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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

Gulwart

Gulwart

Gulwart ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I was in trouble. Some people were after me. I had no other place to go, so I went home after more than twenty years. My mother was all that was left of family. I was shocked at how old she looked.

“You’re keeping well,” I lied when she let me into the house.

“I hardly know you,” she said. “If it’s money you need, you won’t get any from me.”

“Want nothing,” I said. “Only to see you.”

“How long?”

“Don’t know yet. I might stay the night and I might not. It depends.”

“There’s food in the kitchen, but you’ll have to fix it yourself. I cook for no one. You can sleep wherever you want, or you can go to the devil.”

“Thank you for your hospitality, mama,” I said, but the irony was lost on her.

The house was the same as I remembered it. So many rooms I had never counted them all. Once a fine house, a house that rich people lived in, but now mostly a ruin. Secret passages and dead spaces in the walls and floors. Creaks and groans from the unsettled spirits, or was it the wind? The nearest neighbor ten miles away.

The room I had slept in as a child was sealed off, so I chose the same room on the floor above, aired it out and tried to make it comfortable. I found some clean sheets in a closet and made up the bed. Old and musty-smelling but serviceable.

I hardly saw my mother for two days. I got myself cleaned up, ate from cans in the kitchen and rested. I was happy in the knowledge that nobody knew where I was. Let them find me. Just let them try.

One evening I was sitting in my room looking out the window with my gun resting on the sill. My mother crept up behind me. I heard her breathing. I reached for my gun and pointed it at her without thinking about what I was doing.

“My god, but you are jumpy!” she said.

“Maybe it’s better if you don’t sneak up on me.”

“We need to have a little talk.”

I sighed and put the gun back. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about,” I said.

“You need to know some things before I die.”

“Are you going to die?”

“I’m older even than you think. I was fifty years old when you were born.”

“Yeah? The less said about that the better.”

“The house is yours when I cross over.”

“Is that because you love me so much?”

“No, it’s because you’re the only one left. I’d rather it belonged to you than to a stranger.”

“If you’re dead, you won’t even know.”

She sat down on the bed and put her hands on her knees. “I knew you’d come back,” she said.

“So you think I’ll go on living here after you die?”

“You have to carry on.”

“Carry on what? Being the resident ghoul?”

“It’ll take somebody of my blood.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Do you remember that trapdoor in the basement?”

“The one you were always telling me to stay away from?”

“There was a reason why I didn’t want you to go near it.”

“You were afraid I’d fall down in there and drown? Wasn’t it full of water?”

“No, it’s never been full of water. I just told you that so you wouldn’t be over-curious.”

“What was down there, then?”

“Come along with me. I want to show you something.”

One of the last things in the world I wanted to do was to go to the basement with my mother, but I slipped on my shoes and followed her. She stopped in the kitchen and picked up a bowlful of what to me looked like food scraps and garbage with a rotten tinge.

When we came to the basement door, she handed me the bowl of slop to hold while she fumbled with the keys. The door swung open on its squeaky hinges and I followed her inside.

The house was built into the side of a hill, so the basement sloped downward. She went to the farthest side, nimbly dodging the crap that littered the way. She seemed to be able to see in the murk better than I did.

“Haven’t been down here since I was about twelve,” I said.

At the trapdoor, she waited for me to catch up with her. “Now listen,” she commanded. “You won’t be able to see anything, but you can hear.”

She opened the trapdoor and poured the contents of the bowl down it.

“You use it as a garbage dump?” I asked.

“No. Listen.”

I didn’t know what I was listening for, but soon I heard it: a low growl followed by the definite sound of chewing.

“Do you hear it?” she asked.

“What is it?”

“It’s a gulwart, one of maybe only five or six in the world.”

“What’s a gulwart?”

She closed the trapdoor and we went back upstairs. In the kitchen, I sat at the table with my back to the wall. She filled the kettle with water and put it on the stove.

“What’s a gulwart?” I repeated.

“It’s an animal,” she said.

“You have an animal living under the basement floor?”

“Yes.”

“Is it like a mole or a gopher?”

“No, much larger than that. Much more ferocious.”

“Is it a kind of lizard?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve only seen it once and that was just its eyes and the top of its head.”

“And you feed it garbage?”

“Kitchen scraps, but sometimes other things, too.”

“Like what?”

She had a coughing spell and when she stopped coughing she said, “You might as well know the truth. I sometimes have to feed it a body, preferably a live one. A dead one will do, though, if it’s recently dead.”

I laughed. “I think you’re playing a joke on me.”

“Did you ever know me to play a joke on anybody?” she asked.

