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The Queen Bee of Café Society

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The Queen Bee of Café Society ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It’s early November and the nights are getting colder. Ouida Longworth makes her way through the dark city streets to the only place left to her. She struggles up the stairs, through the door, and stops before a low table with an old woman sitting behind it.

“Need a bed,” Ouida says.

“All full up tonight.”

“Got one left,” a man’s voice says from the shadows. “A lady checked out a little while ago.”

“All right,” the old woman says. “You know the rules. No smoking, cussing, gambling or alcoholic beverages. No fraternizing with the other guests. You got to be out by nine o’clock in the morning.”

“Thank you, madam.”

“Go down them stairs and hold your nose.”

Ouida isn’t sure if she has the strength to find the one empty bed, but find it she does and when she comes to it she sits down heavily and takes off her shoes and rubs her feet. They are so numb she can hardly feel them—one day they will stop working altogether. Holding her shoes against her abdomen to keep them safe, she gets under the covers to lose herself in sleep for a few hours.

A roomful of sleeping women and a few children. It is semi-lit, one bulb high up on the wall in a little metal cage, and quiet except for a few rustles like the sounds mice make. The wild-haired woman in the bed next to Ouida raises herself on her elbow, eyes glowing in the dark. Ouida is certain the woman is going to speak to her, so she covers her head with the musty blanket and is left only with herself and her recollections of the life she had before the one she has now.

She was once the wife of Franklin Longworth, a man of many millions. She wore glittery gowns, smoked custom-made cigarettes in a foot-long holder and articulated in a faux English accent. Besides having a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue, the Longworths spent a part of each year at one of their homes in the South of France, Switzerland or Italy.

Ouida Longworth was one of the leading lights of her social set, which included sixty or so of the best people. During the social season, she gave parties or attended them nearly every night. On off nights, there was always the opera, the theatre, or any one of the fashionable cafés and clubs. The revels often lasted until dawn and nobody was written up in the society columns more than Ouida Longworth. To be seen in her company—and especially to be photographed with her—was much desired by those hoping to get a leg up in society. Any man of letters, painter, or actress was fortunate to be taken up and admired by her.

One such man was a fellow named Ricky Beaumont. Establishing himself as a playwright proved to be more problematic than he anticipated. His one play that he managed to have produced folded after six performances. He was badly in need of a patroness, someone to pay his liquor bills and leave him alone while he cultivated his untapped genius.

Ouida claimed to be the “discoverer” of Ricky Beaumont. He was, she said, the most gifted young playwright of his generation and she would see that he had every advantage. Men of genius should not be bothered with worldly matters such as how to pay the grocery bill and the rent.

She started out advising Ricky in his career, but soon her professional interest turned personal. Helping matters along were his youth and the fact that he had piercing blue eyes, a head full of thick brown hair and stood six feet, two inches tall in his stocking feet. He recalled to Ouida the thrilling days of her youth, before she married stodgy Franklin Longworth, when she could have any man for the taking and there were plenty willing to be taken.

She began being seen everywhere in Ricky Beaumont’s company. Rumors abounded. Some of her friends reviled her, while most were blasé in the matter. A silly older woman with a rich and serious husband falling for a good-looking younger fellow who, everybody could see, was taking her for a ride. It’s been happening since the beginning of time.

She admitted to her husband before a roaring fire in his study after a large dinner that she was in love with Ricky Beaumont and he was in love with her.

“Has it ever occurred to you, my dear,” her husband said, “that Ricky Beaumont might be more in love with what you can do for him than he is with you?”

“Only a person with a vile mind would think of such a thing,” she replied.

“I’ve known for a long time that you weren’t happy in our marriage.”

“It isn’t so much that, Frank. It’s just that I’m young and pretty and I want to be with a man who thrills me.”

“You’re forty-seven.”

“My age doesn’t matter. I don’t look a day over thirty.”

“Age has a way of catching up with you when you least expect it.”

“I’m not surprised that you turn the conversation into something as trivial as age.”

“Does Ricky also believe the age difference to be trivial?”

“Ours is a love for the ages! That I’ve lived a few years longer than he has is absolutely inconsequential.”

“All right. We’ll meet with my attorney and arrange for you to get your divorce.”

Always one to be generous, Franklin Longworth settled ten million dollars on his wife. Almost before the ink was dry on the divorce agreement, Ouida and Ricky Beaumont were married at city hall in a simple ceremony. She wore a modest navy suit and a small hat with a veil. No photographers were present.

They rented a villa in Tuscany, where they spent the first few months of their married life. From there they went to Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, and Berlin. After a few months in London, Ricky was tired of the rain and cold, he said, so they moved on to sunnier climes.

Before they had celebrated their first wedding anniversary, Ouida began to notice a change in him. Instead of being charming all the time, as she expected him to be, he was moody and withdrawn. He abandoned his writing career, which she had hoped he would pursue. He went for days at a time without speaking to her and insisted on separate bedrooms. When she asked what was wrong, he became violent and accused her of being an old nag. He slapped her in the mouth on more than one occasion and blackened both eyes.

He began drinking heavily, alone, and then with male companions that to Ouida seemed unsavory. He was sometimes gone overnight and when he returned in the morning he was always dirty and disheveled. He lived a separate, secret life apart from hers and remained drunk much of the time.

To have something to do to pass the time, he took up gambling. At first it was races and sporting events and then he began frequenting casinos. He was, she soon discovered, addicted to the roulette table and other games of chance. He squandered huge sums of money every night and never gained a cent.

“Our money does have a limit, you know,” she said to him during one of his infrequent sober periods. “As does my patience.”

“Can’t you leave me alone for just one minute?” he said.

“What will we do when you’ve squandered all our money and we have nothing left?”

“I’m not going to do that, I promise.”

“I can see now that our marriage was a mistake,” she said. “I gave up a good man for you.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I gave up everything for you.”

“Go stick your head in the oven.”

When she was just on the verge of trying to figure out a way to extricate herself from the marriage, he came to her one night in her bedroom with tears in his eyes.

“I’m afraid I have some bad news, old girl,” he said.

“You’re in trouble with the police?”

“Worse than that. We’re broke.”

“We’re what?”

“All our money is gone.”

“What? How are we going to live?”

“I know what I’m going to do. It’s every man for himself now.”

That was the last time she saw him. In the morning he was gone and he didn’t tell her where he was going. He didn’t even bother to take any of his belongings with him.

She sold what jewelry she had left to pay a few outstanding debts and to buy a plane ticket home. When she arrived back in America, all the people in her crowd had moved on. There was no one to whom she could turn for help. Anybody who had known her wouldn’t recognize her anymore. She had gained weight and let herself go. Her hair was gray, her skin sallow, her appearance haggard. Age had caught up with her, as Franklin had told her it would.

Her small reserve of money was dwindling. She tried to find a job but couldn’t. Nobody wanted a fifty-year-old waitress or sales girl with no experience. In her previous life, she had never learned to do anything and had never envisioned a time when she would be forced to earn her own living.

The hotel where she was staying locked her out of her room when she stopped paying. They kept her bags and clothes, which they would be happy to return after she paid the money that was owed.

