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The Ladies of the Laundry

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The Ladies of the Laundry

The Ladies of the Laundry ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Two years out of high school, Virgie Smalls worked in the Handy Dandy Laundry. She hated the white uniform she had to wear and almost everything else about the job. The work was tiring, monotonous and steamy. All day long she moved her arms up and down, in and out, over and under, until they seemed to move of their own accord without any effort on her part. When she looked ahead to the future, it made her sick to think that she might have to spend her entire life in such a place.

The workers at the laundry were all older women, smokers and drinkers, whose idea of a good time was Friday night bingo at the VFW hall. Virgie didn’t bother to make them think she liked them, so, as a consequence, they didn’t like her. They never invited her to their baby showers or after-work drinking parties. When she walked into the room where they were talking, they fell silent.

Another person at the laundry who was just as disliked as Virgie was Sterling Fingers, the truck driver. He was only four feet, eight inches tall and had to sit on a built-up seat when he drove his truck to be able to see over the steering wheel. The ladies called him shortstop and tittered when he walked by. He got back at them, though, by coming up behind them and making pig sounds and then pretending he didn’t do it when they turned around and were ready to slap him. He also liked to play tricks on them by going into their locker room while they were working and switching their purses or tying their shoes together by the shoelaces in such hard knots that they weren’t able to get them apart.

One day one of the ladies went to the boss and complained about Sterling Fingers. She said he put his hand on her ass cheek and said a dirty word in her ear. The boss called Sterling into his office and told him what the woman had said.

“She’s full of shit,” Sterling said. “I never did no such thing.”

“We can’t have that kind of behavior here,” the boss said.

“I said I didn’t do it.”

“All right. I’ll take your word for it this time, but I have to warn you. You’re on probation.”

“Why isn’t the heifer that told a lie about me the one that’s on probation?”

“Remember what I said, Sterling.”

He wanted to do something bad to the woman who told the tale on him, but he knew if he did it would only get him fired. (What he really wanted to do would get him sent to jail.) His way of dealing with the situation was to stay as far away from the ladies as he could so none of them could ever have any complaints against him. Pretending they didn’t exist was easy for him, as he found nothing about any of them that could ever interest him.

One Friday when the boss was away and Sterling was emptying some trash, he saw the woman who had told the lie about him slip out the side door that opened into an alley. Curious, he went to the door and opened it just enough to see out. The alleyway was private, closed in on three sides. The woman, whose name was Bernadette, got into the back of a black van with a man and they closed the doors. The windows had curtains on them so Sterling could only imagine what they were doing. A while later Bernadette was back on the line as if nothing had happened.

Now, he didn’t care one whit what Bernadette did or with whom, but he knew it was a strict policy of the company that you were not supposed to leave without first punching out at the time clock. Anybody who left and didn’t punch their time card was guilty of what they called time theft. Sterling could have gone to the boss on Monday morning and told him what he saw, but he knew it would seem that he was only trying to get even, so he decided to wait and see how things played out.

He began watching Bernadette without letting her know he was watching: as she cut up with the ladies, as she went into the restroom and came out again, as she took her lunch break and as she left to go home at the end of her shift. If she ever looked at him looking at her, he yawned with affected nonchalance and looked down at his fingernails.

His vigilance paid off, finally. The next time he saw Bernadette sneaking out the side door, he was ready. He had a tiny camera that he had bought especially for the occasion. He took pictures of her kissing the man, getting into the back of the van with him, and of the man reaching out and pulling the doors closed as Bernadette began to unbutton her uniform. Her face was plain as daylight. There could be no question that it was her.

When he got the pictures back from the developer, he wrote DURING WORKING HOURS in the little white margin at the top of each one and put them in an envelope. He carried the envelope in his shirt pocket for several days before doing anything about it.

He saw Virgie Smalls sitting in the break room alone one afternoon, drinking a Coke. He sat down across from her and lit a cigarette.

“You hate Bernadette, don’t you?” he said.

“What?”

“Bernadette. I said you hate her.”

“If I ever thought about her,” Virgie said, “I’d hate her.”

“You think about her and you hate her.”

“Well, let’s just say I despise her.”

“Same thing.”

“What’s this about?”

“We can get back at the silly cow now.”

“How?”

He took the pictures from his pocket and handed them to Virgie. “This is just between the two of us,” he said.

She looked at the pictures and smiled for the first time that day. “Who took these?” she asked.

“Who do you think took them? Yours truly took them.”

“Who’s the guy?”

“It doesn’t matter who he is. The thing that matters is we’ve got the goods on a person we hate.”

“All right. So now what?”

“I need your help in this.”

She handed the pictures across the table as if they had become hot. “No! I’m not getting involved in anything like that.”

“All you have to do is get them to the boss.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“For reasons that I don’t care to elaborate on right now.”

“So, all you want me to do is just hand them to him?”

“That’s the idea.”

“When he sees what they are, he’ll want to know where I got them.”

“Wait until he’s out and take them in and put them on his desk in a place where he’ll be sure and see them.”

“I guess I could do that.”

“I guarantee Bernadette will be gone in a matter of minutes.”

“You’re very naughty, aren’t you?”

“I don’t think anybody’s as naughty as Bernadette,” he said.

He waved the pictures in her face and watched as she took them from him and put them in the pocket of her uniform.

The next time the boss was out for the day, Virgie gave Sterling a sign that the pictures were on the boss’s desk.

When the boss called Bernadette into his office, presented her with the evidence and fired her, she bellowed like a bull. She ran through the building, turning things over as she went. Sterling was loading the truck at the dock, but he heard the commotion and went to have a look.

“You little rat bastard!” Bernadette screamed when she saw him. “You did this, I know you did!”

“Get her out of here,” the boss said to some of his men, “before she kills somebody.”

The next time Sterling saw Virgie, he smiled and made a dusting-off motion with his hands.

