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Shall We Have a Cigarette on It?

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Shall We Have a Cigarette on It image 2

Shall We Have a Cigarette on It? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

“This is a lovely old house,” Jerry said, sipping his martini. “How many rooms does it have?”

“I never bothered to count them,” Charlotte said. “There are too many.”

“It isn’t any of your business how many rooms my house has,” Charlotte’s mother said. “That’s an impertinent question.”

“Mother, I thought we agreed that you were going to try to be civil this evening,” Charlotte said.

“I made no such agreement.”

“I apologize, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said with his humble smile. “I had no business asking such a question. It’s just that I admire these old houses so much.”

“Yes, and I’ll bet you’d like to see it knocked down and a parking garage or an office building put in its place!”

“That would be a great pity, ma’am.”

“Or maybe you can see yourself living in it. A life of ease and idleness.”

“Not at all, ma’am.”

Charlotte could see that her mother was determined to make Jerry feel uncomfortable. He would handle it with his customary grace, though; of that she was certain.

“Charlotte tells me she met you on a cruise to South America.”

“Yes,” Jerry said.

“I don’t approve of cruises on which idle young women with too much money and too much time on their hands indulge themselves.”

“Not everybody on the cruise was rich, mother,” Charlotte said, “and they weren’t all young. I was talking to one middle-aged woman who told me that she and her husband saved for five years to be able to afford it.”

“What were you talking to her for?”

“Well, you know. Too much time on our hands.”

“I’ll bet there was lots of drinking and other activities on board that ship that decent people would rather not know about.”

“No doubt,” Jerry said.

“I suppose Charlotte told you all about herself.”

“As much as I needed to know.”

“Did she tell you that she had a nervous breakdown and, in so doing, was a patient in a sanatorium for almost a year?”

“Yes.”

“It was only at the urging or her psychiatrist that I allowed her to go on the cruise at all without a chaperone. He said it was vital for her mental well-being. I never heard such hogwash but I allowed her to go nonetheless.”

“It was very kind of you.”

“I don’t believe in psychiatrists. Most people with mental problems have nothing to do but gain control of themselves and their emotions. When I was young, we weren’t allowed the luxury of nervous breakdowns and special doctors to treat them. We all bucked up and did whatever had to be done!”

“I don’t think Jerry wants to hear all that, mother,” Charlotte said. “We’ve already said all that needs to be said on the subject.”

“I’ll say whatever I want to say and ask the questions I want to ask in my own home!”

“No less than you deserve, ma’am,” Jerry said.

“And, under the guidance of her ‘progressive’ psychiatrist, Charlotte changed completely. She became a daughter I no longer recognized.”

“Don’t you think it was change for the better, ma’am?”

“I do not! When a mother no longer recognizes her daughter, how can that be change for the better?”

“You decide for yourself, Jerry,” Charlotte said. “You saw the picture of what I looked like before.”

“She was fat!” Mrs. Vale said. “Comfortably fat! After her so-called illness, she lost thirty pounds. She changed her hair and eyebrows and began buying expensive clothes which, of course, she expected me to pay for!”

“You seem to forget that I have money of my own,” Charlotte said.

“Everything you have still belongs to me! Don’t you ever forget that! With one stroke of my pen, I could strip you of everything!”

“Yes, but you won’t, though, will you?”

As if on cue, Cordelia appeared in the doorway. She was as black as ebony and almost as wide as she was tall. “Dinna is suhved,” she said in a loud voice.

“Since there are just the three of us tonight,” Charlotte said, “we’re having dinner in the small dining room.”

“You have more than one dining room?” Jerry asked.

When they were seated at the table that seated fifteen (even though it was the small dining room), Cordelia began serving the dinner, first the soup and then the fish.

“The finest food I ever ate!” Jerry said.

“Don’t think there’s any reason for you to get used to it!” Mrs. Vale said.

“Mother, stop picking on my guest,” Charlotte said. “You needn’t attack him every time he opens his mouth.”

“It’s all right, Charlotte,” Jerry said. “She’s just exercising a mother’s prerogative.”

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s prerogative to be rude.”

“I’m not rude!” Mrs. Vale said. “I’m just direct!”

“And an admirable quality it is, too!” Jerry said.

Mrs. Vale gave a tiny smile. Charlotte believed that she was beginning to warm toward him, if ever so slightly.

“And what about you?” Mrs. Vale asked. “Have you had any nervous breakdowns?”

“Not yet,” Jerry said.

“But you will have at some time in the future?”

“He was making a joke, mother,” Charlotte said.

“Well, I want to know something about the men my daughter invites into our home for dinner.”

“What do you want to know about me, Mrs. Vale? You may ask me anything.”

“Are you going to marry Charlotte?”

“I’m already married, you see.”

“So you’re not just after her for her money?”

He laughed and wiped his mouth. “No,” he said.

“Tell me about this wife of yours. If you’re running around with other women, why doesn’t she give you a divorce?”

“Her religious scruples prevent it. And, anyway, we’ve been separated for a long time.”

“So, you’re married to the woman but not living with her? Not sharing the same bed?”

“Mother, really!” Charlotte said.

“I haven’t laid eyes on her in two years.”

“Have you and Charlotte been intimate?”

“Jerry, you don’t have to answer that question!” Charlotte said. “Mother, that’s not an appropriate line of questioning. I’m not fifteen years old!”

“You sometimes act as if you were!”

“I think what you want to know is if Jerry and I are serious about each other and how we plan to proceed from here. Isn’t that it?”

“All right, then, you tell me!”

“Jerry and I are very much in love. We won’t be able to marry for some time, but that’s all right with me. We plan on going abroad and living together.”

“Not on my money you won’t!”

“Really, mother, are you going to start in on money again?”

“I won’t have my daughter living in sin with a man she’s not married to!”

“I am of age to do whatever I wish.”

“Are you of age for me to cut you off without a penny?”

“No need to worry, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said. “I have plenty of money for the two of us to live comfortably.”

“I won’t allow my daughter to blacken her name and the memory of her father by cavorting with a married man.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said, “that seems a hopelessly old-fashioned view to take.”

“Who are you to judge me? You don’t know Charlotte the way I do. You don’t know the family history that’s behind her.”

“Maybe it’s time to forget all that and begin anew.”

“Never! Not as long as I’m still living. I’ll call my lawyer tomorrow morning and have my will changed!”

“You go right ahead, mother,” Charlotte said. “I’ve had enough of your bullyragging and intimidation.”

“So, are you saying you don’t care about my twenty million dollars?”

“You can do whatever you want with it. We can meet with your lawyer and make a few suggestions.”

“So, it doesn’t frighten you anymore when I threaten to disinherit you?”

“Not in the least.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m in love.”

“Love! What could you possibly know about love?”

“Mother, if you don’t stop saying such mean things, I’m going to stick a knife through your heart.”

“You haven’t got the guts!”

“Try me!”

Cordelia brought in three cups of coffee, along with dessert, and withdrew again to the kitchen.

“No dessert for me,” Charlotte said. “I’m watching my figure.”

“What happened to the little girl who used to eat a whole pie at one sitting?” Mrs. Vale asked.

“She’s all grown up, mother. She’s somebody else now.”

“I’ll eat yours if you don’t want it,” Jerry said. “I love banana cream pie.”

“Watch out you don’t get fat,” Charlotte said.

“I’ve got a ways to go,” he said.

Mrs. Vale drank her coffee and called Cordelia in from the kitchen to give her another cup. When she was halfway through the second cup, her eyes closed, she gave a little shudder and fell forward directly onto the banana cream pie. Charlotte and Jerry sat quite still, Charlotte sipping her coffee and Jerry eating the pie.

After a few minutes, Cordelia opened the door to the kitchen a few inches and peeked around the edge of it. “Can I come in?” she asked.

“Yes, please do, Cordelia,” Charlotte said.

“Did it work?”

“I don’t believe she’s breathing,” Charlotte said.

“One of us should check to make sure,” Jerry said.

Cordelia put the tips of her fingers on Mrs. Vale’s neck. “I don’t feel no pulse,” she said.

When they had Mrs. Vale pulled back from the table, Cordelia put her ear to the old woman’s chest. “No heartbeat, neither,” she said. “You’d better listen for yourself, Miss Charlotte.”

Charlotte took off her earring and leaned over until her ear was touching the sunken chest. “She’s dead,” she said.

“Ah!” Jerry said. “Success!”

“Well, ain’t that something!” Cordelia said. “It sure enough worked!”

“And you won’t ever tell anybody about this, will you, Cordelia?” Charlotte asked.

“On my word of honor! I never did like her anyway. She sure was mean to me! I won’t shed no tears for her!”

“I’ll give you enough money so you can go home to your people and you’ll never have to work hard again.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’m gonna buy me a dozen pairs of silk stockings and some gardenia perfume. It sure does smell high!”

“You’ll be able to buy anything you want now.”

“And who knows? I might even find me another man to marry.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Jerry said.

Charlotte and Jerry went into the library, Charlotte’s favorite room in the house. She went to the French doors that opened onto the terrace and opened them. The room was instantly filled with night smells from the garden.

“Just think,” Jerry said. “Free of her at last!”

“Yes, free of all encumbrances,” Charlotte said.

“I was thinking we might live here, for a while at least.”

“I don’t think so,” Charlotte said. “I want to get away. Go abroad.”

“Yes, darling. Whatever you want.”

“Nobody ever called me ‘darling’ before.”

“The poison is absolutely untraceable. Nobody will ever suspect a thing. She was just an old woman who died from a sudden heart attack.”

“Brilliantly planned and executed!”

“And twenty million dollars?”

“It’s all too wonderful!”

“Shall we have a cigarette on it?”

He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them together, and handed one to Charlotte. Her eyes glistened with tears as she took it from him.

Standing there, side by side, framed in the doors to the garden, they looked up at the sky. A half-moon was just visible over the treetops, surrounded by a million stars.

“And will you be happy?” Jerry asked.

“Oh, Jerry,” she said. “Let’s not ask for the moon! We have the stars!”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Miss Snooty Britches

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Joan Crawford and Ann Blythe in Mildred Pierce

Miss Snooty Britches ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Why is it we never seem to get along anymore?” Mildred said to her daughter, Veda, who was eating a banana.

“Oh, you know, mother,” Veda said. “I just don’t like you very much.”

“Why not?”

“It isn’t only you. I don’t like anybody and I don’t like my life.”

“Your father and I work very hard to give you and your sister a lovely home and all the things you want and need. If you don’t like your life, it isn’t my fault or his.”

“Don’t you get it, mother? We’re not rich! We don’t even have one servant! How can I hold my head up when my mother bakes cakes and pies to sell to the neighbors and my father works in a real estate office?”

“We do the best we can. When I was your age, I lived with my family in a boxcar down by the river. At night the police would come and raid us and make us get out, no matter how bad the weather.”

“Yes, mother, I’ve heard all that a million times before, but your life is your life and it doesn’t have anything to do with my life.”

“I’m proud that I was able to give you a better life than I had.”

“Oh, mother, don’t you see? It’s not just my life within these four walls! It’s this awful town and its men in overalls and women in uniforms! Its dollar days and its smell of grease!”

“The town was good enough for you not too long ago. What happened?”

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m really quite beautiful. I make the other girls in school look like the leftovers from a dog fight. I’ve had people tell me I could make it in the movies if only I gave it a try. Why, if I set one foot in Hollywood, those casting directors would be all over me!”

“Then why don’t you give Hollywood a try?”

“Because I’m seventeen years old and I would like to at least get a high school diploma before I take the world by storm.”

She threw her banana peel on the floor and went to the piano and began playing Chopin’s Valse Brilliante. After she had played a few bars, her face took on a dreamy, faraway look.

