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Red Feather

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Red Feather ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Reggie Ferry died in the middle of the school year in fifth grade. His body was embalmed and placed in a child-sized white coffin and held for visitation for a day and a half at the Archer Brothers Mortuary on Clemenceau Street. After a brief non-sectarian funeral service, he was laid to rest in his family’s cemetery plot, along with grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a baby sister who died when she was only five days old, years before Reggie was born.

In the fifth-grade classroom, the teacher, Miss Goodacre, left Reggie’s desk vacant to honor his memory. In defiance of separation-of-church-and state laws, she placed a small wooden cross on the desk to remind everybody, not only that Reggie had been there and was gone, but that it could happen to anybody. There wasn’t anybody in the class who didn’t understand this.

Reggie dwelt in the spirit world but, as is often the case with young people who die, he didn’t know he was dead. He continued to go to school every day and back home again. After a few days, though, he began to be aware that some things were fundamentally different.

When he was at school, for example, he could see and hear people but they couldn’t see or hear him. He waved his arms and talked very loud but they just ignored him as if he wasn’t even there. Sometimes they walked right through him, which at first he thought very rude. He was never called on in class and didn’t have to do any work if he didn’t want to; the teacher didn’t even look his way or pay any attention to him. When he discovered that he could rise in the air and hover near the ceiling and look down on everybody else, he was delighted. Whatever it was that had happened to him, he wished it had happened much earlier, say in kindergarten or first grade.

At home he stayed in his room. His mother no longer called him for dinner, but he didn’t mind because he always felt agreeably full, as if he had just eaten the most satisfying meal on earth. In the evening when his mother was watching television, he would go and sit beside her on the couch but she didn’t pay any attention to him and never asked him what he wanted to watch. When he stood behind his father and looked over his shoulder as he read or dozed in his chair, he (his father) wasn’t annoyed as he always had been before.

Other things were different, too. Time and distance seemed to have become rearranged somehow. He was at home in his room and then he was at school without any conscious effort on his part and without remembering how he got there. He was at his grandparents’ house working a jigsaw puzzle and then he was at the supermarket with his mother looking over the choice cuts of meat or standing in the drugstore looking at the new comic books that had just come in. He was riding his bicycle down the street and then he was in the bathtub up to his neck in bubbly water. Places changed so fast that he could hardly keep up, creating a kind of kaleidoscopic effect that he found a little dizzying but not unpleasant. The places he found himself in were always good places where he had been happy.

Then there was time. When he looked at the alarm clock in his bedroom, at the clock on the wall at school, or at his mother’s grandfather clock in the dining room, they were all blank, meaning the faces were there but the hands were gone. Who would steal the hands on the clocks, he wondered? It was a question he would have to defer—along with lots of other questions—to a later time.

One day when he was walking home from school, he saw a girl wearing a black beret with a red feather in it coming toward him on the sidewalk. He could tell from the way she was looking at him that she was seeing him and not just a blank space. When she came even to him on the sidewalk before passing him, she touched him on the arm and said, “You shouldn’t still be here.”

“What?” he said, but she was gone in the blink of an eye.

When he got home, he wanted to tell his mother about what the girl had said to him, but he knew it was no use. She wouldn’t be able to see or hear him no matter how hard he tried. He was beginning to feel lonely and isolated and he didn’t like the feeling.

In the spring his mother and father brought home a baby they had adopted. His name was Jackie and he was ten months old. The house, which had seemed a little morose since Reggie died, was once again filled with noise and activity. Any time Jackie made a sound or a gurgle, Reggie’s mother and father were right there to see what he wanted or to make sure he was all right. They put their faces right down in Jackie’s face, made silly squeals and grimaces, and generally made fools of themselves. Reggie couldn’t remember if they behaved that way when he was a baby or not. He wasn’t exactly jealous but concerned that they seemed to care more for Jackie than they had ever cared for him.

They converted Reggie’s room into a room for the baby. They put all of Reggie’s possessions—clothes, shoes, underwear, books, model cars, games, etc.—into boxes and put them in the basement. They replaced Reggie’s bed with a baby bed and filled the drawers of the dresser with baby clothes. They took down Reggie’s pictures and artwork from the walls and replaced it with stuff for baby.

One afternoon after Reggie’s mother had given Jackie a bath and had put him down for his nap, Reggie went into the room that had been his room but was now Jackie’s and stood over the baby bed and looked down at Jackie. He expected Jackie to be asleep, but he was fully awake and looking directly at him. Reggie knew right away that the baby, as with the girl on the street in the beret, was seeing him and not just empty space.

“I know who you are,” Jackie said. “I see you even though I know they can’t.”

“How is it you can talk?” Reggie asked. “You’re just a baby.”

“Who says I’m talking? Can you see my lips moving? There are other ways to communicate other than speech, you know.”

“Do you know what happened to me?” Reggie asked.

“Yes, I know. The same thing that happens to all of us.”

“How can I get back to the way I was?”

“You can’t, but there is something you can do.”

“What?”

“Don’t you know what I represent?”

“No. What?”

“I represent your freedom. Now that I’m here, you can move on.”

“Move on where?”

“They’re waiting for you. You’ve been hanging around here too long.”

“I don’t want to go away.”

“It’s time.”

“What do I do?”

“Go tell your mother goodbye and then leave the house for the last time. Walk down the street toward the park. On the street corner down there, a car with a driver is waiting for you. You’ll know it when you see it.”

His mother was folding laundry. He went up behind her and held onto her wrist for a few seconds and then let it go. She stopped what she was doing and looked down at her wrist as if she had felt his touch but didn’t know what it was.

