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Until We Meet Again

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Until We Meet Again ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

During the years that Florida Seamungle took care of Freddy, her invalid husband, he wasn’t able to speak or barely to blink his eyes. She did everything for him: got him up in the morning and put him to bed at night, bathed him, dressed and undressed him, lifted him in and out of his wheelchair (he had always been a small man), cooked his food and fed it to him (all he had to do was swallow), and talked to him as if he might answer. She read to him, sang to him in her wheezing soprano, and sometimes she put a little rouge and lipstick on him to make him seem more alive.

When Freddy finally died in his sleep, Florida had his body cremated without fanfare. She put his ashes in a large-sized Hellman’s mayonnaise jar and kept the jar on a shelf of the curio cabinet next to the TV where she could always see it.

Florida thought she could go on with her life (what was left of it), but she found it was just too bleak and lonely—empty, so empty—without Freddy. She had been married to him for fifty-two years and most of them were good, fine years. She wasn’t able to erase all those years and go on her merry way as if nothing had happened.

At a place called Under the Sun on Skid Row Boulevard that sold just about anything she bought a full-sized male mannequin (also known as a doll) with fully articulated arms and legs. She took the mannequin home with her in a taxi.

Of course the mannequin looked nothing at all like Freddy. Everything about him was shiny. He had shiny black hair (complete with pompadour) painted on his head, shiny black eyes (sparkling, like the glass eyes of a stuffed mountain lion), and a shiny skin with red spots on both cheeks. His shiny lips were slightly parted, showing tiny, perfect teeth which, of course, were shiny.

At first Florida was put off by the difference between the mannequin and Freddy, but after a few days she came to accept the difference and appreciate it. The mannequin was a young man and at times she was able to think of herself as a young woman worthy of him (even if the mirror told her otherwise). And, even though he was inanimate, he was for the most part no more inanimate than Freddy had been.

Florida Seamungle was happy again or, if not happy, she felt useful and not quite so lonely. At mealtimes, she propped the mannequin up at the table and put little dabs of food on his plate which, of course, she ended up eating herself or putting down the garbage disposal. She was delighted that her grocery bills were smaller because the mannequin really didn’t eat all that much.

As she chewed her food, with the radio playing lively dance music in the background, she looked over at the mannequin and smiled and he always smiled back. He was never grumpy or out of sorts. He never dribbled food out of his mouth down his front. He was the perfect dining-table companion. How fortunate she was to have found him!

She left him in his place at the table while she washed the dishes, and when she was finished she wheeled him into the living room and lifted him onto the couch, propped his feet up and covered his legs with an afghan. (He had always been susceptible to chill, especially in the lower extremities.)

They both liked the same programs on TV. If she laughed while watching, she looked at him to see if he was also laughing. If she cried, he also cried, and if she became bored with a program and wanted to change the channels, he was always compliant.

After the weather report, she switched off the TV, took the mannequin into the bedroom and got him into his pajamas and into bed. She pulled the covers up under his chin, kissed him on the forehead and turned off the light. She always left his door open a couple of inches so she would hear him if he stirred.

After several months of unchanging days, the line between Freddy and the mannequin became blurred for Florida and then disappeared altogether. The mannequin became no longer a substitute for Freddy but Freddy himself. Florida forgot that Freddy had died (she put his ashes in the basement where she wouldn’t have to look at them). He had been with her all the time. It was a leap that she made in her mind as easily as breathing.

In October the days were warm and the sky as blue as it had been all year. Florida wanted Freddy to have some time outdoors before winter set in again. She dressed him warmly and took him for a stroll in the park where he might observe the beauty of nature. The little outing went so well, and they both enjoyed being out of the house so much, that she took him again the next day and then the day after that.

On the third day of Florida pushing Freddy through the park, a woman came and stood in front of the wheelchair and Florida was forced to stop. She thought the woman was going to ask her for change because she was that kind of woman, a bum or a homeless person.

“What’s the matter with you?” the woman asked.

“What?” Florida asked.

“What, are you, deaf? I said, ‘What. Is. Wrong. With. You’?”

“Why, nothing’s wrong with me,” Florida said with a smile.

“Are you an escapee?”

“Am I a what?” Florida asked.

“You are such an asshole!” the woman said with exasperation. She was very short and fat, wore a filthy knit cap on her head and a man’s wool overcoat, even though the day was warm. She brandished a lighted cigarette like a knife.

“I beg your pardon?” Florida said.

“Every day for the last three days I’ve seen you pushing that dummy around in that chair.”

“Dummy?” Florida asked.

“Yeah! Him!” the woman said, pointing at Freddy.

Looking down at Freddy to see how the woman might be affecting him, Florida said, “He’s my husband.”

“Your husband!” the woman said with a hoot of laughter. “One of us is nuts and I don’t think it’s me!”

“If you’ll just let us pass?”

“It’s time you woke up and smelled the roses, dearie!” the woman said. “That dummy ain’t nobody’s husband!”

A small group of people, sensing that something interesting was happening, had gathered around to listen.

“We’ve been married for fifty-two years,” Florida said. “Not that I think it’s any of your business.”

“Well, I hope you’re married for another fifty-two and I hope he don’t give you a bit of trouble, neither.”

“That’s silly,” Florida said.

The people who had gathered around laughed and the woman with the cigarette bowed like Sir Walter Raleigh and receded (or seemed to) behind a tree.

Florida felt the people looking at her, laughing. She wanted to get herself and Freddy away as quickly as she could, back to the safety and security of their own home. How ugly the world was! How cruel people could be!

Feeling shaken, she stopped the chair and sat down on a bench to rest before going home. The air had suddenly grown colder and the sun, shining so brightly just a little while ago, had receded behind the clouds.

“It was a mistake to bring Freddy out into the world,” she said. “He doesn’t need this any more than I do.”

She pushed her fingers lightly into Freddy’s upper arm and he tilted crazily against the arm of the wheelchair in such a way that only a person not in his right mind would think he was a real man.

“You aren’t real, are you?” she said. “I’ve only been fooling myself all along.”

She began to be afraid somebody might report her and they—the bureau of crazy people, maybe—would come and take her out of her home and make her stay in a mental home against her will. They might even shoot volts of electricity into her head, the way she had seen on TV. The thought made her feel light-headed with apprehension.

She dumped the mannequin (not really her Freddy, after all) out of the wheelchair under a tree and hurried away before she changed her mind.

On her way out of the park, an old man shuffled toward her.

“Can you spare a dollar?” he asked.

She looked at him and smiled. “Freddy?” she said.

“Name’s Boo-Boo,” he said. “At least that’s what my friends call me.”