She began walking the streets, learning where other people like her congregated. She learned the safe places to hide out, to get a bite to eat or a bed for the night. Few had ever fallen so far and so fast.

She awakes in the long, low room with all the beds. It’s daylight, time to get up and move on. When she reaches for her shoes to put them on, they are gone. The wild-haired woman in the bed beside her is also gone.

She begins crying uncontrollably. “How could this happen to me?” she sobs.

“Are you all right, honey?” a woman with a little girl asks her.

“Somebody took my shoes! What am I going to do now?”

“See the lady at the desk. She’ll fix you up.”

The old woman from the night before has a cardboard box of discarded shoes under her desk. Ouida looks through it until she finds a pair of red tennis shoes that fit her.

“Thank you for your kindness,” she says. “I’m all right now.”

She goes out into the bright, cold air and begins walking. The streets are crowded, the time of morning when people are headed for their places of business. Somebody is certain to notice her and hand her some money, enough to get a decent breakfast, without her having to ask for it. These things happen much more often than she might have imagined.

She rarely looks directly at individual people, but she can’t help noticing an older man walking toward her, a man unlike anybody else. He wears an overcoat and a bowler hat. He has an air of assurance and respectability. When she realizes it’s Franklin Longworth, her heart skips a beat. She makes a sharp turn to the left to try to avoid him, but he has already seen her.

“Ouida!” he calls. “Is that you?”

“Hello, Franklin,” she says.

“Why didn’t you let me know you were in town?”

“I don’t know.”

He looks her up and down. “Things not going so good?” he asks.

“Well, I…”

“Let me buy you breakfast. We can talk.”

“Well, I…”

He takes her by the arm and leads her to a restaurant down the street.

“You’re looking well,” she says, after they are seated.

“I wish I could say the same for you.”

“I know. I’m not the person I was.”

“Things washed up with Ricky?”

“Yes. I’m finished with him. Or rather, he’s finished with me.”

“Did you hear I got married again?”

“No, I hadn’t heard.”

“Her name is Katherine. You’d like her. She was a widow, has two sons. I’ve come to think of them as my own.”

“I’m happy for you, Frank.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Well, I was staying at the Fulbright Hotel, but…”

“You could no longer afford it?”

“You always had a way of seeing right through me, Frank.”

“Can I help in any way.”

“You were always so good, Frank, and I was such a fool. You gave me everything a woman could possibly want and I threw it all away.”

“For love?”

“For love.”

“Well, it’s all in the past now,” he says. “Time to move forward.”

“Yes, move forward.”

“We have an opening for a maid if you’d be interested.”

“A maid?”

“Yes.”

“You’d hire me as a maid?”

“I don’t see why not. Nobody has to know about your past. We’ll keep it between ourselves.”

“What would your wife think?”

He takes a pad out of his pocket and begins writing. “I got rid of the old place,” he says. “Too many painful associations. We now live at this address.” He rips a page from the pad and hands it to her.

“You’ve always treated me better than I deserve, Frank,” she says.

“You won’t have to start to work right away. Take some time to get yourself rested up. A couple of weeks, if you want.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he says, “I was just on my way for an appointment. I’m late as it is.” He takes his wallet out and hands her a fifty-dollar bill. “Order anything you want to eat.”

“Always so thoughtful, dear.”

“Come to us when you’re ready. I’ll tell my wife you’re coming and she’ll make the necessary arrangements.”

“It’s been wonderful seeing you again, Frank.”

He pats her on the hand and smiles and then he’s gone.

She leaves the restaurant a few minutes after he does with the fifty-dollar bill in her hand and the piece of paper on which he has written his address. When she sees a man on the street who looks worse than she does, minus a leg, she gives him the money. As for the address, she lets the wind take it from her hand and watches as it blows into the gutter. After she has done these things, she fades into the crowd and is seen or heard of no more.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

I Always Knew You Were Kind

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I Always Knew You Were Kind ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Geneva watches Booth Faraday in his back yard out her upstairs bedroom window. He holds a newspaper in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. After adjusting the crotch of his pants, he sits down in a lawn chair and unfolds the newspaper and takes a drink of the beer; turns the pages of the newspaper impatiently and ends by throwing it on the ground. He puts his head back with his face toward the sky and closes his eyes. He doesn’t know he’s being watched, she thinks. But then he opens his eyes and looks toward her and she jumps away from the window as if from an electric shock.

Booth and his mother have lived next door for three years and Geneva has never even spoken to them in passing. They are people who keep to themselves. Booth goes to work early every morning but Geneva doesn’t know what he does. Some blue-collar job. Maybe a factory worker or an automobile mechanic. When he comes home, he rarely goes out again. Never any visitors that Geneva has seen. On weekends she hardly sees him at all. Not that she’s watching for him. He’s nothing to me, she tells herself, after each of her secret spying sessions.

She goes downstairs where her sour-faced mother, Mrs. Bobo, is sitting at the kitchen table slurping her coffee. Ignoring her, Geneva turns to the want ads in the newspaper and sits down across from her.

“You’ve been watching him again, haven’t you?” Mrs. Bobo says.

Geneva circles an ad in red ink and looks up. “Did you say something?” she asks.

“I said, ‘you’ve been watching him again’.”

“Watching who?”

“That man next door. What’s-his-name. Mrs. Faraday’s son.”

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

“I would like some scrambled eggs this morning. I’ve been waiting for you to come down and fix them.”

Geneva stands up, takes two eggs out of the refrigerator and carries them to the stove.

“You really don’t need to be looking at those silly want ads,” Mrs. Bobo says.

“I’ll look at them if I want to.”

“How many jobs have you applied for that you didn’t get?”

“I don’t know. Dozens.”

“That’s right. Dozens. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

“It tells me I haven’t found the right one yet.”

“You really don’t need to find another job. Your father left us well-provided for. That’s one thing I can say about him.”

“People don’t work only because they have to. Some people work because they want to.”

Mrs. Bobo laughs her cruel laugh. “C’est la vie,” she says, but Geneva is sure she doesn’t know what it means.

At other times their conversation is less cordial, as two days later when Geneva is preparing to go for a job interview.

“I don’t think you’re going to get this job, either,” Mrs. Bobo says.

“Why not?” Geneva asks.

“They’re going to take one look at your qualifications and see you don’t know how to do a thing.”

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

“You look ridiculous. You have too much curl in your hair. It makes you look like a clown.”

“Thank you.”

“Too much makeup for your age. You look like a floozy.”

“Nobody uses words like ‘floozy’ anymore. It reminds me of just how old you are.”

“The old words are the best words for getting things said.”

“Why don’t you just shut up and let me alone for a change?”

“How can you tell your mother to shut up?”

“Easy. Shut up!

“I have this terrible pain in my chest and you’re abandoning me. I might not still be alive when you get back.”

“Then I’ll call your favorite funeral home and let them know where to pick up the body. They’ll be glad for the business.”

“That isn’t funny. You break your mother’s heart.”

“Why don’t you go watch TV? Isn’t there one of your game shows on?”

“You know I don’t care for game shows.”

“Then why do you watch them all the time?”

“Because I have a daughter who can’t stand to be in the same room with me, that’s why.”