With a backward glance of farewell at the house he had lived in his whole life, he began walking down the street. Three blocks down was a black car gleaming in the sunshine. He knew it was the car that Jackie was talking about because it was like no other car he had ever seen. He opened the door to the back and got inside. As soon as he closed the door, the car began moving. When he thought to look at who was driving, he saw it was the girl in the black beret with the red feather sticking out of the side.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Don’t you know?” she asked.

“Why don’t the clocks have hands anymore?”

“No more questions now,” she said.

“Where is it we’re going?”

She met his eyes in the rearview mirror and put the tip of her finger to her lips to make him stop talking. All he could do was look at the feather in her beret. It was the most beautiful red he had ever seen in his life.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Virginia Jenks

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Virginia Jenks ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The girl knocked on all the doors, starting on the first floor and working her way up. She thought the people very diverse and unique for poor people living in a broken-down brick building on the edge of nowhere. There was the fat woman and her midget husband who used to be a circus clown; the two women who acted and dressed like men and who went by the names Butch and Sluggo; the pale single man who worked twenty hours a day in a factory. On the second floor the blind woman with her little dogs that helped her to see; the old man whose apartment was stacked with books from floor to ceiling; the newlyweds who answered the door holding hands; the old woman who wore a wad of cotton where her nose used to be. Some hid from her and pretended they weren’t at home, but most paid when they were supposed to. She wrote down in the little ledger who paid and who didn’t. She put the money and checks in a canvas drawstring bag and held tight to it.

At an apartment on the third floor, a beautiful (the girl thought) blond woman in a Japanese kimono with dragons invited the girl in and asked her to sit down while she and her roommate, a woman with dark hair wearing a man’s striped pajamas, got the money together for the rent.

“We’ll have to pay you in cash,” the blond woman said.

“What else would we pay her in?” the dark-haired woman said. “War bonds?”

“It’s all right,” the girl said. “Most pay in cash.”

“We’re gong to need a receipt,” the dark-haired woman said. “We don’t want anybody saying we didn’t pay when we did.”

“I mark it down in the book when you pay, anyway,” the girl said.

They counted out the money to the penny and when they handed it to the girl she put it in the canvas bag and wrote out a receipt.

“Would you like a cup of coffee or something?” the blond woman asked the girl after the transaction was completed.

“I’d like a drink of water.” the girl said.

“Well, come on into the kitchen.”

On the table were the remnants of breakfast, even though it was past lunch time. The blond woman motioned for the girl to sit at the table while she got her a glass of water.

“The first of the month sure comes around fast,” she said. “Just when you’re thinking your rent is all paid up, here it is the first of the month again and you have to fork over more dough.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girl said, sipping the water.

Both women laughed. “You don’t have to call me ‘ma’am,’” she said. “I don’t think I’m the ‘ma’am’ type, anyway.”

“No, she’s more the ‘madam’ type,” the dark-haired woman said.

“We were just finishing breakfast when you knocked on the door,” the blond woman said. “If you had come a half-hour earlier, we wouldn’t have heard you because we were still sleeping.”

“Tell her the rest,” the dark-haired woman said, “or she’ll think we sleep this late all the time because we’re lazy.”

“We work nights. We don’t get off until two or three in the morning and sometimes later, so that’s why we’re just getting up when everybody else has been up for hours.”

“What do you do?” the girl asked.

“We’re hostesses in a nightclub.”

“We dance and drink and pretend we’re having a good time,” the dark-haired woman said. “We cozy up to the lonely single men and get them to spend all their money on liquor.”

“Sometimes we go to their hotel rooms and sleep with them,” the blond woman said, “if they’re good-looking enough and there’s enough money in it for us.”

The dark-haired woman spatted her on the arm. “You shouldn’t be telling her that!” she said. “She’s too young for that kind of information.”

“I think she’s older than she looks and knows everything she needs to know.”

“I’m in the ninth grade,” the girl said.

“To be so young and innocent!”

“What’s your name?”

“Virginia Jenks.”

“Well, Virginia,” the blond woman said. “My name is Opal Coots and my friend here—and I use the term loosely—is Louisa Biggs.”

“But everybody calls me Lou,” the dark-haired woman said. “I always hated Louisa.”

“It’s a pretty name,” Virginia said.

“Hey, I think I like her!” Lou said. “She knows just the right things to say.”

“How is it you come to be collecting the rent money?” Opal asked.

“I’m doing it for my grandma. She’s sick.”

“She’s the one that owns this building?”

“Yes.”

“So, that old water buffalo that strong-arms us for the rent every month is your granny?”

“Yes.”

“Well, as I live and breathe! There’s absolutely no family resemblance!”

“Lucky for her!” Lou said, cackling with laughter.

“Well, thanks for the water,” Virginia said, standing up. “I’d better get back or they’ll be wondering where I am with the money.”

“You don’t need to rush off,” Opal said. “We don’t very often have anybody to talk to.”

“Except each other,” Lou said, “and that gets pretty sickening.”

“Tell us about yourself,” Opal said. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“For heaven’s sake!” Lou said. “Why would she have a boyfriend? She’s only a child!”

“Well, I had a boyfriend when I was in ninth grade,” Opal said.

“Yes, but you were a special case.”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Virginia said.

“I’ll bet you have brothers and sisters, don’t you?” Opal asked.

“One brother,” Virginia said. “He’s in high school.”

“Is he good-looking?”

“No.”

“You’re not supposed to ask a girl a question like that about her own brother,” Lou said.

“I had a brother and I always thought he was very good-looking,” Opal said.

“Please! Not of front of a child!” Lou said.

“You have a mother and father?” Opal asked.

“Yes.”

“What are they like?”