“Would you like to come home with me?”

She touched the sleeve of the jacket he wore that was slick with dirt and said, “Gunsmoke is on tonight. That’s your favorite show.”

“What time is it?” he asked.

“I think it comes on at eight,” she said, misunderstanding the question.

“You really want me to come home with you?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.”

“Could I have a bath and some clean socks?”

“Anything you want.”

She pointed to the wheelchair. He sat in it and twisted his head around and smiled up at her.

“This is all right!” he said.

She touched him reassuringly on the shoulder and began pushing toward home. She thought how light he was, how easy to push, and how much she had missed him in the time he had been away.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day

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They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day ~ A Short Story
by Allen Kopp 

It was a lonely, rocky place with liquid water and an atmosphere like earth’s. They had only each other to keep from going crazy while collecting the data they would take back home. Vance was older with other missions to his credit; Fiske younger, not long out of training.

Fiske was tired, had caught a bit of a cold. (“How do you catch a cold when there’s nobody to catch it from?”) Vance told him to relax while he prepared the evening meal. When the food was ready, Fiske was asleep. Vance touched him lightly on the shoulder. Fiske opened his eyes and sat up.

“Come and eat before I give it to the hogs,” Vance said.

“The nearest hog is millions of miles away,” Fiske said.

“We don’t know that for sure. I think I heard some rooting around outside last night.”

“Why didn’t you wake me earlier? Wasn’t it my turn to cook?”

“Thought you needed to sleep.”

“You’re too good to me.”

Before eating, Fiske did what he always did, marked another day off the calendar.

“How many to go?” Vance asked.

“A hundred and thirty-seven.”

“A cakewalk.”

A storm was brewing, so after the meal was finished Vance went outside to make sure everything was secure and nothing would blow away. When he came back inside, Fiske was checking the day’s transmissions from earth.

“Anything important?” Vance asked.

“Usual stuff. Status updates. Nothing very interesting.”

“No personal messages?”

“No.”

“Want to play a hand of cards before bed?”

“Not tonight,” Fiske said. “Headache.”

Vance opened the medicine chest and gave Fiske a couple of pills. “These will help you to sleep,” he said.

When they were in bed, Fiske turned his face toward the wall and made little snorting sounds.

“Having trouble breathing?” Vance asked.

“No, I guess I’ll live.”

“Are you crying?”

“Of course not.”

“If you want to cry, it’s all right.”

“I said I’m not crying!”

“What’s the matter, then?”

“I didn’t get a message from Linda. Again.”

“She’s probably busy with that day job of hers and taking care of her mother.”

“I think it’s more than that. It seems she no longer has anything to say to me. We were going to get married as soon as I got home.”

“Were?”

“I’m not so sure now that it’s the right thing to do.”

“Maybe you weren’t meant to marry Linda. Isn’t it better to know now before it’s too late?”

“Does it make any difference to you?” Fiske asked. “Not having anybody to go back to on earth?”

“What makes you think I don’t have anybody to go back to?”

“I don’t know. I just figured.”

“There is somebody, but I don’t talk about it to the people I work with.”

“You can talk about it to me.”

“It’s better if I don’t. You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?”

“Ever been married?”

“Once. We went our separate ways after five years.”

“Must have been tough.”

“Not really. Not as bad as having a tooth pulled.”

“Do you ever see her? Talk to her?”

“No. That was the point of getting the divorce.”

“You don’t know where she is?”

“I don’t care.”

“Couldn’t you at least have remained friends with her?”

“No.”

“You’re a hard case.”

“Not really.”

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep tonight,” Fiske said. “I keep thinking about Linda.”

“Read a book. Get your mind on something else.”

“I’ve never been much of a reader. I’m more of a doer.”

“Get up and do some work, then.”

“This storm has me on edge. Just listen to the wind howl!”

“I don’t mind it,” Vance said. “I’ve always liked being snug inside with a storm raging outside.”

“I’ve accepted that we’re going to die here.”

“From the storm? I don’t think so. We’ve seen worse storms than this.”

“People die on alien planets all the time.”

“I have no intention of dying.”

“What do you miss most about earth?”

“I don’t know,” Vance said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables, I suppose. Bananas. How about you? What do you miss most? Besides Linda, I mean?”

“Oh, everything,” Fiske said. “Trees and grass. Birds and flowers.”

“When people colonize this planet,” Vance said, “they’ll bring those things with them.”

“Maybe people have no business living in places like this,” Fiske said.

“Earth is no longer big enough. It’s time for the human population to expand beyond our puny little planet.”

“Humans! We think we’re so important but we’re not. The earth would be better off without us.”

“You don’t want to see other planets colonized?”

“Not especially. I just want to go home.”

“Go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Fiske said. “I would never have been able to stand this place without you.”

“That sounds strangely like a compliment,” Vance said.

“I just want you to know how I feel before it’s too late.”

The next day radio communication with earth was lost. Vance believed it was a temporary aberration that would correct itself in a day or two, but Fiske took it as another sign that he and Vance were going to die.

“They’re not coming to get us,” Fiske said.

“What do you mean?” Vance said. “Of course they’re coming, but it’s not time yet. They’ll come at the designated time.”

“We’ll be dead long before then.”

Fiske became ill with his lungs and Vance, not being a doctor, didn’t know what to do with him. All he could do was keep him comfortable the best he could.

“Soon you’ll be at home with Linda,” Vance said.

“That’s all over,” Fiske said. “I won’t ever see her again. She’s nothing to me. Only you matter to me now. I only want to be with you at the end.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying.”

Two weeks later, radio communication with earth still had not been restored.

“Maybe everybody on earth is  dead,” Fiske said.

“That’s absurd,” Vance said. “Of course they’re not dead.”

“I wouldn’t care if they were.”

“You’ll feel better in a couple of days,” Vance said, “and you’ll stop having those gruesome thoughts.”

“It’s just you and me now and I’m happy.”

Soon Fiske was not able to leave the bed. Vance lay beside him for hours at a time and when Fiske needed something Vance got up and did it. If Fiske was shivering, Vance held him in his arms until they both slept.

Vance soon became ill in the same way that Fiske was. He was no longer able to take care of himself or Fiske either. He believed for the first time that he and Fiske were indeed going to die and it seemed proper and fitting that it should be so, just the way Fiske had said.

Sometimes when he slept he had frightening dreams about being in a place of inky blackness where he couldn’t move his arms and legs and where he called out for help but no help was forthcoming. Once when he awoke from one of these dreams, he stood up to get a drink of water and as he was crossing the tiny space in the dark, something odd about the radio registered in his brain. All the controls were turned off. He hadn’t thought to turn them on. That’s why radio communication with earth had been lost for all those weeks. He laughed at himself and returned to bed.