“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight,” I said. “You kill people and feed them to the gulwart?”

“The gulwart kills them.”

“Who are they?”

“Oh, people who come snooping around where they shouldn’t.  Sometimes hunters who come into the woods to kill my animals.”

Your animals?”

“An occasional bum or two. Sometimes people who have committed crimes and are hiding out in the woods. They all deserve to die.”

“And this you do all by yourself?”

“Your brother Kerwin used to help me until he hanged himself in the attic.”

“You never told me Kerwin killed himself. You said he died in prison.”

“I thought it best to keep the truth hidden.”

“You fed him to the gulwart?”

“His dead body, yes.”

“And you want me to pick up where he left off?”

“I want you to carry on after I’m gone.”

“Feeding the gulwart.”

“That and making sure nobody ever knows about it. The last thing we need is to have people snooping around.”

“What if I say no?”

“I said no at first, too,” she said.

“Why don’t you just kill the thing, whatever it is?”

“I would never do that. It knows the secrets of my heart. Of yours, too.”

I thought for a minute and wished I had a cigarette. “The thing must have burrowed in under the house,” I said. “If you stop feeding it, it’ll go away.”

“It’s been there for hundreds of years,” she said. “It won’t ever go away.”

“Like a family curse?” I asked.

“Make me one promise,” she said.

“You know I’m not good at promises.”

“Be here when I die and feed my body to the gulwart.”

“How about if I just call the funeral home and have them come around and pick you up and get you ready to go into a grave like a normal person?”

“That won’t do.”

“Who will feed my body to the gulwart when my time comes?” I asked.

“That’s a problem you’ll have to figure out on your own,” she said.

When my mother died, it was in her sleep with a tiny smile on her face. I was happy she had a peaceful death. I wrapped her in sheets, read some Bible verses over her because I thought that’s what she would have wanted, and took her down to the basement and fed her to the gulwart.

On a spring day the bad men from my past caught up with me. I had gone for a little walk in the woods. As I was coming around the house to go back inside, they were just standing there looking at me. There were five of them. Piper, the leader, was pointing a gun at me.

“We all pay for our sins,” he said. “Now it’s time for you to pay for yours.”

I knew they wouldn’t shoot me on the spot because if they did they wouldn’t get what they came for. “How are you boys doing?” I said.

“We’re just fine now that we’ve found you,” Piper said.

“I never knew I was so popular.”

“You know what we want,” Piper said.

“What makes you think it’s here?”

“It better be here, or we’re going to peel all your skin off and feed it to the hogs.”

“Well, come on inside, all of you. We can’t talk out here. It’s going to rain.”

I held the door for them as they came inside. Piper kept the gun pointed at my back the whole time.

“Sit down, boys, and make yourselves comfortable,” I said.

Balbo, the former boxer, hit me in the gut before I had a chance to re-close the door.  I went down and couldn’t get back up again for a few minutes.

“There’s plenty more where that came from,” Balbo said.

“Come on,” Piper said. “Let’s not hurt him until we get what we came for. Then you can kill him all you want.”

“How about a drink?” I said. “There’s plenty of liquor in the house.”

“Got any food in the house?” Howard asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ve got lots of food. My mother recently passed away, so it’s just me now. Why don’t you fellows just relax and I’ll grill some steaks and we’ll get this party going?”

“Got any scotch?”

“Sure, I got scotch,” I said. “I’ve got scotch, bourbon, vermouth, wine, beer. Anything you want. I’ll make a pitcher of Manhattans. How will that be?”

“Go with him,” Piper said to one of the other men. “If he tries to get away, shoot him.”

“Oh, I won’t try to get away,” I said. “I promise.”

I had become a pretty good cook from all the years I lived alone. I grilled some steaks, baked some potatoes and whipped up a salad. I put the food on the table for them. In a few minutes they were asking for more steaks.

It was the liquor that got them, though. They were all lushes. I kept the liquor flowing. I set the bottles on the table so they could help themselves.

Outside there was a thunderstorm brewing. Every time there was a flash of lightning, Piper looked at the window and flinched.

“Nothing like a good thunderstorm,” I said. “I ordered this one special for the occasion.”

“We’re not going back tonight,” Piper said. “We’ll stay here until morning,”

“Glad to have you,” I said. “I’ve got plenty of room and I don’t get that many guests.”

“Shut up, you!” Balbo snarled.

“Yes, sir!” I said.

In that way, with their judgment impaired from the liquor, I was able to get them down to the basement and to the gulwart one by one. They were stupider and easier to trick than I ever gave them credit for. By morning the thunderstorm was over and I was thug-free.