Virginia shrugged and wanted to leave. “They’re just ordinary, I guess. My dad works for the government.”

“Is he an FBI man?”

“No, I think he’s an accountant.”

“Does he go out drinking and slap your ma around when he comes home?”

“No, he mostly sleeps in the chair.”

“Is your ma pretty? Does she have lots of pretty clothes?”

“No, she’s a housewife.”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I don’t know. I guess I don’t think much about it.”

“That’s right,” Lou said. “Live for the moment and let the future take care of itself.”

“What is your favorite subject in school?” Opal asked.

“I don’t know. English, I guess.”

“You don’t like math, though, do you?”

“I hate it.”

“You’re the sensitive, artistic type. I can tell.”

“I guess so.”

“You have an awfully pale skin,” Lou said. “Have you ever thought about using a little light lipstick?”

“No, I don’t think my mother would like it.”

“She’s not here, though, is she?”

“No.”

“Would you like to try a little lipstick and see how it looks? Maybe a pale pink?”

“I guess so.”

She went into the bedroom and came back carrying a tube of lipstick and a little mirror. She set the mirror on the table and titled Virginia’s head back and applied the lipstick to her lips. After she showed Virginia how to blot her lips on a Kleenex, she allowed her to see herself in the mirror.

“See? Doesn’t that make a difference?”

“I guess so,” Virginia said. “It makes me look like somebody else.”

Lou laughed and gave her the tube. “You can keep this,” she said. “I’ve got a whole drawer full.”

“My mother doesn’t allow me to wear makeup,” Virginia said, “but I can keep it hidden in my room and put some on when I go out.”

Opal pulled Virginia’s hair back in both hands. “Your hair is so lifeless,” she said. “You could use a good cut and some curl.”

“My mother cuts my hair,” Virginia said.

“What does she cut it with? A steak knife?”

She pulled Virginia’s hair to the back of her head, twisted and pinned it so it stayed that way. “What do you think?” she asked, holding up the mirror so Virginia could get a good look at herself.

“She looks like a sophisticate,” Lou said.

“You know, I miss having kids around,” Opal said.

“Don’t start that!” Lou said.

“I’ve got a daughter, just a little older than you, Virginia, and a son, but I don’t ever see them. They live with their father a long way off.”

“Here we go!” Lou said.

“My daughter’s name is Meredith and my son is Christopher. The funny thing is, I’m dead to them. Their father told them I died. He thought it would be better that way.”

When she began blubbering into a dish towel, Lou rolled her eyes. “I’m a mother, too, you know,” she said.

“Yes, but you don’t care about your kids,” Opal said. “I care about mine.”

“That’s not true!” Lou said. “I care about them. I send them money and presents all the time. I’m just not the motherly type. It’s better for them and it’s better for me if we just live apart. It’s a perfectly wonderful arrangement.”

“Maybe if they knew what a whore their mother was, they wouldn’t think it was so perfectly wonderful,” Opal said.

“Well, look who’s calling who a whore. If I’m a whore, what does that make you?”

“I’m in a different class than you. I’m much more refined.”

“One of these days, I’m going to knock you clear across the room and through the wall!”

“Yeah? Well, you’d better go easy on the walls. The landlady will make you pay for any damage.”

“Well, I think I should be going,” Virginia said. “They’ll be worried about the rent money.”

“So soon?” Opal said.

“Wait a minute,” Lou said. She slipped a bracelet off her own wrist and put it on Virginia’s. It was a narrow band of alternating red and yellow stones.

“It’s beautiful!” Virginia said.

“Wear it to remind yourself to come back and see us again real soon. Next time we’ll have a real party.”

On the way home, Virginia stopped off at the park. She was sitting on a bench in the sun when she attracted the attention of an older boy. He sat down beside her and smiled.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before,” he said.

She ignored him and was thinking about getting up and walking away when he offered her a cigarette. She took it from him and he lit it for her, even though she had never smoked before.

“Whatcha got in that bag?” he asked.

“Nothing that concerns you,” she said.

“My name’s Harvey Pinkston.”

“So?” She took a draw on the cigarette and blew the smoke out between her lipsticked lips.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Rita Hayworth.”

“Well, Rita, I don’t believe that’s really your name, but if it’s the only name you’re going to give me, I’ll take it.”

She turned and looked at him. He had a good face, in spite of needing a shave and having two or three pimples.

“How old are you, anyway?” she asked.

“Almost nineteen. How old are you?”

“Guess.”

“Um, I’d say you’re about seventeen.”

“You’re a very good guesser. You’re only off by a couple years.”

“Are those diamonds?” he asked, pointing at the bracelet Lou had given her.

“Diamonds aren’t red and yellow, silly,” she said. “Diamonds are clear and sparkly.”

“Would you like to go someplace quiet, Rita?”

“It’s quiet here.”

“That’s not what I meant. Would you like to go someplace where we can be alone?”

“Why would I want to be alone with you? I don’t even know you.”

“We can get acquainted.”

“How do I know you’re not a murderer?”

“Do I look like a murderer to you?”

“Murderers don’t always look like murderers,” she said.

“I’ve got my car right over there,” he said. “Would you like to go for a drive with me?”

“I don’t believe you’ve got a car. You don’t look like the type who would have his own car.”

He took the keys out of his pocket and jingled them in her face. “I can break down your natural reluctance,” he said, “if you give me a chance.”

“I’ve really got to be getting home,” she said. “There’s someone waiting for me.”

“Where do you live? I can give you a lift.”

She threw away the cigarette. “All right,” she said, “but you’d better not try to get cute with me. My father’s an FBI man.”

When they were in his car, he didn’t ask where she lived and she didn’t tell him. He just began driving.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“You’ll see,” he said.

