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If Mr. Shinliver Dies

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If Mr. Shinliver Dies ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

As soon as I walked into the office and heard laughter, I knew something was wrong. Ramona Sugarman, the receptionist, sat at her desk filing her fingernails.

“What’s going on, Ramona?” I asked.

“Mr. Shinliver had a heart attack,” she said casually.

“Oh, my gosh! Is he all right?”

She shrugged her shoulders and trained her cross-eyed gaze on her little finger. “How should I know?” she said.

As I proceeded to my cubicle, all the way in the back by the window, a football whizzed by my head, followed by a burst of laughter.

“Uh-oh,” Buster Finney said. “I think he’s going to tell on us.”

Irvine Beasley caught the ball, gripped it with both hands and pretended to throw it right at my face. “No, he won’t tell,” he said. “Not if he knows what’s good for him.”

“No football in the office,” I said, but they knew I was only joking.

I entered my cubicle and set my briefcase on the desk. Theresa Belladonna poked her head up over the partition that separated my cubicle from hers. She held a lighted cigarette in the corner of her mouth like a street corner wino.

“Good morning!” I said.

She removed the cigarette and blew smoke in my direction. “Did you hear the good news?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t heard any good news so far this morning.”

“You know that conference that Mr. Shinliver and all the top brass went to in Buffalo?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Shinliver had a heart attack.”

“Oh, my goodness!” I said. “Is he all right?”

“They say he was in Miss Wagstaff’s room when it happened. You can only imagine what they were doing.”

“I’d rather not,” I said.

“He’s still alive but he’s on one of those machines that does his breathing for him.”

“Poor Mr. Shinliver.”

“It’s the best thing that’s happened around here in a long time.”

“How long will it be before they get somebody in here to take his place, though?” I asked.

“At least a few days,” she said. “A few days of peace and freedom. It’s exactly what we’ve needed here for a long time.”

“It’s probably some kind of trick,” I said. “Shinliver is probably watching our every move this very minute.”

“That old bastard! Isn’t there some kind of law against spying on people?”

“It happens all the time.”

“Not to me it doesn’t,” she said, lighting a fresh cigarette off the old one.

“I didn’t know you smoked, Theresa,” I said.

“Now’s the time to start, when there’s nobody around to tell me I can’t do it.”

On my way to the kitchen to get my customary morning cup of tea, I saw that Reynard Gilhooley, the resident beatnik, was sitting at his desk openly snorting what appeared to be cocaine with a rolled-up dollar bill.

“Good morning, Reynard,” I said.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” he said.

“Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” I said.

While I heated the water for my tea, I stood and looked over the tray of donuts. I was happy to see that there was still one left that was oozing red jelly out the side like a delicious wound. As I picked the donut up and bit into it, somebody clapped me on the shoulder from behind.

“Well, well, well!” a booming voice said. “Look who bothered to show up for work today!”

“I’m always here, Melville,” I said as I turned around and tried to smile. “I never miss work.”

It was Melville Herman, of course. The braggart. The blowhard. The man who managed to make himself offensive to everybody in the world, including a string of ex-wives.

“Did you hear the good news?”

“About Mr. Shinliver, you mean?”

“If the old boy buys the farm, guess who your new boss will be?”

“I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” I said. I took a step away from him so I wouldn’t have to look at his big teeth.

“It’ll be me, you fool!” he said. “Who else?”

“What makes you think that?”

“It’s all but in the bag. Who’s the person with any competence around here? Who keeps this place afloat?”

“I don’t know. Miss Wagstaff?”

“Wagstaff’s just a puppet! And she’s a lesbian, besides.”

“Really? I heard that she and Mr. Shinliver were an item.”

He laughed his hyena-like laugh. “You are so funny!” he said. “Nobody talks like that any more!”

“Like what?”

“I’m going to take some measurements in Mr. Shinliver’s office and see how my furniture is going to fit in there. I think I’m going to want some new curtains, too. The old ones probably smell funny.”

After Melville left, I sat down at one of the little round tables with my tea and donut and looked out the window. Off in the distance I saw a column of smoke rising into the sky. As I was trying to think what it might be that was burning, Mae Fudge came into the room. She was a big woman with a hairdo of elaborate curlicues that reminded me of pictures of Louis XVI.

“Before you ask,” I said. “Yes, I have heard the news about Mr. Shinliver.”

“Nobody’s going to get any work done today,” Mae said. “Probably all week.”

“What am I supposed to do about it?”

“They look up to you. You can talk some sense into them.”

“And have them hate me the way they hate Mr. Shinliver?”

“I’ve heard by way of the grapevine that if Mr. Shinliver dies, you’re going to get a big promotion.”