Fiske stirred in his sleep and Vance leaned his weight against him, threw his left arm over him and put his nose near Fiske’s ear the way he was used to doing, but something wasn’t right. Fiske didn’t have the bulk, the volume, of a human man. Vance turned on the light and gasped when he saw that what he thought was Fiske was a pillow and a rolled-up blanket.

He stood up and looked around the room to see what had become of Fiske. He called Fiske’s name but there was no answer, just the way it had been in his dream. It wasn’t until he saw his own reflection in a mirror that he knew that Fiske wasn’t there, had never been there.

Vance had been the only man to volunteer for the mission that could accommodate only one person. He didn’t mind the loneliness, he said. He had known loneliness before and loneliness was nothing.

Hadn’t there been someone named Fiske back on earth?

Oh, yes. Fiske was a dark-haired younger man with fetchingly arched eyebrows that Vance had been drawn to. Fiske was like no other, sensitive and sweet. The two of them became close in a way that nobody would have guessed, even if they had tried. When Vance saw that Fiske meant to marry a debutante named Linda, he was wounded. He had had too much to drink, made a scene at a party and embarrassed Fiske and himself. Everybody was talking about it. That was why he volunteered for the lonely mission. He hoped he would die and never have to face those people again.

His fever broke and he drank some water and ate some food, after which he slept for many hours. When he awoke, he sent a transmission back to earth to the effect that he had been sick but now believed he would live. My head is bloody but unbowed, he said. I am master of my fate and captain of my soul.

Copyright 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Ten Thousand

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The Ten Thousand ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I had a new Siamese kitten named Percy, the cutest little thing you ever saw. He wasn’t used to his new home yet, so, at eleven o’clock at night when I opened the kitchen door to get something off the back porch, he ran out between my legs like a shot, presumably to get back to where he came from. He ran across the yard, to the fence and turned right. As I shambled down the alley in my pajamas and robe after him, some dogs began to bark and lights came on in houses. I figured somebody would end up calling the police, but I didn’t care; all I cared about at that moment was not letting Percy out of my sight. Finally I caught up with him at the end of the alley, where he had stopped to think about which way he was going to go from there.

I grabbed Percy before he had a chance to start running again and held him to my chest in both hands, a tiny ball of warm, soft fur. I scolded him for being a bad boy and trying to get away from me, but he started purring so I couldn’t be mad at him for long.

Every house had a garage that opened onto the alley. The doors of one of these garages were open and I couldn’t keep from looking inside. A man was standing beside his car with a massive bundle in his arms. I didn’t know his name but I had seen him and his wife around in the neighborhood.

“Oh!” I said. “Everything all right there?”

He heaved the bundle to the ground as if he couldn’t hold it any longer and looked at me. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “I was just loading my laundry into my car.”

I took a step closer.

“Well, good night!” he said, cheerily.

Still I stood there looking at him as he opened the trunk of his car and lifted the bundle and tried to put it inside. I could see how heavy it was from the way he was straining.

“Lots of laundry,” I said.

He laughed. “Well, you know how it is. Good night to you, now!”

“Laundries don’t usually stay open this late at night.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I’m going to drop it off in the morning on my way to work.”

The bundle was about six feet long and appeared to be stiffening. When he tried to stuff it into the trunk, the end of it caught on the lip of the trunk.

“That doesn’t look like any bundle of laundry I’ve ever seen,” I said.

I could tell he was losing patience with me. “Look,” he said. “It’s late. Why don’t you just take your cat and go on home?”

“I might feel inclined to call the police when I get there.”

I was playing with him, enjoying the unexpected feeling of power I had at that moment.

“No reason to do that,” he said.

“I think it might be interesting to tell them what I just saw.”

“You didn’t see anything.”

“I saw a man loading a suspicious-looking bundle into his car late at night. I think it’s my civic duty to alert the authorities and let them figure out what’s going on.”

“Nothing’s going on!”

“Is that a body you have in your trunk? A dead body?”

“What would make you think that?”

“It’s pretty hard to make a dead body look like anything else.”

“It’s my laundry. I already told you that.”

Percy, growing tired of the conversation, yawned and began to squirm.

“Well, my baby here wants to go home,” I said.

“Don’t go just yet,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid I’ve given you the wrong impression and I want a chance to make it right.”

“Why would you care what impression I have?”

“What you saw here is perfectly innocent.”

“All right. So it’s perfectly innocent.”

He slammed the lid of the trunk. “Would you like to come inside and have a drink?” he asked.

“I don’t really drink that much. And, anyway, I have to get my cat home.”

He waved his arm dismissively without looking at me again.

“Well, good night, then,” I said as I walked away.

I had been home only long enough to give Percy a drink of water when there was a knock at the kitchen door. I went to the door and asked who was there.

“It’s Clifford Lakey,” a voice said. “Your neighbor. We just spoke in the alley?”

I opened the door a couple of inches and saw the side of his face.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I was wondering if we might have a talk.”

“It’s late,” I said. “I was just about to go to bed.”

“I know but it’s important.”

I let him in and to my surprise he sat at the kitchen table as if he owned it. He put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and slumped his shoulders. He had dark circles around his eyes and a bad gash on his head. He exuded an odor like a wet dog.

“You hurt your head,” I said.

“It’s nothing. I can hardly feel it.”

“Well, what can I do for you on this Thursday night that’s almost Friday morning?”

“I did a stupid thing,” he said.

“We all do stupid things.”

“I did the stupidest thing you can do, but now it’s done I’m not sorry I did it. I’d do it again.”

He took his hand out of his pocket to wipe it across his brow and I saw it was shaking. “I’m so tired,” he said.

I sighed. I had been going to yawn, but I thought it might be too much. “Maybe we could postpone this conversation to a more suitable hour,” I said.

“You saw something tonight that I wish you hadn’t seen.”

“Your laundry?”

“You and I both know it wasn’t laundry.”

I went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of apple juice. I poured some into two glasses and set one in front of him. He gulped it down and I refilled his glass.

“I don’t care what it was,” I said. “I mind my own business.”

“Now that you’ve seen what I didn’t want you to see, I want to make to you a proposal.”

“Propose away,” I said.

“I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you’ll promise not to tell anybody about what you saw.”

“It was the body of your wife, wasn’t it?”

“A thousand dollars,” he said. “How does that sound?”

“I’d have to have it in cash.”

“Of course,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”

“What’s there to think about?”

“I would be compromising my integrity if I kept still about what I saw.”