Bernadette’s dismissal was all the ladies of the laundry could talk about. The rumor mill was rife with speculation. The man she was meeting in the alley was really her husband, someone said. He’s an escaped convict and the police are after him to send him back to prison. No, that’s not true, another said. He’s an important man in politics and he has to be careful because if he’s caught cheating on his wife it could ruin his reputation. The question, then, begged to be asked: out of all the women in the world, why would he want to cheat with unattractive Bernadette?

In a few days, though, they all moved on to other things. A new girl named Josephine was brought in to replace Bernadette. She was newly arrived from Puerto Rico and was just learning to speak English. The ladies loved to gather around her and laugh at her fractured pronunciation of words. Every time they laughed, she blushed fetchingly and covered her face with her hands, eliciting more laughter. The ladies were all in love with Josephine, at least for the time being.

Anybody who knew Bernadette well knew she would have to have her vengeance, and when it came it was on a day that it was least expected.

The laundry was shutting down for a week for repairs and everybody was happy. A whole week off with pay to carouse around at night and sleep late in the morning. It was just like heaven.

Sterling Fingers was all caught up on his deliveries on that last day before the week off and was pushing some dirt around with a broom near the front door when who should come rushing in but Bernadette. She was staggering and obviously drunk and when she saw that Sterling was right there and she wasn’t even going to have to go look for him, her face lit up with an evil grin.

“Bernadette!” he said. “How lovely to see you! Ugly as ever, I see!”

“This is for you, you little son of a bitch!” she said.

She approached him and plunged a knife into his gut and turned and ran out the door.

“Oh-oh-oh!” he said, going down on the floor. “Oh-oh-oh!”

One of the girls in the front office screamed and everybody who heard her came running to see what had happened. Several others screamed and covered their eyes when they saw Sterling on is back on the floor holding his hands to his gut, blood gushing out around his fingers.

“Mother of Mercy!” he said. “Is this the end of Rico?”

Nobody made a move to help him except Virgie. She knelt down beside him and took his hand between hers.

“Somebody call an ambulance!” she yelled.

One of the ladies went and got some towels and handed them to Virgie. She pressed them against his abdomen where the blood was pouring out.

“It’s going to be all right, dear,” she said. “The ambulance is on its way.”

“It was Bernadette,” he said.

“I know.”

The paramedics arrived and lifted Sterling onto a stretcher. Virgie held onto his hand as long as she could.

He looked into her eyes, his voice weak, and said, “You called me dear.”

“Don’t try to talk now,” she said.

“You helped me,” he said. “You were the only one.”

“They’ll take you to the hospital now and get you fixed up.”

“Will I see you again?” he asked.

“I’ll be here,” she said.

As the paramedics lifted him into the ambulance, he said to one of them, “I want you to get the minge that did this to me.” He fainted then and didn’t say anything else.

The police caught Bernadette drinking vodka cocktails at a bar a few blocks from the laundry. She was smiling, smoking cigarettes and chatting with the bartender as if she stabbed somebody in the gut every day of the week.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Door That’s Always Closed

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The Door That's Always Closed

The Door That’s Always Closed ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

My name is Charles Anson. I moved in with my mother in her apartment after my father died. At first I hated the idea of living with her at the age of thirty-seven, but soon I got used to it and thought of her home as my home. And I have to admit my life was easier than when I had my own place. My mother had a cook and housekeeper, so I no longer had to buy my own food or cook it and no longer had to do any housecleaning, which I was never very good at anyway.

My mother didn’t give birth to me until her mid-forties, so to me she seemed old before her time. She had developed a bad heart in the years after my father’s death and told me she was happy to have me there with her—I was her only family that counted, she said—even though we argued quite a lot at times about my drinking habits and the late hours I sometimes kept. My mother had a bad temper, which my father could have told you about if he had still been alive. I remember when I was little and heard them fighting late at night. It wasn’t unusual to hear glass breaking or wood splintering. When my father got enough of being goaded, he would end up breaking something. In the morning when I asked about whatever it was that got broken, my mother would laugh and say my father had a little accident while sleepwalking. I knew it wasn’t the truth but it was a good way to gloss over an ugly situation.

I went to work every day and when I came home my mother was there and dinner on the table and all was well. After dinner, I would usually step out if I felt like it, and I see now that my mother was a little jealous that I didn’t spend all my time with her when I wasn’t working. She watched movies on television and she was always happy to have me watch with her, but it wasn’t my idea of a good time. I could only take so many Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movies.

Most of the time when I came home from a night on the town, sometimes at one or two in the morning, my mother would have all the lights on in the place and also the TV but would have retired to her room. This made her feel safer when she was alone, she said. I would turn everything off, starting with the TV, and make my way to bed, sleep for about four hours, get up and begin my day all over again, as so many of us working stiffs do. My mother had told me I didn’t even need to work, that she had plenty of money for us both to live on, but I couldn’t see myself hanging around all day with just her to talk to and having to ask her for money anytime I wanted to go out and have a few drinks.

On weekends I always tried to spend either Saturday or Sunday with my mother, just the two of us. She liked to go for a drive and I would very often take her to the cemetery where my father was and take her to a hamburger place for lunch. If it was a Sunday, we would try to take in a museum or a concert. If we ever went to a movie, she always said she preferred seeing movies on TV, and when I told her most people who liked movies wanted to see them at the theatre and not on TV, she only shook her head as if she didn’t understand.

“Movies today are not like the old ones they have on TV,” she said.

“To each his own,” I said.

All in all, my life was agreeable. I didn’t spend most of the money I made so I was able to invest. The market was doing well, so I did well. I didn’t miss the things I didn’t have that other people had, like a marriage and children. I had learned early in life that not everybody in the world is the same and I found it out more and more as I got older.