“What if I don’t want it?”

She looked at me suspiciously. “Everybody wants a promotion,” she said.

“I’m leaving this place,” I said.

“What? Have you found a better job?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I’m leaving this place.”

“Well, you don’t have to get all huffy about it.”

“I’m not getting huffy. I just don’t like having people asking me questions.”

Somebody turned on some loud music that could be heard all over the office. People came into the kitchen, not only to get donuts and coffee, but to dance in the space between the sink and the tables. Believe me, there is nothing more disquieting than white-and-gray accountants—one of them wearing red socks, I noticed—dancing with each other.

“They’ve all gone crazy,” Mae said.

“Their oppressor is gone,” I said. “They’re experiencing a heady moment of freedom.”

“It won’t last.”

“Of course it won’t. Mr. Shinliver will be back or somebody just like him.”

I went back to my desk to escape the loud music, but I could hear it all the same from there. I put on my headphones and listened to some Mozart. I pretended to work while doing nothing. I was probably the only person in the whole place who was even pretending.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

In the Fullness of His Years

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In the Fullness of His Years

In the Fullness of His Years ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

A man named Cyril Johns, age seventy-eight, lived in the basement apartment of an eighteen-story apartment building. He once was the janitor of the building but had been forced to stop working because of his age. Upon his retirement, the owner of the building gave him a deluxe television set and allowed him to keep his basement apartment for a nominal rent. He had, of course, to turn over all his tools and keys to the man hired to replace him.

He used to have lots of friends, people to help pass the time and make the day brighter, but just about everybody he knew had died or moved out of the neighborhood. He no longer had anybody to play cards with or talk over the baseball scores or how the fools in Washington were messing up the country. The TV droned on, but he ignored it.

The new people were a speeded-up version of the old ones. They were mostly young, with lots of small children. They would sooner knock a person down than wait for him to get out of the way. The young mothers eyed him in a funny way, he thought, as if he had it in mind to grab one of their screaming brats and gut it like a catfish. They had never been taught to show respect for an old person.

Patsy Ruth was different. She smiled at him, spoke to him, asked him how he was. She didn’t mind when he touched her frail-looking little boy, named Frankie, on the face or picked him up and held him in his arms. She didn’t have a dirty mind like the others. She knew he meant no harm.

When they finally had a chance to speak, Patsy Ruth told him she had grown up on a farm.

“That’s why you’re not like the others,” he said.

“I’m having a hard time adjusting to this place,” she said. “I’ve never lived in the city before.”

“If I can ever be of any help,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life.”

She was afraid to ride downtown on the bus with Frankie alone. She asked Cyril if he would go with them the first time and then afterward she wouldn’t be afraid.

“I’ll pay you for your time,” she said.

“You’ll do nothing of the kind.”

They took Frankie for his doctor’s appointment and afterwards had lunch at a nearby café.

“It was good of you to come with me,” Patsy Ruth said. “I hate being such a baby.”

“What’s wrong with the little fellow, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“He was born at seven months. He’s always had weak lungs.”

“Won’t he outgrow it?”

“That’s my hope, but we don’t know yet. He might be sick his whole life.”

Knowing his mother was talking about him, Frankie looked at her with his bright, inquisitive eyes. “When I’m five I can go to school,” he said solemnly.

“So, you want to go to school?” Cyril asked.

“Sure,” Frankie said. “I want to learn how to read.”

“He sees the other kids playing,” Patsy Ruth said. “He wants to join in but they’re twice his size and I’m afraid they’d hurt him.”

“They wouldn’t hurt me, mother.”

“When you’re older, you can play with the bigger kids.”

“Because I’ll be bigger myself.”

When they left the café, Cyril insisted on picking up the tab.

“I should be buying your lunch,” Patsy Ruth said.

“I get a check in the mail every month that I don’t have to work for,” he said. “I have more than I need.”

For five days after the doctor’s visit he didn’t see Patsy Ruth or Frankie in the courtyard and began to be worried that something was wrong. He coaxed the manager with a five-dollar-bill to give him Patsy Ruth’s apartment number.

He took the creaking elevator up to the fourteenth floor and found the apartment. He knocked and Patsy Ruth opened the door only as far as the chain would allow. When she saw it was him, she unfastened the chain.

“I thought it might be you,” she said, smiling.

“I didn’t think you’d mind if I came by to see how you were doing.”

“Of course not. Come in.”

She moved some stuff off the couch to make a place for him to sit. “Sorry the place is still such a mess,” she said. “We’re still getting settled, deciding where to put things.”

“When I didn’t see you for a few days, I thought maybe the tyke wasn’t doing very well.”