He leaned forward, elbows on table, and covered his eyes with his hands. I thought he was going to cry. “My head hurts terribly,” he said.

“Would you like some aspirin?”

“No. What I need is help disposing of it.”

“Disposing of your laundry?”

“Since you already know about this, you seem the logical person to help me.”

I sighed wearily. “I have to get to bed. It’s way past my bedtime.”

“Would you do it if there was more money involved?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’d rather not get involved with a person disposing of his laundry late at night.”

He looked around the room. “You live here alone?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What’s your profession?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Lot of money in that?”

“No.”

“I’ll give you ten thousand,” he said.

I stood up from the table, walked to the middle of the room and whirled around like there was something wrong with me. “You’ll give me ten thousand dollars to help you dispose of your laundry?”

“And to keep quiet about it ever after.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d be taking an awful risk.”

“It’s my final offer.”

“I’d have to have it in cash.”

“I know. I don’t have the cash in the house but I could get it by the end of the day tomorrow.”

“By four o’clock?”

“All right,” he said.

“If I don’t have the money by four,” I said, “I’m afraid I’ll start having trouble with my itchy dialing finger.”

“You’ll have it by four, I promise.”

“In cash?”

“In cash.”

After I put Percy to bed and got myself dressed, I met Clifford in the alley. We both got into his car and he began driving.

He drove and drove and drove. He seemed to know where he was going, but I didn’t have a clue. Nothing looked familiar. It was too dark. I didn’t recognize anything.

We crossed into another state. I looked at my watch and saw it was almost two in the morning. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“I know a place,” he said.

We didn’t even bother with small talk, just sat in silence. I was sorry I had agreed to help him. The only thing that would make it worth all this bother and lost sleep was when I held the ten thousand dollars in my hand the next afternoon.

He turned off the highway onto an old country road that was so hilly and curvy I thought I was going to be sick. I asked him to stop and let me stand still by the side of the road for a couple of minutes, but he said we were almost to the place where we were going and soon everything would be all right.

Finally he turned the car onto a dirt road that went downhill.

“This doesn’t seem right,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I grew up near here. I know these back roads.”

“Let’s get this finished and go back home,” I said. “I don’t feel very well.”

The dirt road grew so rough and washed out that I was afraid we were going to get stuck. Finally he pulled up to a place where the road widened and turned off the engine. The dark and quiet were profound, the way death must be.

“We’re here,” he said. “It’s just up the hill and past those trees.”

“Where are we?” I asked.

“It’s an old homestead. People used to live here but they all died out about fifty years ago.”

“Probably from loneliness,” I said.

I helped him get the bundle out of the trunk and together we struggled with it up the hill through the brush.

“I didn’t realize your wife was such a big woman,” I said.

He laughed as if I had made a joke.

We came to a place where there was an old falling-down house and barn, the shell of an ancient pickup truck, dead and rotting trees, thick undergrowth everywhere.

“This place gives me the creeps,” I said.

There was a concrete slab between the house and barn. Over it was a rusted metal plate.

“This is it,” he said.

We laid the bundle down and I helped him pull the heavy metal plate to the side a few feet.

“It’s an old well,” he said. “Not a drop of water but it goes down hundreds of feet.”

I thought we would just dispose of the bundle and leave, but he opened it partway and shone his flashlight on it. What I saw was not what I expected.

“It’s a man!” I said.

“Yes.”

“You said it was your wife.”

You said it was my wife.”

“Well, I just assumed. Who is he?”

He sighed and spit on the ground. “If you must know,” he said, “he’s a hustler I picked up on a street corner downtown. I don’t know his name.”

I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. “I’m sorry, but you don’t seem like the type to pick up nameless hustlers on street corners.”

“When I took him home with me, he tried to rob me. We struggled. He hit me in the head with a bottle. It was him or me. I killed him in self-defense.”

“Why don’t you go to the police and tell them what happened?”

“For obvious reasons.”

He re-covered the hustler’s face and we heaved the body down the well. That was the easy part. I listened for it to hit bottom but heard nothing.

“No better place to dispose of a body,” he said.

“You’ve done this before,” I said, certain of the fact.

“What’s past is past.”

“Your wife?”

“She left about six months ago. I didn’t kill her but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to.”

“So you pick up hustlers from street corners downtown and kill them?”

“He was the first hustler I ever killed.”

I was feeling light-headed so I sat down on the edge of the concrete slab, hands on thighs, and leaned forward. When I sat up again, he was pointing a gun at me.

“You’re going down that well, too,” he said.

“What?”

“You didn’t think I was just going to hand over ten thousand dollars to a clown like you, did you?”

I was insulted by the clown remark. “Why am I a clown anymore than you are?” I asked.

“The ten thousand would have satisfied you for a while, but it would have occurred to you eventually that you could get more. Blackmail is an ugly thing.”

“So is murder.”

“Nobody will ever miss you.”

“How do you know?”

I stood up, thinking about rushing him for the gun, but I was afraid it would go off and I would be on the receiving end. “This is not right,” I said. “You won’t gain anything by killing me.”

“I won’t? How do you figure?”

“Just forget the ten thousand. I don’t want it.”

“It’s not about the ten thousand,” he said.

“If you’re worried I’ll go to the police and tell them anything, I won’t. I promise.”

“Forgive me if I’m not able to believe you,” he said.

He pulled back the hammer on the gun before firing. I surprised him, and also myself, by bending over and retching on the ground. It seemed that everything I had eaten in the past twenty-four hours came up. Having my life threatened was too much for me.

“I’m not well,” I said, after I was finished vomiting. “I think I’m having a heart attack.

I groaned, grabbed my chest and slumped to the ground. I guess he wasn’t able to shoot a person in the midst of a major heart episode. He lowered the gun and bent over me with what seemed like real concern.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “I didn’t mean…”

I rushed him then, caught him off-guard. I tackled his legs with all my might and brought him down. He fell hard on his back. When I saw he had dropped the gun, I went for it, but so did he.

He had the gun in his hand and was scrambling to stand up again when a metal rod came to my hand in the dark as if it had been placed there by Providence. I hit him in the head with the rod, not as hard as I would have liked, and he went down again. When he started to get up, I hit him again and then again. I kept hitting him in the head until it was a bloody pulp. He made a gurgling sound in his throat and I knew he was dead.

I was sick and trembling but I managed to drag Clifford’s body over to the well and push it in; replace the well cover the way it was. Then, not wanting anything more to do with the place, I ran down the hill to the car.

I didn’t know which direction to take to go back home, but I drove until I came to a gas station. I told the attendant where I wanted to go and he took out a map and wrote out some directions for me. I would have given him a big tip if I had had any money with me.

