silly bow.

When the mother receded into the house again, the girl said, “See what I mean?”

“She certainly makes a body feel to home,” he said.

“I have to go in now.”

“Do you always do exactly what your mother tells you to do? How old are you, anyhow?”

“None of your business. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go into the house.”

“No.”

“No, what?”

“No, I don’t excuse you.”

“I’ve had enough of this foolishness. My mother is waiting for me to help her get into her clothes.”

“Is she helpless?”

“She’s got arthritis in the hands and she can’t do buttons or zippers.”

“I think you need to get away from her. She’ll suck the life out of you and not think a thing about it because she thinks it’s her right.”

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

“I bet I’m not far off, though, am I?”

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” she said. “I hope you sell lots of hymnals.” She turned toward the door.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I want you to go for a walk with me.”

“Do you not hear what I’m telling you?” she said. “My mother is waiting for me and I’m going to take her to see her doctor.”

“If you don’t go with her, she’ll make it fine on her own. She wants you to believe she can’t do without you but she’s really more capable than she lets on. She’ll be as helpless as you let her be. She’ll lean on you for the rest of her life when she should really be leaning on herself.”

“Are you an authority on old women?”

“I’ve known a few in my day and I know what they’re like.”

“Well, I’m afraid you don’t know what you’re talking about in this case.”

“You do care for me, don’t you?”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re still here talking to me while your mother is waiting for you in the house.”

“Goodbye.”

“The next time she comes to the door and sees I’m still here, she and I are going to tussle and I don’t think you want to see that. I can tussle with the best of them.”

“She’ll call the police.”

“Walk away with me right now and let her do up her own damn dress.”

They ran until they came to the end of the block and turned the corner and then they walked. They walked and didn’t stop. A week later they were two thousand miles away. The girl never once looked back or regretted the leaving.

As for the mother, she was distressed for a time but not terribly surprised at the turn of events, understanding the daughter’s nature as she did. She would bide her time and wait for the day when the daughter returned, humiliated and laid low by a man whose name she hadn’t even bothered to learn.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Hold All Calls

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Hold All Calls ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
 

“Oh, how I hate Monday mornings!” Dakin said as he sat down at his desk.

“The countdown to the weekend has begun,” Christopher said. “Only one hundred and five hours until five o’clock Friday afternoon.”

“It’s too far away,” Dakin said. “I shall perish before then.”

“Well, you’d better look busy. Pinky is already in this morning and he’s not happy. Production is down again or something.”

Dakin took some papers out of the drawer and spread them out. “I hate everybody on Monday morning,” he said, “but I especially hate my parents for bringing me into the world and not providing me with a family fortune.”

“Alas,” Christopher said, “so few of us have a family fortune.”

“If I had even a small fortune, I would blow this place so fast.”

“A couple million would do.”

“I’d travel. I’d have a home on the Riviera and another one in Rome.”

“Only two?”

“Two to start with.”

“I hear somebody coming. Look alive!”

Agnes Simpkins came into the room, wearing a funereal black dress and a scowl on her face. She was looking at the floor and didn’t look at Dakin or Christopher. She walked to the far corner of the room, stood for a moment facing the wall, and went out again without speaking.

“What’s she looking for?” Dakin asked.

“Her soul,” Christopher said.

“Have you ever seen a more hideous woman? Her dress looks like she’s got it on backwards. Her hair looks like it was chewed off by a wolverine. Her lipstick looks like a chimp put it on for her.”

“There’s a rumor going around that she’s really a man.”

“That would explain a lot.”

“I think Pinky sent her in here to spy on us.”

Dakin shuffled some papers, held a pencil in his right hand and made a few squiggles. “I woke up with a headache this morning and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I really should have stayed at home.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Production is down, you know.”

“Hah!”

“If I collapse at my desk, go get somebody to help me, as long as it’s not Agnes Simpkins.”

“I’m sure she would be more than willing to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”

“I’d rather die.”

“Really, are you planning on doing any work today at all?”

“Not if I can help it. I’m too sick. I’m fine until I get to work and then after I get here I’m sick. I think it sounds like I need to stay away from work altogether for my health, doesn’t it?”

“It’s a conundrum.”

“I saw these friends on the weekend that I hadn’t seen in years. They own their own yacht. Can you believe it? They were going on a cruise in the Caribbean and they invited me to go along. I would love to have gone with them, but instead I’m here. I am in hell! Why was I even born?”

“Another conundrum.”

“And to top it all off, I’m hungry. I skipped breakfast.”

“I thought you said you were sick.”

“I am sick but that doesn’t mean I don’t desire food.”

“Anytime I’m sick, I…”

“How about if you be a dear and go see if anybody brought any donuts in today?”

“Why don’t you go?”

“I have all this work to do and, truly, I don’t have the strength to walk down the hall and witness the sickening sight of all those frightened little people working themselves into a frenzy just because production is down or something and Pinky is in an uproar. I mean, Pinky is always in an uproar about something or other, isn’t he?”

“I have a candy bar in my drawer if you want it.”

“That’s sweet of you but I really don’t want to eat candy on an empty stomach. It might make me vomit.”

“If you vomit, forcibly—and in front of everybody—you can legitimately go home sick. There’s nothing like a little projectile vomiting to drive home your point.”

“Yes, yes, that’s a good idea and I will keep it in mind.”

“How about if you proofread a report for me and correct any errors?”

“Oh, buddy, not you too!”

“Well, somebody’s got to get some work done around here.”

“I am not in any shape, physically or emotionally, to do any work today.”

“All right, I’ll do it myself.”

“Do you really care if it gets done or not?”

“I don’t care for myself but it would be nice to get it done.”

“’Nice to get it done’. I’m afraid you’re even starting to sound like them.”

“Please forgive me.”

“Where are you going for lunch today?”