“Why don’t you take a nap or something? I’ll bring you a cheeseburger when I come home.”

“Don’t bother. I couldn’t eat a thing.”

The interview doesn’t go well. The interviewer is a man, no more than twenty-four years old. He talks about how youthful and vibrant the company is. Geneva can tell right away he doesn’t consider her a serious contender for the job.

“Why do you want to work here?” he asks, looking bored.

“I don’t,” she says.

“You don’t want to work here?”

“No.”

“Then why are we both wasting our time?”

“I just now decided.”

“I guess we can consider the interview concluded then, can’t we?”

“Yes, and thanks for nothing.”

“Thank you for nothing,” he says.

The next day Mrs. Bobo is sulking in her room and doesn’t ask Geneva how the job interview went. To give herself something to do, Geneva goes into the kitchen and makes two batches of cookies, one chocolate chip and the other oatmeal raisin. While the cookies are cooling on the counter, she has an idea. What man doesn’t like cookies?

She puts on her new yellow-flowered blouse, brushes her teeth and fluffs up her hair, which, thank goodness, still looks decent from the interview the day before. She takes a round tin left over from Christmas, lines it with wax paper, and puts about three dozen of the cookies in it, half of each kind.

She tries to smile as she rings the doorbell at the house of Faraday, but her heart is pounding and she has a terrible taste in her mouth like an exhaust pipe. She is sure that Booth will answer the door because it’s Saturday, but Mrs. Faraday comes to the door instead. She’s a short, squat woman with bulging eyes like a frog and hardly any neck to speak of.

“Yes?” she says when she sees Geneva. She takes her cigarette out of her mouth and picks a piece of tobacco off her tongue.

“Mrs. Faraday?”

“Yes. Who are you?”

“I’m your next-door neighbor. You must have seen me around.”

“Yeah, I guess so. What do you want?”

“I just wanted to pay a neighborly call and bring you this.” She holds out the tin of cookies.

Mrs. Faraday eyes it suspiciously. “What is it?” she asks.

“It’s cookies I made.”

“How much?”

“I’m not selling them. I’ve giving them to you.”

“I don’t eat sweets much, but thank you.” She takes the tin and holds it against her body under her elbow.

Geneva tries to see over Mrs. Faraday’ shoulder into the house, but it’s too dark to see a thing.

“Is your son home?” she asks.

“You know him?” Mrs. Faraday says.

“No. I can’t say that we’ve been properly introduced.”

“He’s busy right now.”

“Oh, that’s all right.”

“I can get him if you want.”

“Oh, no! Don’t bother. I just thought I’d say hello and introduce myself.”

“I’ll tell him you dropped by.”

“Oh, would you? Thank you!”

Her cheeks burn with embarrassment.

Relations between mother and daughter remain strained. Mrs. Bobo stays in her room watching her small portable TV at the toot of her bed and speaks to Geneva only when necessary. She eats her meals and then returns to her lair and locks the door.

“How long is the silent treatment going to last, mother?” Geneva asks at lunch.

“Why should I speak if I’m only going to be told to shut up in my own home?” Mrs. Bobo says.

On her birthday Geneva fixes herself up in a special way. She takes a bubble bath, washes and sets her hair and, sitting at her dressing table in her underwear, puts on her “full face,” including fake eyelashes. When everything else is done, she puts on the black dress that she wears to weddings and funerals.

She buys a bottle of wine and an expensive cut of steak. She gets out the good china and places candles in the middle of the table.

When Mrs. Bobo comes into the kitchen, her pink-tinged hair askew from her nap, she says, “What’s all this for?”

“Sit down and eat, mother, before the food gets cold,” Geneva says as she pours wine into the glasses.

After a couple of bites, Mrs. Bobo says, “The meat is tough. I can’t eat it.”

“Do you want me to cut it up for you?” Geneva asks.

“Of course not! I’m not a child!”

“Don’t eat it, then, if you don’t want it.”

“Well, I won’t eat it! And I want to know what you’re all gussied up for? You look like the cat that swallowed the canary. Are you wearing false eyelashes?”

“I have a date this evening,” Geneva says.

“Who with? I hope you’re not cavorting with some married man!”

“Why would I be?”

“Because that’s the only kind of man you could ever hope to get. Somebody who has completely given up on life.”

(The truth is: after she washes up the supper dishes, she is planning on driving downtown to a little getaway called the Melody Lounge, sitting at the bar, having a drink or two and listening to the music. Being asked to dance is not outside the realm of possibility.)

“Don’t you know what day this is?” she asks.

“It’s Thursday, isn’t it?” Mrs. Bobo says. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You don’t remember what happened thirty-eight years ago today?”

“If it’s your sly way of telling me it’s your birthday, I already know it.”

“Aren’t you going to wish me many happy returns?”

“No. I don’t think your thirty-eighth birthday is anything to celebrate.”

“Why not?”

“What have you ever done with your life? You still live with your mother in her house. You don’t have a career. You were never able to land a husband.”

Geneva has been drinking wine steadily for two hours. She finished off one bottle and has opened another. She holds up her glass and says, “Here’s to many more happy years in your c-c-company, mother!”

Mrs. Bobo gives a snort of disgust. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she says.

“Why? I haven’t done anything.”

“You’re a terrible disappointment to your mother!”

“Do you want me to leave?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To be absolved of all responsibility!”

“I don’t feel responsible for you, mother. I’ve stayed with you and helped you all these years because I didn’t want you to be alone. I can go anytime I please.”

“You ungrateful thing! After all I’ve done for you!”

“What have you done for me?”

“I’ve supported you for thirty-eight years!”

“You don’t think I could support myself?”

“No! You live on my money and that’s the way it will always be! Just how do you think you’d manage if I were to say you don’t get another penny of my money?”

“I have money of my own.”

“Bah! And don’t think you’ll get a cent when I die, either. I’ve already spoken to my attorney about changing my will.”

Geneva downs another glass of wine and says, “How about if I murder you before you change your will? I could always poison your food and you’d never know it. Or, how about this: I come into your room in the wee hours of the night and hold a pillow over your face until you’re no longer breathing. An old woman dying in her sleep. Nobody would ever question it.”

Oh!” Mrs. Bobo says, sputtering with indignation.

“You are a horrible, spiteful, vindictive old woman and I wish I never had to lay eyes on you again!”

“God will strike you dead for saying such things!”

“I wish he would! Then I’d never have to look at your ugly old face again!”

Oh!

Mrs. Bobo tries to get up, catches her foot on the leg of the chair and sits back down with a jolt, spilling the wine. “I want you out of my house by nightfall,” she says. “Take everything that belongs to you and get out!”

“It will give me the greatest of pleasure!” Geneva says. Not knowing what else to do, she picks a baked potato off her plate and throws it at Mrs. Bobo. It strikes her in the forehead; she falls off her chair onto the floor and begins wailing.

“She’s trying to kill me!” she screams. “Help me, somebody! My own daughter is going to kill me!”

“Get up, mother,” Geneva says. “You’re not hurt. It was just a squishy old cooked potato and I didn’t throw it that hard.”

Oh! Oh! Oh! I think my leg is broken! I’m having a heart attack!”