“That’s pretty,” Mildred said, not looking up from the cake she was decorating. “What’s it called?”

“It’s something you would never have heard of,” Veda said sniffily.

“For your information, young lady, I’m not a complete boob!”

“Pretty nearly, though. And while we’re on the subject, that dress you bought for me is truly awful. I’ll bet you bought it in the bargain basement because it smells cheap. I wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing.”

“I thought you would like it. The saleslady said it’s the latest thing.”

“It’s hideous! Why don’t you wear it?”

“It isn’t the right style for me. It’s too young.”

“Maybe if you wore it you would catch the eye of a really interesting man. One with money.”

“Veda, how can you speak to me that way? You know I would never look at another man as long as I’m so happily married to your father.”

“Mother, who are you trying to kid? Father has been stepping out with Mrs. Biederhoff for months now! It seems you’re the only one who doesn’t know about it. He’s probably over at her house right now, drinking cheap gin and playing gin rummy!”

“So help me, Veda!”

“If I were you, I would divorce that loser so fast it would make his head spin!”

“How can you say such things, Veda?”

“But, to be quite honest, my sympathies lie entirely with you, mother. Mrs. Biederhoff definitely comes from the lower classes. But, then, so does father.”

“I suppose you think I’m low class, too?”

“Well, you never speak of your people or where they came from. You might have descended from rag-pickers for all we know.”

“Oh, Veda, it breaks my heart to hear you speak that way.”

Veda stood up quickly from the piano. “Oh, mother, really! When are you going to grow up and see things as they really are? If you would dump father, you would have a chance at attracting a better type of man.”

“I don’t want a better type of man. Burt is plenty good enough for me.”

“You say that as if you don’t really mean it. You’re not bad-looking in your way. You have a decent figure. Your problem is you have no taste in clothes and no style. With help from the right person on how to dress and how to fix your hair and makeup, you could be quite a stunning woman instead of a frump.”

“Do you really think I’m a frump?”

“I don’t want to be mean, mother, but I learned at a young age that it’s better to face the truth about yourself and others than to live in a fog of self-deception.”

“How do you get that way, Veda?”

“How about Wally Fay, for example? I know he isn’t very good-looking, but he’s a forward-thinking businessman and is bound to be rich some day.”

“Is money all you ever think about?”

“Can you honestly tell me that anything is more important? You can do anything with money and without it you can do nothing.”

“I would never think of Wally Fay that way,” Mildred said. “He’s your father’s business partner.”

“What difference does that make? If you have any sense at all, you’ll use Wally Fay as your one-way ticket out of this horrible existence you call life. I frankly don’t know what he sees in you, but you know he’s always been in love with you.”

Just then Kay arrived home from school. “Hello, mummy!” she said cheerily, planting a kiss on Mildred’s cheek.

“Hello, darling! How was school today?”

“School was the nuts but the baseball game after school was the berries. We beat the pants off the other guys.”

“Oh, mother!” Veda said. “How can you let her go around like that? She’s dirty and she smells like an animal.”

“What’s with you today, Miss Snooty Britches?” Kay said.

“She’s in one of her moods,” Mildred said. “She thinks she’s better than the rest of us and she doesn’t like her life.”

“Oh, brother!” Kay said. “It must be her time of the month.”

“How do you know about that? You’re nine years old!”

“Oh, I get around more than you think.”

“Well, you go upstairs now and get into a hot bath and put on some clean clothes.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Mother, she’s horrible!” Veda said after Kay had left the room. “The language she uses! Can’t you see what’s happening to her? Her environment is ruining her. Pretty soon she’ll be knocking over gas stations.”

“She does have a good time, though, doesn’t she?” Mildred said. “I remember when I was her age I…”

But she was interrupted in mid-sentence when Burt’s car pulled into the driveway with a squeal of brakes. She ran outside, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“Burt, your daughter is impossible,” she began.

“Mildred, I need to talk to you privately,” he said.

“She’s just been telling me all the things that are wrong with me, you, Kay, and with the town.”

“I don’t care about that, Mildred. I said I need to talk to you!”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

He took hold of her arm and pulled her into the garage. “I just stopped by to tell you I’m leaving you.”

“What?”

“I’m in love with Maggie Biederhoff and I have been for some time. I’m going to get a few of my things and I’m moving in with Maggie tonight.”

“But, Burt, what about the children?”

“You can sue me for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility and infidelity and I won’t contest it. You can have the house and everything. I wont stand in your way.”

“What are you saying, Burt?”

“I’m saying I’m finally taking control of my own life.”

When Mildred went back inside, Veda was standing there with a smirk on her face.

“Do you believe me now?” Veda asked.

“You were listening?”

“I heard every word!”

“You shouldn’t listen in on other people’s private conversations.”

“I say ‘good riddance’!”

“Veda, he’s your father!”

“He may be my father but he’s just another no-good bum who can’t do any of us any good!”

Mildred groaned and sat down at the kitchen table. “Get me a glass of water, will you, dear?”

“I think you need a good stiff drink!”

“You have your degree in mixology. Why don’t you fix it then?”

Mildred sniffled and made a goose call into her handkerchief. When Veda set the drink down in front of her, she downed it and had another.

“This is the best thing that’s happened in a long time,” Veda said.

“Why, what do you mean?”

“You’re free! Or at least you will be as soon as you get a quickie divorce!”

“Maybe I don’t want to be free.”

“Now you can go after Wally Fay or some other man who’s going places!”

“Veda, I’m not like you! I can’t go after some man I don’t love just for his money!”

“I want you to invite Wally Fay over for dinner. Wear a negligee or something filmy. Show a bit of nip. Men love that sort of thing. After dinner, I’ll take Kay to a movie and you can make your moves on Wally. Tell him you’re finally free of father. Give him what he’s always wanted from you and in ten minutes he’ll be eating out of your hand.”

“Veda, you make me sound like a whore!”

“Well, isn’t that the general idea?”

“I’m going to take a bubble bath and get into bed,” Mildred said. “I have a terrible headache. I don’t even want any dinner. You fix a little something for Kay and tell her I’ve retired early. Don’t tell her yet about your father’s leaving. I want to tell her myself when the time is right.”

“Do you mean you’re not going to telephone Wally Fay?”

“I am not!”

“Now that father is gone, you’re not going to finally fall into Wally’s arms?”

“I don’t really like Wally and I never have. He’s a pig.”

“Mother, you’re impossible!”

“And I’ll tell you something else, Miss Snooty Britches! I’m not going to take advice from you about men or anything else! You’re seventeen years old! What do you know?”

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing I do know. If you’re not going to pursue Wally in the way that fate has laid out for you, then I’m going to go after him for myself!”

“Veda, he’s old enough to be your father!”

“So? He can give me a beautiful home and all the things I want in life. When he’s pawing me and trying to get his hands under my clothing, I can just close my eyes and pretend he’s somebody else.”

Mildred laughed. “I’m afraid that’s not going to work, dear,” she said.

“It’ll work if I make it work!”

“Now I have something to tell you.”

“What is it?”

“I had decided I was never going to tell you this, but now that Burt has left me and we’re no longer a family, I think the time has come.”

“Mother, you’re not going to tell me that Wally Fay is my father?”

“Have you never noticed the resemblance? You have his mouth and his chin.”

“Does Wally know?”

“I never told him. I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep from telling Burt.”

“Then if Wally doesn’t know, I’m all right.”

“What are you saying?”

“One of us is going to marry Wally Fay. If it’s not going to be you, it’s going to be me.”

Mildred stood up from the table and slapped Veda in the mouth. Veda fell back against the wall but righted herself and returned the slap with equal vehemence. Mildred opened the drawer where the knives were kept and pulled out the knife she used for cutting up chickens. She threw the knife but Veda sidestepped it handily and reached for a skillet that she brought down on Mildred’s head. When Mildred regained consciousness, the fighting continued until neighbors called the police.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Dizzy Street

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Dizzy Street

Dizzy Street ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The girl Dory sat on the high porch, partly hidden behind an overgrown azalea bush. She held her Bible opened on her lap but wasn’t looking at it much. She was enjoying the morning, noting especially the trilling of the birds in the sweet spring air. A robin landed on the railing not three feet from her face and she watched it with interest as it blinked its tiny eyes and moved its head from side to side. After a passing car made the robin fly away, she concentrated on her Bible again and read a couple more verses.

In a little while a man she had never seen before came along on the sidewalk. He wore a suit, a rare sight in the town, and carried a little briefcase, like a lawyer or somebody important. When he saw her he smiled. She looked away quickly, not wanting him to think she had taken undue notice of him. He stopped directly in front of the house and, facing her, raised his right hand as though taking an oath. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I’m looking for Dizzy Street,” he said.

“This is it.”

“Methodist church?”

“All the way down at the end of the street.”

She pointed and he looked in that direction.

“Suppose you show me,” he said.

“You can’t miss it. Just stay on this street.”

“Are you too busy to get up from your chair and show me? You can walk, can’t you?”

She didn’t much care for his tone, being the complete stranger that he was, but she stood up and went to the porch railing and pointed again down the street. “Just stay on this street,” she said. “Go down that way and you’ll come to the church. A dog could find it.”

“Maybe I’m not as smart as a dog,” he said.

“I think you’re fooling me,” she said. “Why are you looking for the church? Are you a minister or something?”

“Now, do I look like a minister to you?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“No, I’m a salesman,” he said.

“What are you selling?”

“Books.”

“You’re selling books at a church? People don’t go there to read.”

“Yes, but they go there to sing songs and I happen to be selling hymnals.”

“Oh.” She was disappointed for some reason. “Just stay on this street and you’ll come to the church.”

“Maybe I find you more interesting than the church at the moment.”

“My mother’s in the house taking a bath. As soon as she’s finished, she going downtown to see her doctor and I’m going with her.”

“Is she sick?”

“In the head, is all.”

“Are you going to tell me your name?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like your looks.”

“What’s wrong with my looks?”

“I don’t know. You look shady. Dishonest.”

“That’s because I’m really thirsty. Might I trouble you for a drink of water?”

“I suppose so, although it isn’t convenient.”

“Can I come in?”

“No! My mother is taking a bath, I said!”

“Can’t I come into the kitchen? She’s not taking a bath in the kitchen, is she?”

“No, but she wouldn’t like it if I let you in.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a stranger. How do I know you won’t rob the place?”

“I won’t. You have my word.”

“Yes, and how much is that worth?”

“If I can’t come in, won’t you bring the water out here to me?”

“I suppose I might, but I don’t know why I should.”

“Because you’re a good Christian, that’s why.”

She went inside and when she came out she handed the glass over the porch railing to him. Their fingers touched when he took it from her. He drank all the water and handed it back, smacking his lips.

“Why don’t you come down here where I can see the rest of you?” he said.

“You’ve had your water,” she said. “You can move along now.”

“And what if I don’t?”

“I can go inside and after a while you’ll get so bored at not having anybody to torment you’ll just go on your way.”

“I think if you were going to go inside you would have done so by now.”

“If my mother sees you here bothering me, she won’t be very friendly toward you.”

“Does she own a shotgun?”

“No, but she has been known to take her shoe off and hit people in the head with it.”

“I can run faster than she can.”

Just then her mother appeared at the screen door, wearing a dressing gown. “Come inside now,” she said. “I need you to help me get dressed.”

“In a minute, mother,” the girl said. “This man is lost and I was just giving him directions.”

The mother eyed the man through the screen as if he were a stray dog. “Go on now,” she said. “There’s nothing for you here.”

“I was just going, madam,” he said with a silly bow.