“I think I’ll just stay here and get something out of the vending machine.”

“How banal! I’m going to take an extra long one today. I feel like walking down the block to Luigi’s and having some linguini in marinara sauce, a crisp salad, and spumoni for dessert. Would you like to come with me?”

“Somebody’s got to stay here and do some of this work.”

“Will you cover for me if I don’t come back?”

“I’ll say I haven’t seen you and I don’t know where you are.”

“Good thinking.”

Christopher put his head back and closed his eyes. “I can smell Pinky’s cologne!” he said. “He’s within thirty feet! Look busy!”

No sooner than the words were spoken, they spotted the man himself. He came toward them carrying a sheath of papers. He was winded, his face was red and the corners of his mouth turned down.

“Mr. Pinkley!” Dakin said cheerfully. “How lovely to see you! Is that a new toupee you’re wearing? It certainly looks handsome!”

“Humph!” Mr. Pinkley said. “I’ve heard reports that there’s been some hanky-panky going on in this department.” The wattles under his chin quivered with emphasis.

“Hanky-panky, sir?”

“Talking and loafing and not focusing on the work at hand.”

“Not focusing? I don’t know what would give anybody that idea, sir. We’re just as busy as a colony of beavers.”

“I’m warning you that I won’t have any slackers working in this company. If you aren’t prepared to give me a full day’s work, then you might as well leave now.”

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving, sir!”

“Production is down for the third straight quarter! That tells me that a house cleaning is in order, but I believe in giving everybody a second chance. You can consider this your warning. If I have to speak to you again, it’ll be to dismiss you.”

“I understand, sir! I believe I’ll be deserving of any punishment you see fit to mete out.”

“I want a written report from you every day outlining what you are working on and how much you have done that day. Do I make myself clear?”

“As a bell, sir! I only have one question.”

“What is it?”

“Will I be the only one submitting a daily report on my activities?”

“None of your business!”

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”

After Mr. Pinkley left, Dakin and Christopher looked at each other and laughed.

“Who does he think he is, speaking that way to me?” Dakin said. “I have a good mind to call up my lawyer and sue the bastard.”

“I’d like to see that,” Christopher said.

“I don’t have to take that kind of crap from him or anybody else.”

“No, indeed, you do not!”

“I’m ten times smarter than he is. I can outclass him any day in the week and twice on Sunday with one hand tied behind my back. He can’t even write a coherent sentence without some help from a secretary.”

“He is an ignorant son of a bitch,” Christopher said. “It goes with the territory.”

“Now I am completely thrown off my game after being spoken to in such a manner.”

“Some people are just too sensitive for the world of business.”

“Yes, thank you! I’m glad that someone in this rotten, stinking world recognizes that fact.”

“What are you going to do now? It sounds like you’re going to have to show Mr. Pinkley some results or he’s going to fire you.”

“What am I going to do? I’m going to take a long, long lunch and then I’m going home and taking an extended bubble bath to get the stench of this place off my body. After that I’m going to put on a dressing gown and telephone my lawyer. He and I are going to have an illuminating little discussion about how I have been harassed and pressured in the workplace to the point of nervous collapse. Then he will advise me about how we might proceed with a lawsuit. I know a very good doctor who will say on my behalf whatever needs to be said.”

“It sounds like you’ve thought it all out carefully.”

“I have.”

“Just do me one favor.”

“Anything.”

“Don’t mention my name.”

“I don’t even know your name. You are one of the millions of anonymous downtrodden office workers who toil and die. The only way you will ever give your life any meaning is to leave this hellish existence and take control of your own destiny.”

“Those are only words. I don’t know how to do it.”

“Believe me, dear friend, I will pave the way for you and countless others just like you.”

“So, I’ll be hearing from you again?”

“Of course you will!”

“What shall I say to people when they ask me where you are?”

“Tell them to hold all calls, for now I belong to history!”

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp

An Afternoon of Conversation at the Home of Miss Fish

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An Afternoon of Conversation at the Home of Miss Fish ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“He can sit by himself all day long in a room and look at picture books and not bother a thing,” grandma said.

The ladies looked admiringly at the boy and smiled.

“He’s a mighty cute little thing,” Miss Fish said. Her name didn’t quite fit her; instead of looking like a fish, she looked more like a chicken.

“Yes, of all my grandchildren,” grandma said, “he’s the best behaved.”

“And who is his daddy again?” Miss Doty asked.

“That’s a question that remains unanswered to this day,” grandma said gravely. “I wish I knew.”

They all looked at the boy, as if his parentage might be written somewhere on his body if only they could see it.

“It doesn’t matter at all,” Miss Fish said. “It’s all after the fact.” She was taking up for the boy. She didn’t much like Miss Doty and didn’t think it was right for her to bring up the question of who the boy’s daddy was, since everybody knew he was illegitimate.

“What do you mean, ‘after the fact’?” grandma asked. Miss Fish was one of her best friends and she believed that whatever she said was important.

“Well,” Miss Fish said, “he’s here, ain’t he? It doesn’t matter now who his daddy is. It’s not like anybody can go back and fix it if it ain’t right. Whether his daddy is a bum or president of the bank won’t make any difference in his life.”

“If his daddy was president of the bank, he could put him through college,” Miss Doty said, refusing to let the matter lie.

“Maybe not,” Miss Fish said. “The president of the bank wouldn’t give him jack shit because he wouldn’t want people to know he was his daddy. He would most likely have a wife and children and a position to uphold in the community.”

“I wouldn’t let him get away with that,” Miss Doty said.

“Well, anyway,” grandma said, “he’s like all the other children who are born, whether they have a daddy or not. Precious in the eyes of the Lord.”

“He shouldn’t be held responsible for the transgressions of others,” Miss Fish said.