“I don’t know if I should trust you or not.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt you, Rita.”

She looked over at him and smiled. She liked his profile, the way his black hair was combed neatly over the top his head to a little crest over his forehead. He really didn’t look like a murderer. She could easily see herself sleeping with him if there was enough money in it for her.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Thank You for Choosing Alien Abduction

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Thank You for Choosing Alien Abduction ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“State prison death house. Mullendorfer speaking.”

“Hello there. My husband is supposed to be electrocuted at midnight tonight and I wanted to know if there’s been a stay or if the governor has granted a last-minute commutation.”

“Name?”

“Cherry Wiley.”

“Your husband’s name is Cherry?”

“No, I thought you meant my name. My husband’s name is Clement Wiley.”

“Hold on a minute. I’ll check and see if any new information has come down on that.”

“Thank you.”

“It looks like, um…”

“Yes?”

“It looks like, um, Clement Wiley has opted for alien abduction.”

“Oh, he didn’t tell me that!”

“About eleven-thirty he’ll be taken up to the roof and at midnight they’ll pick him up.”

“I wish I could be there to see it.”

“No witnesses are allowed. There’s really nothing to see, anyway. The alien spacecraft doesn’t come close enough to see it. They send a beam of light down and pull the condemned man up through it. Don’t ask me how it works.”

“What will they do to him?”

“That’s something we never know. The only thing the aliens promise is that the condemned will be treated humanely.”

“Well, I guess it’s better than frying in the electric chair, isn’t it?”

“Some people think so. It’s a matter of taste, I guess.”

“If it was you, would you choose death in the electric chair or alien abduction?”

“Between you and me. I mean, completely off the record, I think I’d take the electric chair. It’s just too uncertain what they do to humans on an alien planet. They might cook them and eat them. They might use them as laboratory animals. Who knows? They might treat them like kings.”

“Do you know what planet he’ll be on?”

“No, I don’t. If I could pronounce the name, I wouldn’t remember it for five seconds. All I know is that it’s not in this solar system.”

“Since he’s not being electrocuted, I guess there’s a chance that I might see him again someday.”

“I think the chances of that happening are very slim, ma’am. The planet is very, very far away. Even if he’s alive out there somewhere, I think you should probably give up all hope of ever having any contact with him again.”

“He’s always been a rat and a no-good skunk and now he’s a murderer, but I love him in spite of all that. He has his good qualities. He’s a human being, too, you know.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Maybe someday in fifty or sixty years, if I live that long, I’ll look up and see him coming toward me on the street and he’ll look just the same as he does now.”

“I guess you might say that anything is possible, ma’am.”

“I don’t suppose you could bring him to the phone and let me tell him goodbye, could you?”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am. That’s against regulations.”

“Of course. You have your regulations.”

“The time for goodbyes is past.”

“You know what? You sound like a really nice person. Kind of sympathetic, like. Not just an unfeeling machine. I’m glad I got you instead of some jerk.”

“I’m the only one here right now, so it’s me or nobody.”

“Well, I’ll be crying myself to sleep tonight, thinking about all the good times my little Clemmie and I had before he went to prison. I hope he has a real nice life on that planet where he’s going. I hope he’ll be with good people where he’ll be treated decent and given a fair shake.”

‘Yes, ma’am.”

“He’s had a hard life here. Since the day he was born. I don’t blame him for choosing alien abduction. Maybe he’ll have it better there than he’s ever had it here.”

“There’s always that chance, I guess, ma’am.”

“Maybe he’ll find a way to get a message to me to let me know how he’s getting along there.”

“It can’t hurt to hope, ma’am.”

“I’ll bet you’ve got a sweet wife, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Children?”

“A boy and a girl.”

“Well, you give them a big hug and a kiss for me, will you?”

“I’ll do that.”

“Before they take Clement tonight, tell him I’m thinking about him. Every night of my life I’ll go outside and when I look at the stars I’ll see him. I know that someday we’ll be together again in the life that comes after this one.”

“All right, ma’am. I’ll tell him.”

“You won’t forget?”

“No, I won’t forget.”

“Well, good night, then. And thank you ever so much for your kindness.”

“Not at all, ma’am. And you have a really pleasant night now. Goodbye.”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Go Home and Forget About Me

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Go Home and Forget About Me ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Nothing so jarring as the ringing of the phone at midnight. Fitzie Garston reached for it before she was fully awake and overturned the lamp and knocked her glasses to the floor where they dodged handily underneath the chest of drawers. She would have to get the yardstick to fish them out.

“Yes!” she said when she had managed to get the receiver over her ear, a little too loud and too eager.

“Mother?” a faraway voice said.

“Lloyd?”

“Nobody calls me that anymore.”

“Who is this?” she asked. “Do you know what time it is?”

“I go by the name Lewis now.”

“What?”

“I know you were asleep and I’m sorry to startle you this way but I need your help.”

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I’m downtown. Right here in the city.”

“Well, why don’t you come home, then, and…”

“I can’t come home. That’s the problem.”

“What problem?”

“I can’t explain fully now, but I’m being held prisoner in a way.”

“Who’s holding you prisoner?”

“They’re not exactly holding me prisoner, but they’re keeping me here until they get something I have.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a package that I left at your house one day when I stopped by and you were gone.”

“You mean you were here when I was out and I didn’t even know it?”

“I still have the key, mother. Remember?”

“Oh, yes. The key.”

“Are you listening to me? Are you hearing what I’m saying?”

“Yes.”

“After we hang up, go into my old room. Go to my old beat-up desk and open the bottom drawer on the right. Have you got that?”

“Bottom drawer on the right.”