When the mother receded into the house again, the girl said, “See what I mean?”

“She certainly makes a body feel to home,” he said.

“I have to go in now.”

“Do you always do exactly what your mother tells you to do? How old are you, anyhow?”

“None of your business. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go into the house.”

“No.”

“No, what?”

“No, I don’t excuse you.”

“I’ve had enough of this foolishness. My mother is waiting for me to help her get into her clothes.”

“Is she helpless?”

“She’s got arthritis in the hands and she can’t do buttons or zippers.”

“I think you need to get away from her. She’ll suck the life out of you and not think a thing about it because she thinks it’s her right.”

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

“I bet I’m not far off, though, am I?”

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” she said. “I hope you sell lots of hymnals.” She turned toward the door.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I want you to go for a walk with me.”

“Do you not hear what I’m telling you?” she said. “My mother is waiting for me and I’m going to take her to see her doctor.”

“If you don’t go with her, she’ll make it fine on her own. She wants you to believe she can’t do without you but she’s really more capable than she lets on. She’ll be as helpless as you let her be. She’ll lean on you for the rest of her life when she should really be leaning on herself.”

“Are you an authority on old women?”

“I’ve known a few in my day and I know what they’re like.”

“Well, I’m afraid you don’t know what you’re talking about in this case.”

“You do care for me, don’t you?”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re still here talking to me while your mother is waiting for you in the house.”

“Goodbye.”

“The next time she comes to the door and sees I’m still here, she and I are going to tussle and I don’t think you want to see that. I can tussle with the best of them.”

“She’ll call the police.”

“Walk away with me right now and let her do up her own damn dress.”

They ran until they came to the end of the block and turned the corner and then they walked. They walked and didn’t stop. A week later they were two thousand miles away. The girl never once looked back or regretted the leaving.

As for the mother, she was distressed for a time but not terribly surprised at the turn of events, understanding the daughter’s nature as she did. She would bide her time and wait for the day when the daughter returned, humiliated and laid low by a man whose name she hadn’t even bothered to learn.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Hold All Calls

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Hold All Calls ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
 

“Oh, how I hate Monday mornings!” Dakin said as he sat down at his desk.

“The countdown to the weekend has begun,” Christopher said. “Only one hundred and five hours until five o’clock Friday afternoon.”

“It’s too far away,” Dakin said. “I shall perish before then.”

“Well, you’d better look busy. Pinky is already in this morning and he’s not happy. Production is down again or something.”

Dakin took some papers out of the drawer and spread them out. “I hate everybody on Monday morning,” he said, “but I especially hate my parents for bringing me into the world and not providing me with a family fortune.”

“Alas,” Christopher said, “so few of us have a family fortune.”

“If I had even a small fortune, I would blow this place so fast.”

“A couple million would do.”

“I’d travel. I’d have a home on the Riviera and another one in Rome.”

“Only two?”

“Two to start with.”

“I hear somebody coming. Look alive!”

Agnes Simpkins came into the room, wearing a funereal black dress and a scowl on her face. She was looking at the floor and didn’t look at Dakin or Christopher. She walked to the far corner of the room, stood for a moment facing the wall, and went out again without speaking.

“What’s she looking for?” Dakin asked.

“Her soul,” Christopher said.

“Have you ever seen a more hideous woman? Her dress looks like she’s got it on backwards. Her hair looks like it was chewed off by a wolverine. Her lipstick looks like a chimp put it on for her.”

“There’s a rumor going around that she’s really a man.”

“That would explain a lot.”

“I think Pinky sent her in here to spy on us.”

Dakin shuffled some papers, held a pencil in his right hand and made a few squiggles. “I woke up with a headache this morning and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I really should have stayed at home.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Production is down, you know.”

“Hah!”

“If I collapse at my desk, go get somebody to help me, as long as it’s not Agnes Simpkins.”

“I’m sure she would be more than willing to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”

“I’d rather die.”

“Really, are you planning on doing any work today at all?”

“Not if I can help it. I’m too sick. I’m fine until I get to work and then after I get here I’m sick. I think it sounds like I need to stay away from work altogether for my health, doesn’t it?”

“It’s a conundrum.”

“I saw these friends on the weekend that I hadn’t seen in years. They own their own yacht. Can you believe it? They were going on a cruise in the Caribbean and they invited me to go along. I would love to have gone with them, but instead I’m here. I am in hell! Why was I even born?”

“Another conundrum.”

“And to top it all off, I’m hungry. I skipped breakfast.”

“I thought you said you were sick.”

“I am sick but that doesn’t mean I don’t desire food.”

“Anytime I’m sick, I…”

“How about if you be a dear and go see if anybody brought any donuts in today?”

“Why don’t you go?”

“I have all this work to do and, truly, I don’t have the strength to walk down the hall and witness the sickening sight of all those frightened little people working themselves into a frenzy just because production is down or something and Pinky is in an uproar. I mean, Pinky is always in an uproar about something or other, isn’t he?”

“I have a candy bar in my drawer if you want it.”

“That’s sweet of you but I really don’t want to eat candy on an empty stomach. It might make me vomit.”

“If you vomit, forcibly—and in front of everybody—you can legitimately go home sick. There’s nothing like a little projectile vomiting to drive home your point.”

“Yes, yes, that’s a good idea and I will keep it in mind.”

“How about if you proofread a report for me and correct any errors?”

“Oh, buddy, not you too!”

“Well, somebody’s got to get some work done around here.”

“I am not in any shape, physically or emotionally, to do any work today.”

“All right, I’ll do it myself.”

“Do you really care if it gets done or not?”

“I don’t care for myself but it would be nice to get it done.”

“’Nice to get it done’. I’m afraid you’re even starting to sound like them.”

“Please forgive me.”

“Where are you going for lunch today?”

“I think I’ll just stay here and get something out of the vending machine.”

“How banal! I’m going to take an extra long one today. I feel like walking down the block to Luigi’s and having some linguini in marinara sauce, a crisp salad, and spumoni for dessert. Would you like to come with me?”

“Somebody’s got to stay here and do some of this work.”

“Will you cover for me if I don’t come back?”

“I’ll say I haven’t seen you and I don’t know where you are.”

“Good thinking.”

Christopher put his head back and closed his eyes. “I can smell Pinky’s cologne!” he said. “He’s within thirty feet! Look busy!”

No sooner than the words were spoken, they spotted the man himself. He came toward them carrying a sheath of papers. He was winded, his face was red and the corners of his mouth turned down.

“Mr. Pinkley!” Dakin said cheerfully. “How lovely to see you! Is that a new toupee you’re wearing? It certainly looks handsome!”

“Humph!” Mr. Pinkley said. “I’ve heard reports that there’s been some hanky-panky going on in this department.” The wattles under his chin quivered with emphasis.

“Hanky-panky, sir?”

“Talking and loafing and not focusing on the work at hand.”

“Not focusing? I don’t know what would give anybody that idea, sir. We’re just as busy as a colony of beavers.”

“I’m warning you that I won’t have any slackers working in this company. If you aren’t prepared to give me a full day’s work, then you might as well leave now.”

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving, sir!”

“Production is down for the third straight quarter! That tells me that a house cleaning is in order, but I believe in giving everybody a second chance. You can consider this your warning. If I have to speak to you again, it’ll be to dismiss you.”

“I understand, sir! I believe I’ll be deserving of any punishment you see fit to mete out.”

“I want a written report from you every day outlining what you are working on and how much you have done that day. Do I make myself clear?”

“As a bell, sir! I only have one question.”

“What is it?”

“Will I be the only one submitting a daily report on my activities?”

“None of your business!”

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”

After Mr. Pinkley left, Dakin and Christopher looked at each other and laughed.

“Who does he think he is, speaking that way to me?” Dakin said. “I have a good mind to call up my lawyer and sue the bastard.”

“I’d like to see that,” Christopher said.

“I don’t have to take that kind of crap from him or anybody else.”

“No, indeed, you do not!”

“I’m ten times smarter than he is. I can outclass him any day in the week and twice on Sunday with one hand tied behind my back. He can’t even write a coherent sentence without some help from a secretary.”

“He is an ignorant son of a bitch,” Christopher said. “It goes with the territory.”

“Now I am completely thrown off my game after being spoken to in such a manner.”

“Some people are just too sensitive for the world of business.”

“Yes, thank you! I’m glad that someone in this rotten, stinking world recognizes that fact.”

“What are you going to do now? It sounds like you’re going to have to show Mr. Pinkley some results or he’s going to fire you.”

“What am I going to do? I’m going to take a long, long lunch and then I’m going home and taking an extended bubble bath to get the stench of this place off my body. After that I’m going to put on a dressing gown and telephone my lawyer. He and I are going to have an illuminating little discussion about how I have been harassed and pressured in the workplace to the point of nervous collapse. Then he will advise me about how we might proceed with a lawsuit. I know a very good doctor who will say on my behalf whatever needs to be said.”

“It sounds like you’ve thought it all out carefully.”

“I have.”

“Just do me one favor.”

“Anything.”

“Don’t mention my name.”

“I don’t even know your name. You are one of the millions of anonymous downtrodden office workers who toil and die. The only way you will ever give your life any meaning is to leave this hellish existence and take control of your own destiny.”

“Those are only words. I don’t know how to do it.”

“Believe me, dear friend, I will pave the way for you and countless others just like you.”

“So, I’ll be hearing from you again?”

“Of course you will!”

“What shall I say to people when they ask me where you are?”

“Tell them to hold all calls, for now I belong to history!”

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp

An Afternoon of Conversation at the Home of Miss Fish

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An Afternoon of Conversation at the Home of Miss Fish ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“He can sit by himself all day long in a room and look at picture books and not bother a thing,” grandma said.

The ladies looked admiringly at the boy and smiled.

“He’s a mighty cute little thing,” Miss Fish said. Her name didn’t quite fit her; instead of looking like a fish, she looked more like a chicken.

“Yes, of all my grandchildren,” grandma said, “he’s the best behaved.”

“And who is his daddy again?” Miss Doty asked.

“That’s a question that remains unanswered to this day,” grandma said gravely. “I wish I knew.”

They all looked at the boy, as if his parentage might be written somewhere on his body if only they could see it.

“It doesn’t matter at all,” Miss Fish said. “It’s all after the fact.” She was taking up for the boy. She didn’t much like Miss Doty and didn’t think it was right for her to bring up the question of who the boy’s daddy was, since everybody knew he was illegitimate.

“What do you mean, ‘after the fact’?” grandma asked. Miss Fish was one of her best friends and she believed that whatever she said was important.

“Well,” Miss Fish said, “he’s here, ain’t he? It doesn’t matter now who his daddy is. It’s not like anybody can go back and fix it if it ain’t right. Whether his daddy is a bum or president of the bank won’t make any difference in his life.”

“If his daddy was president of the bank, he could put him through college,” Miss Doty said, refusing to let the matter lie.

“Maybe not,” Miss Fish said. “The president of the bank wouldn’t give him jack shit because he wouldn’t want people to know he was his daddy. He would most likely have a wife and children and a position to uphold in the community.”

“I wouldn’t let him get away with that,” Miss Doty said.

“Well, anyway,” grandma said, “he’s like all the other children who are born, whether they have a daddy or not. Precious in the eyes of the Lord.”

“He shouldn’t be held responsible for the transgressions of others,” Miss Fish said.

The boy looked at them, thinking about all the talking they did. Sometimes he followed along with what they were saying—if what they were talking about happened to be of interest—and other times he just let the words wash over him like water over the spillway. For them, talking was like breathing. If they didn’t do it, they would die.