The boy looked at them, thinking about all the talking they did. Sometimes he followed along with what they were saying—if what they were talking about happened to be of interest—and other times he just let the words wash over him like water over the spillway. For them, talking was like breathing. If they didn’t do it, they would die.

“I think he looks a little like Dr. Kane,” Miss Doty said. “Didn’t Marion have a little fling with him before his divorce went through and he married some other woman?”

“Not that I know of,” grandma said.

“You should ask her some time. I think it’s an interesting avenue to pursue.”

“I thought we decided it didn’t make any difference,” Miss Fish said.

“Well, still,” Miss Doty said. “If the question has an answer, then why not find out what it is?”

“I think people should just leave it alone and accept things for what they are. Acceptance is the greatest thing in the world.”

“To you, maybe,” Miss Doty said.

“Good God!” Miss Fish said. “Do you always have to have the last word about everything?”

“I just meant…”

It being her house, Miss Fish stood up and went into the other room. In a few moments she returned bearing a tray of drinks, cocktails for the ladies and a glass of grape juice for the boy.

“I don’t usually drink hard liquor,” grandma said, but she took it willingly, smacking her lips as she sipped.

“What is hard liquor anyway?” Miss Doty asked, sticking her tongue into the cocktail to see if she was going to like it.

“A step up from beer, I guess,” grandma said.

“You can feel it coursing through your veins,” Miss Fish said. “It relaxes you.”

“As long as you don’t overdo it,” grandma said.

“What happens if you overdo it?” Miss Doty asked.

“You get drunk.”

“You know, I’ve never been drunk in my life,” Miss Doty said. “Have you?”

“Never,” grandma said.

“Once or twice when I was younger,” Miss Fish said. “We used to have these parties at our house.”

“What happens when you get drunk?”

“Well, you feel good for a while and after the good feeling wears off you feel terrible. You have a headache and you’ll very likely be vomiting your guts out.”

“I don’t want to drink it then,” Miss Doty said, setting the glass down on the table.

“Oh, for goodness sake!” Miss Fish said. “One drink ain’t going to hurt you! Don’t be such a pantywaist.”

“What’s a pantywaist, anyway? I’ve heard that expression before and I never knew what it meant.”

“Go look in the mirror,” Miss Fish said and she and grandma laughed.

“Oh, you mean if I see my own reflection, I’m seeing a pantywaist, is that it?”

“Just a little joke,” Miss Fish said. “Don’t get excited.”

“Well, I think you should mind the joke at the expense of someone else’s feelings.”

“Lighten up, old girl!” Miss Fish said.

When grandma and Miss Fish finished their drinks, they had refills but Miss Doty would only limit herself to one. She said she was beginning to feel sick already and she didn’t want to spend the night vomiting her guts out.

The boy finished his grape juice and set the glass down. He was bored and beginning to feel sleepy. He hoped that he and grandma would go home soon. He thought about saying something that would make her realize it was time to go but could think of nothing. Finally, he said simply, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Help yourself,” Miss Fish said. “Through the dining room, down the hall to the door on the left.”

He stood up and walked slowly through the quiet house. He always found it very interesting to be in somebody else’s house and to look at their things. It was more than just what he saw but also what he smelled; in this case it was dust, mouse droppings, soap, and a musty smell like rot underneath the house. He lingered in the hallway and then went into the bathroom and shut the door and locked it.

The bathroom was large and cheerful, with white tile everywhere and yellow towels. There was an old-fashioned tub with claw feet and a window with pebbled glass and a frilly yellow curtain. He stood on his tiptoes and opened the door to the medicine cabinet over the sink. Inside were all kinds of bottles and jars, toothpaste, shaving cream, and other stuff that old people use. He flushed the toilet, ran some water in the sink, and went out of the bathroom into the hallway again.

He heard grandma and the ladies talking and laughing in the front room, so he knew that, for the moment at least, they had forgotten about him. He turned to the left and continued down the hallway until he was in a bedroom with an imposing four-poster bed. He walked around the bed to the dresser with its round mirror on which flecks of dust stood out in the bright sunlight. He paused, listening for sounds of approaching footsteps, and opened the top dresser drawer slowly so as to not make a sound.

Inside the drawer was a jumble of scarves, gloves, shawls. Seeing nothing of interest in that drawer, he closed it and opened the middle drawer, re-closing it quickly when he saw it contained stockings and old ladies’ underwear. He bent over and opened the bottom drawer, which had the advantage of being hidden from view to anybody who might come unexpectedly into the room. In this drawer were a photo album, some small boxes, and, partly concealed by a wool blanket, a jewelry case with a brocaded lid. He opened the lid of the case and saw inside a disorderly profusion of costume jewelry and on top of it a small amount of cash in one-dollar bills.

He counted the money and, of the eight dollars there, he folded up four and put them inside his shoe. He was about to close the case again when he saw a necklace that captured his attention. It had a large green stone, an imitation of some kind of precious gem. Being partial to green as he was, he lifted it up to get a better look. It was the most beautiful green color he had ever seen, shot through with light and just a touch of other colors, yellow and even blue if it caught the light just right. He was going to put the necklace back after admiring it but, when he thought sure somebody was coming, he slipped it into his pants pocket, almost before he realized what he was doing. Then, as quickly and as quietly as he could, he rearranged the stuff back in the drawer to make it appear as if it had never been disturbed and closed it.

When he returned to the front room and resumed his chair, nobody paid any attention to him, so he was sure they didn’t suspect that he had done anything other than use the bathroom. Miss Fish was telling a story about a fight between a husband and wife on her street.

“…so drunk he didn’t even know what he was doing. He was swinging an axe over his head and chasing her around the house like they were a couple of cartoon characters and he was going to cook her for dinner. She was so scared of him she wet her pants. I’m not making it up! You could see it, plain as day. It was really a funny thing to see but it didn’t seem so at the time.”