My mother went on for years with her bad heart, but she came to a point where she couldn’t go on any longer. She looked pale and drawn all the time and spent most of her time lying down. She stopped fixing herself up and having her hair done up. Most days she didn’t even bother to get dressed.

She went to the hospital for a few days and when she came home she swore she would never go back, no matter what. She wanted to be in the privacy of her own home and not have a bunch of strangers around her at the end. I hired a nurse to be with her during the day when I was at work and another at night. They just did their work quietly and effectively and didn’t bother me. I paid them when the time came and left them to do whatever needed to be done.

I decided to quit my job in early summer. I didn’t need to work, as I said before, and all the time I was away I was worried that the end would come for my mother and I wouldn’t be there when she needed me. I dismissed both nurses and told them I would take over from there.

My mother moved into one of the guest bedrooms—she didn’t want to mess up her own room where all her treasures were—and became entirely bedridden. Her doctor sympathized with her desire to be at home and gave me lots of pills to give to her. He told me I didn’t have to hold back in administering her medicine and nobody would ever know the difference. I knew what he was talking about without having it explained.

We kept her heavily sedated and I knew she wasn’t in any pain. Every so often she would open her eyes and look at me and I knew she was happy with the way things had turned out. She drifted away peacefully on a blazing day in August. She was breathing and then she wasn’t.

Now, when a loved one dies, there are things that need to be done. I was supposed to call the doctor and get a death certificate and then call the funeral home and have them come and get her. I found I wasn’t able to do those things, though. I could not speak the words to anybody that she was gone. All I did was close the door and lock it. I placed a beautiful Chinese screen she was fond of in front of the door to make it look like there was no door there at all.

I knew it was wrong to just leave my mother in the room that way, but it seemed the only thing I could do. I was distraught. My world had been ripped asunder. How could I go on living day after day, year after year? I had nothing to live for.

I kept the apartment dark and I started drinking heavily and taking my mother’s pills. If I didn’t know what they were for, it didn’t make any difference. If I took too many and went to sleep and didn’t wake up, it was all the same to me. I was in a state between living and dying. Time lost all meaning for me.

Then, after two weeks or so, I suppose I snapped out of it, at least partway. I looked at myself in the mirror and vomited. After that, I cleaned myself up and went out and had a good meal in a restaurant. The next day I hired some cleaning people to come in and clean the apartment and air everything out from top to bottom. Except for the room my mother was in, of course.

I began eating regular meals again and gained some weight. I bought some cook books and learned to fix dishes I had never fixed before, like leg of lamb and Hungarian goulash. I bought myself some new clothes and began going out more, but always alone.

In the evenings I would pass the time reading novels, listening to classical music or watching old movies on TV as my mother had loved to do. I became as knowledgeable in movie lore as she had ever been. I saw all the films of Ramon Novarro and Ruth Chatterton. Kay Francis came to seem like an old friend.

To keep from feeling so alone, I bought a life-sized human female doll. It was supposed to be a young and beautiful woman, of course, a substitute companion for lonely men, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted it to resemble my mother. I put makeup on it to make it look older, put one of my mother’s wigs on it and dressed it in my mother’s clothes. I created an illusion. At night in the dark, with just the light from the TV screen, I would have sworn it was her sitting there if I hadn’t known better. I know she would have been pleased.

From there I took the next logical step and began dressing in her clothes myself. It made me feel close to her as though I were absorbing her essence into my body. She wasn’t a rotting corpse behind a closed door. She was right there with me and had been all the time.

After I dressed in her clothing a few times, I started experimenting with makeup. I applied it to my own face exactly as she would have applied it to her face. She had a couple of wigs on the top shelf of her closet and I got them down and tried them with different outfits. I would spend the entire day dressed as her. If it made me feel better and less alone, what did it hurt?

As I stood and looked at myself in her full-length mirror, I realized for the first time how much like her I was. My face was the same shape as hers, down to the dimple in my chin, and I had the same coloring. My beard stubble was light and nonexistent for at least a day after I shaved. I was the embodiment of my mother. I saw nothing of my father in me. He had been large with fleshy ears and a nose like a lump of cauliflower. When I was a child, I used to wonder how the two of them ever came to be together.

I spent hours practicing her walk, her laugh, the way she spoke, lit a cigarette or downed her vodka and tonic. I could match her signature so well that the most highly trained handwriting expert in the world would never have been able to tell the difference. But for whom was I doing all this? Was it was just tricks to be performed for my own amusement or was it something else?

One day when I was feeling brave and more than a little bold I decided to try a little experiment. Dressed as my mother—in her clothes, shoes, wig, hat and coat—I went down in the elevator and down the street to the market on the corner and bought a bag of groceries. I expected people to look at me and know I wasn’t what, or who, I appeared to be. If anybody noticed me at all, though, they looked away without giving me a thought. It was exactly the effect I hoped for.

On my way home, a neighbor woman stopped me on the sidewalk. She put her hand on my arm and leaned in familiarly.

“I heard you were sick,” she said. “I’m glad to see you looking so well.”

“I’m much better now,” I (my mother) said. “My son has been taking care of me.”

I began going out more as my mother. People who had known her for years weren’t able to tell the difference. I kept them from looking at me too closely but, even if they had, I don’t think they would have suspected anything. People see what they want to see and are not all that observant.

Take my mother’s lawyer, for example. He had some documents he wanted her to sign. Now, my mother and her lawyer had known each since high school. Making him believe I was her would be the ultimate test. I was sure I could do it but I was little anxious he would take one look at me and know I was somebody other than my mother. Would he then think I had murdered her or something equally bizarre? I knew I was taking a chance, but I was willing to risk it.

I didn’t need to worry. The lawyer held onto my gloved hand longer than was needed and led me to a chair in front of his desk.

“I’ve never seen you looking so radiant,” he said.

“Why, thank you!”

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“Lots of broccoli and blueberries.”

“It has to be more than that.”