I didn’t get home until nine o’clock in the morning. I pulled Clifford’s car into his garage and turned off the engine. Wiped down the steering wheel and door handles with a rag to remove my fingerprints. Closed the garage doors as quietly as I could and slipped up the alley to my own house like a wraith. When I opened my back door, Percy was there to greet me.

A few days later the local newspaper ran a story about Clifford Lakey’s disappearance. Police were investigating but so far had no clues. His estranged wife was living in California and had not been ruled out as a suspect. The implication was that she had hired a professional killer to do away with her husband. That seemed as logical an explanation as any other. I somehow felt she would have a hard time proving she didn’t do it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Nearest Large City

The Nearest Large City

The Nearest Large City ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

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 Peabody 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 only want to be left 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 he was standing by the elevator talking to another man, she asked the desk clerk if he knew who he was.

“He’s been staying here for about a week,” the clerk said. “I don’t know who he is, though. Is he bothering you?”

“No,” she said, “I just thought for a minute that he was somebody I used to know.”

The next night at ten o’clock there was a knock on the door of her room. She had been getting ready to get into bed, but she went to the door and opened it. She somehow knew it was going to be him.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

He put his hand on the door and gently pushed it. When he was inside, he reclosed the door and locked it.

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

“You don’t have a husband,” he said.

She looked at him and took a breath. She knew she should be afraid but wasn’t.

“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. “What do you think?” he asked.

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

“Mothers,” he said. “We all have a mother somewhere, don’t we?”

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

He took her gently by the arm and led her to the window. “Look down,” he said. “It’s a long way to the sidewalk. A terrible way to die. The people who see it never forget it. It’s them you’re hurting.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

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

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

He let go of her arm and stepped away, put his hat on the desk. Watching him as he removed his tie and sat on the bed and untied his shoes, she picked up the phone and put it to her ear. When someone came on the line, though, she couldn’t think what it was she had been going to say.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Marion

Marion 1

Marion ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Bruno loved the carnival, the noise, the laughter and gaiety, the calliope music, the merry-go-round, the shooting gallery and games of chance, the fun house with its crazy mirrors, the man who would guess your weight for a quarter, the fortune teller, the fat lady and the sword swallower. He marveled at how beautiful the Ferris wheel looked, outlined against the night sky in lights of blue, red, yellow and green.

He wore a dark suit as if he had come from a funeral and kept his hat pulled down low over his face. As he walked among the crowds, he felt invisible because nobody looked at him. The air was cool and soft on his face. He ate his popcorn and smiled, genuinely happy.

When Bruno saw Marion, he knew right away she was the one he wanted. She was standing in line at the Ferris wheel, accompanied by not one young man but two. She had brown hair, curled and pulled to the back of her head. She wore a print dress, glasses, lots of lipstick, earrings and a necklace. Her appearance said that she thought quite a lot of herself. She was nothing to rave about but she wasn’t ugly, either.

Bruno watched the three of them, Marion and her two young men, as they got on the Ferris wheel and the fellow closed the bar over them so they wouldn’t fall out. Before the Ferris wheel started moving again, she looked over at Bruno and something passed between them. Call it a spark or a look of recognition. He felt it and he was sure she felt it, too.

The Ferris wheel went around a few times and Bruno kept his eyes on the car that Marion was in. When the ride was over and it was time for her to get out, he was still standing in the same spot looking at her. As she and her two young men walked away from the Ferris wheel, her shoulder brushed lightly against Bruno’s. He stepped back with deference and she turned and looked at him over her shoulder and gave him a little smile that he believed was fraught with meaning.

The next time Bruno saw Marion was at the shooting gallery. One of her young men was trying to shoot the metal ducks and was missing most of the time. When he failed to win Marion a teddy bear, she punched him on the arm and pretended to sulk. Before the other young man picked up the gun to give the ducks a try, Marion cast a quick glance behind her. Bruno was standing beside the refreshment booth looking at her. She quickly looked away, but he knew she had seen him and had expected him to be there.

Then it was on to the merry-go-round. Marion sat side-saddle on the outside horse, her purse dangling from her elbow, and clung to the pole. There was room for only one of her young men on the horse beside her, so the other one stood awkwardly by the horse’s head, holding on to the reins. Bruno stood in a spot so that every time the merry-go-round went around Marion would see him.

Round and round it went and Bruno was there, looking intently at Marion with that fixed smile of his while he slowly chewed his popcorn. And then he wasn’t there. He was playing a little trick on her. He could still see her but he had moved to a spot farther away where she couldn’t see him. When she saw he was no longer there, she craned her head around abruptly as far as the movement of the merry-go-round would allow. Her smile faded and she looked, to Bruno, disappointed.

At Lovers’ Lane, the three of them got into a small boat, Marion between the two young men. The idea was to row across the lake to a little island, from which all the bright lights of the carnival could be seen as in a picture. Bruno let the two other couples waiting in line go ahead of him and then he took the next boat after them and rowed across.

On the island, Bruno stood in the shadows and watched. He knew that Marion wasn’t far away. He heard her shriek playfully and figured that one of the young men was trying to get overly familiar with her in the dark. He saw her running with both young men chasing her. The three of them stopped out in the open and laughed, like children playing a game of tag.

After that, Marion and the two young men went to another part of the island, presumably to neck and to be alone. Bruno waited patiently, though, leaning his back against a tree. He knew Marion would come to him. He smoked one cigarette down to the end and had just lighted another one when he saw her.

She walked across the open space between the trees, alone, toward him. He didn’t know yet if she knew he was there, but soon she would know. He stepped out of the shadows and went to meet her. She smiled familiarly at him and he smiled back.

“Marion?” he said.

“Why, yes,” she said.

She had been about to ask him how he came to know her name when he surprised her by putting his hands around her neck and squeezing. Her expression changed to one of surprise and then of fear and pain. She put her hands on his to try to get him to stop, but she had little resistance against his far-superior strength. He watched her closely as he strangled her and for a moment he saw the face of his father.

He knew how to apply just the right amount of pressure with the thumbs and in a short time she was dead. He let her body fall gently to his feet. The two young men would come along soon looking for her and he wanted to be gone when they did. He crossed over to the far side of the island and circled back around to the little pier where the boats were kept.

After he left the carnival, he wasn’t ready to go home yet, so he drove around for a while before stopping off at a bar. He sat on a stool, drinking his drink and smoking his cigarette, enjoying the feeling of anonymity the place gave him. No one looked at him or spoke to him. He was nameless and faceless.