Geneva knows she has had too much wine and believes she is about to do something she will regret. Wanting only to get away from Mrs. Bobo, she runs through the house and out the front door. She feels the blood rushing in her ears and has a couple of seconds where she loses consciousness, which happens in moments of extreme anxiety or anger. She runs to the house next door, the Faraday house, and pounds on the door.

When Mrs. Faraday comes to the door, Geneva rushes past her into the house as though escaping a fire.

“What the…?” Mrs. Faraday says.

Geneva runs through the dark house into the kitchen. There, standing beside the sink, is Booth Faraday in a bathrobe. He looks at Geneva as if she is a lion about to spring on him. Geneva runs to him, reaches up and encircles his neck with her arms.

“Please marry me!” she says. “I know I’m drunk and I do apologize for that. Today is my birthday. I’m older than I care to admit. My life is terrible. My mother and I hate each other. I just threatened to kill her. She’s lying on the floor in the kitchen screaming in pain. I don’t want to go to jail. Please help me!”

Booth pulls her arms from his neck, takes a step back and says the first words she has ever heard him speak: “Do I know you?”

Mrs. Faraday is standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “I’ll call the police,” she says in a calm voice.

Again Booth speaks: “No need. I’ll handle this.”

“There,” Geneva says, smiling. “I always knew you were kind.”

She takes a drunken step toward him. He steps out of the way as she falls to the floor. The thing she is aware of as she blacks out is that she is wetting her pants on the floor of the Faraday kitchen.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

A Cross-Eyed Woman

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A Cross-Eyed Woman

A Cross-Eyed Woman ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“Did I tell you I’ve got a new girlfriend, grandpa?”

“Is that so? What’s her name?”

“Lucille Meisenbach.”

“How much does she weigh?”

“A hundred and thirty.”

“How old is she?”

“She’s a year younger than me, grandpa.”

“Don’t be in no hurry to marry a person with a name like Lucille Meisenbach.”

“I’m not. I only just met her.”

“Make sure you know everything about her before you marry her. Her people, too.”

“I’m not going to marry her.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Nothing, except that she’s cross-eyed.”

“You don’t want to marry no cross-eyed woman.”

“Okay, I won’t.”

“Cross-eyed woman is a sign of trouble.”

“How do you know, grandpa?”

“I’m seventy-three years old. I’ve seen everything and what I haven’t seen I’ve heard about.”

“I wouldn’t want to marry her, anyway.”

“Why not?”

“She’s got six toes on one foot.”

“How many on the other?”

“Just five.”

“Eleven toes is bad luck. It’s a mark of the devil.”

“If you say so, grandpa.”

“You don’t think you’d want to marry her after you’ve known her for a while?”

“No, sir.”

“You say that now, but if she gets it into her head to marry you, she’ll find a way to ensnare you against your will.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, grandpa.”

“Why not?”

“She’s not very smart.”

“You don’t have to be smart to be evil.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say she’s evil, grandpa.”

“You probably just don’t know her well enough to see her evil side.”

“If I start to see it, I’ll dump her.”

“Maybe she won’t let you dump her.”

“If I want to dump her, she can’t stop me.”

“I see you know very little about women.”

“I know enough.”

“Just make sure you find out everything there is to know before you marry her. If she’s got them two flaws, she’s bound to have others.”

“I haven’t seen any others.”

“Well, she’ll be setting her trap to catch you.”

“I don’t think so, grandpa.”

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I went to dinner at her house on Sunday after church. We had fried chicken. Her mother’s name is Vera Meisenbach.”

“How old is she?”

“Forty-three.”

“How much does she weigh?”

“Two hundred.”

“A big woman.”

“Yes, sir. Big and tall. Broad shoulders. A wild look in her eye. Kind of scary.”

“And that’s not all, is it?”

“No, sir. She’s got a hump on her back.”

“Uh-oh! A big woman with a hump on her back has a cross-eyed daughter with eleven toes. Freakishness runs in the family. That’s not good.”

“I can’t claim to be perfect myself.”

“You’ve got the right number of toes, you’re not cross-eyed and there’s no hump on your back.”

“That’s true.”

“Count your blessings.”

“Yes, sir. I also met Lucille’s daddy. He’s a little bitty man like a midget.”

“A pattern has been established.”

“Lucille told me he’s got a metal plate in his head that lets him pick up radio transmissions. I tried to keep from laughing.”

“How much does he weigh?”

“Ninety-four pounds.”

“His wife weighs more than twice what he weighs?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not pleasant to contemplate. How old is he?”

“He’s forty-nine years old.”

“And his name?”

“Luther Meisenbach.”

“Any other progeny besides Lucille?”

“A brother named Norland Meisenbach. He’s sixteen.”

“Is he cross-eyed?”

“Not that I noticed, but I didn’t pay that much attention.”

“How much does he weigh?”

“A hundred and ten.”

“That’s small for sixteen, isn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“Anything freakish about him?”

“He’s got a turned-in foot and he doesn’t talk much because he’s got a stutter.”

“So there’s something wrong with every one of the Meisenbachs.”

“Yes, sir. I guess you could say that.”

“If you take my advice, sonny, you’ll get as far away from that bunch as you can. They’re not wholesome to be around.”

“Yes, sir. I don’t really care that much for Lucille, anyway. When she looks at me, it looks like she’s looking over my shoulder.”

“She’s probably looking to her master for direction.”

“You sure have opened my eyes, grandpa. I’m glad we had this little talk.”

“Not at all, sonny. I’m always glad to give you the benefit of my superior knowledge. That’s what grandpas are for.”

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

If Mr. Shinliver Dies

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If Mr. Shinliver Dies image 2

If Mr. Shinliver Dies ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

As soon as I walked into the office and heard laughter, I knew something was wrong. Ramona Sugarman, the receptionist, sat at her desk filing her fingernails.

“What’s going on, Ramona?” I asked.

“Mr. Shinliver had a heart attack,” she said casually.

“Oh, my gosh! Is he all right?”

She shrugged her shoulders and trained her cross-eyed gaze on her little finger. “How should I know?” she said.

As I proceeded to my cubicle, all the way in the back by the window, a football whizzed by my head, followed by a burst of laughter.

“Uh-oh,” Buster Finney said. “I think he’s going to tell on us.”

Irvine Beasley caught the ball, gripped it with both hands and pretended to throw it right at my face. “No, he won’t tell,” he said. “Not if he knows what’s good for him.”

“No football in the office,” I said, but they knew I was only joking.

I entered my cubicle and set my briefcase on the desk. Theresa Belladonna poked her head up over the partition that separated my cubicle from hers. She held a lighted cigarette in the corner of her mouth like a street corner wino.

“Good morning!” I said.

She removed the cigarette and blew smoke in my direction. “Did you hear the good news?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t heard any good news so far this morning.”

“You know that conference that Mr. Shinliver and all the top brass went to in Buffalo?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Shinliver had a heart attack.”

“Oh, my goodness!” I said. “Is he all right?”

“They say he was in Miss Wagstaff’s room when it happened. You can only imagine what they were doing.”

“I’d rather not,” I said.

“He’s still alive but he’s on one of those machines that does his breathing for him.”