“Well, we all have our little secrets.”

“You can’t fool me about your age. I know exactly how old you are because I’m the same age.”

“It’s only a number,” I (my mother) said. “I stopped counting a long time ago.”

After I signed the papers, he invited me to lunch but I lied and told him I had an appointment to see my doctor. I wasn’t sure I could keep up the illusion through a long, liquor-infused sit-down.

When I went out of the apartment now, about half the time it was as my mother. People were attentive and polite to a well-dressed woman alone. I got the best tables in restaurants and some man or other was always more than willing to give me a seat on a crowded subway or bus. People lit my cigarettes, opened doors for me and held elevators. I could always get a smile out of even the most sour-faced old buzzard.

Sometimes, but not often, I thought about my mother lying on the bed in that room behind the screen. I couldn’t visualize her as a rotting corpse. You hear stories about a dead body being closed up in a house and people realizing it’s there only because they can smell it. There had been no odors in my apartment and no complaints from any of the neighbors. I had heard stories about the bodies of saints that aren’t subject to the laws of decay. I could almost believe that my mother was one of those. Wondrous are the workings of heaven and not of nature.

I dreamed often about my mother, a happy dream in which I could hear her voice and see her laughing face. She was always excited about something she had seen or read, a trip she was taking, a play she was going to or an old friend she had met again by chance. She was the only truly good person I had ever known. Everybody loved her.

When I was myself, Charles, I felt dull and uninteresting. My clothes were ill-fitting, no matter how much I paid for them or with what care I chose them. In conversation I was a nonentity. I had nothing to say to people and no desire to be with them.

I went to a lecture on Nebuchadnezzar at a museum, not as my mother but as myself. There I ran into an old acquaintance named Hulga Bosworth. We had dated for a while right after college. It was never what I would have called a romance but more just something I did back then because it’s what everybody else was doing. Hulga told me she had been married and divorced two times. When I asked her if she thought she was ever going to get it right, she just laughed.

She gave me her phone number and a few days later, when I was feeling low, I called her and we spent the next couple of hours filling each other in on our lives. We went out to dinner the next day and a couple of days after that we went to a piano recital. She told me on our second outing that she had never stopped thinking about me and hoped we would somehow meet again. When I said I was surprised that she had ever given me another thought, she laughed and said my modesty was one of the things she had always loved about me.

Hulga and I started spending a lot of time together. Since we were both alone, getting married seemed the next logical step. I wasn’t in love with her but we were compatible and I didn’t relish the idea of spending the rest of my life with nobody to talk to or eat dinner with. When I asked her if she’d like to get married, she didn’t hesitate before saying yes.

It wasn’t to be, though. When she told me I would have to give up my apartment, I refused.

“But darling,” she said, “we don’t need ten rooms for just the two of us.”

“I’m not moving,” I said. “This is my mother’s apartment. She expects me to keep it up while she’s away.”

“Isn’t your name on the lease?”

“It doesn’t matter if it is or not. I’m not moving.”

“You’re being childish.”

“Women always think that men are being childish when they refuse to take orders.”

We had a terrible argument, during which she demanded that I open the door to the room behind the Chinese screen.

“It hasn’t been opened in years,” I said.

“I want to see what’s in it.”

“Maybe it’s none of your business. Did you ever think of that?”

“It seems that since we’re to be married, your business is my business.”

“Not always,” I said.

She cried and threw an expensive vase at me and stormed out the door. The next day when she called to apologize I wouldn’t take her call or the calls that came after.

It was for the best, I knew. I didn’t want to enter into a bad marriage and then have to end up giving her half of everything I owned in a divorce settlement.

After that I drowned Charles in the bathtub, burning his tuxedo as a symbolic gesture, and lived my life as Margaret, mother of Charles. I never did like Charles anyway and I was sure nobody else did. But I continued in the hope that someday there would be somebody for me. If not my mother then somebody like her. Somebody to close the door and lock it when the time came and make sure nobody ever got in.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Suicide Hotel

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Suicide Hotel
Suicide Hotel ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is an expanded version of a short story I posted before.)

Margaret Pendler was to be passed over again for promotion, after seventeen years with the company. A younger, prettier girl named Stephanie with only three years got the nod. Stephanie with her blond hair and tight skirts that showed the contours of her can; shapely, nylon-clad legs that she was all too willing to show off; a touch of cleavage, perfect teeth and lips the color of a valentine.

After Margaret received the news right before morning coffee break, she sat at her desk holding a pencil in her right hand, her left hand on her cheek, barely moving. Not even pretending to do any work. When the girls, all atwitter at Stephanie’s promotion, went for coffee, Margaret stayed behind.

In one minute or less, she had lost all interest in everything around her. When Mr. Dauphin came in, she didn’t even look up and smile as she always did. He was her favorite and she had even believed, at infrequent intervals, that she was in love with him. Never mind that he had been married three times and was working his way through all the pretty young things in the office.

At lunchtime she was still sitting exactly as she had been two hours earlier. Her coworkers had been giving her curious glances but she ignored them. If anybody had said anything to her, she might have pulled a knife out of the drawer and stabbed them.

Finally, when the lunch hour was almost over, she stood up and said, to no one person in particular, “I have no wish to be here.” She took her purse and her raincoat and left, without bothering to straighten the clutter on her desk or even to push the chair in. Without a word to anybody, she went down the stairs and out the building, her intention being never to return.

At home her mother, Georgina, was going through trunks, trying on clothes and wigs for a social function she was going to go to at her lodge. She held up a forties-vintage green dress with huge fabric-covered buttons and a long red wig and said, “What do you think of this?”

“Is it a costume party?” Margaret asked.

“No. I just want to look different from anybody else there.”

“That ought to do the trick.”

“What do you think of these?” She held up a silk Pagliacci lounging set.

“Oh, I think you ought to put those on now,” Margaret said.