When he got home, it was almost midnight. His mother was waiting up for him, sitting on one of the leather chairs in her green bathrobe in the elegant sitting room. She rose to kiss him when he came in.

“Mother, you should be in bed!” he said.

“Did you have a good time, dear?” she asked.

“I always have a good time.”

“I worry when you stay out so late.”

“I know you do,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulder, “but there’s no reason for you to.”

“Your father and I had a terrible row after dinner,” she said. “It has put me in such a frightful state!”

“What was it about?”

“Oh, you know. The usual.”

“Is he here now?”

“He’s in his room,” she said. “Been asleep for hours.”

“Mother, what if I was to tell you that soon we’ll be rid of him?”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t really tell you now, except to say that we’re going to be so happy when it’s just the two us. We’ll be able to breathe freely and do all the things together we always wanted to do.”

“Oh, if only!” she said, her eyes glistening like a child’s.

“Now, you go on to bed,” he said, “and we’ll speak in the morning.”

“All right, Bruno dear.” She kissed him and was gone.

He walked down the hallway to his own room and closed the door. After taking off his jacket and throwing it on the bed and kicking off his shoes, he sat down at his writing desk. He took a blank piece of paper and wrote two brief sentences (I did your murder. Not it’s time for you to do mine.) in his beautiful handwriting, folded the paper and put it in an envelope. After sealing the envelope, he wrote the address on it of a man he had met one time on a train and left it on the desk standing upright against a book so he would see it and remember to mail it in the morning.

Copyright 2015 by Allen Kopp

Hat in the House

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Hat in the House ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Luster Gilman was from one of the poorest families in town. He had six brothers and sisters and he always wore overalls or hand-me-downs from his older brothers. He was small for his age, had intense brown eyes like a little fox and a hit-or-miss haircut given to him by his often-drunk father. All the Gilman boys had the same haircut, usually with a bloody knick or two.

I liked Luster because there was nobody else like him. He was funny in a way that nobody else was and he didn’t mind making fun of the teacher, Miss Meeks, behind her back when she lifted her fat arms above her head and showed the tops of her stockings. He could walk like her and he even claimed to have seen her smoking one time. He said she held the cigarette like she thought she was Lana Turner, which, of course, she wasn’t.

When Luster began to grow tiny horns on his head, he called my attention to them on the playground one morning at recess. They were little nubs about the size of baby beans.

“Now, why in the world would I be growing horns?” he asked.

“Maybe it’s not horns,” I said. “Maybe it’s something else.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Warts.”

“Did you ever know of anybody to grow warts like horns?” he asked.

“Can’t say I have,” I said.

“What can I do about it?”

“Comb your hair over them.”

“It’s too short. Do you know how long it would take to grow my hair long enough to cover them?”

“Well, wear a hat until your hair grows out,” I said.

The next day Luster wore a French beret to school. It suited him somehow and nobody seemed to notice it much, but I knew Miss Meeks wouldn’t let it alone. About the middle of the morning, during arithmetic, she stopped what she was doing and looked around the room.

“Does anybody know what a gentleman is?” she asked.

After a moment of thought, somebody said, “A person who lights your cigarette and opens your beer for you?”

“Well, yes,” Miss Meeks said, “but there’s more to it than that.”

“Somebody who opens the door for a lady?” somebody else said.

“Yes, but these are things a gentleman does, not what a gentleman is.”

“A gentleman is a man who abides by all the rules of behavior and who thinks of others before the thinks of himself,” Latrice Laflamme said, eager, as always, to set us straight.

“Very good, Latrice!” Miss Meeks said. “Now can somebody tell me what is the opposite of a gentleman?”

“A lady?” somebody said.

“A bum?”

“A convict?”

“A lawyer?”

“Yes, but we can go farther than that,” Miss Meeks said. “A person who isn’t a gentleman is a selfish person. A lout. Does anybody know what a lout is?”

“A bug?”

“No, a lout is a person who flaunts the rules of polite society and does things that nobody else does just because he thinks he has a right to do them. A lout is a person who. Wears his hat in the house!

She pointed to Luster Gilman with a flourish and everybody turned and looked at him.

“Go hang the hat in the cloakroom, Luster,” Miss Meeks said.

“What?”

“I said take off the hat and go hang it up.”

When Luster came back from the cloakroom, minus the beret, everybody was laughing at him and pointing. Miss Meeks just let them go wild for a few minutes before settling them down again to arithmetic.

After school that day I waited to have a word with Miss Meeks as she was leaving.

“Miss Meeks,” I said. “Luster had on that hat for a reason.”

“What? What hat?”

“The hat you made him take off.”

“Nobody has a hat on in the house for a reason,” she said.

“He’s growing horns and he was trying to cover them up to keep people from seeing them and laughing at him.”

“He’s growing horns?” she said, staring at me with her frog-like eyes. “Why would he be growing horns?”

“He doesn’t know why.”

“Evolution seems to have taken a strange turn with him,” she said.

“So you’ll let him wear the hat in class?” I asked.

“Absolutely not! If I let him wear a hat in the classroom, others will want special privileges for themselves. We can’t let that kind of thing get started. There are rules, you know.”

When Luster’s horns grew to be about an eighth of an inch long, everybody started noticing them. He tried to cover them up with his lank, sandy-colored hair, but they still stood out like nipples on a boar hog. People began calling him names like goat boy, nipple head, and the little devil.

After a few days of teasing, ribbing, and name-calling, Luster was sick of the whole thing.

“I’m going to take a knife and gouge them out,” he said.

“That’d hurt too much and they might grow back,” I said.

“I wish I was dead.”

“There’s worse things than growing horns.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Having two heads.”

“I’m going to run away,” he said.

“Where to?”

“Someplace where horns are appreciated and other people have them besides me.”

I wasn’t surprised when Luster disappeared. He was there and then he wasn’t. Everybody thought he had been kidnapped or murdered. Volunteers searched for him in the woods. They dragged the rivers but, of course, found no trace of him.

Luster’s mother and father were in the newspaper and on TV. They were both suspected at first of doing away with Luster but were eventually cleared. I had to believe they were secretly relieved they had one less child to take care of.

In a few months people stopped talking about Luster and moved on to something else. If most people chose to believe he was dead, I believed he was alive somewhere, laughing at the colossal joke he had played on the world.

Twenty-five years later I had escaped the small town and was living in the city. One evening I was at the library, thinking about absolutely nothing, when I noticed a man sitting at a table looking at me. I looked at him, looked away, and then looked back. Something about him was terribly familiar.

He stood up and, as he came toward me, I knew it was Luster Gilman as a grown man. The same fox-like eyes, small nose and ears. I couldn’t tell if he still had the horns because if they were there his hair covered them up.