I was grateful to the gulwart and I was beginning to understand what my mother had meant about not wanting to kill it. I would stay around for a while and see what happened. The five bodies, I’m sure, would keep the gulwart satisfied for a while. A long while, I hoped. In the meantime I would keep feeding it garbage. I had even stopped being afraid to go down there alone.

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

The Place Where He Lives

The Place Where He Lives

The Place Where He Lives ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The young man, Boyd Bell, age twenty-two, had just been released from a mental hospital and was on his way home by bus. He settled himself in a seat toward the back where he believed he would not be bothered by any of his fellow passengers, when two old ladies came and sat in the seat directly in front of him. He was going to get up and move to a seat farther away, when a third old lady came and sat in the aisle seat beside him, hemming him in.

It soon became obvious that the three old ladies were traveling together. They looked alike, all three of them, and had identical white hairdos, curly on top and flat on the sides. The thing about them that was most remarkable, though, was that each wore a plastic flower above the right ear: one blue, one yellow and one pink.

Right away Boyd could smell the perfume of one of the old ladies (maybe all three) and didn’t like it. It smelled like sweet skunk and reminded him that he hadn’t eaten all day and that he might be sick on the trip home. He opened the window a couple of inches and smelled the air outside, cow manure and carbon monoxide fumes.

As soon as the bus began to move, the old lady sitting beside Boyd scowled at him and took a headscarf out of her patent leather purse (identical to what the other ladies had) and put the headscarf over her head and tied it under the chin. She held onto the knot with her liver-spotted old hand as if the headscarf would blow off if she didn’t.

Boyd smiled, suppressing a laugh, and turned his nose toward the opened window. He put his head back, not minding that the seat back was greasy, and hoped that he might be able to go to sleep to help pass the time.

He soon forgot the old ladies were there. After a few miles, though, the old lady sitting beside him pressed her fingers into his arm.

“Kiddo,” she said. “Today is not a good day to be blown completely away. Will you close that window?”

“You can always move to another seat if you don’t like it,” Boyd said.

“But I’m sitting here,” she said. “This is where I want to sit.”

“If you must know the truth,” Boyd said, “I like having the window open because your perfume makes me feel sick. I’d like to get where I’m going without vomiting, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I have Dramamine, if you’d like one,” the old lady said.

He sighed, mollified by her kindness, and closed the window with a loud smack. He closed his eyes again and tried to pretend the old ladies weren’t there.

Soon she was pressing her fingers into his arm again.

“Would you like a cookie?” she asked. “I made them myself.”

He didn’t want a cookie but when he saw it was oatmeal raisin, he took one and ate it and then had another.

“Good,” he said. “I haven’t had anything to eat all day.”

“My cookies always gets ‘em,” she said.

She gave a cookie to the two old ladies on the seat in front and there they sat, the four of them, silently eating cookies as the bus churned through farm country.

“Are the three of you sisters?” he asked.

“We’re triplets, split from the same egg.”

“Ugh,” he said.

“I’m Peachie and these are my sisters Billie and Zelda.”

They lifted themselves up far enough to see over the seat and looked at him.

“How do you do?” Billie said.

“So pleased to make your acquaintance,” Zelda said.

“We’re very old, not to mention very odd,” Peachie said. “All our lives we’ve never been apart and people always marvel at how much alike we are.”

“Why do you wear those plastic flowers in your hair?” he asked.

Peachie laughed. “You noticed that, did you? It’s so people can tell us apart and we can tell each other apart, now that our eyesight is no longer what it used to be. I’m the sunny one so my flower is yellow. Billie tends to be morose so her flower is blue. Zelda is, well, Zelda is Zelda, so her flower is pink.”

“Where you headed on this old bus?” he asked.

“Oh, here and there,” Peachie said. “We like to ramble about meeting interesting people. Like you.”

“I’m not interesting,” he said.

“I beg to differ,” Billie said.

“All our family is gone,” Peachie said, “so it’s just the three of us. We stick together. We don’t like to stay at home all the time and do nothing—there’s no quicker way in the world to get old before your time—so we go out into the world and have adventures. Then when we get tired we go back home and rest for a while before setting out again. We’re just as free as birds.”

“I’ve heard that witches travel in groups of three,” he said. “Also demons.”

Peachie laughed. “We might be witches in some quarters but I doubt that we’re demons. Anything is possible, though, I suppose.”

“If you were a demon, I think you’d know it,” Billie said.

“We’ve been called lots of things in our time,” Zelda said.

“I’ll bet you’ll never guess where I’ve been for the last two years,” he said.

“Let me guess,” Peachie said. “It’s jail, I’ll bet, isn’t it?”