“I think I will.”

Georgina went behind the screen to change. “I think I’m getting married again,” she said in a too-loud voice, believing that if she wasn’t seen she wasn’t heard.

“Who’s the lucky fellow?” Margaret asked.

“His name is Herman Mudge. I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure. He hasn’t actually asked me yet, but I think he will.”

“Let me be the first to congratulate you.”

“What do you think about having a stepfather?” Georgina asked, stepping out from behind the screen and turning around one time so Margaret could see the silk Pagliacci lounging set.

“Stunning,” Margaret said. “Is he younger than you?”

“Is who younger than me?”

“Herman Mudge.”

“He’s eighty-three. I’m seventy-nine. I think that’s a nice age difference, don’t you? My father was four years older than my mother.”

“Where are you going to live after you get married?”

“Why, here, of course. He’s got a small room in a hotel. You don’t think a newly married couple can live there, do you?”

“Well, I hope you’ll both be very happy,” Margaret said.

“I want cornflakes for supper and macaroons,” Georgina said.

After the evening meal was finished and the dishes washed and put away, Georgina installed herself on the couch in front of the television set for her endless parade of police dramas and situation comedies. Soon she was asleep with her head thrown back, her mouth open because she had trouble breathing through her nose. Her dentures had slipped down and were partway out of her mouth, giving her a rather strange and unnatural appearance.

Margaret went upstairs to her bedroom, threw some clothes into a suitcase and left the house, her intention being never to return. She took a taxi to the bus station where she stood in line for fifteen minutes to buy a ticket to the nearest large city. After she had her ticket, she sat on a hard plastic chair for nearly two hours until time for her bus.

When her bus was finally announced, she stood up and ran for the door as if it might leave without her. Heart pounding, she boarded and took a seat next to the window near the back. As the bus roared off, she laughed, relieved that the ordeal of waiting was at an end.

She slept at intervals during the trip but it was a troubled sleep, the kind she had when she was sick with one of her bronchitis infections. At about four-thirty in the morning the bus arrived at its destination. Stiff from the long hours of sitting, she had a cup of coffee and a light breakfast in the coffee shop of the sprawling bus depot and set out walking, not certain where she was going.

The St. George Hotel had nothing to recommend it other than its neon sign glowing invitingly in the early-morning light and its height of fifteen stories. She went inside and asked for a room on one of the upper floors. When the desk clerk asked her how long she would be staying, she said she didn’t know.

Her room on the twelfth floor was dark and musty-smelling like a long-undiscovered tomb. She turned on the lights, hung her coat in the closet and slung her suitcase on the bed. Crossing the room to the lone window, she pulled back the heavy curtain and looked down at the street a hundred and twenty feet below. She calculated the approximate spot on the sidewalk where she would land when she jumped. Someone would scream (they always did in the movies). There would be loud excited voices, a screech of brakes. She wouldn’t hear any of it.

But she didn’t have to be in any hurry. She would work up to the thing, to the jumping. When she decided the time was right, she would do it. She had the nerve all right, the nerve to just let go. And it would all be over in a matter of seconds. Lights out. Lower the curtain. What was any of it for, anyway?

She stayed in the room for two days and on the third day she ventured out to have dinner in the restaurant downstairs. The day after that she took a walk, had lunch in a diner, bought a pair of gloves and two books and went to a movie. It was when she was having a drink in the bar before going to her room and going to sleep that he approached her. He was a small man, about thirty-five, dark hair and three or four days of stubble on his face. He stood beside her and offered to buy her a drink.

“I have a drink,” she said, not looking at him.

“Are you having a good time?” he asked.

“I was until you came along.”

“I saw you the day you checked in,” he said. “I was sitting in the lobby watching you but you didn’t see me.”

“What of it?”

“Women don’t usually check into this hotel alone. They’ve usually got kids with them or a man.”

“I’m waiting for my husband to get here.”

“What does he look like? Maybe I’ve seen him.”

She stood up abruptly. “I don’t know what your game is,” she said, “but I’ll thank you to leave me alone.”

She brushed past him and took the elevator up to her room.

The next day she saw him and the day after that. She didn’t look directly at him but she knew he was there. He seemed to just appear wherever she was. Once when she saw him standing by the elevator, she asked the desk clerk who he was.

“I don’t see anybody there, ma’am,” the clerk said. “The person you’re talking about must have gone up.”

The next night at ten o’clock she was in her room, getting ready to get into bed when there was a soft knock at the door. “Who is it?” she asked. When no one answered, she went to the door and opened it a couple of inches. She wasn’t surprised when she saw him standing there.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“No, you may not.”

He pushed the door open farther and when she did nothing to stop him, he came inside and closed the door again as if it were his door to do with as he pleased.

“My husband went to get some cigarettes,” she said. “He’ll be back in just a minute.”

“You don’t have a husband. You know it and I know it.”

She looked at him and took a deep breath. She wondered why she wasn’t more afraid.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Are you a murderer who preys on women alone?”

He laughed and took off his hat, took a step toward her. “Now, do I look to you like a person who would do that?”

“Did my mother send you? Are you a private detective?”

“I could be just about anything, I suppose. Anything or nothing.”

“If it’s money you want, I don’t have any.”

He surprised her by taking hold of her arm and leading her to the window. “Look down,” he said. “It’s a long way to the sidewalk. Your body bursts like a balloon, but instead of water it’s blood. Those who see it never forget. You’ll be dead but they’ll have to carry the horror of what you did around with them for the rest of their lives.”

“Why should you care about that?”

“That’s not the question you should be asking.”

“Get out my room or I’m going to call for help.”

When he made no move to leave, she picked up the phone and put it to her ear. A few clicks and then someone came on the line.

“There’s an intruder in my room,” she said. “Yes. A man. Room twelve sixty-eight. Yes. Thank you.”