“Underneath some old books and things in the drawer is a small, square package wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. I need you to bring it to me as soon as you can.”

“Do you mean now? Tonight?”

“I’m really sorry to have to ask you to do this, but I’m afraid there’s no other way.”

“What’s in the package?”

“I can’t tell you now, except to say that it’s terribly important.”

“I think I should call the police.”

“No! Don’t do that! That’s the worst thing you could do right now.”

“Why?”

“You don’t want to know. Just believe me when I say it’s better not to get the police involved.”

“You’re in some kind of trouble, aren’t you?”

“Brilliant deduction, mother.”

“I wish your father were here. He would know what to do.”

“Get dressed, get the package out of the drawer in my room and  bring it to me. After this is all over, we’ll have a nice visit and I’ll explain the whole thing.”

“All right, Lloyd.”

“My name is Lewis now. Try to remember that. And don’t drive your car down here.”

“Why not?”

“It can be traced and, besides, you’re not familiar with the streets in this part of the city and you’ll get lost. That’s the last thing we need right now.”

“I could take the bus.”

“Buses stop running at midnight. I think the only thing for you to do is to call a cab. That’s better than the bus anyway, isn’t it? More comfortable?”

“I suppose so.”

“You won’t fail me now, will you?”

“No, I’ll do what you ask. It’s just that…”

“Just what?”

“I don’t like going out by myself this time of night.”

“Don’t be a goose, mother. The cab driver will be with you the whole time. Just tell him to bring you to the Imperial Hotel at the corner of Ninth and Dominion. Will you remember that?”

“Ninth and Dominion.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s the slums, isn’t it? The poor part of the city they used to call Skid Row?”

“You’ll be fine mother, believe me. You’ll be back home in less than an hour and back in bed. I’ll come around tomorrow and we’ll talk the whole thing over.”

“All right.”

“Now when you get to the hotel, come up the stairs to room three-twelve. I don’t think the night clerk will give you any trouble, but if he does tell him you’re delivering a package.”

“Dominion Hotel, Ninth and Imperial, room three-twelve.”

“No, mother! The Imperial Hotel at Ninth and Dominion! Go get a pencil and some paper and write it down.”

“I don’t need to write it down. I’ll remember.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“And don’t let yourself be distracted. I’m counting on you.”

When she hung up the phone, she kept repeating the words I’m counting on you over and over in her head. He had counted on her so many times before and she had always come through for him, but wasn’t it terribly unfair that she had never been able to count on him for anything?

He had always been a difficult boy. Always in some trouble or other. Not like anybody else in the family. Suspensions from school for fighting and stealing. Finished high school in juvenile detention. After school, in and out of jail. His mother and father didn’t know what to do with him. He blamed her for Lloyd being the way he was; she coddled him too much, he claimed. She had two children die before Lloyd was born. When Lloyd came along, she wanted to make sure he had every advantage that a mother could give him. She wanted the world to love him as much as she did. She spoiled him, gave him money, always bought him anything in the world he wanted, put him above every other consideration. And what good did any of it do? She was a failure as a mother. In her more despairing moments, she believed she would have been better off if he had died, too. Still, though, she was his mother, and she would do whatever she needed to do to help him.

In the long intervals that she didn’t hear from Lloyd, she subscribed to the no-news-is-good-news theory. He would be all right, she said. He just needed to grow up, and when he did he would be the kind of son she always wanted him to be. He would come back home and live with her. She would cook and clean for him and make his life as comfortable and secure as she knew how. And when it was time for her to leave the world he would be there to see to things, to call up the funeral home, to mourn for her and to see that she was placed in the grave alongside his father. And on the other side of her grave was a grave waiting for him to claim as his own when the time came, if only he wanted it.

After dressing herself in dark-colored, going-downtown-after-midnight clothing, she went into Lloyd’s room and retrieved the package from the desk drawer. She placed it in a brown canvas book bag to make it easier to carry and went downstairs and called a cab, which arrived in less than five minutes.

Sitting in the back seat of the cab, she paid little attention to the labyrinth of dark streets, and in a few minutes the cab pulled up in front of the Imperial Hotel at Ninth and Dominion. She paid the driver and got out and the cab sped away. As easy as if she did it all the time.

The lobby of the hotel was deserted. She slipped past the desk clerk, who seemed not to notice her, and went silently up the stairs to the third floor. She found room three-twelve and knocked.

“Who is it?” a voice called from behind the door.

“Is Lloyd Garston here?” she said.

“Who?”

“His name is Lloyd but he goes by the name Lewis.”

The door opened suddenly with a creak of hinges, startling her. A man whose face she could barely see in the dim light faced her. “Who did you say you’re looking for?” he asked.

“His name is Lloyd but he says he goes by the name of Lewis now.”

“It’s her,” the man said over his shoulder to someone else in the room.

“Let her in,” a deep voice said.

She found herself in a shabbily neat room with two large beds and two windows. One of the windows was open, a curtain billowing in the wind. Over to the right was a round table with chairs. A man sat alone at the table smoking a cigarette. He was middle-aged, balding, a small moustache.

“Come in,” he said, motioning for her to sit at the table.

“Is Lloyd here?” she asked.

“I don’t know no Lloyd,” he said.

“Lewis, then. Is Lewis here?”

“Well, he’s on the premises, but he ain’t in the room, as you can see.”

“I’m his mother. I have a package that he says is very important to him.”

“Do you know what’s in the package?”

“No.”

“What if I was to tell you there’s nothing in the package but some useless papers?”

“I don’t understand.”

He laughed and stubbed out his cigarette, lit another one. “Would you like a drink?” he asked.

“I’d like a drink of water,” she said.