“Not quite, but close.”

She put her hands to the sides of her head as though looking into the past. “I see white walls,” she said. “Bars on the windows. Stern women in white.”

“You’ve almost got it,” he said.

“I know!” she said. “You’ve been in a mental institution.”

“That’s right.”

“But you were lucky, though.”

“Lucky how?”

“You didn’t mean to kill that boy. The district attorney wanted to put you in jail for the rest of your life, but they just put you away for two years instead. It was a lenient sentence.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t know how I know. I just know.”

“She’s been doing this ever since she was a child,” Billie said. “There’s no figuring it out. It just is.”

“It’s a gift,” Zelda said.

“So now you’re free,” Peachie said, “you can begin your life all over again.”

“I don’t want to begin my life all over again,” he said. “At home out back we have an old barn with sturdy rafters. I’m going to climb up to the hayloft, tie a rope around my neck, and jump off.”

“I won’t tell you you shouldn’t do it,” Peachie said, “because you already know that.”

“Don’t you have any family?” Zelda asked.

“Just my mother. She’ll be waiting for the chance to split my head open with an axe and say it was an accident, so I’ll save her the bother.”

“Think how she’ll feel when she sees you hanging from the rafter in the barn,” Billie said.

“I’d give anything to see her face,” he said.

Suddenly feeling disgusted with himself for telling his innermost secrets to strangers, he slouched down in the seat, turned his face toward the window again and went to sleep. When he awoke, he was aware that three people had been there and were gone, but he couldn’t remember anything about them.

The bus let him out two miles from home and he began walking slowly along the highway. He ignored the cars that passed him and they ignored him. Finally an old-fashioned black car the likes of which he had seen only in pictures stopped for him and the back door swung open to allow him to enter.

There were three very old ladies in the car, two in the front seat and one in the back. He smiled as he got in and they smiled back.

“Whereabouts you headed?” the old woman in the back seat asked him. She wore a yellow plastic flower above her right ear.

“I’m going home after a long absence,” he said. “If you could just give me a ride to the crossroads, I’d appreciate it. I sure am tired.”

As he looked closer at the three old ladies, he saw how alike they were. They had identical white hairdos, curly on top and flat on the sides. The old ladies in the front seat had plastic flowers above their right ear, too, but theirs were blue and pink.

“Are you all sisters?” he asked.

“We’re triplets,” yellow flower said. “Split from the same egg.”

“I never met any triplets before,” he said. “Why do you wear plastic flowers in your hair?”

“So people can tell us apart and so we can tell each other apart, now that our eyesight is no longer what it used to be.”

“Where did you say you wanted me to let you out?” blue flower asked, driving the car.

“At the crossroads, if you don’t mind,” he said. “You’ll see it when you come to it.”

As they approached the crossroads, blue flower made no attempt to even slow down.

“I think you just passed it up,” he said, looking over his shoulder out the back window.

“Yes, that was it,” yellow flower said.

He rubbed his eyes, leaned into the corner of the back seat and slept the sweetest sleep he had ever known. When he woke up he was hungry and had a crick in his neck. He looked out the window but could see nothing. Night had come on unexpectedly.

“Where we going?” he asked. “I hope we can stop and get a hamburger soon.”

The old ladies didn’t answer because they didn’t seem to hear. They were lost in their own nighttime thoughts.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Christmas Guests

The Christmas Guests 2

The Christmas Guests ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The party crowd was attentive as tiny Chickpea Knuckles, standing beside the Christmas tree on her little platform, sang in her crystalline soprano voice. When she came to the end of her set of songs, the guests applauded long and enthusiastically. Chickpea bowed graciously a couple of times, threw a kiss or two and then receded into the background.

Sylvia Peat, her enormous breasts trussed up inside her green silk dress, took hold of Mrs. Pinkwater’s wrist in both her hands like a vulture. “Lovely Christmas party, my dear!” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Where did you find that adorable midget singer?”

“You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Do you think she’d sing at my New Year’s soiree?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “You could ask her. She doesn’t sing for free, though.”

“Where did you find a family of midgets?” Enid Goode asked.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “The father is in jail.”

“What did he do?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. Here’s the singer’s mother, though, if you’d like to meet her.

She snagged hold of Carlotta Knuckles, who was just walking past, and pulled her into the circle of ladies.

Carlotta was wearing a slinky, gold-colored evening gown that Mrs. Pinkwater had had made for her. She carried a long cigarette holder, taking occasional puffs on a cigarette that had gone out a long time ago.

“How do you do?” Carlotta said, looking up shyly at the ladies—all in various stages of drunkenness—that surrounded her like a forest of redwood trees.