She put the phone back in its cradle and said to him, “They’re sending someone up. You’d better be gone when they get here.”

He crossed the room to the door and opened it.

“Wait!” she called. “Don’t go!”

“You change your mind awfully fast.”

“I’m afraid I won’t see you again and I won’t ever know who you are.”

He reclosed the door. “You don’t know?”

“If I knew, would I be asking?”

“I’m the devil come to take your soul back to hell.”

“Where’s your pitchfork?”

“I’m an angel sent to try to keep you from destroying yourself.”

“Which is it? You can’t be both!”

“I’m whatever you want me to be. Maybe I’m nothing at all. Maybe I’m not even here.”

“I’m not in the mood for riddles,” she said. “Just go. I want you to stop bothering me.”

“I’ll go,” he said. “If that’s what you want.”

Instead of leaving, though, he leaned against the wall near the door, hands in pockets, and looked at her. He was like a man waiting for a bus or doing nothing in particular, as if time were nothing at all.

She went to the window and pushed the curtain out of the way and looked down to the street once again. How long would it take her to reach the sidewalk? She would close her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see anything. Just a few seconds and it would all be over.

The window wouldn’t raise as she thought it would, no matter how hard she pushed and pulled. So, there it was, a pane of glass, the only thing between herself and oblivion. It wasn’t going to stop her, though. Nothing was going to stop her now.

She kicked at the glass and hit it with her fists until it shattered, letting in the noise from the street and a sickening stench of gasoline, asphalt and burning rubber.

With the glass gone, the way was open for her. It was so easy now. The only question remaining was if she should go out feet first or head first. Would somebody cover her up right away or would people stand and gape at her until an ambulance arrived? What would her mother say when she received the phone call? Who would call her mother, anyway? Would she come and identify the body? Would sweet Mr. Dauphin with his doe-like eyes and the other people from the office come to her funeral?

“Are you losing your nerve?” he asked from across the bed over by the door.

“What did you say?”

She had forgotten he was in the room with her and, remembering, felt a little embarrassed, as though a stranger were watching her in her most private and intimate moment.

“I asked if you were having second thoughts.”

“I asked you to leave.”

“You’re bleeding.”

She hadn’t realized that blood was pouring from the juncture of her thumb and forefinger. She held out her hand and watched the blood as it dripped onto the floor.

He got a towel from the bathroom. “Here,” he said. “You probably need some stitches.”

“You’re with me in my final moments,” she said. “The only one.”

“You’re not going to jump,” he said.

“I’m not?”

“You’re going to go down to the desk and apologize for breaking the window and you’re going to offer to pay for it.”

“What did you say your name is?”

“You can call me by any name you like.”

She knelt on the floor and leaned against his leg because it was the closest object. “You thought I was going to jump out the window?” she asked.

“It looked that way.”

“Take me away from here, will you?”

“Where to?”

“A place so far away I’ll never get back.”

“Oblivion?”

“No, not there. Farther away than that.”

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

After-School Break-In

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After-School Break-In ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

We could see the long-abandoned Layton house from the school yard. There were tall weeds everywhere. A dead tree had come uprooted and lay against the house as though resting. The front porch was sagging and the windows were covered up from the inside. Everybody said the house was haunted, with dead bodies inside, stacked one of top of the other. At night you could walk by and hear moans. I had never heard the moans myself, but I was sure it was true.

I asked grandma if she ever knew the Laytons. She remembered them from long ago, she said, but she believed they were all dead.

“Their bodies are piled up inside the house,” I said.

“Who told you that?”

“That’s what everybody says.”

“Why would they be?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

“They were crazy but not that crazy.”

“Well, somebody has to own the house,” I said.

“It’s not for you to worry about.”

“I heard some kids talking. They’re going to break in some Saturday night and look around.”

“What kids?”

“I don’t know their names. They’re older than me.”

“Well, breaking into a house is a felony, even if it’s an empty house. You know what a felony is, don’t you?”

“I guess so.”

“You stay away from there. I don’t want to have to come down to the jail and bail you out.”

“No jail for me!” I said. “No ma’am!”

At our monthly after-school cub scout meeting, the scout leader failed to show up. After fifteen minutes, everybody left but six of us. I figured I would just go home, but one of our group decided it would be a good time, while nobody was around, to break into the Layton house.

“I don’t feel like it,” I said. “I’ve got a sore in my mouth.”

“Always the pantywaist,” Nelson Green said with a jeer. I never did like him and I knew that one day I would have to push his face in.

“You have to come with us,” Charles Bender said. “We all have to stick together.”

“Well, all right,” I said, “but I don’t think it’s right to break into somebody’s house.”

“Nobody lives there,” Terrell Quigley said. “It’ll be fun. We can finally see what the inside looks like.”

“I’ll probably just wait outside,” I said.

We waded through the weeds up to our waists to the back door. Nelson Green turned the knob but it was locked, of course. Then he and Thad Bruner began pushing their shoulders against the door like the police do on TV when they’re trying to get somebody to open up.

“It’s no use,” I said. “We couldn’t get in there no matter what.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Nelson said.

He went and got a dead limb and he and a couple of the others used it on the door like a battering ram. The limb crumpled up like a toothpick and we laughed.

We heard a car passing and crouched down until it was gone.

“Let’s go,” I said. “Somebody is probably watching us now.”

“Oh, nobody’s paying any attention and, even if they are, so what?” Nelson said. “They need to mind their own damn business.”

“If they see us here, they’ll call the police.”

“No, they won’t. Nobody gives a shit.”

“Come and look at this,” Roy Fisk said.

At the side of the house was a window no more than three feet off the ground. What made this window different from the others was that it didn’t seem impenetrable. The glass hadn’t been replaced with panels of wood and there appeared to be only a thin white curtain behind the glass.