“I think he looks a little like Dr. Kane,” Miss Doty said. “Didn’t Marion have a little fling with him before his divorce went through and he married some other woman?”

“Not that I know of,” grandma said.

“You should ask her some time. I think it’s an interesting avenue to pursue.”

“I thought we decided it didn’t make any difference,” Miss Fish said.

“Well, still,” Miss Doty said. “If the question has an answer, then why not find out what it is?”

“I think people should just leave it alone and accept things for what they are. Acceptance is the greatest thing in the world.”

“To you, maybe,” Miss Doty said.

“Good God!” Miss Fish said. “Do you always have to have the last word about everything?”

“I just meant…”

It being her house, Miss Fish stood up and went into the other room. In a few moments she returned bearing a tray of drinks, cocktails for the ladies and a glass of grape juice for the boy.

“I don’t usually drink hard liquor,” grandma said, but she took it willingly, smacking her lips as she sipped.

“What is hard liquor anyway?” Miss Doty asked, sticking her tongue into the cocktail to see if she was going to like it.

“A step up from beer, I guess,” grandma said.

“You can feel it coursing through your veins,” Miss Fish said. “It relaxes you.”

“As long as you don’t overdo it,” grandma said.

“What happens if you overdo it?” Miss Doty asked.

“You get drunk.”

“You know, I’ve never been drunk in my life,” Miss Doty said. “Have you?”

“Never,” grandma said.

“Once or twice when I was younger,” Miss Fish said. “We used to have these parties at our house.”

“What happens when you get drunk?”

“Well, you feel good for a while and after the good feeling wears off you feel terrible. You have a headache and you’ll very likely be vomiting your guts out.”

“I don’t want to drink it then,” Miss Doty said, setting the glass down on the table.

“Oh, for goodness sake!” Miss Fish said. “One drink ain’t going to hurt you! Don’t be such a pantywaist.”

“What’s a pantywaist, anyway? I’ve heard that expression before and I never knew what it meant.”

“Go look in the mirror,” Miss Fish said and she and grandma laughed.

“Oh, you mean if I see my own reflection, I’m seeing a pantywaist, is that it?”

“Just a little joke,” Miss Fish said. “Don’t get excited.”

“Well, I think you should mind the joke at the expense of someone else’s feelings.”

“Lighten up, old girl!” Miss Fish said.

When grandma and Miss Fish finished their drinks, they had refills but Miss Doty would only limit herself to one. She said she was beginning to feel sick already and she didn’t want to spend the night vomiting her guts out.

The boy finished his grape juice and set the glass down. He was bored and beginning to feel sleepy. He hoped that he and grandma would go home soon. He thought about saying something that would make her realize it was time to go but could think of nothing. Finally, he said simply, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Help yourself,” Miss Fish said. “Through the dining room, down the hall to the door on the left.”

He stood up and walked slowly through the quiet house. He always found it very interesting to be in somebody else’s house and to look at their things. It was more than just what he saw but also what he smelled; in this case it was dust, mouse droppings, soap, and a musty smell like rot underneath the house. He lingered in the hallway and then went into the bathroom and shut the door and locked it.

The bathroom was large and cheerful, with white tile everywhere and yellow towels. There was an old-fashioned tub with claw feet and a window with pebbled glass and a frilly yellow curtain. He stood on his tiptoes and opened the door to the medicine cabinet over the sink. Inside were all kinds of bottles and jars, toothpaste, shaving cream, and other stuff that old people use. He flushed the toilet, ran some water in the sink, and went out of the bathroom into the hallway again.

He heard grandma and the ladies talking and laughing in the front room, so he knew that, for the moment at least, they had forgotten about him. He turned to the left and continued down the hallway until he was in a bedroom with an imposing four-poster bed. He walked around the bed to the dresser with its round mirror on which flecks of dust stood out in the bright sunlight. He paused, listening for sounds of approaching footsteps, and opened the top dresser drawer slowly so as to not make a sound.

Inside the drawer was a jumble of scarves, gloves, shawls. Seeing nothing of interest in that drawer, he closed it and opened the middle drawer, re-closing it quickly when he saw it contained stockings and old ladies’ underwear. He bent over and opened the bottom drawer, which had the advantage of being hidden from view to anybody who might come unexpectedly into the room. In this drawer were a photo album, some small boxes, and, partly concealed by a wool blanket, a jewelry case with a brocaded lid. He opened the lid of the case and saw inside a disorderly profusion of costume jewelry and on top of it a small amount of cash in one-dollar bills.

He counted the money and, of the eight dollars there, he folded up four and put them inside his shoe. He was about to close the case again when he saw a necklace that captured his attention. It had a large green stone, an imitation of some kind of precious gem. Being partial to green as he was, he lifted it up to get a better look. It was the most beautiful green color he had ever seen, shot through with light and just a touch of other colors, yellow and even blue if it caught the light just right. He was going to put the necklace back after admiring it but, when he thought sure somebody was coming, he slipped it into his pants pocket, almost before he realized what he was doing. Then, as quickly and as quietly as he could, he rearranged the stuff back in the drawer to make it appear as if it had never been disturbed and closed it.

When he returned to the front room and resumed his chair, nobody paid any attention to him, so he was sure they didn’t suspect that he had done anything other than use the bathroom. Miss Fish was telling a story about a fight between a husband and wife on her street.

“…so drunk he didn’t even know what he was doing. He was swinging an axe over his head and chasing her around the house like they were a couple of cartoon characters and he was going to cook her for dinner. She was so scared of him she wet her pants. I’m not making it up! You could see it, plain as day. It was really a funny thing to see but it didn’t seem so at the time.”

“And was he really going to kill her?” Miss Doty asked.

“He would have if the police hadn’t come when they did. They got him down on the ground—you know the way they do. And the bad thing about it was that he was wearing a bathrobe with nothing on underneath. Everybody saw him on the ground naked after his bathrobe came untied and slipped off, even the little children.”

“Ugh!” Miss Doty winced and covered her face, as if she shared in the embarrassment.

“I don’t like it when people air their private grievances in public,” grandma said.

“Well, who does?” Miss Fish said.

“And they took the son of a bitch off to jail?”

“They locked him up in the state mental hospital where he belongs,” Miss Fish said with satisfaction. “End of story.”

When grandma and the boy were finally walking home, he looked up at her and said, “I know who my real daddy is.”

“I don’t believe you do,” she said.

“Yes, I do, too.”

“Who is it then?”

“It’s a secret.”

“You shouldn’t keep secrets from me.”

“It’s the only one.”

That night, tucked safely away in his room after everybody had gone to bed, he took the green necklace out and put it around his neck and, standing in front of the mirror, pretended he was a simpering old woman drinking a cocktail and gossiping about the neighbors.

He counted out the four dollars again, lining them up on the bed to better see them. When he began to grow sleepy, he stowed the necklace and the four dollars in the deep recesses of his closet where nobody would ever find them. Young as he was, he was already well acquainted with the art of concealment.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Lights Flickered and Went Out

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The Lights Flickered and Went Out ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The room was very quiet. Miss Adele’s teeth made little clicking sounds as she chewed. Miss Florence grunted as she tried to cut her meat and couldn’t. The knife slipped out of her hand and clattered to the floor. Mr. Benny looked around to see what the sound was but lost interest before he figured it out. Mr. Wilhelm was hearing nothing; he was asleep, his head hanging over his plate. Like the points on a compass, the four of them sat at a circular table.

“Don’t you think you should wake him up so he can finish his dinner?” Miss Florence said.

“Huh?” Mr. Benny said.

“Why don’t you wake him up before he falls out of his chair?”

“Let him fall,” Mr. Benny said. He was trying to soak up the gravy on his plate with a piece of bread but his hands were shaking so much he couldn’t manage it.

“My, but this is delicious,” Miss Adele said.

“What is?” Miss Florence asked.

“I don’t know what it is. There’s a little bit of tomato in it, I think, but I don’t recognize anything else.”

“You’re better off not knowing,” Mr. Benny said.

“What time is it?” Mr. Wilhelm asked, suddenly coming awake.

“Why should you care?” Mr. Benny said. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“It was six o’clock about an hour ago,” Miss Florence said.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” Miss Adele said.

“A funny thing about time,” Mr. Benny said but he began coughing and didn’t finish the thought.

“What month is it?” Miss Adele asked.

“It’s April,” Mr. Benny said.

“Is it still the same year?”

“Yes, it’s still the same year.”

“This year is going along rather slowly, isn’t it?”

“Like a great big turtle in a race with death. See who comes out ahead.”

“Just ask your body what month it is,” Miss Florence said.

“What do you mean?” Miss Adele asked.

“When your toes are freezing off, it’s probably December or January.”

“When you see Christmas decorations everywhere, you know it’s probably December.”

“Good thinking,” Mr. Benny said. “You ought to go to work for the FBI.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t want me!”

“I don’t seem to be able to stay awake long enough to eat dinner,” Mr. Wilhelm said, picking up his knife and fork and going at his food again.

“Don’t you sleep well at night?” Miss Florence asked.

“I sleep all right, I guess.”

“Sleep comes in large doses or really small ones,” Miss Adele said, but nobody knew what she meant.

“After dinner let’s play some cards the way we used to,” Miss Florence said. “That ought to be fun.”

“What do you mean ‘the way we used to’?” Mr. Benny said. “I’ve never played cards with you in my life!”

“When we were children, we used to play ‘old maid’,” Miss Adele said.

“I’m happy to say I’m not one of those,” Miss Florence said. “I’m a widow.”

“And how many times were you married, dear?” Miss Adele asked.

“It really isn’t any of your business, but if you must know I was married three times.”

“I’ll bet all three of your husbands tried to kill you, didn’t they?” Mr. Benny said.

“Why would they do that?” Miss Adele asked.

“Well, just look at her.”

“They did not try to kill me,” Miss Florence said. “They worshipped me.”

“Well, what happened to them, then?”

“Two died, and the other one, well, it’s best if we don’t speak of him.”

“I never got married,” Mr. Wilhelm said. “I didn’t have time. I ran a company that employed five thousand people. I worked night and day. I was married to the business.”

“Oh, brother!” Mr. Benny said.

“Didn’t you get lonely?” Miss Adele asked.

“I did not!”

“I bet you had plenty of lady friends, though, didn’t you?” Miss Florence said. “A handsome fellow like you.”

“I did not. There was someone once, though. We lived together for about ten years.”

“What was her name?”

“It wasn’t a ‘her’. It was a ‘him’.”

“Oh, dear!” Miss Adele said.

“His name was Zachary. What he and I had together was very rare.”

“I never took you for one of those,” Miss Florence said.

“I knew there was something about him!” Mr. Benny said.

“Have you ever had the good fortune to meet another person in your life with whom you have a spiritual connection? It doesn’t happen more than once. It was that way with Zachary and me.”

“Now I’ve heard everything!” Mr. Benny said. “It’s like finding out that General Eisenhower liked boys.”

“I’m ashamed of nothing,” Mr. Wilhelm said.

“What happened to Zachary?” Miss Florence asked.

“He died.”

“Oh, that’s a crying shame!”

“He’s buried in his home town in Tennessee. When it’s my time to go, I’m going to be placed in the grave next to him.”

Mr. Benny rolled his eyes. “On that note,” he said, “I think I’ll leave you good people and go back to my room, if I can remember how to get there.”

A sudden flash of lightning and rumble of thunder made them all turn toward the window. Miss Adele screamed and turned over her water glass.

“It’s been too warm all day,” Miss Florence said. “I knew a storm was coming.”

“Storms scare me,” Miss Adele said. “I can feel the electricity in the air. It makes my skin prickle.”

“Your skin was already pickled,” Mr. Benny said.