“Isn’t she sweet?” Betty Rowley said.

“What’s it like being a midget?” Shirley Faraday asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “It’s more respectful.”

“What’s wrong with calling them midgets?” Madge Settle asked. “That’s what they are, isn’t it? How many of them are there?”

“There’s mother, daughter and son.”

“Where’s the son?” Enid Goode asked. “I’d like to see him.”

“He’s not safe with her,” Betty Rowley said. “She’s looking for a new husband, you know!”

All the ladies laughed.

“Go to hell!” Enid Goode said.

“Well, he isn’t old enough for that,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “He’s still just a boy.”

Just then Bixley Knuckles walked past, bearing a tray of drinks over his head. Mrs. Pinkwater tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and looked at her.

“You don’t have to serve drinks,” she said. “You’re a guest.”

“I like doing it,” he said. “It gives me a chance to hobnob.”

Shirley Faraday ruffled his hair. “He’s so cute I could just eat up him!” she said.

“Hey!” Bixley said. “Hands off!”

“The ladies like you,” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Of course they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re at liberty to touch me!”

Mrs. Pinkwater leaned over and whispered in Bixley’s ear. “She’s a little drunk,” she said. “Don’t mind her.”

“Okay,” he said and was gone.

“I’d like to wrap him up and take him home,” Shirley Faraday said.

“And what would you do with him when you got him there?” Betty Rowley said.

“I don’t know. I’m sure we’d think of something.”

The crowd of ladies dispersed to freshen their drinks or to use the ladies’ room.

“How are you holding up, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Carlotta.

“All right, dear.”

A waiter came by with a tray of canapés, bent over and thrust them toward Carlotta.

“Try one,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re delicious.”

Carlotta took one each hand and began munching on them. “I have something to tell you,” she said, “and I hate to say it.”

“What is it?

“Quincy has escaped from jail.”

“Oh, my goodness! Are you sure? How did it happen?”

“He’s three feet tall. When the guards opened the doors, they were preoccupied and didn’t look down. He escaped right under their noses.”

“Oh, dear!”

“But that’s not the worst of it. When I was in the kitchen a while ago, there was a knock on the back door. I thought it was going to be another liquor delivery, but when I opened the door who do you think was standing there?”

“Let me guess.”

“Here is where it gets bad. I took him upstairs and hid him when nobody was looking.”

“You know you could get me in trouble for aiding and abetting an escapee, don’t you?”

“He’s cross-dressing.”

“He’s what?”

“He’s disguised as a woman. That was his specialty when he was in the circus, but now, of course, he’s playing a real woman instead of a witch or a harridan.”

“How is that going to help?”

“The police are looking for a male midget.”

“Keep him hidden and we’ll decide what to do with him when the party is over.”

“He wants to come down and join the party. He’s been in prison since Thanksgiving. He’s lonely.”

“All right, but keep him in the background. If any of my guests begin to suspect he’s more than he seems to be, he’ll have to leave. I won’t have my party ruined.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Carlotta said.

Carlotta introduced her “sister,” Corabelle, from New Orleans, to all the guests. They were charmed as she spoke to them in a soft Southern accent. When one of the male guests, Clifford Clifford (himself not much taller than a midget), asked Corabelle to dance, she graciously accepted without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

“Where did she learn to dance like that?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to Carlotta as they stood off to the side and watched as Corabelle and Clifford Clifford moved around the floor.

“He’s always been a good dancer,” Carlotta said.

“She moves effortlessly as if she dances every day of her life.”

“What a lovely compliment!” Carlotta said. “I’ll be sure and tell him what you said. He doesn’t very often have a chance to feel good about himself.”

And where did she get the dress and wig?”

“It’s a long story. He bought them for a lodge function that he attended as a woman. And not one of his lodge brothers recognized him, either!”

“If I didn’t already know he was a man,” Mrs. Pinkwater said, “I’d never suspect.”

“It makes me so proud!” Carlotta said.

When Corabelle finished dancing with Clifford Clifford, others wanted to dance with her but she declined.

“I’m all fagged out for the moment, gentlemen,” she said. “I have to get myself a refresher.”

“Remember I have the next dance!” Finch Baggett called to her.

“You got it, mister!” she said.

“And I have the one after that!” Trent Trill announced.

“Oh, you kid!”

“I never expected her to be so popular with the men,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “And they’re all married. Their wives are looking on with dissatisfaction, if they’re not too drunk to notice.”

“It’s the novelty of the thing,” Carlotta said.

“And wouldn’t they be surprised to know that the thing is not what they think it is?”

“Oh, you kid!” said Carlotta.