“No, the tyke is fine. We’ve been staying indoors because of the rain and cold wind.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s taking his nap.”

“I wanted to tell you if you want me to go downtown with you and Frankie on the bus again, I’d be happy to.”

“I might take you up on that.”

“I hope you do.”

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Sure.”

He followed her into the kitchen and sat at the Formica-topped table next to the window while she boiled the water.

“You’re living among the clouds,” he said, looking out.

“I know. I can’t get over the feeling I’m going to be sucked out the window into the void.”

“If there’s a bad enough storm, you’ll want to go down to the bottom floor. That’s what people usually do. Until the storm passes. Of course, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I’d rather not even think about storms.”

“When it comes, it’ll seem worse than it is.”

“My husband will be home in a couple of hours and I need to start my dinner.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll go.”

“No, stay a while.”

When the tea was ready she brought it to the table and sat down across from him.

“Of course, I don’t have to worry about storms,” he said, “living in the basement apartment as I do.”

“Must be pretty lonely down there for you.”

“I’m used to being on my own. My wife has been gone for fifteen years. It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but she’s not the one I miss the most. It’s friends I miss. You know, my pals. They’ve all either died or moved to a better place.”

“You could move to a better place, too.”

“I don’t know where I’d go. I’ve lived here for so long I’d feel like a fish out of water. You stay where you feel at home.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel at home here,” she said. “This place scares me.”

“Why?”

“Too many people. Too impersonal. Too much crime, dirt and noise. And then there’s Frankie.”

“What about him?”

“If he’s ever going to have a chance to get better and live a normal life, it won’t be in a place like this. He needs clean air and wide-open spaces where people aren’t so crowded up together. And then, when he’s older, I worry about the kind of influences he’ll have here.”

“Why don’t you move back to the place where you grew up?”

“My husband would never agree to that.”

He had been going to suggest that she leave her husband and take Frankie and go live in the country, but he knew that wasn’t the right thing to say. You don’t go around giving married women that kind of advice.

“You can always hope for something better,” he said.

“Ever since we came here, my husband and I have been fighting. We’ve been married for eight years. It never has been what I would call a happy marriage, but since we came here it’s been worse. You reach a point where you can’t fight and argue any more and then there’s silence, which, I suppose is not as bad as the fighting. He sometimes doesn’t even come home at night. When I ask him where he’s been, he gives me a threatening look and tells me he’s been working so Frankie and I will have a home and food to eat.”

“I’m sorry for you.”

“Don’t be. We all choose our own path in life. Or it chooses us.”

“Well, listen, I have to go,” he said. “I have some phone calls to make. Thanks for the tea.”

He lied, of course. He didn’t have any phone calls to make, but it was a lie that allowed him to make a graceful exit. He was hurt by talk of how bad her marriage was.

He began seeing Patsy Ruth every day and, if for some reason he didn’t, he was disappointed. He began spending more time on his personal grooming, getting more frequent haircuts, cleaning his nails, making sure the collar of his shirt looked clean and, if it didn’t, putting on a fresh one. He didn’t think about what he was doing. He just did it because he wanted to.

He went downtown on the bus with Patsy Ruth and Frankie a couple more times and had lunch at the same place. They went to an afternoon movie and stood in line in the rain to buy their tickets, he holding out the tail of his coat to keep Frankie dry. Most often, though, they sat on a bench in the sun and talked. She told him about her past life, growing up with six brothers and sisters in a small farmhouse. Her older sister drowned when she was seven and one of her brothers spent time in prison. For his part, he told her about getting married when he was too young, getting divorced, and a few years later getting married again. After his wife died, he was through with women.

“I guess I’m a born bachelor,” he said. “I never minded being alone.”

When Patsy Ruth had him to dinner one night so he could meet her husband, he felt strained and awkward. He couldn’t speak to Patsy Ruth as freely as he was used to doing with her husband looking on. He was afraid, with a  movement or a word, that he would betray what he was thinking, and what he was thinking was how mismatched they were and how tragic that they were married. He left the first chance he got and went to a bar and drank.

And then he became sick. It was a reoccurrence of an old problem with his liver. The day before he went into the hospital, he met Patsy Ruth and Frankie in the park. He told her he was going in for some tests, not letting on how sick he was. He gave her the key to his apartment, asked her to keep an eye on things for him and water his plants.

“I’ll be home in a few days,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” she said.

“Me, too,” Frankie said.

“If I die,” Cyril said.

“You’re not going to die!”

“I know, but if I do, I want you to know something.”

“What is it?”

“In the closet is an old suitcase with your name on it. If I die, I want you to go immediately to my apartment and take it before somebody else gets it.”

“What’s in it?”