“I’d rather die in a storm than some other ways I can think of,” Miss Florence said.

“Do you notice how we always get around to the subject of death?” Mr. Benny asked.

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Miss Florence asked. “There’s nothing wrong with death. It’s part of life. I, for one, believe that death is not the end.”

“What is the end?” Mr. Benny asked.

“How should I know?”

“Heaven? Angels and fluffy white clouds?”

“I think that heaven is what you want it to be.”

“So, you’re saying that heaven exists only in the mind.”

“I’m not saying that at all.”

“You don’t know anything.”

“You don’t need to be rude,” Miss Florence said. “I can still get up from this chair and slap you silly if I want to. I’ve smacked old men around before and I don’t mind doing it again.”

With the next flash of lightning, the lights flickered and went out. Miss Adele squealed and put her hands to her throat. “What do we do now?” she said desperately.

“They’ll be back on in just a minute,” Miss Florence said. “No need to panic.”

“Hey, I like it better like this!” Mr. Benny said. “You all look much better in the dark.”

“The only way you would look good to me,” Miss Florence said, “would be if you disappeared.”

“Now who’s being rude?”

Somebody brought in a kerosene lamp, set it in the middle of the table and went away again without a word.

“Oh, how nice!” Miss Adele said. “Just like olden times before there was such a thing as electricity.”

Mr. Benny raised his wine glass. “Here’s to storms,” he said. “May they always be on the outside.”

“I hear music,” Miss Florence said.

“How lovely!” Miss Adele said. “Somebody’s playing the piano.”

Miss Florence in her spectator pumps and Miss Adele in her mules stood up and began shuffling their feet together in an approximation of dancing. Mr. Benny lit his one cigar of the day and blew out a cloud of smoke that looked, in the distorting lamplight, like ectoplasm at a séance. Mr. Wilhelm fanned his hand in front of his face and sighed as Miss Florence and Miss Adele danced away into the darkness on the far side of the room. And outside, the thunder and lightning raged as rain pounded against the glass and the storm gathered nearer.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Ruined City

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The Ruined City ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was a Friday in wintertime. I had to stay late at my job and missed the last train. I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to walk home in the cold but I was going to try. I was alone on the dark street—only one streetlamp in ten was lit—when I heard the whirring of the night patrol transport under the wind. I ducked into an alleyway but I was spotted and before I knew what was happening two men were on me, hitting me with clubs.

“It’s after curfew!” one of the men said. “Show me your identity card!”

My hands were shaking and I began coughing uncontrollably, but I managed to get the card out and thrust it toward his face. “I was just going home,” I said. “I thought I could catch the last train but it was gone.”

“Shut up!” he said. He shone the light on the card and looked at it and then at me. “It’s not valid!” he said, pulling me to my feet. “We’re ordered to shoot on sight any revolutionaries.”

“I’m not a revolutionary,” I said.

“You’ll have to come along with us to the magistrate.”

“But I didn’t do anything!”

When they shoved me into the back of the transport, I couldn’t see anything. The only thing I knew was that I was moving very fast through the city. Ten minutes later, I was pulled out and taken into a building and put into a holding cell with ten or twelve others just like me.

My turn came and I was taken into a small room and put in a chair facing a desk. Behind the desk was a man with reddish hair and a round face. He had a scar running from the side of his mouth to his ear. He grinned at me with a lopsided mouth.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” he said.

“I was on my way home. I didn’t do anything.”

“You know about the curfew laws?”

“Yes.”

“If you are out after curfew, we must assume you are one of the enemy intent on doing us harm.”

“I’m not.”

“Then why were you out after curfew?”

“Some of the machinery broke down at work. I had to stay and fix it to keep production going.”

“You are a mechanic?”

“A factory worker.”

“A factory worker who also fixes machinery?”

“Yes.”

“Your identity card is not valid.”

“I don’t understand. It was valid when it was checked yesterday.”

“Are you saying that someone has sabotaged your identity card without your knowing it?”

“I don’t know. Yes, anything is possible.”

“Do you know what can happen to you when you are out after curfew with an invalid identity card?”

“I was on my way home. If my identity card isn’t valid, I have no explanation.”

“Is that the only excuse you have?”

“Yes.”

“It sounds very weak.”

“Nevertheless.”

“You are not with the revolutionary forces?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Where do you live?”

“Outer sector twenty-three.”

“What are your political views?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Did you vote for Leonhardt in the election?”

“No.”

“Leonhardt received ninety-eight perfect of the vote. Are you telling me you were among the two percent who voted for the opposition?”

“No, I didn’t vote for the opposition. I didn’t vote.”

“Why not?”

“I was in the hospital with fever.”

“You were supposed to vote. Everybody votes in this state.”

“I was out of my head.”

“Things look very bad for you. You were skulking about in the dark after curfew. You have an identity card that isn’t valid. You didn’t vote in the election.”

“I want to speak to someone.”

“Revolutionary forces are trying to take over the city and the state. That’s why we have a curfew. Anybody violating curfew is presumed to be a revolutionary and will be shot on sight. I’m surprised our men even brought you to me. They should have killed you outright.”

“I’ve done nothing!”

“So you all say.”

“You can call my employer. He’ll vouch for me. You can call my wife and son. They’ll swear I’m not a revolutionary. I spend my life working in a factory. When I’m not working, I’m at home resting up to go to work the next day. I have no time or energy to be a revolutionary.”

“I will call no one! Why should I believe anything that anybody said about you?”

“Of what am I being accused?”

“Espionage, sedition, spying, treason, plotting to overthrow the government. All of those things.”

“I’m innocent!”

He took a deep breath and looked into my eyes. “I hereby find you guilty,” he said.

“I’ve done nothing!”

“According to the evidence, you are an enemy of the state. You will be hanged by the neck until dead at six o’clock in the morning.”

“Don’t I have a chance to speak to someone?”

“I am that someone.”

“Don’t I get a trial?”

“You’ve just had it. I’ve examined the evidence thoroughly and have found you guilty. The judgment of the court has been rendered.”

I was removed from the room and thrown into a dark, solitary cell. All that was left for me to do was to wait to die. I was like a fly caught in a spider web.

I lay down on the filthy cot and tried to calm myself. I told myself that dying this way wasn’t such a bad thing. It would be quick and I had heard it was painless. All my problems would go away; my feet and back would no longer bother me. No, I didn’t hate it so much for myself but mostly for my wife and son and my mother and brother who lived far away. They would have a hard time learning the truth of what happened to me. They would know in their hearts, though, that I did nothing wrong and that I went to my death like a man and not a cringing coward.

I heard the steady drip of water somewhere for a couple of interminable hours and after a while I began to hear something else. A low, steady drone like the buzzing of insects that slowly grew louder. Could it be that planes were approaching the city? What did it mean?

When the bombs began to fall, I stood up and began banging on the door of the cell and calling for somebody to come and let me out. I didn’t want to be squashed like a bug if the building was blown to bits, even if it was preferable to having my neck snapped. No matter how much noise I made, though, nobody came.

The first blast that hit the building knocked me to the floor. I crawled under the cot, my only refuge. Other blasts followed and finally the walls came down around me. I was certain I was going to die, but my fear was gone. I was strangely calm. I had seen this all happen in a dream and I knew how it was going to turn out.

When the blasts stopped and I realized I wasn’t dead, I began to try to pull myself free of the rubble. My legs were pinned but not too badly injured, I felt, and, with a great amount of effort, I was able to free them. I pulled myself to a sitting position and rested for a few moments. I figured it was useless to try to dig my way to the outside, though. If I displaced a board here or a chunk of plaster there, it only made more stuff rain down on me. I was buried alive but I still believed it wasn’t as bad as hanging from the end of a rope. A slow death instead of a fast one.

Then I felt something on my face I hadn’t expected: a tiny puff of wind and the smell of the outdoors. It smelled like freedom. I began digging my way toward the smell slowly, so as not to bring everything down on my head.

After what seemed like a very long time but was probably only a few minutes, I pulled myself out a hole in the wall that was just big enough and no bigger—as if the hole was made especially for me. I didn’t stop to question it or wonder why. I only began running.

The city was in chaos. Many buildings burning or reduced to piles of debris. People screaming and running every which way. Dead bodies everywhere, some of them blown to bits. Others who weren’t dead cried out pitifully for help.

As I ran, I realized there were others running with me. I had become part of a group of running men. One of them thrust a rifle into my hands. I took it gladly, if only to have something to hold onto that seemed real.

“We got that bastard pig Leonhardt,” the man who gave me the rifle said.

“What?” I asked.

“Leonhardt is dead. They bombed the presidential palace.”

“Who did?”

“The Northlanders. They’re in it to help us.”

“Who are the Northlanders?” I asked, but he ran on ahead and didn’t hear me.

It seemed as if we had run for miles but finally we came to a place where we could stop and look back on the burning, ruined city. There were about a dozen of us. We were all panting for air. Some of us collapsed on the ground.

“I haven’t run like that since I was twelve years old,” one man said, laughing.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“We’re taking back the state,” another said. “No more dictators! From now on we’re a democracy again.”

They thought I was one of them, so I didn’t ask any more questions that would give me away. By morning it was as if I had known them all my life. I learned to shoot the gun and became one of them. With my wife and son dead, as I was to learn later, I had nothing else to live for.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Aunt Bunny Lives in the Country

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Aunt Bunny Lives in the Country ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Del fumbled with the cigarette lighter and nearly hit a truck coming from the other direction. “I forgot how curvy this damned road is,” she said as she blew a cloud of smoke into the windshield and picked a piece of tobacco off her tongue. She called the brown things she smoked cigarettes but other people called them cigars because they were long and brown instead of white and didn’t have filters. They were part of the image she had created for herself.

Sitting next to Del on the front seat, Weema fanned her hand in front of her face. “Do you want me to drive for a while?” she asked.

“I’d rather get there in one piece if you don’t mind,” Del said.

“I would too,” Weema said, but the irony was lost on Del. “I wouldn’t take these curves nearly as fast as you do.”

“I like to live dangerously.”

“Don’t forget you’re not the only one in the car. Live dangerously all you want when you’re alone.”

“You’d better not complain about my driving,” Del said, “or you might find yourself walking.”

They were first cousins but were nothing alike. Del was big-boned and had the kind of body that didn’t look good in traditional female attire. She always wore pants and loud Hawaiian shirts that came down over her big belly. She kept her hair cut very short with a pompadour over her forehead that she used men’s butch wax on to keep stiff and upright. Weema was small, never weighed more than a hundred pounds, and was rather like a bird. She had a shock of unmanageable red hair, a tiny pointed nose, and no chin to speak of. She had been compared to a chicken many times and had, more than once, received an anonymous small packet of chicken feed as a prank, crying each time it happened. “People can be so cruel!” she liked to say.

In the back seat was ninety-year-old Aunt Floy, wearing her cap-like, champagne-colored wig of tight little curls because her own hair had grown so thin. Since it was a special occasion, she had put on plenty of face powder, with tangerine-colored lipstick on her thin-lipped old mouth. She believed in looking one’s best no matter what the occasion.

“Where is it we’re going again?” She threw the question out to either of her nieces, whichever one would hear her and answer.

“We’re going to Aunt Bunny’s house,” Weema said.

“And who is that again?”

“She’s your little sister.”

“Oh, yes, I remember her,” Aunt Floy said. “Didn’t she die?”

“If she died,” Del said, “why would be going to visit her?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.”

Weema turned around in the seat and got up on her knees. She straightened Aunt Floy’s skirt and patted her on the knee. “Why don’t you lay down on the seat, honey, and try to get a little nap? I’ll cover you up with your blanket.”