“Get the lady a glass of water,” he said to the man who had opened the door. “And make sure the glass is clean!”

When he brought her the water, she sat in the chair at the table and took a long time drinking it, stalling somehow, as if she might put off something terrible that she believed was going to happen.

“I want to see him,” she said.

“Not so fast!” the man at the table said. “You’ll see him. You just have to be patient.”

“I brought the package that he says he has to have and I want to give it to him myself.”

“All right. All right.”

He went to a phone between the two beds and picked up the receiver. “Bring him down,” he said.

In a couple of minutes the door opened and Lewis came into the room, accompanied by a very young man with a gun. Lewis’s hands were tied, but the young man untied them, keeping the gun in view all the time.

“Hello, mother,” Lewis said.

“Lloyd!” she said, standing up and taking a step toward him. “What is this all about?”

“I’m sorry to drag you into this,” Lewis said, “but I had no other choice.”

“You look terrible.”

“I know. I’ve been through a bad time.”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“This bum owes me a bundle of money is what’s the matter,” the man at the table said with a smile.

“Why do you own him money?” she asked Lewis.

“It seems that our little friend was bitten by the gambling bug and his luck hasn’t been so very good lately.”

“Gambling?”

“Yeah, you know. Cards and dog racing and stuff like that.”

“Oh, Lloyd!” she said. “Is there any vice you haven’t been lured into?”

“My name is Lewis now. I told you that on the phone. I never liked the name Lloyd. It never did fit me.”

She took the package out of the bag and set it on the table. “I brought you this,” she said. “I hope it’s what you need to get yourself out of the trouble you’re in.”

“Thanks, mother, but I’m afraid it’s just a prop.”

“A prop? What do you mean?”

“The package isn’t anything. It was just an excuse to get you to come down here.”

“Why did you need an excuse?”

“It was my idea,” the man at the table said. “What mother wouldn’t come to the aid of her child? Calling after midnight, when you know the old lady is sure to be asleep, was just a little extra touch to make it more dramatic, if you know what I mean.”

She sat back down in the chair, beginning to see the picture. “How much?” she asked.

“Altogether about a hundred and ten thousand,” the man at the table said. “It’s really more than that, but I’m giving the kid a break since me and him are such great pals.”

“We were never pals,” Lewis said with a sneer.

“You expect me to pay the money,” she said.

“Lewis said he was sure you had the dough and would pay it willingly to save his life.”

“I’m sorry, mother,” Lewis said. “There was just no other place I could look to for that kind of money.”

“What if I don’t pay it?” she asked.

“Then this is the last time you see your son.”

“You kill people over a hundred and ten thousand dollars?”

“When it’s that much we do. If it was less—say a few thousand—we’d just rough him up, maybe break a couple of bones, and throw him in a ditch.”

“I’m going to the police.”

“And it wouldn’t do you a bit of good.”

“What if he gave you part of the money now and the rest later?”

“I’ve already tried that, mother,” Lewis said.

“We don’t work that way,” the man at the table said. “We get all of our money that’s owed to us and we get it all in one lump.”

“That seems terribly unfair.”

“We’ll give you a couple of days to raise the money. We’re not animals. Mortgage your house or do whatever you have to do. And in the meantime we’ll keep Lewis here with us where he’s safe.”

“I don’t want you to do it, mother,” Lewis said.

“What?”

“I know I’ve been nothing but trouble all my life and I don’t want to go on this way. I don’t mind dying. I deserve it.”

“I’ll pay it,” she said.

“I knew you would,” the man at the table said, “or I don’t know nothing about human nature.”

“Please don’t pay it, mother!” Lewis said. “Just get yourself a cab and go home and forget about me!”

“I’ll have the money for you within forty-eight ours,” she said to the man at the table. “Just tell me where you want it delivered.”

“No!” Lewis said.

He grabbed the gun that the young man was holding and pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger. The concussion knocked him over against the wall.

The man at the table stood up, knocking over the chair he was sitting in, and ran out of the room as though escaping a fire. The other two men, the man who had opened the door and the young man with the gun, ran out after him. The young man first picked up the gun where it had landed after Lewis shot himself.

She was alone in the room with her son. She knelt beside him and cradled his head in her arms, not minding the blood.

“I’m glad,” he said. “This is the best thing that could happen.”

“Don’t try to talk, Lloyd” she said. “An ambulance will be here in no time and you’ll be all right.”

“No, no, no,” he said. “Not Lloyd. Lewis. I need you to remember that.”

“What’s money compared to your own child?” she said, but she knew he had stopped breathing and didn’t hear.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Schizophrenia

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Schizophrenia ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The hallway was a gray tunnel with a black-and-white tiled floor. The boy kept his eyes on the window at the end to keep from having to look into any of the rooms as he passed them. When he and his father came to the last room on the left, his father pushed open the partly closed door and they went inside.

He hardly recognized his mother. Her hair was flat and dirty-looking, without the curl that he was used to seeing. She sat in a chair beside the bed, unmoving. Her face was very pale.

“Say hello to your mother,” his father said.

The boy stepped forward two steps. His mother moved her eyes away from a spot on the wall and looked at his face and then looked away again, as if she didn’t recognize him, or, if she did recognize him, she wasn’t interested.

“Shock treatments,” his father said. “It takes a while for it to wear off.”

“Hello, mother,” the boy said. “How have you been?”

He touched her lightly on the wrist, believing that his touch might wake her up, but she didn’t respond.

“I don’t think she knows me,” the boy said. “What should I do?”

“Don’t do anything,” his father said. “She’ll remember later that you were here.”

“Why does she have to have shock treatments?”

“Schizophrenia.”

“I don’t like this place.”

“I don’t like it, either, but she’s where she needs to be.”