“Poor Mr. Shinliver.”

“It’s the best thing that’s happened around here in a long time.”

“How long will it be before they get somebody in here to take his place, though?” I asked.

“At least a few days,” she said. “A few days of peace and freedom. It’s exactly what we’ve needed here for a long time.”

“It’s probably some kind of trick,” I said. “Shinliver is probably watching our every move this very minute.”

“That old bastard! Isn’t there some kind of law against spying on people?”

“It happens all the time.”

“Not to me it doesn’t,” she said, lighting a fresh cigarette off the old one.

“I didn’t know you smoked, Theresa,” I said.

“Now’s the time to start, when there’s nobody around to tell me I can’t do it.”

On my way to the kitchen to get my customary morning cup of tea, I saw that Reynard Gilhooley, the resident beatnik, was sitting at his desk openly snorting what appeared to be cocaine with a rolled-up dollar bill.

“Good morning, Reynard,” I said.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” he said.

“Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” I said.

While I heated the water for my tea, I stood and looked over the tray of donuts. I was happy to see that there was still one left that was oozing red jelly out the side like a delicious wound. As I picked the donut up and bit into it, somebody clapped me on the shoulder from behind.

“Well, well, well!” a booming voice said. “Look who bothered to show up for work today!”

“I’m always here, Melville,” I said as I turned around and tried to smile. “I never miss work.”

It was Melville Herman, of course. The braggart. The blowhard. The man who managed to make himself offensive to everybody in the world, including a string of ex-wives.

“Did you hear the good news?”

“About Mr. Shinliver, you mean?”

“If the old boy buys the farm, guess who your new boss will be?”

“I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” I said. I took a step away from him so I wouldn’t have to look at his big teeth.

“It’ll be me, you fool!” he said. “Who else?”

“What makes you think that?”

“It’s all but in the bag. Who’s the person with any competence around here? Who keeps this place afloat?”

“I don’t know. Miss Wagstaff?”

“Wagstaff’s just a puppet! And she’s a lesbian, besides.”

“Really? I heard that she and Mr. Shinliver were an item.”

He laughed his hyena-like laugh. “You are so funny!” he said. “Nobody talks like that any more!”

“Like what?”

“I’m going to take some measurements in Mr. Shinliver’s office and see how my furniture is going to fit in there. I think I’m going to want some new curtains, too. The old ones probably smell funny.”

After Melville left, I sat down at one of the little round tables with my tea and donut and looked out the window. Off in the distance I saw a column of smoke rising into the sky. As I was trying to think what it might be that was burning, Mae Fudge came into the room. She was a big woman with a hairdo of elaborate curlicues that reminded me of pictures of Louis XVI.

“Before you ask,” I said. “Yes, I have heard the news about Mr. Shinliver.”

“Nobody’s going to get any work done today,” Mae said. “Probably all week.”

“What am I supposed to do about it?”

“They look up to you. You can talk some sense into them.”

“And have them hate me the way they hate Mr. Shinliver?”

“I’ve heard by way of the grapevine that if Mr. Shinliver dies, you’re going to get a big promotion.”

“What if I don’t want it?”

She looked at me suspiciously. “Everybody wants a promotion,” she said.

“I’m leaving this place,” I said.

“What? Have you found a better job?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I’m leaving this place.”

“Well, you don’t have to get all huffy about it.”

“I’m not getting huffy. I just don’t like having people asking me questions.”

Somebody turned on some loud music that could be heard all over the office. People came into the kitchen, not only to get donuts and coffee, but to dance in the space between the sink and the tables. Believe me, there is nothing more disquieting than white-and-gray accountants—one of them wearing red socks, I noticed—dancing with each other.

“They’ve all gone crazy,” Mae said.

“Their oppressor is gone,” I said. “They’re experiencing a heady moment of freedom.”

“It won’t last.”

“Of course it won’t. Mr. Shinliver will be back or somebody just like him.”

I went back to my desk to escape the loud music, but I could hear it all the same from there. I put on my headphones and listened to some Mozart and, while doing nothing, pretended to work. I was sure I was the only person in the whole place even pretending.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

In the Fullness of His Years

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In the Fullness of His Years

In the Fullness of His Years ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

A man named Cyril Johns, age seventy-eight, lived in the basement apartment of an eighteen-story apartment building. He once was the janitor of the building but had been forced to stop working because of his age. Upon his retirement, the owner of the building gave him a deluxe television set and allowed him to keep his basement apartment for a nominal rent. He had, of course, to turn over all his tools and keys to the man hired to replace him.

He used to have lots of friends, people to help pass the time and make the day brighter, but just about everybody he knew had died or moved out of the neighborhood. He no longer had anybody to play cards with or talk over the baseball scores or how the fools in Washington were messing up the country. The TV droned on, but he ignored it.

The new people were a speeded-up version of the old ones. They were mostly young, with lots of small children. They would sooner knock a person down than wait for him to get out of the way. The young mothers eyed him in a funny way, he thought, as if he had it in mind to grab one of their screaming brats and gut it like a catfish. They had never been taught to show respect for an old person.

Patsy Ruth was different. She smiled at him, spoke to him, asked him how he was. She didn’t mind when he touched her frail-looking little boy, named Frankie, on the face or picked him up and held him in his arms. She didn’t have a dirty mind like the others. She knew he meant no harm.

When they finally had a chance to speak, Patsy Ruth told him she had grown up on a farm.

“That’s why you’re not like the others,” he said.

“I’m having a hard time adjusting to this place,” she said. “I’ve never lived in the city before.”

“If I can ever be of any help,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life.”

She was afraid to ride downtown on the bus with Frankie alone. She asked Cyril if he would go with them the first time and then afterward she wouldn’t be afraid.

“I’ll pay you for your time,” she said.

“You’ll do nothing of the kind.”

They took Frankie for his doctor’s appointment and afterwards had lunch at a nearby café.

“It was good of you to come with me,” Patsy Ruth said. “I hate being such a baby.”

“What’s wrong with the little fellow, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“He was born at seven months. He’s always had weak lungs.”

“Won’t he outgrow it?”

“That’s my hope, but we don’t know yet. He might be sick his whole life.”

Knowing his mother was talking about him, Frankie looked at her with his bright, inquisitive eyes. “When I’m five I can go to school,” he said solemnly.

“So, you want to go to school?” Cyril asked.

“Sure,” Frankie said. “I want to learn how to read.”

“He sees the other kids playing,” Patsy Ruth said. “He wants to join in but they’re twice his size and I’m afraid they’d hurt him.”

“They wouldn’t hurt me, mother.”

“When you’re older, you can play with the bigger kids.”

“Because I’ll be bigger myself.”

When they left the café, Cyril insisted on picking up the tab.

“I should be buying your lunch,” Patsy Ruth said.

“I get a check in the mail every month that I don’t have to work for,” he said. “I have more than I need.”

For five days after the doctor’s visit he didn’t see Patsy Ruth or Frankie in the courtyard and began to be worried that something was wrong. He coaxed the manager with a five-dollar-bill to give him Patsy Ruth’s apartment number.

He took the creaking elevator up to the fourteenth floor and found the apartment. He knocked and Patsy Ruth opened the door only as far as the chain would allow. When she saw it was him, she unfastened the chain.