“I’m not sleepy,” Aunt Floy said. “You’re just trying to get me to shut up. I want to know where you’re taking me.”

“Don’t you want to see Bunny? You haven’t seen her in over five years.”

“Yes, I want to see her but I didn’t know she lived so far away. I thought she lived in town.”

“She’s never lived in town. She’s always lived way out in the country, miles and miles away from everything. That’s the way she and Uncle Aden always wanted it.”

“It’s hell getting down there and back,” Del said. “That’s why we don’t go very often.”

“I don’t remember anything of the sort,” Aunt Floy said. “I think you’re lying to me.”

“Ruth Ellen is going to be there,” Weema said.

“Who’s that?”

“She’s your niece, Aunt Bunny’s daughter. She’s the one that’s had all those operations. I’m sure she’ll want to show you her surgical scars. Won’t that be fun?”

“No! I want to go home!”

“All right,” Del said. “I’ll turn the car around and we’ll go back home. We’ll be back in time to catch the fights on TV.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Weema said. “We’ve come all this way and we’re going to find Aunt Bunny’s house even if it kills us.”

“Let the good times roll,” Del said.

Every mile of country road was exactly like every other mile. There were the hills, the valleys and curves, and the occasional rusting iron bridge over a tiny creek. After another hour of driving, Del stated the obvious.

“I think we’re lost,” she said. “Nothing looks the same anymore.”

“Do you have a roadmap?” Weema asked.

“What good is a roadmap when you don’t know how to read it?”

“I knew we never should have come!” Aunt Floy said. “I’m scared. I’m always scared in a foreign country.”

Weema turned around in the seat again and took Aunt Floy’s hand in her own. “It’s still the same country,” she said. “This is just a part of it we’re not familiar with. Just close your eyes now and say a little prayer and trust that the Lord will show us the way.”

“I don’t want to! I need to go to the toilet!”

“Can’t you hold it?” Del asked.

“No, I can’t hold it and I don’t intend to!”

“Don’t have an accident, now,” Weema said, “and spoil your lovely clothes.”

“I just might if you don’t find me a toilet!”

“Good Christ!” Del said. “I knew this was a bad idea!”

“If you’re going to swear that way,” Weema said, “you can just let me out here.”

“As much as I’d like to,” Del said, “you’d probably be killed and I’d get the blame.”

Knowing they were a long way from any toilet, Del pulled off the road onto the shoulder at the top of a hill and pointed off into the brush and trees. Weema sniffled into a handkerchief at how the day was turning out, got out of the car and helped Aunt Floy out of the back seat.

Del spread the map out across the steering wheel as Weema and Aunt Floy retreated into the trees. “If you need any help,” she hollered after them, “don’t call me!”

She squinted at the map, turning it one way and then another, smoked one of her cigars down to the nub and lit another one. Finally, after what seemed a very long time, Weema appeared first as if emerging from a cave, turned and pulled Aunt Floy out by the hand.

“I thought maybe you were eaten by a bear,” Del said as they got back into the car.

“I had to practically undress her,” Weema said, “to keep her from getting her clothes dirty. Then I leaned her back against a tree and held onto her hands while she squatted down.”

“I don’t need to hear all the details of that,” Del said.

“You feel better now, don’t you, honey!” Weema cooed.

“No!” Aunt Floy said. “I want to go home. I’m hungry and I want to take a nap.”

“Aunt Bunny will have all kinds of good things for us to eat at her house.”

“I want something to eat now!”

“We’ll find a place to stop just as soon as we can, honey!”

Del was about to start the car again when a police car came up behind them, pulled around in front and stopped.

“I haven’t done anything,” Del said, watching in the rearview mirror as the officer got out of his car and came toward them.

“Car trouble?” the officer asked.

“No,” Del said with a strained smile. “Just taking a little rest stop.”

“Shouldn’t be stopped here if it’s not an emergency.”

“We were just leaving.”

“See this man, contact the police.” He unfolded a flyer and handed it through the window to Del.

“Is he missing?” she asked.

“Escapee. Last seen in these parts. Armed and dangerous. Alerting all citizens.”

“Can I keep this?” Del asked.

“Yup.”

Weema leaned forward so she could see the officer’s face and flashed him her brightest chicken smile. “We’re kind of lost,” she said. “We’re looking for our aunt’s place. We haven’t been there since we were children, so nothing looks the same.”

“What address?” he asked.

“Old Mines Road is all we know,” she said. “Bell County.”

“Forty miles from Bell County,” he said. “West of here. That direction.” He pointed with his thumb and spit on the ground. He took a good look at Aunt Floy in the back seat as if she might be the man they were looking for in disguise, and then he was gone.

“Missed by forty miles,” Del said. “Couldn’t find ass with both hands.”

Weema took the flyer from her and studied it. “Odd-looking man,” she said. “Flat nose. Name Herman Sherman. Funny name.”

“Long gone by now,” Del said.

“Stop soon,” Weema said. “Must eat.”

Del swung the car around and began driving roughly in the direction the officer had indicated. Soon they were heartened by a sign telling them that Bell City, the town close to where Aunt Bunny lived, was twenty-eight miles ahead of them.

They had spareribs and Chinese beer at a roadside diner called “Nellie’s Welcome Inn.” After they had eaten, they felt better and were of the opinion that the day had turned out pretty well after all. Weema called Aunt Bunny on the pay phone and told her why they had been delayed and that they would be there soon.

When they left the diner, Weema was helping Aunt Floy get situated again in the back seat while Del was having an after-dinner smoke, looking at the sky. Both of them were occupied for the moment so they didn’t see the strange man approach. He came up behind Del without making a sound and touched her on the arm. She jumped and gave out with a little scream.

“Could you give me a ride?” he asked.

“No!” she said, looking him up and down and not liking what she saw. “We’re on our way to visit relatives!”

“Looks like you’ve got plenty of room,” he said, pointing toward the back seat.

“That’s my aunt,” Del said. “She’s not well. We don’t want to upset her.”

“I won’t upset her,” he said. He reached into his pocket and gave Del a glimpse of the gun he was carrying. “I don’t want to get rough, now,” he said, “but this is just to let you know I can if I have to.”

“You’re Herman Sherman with the flat nose, aren’t you?” Weema said with a smile, as though welcoming a friend for tea.

“You’ve heard of me!” he said with a touch of pride.

She handed him the flyer. He looked at it and laughed. “Yeah, that’s me all right! That’s a terrible picture, though! I don’t think it does me any justice at all.”

“Just exactly where is it you want to go?” Del asked.

“Someplace away from here,” he said. A police car went slowly by in front of the diner; he ducked down behind the car until it was gone.

“We’re going to Bell City,” Weema said. “We turn off the road there. We’ll take you that far.”

“That’ll be fine,” he said.

“If you bother that old lady,” Del said, “I’ll drive straight to the nearest police station and turn you in.”

“I believe you would, too!” he said.

“Who are you?” Aunt Floy asked as he got into the back seat beside her.

“His name is Herman,” Weema said. “We’re just giving him a ride for a few miles and then he’ll be leaving us.”

“Hello, granny!” he said.

“I don’t like you,” Aunt Floy said. “You’re not a good man.”

“That’s too bad, granny,” he said, “because I like you!”

Del eyed him suspiciously in the mirror. Weema turned around and smiled at him. “You must be exhausted,” she said, “running from the police that way.”

“I was a little winded when I found you,” he said.

“Where exactly did you escape from?”

“I don’t think you want to hear about that,” he said. “It wasn’t a place for a lady to have to know about.”

“You wouldn’t hurt us, would you?”

“Not as long as you do as I say.”

“Look,” Del said. “We’ll give you a ride as far as Bell City and then you’re on your way, understand?”

“Sure, sure,” he said.

“I’ll bet you’d like a cigarette, wouldn’t you?” Weema asked. “Escaped convicts in the movies always want a cigarette.”

“Sure. Do you have any?”

“Give him one of your little cigars, Del,” she said.

“He’s not a guest!” Del said, handing over her pack. “Quit treating him like one!”

“Well, he’s scared and lonely, the way all of us are. I don’t think it hurts to offer him a little comfort, no matter what he’s done.”

“Spoken like a true Christian, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll bet you go to church regular, don’t you?”

“I’ve been a Methodist since the day I was born!”

He lit the little cigar and sighed with satisfaction, making himself comfortable on the seat. “I was lucky to have come across the three of you,” he said. “Did you ever feel like God is showing you the way when you least expect it and probably don’t even deserve it?”

“All the time,” Weema said.

When they were just a few miles from Bell City, he said, “I’ve been thinking.”

“About what?” Weema asked, turning around and smiling at him.

“Why should I get out at Bell City? What is there for me in Bell City?”

“It’s a real small town,” Weema said, “but it is the county seat.”

“I don’t particularly want to go to Bell City,” he said.

“We’re taking you to Bell City and no farther!” Del said.

“I just had a wonderful idea!”

“What is it?” Weema asked. “Tell us!”

“In an ideal world, Las Vegas is where I would want to be. If I can just get there, everything will be all right with me.”

“Nobody’s looking for you there!” Weema said.

“That’s right!”

“We’ll let you out in Bell City and you can make your way to Las Vegas any damn way you please,” Del said, “but it’ll be without our participation!”

“Not so fast!” he said. “This is the perfect cover for me. A man traveling with three ladies. Just like a little family. Nobody would suspect a thing. We’re just on our way to Las Vegas to play some slots, have a few laughs, and see Hoover Dam.”

“Nobody’s going to Las Vegas,” Del said. “Our aunt and her daughter, Ruth Ellen, are expecting us at her place in Bell County. If we don’t show up, she’ll call the police. She’ll give them a description of this car and they’ll find us.”

“I didn’t say it had to be in this car, did I?” he said.

“What do you mean?” Weema asked excitedly.

“We can ditch this car and pick up another one along the way!”

“Absolutely not!” Del said. “Nothing doing!”

He took his gun out, brandishing it dramatically in the air. Aunt Floy screamed when she saw it. “I don’t want to have to use this,” he said, “but this is just to let you know I can.” He rolled down the window and shot at a fence post thirty feet from the car, knocking it over.

“Where’d you learn to shoot like that?” Weema asked.

“The army.”

“I’m not afraid of you!” Del said. “Big man with a gun! I’ve seen your kind before and you’re all chicken shit.”

He ran the barrel of the still-warm gun along the side of her face and laughed when she flinched. “Do you believe me now?” he asked.

“I think we’d better do what he says,” Weema said.

“What about Aunt Floy’s medicine?”

“I’ve got the bottles in my purse!”

“You see the sun up there?” he said. “You keep the car headed in that direction. When the sun goes down, I’ll drive.”

“Oh!” Weema said. “I’ve always wanted to see Las Vegas! How long do you think it’ll be before we get there?”

“I have to go to the toilet!” Aunt Floy said.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

After You’ve Gone

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After You’ve Gone ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Around midnight Dorothy “Doodles” Plover heard a disturbing sound in the house and went downstairs to investigate. When she saw her husband, Reginald, sitting in the leather wingback chair in the living room, she let out a little scream and jumped back a couple of feet because he had been dead for eighteen months. When she recovered her senses enough to speak, she turned on a light and said, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m sitting here,” he said. “What does it look like?”

“Still a smart ass, I see,” she said.

“You’ve put on some weight, haven’t you?” he asked. “And what have you done to your hair?”

“After you died,” she said, “I went in for different things. I changed my hair color. Don’t you like it?”

“I can’t say I have a particular fondness for orange hair.”

“Never mind my hair. I want to know why you’re here.”

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“No, I can’t say I am, considering you’re dead. When a person dies, you’re not supposed to see them anymore.”