“And was he really going to kill her?” Miss Doty asked.

“He would have if the police hadn’t come when they did. They got him down on the ground—you know the way they do. And the bad thing about it was that he was wearing a bathrobe with nothing on underneath. Everybody saw him on the ground naked after his bathrobe came untied and slipped off, even the little children.”

“Ugh!” Miss Doty winced and covered her face, as if she shared in the embarrassment.

“I don’t like it when people air their private grievances in public,” grandma said.

“Well, who does?” Miss Fish said.

“And they took the son of a bitch off to jail?”

“They locked him up in the state mental hospital where he belongs,” Miss Fish said with satisfaction. “End of story.”

When grandma and the boy were finally walking home, he looked up at her and said, “I know who my real daddy is.”

“I don’t believe you do,” she said.

“Yes, I do, too.”

“Who is it then?”

“It’s a secret.”

“You shouldn’t keep secrets from me.”

“It’s the only one.”

That night, tucked safely away in his room after everybody had gone to bed, he took the green necklace out and put it around his neck and, standing in front of the mirror, pretended he was a simpering old woman drinking a cocktail and gossiping about the neighbors.

He counted out the four dollars again, lining them up on the bed to better see them. When he began to grow sleepy, he stowed the necklace and the four dollars in the deep recesses of his closet where nobody would ever find them. Young as he was, he was already well acquainted with the art of concealment.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Lights Flickered and Went Out

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The Lights Flickered and Went Out ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The room was very quiet. Miss Adele’s teeth made little clicking sounds as she chewed. Miss Florence grunted as she tried to cut her meat and couldn’t. The knife slipped out of her hand and clattered to the floor. Mr. Benny looked around to see what the sound was but lost interest before he figured it out. Mr. Wilhelm was hearing nothing; he was asleep, his head hanging over his plate. Like the points on a compass, the four of them sat at a circular table.

“Don’t you think you should wake him up so he can finish his dinner?” Miss Florence said.

“Huh?” Mr. Benny said.

“Why don’t you wake him up before he falls out of his chair?”

“Let him fall,” Mr. Benny said. He was trying to soak up the gravy on his plate with a piece of bread but his hands were shaking so much he couldn’t manage it.

“My, but this is delicious,” Miss Adele said.

“What is?” Miss Florence asked.

“I don’t know what it is. There’s a little bit of tomato in it, I think, but I don’t recognize anything else.”

“You’re better off not knowing,” Mr. Benny said.

“What time is it?” Mr. Wilhelm asked, suddenly coming awake.

“Why should you care?” Mr. Benny said. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“It was six o’clock about an hour ago,” Miss Florence said.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” Miss Adele said.

“A funny thing about time,” Mr. Benny said but he began coughing and didn’t finish the thought.

“What month is it?” Miss Adele asked.

“It’s April,” Mr. Benny said.

“Is it still the same year?”

“Yes, it’s still the same year.”

“This year is going along rather slowly, isn’t it?”

“Like a great big turtle in a race with death. See who comes out ahead.”

“Just ask your body what month it is,” Miss Florence said.

“What do you mean?” Miss Adele asked.

“When your toes are freezing off, it’s probably December or January.”

“When you see Christmas decorations everywhere, you know it’s probably December.”

“Good thinking,” Mr. Benny said. “You ought to go to work for the FBI.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t want me!”

“I don’t seem to be able to stay awake long enough to eat dinner,” Mr. Wilhelm said, picking up his knife and fork and going at his food again.

“Don’t you sleep well at night?” Miss Florence asked.

“I sleep all right, I guess.”

“Sleep comes in large doses or really small ones,” Miss Adele said, but nobody knew what she meant.

“After dinner let’s play some cards the way we used to,” Miss Florence said. “That ought to be fun.”

“What do you mean ‘the way we used to’?” Mr. Benny said. “I’ve never played cards with you in my life!”

“When we were children, we used to play ‘old maid’,” Miss Adele said.

“I’m happy to say I’m not one of those,” Miss Florence said. “I’m a widow.”

“And how many times were you married, dear?” Miss Adele asked.

“It really isn’t any of your business, but if you must know I was married three times.”

“I’ll bet all three of your husbands tried to kill you, didn’t they?” Mr. Benny said.

“Why would they do that?” Miss Adele asked.

“Well, just look at her.”

“They did not try to kill me,” Miss Florence said. “They worshipped me.”

“Well, what happened to them, then?”

“Two died, and the other one, well, it’s best if we don’t speak of him.”

“I never got married,” Mr. Wilhelm said. “I didn’t have time. I ran a company that employed five thousand people. I worked night and day. I was married to the business.”

“Oh, brother!” Mr. Benny said.

“Didn’t you get lonely?” Miss Adele asked.

“I did not!”

“I bet you had plenty of lady friends, though, didn’t you?” Miss Florence said. “A handsome fellow like you.”

“I did not. There was someone once, though. We lived together for about ten years.”

“What was her name?”

“It wasn’t a ‘her’. It was a ‘him’.”

“Oh, dear!” Miss Adele said.

“His name was Zachary. What he and I had together was very rare.”

“I never took you for one of those,” Miss Florence said.

“I knew there was something about him!” Mr. Benny said.

“Have you ever had the good fortune to meet another person in your life with whom you have a spiritual connection? It doesn’t happen more than once. It was that way with Zachary and me.”

“Now I’ve heard everything!” Mr. Benny said. “It’s like finding out that General Eisenhower liked boys.”

“I’m ashamed of nothing,” Mr. Wilhelm said.

“What happened to Zachary?” Miss Florence asked.

“He died.”

“Oh, that’s a crying shame!”

“He’s buried in his home town in Tennessee. When it’s my time to go, I’m going to be placed in the grave next to him.”

Mr. Benny rolled his eyes. “On that note,” he said, “I think I’ll leave you good people and go back to my room, if I can remember how to get there.”