“I thought it might be you,” she said, smiling.

“I didn’t think you’d mind if I came by to see how you were doing.”

“Of course not. Come in.”

She moved some stuff off the couch to make a place for him to sit. “Sorry the place is still such a mess,” she said. “We’re still getting settled, deciding where to put things.”

“When I didn’t see you for a few days, I thought maybe the tyke wasn’t doing very well.”

“No, the tyke is fine. We’ve been staying indoors because of the rain and cold wind.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s taking his nap.”

“I wanted to tell you if you want me to go downtown with you and Frankie on the bus again, I’d be happy to.”

“I might take you up on that.”

“I hope you do.”

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Sure.”

He followed her into the kitchen and sat at the Formica-topped table next to the window while she boiled the water.

“You’re living among the clouds,” he said, looking out.

“I know. I can’t get over the feeling I’m going to be sucked out the window into the void.”

“If there’s a bad enough storm, you’ll want to go down to the bottom floor. That’s what people usually do. Until the storm passes. Of course, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I’d rather not even think about storms.”

“When it comes, it’ll seem worse than it is.”

“My husband will be home in a couple of hours and I need to start my dinner.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll go.”

“No, stay a while.”

When the tea was ready she brought it to the table and sat down across from him.

“Of course, I don’t have to worry about storms,” he said, “living in the basement apartment as I do.”

“Must be pretty lonely down there for you.”

“I’m used to being on my own. My wife has been gone for fifteen years. It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but she’s not the one I miss the most. It’s friends I miss. You know, my pals. They’ve all either died or moved to a better place.”

“You could move to a better place, too.”

“I don’t know where I’d go. I’ve lived here for so long I’d feel like a fish out of water. You stay where you feel at home.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel at home here,” she said. “This place scares me.”

“Why?”

“Too many people. Too impersonal. Too much crime, dirt and noise. And then there’s Frankie.”

“What about him?”

“If he’s ever going to have a chance to get better and live a normal life, it won’t be in a place like this. He needs clean air and wide-open spaces where people aren’t so crowded up together. And then, when he’s older, I worry about the kind of influences he’ll have here.”

“Why don’t you move back to the place where you grew up?”

“My husband would never agree to that.”

He had been going to suggest that she leave her husband and take Frankie and go live in the country, but he knew that wasn’t the right thing to say. You don’t go around giving married women that kind of advice.

“You can always hope for something better,” he said.

“Ever since we came here, my husband and I have been fighting. We’ve been married for eight years. It never has been what I would call a happy marriage, but since we came here it’s been worse. You reach a point where you can’t fight and argue any more and then there’s silence, which, I suppose is not as bad as the fighting. He sometimes doesn’t even come home at night. When I ask him where he’s been, he gives me a threatening look and tells me he’s been working so Frankie and I will have a home and food to eat.”

“I’m sorry for you.”

“Don’t be. We all choose our own path in life. Or it chooses us.”

“Well, listen, I have to go,” he said. “I have some phone calls to make. Thanks for the tea.”

He lied, of course. He didn’t have any phone calls to make, but it was a lie that allowed him to make a graceful exit. He was hurt by talk of how bad her marriage was.

He began seeing Patsy Ruth every day and, if for some reason he didn’t, he was disappointed. He began spending more time on his personal grooming, getting more frequent haircuts, cleaning his nails, making sure the collar of his shirt looked clean and, if it didn’t, putting on a fresh one. He didn’t think about what he was doing. He just did it because he wanted to.

He went downtown on the bus with Patsy Ruth and Frankie a couple more times and had lunch at the same place. They went to an afternoon movie and stood in line in the rain to buy their tickets, he holding out the tail of his coat to keep Frankie dry. Most often, though, they sat on a bench in the sun and talked. She told him about her past life, growing up with six brothers and sisters in a small farmhouse. Her older sister drowned when she was seven and one of her brothers spent time in prison. For his part, he told her about getting married when he was too young, getting divorced, and a few years later getting married again. After his wife died, he was through with women.

“I guess I’m a born bachelor,” he said. “I never minded being alone.”

When Patsy Ruth had him to dinner one night so he could meet her husband, he felt strained and awkward. He couldn’t speak to Patsy Ruth as freely as he was used to doing with her husband looking on. He was afraid, with a  movement or a word, that he would betray what he was thinking, and what he was thinking was how mismatched they were and how tragic that they were married. He left the first chance he got and went to a bar and drank.

And then he became sick. It was a reoccurrence of an old problem with his liver. The day before he went into the hospital, he met Patsy Ruth and Frankie in the park. He told her he was going in for some tests, not letting on how sick he was. He gave her the key to his apartment, asked her to keep an eye on things for him and water his plants.

“I’ll be home in a few days,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” she said.

“Me, too,” Frankie said.

“If I die,” Cyril said.

“You’re not going to die!”

“I know, but if I do, I want you to know something.”

“What is it?”

“In the closet is an old suitcase with your name on it. If I die, I want you to go immediately to my apartment and take it before somebody else gets it.”

“What’s in it?”

“Never mind. You don’t need to know that now, but you’ll find out soon enough.”

“All right, but I wish you’d tell me what this is all about.”

“I just want you to know that I’ve had the best time with you and Frankie that I’ve had in years.”

Those were the last words he ever spoke to her.

As he lay in his hospital bed looking at the ceiling, he knew he was dying and he didn’t mind so much. Almost everybody he had ever known was dead and now it was his turn.

He dozed and when he woke, a nurse stood beside his bed.

“I used to gamble,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“I used to place bets on horses and sporting events. I had an instinct for it. I won a lot more than I lost.”

She smiled and looked at her clipboard.

“Every time I got an extra twenty or fifty or hundred-dollar bill, I’d stash it in an old suitcase in my closet. Last time I counted, I had over two hundred thousand dollars.”

“My goodness!” she said. “You should have invested it. You could have been drawing interest.”

“No. That isn’t my way of doing things. If I can’t see my money and hold it in my hands, it doesn’t seem like it’s mine.”

“Somebody might have robbed you.”

“I was never worried about that.”

“Is your wife keeping an eye on it for you while you’re away?”

“My wife died many years ago.”

“Oh.”

“I believe people meet for a reason, don’t you?”

“I’ve never really thought about it. I suppose so.”

“The money is for my daughter and grandson after I’m gone. My grandson is only four and he isn’t well. My daughter needs to take him away so he can breathe the air and have a chance to grow up. That’s what the money is for. I believe people meet for a reason, don’t you?”

“You rest now, Mr. Johns,” the nurse said and then she was gone.

He turned his head toward the window. He could see a patch of blue sky and white clouds. Two pigeons lighted on the window sill and seemed to look in at him. He smiled. He knew he was dying and he didn’t mind it so much.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Pink Eye

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Pink Eye

Pink Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Alvin Fritchie lived on a farm a few miles outside of town. He had so many brothers and sisters that nobody knew exactly how many. He missed a lot of school because he had to depend on his mother or some other family member to drive him in and sometimes their car was broken down or the creek was up and they couldn’t get across the little bridge that separated their property from the highway. I thought Alvin was lucky that he got so much time off.