“You haven’t felt my presence in the house these many months?”

“At first I did.”

“And then you didn’t?”

“I guess I just got used to your being gone.”

“In such a short time?”

“You’re not really here at all. I’m only dreaming.”

“That would explain it, wouldn’t it?”

“If you are here, shall we say that are you a ghost?”

“Use whatever word you feel comfortable with.”

“All right, let’s say you’re a ghost. I’m seeing the ghost of my dead husband. But why? Why are you here? Did you forget something?”

“I’m here because this is my home.”

“Not anymore. Your home is someplace else now.”

“You really don’t know anything about it, now, do you?”

“This is one of those dreams that seems like it’s really happening and you don’t know for sure it’s a dream until you wake up.”

“Whatever you say, dear.”

“I’m going to take my pill and go to sleep and when I wake up I’ll know for sure it was a dream.”

“You already took a pill. Two, in fact. That’s probably why you’re seeing me. Those pills always did funny things to your head.”

“They’re for my nerves. Dr. Renault prescribes them.”

“He’s not a competent doctor. He didn’t go to a school that other doctors go to. You only keep going to him because he reinforces you in all your neuroses.”

“You don’t know anything about it.”

“He’s built up a lucrative practice catering to neurotic housewives who believe they’re ill when in truth they are not. If he gave you a sugar pill you’d think it was a wonderful curative for all that ails you because that’s what you want to believe.”

She opened her bottle of pills and made a show of taking one out and placing it on her tongue and swallowing it. “I’m going to sleep now,” she said, “and when I wake up in the morning I will have forgotten this ever happened.”

“One day you’ll take one pill too many and you won’t wake up at all.”

“You don’t need to worry about that. You’re dead.”

“Dead is a relative term. You don’t really understand what being dead means until you are yourself dead.”

“No offense, but I really hope I don’t see you again. I’m getting along just fine without you. And, quite truthfully, now that it’s been this long, I’m glad you’re gone.”

“But I’m not gone. Not really.”

“Goodbye. Have a safe trip.”

The next time she saw him she was in the supermarket. She picked up a box of donuts and placed them in her cart along with her sweet rolls, candy and ice cream.

“That’s why you’ve put on so much weight,” he said in her ear.

She dropped the donuts into the cart and turned on him. “Why are you doing this to me?” she said, her voice trembling.

“Doing what?”

“It’s bad enough that I’m seeing you in my own home, but now I’m seeing you in public?”

“I’m wherever you are.”

“Don’t I have anything to say about it?”

“Apparently not.”

“Well, I want you to stop it!”

In the checkout line she knew he was right behind her. She would have felt him breathing down her neck if he had breathed. On the way to her car, he was walking along beside her.

“I could find a policeman and tell him you’re bothering me,” she said.

“He’d think you were crazy because he wouldn’t see me.”
“Are you saying that only I can see you?”

“That’s the way it works.”

“Why don’t you go haunt somebody else and leave me alone?”

“I have to tell you I’m hurt that you take that attitude. We were married for over twenty-five years and now you’re willing to turn it off so easily.”

“It turned itself off when you died. I didn’t ask you to die. I didn’t make it happen. It was one of those things over which I have no control.”

“Well, you needn’t take that tone! I haven’t done anything that I need to be scolded for.”

“Why do you want to be here when you can be in heaven? Heaven must be wonderful. You’ll have to tell me all about it some time, but not now. If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment to see my doctor.”

When she got into the car and drove away, she was relieved that Reginald stayed behind. She didn’t want him interfering with her time alone with Dr. Alonzo J. Renault.

She had to admit she had developed a romantic attachment to Dr. Renault. When she arrived at his office, she freshened her lipstick and brushed her circus clown hair back from her face before going inside. Her knees were shaking and she felt a little short of breath. She was happy to see there were no other patients waiting to see him.

When Dr. Renault knew she was there, he dismissed his nurse and personally escorted her into the examining room. With his thrilling bedside manner, he made her feel as if she was his only patient, the only woman in the world worth anything. He sat her in a chair and pulled his chair around close to her so their knees were almost touching.

“How have you been, dear Doodles?” he asked, leaning forward so his face was just inches from hers. He was as smooth as Charles Boyer ever was.

“Not so good,” she said, sniffling into a handkerchief for effect. “I’ve been having these headaches.”

“Still?”

“Yes, but now they’re even worse. And, if that’s not bad enough, I’m seeing things that aren’t there.”

“What things?”

“I’m seeing ghosts!” She was surprised to find that she was sobbing.

He leaned forward and enveloped her in his arms as though she was a child who had just fallen off her roller skates. “We both know there’s no such thing as ghosts,” he said.

“Tell that to the ghost!” she said.

“Do you want a stronger pill?”

“If you think that’ll help.”

“I’ll give you a pill that I guarantee will make any ghosts go away and leave you alone.”

“While I’m here,” she said, “could you give me another one of those special pick-me-up shots?”

“Of course I will!” he said. “Anything that will make you feel better.”

When she heard that he had recently become divorced from his most recent wife, a woman half his age, she saw the field as being wide open. She called him one afternoon and invited him to come to her house for dinner to get a jump on his other female patients.

The evening alone with him was everything she hoped it would be. He was much more romantic when it was just the two of them. He held her in his arms on her French sofa before the fireplace while they listened to the patter of rain on the window. (Always a gentleman, though, he didn’t try to take advantage of the situation.)

He spoke to her in an intimate way she treasured. He told her all about his life, how he had been raised by his grandmother in a small town and how he struggled to get through medical school by posing nude for painters and picking up odd jobs wherever he could. When he segued from his youth to recent financial reverses, his voice trembled and his brown eyes filled with tears. He took her hand in both of his and faced her solemnly as if to make a confession.

“I don’t know how I dare ask it of you,” he said.

“Ask me what?” she asked.

“I was wondering if you might lend me a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for six months.”

“Of course I will, darling,” she said.

“I promise to pay you back with interest.”

“Are you sure a hundred and fifty thousand will be enough?”

She gave him the money and they began seeing each other frequently. He was attentive and considerate in a way she never believed possible. He lit her cigarettes for her, held car doors, and helped her on and off with her fur coat, like a gentleman of the old school. He took her on little overnight trips to places she had never dreamed of going. And, always, always, he provided her with the pills she needed and pick-me-up shots. She trusted him so completely she never even thought to ask what the shots were.

She reached the dizzying point in her friendship with him where she would do anything he asked of her. One night he called her at midnight when she was sleeping.

“I’m so sorry to awaken you, dearest,” he said, “but I have a favor to ask of you.”

“Can’t it wait until morning?” she asked.

“I’m afraid it can’t. I need you to stop by my office and pick up a little package and deliver it to a patient downtown.”

“I’m afraid to drive downtown by myself at this hour.”

“Nonsense! You’ll be perfectly safe. We can’t go through life afraid of our own shadows, now, can we?”

“Well, all right, if you say so.”

She began delivering packages for him all over the city and then in a fifty-mail radius of the city. Soon she was traveling to other states by airplane, always to pick up or deliver a small package. She didn’t mind these trips because she had always liked to travel and it gave her a chance to see new places and stay in beautiful hotels at somebody else’s expense. She felt as if she was living somebody else’s life, a dream life.

It wasn’t until she went to Mexico City that she thought to question what was in the packages. The first couple of runs went smoothly but on the third trip some men were waiting to pick her up when she landed back in the U.S. They humiliated her by treating her as a common criminal. They went through her baggage and took the package she had gone all that way to pick up. When she professed her innocence, they just ignored her; one of them even made as if to slap her. They took away her clothes, jewelry and money, locked her in a cell and told her she’d better hire herself a good lawyer because she was in plenty of trouble. “But I didn’t do anything!” she wailed. She gave them—or tried to give them—Dr. Renault’s address and phone number. “He can explain everything,” she pleaded, “if you will only call him.”

After several days in jail, she still hadn’t been able to get through to Dr. Renault. She didn’t want to believe he wasn’t willing to come to her aid. There had to be a perfectly logical explanation, she told herself, although, for the life of her, she couldn’t imagine what it was.

One night after lights-out as she lay on her bunk in her jail cell in the almost complete darkness, she realized there was somebody near her, just inches away. When she raised herself on her elbows, she saw Reginald, her deceased husband, looking down at her. He was wearing a cowboy hat and western attire.

“What’s with the getup?” she asked.

“Never mind,” he said. “It’s a long story.”

“He’s not coming to help me, is he?”

“I tried to tell you he was a rat. Worse than that. He wanted your soul and he almost got it.”

“If you hadn’t died, none of this would have ever happened.”

“I didn’t want to die. Nobody asked me.”

“You were the one that was always steady. You always knew what to do. You took care of me.”

“You realize that now.”

“After you died, I couldn’t manage on my own.”

“I thought you were doing pretty well without me.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go to prison. It seems that just telling people I didn’t know what was going on isn’t going to work.”

“Do you want me to get you out of this?”

“More than anything. I don’t like being in jail.”

“You know what it means?”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t mind?”

“No, as long as I can be with you.”

He reached out and put one hand on her chin and pinched her nostrils together with his other hand. She felt nothing. Her limbs relaxed and in just a minute she stood up and smiled at him. He took her by the hand and they drifted away together like a little puff of cigarette smoke.

In the morning the guard found her dead in her bunk. A doctor examined her, found she had had a heart attack in her sleep, and signed the death certificate. Nobody ever claimed her body, so she ended up in the morgue. It didn’t matter to her, though, because she had gone to a better place.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Head in a Bottle

Head in a Bottle image x

Head in a Bottle ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this story in September 2013 with a different title.)

A girl named Oubliette lived with her grandmother in a remote mountain area in the wildest part of a wild state. The house they lived in was older than anybody could remember and had a hundred or more rooms. Oubliette loved the house, as it was the only home she had ever known. She felt safe and happy there, knowing she never had to venture out into the world. Grandmother had taught her that the world is an ugly and evil place, with myriad dangers waiting to snare the unsuspecting, and those who live apart from it are the luckiest people alive.

Oubliette didn’t miss going to school the way other children do because she always had plenty to do to keep her body and mind occupied. The house was filled with many interesting things. One enormous room on the top floor was filled with specimens floating in formaldehyde in large bottles. One bottle held a pair of smiling Siamese twins that appeared to be hugging. Oubliette liked to think of them as living in the bottle. She was sure they were as happy in their snug little world as she was in hers. Another bottle that she was always drawn to held the head of a man with his hair floating out from his head like seaweed. His eyes were open wide and his lips were parted as if he had been trying to speak at the moment his head was severed from his body. What exactly had he been going to say? Oubliette liked to put her ear against the cold glass next to his mouth in the hope that she would hear him speak but she never did. It was a tantalizing mystery, though.

Other bottles held a heart, a liver, a brain, eyes, and a set of lungs, not to mention a dodo bird that had been extinct for hundred of years, an octopus, a python snake, side-by-side scorpion and tarantula, a dinosaur egg that was millions of years old, a coelacanth, baby shark and alligator, and on and on. Not in jars but in opposite corners of the room as if they were keeping watch were two complete human skeletons suspended from hooks. The room and everything in it was as familiar and beloved to Oubliette as her own hand.