The boy sat in one of the straight-backed chairs against the wall. “Will I have schizophrenia, too, because she does?” he asked.

“I don’t see it in you the way I always saw it in her,” his father said, “but we’ll see. The first sign I see that you’re that way, I’ll have you committed.”

“When will they let her come home?”

“Maybe not for a long time yet. We’ll have to get along without her the best we can, at least for the time being.”

“Don’t you think she’d get well quicker at home?”

“How would we be able to take care of her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the doctor could stop by every now and then and see how she’s getting along.”

“Doctor’s don’t do that.”

“I think she’d be all right,” the boy said, “if she just didn’t have to sit by herself in this dark room.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” his father said, sitting down and taking a cigarette out of his pocket and lighting it.

“If she would just say something to me to let me know she knows who I am,” the boy said.

“Why is that so important?”

“I don’t know. It feels funny to have your mother stare off into space and not know who you are.”

“I think it’s good for you to see her this way.”

“Why?” the boy asked.

“You need to know what things are really like. Then when she comes home and seems normal, you’ll have the picture in your mind of what she was like when she wasn’t normal, and you’ll know what to expect when it happens again.”

“Maybe it won’t happen again.”

“Maybe not, but it’s something you’ll always be thinking about.”

“I just want her to be the way she was before she got the way she is now,” the boy said.

Outside a lawn mower roared past the window. She turned toward the sound and pushed herself up out of the chair. The boy and his father watched her closely as she shuffled the few steps to the window in her old-lady booties.

“She can walk!” the boy said.

“Of course she can walk,” his father said. “There’s nothing wrong with her legs. It’s her mind that’s diseased.”

The boy went and stood beside her, to help her if need be. She watched the man outside pushing the lawn mower, first one way and then the other. When he was finished with that section of grass and went farther away where she could no longer see him, she turned toward the boy.

“I know him,” she said. “I used to go to school with him.”

The boy smiled at her and helped her back to the chair, happy that she had shown some signs of life.

“Do you want me to go get you a Coke?” he asked when she was sitting down again.

She shook her head and the boy was further encouraged.

“I think she does know who I am,” he said.

Soon visiting hours were over and the boy and his father had to leave. As they walked past the nurses’ station, two nurses were sitting there, a young one with red hair and an old one with a scowl on her face. The boy’s father stopped and leaned casually on the desk.

“Well, hello there!” the redheaded nurse said when she looked up. “How’s your wife today?”

“Just peachy,” the boy’s father said. “Is her doctor in today? I’d like to have a word with him.”

“He was here earlier,” the nurse said, “but now he’s gone. He won’t be back until tomorrow. I can leave him a note telling him you’d like to speak to him.”

“Would you?”

“Of course!”

“You know my name?”

“Yes, I believe so,” the nurse said. “It’s Mr. Dunlap, isn’t it?”

“Mr. Dunlap has a first name, you know.”

She giggled and her face turned a deeper shade of pink. “I think I know that, too,” she said. “It’s Dick.”

“Hah-hah-hah!” he laughed. “You get a gold star!”

“I’m very good at remembering names and faces,” she said.

“I suppose I should feel flattered. Your name is Miss Hull, isn’t it?”

“My friends call me Vilma.”

“That’s an unusual name, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever known a Vilma before.”

“I think my mother knew somebody once by that name.”

“Well, it’s very pretty.”

“Why, thank you!”

“Well,” he said, “visiting hours are over and I have to leave, but I’ll be seeing you again real soon.”

“Why, yes!” she said. “I’m sure to be sitting right here the next time you come in.”

“I look forward to it,” he said with his most charming smile.

On the way home, the boy asked his father, “Who was that woman?”

“What woman?” his father asked.

“That woman you were talking to.”

“How should I know? She’s a nurse.”

“Do you think she’s pretty?”

“I don’t know. I guess so. Why?”

“Her lips were really red.”

“Were they?” the boy’s father said. “I didn’t notice.”

“You seemed to like her.”

“It always pays to be friendly to people.”

“You weren’t friendly with the other nurse sitting there. The ugly one.”

“What are you saying?”

“Why were you only friendly with the pretty one?”

His father took the cigarette out of his mouth and looked at the boy. “I’m not going to be cross-examined by a twelve-year-old who doesn’t know anything!” he said.

For the rest of the day the boy gave his father the silent treatment. He refused to eat with him at the table. In the early evening he locked himself in his room, took off all his clothes except for his underwear, and examined himself in the mirror for any signs of schizophrenia.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Know the Devil by His Name

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Know the Devil by His Name ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

It was a long time ago. I was walking along a deserted country road through hills and farm country. I didn’t know where I was going or why I was going there. I didn’t know where I had been or what I had seen or known. My feet ached and my throat was dry, but I wasn’t bothered by those things. I believed that all I had to do was to keep moving forward and everything would come right with me.

Birds twittered over my head in the trees. A small brown fox came out from behind a tree and watched me pass. I heard a dog barking faintly, a long way off, but I never did see a dog or any living soul the dog might have been attached to.

Until I heard the sound of a wagon coming along behind me on the road. I heard it long before I saw it. When I finally turned around and looked over my shoulder, I saw a man in a devil costume driving a small, neat wagon pulled by one handsome brown horse. I stopped and turned toward him and he pulled up beside me.

“Where you headed?” he asked as though we were old friends.

Not knowing what to say, I just pointed in the direction in which I had been walking.

“You don’t know where you’re going, do you?” he said.

“Is that common in these parts?” I asked.

“I could use some company and I believe you could use a sit-down,” he said. “Why don’t you hop up here and ride with me, at least for a short distance, anyway?”