Nelson and a couple of the others began pushing upward on the window. It wouldn’t budge at first but after a few seconds it gave way with a screech and a shower of paint chips. When they raised the window high enough, Nelson hoisted himself through.

“Go around to the back door,” he said. “I’ll open it.”

We heard him undoing the lock and in a second the door swung open with a creak.

“See how easy it is?” he said.

We all went inside and Nelson reclosed the door.

“This is great!” Terrell said.

“It’s certainly the high point of my day,” I said.

We were standing in a bunch in the kitchen as though waiting for somebody to tell us what to do. There was an old sink, a dirty-looking old stove, a table with a leg missing and not much else.

The next room was the dining room, which was empty of furniture expect for a broken chair laying on its side and some slabs of wood.

“Cozy,” I said.

In the living room was a filthy couch and chair. On the floor were some food papers and empty beer cans and a couple of empty liquor bottles.

“Somebody’s been having a party here,” Thad said.

“It smells terrible,” Roy said.

“That’s probably the dead bodies,” Nelson said.

Over to our right was a staircase going up to what appeared to be the most sinister part of the house.

“Up there is where they are, I’ll bet.”

“I want to see them,” Thad said. “I’ve never seen a dead body.”

“Well, go on up, then, if you want.”

“I don’t want to go up by myself.”

“You big baby!”

“We don’t have to go up there,” I said. “The downstairs is enough.”

“Who all wants to go upstairs?” Nelson asked.

“We’ll go later,” Charles Bender said.

“Well, while we’re all standing around here like a bunch of scared babies, I’m going to have a smoke.”

He took a pack of Viceroy cigarettes out of the pocket of his jacket, along with a book of matches, and lit up. He blew the smoke out in our faces. “Man, that tastes so good!” he said.

“Well, are you going to give us one or not?” Roy asked.

“Buy your own!”

“That’s not very nice.”

“I’ve smoked before,” Terrell said.

“Come on,” Charles said. “Give us one.”

“Well, all right,” Nelson said. “But you’ll owe me.”

He held out the pack and everybody took one. I was last.

“I have to go home,” I said. “I have a doctor’s appointment.”

“You do not!” Nelson said. “You’re just using that as an excuse.”

“Well, whether I have a doctor’s appointment or not, I’m going home now.”

“Do you think you can find your way to the door by yourself, you big baby?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

That evening at supper I thought my mother was looking at me in an odd way.

“Today was the day for your cub scouts meeting, wasn’t it?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“How did it go?”

“The scout leader never showed up so we left.”

“What did you do then?”

“Came home.”

She continued to look at me as I twirled the spaghetti on my plate with a fork.

On Sunday evening I was watching the usual fare on TV, trying to think of a way I might get out of going to school on Monday, when we heard the sirens going off, which could only mean a tornado was headed our way or something was burning.

We all went outside, as we did when something unusual was going on and we wanted to know what it was. There was a definite smell of smoke in the air.

“What is it?” my mother called to the neighbor woman who was standing in the corner of her yard with her hair in rollers.

“The old Layton house is on fire,” the neighbor said.

“I knew something like that was going to happen with that house sitting empty for so long,” my mother said.

Before we went to bed that night, our water was reduced to a trickle because the fire department was using all the available water for fighting the fire. I wanted to go down and watch the Layton house burn, but my mother wouldn’t let me.

“They don’t need a bunch of people standing around gawking,” she said.

“I won’t gawk!”

The next morning at school, Nelson Green cornered me in the hallway as soon as he saw me.

“Not one word about you-know-what if you know what’s good for you!” he hissed in my ear.

“You don’t have to threaten me,” I said. “I’m not stupid.”

“Yes, you are.”

“What did you do after I left? Did you leave cigarettes smoldering?”

“Of course not! We left right after you did. Honest.”

“You didn’t set anything on fire?”

“Hell no!”

After the fire was extinguished, the Layton house was no more, a vile black hole. Police found in the charred rubble, not a whole stack of bodies, but one body, burned beyond recognition. Everybody wanted to know who it was. Nobody could talk about anything else.

The question was answered a few days later when people realized they hadn’t seen Benny Bump, the notorious town drunk, for a number of days. When Benny’s dental records (had he ever seen a dentist in his life?) were compared with the teeth of the body found in the rubble, they were found to match.

Benny Bump was probably in the house when we were, watching us, laughing at us. He was the one who left the food wrappers and bottles. He probably slept on that old couch and he was the one who made the moaning sounds when people passed by at night. There always has to be an explanation for everything.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp 

As High as an Elephant’s Eye

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As High as an Elephant’s Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

We’re in my parents’ old green Pontiac. My mother is driving and my grandma in the passenger seat. In the back seat, I can’t see out the window when I’m sitting down, so I stand up and hold onto the back of the seat, something my father won’t let me do when he’s driving. I’m excited because we’re going to the store and I can probably get my mother to buy me something.

She pulls onto the enormous parking lot of Early’s Supermarket. (At Early’s Store Where Less is More.) She has trouble finding a place to park and when she finds one it’s all the way on the far side of the lot away from the store.

“I don’t know why it’s so crowded today,” she says.

I’m all ready to get out but she tells me I have to wait in the car with grandma.

“I wanted to go with you,” I say.

“Well, you can’t.”

“Bring me some Blackjack gum.”

“If they have it.”

“You’ll see it. It’s right where you stand in line to pay.”

“If I can remember.”

“Bring me some clove gum too.”

“You’re not greedy, are you?”

“No.”

“Either one or the other. Not both.”

“Well, then, if I can only have one, I want the clove. No, I want the Blackjack. No, make it the clove. No, I want the Blackjack.”

“You’ll be lucky to get any.”

“I never heard of clove gum,” grandma says.

“It’s good,” I says. “It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.”

“It’ll rot your teeth.”

“No, it won’t. It’s good for you.”