One day in our fourth grade class we noticed that Alvin kept rubbing his eye, first one eye and then the other. When you looked right at him and he looked back, he looked “sick out of his eyes,” as my grandmother would have said. Finally our teacher, Miss Meeks, called him out into the hallway to have a word with him. When Miss Meeks came back in and Alvin wasn’t with her, we knew she had sent him to the nurse’s office.

In a little while the nurse, Miss Bullard, knocked on the door. Miss Meeks stopped what she was doing and went to the door and the two of them talked for a couple of minutes in voices too low for us to hear. We were sure it had something to do with Alvin, but, of course, Miss Meeks didn’t tell us what it was. She was too good at keeping secrets.

The next day two other people had eye trouble and were sent home. The day after that, there were three others. After conferring with the nurse, Miss Meeks informed us that it was an epidemic (or starting to become an epidemic) of something called the pink eye (the very mention of which reminded me of white rabbits). Not exactly the plague but something you didn’t want to catch, no matter how bad you wanted to miss school.

Miss Bullard wanted us to believe she was on top of the situation. She had the janitor bring in scrub brushes, rags and disinfectants and watched him as he went over every inch of Alvin’s desk and the desks on either side. She showed us a film on the proper way to wash one’s hands by using plenty of soap and hot water, frequently throughout the day, but especially after using the toilet. She sent a letter home with each of us, informing our parents of the existence of pink eye in our school but assuring them it wouldn’t be a problem as long as proper sanitation was observed.

“Above all,” Miss Bullard said, her enormous breasts jutting out in front of her like guided missiles, “if your eyes itch and start to get red, don’t scratch them! Don’t even touch them!”

“Roo-roo-roo!” a boy named Leonard Scallion said from the back of the room, but everybody ignored him.

That evening at the dinner table, my mother examined my eyes with a magnifying glass until I was squirming in the chair to get away from her.

“Leave me alone!” I said.

“I don’t see any sign that he has the disease,” she said to my father. “As far as I can tell.”

“Do your eyes itch?” he asked me.

“Not yet.”

“But you think they will?”

“Just about everybody in my class has it,” I said. This was an exaggeration, of course, but, like everybody else in my family, I was prone to exaggeration.

“What do you want to do?” my father asked my mother. “Keep him at home until this passes?”

“That sounds like a good idea to me!” I said.

“No,” she said. “We’ll just let him go to school and check his eyes every day.”

“Thanks a lot!” I said.

I didn’t get the pink eye, but the next Monday morning when I woke up and started to get dressed for school, I had spots on my chest that extended up to my neck and shoulders. When I showed my mother, she took my temperature and, finding I had a fever of a little over a hundred, called the doctor. He said it sounded like the three-day measles. I was to stay in bed and rest and keep away from other people because it was contagious.

“How on earth did you get the measles?” she asked.

“How should I know?” I said.

Having the measles wasn’t as bad as having a cold or the flu. I could have anything I wanted to eat and everybody left me alone to do as I pleased. The only thing I didn’t like about the measles was that I had to stay away from the TV.

My spots (or my fever) didn’t go away after three days, so I ended up getting the whole week off from school. When I went back on the following Monday, a few people were still out with the pink eye (taking full advantage, I knew). I learned that two others besides me (so far) had the three-day measles. One had returned and the other was still out.

I noticed that Alvin Fritchie, the one who started the whole pink eye thing, hadn’t returned to school yet. I asked several people what happened to him, but nobody knew. I figured he got the three-day measles on top of the pink eye. He might have died and nobody would even know or care. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had given his desk to somebody else.

Finally Alvin returned without fanfare after more than two weeks. I looked for him at recess and found him standing by himself, as usual, over by the fence.

“How do you feel, Alvin?” I asked.

“I feel all right.”

“Get over the pink eye?”

“Yeah.”

“Why were you gone for so long?”

“My mother died.”

“Oh? Did she have the pink eye, too?”

“I came back just for today to tell everybody I’m leaving and I won’t be back.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to live with my aunt in Kansas. I guess I’ll be going to school there.”

Those were the last words I ever heard him say. He left at the end of the day without saying a word to anybody. No goodbyes or anything else. Nobody ever mentioned him again. He just faded away like something you thought was there that really wasn’t.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Deep in the Arms of Love

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Deep in the Arms of Love

Deep in the Arms of Love ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a story I posted earlier.)

We were lost again. We had a roadmap but didn’t seem to know how to use it. I had been driving earlier but now Drusus was driving. His wife, Pearline, sat between us, and I sat next to the window. Mama and Adele were in the back.

The seat wasn’t long enough for mama to stretch out all the way so when she needed to lie down she used Adele’s lap as a pillow. We were all a little worried about mama. We had to stop every now and then for her to get out and walk around. She was carsick and sometimes she vomited. I couldn’t help but notice there was some blood coming up. I had to look away.

We were on our way to the city, which was a lot farther away than we had thought. Adele was going to sing in a radio contest and mama was going to see a specialist.

Mama had been asleep and when she woke up, she said, “Sing me a song, honey.”

“I don’t feel like singing,” Adele said. “I feel like throwing up.”

“Give us just one song,” I said. “You can entertain us while you practice up for the contest.”

“I don’t need any practice. I know those songs backwards and forwards. I sing them in my sleep all night long.”

“I know you’re going to win,” Pearline said. “It’s a feeling I have, deep down.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of it,” Drusus said. “There’s hundreds of other people with that same deep-down feeling.”

“I have as much chance as anybody,” Adele said.

“We leave it in the hands of the Lord,” mama said.

The hick singing teacher giving Adele lessons thought she had great promise. She could sing any kind of music—opera, even—but she was best at popular tunes like “Makin’ Faces at the Man in the Moon” and “Love, You Funny Thing.” She was as good as anybody on the radio or in the movies.

“And I have a good feeling about the new doctor you’re going to see, Mrs. McCreary,” Pearline said. (She and Drusus were so newly married that she still couldn’t bring herself to call her mother-in-law Hazel.)

“You and your feelings,” Drusus scoffed.

“She has a positive attitude,” I said.

“I try not to fret about it,” mama said. “It’s in the hands of the Lord. He has already ordained what will be.”

We didn’t like to talk about it, but mama’s doctor at home had just about given up on her. We called him a horse doctor because he didn’t seem to know very much. If you went to him with anything more serious than a cold or a sore toe, he was in over his head. The specialist in the city was just about her last chance to be well again.

Mama groaned a couple of times and when she was finished groaning, she said to Adele, “You still got the name and address of that doctor I’ve got the appointment with on Friday, don’t you, baby?”

“It’s in my bag,” Adele said. “You saw me put it in there.”

“Don’t you lose it.”

“I won’t.”

“Dr. Ficke says he’s one of the best doctors in the state and you don’t have to be rich to get in to see him.”

“I bet it helps, though,” I said.

We came to a tiny town with a cutoff to a different highway. Drusus took the cutoff going a little too fast. Mama almost fell onto the floor and let out a little yelp. Pearline fell over against me and righted herself as if I was poison to the touch.

“Be careful, honey!” Pearline said.