At the buffet table, Bixley spotted Corabelle and they began sparring playfully. When Corabelle got Bixley in a headlock, Mrs. Pinkwater and Carlotta broke them up before they gave away Corabelle’s secret.

“Let’s show them our tumbling moves,” Bixley said. “They’d love it.”

“Can’t,” Corabelle said. “I’m wearing a dress, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“So?” Bixley said.

“Go get me a glass of that champagne, sonny boy,” she said as she sat down to eat the plate of food the maid prepared for her.

The party didn’t begin to break up until after midnight.

“The best party ever!” one guest after the other said as they thanked Mrs. Pinkwater and went out the door.

“We fooled ‘em,” Quincy said, removing the wig and kicking off the pumps. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Get me another glass of that champagne.”

“Not so carefree, mister!” Carlotta said. “You’re a wanted midget, you know.”

“I can be a woman for as long as I have to be.”

“And what happens when they pull off the wig and lift up the dress and discover you’re really a man?”

“I guess I’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

“My husband will be home from his business trip in two days,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I suggest the entire midget family stay here until then. I have plenty of room.”

“Oh, we couldn’t impose!” Carlotta said. “Christmas is in three days!”

“You’d be doing me a favor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I hate being alone at night.”

“Your husband wouldn’t want to find us here when he comes home.”

“He won’t mind. He enjoys having company.”

“Well, it’s awfully kind of you, but I don’t know.”

“Quincy can remain your sister Corabelle for as long as you’re here. If the police come snooping around looking for Quincy, just tell them she’s your sister visiting from New Orleans. If he can fool all my party guests, he can fool the police.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Quincy said. “I don’t relish the idea of being thrown back in the can and spending Christmas in jail.”

“I don’t know how we’ll ever repay you for all your kindness to us,” Carlotta said, on the point of tears.

“Can I sleep in that little bedroom in the attic overlooking the back yard?” Bixley asked. “It makes me feel like the captain of a ship.”

“How do you know about that room?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked.

“I did a little exploring while everybody was busy,” Bixley said. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“I can sleep anywhere,” Chickpea said, “as long as there are no snakes.”

Mr. Pinkwater, when he returned from his business trip on the day before Christmas, was not surprised to find the midgets installed in his home, but he was surprised to discover Quincy Knuckles as a woman.

“This is Miss Corabelle Hamilton, from New Orleans, Louisiana, come to spend Christmas in our home,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Quincy Knuckles is no more.”

Corabelle stood up and offered her hand to Mr. Pinkwater. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”

“I don’t think that’s the same person at all,” Mr. Pinkwater said to Mrs. Pinkwater when they were alone. “I think they’re playing a trick on us.”

“We’re going to have such a lovely Christmas!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re like the odd children we never had.”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

What is Christmas Without a Tree?

What is Christmas Without a Tree 2

What is Christmas Without a Tree? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“Oh, mother!” Doris said. “It’s Christmas Eve and you don’t even have a tree!”

“Who needs it?”

“Isn’t Otha still here?”

“She’s in the kitchen fixing supper. And she has her hands full without worrying herself over a tree.”

As Doris walked into the house, she looked like a movie star in her mink jacket, matching hat, and stiletto heels. And—perhaps more surprising than the way she looked—she wasn’t alone. A man came through the door behind her. A smiling man in a broad-brimmed hat and wool overcoat, carrying with him the scent of the outdoors.

“Mother, I want you to meet someone,” Doris said. “His name is Damon. He’s a friend of mine. He’s going to spend Christmas with us.”

Damon took off his glove and took the old lady’s hand in his own. “I’m so happy to meet you, Mrs. Davis,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Who are you?” she asked, looking from him to Doris and back again.

“I just told you, mother,” Doris said. “His name is Damon. He’s a good friend. That’s all you need to know.”

“What’s his last name?”

“If I told you, you wouldn’t remember for five seconds.”

“And he’s going to be staying here? In my house? A complete stranger?”

Doris laughed. “I can vouch for him, mother,” she said. “The silver is safe.”

The old lady managed a tight little smile. “Well, why didn’t you call and tell me you were coming? We might have managed something a little more fitting for supper.”

“I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“You know I hate surprises.”

“I’ll bring the stuff in from the car,” Damon said.

“And you don’t need to worry about food,” Doris said. “We brought a turkey, a ham, a cake, a pie, oranges, nuts, candy and lots of other things, Tomorrow I’m going to cook Christmas dinner for you and Otha.”

“You think we don’t have enough to eat?”

“No, it isn’t that. It’s just that I want you to have something special for Christmas dinner.”

“What makes you think we need it?”