“I think I know you,” he said.

“You’re Luster Gilman,” I said.

“You remembered.”

“Everybody thought you were dead.”

“I know.”

“Where were you?”

“If I told you, you probably wouldn’t believe me,” he said.

“Is it that fantastic?”

He looked over his shoulder. “I can’t talk here,” he said. “I only have a minute. Give me your phone number and I’ll call you in a few days.”

I wrote my address and phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to him and he was gone.

I waited for Luster Gilman to call me but he never did. Not in a few days. Not ever. I tried to find him but there was no trace of him in the phone listings or anyplace else. I even consulted a private investigator but he came up with nothing.

Had Luster Gilman as a man even existed? Had I imagined seeing him at the library because there was a part of me that needed an answer to what happened to him? Was my seeing him just another one of his impish jokes? Maybe I would have to wait another twenty-five years to find out. There had to be an answer somewhere.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

She Wants a Boy She Can Dominate

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She Wants a Boy She Can Dominate

She Wants a Boy She Can Dominate ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Joe Gillis was bored and he wasn’t used to being bored. He paced the floor of his spacious bedroom, looked out one window and then another. Crossing to the desk, he picked up a cigarette and lit it. How many had he smoked since breakfast? Dozens, probably, but he didn’t care. He crushed out the cigarette, not really wanting it, and lay down on the bed. He stared at the ceiling, at the ugly water stain there in the shape of Antarctica, and picked up the novel from the bedside table, The Naked and the Dead.

He read about five pages before Norma came bursting into the room. He was used to his privacy and didn’t like people walking in on him whenever they felt like it, even if that person was the great Norma Desmond. He would have to insist that a lock be installed on the door, even though it was a house without locks.

“What is it, Norma?” he asked, closing his eyes and resting the open book on his chest. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“How is the script coming, Joe dear?” she asked.

“It’s finished,” he said.

“Oh, Joe, you really are a marvel!” she said. “My only regret is that I didn’t meet you years ago. What a team we make!”

“That makes four scripts I’ve written for you. What good is a movie script that’s never filmed? It’s like a symphony that’s never played.”

“Oh, they will be filmed, my darling! Of that you can be sure! The great directors of the day will line up for the chance to film them. Just wait and see.”

“If that happens, Norma, I’ll be very happy for you.”

“Don’t say it that way, Joe. It isn’t only for me. It’s for you, too!”

“Whatever you say, dear.”

“I have a wonderful idea for our next project,” she said.

“Oh, Norma! I want to take a little time off. Get out of the house for a while.”

“Don’t you like it here?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I need a change of scenery. The chance to see some friends.”

“There’ll be plenty of time for that later, Joe. I want to keep working while I have the fire in me.”

“Last time I noticed, I was doing all the working.”

“I want you to write a film treatment of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.”

“With you playing Anna, of course!”

“Isn’t that the idea?”

“Norma, you’re too old for Anna.”

“I could pass for thirty-five.”

“Do you realize what a huge undertaking it would be to write a script from a novel of that size, Norma? It’s over eight hundred pages.”

“I know, Joe, it’ll be a big job, but you can do it. I know you can. I have such confidence in you!”

“It would take months.”

“That’s all right, Joe. Take as much time as you need.”

“And after I put all the time and effort into writing the script, will anybody be interested?”

“Of course they will!”

Anna Karenina has already been filmed.”

“I know, but not with me in it!”

“Does anybody want to see a fifty-year-old woman playing a character in her thirties?”

“There you go harping on age again! Age doesn’t matter!”

“Tell that to the world.”

“True stars are ageless! I could play the part at any age!”

“Maybe you could play all the parts. Including the men.”

“Oh, Joe, that isn’t funny.”

“Why don’t you get yourself a new agent and re-enter films by playing character parts. Grandmothers and goofy aunts.”

“Do you know what you’re saying? Stars of my stature don’t play secondary parts. I’m a star! I was born to be star and a star I shall always be.”

“Whatever you say, Norma.”

“So you’ll get started on the script tomorrow?”

“Why not today?”

“There’s just one thing,” she said.

“I’ll probably be sorry I asked, but what is it?”

“I want our version of Anna to have a more upbeat ending.”

“Meaning what?”

“I don’t want her to kill herself this time.”

“I don’t know, Norma. The suicide is what makes Anna what it is.”

“We’ll demand that the audience see Anna in a different light. Instead of being crushed by her disillusionment, she’ll vow to fight on, to make her life meaningful and not so self-centered. That’s the lesson she will have learned from her travails.”

“Who am I to tamper with Tolstoy?”

“What do you mean, Joe?”

“If I do a screen adaptation of Anna Karenina, I’ll have to do it the way Tolstoy intended.”

“Are you saying you won’t write the ending I tell you to write?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying, Norma. To preserve what tiny shred of artistic integrity I have, I will only do it as it was originally written.”

“Do you want me to get somebody else?”

“It’s a moot point, anyway, Norma. Nobody will ever produce a screenplay of Anna Karenina with you playing Anna.”

“And just why not?”

“Audiences aren’t interested in literary adaptations. They want laughs. Singing and dancing.”

“I can do that, too!”

“So, you would make Anna Karenina into a musical comedy?”

“I don’t know why not! I can do my Chaplin impression. People love that!”

“How do you explain Chaplin in a story that’s set before he was even born?”

“I don’t know. You’ll think of a way.”

“Norma, I can’t tell you to get out because it’s your room in your house, but if you don’t go away and give me some peace, I’m going to jump out the window and make sure I land on my head!”

“Oh, Joe, now you’re being abrasive. I know that side of you is always there, but I do hate seeing it. I think people should always remain ladies and gentlemen.”

“I have a terrible headache,” he said, “and my stomach hurts from all that rich food you serve in this house.”

“You’re being a big baby now,” she said.

“I don’t care what you call me.”

She lay down on the bed beside him, took hold of his arm and wrapped it around her neck. “What can mama do to make her little boy feel better? I know what! Let’s go to my boudoir and have a little afternoon lie-down. We’ve got the whole house to ourselves. We can make as much noise as we want. Max is out polishing the car.”

“You’re not my mama, Norma, and I’m not your little boy, and, anyway, little boys don’t do with their mamas what you’re suggesting.”

“Oh, Joe, you’re such as old stick! There are times when you have absolutely no sense of humor!”

She attempted to nuzzle his ear but he moved away from her.

“Get off me, Norma! You’re making me sick!”

“Oh, I make you sick, do I?”