A sudden flash of lightning and rumble of thunder made them all turn toward the window. Miss Adele screamed and turned over her water glass.

“It’s been too warm all day,” Miss Florence said. “I knew a storm was coming.”

“Storms scare me,” Miss Adele said. “I can feel the electricity in the air. It makes my skin prickle.”

“Your skin was already pickled,” Mr. Benny said.

“I’d rather die in a storm than some other ways I can think of,” Miss Florence said.

“Do you notice how we always get around to the subject of death?” Mr. Benny asked.

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Miss Florence asked. “There’s nothing wrong with death. It’s part of life. I, for one, believe that death is not the end.”

“What is the end?” Mr. Benny asked.

“How should I know?”

“Heaven? Angels and fluffy white clouds?”

“I think that heaven is what you want it to be.”

“So, you’re saying that heaven exists only in the mind.”

“I’m not saying that at all.”

“You don’t know anything.”

“You don’t need to be rude,” Miss Florence said. “I can still get up from this chair and slap you silly if I want to. I’ve smacked old men around before and I don’t mind doing it again.”

With the next flash of lightning, the lights flickered and went out. Miss Adele squealed and put her hands to her throat. “What do we do now?” she said desperately.

“They’ll be back on in just a minute,” Miss Florence said. “No need to panic.”

“Hey, I like it better like this!” Mr. Benny said. “You all look much better in the dark.”

“The only way you would look good to me,” Miss Florence said, “would be if you disappeared.”

“Now who’s being rude?”

Somebody brought in a kerosene lamp, set it in the middle of the table and went away again without a word.

“Oh, how nice!” Miss Adele said. “Just like olden times before there was such a thing as electricity.”

Mr. Benny raised his wine glass. “Here’s to storms,” he said. “May they always be on the outside.”

“I hear music,” Miss Florence said.

“How lovely!” Miss Adele said. “Somebody’s playing the piano.”

Miss Florence in her spectator pumps and Miss Adele in her mules stood up and began shuffling their feet together in an approximation of dancing. Mr. Benny lit his one cigar of the day and blew out a cloud of smoke that looked, in the distorting lamplight, like ectoplasm at a séance. Mr. Wilhelm fanned his hand in front of his face and sighed as Miss Florence and Miss Adele danced away into the darkness on the far side of the room. And outside, the thunder and lightning raged as rain pounded against the glass and the storm gathered nearer.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Ruined City

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The Ruined City ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was a Friday in wintertime. I had to stay late at my job and missed the last train. I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to walk home in the cold but I was going to try. I was alone on the dark street—only one streetlamp in ten was lit—when I heard the whirring of the night patrol transport under the wind. I ducked into an alleyway but I was spotted and before I knew what was happening two men were on me, hitting me with clubs.

“It’s after curfew!” one of the men said. “Show me your identity card!”

My hands were shaking and I began coughing uncontrollably, but I managed to get the card out and thrust it toward his face. “I was just going home,” I said. “I thought I could catch the last train but it was gone.”

“Shut up!” he said. He shone the light on the card and looked at it and then at me. “It’s not valid!” he said, pulling me to my feet. “We’re ordered to shoot on sight any revolutionaries.”

“I’m not a revolutionary,” I said.

“You’ll have to come along with us to the magistrate.”

“But I didn’t do anything!”

When they shoved me into the back of the transport, I couldn’t see anything. The only thing I knew was that I was moving very fast through the city. Ten minutes later, I was pulled out and taken into a building and put into a holding cell with ten or twelve others just like me.

My turn came and I was taken into a small room and put in a chair facing a desk. Behind the desk was a man with reddish hair and a round face. He had a scar running from the side of his mouth to his ear. He grinned at me with a lopsided mouth.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” he said.

“I was on my way home. I didn’t do anything.”

“You know about the curfew laws?”

“Yes.”

“If you are out after curfew, we must assume you are one of the enemy intent on doing us harm.”

“I’m not.”

“Then why were you out after curfew?”

“Some of the machinery broke down at work. I had to stay and fix it to keep production going.”

“You are a mechanic?”

“A factory worker.”

“A factory worker who also fixes machinery?”

“Yes.”

“Your identity card is not valid.”

“I don’t understand. It was valid when it was checked yesterday.”

“Are you saying that someone has sabotaged your identity card without your knowing it?”

“I don’t know. Yes, anything is possible.”

“Do you know what can happen to you when you are out after curfew with an invalid identity card?”

“I was on my way home. If my identity card isn’t valid, I have no explanation.”

“Is that the only excuse you have?”

“Yes.”

“It sounds very weak.”

“Nevertheless.”

“You are not with the revolutionary forces?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Where do you live?”

“Outer sector twenty-three.”

“What are your political views?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Did you vote for Leonhardt in the election?”

“No.”

“Leonhardt received ninety-eight perfect of the vote. Are you telling me you were among the two percent who voted for the opposition?”

“No, I didn’t vote for the opposition. I didn’t vote.”

“Why not?”

“I was in the hospital with fever.”

“You were supposed to vote. Everybody votes in this state.”

“I was out of my head.”

“Things look very bad for you. You were skulking about in the dark after curfew. You have an identity card that isn’t valid. You didn’t vote in the election.”

“I want to speak to someone.”

“Revolutionary forces are trying to take over the city and the state. That’s why we have a curfew. Anybody violating curfew is presumed to be a revolutionary and will be shot on sight. I’m surprised our men even brought you to me. They should have killed you outright.”

“I’ve done nothing!”

“So you all say.”

“You can call my employer. He’ll vouch for me. You can call my wife and son. They’ll swear I’m not a revolutionary. I spend my life working in a factory. When I’m not working, I’m at home resting up to go to work the next day. I have no time or energy to be a revolutionary.”