“Do you want me to give it away to the neighbors? I’m sure they’d be glad to have it.”

“Don’t get smart with me. You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

“What way did you mean it, then?”

Damon came in with a load of bags and boxes from the car. Doris directed him to the kitchen.

“He’s your latest love interest, I take it,” the old woman said.

Otha came in from the kitchen dressed in men’s old clothes that came from the rag bag. Her hair was tied up in a dishtowel.

“Otha, dear!” Doris said. “You’re looking ravishing tonight, as always.”

“What am I supposed to do with all this stuff they bringin’ in?” Otha asked. “We ain’t got room for it.”

“I’m sure you’ll find room if you try hard enough,” Doris said. “Put as much as you can in the refrigerator. Anything that won’t fit put on the back porch.”

“I suppose you’re going to want dinner,” Otha said.

“No, we’ve already had dinner,” Doris said. “But thank you, though, for the lovely invitation. And I’m cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow. You won’t have to do a thing.”

“We weren’t having anything special. I was going to fix some chicken and dumplings.”

“Well, you won’t have to fix anything now.”

“Who is that man in the kitchen?”

“His name is Damon something-or-other,” the old woman said.

“Well, tell him to get out of there,” Otha said. “He gets on my nerves. And make sure he understands that my bedroom is strictly off-limits.”

“Here he is now,” Doris said. “You can tell him yourself.”

“Well, here we all are,” Damon said, taking off his coat. “What a happy, happy Christmas we’re going to have! I think we’re going to need a Christmas tree, though. What is Christmas without a tree?”

“Does that mean you’ll go back out in the cold and find a place that’s still open and buy us one?” Doris asked.

“Only if you ask me in a very nice way.”

“Isn’t he just the dearest thing?” Doris said.

“I don’t know if I would exactly call him ‘dear’,” Otha said.

“I’ll see what I can get,” he said. “Don’t expect much, though. There won’t be anything left at this time of night on Christmas Eve.”

“Do your best, dear,” Doris said, kissing him on the lips. “That’s all anybody can do. And get some lights and ornaments and things.”

“You know how I devote my life in service to others,” he said. “Do you want to come with me?”

“I haven’t seen my mother in two years. I think I’d rather stay here and visit with her.”

“Suit yourself. You don’t know what you’ll be missing.”

He put his coat on again and was gone.

Doris looked at the old woman and the old woman looked at the wall. “You don’t seem happy to see me,” Doris said.

“I’m too old for unexpected guests.”

“I thought you’d be pleased to see me on Christmas Eve.”

“I am. It’s just that we’re not prepared for company.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it. You have three empty bedrooms upstairs that are always as neat as a pin. And I’m not company. I’m family.”

“What about him?”

“You can consider him family, too.”

“He might as well be a cardboard cutout for all I know about him.”

“You’ll have a chance to get to know him better if things work out the way I want them to.”

“Are you planning on bringing him to my house often? Because, if you are, I’m not sure I like the idea.”

“Well, we don’t have to talk about that now, do we? On Christmas Eve?”

“How long have you known him?”

“About a year.”

“Where’d you meet him? Or maybe I’m better off not knowing.”

“A mutual friend introduced us.”

“What does he do for a living?”

“He’s a salesman.”

“What does he sell? Vacuum cleaners?”

“Medical equipment to hospitals.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a job to me.”

“It’s a swell job and he makes plenty of dough.”

“How old is he?”

“A few years older than me, but it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t care if he was fifty years older than me. I love him and we’re going to be married.”

“How many times have you been married before? Is it two or three?

“You know how many times.”

“Does he know?”

“Yes.”

“And it doesn’t bother him?”

“No.”

“You say you love him but does he love you?”

“Not as much as I love him.”

“You’d better marry him quick, then, before some other woman comes along and grabs him up.”

“You really don’t know what you’re talking about, but I know that’s never stopped you before.”

“Well, when is the wedding?”

“I don’t know yet. He isn’t entirely free at the moment.”

“Meaning what?”

 “He has to wait for his divorce decree.”

“He’s a married man?”

“Only technically. He and his wife have been separated for a long time. They’re only just now getting around to getting a divorce.”

“I don’t understand you,” the old woman said. “Are you telling me you’re cavorting with a married man?”

“I don’t think ‘cavorting’ is exactly the word I’d use.”

“You’re not going to be happy until you kill me, are you? You bring a married man into my home and expect me to think it’s all right?”

“Maybe we’d better drop the whole thing.”

“Are you planning on spending the night with him here?”

“We’ll stay in separate rooms. If that doesn’t satisfy you, we’ll go to a hotel.”