“Do you have any water?” I asked.

He reached behind him and produced a canteen, which he tossed at me. Liking him already, I smiled and got up beside him on the seat; he jiggled the reins to make the horse start moving again.

I drank and then drank again. “That is the best water I ever tasted,” I said.

He nodded his head and inclined his right horn toward me, which was above his right eye about three-and-a-half inches.

“Are you on your way to a costume party?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“I didn’t think you were, because it isn’t anywhere near the time of the year for Halloween, is it?”

“Time of the year don’t matter to me,” he said.

“Are you the devil?” I asked.

“I’m not the devil. I’m a devil. There are lots of us. I’ve never even seen the devil, the one we call Beelzebub. I’m not important enough.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“There are angels who do the work of the Lord. Don’t you agree?”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“Well, if there are angels doing the work of the Lord, there’s also the reverse side of the coin. There are devils doing the work of Beelzebub.”

“I think I should probably have you stop the wagon and let me out right here,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Anytime I find myself in the company of a devil, it’s probably not a good thing.”

“You could do worse,” the devil said.

“I don’t know how! What’s worse than a devil?”

“You’d better hope you never find out.”

“No, if you’ll stop right here,” I said. “I think I’ll get out and walk the rest of the way.”

“If you do that, you won’t fulfill your destiny,” the devil said.

“And what is my destiny?”

“Just stay with me a little longer. I guarantee you won’t be sorry you did. If we stay on this road, we’ll come to the big city. You’ll love it. There’s everything you want in the city.”

“I don’t want to go to any city, especially with you! It’s nothing personal, but you are the devil.”

“I’m not the devil, I told you. I’m a devil.”

“It’s all the same to me.”

“There’s just one problem about the two of us going to the city,” the devil said. “We’re going to need some money to be able to have a good time there. We’ll need to buy some clothes and get a room in a fine hotel and order lavish meals from room service.”

“I don’t need money to have a good time in the city because I’m not going there!” I said.

Ignoring me, the devil pulled up in a front of a little house set back from the road prettily in a grove of trees.

“What are we stopping here for?” I asked.

“There’s an old lady that lives here,” the devil said. “She always keeps lots of money on hand. All you have to do is hit her in the head and knock her out and take her money. I’ll wait right here.”

“That is the most outrageous thing I ever heard!” I said. “I’m not knocking anybody in the head and taking their money!”

“You don’t have to kill her. Just stun her.”

“I’m not doing any such thing!”

“The devil commands you!”

“You’ll have to find somebody else to command. I won’t do it.”

“If you don’t do it, somebody else will.”

“I suppose I ought to go warn her, then,” I said.

I jumped to the ground and went up to the house and knocked on the door. In a moment a little old lady in lavender and lace came to the door. When she saw me, she smiled and beckoned me to enter.

“It’s that devil again, isn’t it?” she said with a cluck of the tongue.

“He told me to knock you in the head and take your money. I have no intention of doing it, but I wanted to warn you that if I don’t do it somebody else will.”

She surprised me by putting her hand over her mouth and giggling like a schoolgirl. I had the feeling she was laughing at me for believing what a devil would say. She picked up a canvas bag from a desk and opened it; took out a handful of fake stage money and handed it to me.

“Tell the devil that’s all the money he’ll get from me,” she said, “and a fat lot of good it’ll do him!”

“He’s not the devil,” I said. “He’s a devil. Apparently there’s a difference.”

When I went back to the wagon, the devil was examining the backs of his hands in the sunlight as if he had forgotten me. I climbed back up beside him and handed him the fake stage money.

“Humph!” he said. “I see she’s up to her old tricks.”

“You know her?” I asked.

“She’s just another old devil,” he said. “She’s been at it a lot longer than I have.”

“She certainly didn’t look like a devil,” I said. “She looked like somebody’s grandmother.”

“Another lesson learned,” he said. “You can’t always go on the way a person looks. A good-looking person can be a devil and a horrible-looking guttersnipe can be an angel.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Things are not supposed to be too easy for us,” he said. “We’re supposed to figure things out for ourselves. With me it’s different, though. I wear this devil costume so people know as soon as they look at me that I’m a devil but not the devil.”

“Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to hit her in the head, anyway,” I said, “even if she is a devil. I guess if I had had to hit her in the head, though, knowing she was a devil would have made it easier.”

The devil gave me a look as if he was getting tired of me already. “Inescapable logic,” he said.

He looked at the fake stage money in his hand again and tossed it into the back of the wagon.

“Well, I believe I’ll be getting out just about here,” I said. “If you’ll stop the wagon there by that little bridge.”

The devil seemed not to hear me. “We’ll have to put our two heads together and figure out somewheres else to get some money,” he said thoughtfully.  

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp

Remembering Gertrude Bines

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Remembering Gertrude Bines ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you Gertrude?” El-Vee asked.

“Yes. How may I help you?”

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

“Who the hell are you?”

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

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

“Move to another location.”

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

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

“I could always have you arrested for assault.”

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

“Are you threatening me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any other ideas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to speak to you,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Did you call the police?”

“They’re there now.”

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

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

“That’s silly. How would I know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, to each his own.”

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

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

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

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

“My hair is perfect,” Gertrude said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Needn’t we?”

“I’d like to think we were friends.”

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

“I just don’t like ill will, is all.”

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

“Then you do remember me?”

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

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

“Go ahead and make it,” El-Vee said.

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

“Doing what?”

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

“You’d do that for me?”

“Yes.”

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

“Don’t let pride stand in your way.”

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

“Why not?”

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

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

“Yes, I remember you.”

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

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

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

“Tonight?”

“Can you manage it?”

“I don’t know why not.”

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

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

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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