“Oh, dear!” mother sighs. “This is going to take a while, I can see. They’re so crowded today and I have some prescriptions to refill. I think I’ll just drop them off at the drug counter and go do my shopping and then go back and pick them up when I’m leaving.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” grandma asks.

“No, then we’ll all have to go because I don’t want him staying in the car by himself.”

“I don’t mind,” I say.

“Somebody might come along and kidnap you.”

“It happens all the time,” grandma says, “if you pay any attention to your news.”

I think about being kidnapped and try to decide whether I would like it or not. If it kept me from having to go to school, I’m sure I’d like it.

Mother gets out of the car and disappears into the maze of parked cars. I’m starting to feel hot because the afternoon sun is shining on my right side so I roll down the window the rest of the way and stick my head out.

“There’s more people right here than live in the whole town,” I say.

“I don’t know where they all come from,” grandma says.

“She sure has been gone a long time,” I say.

“Two minutes,” grandma says. “You’ll have to learn patience as you get older.”

“What’s patience?”

“It means being able to sit and wait without complaining about it.”

“I have my connect-the-dots book.”

“I have my magazine,” she says.

I open my connect-the-dots book to a page on which is obviously a cowboy on a horse, but you’re not supposed to know it’s a cowboy on a horse until you’ve connected all the dots. I can tell what it is, though, even before I connect the dots.

I don’t like drawing in my book so I use my number-three pencil that’s worn down to a nub and connect a few dots very lightly so I can go back later and erase them with a big green eraser that I found on the playground at school.

Grandma is reading an article in her magazine about “getting older.” It doesn’t mean going from sixth to seventh grade. It means going from forty to fifty.

“Life begins at forty,” she says.

“What does that mean?”

“It means that by the time you’re forty you should have your kids raised and you should be able to have some fun again the way you used to before they came along.”

“Before who came along?”

“Your kids.”

“I’m not ever having any.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like babies.”

“You’ll change your mind when you grow up and meet a beautiful young girl that you want to marry.”

“That’s not ever going to happen.”

“You’ll be all alone if you don’t get married.”

“I don’t care. I’ll have plenty of cats and a few chickens.”

“Well, we’ll see.”

I connect a few more dots and soon I grow tired of waiting. I want my Blackjack or clove gum and I want to go. I put the book aside and put my head back and close my eyes, smelling the smell of hot cars and feeling the sun on my head and arms.

“Do you think she’ll get me the clove gum or the Blackjack?” I asked.

“Maybe neither one,” grandma says. “The store is a madhouse today. She’ll be lucky to get what she came for.”

In a little while I’m aware of a commotion in the corner of the parking lot, not far from where we are. I hear voices and laughing and I see some kids headed over that way. It’s probably just a stupid clown or something, but I want to go see what it is so I open the door and start to get out.

“Where do you think you’re going?” grandma asks.

“I want to go over there and see what’s going on,” I say.

“You stay here. You don’t want to keep your mother waiting.”

“I won’t. I’ll just be gone a minute.”

“Don’t make me have to come and get you.”

“I won’t.”

“And watch out for cars.”

It’s an elephant to advertise a circus that’s coming to town and the man tending the elephant is giving kids rides for twenty-five cents. A couple dozen kids and three or four adults are gathered around, gawking and exclaiming as if they’ve never seen an elephant before. I’ve seen them but never in person and never up close.

I go to the front of the crowd where I can see better. A pinheaded blond girl is sitting on the elephant’s neck. She looks stupid because she’s afraid she’s going to fall off. The man walks the elephant a few feet away from the crowd and turns around and walks back. The blond girl shrieks and looks like she is about to crack. The man signals to the elephant and the elephant lowers the front part of its body and he reaches up and slides the girl off as if she’s no heavier than a bag of feathers.

I seem to be next in line to ride the elephant but I’m not because I don’t have any money.

“Wanna ride?” the man asks. He smiles at me and I look at his dark eyes and white teeth.

I shake my head but there’s nobody else who seems to want to ride the elephant behind me, so the man motions me forward. He surprises me by lifting me up, but, instead of putting me on the elephant’s neck as I expect him to do, he holds me up so my face is just inches away from the elephant’s eye. Not knowing what else to do, I reach out and put my hand on the elephant underneath the eye. It feels like soft leather, exactly like an old suede jacket. The eye blinks as if to acknowledge my touch and then the man puts me down.

I’m quickly forgotten because a little girl is holding up her quarter and wants a ride. The man takes the money, puts it in his pocket and lifts her up so she’s sitting on the elephant’s neck.

I’m glad I get back to the car before my mother does.

“What was it?” grandma asks.

“It’s an elephant. They’re giving rides.”

“Did you ride?”

“It costs money.”

When my mother comes back, she’s carrying two small bags.

“Did you get my gum?” I ask before she’s all the way in the car.

She reaches into the bag and hands a pack of Blackjack gum over the seat to me.

“What happened to the clove?” I ask.

“I said one or the other and that means not both.”

“All right. Just checking.”

She starts the car but has to wait for several other cars to get out of the way before she can make it back to the place where cars drive in and out.

“Can we go to the circus?” I ask.

“What circus?” mother asks wearily.

“There’s going to be a circus.”

“We’ll go only if you can pay for it.”

“I don’t have any money,” I say. “I’m just in grade school.”

“Then we won’t be going.”

I know she’s teasing me and I think I can probably get her to agree to go if I work on her long enough.

I open the Blackjack gum and unwrap the first piece and put it in my mouth. I’m glad she got the Blackjack instead of the clove. I think licorice is my favorite taste in all the world.

As she pulls off the parking lot onto the highway, I turn and look out the back window. I think I’ll catch another glimpse of the elephant as we drive away but I don’t. What I see is a cloud of dust that seems to be following the car and then disappears as we pick up speed.

“Life begins at forty,” I say.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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.”

“You and Ricky all washed up?”

“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

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