“I don’t want any carrying on in my house between my daughter and a married man!”

“You make it sound like I’m in seventh grade. I’m an adult and so is he. We’re used to making decisions on our own.”

“You talk like a damn fool!”

“It doesn’t matter what I say. You’ll find a way to object. I can see that coming here was a mistake. As soon as Damon gets back, we’ll leave.”

The old woman waved her hand like a queen bringing an audience to an end. She stood up, took two steps, and pitched forward onto the floor.

“Mother, if you’re pretending to be ill to try to hurt me on Christmas Eve,” Doris said, “I’ll never forgive you.”

She called Otha in from the kitchen and the two of them got the old woman on the couch.

“She’s having one of her spells,” Otha said.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

“I think it’ll pass in a few minutes. What did you say to her?”

“Nothing that would cause her to have a spell.”

“Its her heart.”

“She didn’t tell me she had anything wrong with her heart.”

“She didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“I’m course I’m interested!”

“Your actions indicate otherwise.”

“What are you saying, Otha? Who are you to judge me? You’re just a servant. You don’t know anything about me.”

“That’s right! Go ahead and verbally abuse me all you want. I’m used to it.”

“As soon as Damon comes back, we’re leaving.”

“I think that’s probably for the best.”

The old woman groaned and opened her eyes. Doris took her hand and patted it.

“Are you all right now, mother?” she asked.

“Of course I’m all right. I fall flat on my face every chance I get because I think it’s so much fun.”

“I’m going to have an ambulance come and take you to the hospital.”

“You’ll do no such thing!”

“She hasn’t eaten all day,” Otha said. “And very little yesterday.”

“Why are you not eating, mother?” Doris asked.

“None of your business!”

“As soon as Damon comes back from getting the Christmas tree, we’ll leave. And I’m sorry we disturbed you. I know you want to be left alone in your misery, even on Christmas Eve.”

“What nonsense you talk! I want to go to sleep.”

“Do you want Otha to put you to bed?”

“No, I want to stay here for now. When I feel stronger, I’ll go to bed on my own. Maybe I’ll feel better in the morning.”

“See how stubborn she is?” Otha said. “No matter what you say, she’ll insist on doing the opposite.”

“All right, mother, we’ll leave you to rest. We’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”

When Damon returned with a small, scraggly fur tree and some lights and decorations, along with a bottle of champagne and some puff pastries, he took one look at the old woman stretched out on the couch and his smile faded.

“What happened while I was gone?” he asked.

“We need to leave right now,” Doris said.

“What? The snow is coming down in buckets. It’s not safe to be out tonight.”

“We’ll go to a hotel, then, and drive back in the morning.”

“Did something happen between you and your mother?”

“I made the mistake of being born.”

“I’m cold,” he said. “Let’s at least have some hot coffee and food before we go back out again.”

Doris turned off the lights and she and Damon and Otha went into the kitchen.

The old woman slept for a while and when she awoke she smelled coffee brewing and heard laughter coming from the kitchen: Doris’s voice and then the deeper voice of Damon and then laughter again. The clink of silver on china, the pop of a cork from a bottle, the opening and closing of the refrigerator door. And above all the other sounds was Otha’s voice and her wheezing snort that passed for laughter. What did that old fool have to laugh about?

She stood up in the dark and took a few steps toward the kitchen. She was feeling a little hungry and could use something to eat, but, no, she couldn’t bring herself to go in there with them. It would be conceding too much, telling Doris that she approved of her and her boyfriend, of her many marriages and her simply appearing out of nowhere whenever she felt like it. No, what she needed to do was to teach Doris and Otha a lesson they would never forget.

She went to the front door and opened it. The Christmas Eve night was luminous with the snow. Not a soul around and no cars. Not a dog or a cat. How beautiful it was and how peaceful!

One step into the snow and then another, wearing only a sweater over her dress and her old-lady shoes that she never wore outside. The bite of the cold was friendly somehow, reassuring in a way that nothing else is. She went to the front gate and out to the street.

The snow was already half-a-foot deep and still coming down furiously. It made the neighborhood that she knew so well an other-worldly place that she no longer recognized. There was a house and there a tree or a clump of bushes that she should know, but she was sure she had never seen anything like them before.

After three or four blocks she didn’t know where she was. She couldn’t remember how far she had come or from what direction. The snow blinded her. The cold robbed her of her senses.

She came to a fence and grabbed onto it and, feeling what little strength she had leave her, slid down it gently onto the sidewalk. No one around. No one to call to for help, but it didn’t matter. She had never felt more at peace. It was Christmas Eve and her only daughter had come to see her.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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