Another part of the house was filled with departed family members who had walked the earth long before Oubliette was born. One of Grandmother’s sons, the one she didn’t like to talk about very much, had been a taxidermist. His name was Sheridan and he was Oubliette’s great uncle. He had left home many years ago and nobody knew anymore if he was even still alive. Instead of stuffing animals as most taxidermists do, Uncle Sheridan stuffed deceased family members. It had become a sort of tradition in the family that when one died one would be stuffed and mounted instead of being buried in the ground the way most dead people are. And Sheridan prided himself on the lifelike appearance of his subjects: Uncle Julius, for example, was dressed in evening dress, cape and top hat and was just stepping from a carriage as he did so often in life. Baby Margaret sat up in her perambulator, eyes shining and mouth opened slightly in baby laughter, showing tiny, pearl-like teeth.  Grandfather Beauchamp sat in his favorite armchair beside a stock ticker, carefully studying the narrow stream of paper issuing from it. Cousin Grace was dressed in a shimmering gown as Juliet, a part she had triumphed in on the stage. Uncle Cowan, a gifted musician in life (killed by a lightning bolt at age 19), was playing the violin with a look of intense concentration. His sister, Marigold, was sitting at a vanity table brushing her golden hair. Aunt Clytemnestra, Grandmother’s sister, sat at a writing table with pen poised over paper. (She had been a celebrated writer of serials for women.) Eccentric cousin Ludlow, a member of a circus in life, was dressed as a clown with white face paint, a round red nose and a huge grinning mouth. Cousin Melba on Grandfather’s side of the family was on her knees with her hands folded in front of her in an attitude of prayer, asking for forgiveness because she had taken her own life. Melba’s husband, Gustave, having been a doctor, was dressed in a medical gown, with a stethoscope around his neck and a raven on his shoulder (why a raven, nobody could say). Grandmother’s daughter, Meredith (she died on her sixteenth birthday of a brain hemorrhage), was sitting in a rocker beside a birdcage with a book in her hand, looking exactly as she had looked on the day before she died.

Oubliette loved every one of them as if they were alive. She had come to understand at an early age that “dead” is a relative term. Just because you are “dead” in one place doesn’t mean you are “dead” in all places. There are the unseen worlds that living people aren’t supposed to know about. Her only sorrow was that Uncle Sheridan wouldn’t be there to stuff her and Grandmother when their time came. She supposed they would just have to go into the ground the way ordinary dead people do.

She worried sometimes about Grandmother. Nobody knew exactly how old she was, but she had to be over a hundred. Recently she had stopped doing many of the things she loved to do and had taken, about every other day, to staying in bed all day. That wasn’t like her at all. She probably needed a doctor but didn’t like doctors and wouldn’t allow one in the house. She said the only doctor worth anything was nature. When it was her time to go to the other world, she would go, without having any quack doctors fussing around her and expecting to be paid for it.

Oubliette refused to think about Grandmother leaving her. She knew that everybody leaves the corporeal world for the ethereal one, but she somehow believed it wouldn’t happen to Grandmother as long as Oubliette needed her to be there with her. Grandmother was, after all, her only loved one and the only person she had ever spoken to in all her life. They were like two separate parts of the same body. As much as she loved the specimens in the bottles, the skeletons, and the stuffed family members, they were really nothing without Grandmother. She had come to be of the opinion that when Grandmother left the corporeal world, she was going to leave it too.

Grandmother had been thinking along the same lines. One day at tea time she asked Oubliette to come into her bedroom and have tea with her because she had something she wanted to talk to her about.

“I taught you the story of Adam and Eve,” Grandmother said, propped up with a mountain of pillows on her bed.

“Yes,” Oubliette said.

“We all die because of them.”

“Yes.”

“Do you know how old I am?”

“No.”

“The clock is winding down for me, as it does for all of us. The moment we are born, we begin to die.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Oubliette said.

“I’ve given you a good life, haven’t I?”

“Of course.”

“Have you thought about what your life will be after I’m gone?”

“No.”

“Because you are so young, the do-gooders will come and get you.”

“And do what with me?”

“They’ll make you a ward of the state. They’ll put you in a home for children without families where you will have to associate with riff-raff the likes of which you cannot even imagine.”

“Can you explain ‘riff-raff’ to me?”

“Girls with bugs and diseases. Filthy-minded boys who want to take away your innocence.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“No, indeed, it will not, if I have anything to say about it.”

“You’re not going to die,” Oubliette said. “You’ll still be here twenty years from now when I’m a grown-up person.”

“We both know that’s not true,” Grandmother said. “I’ve already lived longer than any person has a right to live.”

“What can I do about it?”

“In the corner of your medicine cabinet in your bathroom you will find a tiny bottle.”

“What’s in it?”

“Some white powder to be mixed with water and ingested. I’ve been told it is instantaneous and absolutely painless.”

“Oh.”

“It is, of course, completely up to you whether or not you use it. I know you’re a smart girl and will make the right decision.”

“Do you want me to try to contact Uncle Sheridan to come home and do for you what he did for the others?”

“Sheridan’s dead,” Grandmother said. “I saw it in a dream.”

Grandmother lived for a few more months but finally, one day in the spring, she departed this life, in her own bed, with Oubliette beside her holding her hand.

After a period of mourning lasting one day, Oubliette wrapped Grandmother carefully in a pink blanket like a mummy, using large safety pins, and pulled her off the bed onto the wheelchair. She rolled her into the specimen room and dumped her into a large vat of formaldehyde that she had made ready and sealed it shut as fast as she could.

She wasn’t ready to accept that Uncle Sheridan was dead, anymore than she was ready to accept that Grandmother was going into the ground and she would never see her face again. She would find him and make him come home. Since the two of them shared the same blood, she believed that a bond must exist between them, no matter how slight. She would contact him any way she could.

She called every newspaper in the telephone book (five of them) and placed an ad in the “personals” section of each one: Uncle Sheridan, please come home. Grandmother needs you. Signed, Oubliette.

Of the private investigators in the book, she called the one with the nicest-sounding name, Byron Montague, and asked him to conduct an investigation to find Uncle Sheridan, who might be anyplace in the world, if not dead. Byron Montague asked her many questions, most of which she couldn’t answer, but he agreed to explore every avenue and to send her a bill with the results of the investigation as soon as it was completed.

But that wasn’t all. Being a firm believer in the power of the occult, she conducted a séance. She had only a vague idea of what a séance should be, but she did the best she could with what she had. At midnight in the room with the stuffed family members, she sat before a mirror with a lighted candle between her and the mirror. She stared into the flame until it was the only thing that existed for her in the world. Putting both hands to her temples, she willed (a kind of praying) with all her might to enlist the aid of the departed.

“If Uncle Sheridan is there,” she said, “give me a sign. If he’s not there and is still among the living, let him know in any way you can that he’s needed at home.”

The candle went out at that moment in a room that was absolutely airtight, but she didn’t know what it meant. Was it the sign she asked for that Uncle Sheridan dwelt in the land of the dead, or was it an acknowledgment that she was getting through? The results were inconclusive and unsatisfying.

The next night she climbed all the steps in the house with a hundred rooms to the little flat place on the roof that in olden times had served as a lookout. When she was younger, she loved the lookout because it was so secret and private a place and was impossibly high off the ground. She used to spend hours there in agreeable weather reading a book, surrounded by her dolls and stuffed animals, or looking off into the distance, wondering vaguely what the world out there was really like. Whenever Grandmother couldn’t find her, she always looked for her on the lookout.

A light rain was falling but she didn’t mind. She had always liked the rain and, since it had been an especially warm day, it felt cooling on her skin. She looked into the sky and spoke a prayer to God (if God was anywhere, he had to be there) to send Uncle Sheridan home to her. He could stuff Grandmother the way she deserved to be stuffed and he could keep the do-gooders from taking Oubliette to an orphanage with all the riff-raff. It didn’t seem like a lot to ask.

She caught a terrible cold after that, but she didn’t mind very much. She stayed in bed for three days, napping and reading and wishing that Grandmother was there to keep a watch on her temperature and fix her tempting things to eat.

Weeks went by. She recovered from the cold and kept herself busy in the big, silent house, but she missed Grandmother terribly. She had never understood loneliness before. Now nothing was the same. She took to sleeping on a pallet on the floor of the specimen room next to the vat that held Grandmother, with the smiling Siamese twins at her head and the octopus at her feet.

Summer went by slowly and then it was autumn again. Oubliette was as low as she had ever been in her brief life. She couldn’t stand the thought of a winter alone in the house with its howling wind over the mountain and its dark, abbreviated days.

The day came when she didn’t even bother to get out of bed at all. She slept through the day, dreaming pleasant dreams about Grandmother and the way it used to be, and woke up in the early evening to the dark reality of her life. She knew she had reached the end of her tether and it was time to take the powder.

She cleaned herself up, combed her hair and washed her face, and put on her best nightgown that Grandmother made for her and gave her as a Christmas present the Christmas before she died. She filled a glass with water and took the little bottle of powder out of the medicine cabinet and emptied it into the water. She waited for the powder to dissolve and then drank it down.

She didn’t know how long she had so she hurried and got back into bed and pulled the covers up to her chest. Soon she began to feel a pleasant drowsiness and she knew the powder was taking effect. Her last thought before she passed over into that other realm was that it would be years before anybody found her body and when they did she would be a skeleton in the bed, with mice running in and out of her eye sockets. Maybe her ghost would haunt the house and people would be afraid to come anywhere near it, a prospect she found thoroughly enchanting.

She fell into the oblivion of sleep. Hours later (or was it minutes?) when she awoke she knew that something in the room had fundamentally changed but she didn’t know what it was. She sat up in bed and, turning on the light, saw a man standing at the foot of the bed looking at her. He had a black moustache and green eyes, the same color eyes as Uncle Cowan’s. She took that as a very good sign.

“Uncle Sheridan?” she said.

The man took his derby hat off and held it in his hand. “No,” he said.

“Am I dead or am I dreaming?” she asked.

“Any one of us could ask that very same question,” he said.

She pushed back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed, caring nothing about modesty. “If you’re not Uncle Sheridan,” she said, “who are you?”

“Does the name Byron Montague mean anything to you?”

“The private investigator?”

“One and the same.”

“Did you find Uncle Sheridan?”

“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

“How did you know where to find me?”

“You gave me your address to send you my bill, remember?”

“You deliver your bill in person?”

“This is the first time.”

“My next question might be to ask why you are in my room in the middle of the night and if you are really here or if I am only imagining it.”

“It’s difficult to explain.”

“Do the best you can.”

“After I spoke to you on the phone, I started thinking a lot about your situation. It wasn’t what you told me that concerned me but what you didn’t tell me. I knew that you needed help and it came to me that I was the one to help. When I tried to put it out of my mind, it always came back to me, as if I was being impelled in some way, but who or what impelled me, I couldn’t say.”

“How did you even get through the front door? It’s always locked.”

“I knocked repeatedly and when nobody came I was about to leave when the thought occurred to me that a key might be hidden somewhere. People very often do that, you know. I started looking around and found a key high up in a tiny niche—more a crack, really—to the right of the door. I had come this far, so I just had to come inside and look around, although I might have been taken for a burglar and shot.”

“You’re not a taxidermist are you?” she asked. “In addition to being a private investigator?”

“Yes, I am,” he said. “How did you know?”

“Have you ever stuffed dead people instead of animals?”

“Well, once or twice,” he said, “but I think as a practice it’s generally looked down upon.”

“I have something I want to show you,” she said.

She put on her dressing gown and took him into the room with the stuffed family members. At first he thought he was looking at wax figures until he put his face up against their faces and sniffed them like a dog.

“This is very good work,” he said. “Quality craftsmanship.”

“I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“No, indeed, I have not. Who did it?”

“Uncle Sheridan.”

“I get a chill when I look at them. They’re dead yet still they live. They ought to be in a museum.”

“We would never agree to display them in a museum, Grandmother and me.”

“Is she here now?”

“She’s waiting just down the hall. If you come with me, I’ll take you to her.”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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