“I will call no one! Why should I believe anything that anybody said about you?”

“Of what am I being accused?”

“Espionage, sedition, spying, treason, plotting to overthrow the government. All of those things.”

“I’m innocent!”

He took a deep breath and looked into my eyes. “I hereby find you guilty,” he said.

“I’ve done nothing!”

“According to the evidence, you are an enemy of the state. You will be hanged by the neck until dead at six o’clock in the morning.”

“Don’t I have a chance to speak to someone?”

“I am that someone.”

“Don’t I get a trial?”

“You’ve just had it. I’ve examined the evidence thoroughly and have found you guilty. The judgment of the court has been rendered.”

I was removed from the room and thrown into a dark, solitary cell. All that was left for me to do was to wait to die. I was like a fly caught in a spider web.

I lay down on the filthy cot and tried to calm myself. I told myself that dying this way wasn’t such a bad thing. It would be quick and I had heard it was painless. All my problems would go away; my feet and back would no longer bother me. No, I didn’t hate it so much for myself but mostly for my wife and son and my mother and brother who lived far away. They would have a hard time learning the truth of what happened to me. They would know in their hearts, though, that I did nothing wrong and that I went to my death like a man and not a cringing coward.

I heard the steady drip of water somewhere for a couple of interminable hours and after a while I began to hear something else. A low, steady drone like the buzzing of insects that slowly grew louder. Could it be that planes were approaching the city? What did it mean?

When the bombs began to fall, I stood up and began banging on the door of the cell and calling for somebody to come and let me out. I didn’t want to be squashed like a bug if the building was blown to bits, even if it was preferable to having my neck snapped. No matter how much noise I made, though, nobody came.

The first blast that hit the building knocked me to the floor. I crawled under the cot, my only refuge. Other blasts followed and finally the walls came down around me. I was certain I was going to die, but my fear was gone. I was strangely calm. I had seen this all happen in a dream and I knew how it was going to turn out.

When the blasts stopped and I realized I wasn’t dead, I began to try to pull myself free of the rubble. My legs were pinned but not too badly injured, I felt, and, with a great amount of effort, I was able to free them. I pulled myself to a sitting position and rested for a few moments. I figured it was useless to try to dig my way to the outside, though. If I displaced a board here or a chunk of plaster there, it only made more stuff rain down on me. I was buried alive but I still believed it wasn’t as bad as hanging from the end of a rope. A slow death instead of a fast one.

Then I felt something on my face I hadn’t expected: a tiny puff of wind and the smell of the outdoors. It smelled like freedom. I began digging my way toward the smell slowly, so as not to bring everything down on my head.

After what seemed like a very long time but was probably only a few minutes, I pulled myself out a hole in the wall that was just big enough and no bigger—as if the hole was made especially for me. I didn’t stop to question it or wonder why. I only began running.

The city was in chaos. Many buildings burning or reduced to piles of debris. People screaming and running every which way. Dead bodies everywhere, some of them blown to bits. Others who weren’t dead cried out pitifully for help.

As I ran, I realized there were others running with me. I had become part of a group of running men. One of them thrust a rifle into my hands. I took it gladly, if only to have something to hold onto that seemed real.

“We got that bastard pig Leonhardt,” the man who gave me the rifle said.

“What?” I asked.

“Leonhardt is dead. They bombed the presidential palace.”

“Who did?”

“The Northlanders. They’re in it to help us.”

“Who are the Northlanders?” I asked, but he ran on ahead and didn’t hear me.

It seemed as if we had run for miles but finally we came to a place where we could stop and look back on the burning, ruined city. There were about a dozen of us. We were all panting for air. Some of us collapsed on the ground.

“I haven’t run like that since I was twelve years old,” one man said, laughing.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“We’re taking back the state,” another said. “No more dictators! From now on we’re a democracy again.”

They thought I was one of them, so I didn’t ask any more questions that would give me away. By morning it was as if I had known them all my life. I learned to shoot the gun and became one of them. With my wife and son dead, as I was to learn later, I had nothing else to live for.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Aunt Bunny Lives in the Country

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Aunt Bunny Lives in the Country ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Del fumbled with the cigarette lighter and nearly hit a truck coming from the other direction. “I forgot how curvy this damned road is,” she said as she blew a cloud of smoke into the windshield and picked a piece of tobacco off her tongue. She called the brown things she smoked cigarettes but other people called them cigars because they were long and brown instead of white and didn’t have filters. They were part of the image she had created for herself.

Sitting next to Del on the front seat, Weema fanned her hand in front of her face. “Do you want me to drive for a while?” she asked.

“I’d rather get there in one piece if you don’t mind,” Del said.

“I would too,” Weema said, but the irony was lost on Del. “I wouldn’t take these curves nearly as fast as you do.”

“I like to live dangerously.”

“Don’t forget you’re not the only one in the car. Live dangerously all you want when you’re alone.”

“You’d better not complain about my driving,” Del said, “or you might find yourself walking.”

They were first cousins but were nothing alike. Del was big-boned and had the kind of body that didn’t look good in traditional female attire. She always wore pants and loud Hawaiian shirts that came down over her big belly. She kept her hair cut very short with a pompadour over her forehead that she used men’s butch wax on to keep stiff and upright. Weema was small, never weighed more than a hundred pounds, and was rather like a bird. She had a shock of unmanageable red hair, a tiny pointed nose, and no chin to speak of. She had been compared to a chicken many times and had, more than once, received an anonymous small packet of chicken feed as a prank, crying each time it happened. “People can be so cruel!” she liked to say.

In the back seat was ninety-year-old Aunt Floy, wearing her cap-like, champagne-colored wig of tight little curls because her own hair had grown so thin. Since it was a special occasion, she had put on plenty of face powder, with tangerine-colored lipstick on her thin-lipped old mouth. She believed in looking one’s best no matter what the occasion.