“Well, this is it!” Drusus said. “This is the right way now. I just know it. We are officially not lost anymore.”

Happy days are here again,” sang Adele. “The skies above are clear again. So, let us sing a song of cheer again. Happy days are here again!”

As if to confirm that we were finally going in the right direction, we passed a sign that you couldn’t miss if you were alive. “Only two hundred and thirty-seven more miles,” I said.

“Seems like we already came about a thousand miles,” Adele said.

“How about you, Wynn?” Drusus asked me. “Do you want to drive for a while?”

“No thanks,” I said. “You’re doing fine.”

I went to sleep with my head against the door and woke up when we had a blowout and Drusus pulled off the highway to change the tire.

We all got out of the car, including mama. She took a few wobbly steps and smoked a cigarette and said she was feeling a little better. She wanted to know what state we were in. When we told her, she laughed for some reason.

We took advantage of the unscheduled stop to have a drink of water and a bite to eat. We still had some bread left over, Vienna sausages, fruit, and other stuff. Mama didn’t want anything to eat but she drank a little bit of water and some coffee. Pearline spread a blanket on the ground for her and Adele to sit on. Mama sat for a while and then lay down and looked up into the trees.

“This is nice,” she said, “lying still on the ground and not having tires turning underneath me.”

“I think mama’s sicker than she lets on,” I said to Drusus when we were changing the tire.

“That doctor in the city will fix her up,” he said.

“She’s trying to put a good face on it for Adele’s sake. She doesn’t want to spoil her chance of singing on the radio.”

“Everything will be all right,” he said, as if trying to convince himself as much as me.

Mama went to sleep on the blanket and we had to wake her up to get her back in the car. I took over driving from there, even though I liked it better when Drusus drove and I could just sit and think.

We were all tired and we knew we were going to have to stop someplace for the night. We hadn’t made very good time, what with our getting lost and mama being sick and all.

At dusk we stopped at an auto court where, according to their sign, they had clean cabins and cheap. I went inside and engaged the room and then we drove around to our cabin, which was cabin number twelve in the back. With the shade trees, the two rows of trim white cabins, and the azalea bushes everywhere, it was a pretty place and plenty inviting.

We tried to get mama to eat something, but she just wanted to go to bed. Pearline and Adele helped to get her out of her clothes and into bed while Drusus and I sat on the front step and smoked.

“If Adele wins that prize money,” he said, “we can pay back Uncle Beezer the money he advanced us for this trip.”

“We can’t expect her to give up the prize money for that,” I said. “If she wins, the money is hers to do with as she pleases.”

“And what would she do with it, anyhow?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe it would be her one chance to get away from home, out into the real world. She might get a real singing career going for herself.”

“Do you really think she has a chance?”

“You’ve heard her sing,” I said. “Isn’t she as good as anybody you’ve ever heard?”

“Yeah, she’s good,” he said.

“If she wins the money, it’s hers. We can’t touch it.”

“Maybe she’ll offer it. At least part of it.”

“We can’t ask her for it, though.”

After a couple of minutes in which neither of us spoke, Drusus said, “Pearline thinks she’s going to have a baby.”

“A baby!” I said. “That was fast work. You’ve only been married a month.”

“The curse of the married man,” he said.

“What do you mean? Don’t you want it?”

“We’re poor,” he said. “We don’t have anything. Even the car I’m driving belongs to somebody else.”

I laughed. “How do you think other people manage?” I asked. “How do you think mama and daddy managed? They were dirt poor and they had eight kids.”

“The poorer they are the more kids they have, and the more kids they have the poorer they are.”

“You’re not sorry you married Pearline, are you?” I asked.

“Well, no. Not exactly. I probably wouldn’t do it again, though, if I had it to do over.”

“I’ll be sure and tell Pearline you said that.”

“Don’t tell anybody any of this,” he said. “She doesn’t want anybody to know about the baby just yet, because it makes it look like we had a shotgun wedding. I swear the baby wasn’t on the way yet when we got married.”

“You don’t have to convince me of anything,” I said.

“Not a word to mama or Adele yet. Pearline wants to make sure about the baby before she tells anybody.”

“Mum’s the word,” I said.

Drusus and I had to sleep on the floor in the cabin but I didn’t mind. I was just glad to be able to stretch out and rest my weary bones. I laid down near the screen door where I could feel a cool breeze and hear the trees rustling. After being on the dusty road all day, it felt like heaven.

As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear Adele softly singing mama’s favorite song: “Deep night, stars in the sky above. Moonlight, lighting our place of love. Night winds seem to have gone to rest. Two eyes, brightly with love are gleaming. Come to my arms, my darling, my sweetheart, my own. Vow that you’ll love me always, be mine alone. Deep night, whispering trees above. Kind night, bringing you nearer, dearer and dearer. Deep night, deep in the arms of love...”

I woke up in the morning to the sound of the birds singing. I stood up to slip into my shirt and pants and that’s when I saw Adele and Pearline sitting quietly in chairs at the foot of the bed. Pearline was smoking a cigarette.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“We can’t wake mama,” Adele said.

“Is she breathing?”

“I don’t think so.”

“We’d better get a doctor,” I said.

Pearline looked at me and shook her head and that’s when I knew that mama was dead.

I shook Drusus gently by the shoulder to wake him up. When I told him what had happened, he, of course, had to see for himself. He went over to the bed and put his ear to mama’s chest. Hearing nothing but silence, he then held a mirror to her nose. He looked at the mirror and threw it down on the bed like a little boy with a toy gun that no longer works.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go another mile farther from home,” Adele said.

“We’d better call somebody and tell them what happened,” Pearline said.

“No,” Drusus said. “We’re not calling anybody. They’ll ask us a lot of questions. They’ll hold us here until they know what happened. They’ll make Adele miss her chance to sing on the radio.”

“We can’t go off and leave mama here,” I said.

“Of course not,” he said. “We’re taking her with us.”

After Adele and Pearline got mama into her clothes, Drusus carried her out to the car in his arms. I opened the door for him and he slid mama into the corner of the back seat where she was propped up and her head was not lolling to the side. He then took a length of rope and tied it around mama’s chest so she would stay upright and not fall over from the movement of the car. Adele gave mama’s dark glasses to Drusus to put on her and we found a straw hat that belonged to Uncle Beezer in the trunk and put it on her head. With the hat and the glasses and in her regular clothes, she didn’t look like a dead person.

“I’m glad she died in a pretty place like this instead of on the road,” I said.

“We’ve come this far,” Drusus said. “She would want us to keep going as far as we can. She wouldn’t want Adele to miss her chance to sing on the radio because of her.”

We all got into the car and Drusus started her up. As we were pulling out of the place, the manager stopped us and leaned into the window and looked at all of us, including mama. He smiled in a friendly way and said he hoped we enjoyed our stay and God grant that we should come back that way again.

When we were on the highway again and going at full speed, Adele began singing mama’s favorite hymn: Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in His blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. Perfect submission, perfect delight, visions of rapture now burst on my sight; angels descending bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love…”

Nobody said anything for a long time after Adele finished singing. We all had the feeling, though, that nothing was going to stop us now. That old car of ours was sure burning up the miles.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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