“Just go away and leave me along and I won’t feel compelled to hurt you.”

She sat up on the bed, sighed and lit a cigarette. “I have something very important to tell you, Joe.”

“Can’t it wait? I told you I have a headache.”

“I want to get it out in the open.”

“Well, just say it, then, and let’s be done with it.”

“I’m going to have a child, Joe. Your child.”

He raised himself on his elbow and looked at her. “Don’t you think that’s carrying things a little too far, Norma?”

“It’s true.”

He laughed. “I think it’s just a cruel joke you’re playing on me to get me to do what you want. I’ll bet Max is in on it, too, isn’t he?”

She took his hand and put it on her stomach. “Don’t you feel it?”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’ve only been here two months.”

“What does that prove?”

“If it’s true—and I’m not saying it is—how do I know it’s mine? How do I know it doesn’t belong to Max or the gardener or the boy who delivers the groceries?”

“Now you really are being insulting!” she said. “It’s true there have been many men in my life but never more than one at a time.”

“Have you had it confirmed by a doctor?”

“I don’t need to.”

“How do you know it’s not a tumor or something? I won’t believe it’s true until it’s been confirmed by a doctor.”

“Very well. If you promise to go with me, I’ll make the appointment.”

“How is it even possible? I’m thirty-two and you’re fifty.”

“Age has nothing to do with it. Some women’s childbearing years extend well into middle age.”

“Why didn’t you take precautions?”

“Men always leave everything up to the women, don’t they?”

“You’ll be seventy years old when he’s in college. If he even lives that long!”

“We’ll raise him together, Joe. We’ll take care of him while we grow old together.”

“What are you saying, Norma?”

“I want us to get married, Joe. We’ll sneak away like a couple of young lovers and drive up the coast. We’ll find one of those scenic little chapels that overlooks the ocean and have the ceremony performed there. Oh, Joe, it’ll be so lovely! Just like a scene from one of my pictures!”

“I’ll never marry you, Norma!”

“Why not? You’re not already married, are you?”

“No, I’m not already married, but the list of reasons I won’t marry you is a long one. The first item on the list is I don’t want to be married. To anybody, but especially not to you!”

“You don’t need to resort to cruelty, Joe.”

“Sometimes that’s all that’s left.”

“You don’t want to be a part of your son’s life?”

“No!”

“I know what to do, then. I’ll go downtown at midnight. It’s sure to be raining. I’ll find the address that was given to me by a nefarious friend. There’ll be a single lightbulb over a doorway in an alley. I’ll knock and be admitted by a hard-faced woman in a dirty white uniform. I won’t be able to see the doctor’s face because he’ll have it hidden behind a surgical mask. He’ll have blood stains on his white coat, which will be the last thing I see before he puts me under the anesthetic.”

“Which one of your pictures is that from, Norma?”

“I won’t have to go alone, though,” she said. “Faithful Max will go with me and hold my hand.”

“Yes, what would we do without Max?”

“So, that’s what you want to see happen?”

“Of course not!”

“Then you do care? At least a little?”

“When it’s confirmed that there really is a baby, we’ll talk then about what’s to be done.”

“Oh, Joe, I think that’s a good plan!”

“And, in the meantime, could we possibly not talk about it? And, please, please, please, don’t tell Max or anybody else until you’re sure!”

“All right. Anything you say, darling.”

She went to the mirror, began primping her hair and face, wiping away the rivulets of mascara.

“I have a wonderful idea,” she said. “Let’s go out someplace for dinner.”

“I wasn’t planning on having any dinner,” he said.

“You’ll have to eat something. How about some spaghetti and meatballs? That’s what I’d like to have. Does that sound good to you?”

“I’m not fit to be seen in public.”

“Take a shower and put on some clean clothes. I’ll wait for you.”

“Anything you say, dear.”

“I’ll have Max get the car out. Come down when you’re ready. And don’t dawdle! I’m hungry!”

“Yes, sir!”

He felt a little conspicuous in the open car with her. He felt people turning their heads and looking at him. Older woman, obviously rich and eccentric. Younger man, a little rough around the edges. He had gigolo written all over him.

They hadn’t gone very far when Norma realized she was out of the brand of cigarettes she liked. She had Max stop at the curb in front of a drugstore and sent Joe in to get them, not without giving him the money for them, though.

“And hurry up!” she said. “It’s no fun sitting in the car like this waiting for you to come back.”

He bought the cigarettes and as he was leaving he saw his old friend Artie Green sitting at the counter having his dinner. He went over and sat down beside him.

“Hey!” Artie said. “Joe Gillis! Whatever happened to you? I thought you were dead.”

“I’ve been here all the time, Artie,” he said.

“Are you all right? I mean, you haven’t been sick or anything, have you?”

“No, not sick. I’ve been working, is all.”

“That girl, Betty Schaefer, that you were working with at the studio, told me she went to your apartment and found you had moved out and left no forwarding address.”

“That’s right. I’ve been staying with a friend temporarily.”

“Every time Betty sees me, she asks if I’ve heard from you or seen you. You must have really made an impression with her.”

“Artie, can you hide for a few days?”

“What? Why would I do that?”

“There’s a dragon waiting outside for me in a golden chariot. She’s going to kill me and I know I deserve to die, but, worse than that, she’s going to force me to marry her because she says she’s going to have my baby.”

“What? I think you’re hallucinating!”

“I’m not sure there is a baby but if there is the blame is going to fall on me and I don’t see how there’s any way to get out of marrying her unless I disappear or unless I kill myself. What would you do if it was you?”

“You’re not making any sense, buddy boy! Explain it to me slowly.”

“Is there a back way out of this place?”

“For employees only, I think.”

“Can you hide me at least for tonight?”

“Yeah, I guess I could put you up.”

“Let’s go.”

Before Artie had a chance to ask a store employee if it was all right for them to use the back way out, Joe was already gone.

He ran down an alley, almost falling a couple of times, turned right down another alley and ran for two blocks. He didn’t stop to wait for Artie but believed he would catch up and would know where he was.

He turned left into another alley, believing it was the way back to the street and far enough from the car so that Norma and Max wouldn’t spot him. He stopped to retie his shoelace and when he looked up, there was a man standing there in a shadow. He didn’t know until the man stepped out of the shadow that it was Max.

“You can’t stop me!” Joe said.

“No, I can’t stop you,” Max said in his heavy German accent. “We can find you, though.”

“Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

“You raped Madame and left her carrying your child. You can’t run out on her now when she needs you most.”

“It’s a lie,” Joe Gillis said, but even he knew how feeble those three words sounded. The biggest rat who ever lived. And with her old enough to be his mother.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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