“Where is it we’re going again?” She threw the question out to either of her nieces, whichever one would hear her and answer.

“We’re going to Aunt Bunny’s house,” Weema said.

“And who is that again?”

“She’s your little sister.”

“Oh, yes, I remember her,” Aunt Floy said. “Didn’t she die?”

“If she died,” Del said, “why would be going to visit her?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.”

Weema turned around in the seat and got up on her knees. She straightened Aunt Floy’s skirt and patted her on the knee. “Why don’t you lay down on the seat, honey, and try to get a little nap? I’ll cover you up with your blanket.”

“I’m not sleepy,” Aunt Floy said. “You’re just trying to get me to shut up. I want to know where you’re taking me.”

“Don’t you want to see Bunny? You haven’t seen her in over five years.”

“Yes, I want to see her but I didn’t know she lived so far away. I thought she lived in town.”

“She’s never lived in town. She’s always lived way out in the country, miles and miles away from everything. That’s the way she and Uncle Aden always wanted it.”

“It’s hell getting down there and back,” Del said. “That’s why we don’t go very often.”

“I don’t remember anything of the sort,” Aunt Floy said. “I think you’re lying to me.”

“Ruth Ellen is going to be there,” Weema said.

“Who’s that?”

“She’s your niece, Aunt Bunny’s daughter. She’s the one that’s had all those operations. I’m sure she’ll want to show you her surgical scars. Won’t that be fun?”

“No! I want to go home!”

“All right,” Del said. “I’ll turn the car around and we’ll go back home. We’ll be back in time to catch the fights on TV.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Weema said. “We’ve come all this way and we’re going to find Aunt Bunny’s house even if it kills us.”

“Let the good times roll,” Del said.

Every mile of country road was exactly like every other mile. There were the hills, the valleys and curves, and the occasional rusting iron bridge over a tiny creek. After another hour of driving, Del stated the obvious.

“I think we’re lost,” she said. “Nothing looks the same anymore.”

“Do you have a roadmap?” Weema asked.

“What good is a roadmap when you don’t know how to read it?”

“I knew we never should have come!” Aunt Floy said. “I’m scared. I’m always scared in a foreign country.”

Weema turned around in the seat again and took Aunt Floy’s hand in her own. “It’s still the same country,” she said. “This is just a part of it we’re not familiar with. Just close your eyes now and say a little prayer and trust that the Lord will show us the way.”

“I don’t want to! I need to go to the toilet!”

“Can’t you hold it?” Del asked.

“No, I can’t hold it and I don’t intend to!”

“Don’t have an accident, now,” Weema said, “and spoil your lovely clothes.”

“I just might if you don’t find me a toilet!”

“Good Christ!” Del said. “I knew this was a bad idea!”

“If you’re going to swear that way,” Weema said, “you can just let me out here.”

“As much as I’d like to,” Del said, “you’d probably be killed and I’d get the blame.”

Knowing they were a long way from any toilet, Del pulled off the road onto the shoulder at the top of a hill and pointed off into the brush and trees. Weema sniffled into a handkerchief at how the day was turning out, got out of the car and helped Aunt Floy out of the back seat.

Del spread the map out across the steering wheel as Weema and Aunt Floy retreated into the trees. “If you need any help,” she hollered after them, “don’t call me!”

She squinted at the map, turning it one way and then another, smoked one of her cigars down to the nub and lit another one. Finally, after what seemed a very long time, Weema appeared first as if emerging from a cave, turned and pulled Aunt Floy out by the hand.

“I thought maybe you were eaten by a bear,” Del said as they got back into the car.

“I had to practically undress her,” Weema said, “to keep her from getting her clothes dirty. Then I leaned her back against a tree and held onto her hands while she squatted down.”

“I don’t need to hear all the details of that,” Del said.

“You feel better now, don’t you, honey!” Weema cooed.

“No!” Aunt Floy said. “I want to go home. I’m hungry and I want to take a nap.”

“Aunt Bunny will have all kinds of good things for us to eat at her house.”

“I want something to eat now!”

“We’ll find a place to stop just as soon as we can, honey!”

Del was about to start the car again when a police car came up behind them, pulled around in front and stopped.

“I haven’t done anything,” Del said, watching in the rearview mirror as the officer got out of his car and came toward them.

“Car trouble?” the officer asked.

“No,” Del said with a strained smile. “Just taking a little rest stop.”

“Shouldn’t be stopped here if it’s not an emergency.”

“We were just leaving.”

“See this man, contact the police.” He unfolded a flyer and handed it through the window to Del.

“Is he missing?” she asked.

“Escapee. Last seen in these parts. Armed and dangerous. Alerting all citizens.”

“Can I keep this?” Del asked.

“Yup.”

Weema leaned forward so she could see the officer’s face and flashed him her brightest chicken smile. “We’re kind of lost,” she said. “We’re looking for our aunt’s place. We haven’t been there since we were children, so nothing looks the same.”

“What address?” he asked.

“Old Mines Road is all we know,” she said. “Bell County.”

“Forty miles from Bell County,” he said. “West of here. That direction.” He pointed with his thumb and spit on the ground. He took a good look at Aunt Floy in the back seat as if she might be the man they were looking for in disguise, and then he was gone.

“Missed by forty miles,” Del said. “Couldn’t find ass with both hands.”

Weema took the flyer from her and studied it. “Odd-looking man,” she said. “Flat nose. Name Herman Sherman. Funny name.”

“Long gone by now,” Del said.

“Stop soon,” Weema said. “Must eat.”

Del swung the car around and began driving roughly in the direction the officer had indicated. Soon they were heartened by a sign telling them that Bell City, the town close to where Aunt Bunny lived, was twenty-eight miles ahead of them.

They had spareribs and Chinese beer at a roadside diner called “Nellie’s Welcome Inn.” After they had eaten, they felt better and were of the opinion that the day had turned out pretty well after all. Weema called Aunt Bunny on the pay phone and told her why they had been delayed and that they would be there soon.

When they left the diner, Weema was helping Aunt Floy get situated again in the back seat while Del was having an after-dinner smoke, looking at the sky. Both of them were occupied for the moment so they didn’t see the strange man approach. He came up behind Del without making a sound and touched her on the arm. She jumped and gave out with a little scream.

“Could you give me a ride?” he asked.

“No!” she said, looking him up and down and not liking what she saw. “We’re on our way to visit relatives!”

“Looks like you’ve got plenty of room,” he said, pointing toward the back seat.

“That’s my aunt,” Del said. “She’s not well. We don’t want to upset her.”

“I won’t upset her,” he said. He reached into his pocket and gave Del a glimpse of the gun he was carrying. “I don’t want to get rough, now,” he said, “but this is just to let you know I can if I have to.”

“You’re Herman Sherman with the flat nose, aren’t you?” Weema said with a smile, as though welcoming a friend for tea.

“You’ve heard of me!” he said with a touch of pride.

She handed him the flyer. He looked at it and laughed. “Yeah, that’s me all right! That’s a terrible picture, though! I don’t think it does me any justice at all.”

“Just exactly where is it you want to go?” Del asked.

“Someplace away from here,” he said. A police car went slowly by in front of the diner; he ducked down behind the car until it was gone.

“We’re going to Bell City,” Weema said. “We turn off the road there. We’ll take you that far.”

“That’ll be fine,” he said.

“If you bother that old lady,” Del said, “I’ll drive straight to the nearest police station and turn you in.”

“I believe you would, too!” he said.

“Who are you?” Aunt Floy asked as he got into the back seat beside her.

“His name is Herman,” Weema said. “We’re just giving him a ride for a few miles and then he’ll be leaving us.”

“Hello, granny!” he said.

“I don’t like you,” Aunt Floy said. “You’re not a good man.”

“That’s too bad, granny,” he said, “because I like you!”

Del eyed him suspiciously in the mirror. Weema turned around and smiled at him. “You must be exhausted,” she said, “running from the police that way.”

“I was a little winded when I found you,” he said.

“Where exactly did you escape from?”

“I don’t think you want to hear about that,” he said. “It wasn’t a place for a lady to have to know about.”

“You wouldn’t hurt us, would you?”

“Not as long as you do as I say.”

“Look,” Del said. “We’ll give you a ride as far as Bell City and then you’re on your way, understand?”

“Sure, sure,” he said.

“I’ll bet you’d like a cigarette, wouldn’t you?” Weema asked. “Escaped convicts in the movies always want a cigarette.”

“Sure. Do you have any?”

“Give him one of your little cigars, Del,” she said.

“He’s not a guest!” Del said, handing over her pack. “Quit treating him like one!”

“Well, he’s scared and lonely, the way all of us are. I don’t think it hurts to offer him a little comfort, no matter what he’s done.”

“Spoken like a true Christian, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll bet you go to church regular, don’t you?”

“I’ve been a Methodist since the day I was born!”

He lit the little cigar and sighed with satisfaction, making himself comfortable on the seat. “I was lucky to have come across the three of you,” he said. “Did you ever feel like God is showing you the way when you least expect it and probably don’t even deserve it?”

“All the time,” Weema said.

When they were just a few miles from Bell City, he said, “I’ve been thinking.”

“About what?” Weema asked, turning around and smiling at him.

“Why should I get out at Bell City? What is there for me in Bell City?”

“It’s a real small town,” Weema said, “but it is the county seat.”

“I don’t particularly want to go to Bell City,” he said.

“We’re taking you to Bell City and no farther!” Del said.

“I just had a wonderful idea!”

“What is it?” Weema asked. “Tell us!”

“In an ideal world, Las Vegas is where I would want to be. If I can just get there, everything will be all right with me.”

“Nobody’s looking for you there!” Weema said.

“That’s right!”

“We’ll let you out in Bell City and you can make your way to Las Vegas any damn way you please,” Del said, “but it’ll be without our participation!”

“Not so fast!” he said. “This is the perfect cover for me. A man traveling with three ladies. Just like a little family. Nobody would suspect a thing. We’re just on our way to Las Vegas to play some slots, have a few laughs, and see Hoover Dam.”

“Nobody’s going to Las Vegas,” Del said. “Our aunt and her daughter, Ruth Ellen, are expecting us at her place in Bell County. If we don’t show up, she’ll call the police. She’ll give them a description of this car and they’ll find us.”

“I didn’t say it had to be in this car, did I?” he said.

“What do you mean?” Weema asked excitedly.

“We can ditch this car and pick up another one along the way!”

“Absolutely not!” Del said. “Nothing doing!”

He took his gun out, brandishing it dramatically in the air. Aunt Floy screamed when she saw it. “I don’t want to have to use this,” he said, “but this is just to let you know I can.” He rolled down the window and shot at a fence post thirty feet from the car, knocking it over.

“Where’d you learn to shoot like that?” Weema asked.

“The army.”

“I’m not afraid of you!” Del said. “Big man with a gun! I’ve seen your kind before and you’re all chicken shit.”

He ran the barrel of the still-warm gun along the side of her face and laughed when she flinched. “Do you believe me now?” he asked.

“I think we’d better do what he says,” Weema said.

“What about Aunt Floy’s medicine?”

“I’ve got the bottles in my purse!”

“You see the sun up there?” he said. “You keep the car headed in that direction. When the sun goes down, I’ll drive.”

“Oh!” Weema said. “I’ve always wanted to see Las Vegas! How long do you think it’ll be before we get there?”

“I have to go to the toilet!” Aunt Floy said.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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