“Never mind. You don’t need to know that now, but you’ll find out soon enough.”

“All right, but I wish you’d tell me what this is all about.”

“I just want you to know that I’ve had the best time with you and Frankie that I’ve had in years.”

Those were the last words he ever spoke to her.

As he lay in his hospital bed looking at the ceiling, he knew he was dying and he didn’t mind so much. Almost everybody he had ever known was dead and now it was his turn.

He dozed and when he woke, a nurse stood beside his bed.

“I used to gamble,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“I used to place bets on horses and sporting events. I had an instinct for it. I won a lot more than I lost.”

She smiled and looked at her clipboard.

“Every time I got an extra twenty or fifty or hundred-dollar bill, I’d stash it in an old suitcase in my closet. Last time I counted, I had over two hundred thousand dollars.”

“My goodness!” she said. “You should have invested it. You could have been drawing interest.”

“No. That isn’t my way of doing things. If I can’t see my money and hold it in my hands, it doesn’t seem like it’s mine.”

“Somebody might have robbed you.”

“I was never worried about that.”

“Is your wife keeping an eye on it for you while you’re away?”

“My wife died many years ago.”

“Oh.”

“I believe people meet for a reason, don’t you?”

“I’ve never really thought about it. I suppose so.”

“The money is for my daughter and grandson after I’m gone. My grandson is only four and he isn’t well. My daughter needs to take him away so he can breathe the air and have a chance to grow up. That’s what the money is for. I believe people meet for a reason, don’t you?”

“You rest now, Mr. Johns,” the nurse said and then she was gone.

He turned his head toward the window. He could see a patch of blue sky and white clouds. Two pigeons lighted on the window sill and seemed to look in at him. He smiled. He knew he was dying and he didn’t mind it so much.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Pink Eye

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Pink Eye

Pink Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Alvin Fritchie lived on a farm a few miles outside of town. He had so many brothers and sisters that nobody knew exactly how many. He missed a lot of school because he had to depend on his mother or some other family member to drive him in and sometimes their car was broken down or the creek was up and they couldn’t get across the little bridge that separated their property from the highway. I thought Alvin was lucky that he got so much time off.

One day in our fourth grade class we noticed that Alvin kept rubbing his eye, first one eye and then the other. When you looked right at him and he looked back, he looked “sick out of his eyes,” as my grandmother would have said. Finally our teacher, Miss Meeks, called him out into the hallway to have a word with him. When Miss Meeks came back in and Alvin wasn’t with her, we knew she had sent him to the nurse’s office.

In a little while the nurse, Miss Bullard, knocked on the door. Miss Meeks stopped what she was doing and went to the door and the two of them talked for a couple of minutes in voices too low for us to hear. We were sure it had something to do with Alvin, but, of course, Miss Meeks didn’t tell us what it was. She was too good at keeping secrets.

The next day two other people had eye trouble and were sent home. The day after that, there were three others. After conferring with the nurse, Miss Meeks informed us that it was an epidemic (or starting to become an epidemic) of something called the pink eye (the very mention of which reminded me of white rabbits). Not exactly the plague but something you didn’t want to catch, no matter how bad you wanted to miss school.

Miss Bullard wanted us to believe she was on top of the situation. She had the janitor bring in scrub brushes, rags and disinfectants and watched him as he went over every inch of Alvin’s desk and the desks on either side. She showed us a film on the proper way to wash one’s hands by using plenty of soap and hot water, frequently throughout the day, but especially after using the toilet. She sent a letter home with each of us, informing our parents of the existence of pink eye in our school but assuring them it wouldn’t be a problem as long as proper sanitation was observed.

“Above all,” Miss Bullard said, her enormous breasts jutting out in front of her like guided missiles, “if your eyes itch and start to get red, don’t scratch them! Don’t even touch them!”

“Roo-roo-roo!” a boy named Leonard Scallion said from the back of the room, but everybody ignored him.

That evening at the dinner table, my mother examined my eyes with a magnifying glass until I was squirming in the chair to get away from her.

“Leave me alone!” I said.

“I don’t see any sign that he has the disease,” she said to my father. “As far as I can tell.”

“Do your eyes itch?” he asked me.

“Not yet.”

“But you think they will?”

“Just about everybody in my class has it,” I said. This was an exaggeration, of course, but, like everybody else in my family, I was prone to exaggeration.

“What do you want to do?” my father asked my mother. “Keep him at home until this passes?”

“That sounds like a good idea to me!” I said.

“No,” she said. “We’ll just let him go to school and check his eyes every day.”

“Thanks a lot!” I said.

I didn’t get the pink eye, but the next Monday morning when I woke up and started to get dressed for school, I had spots on my chest that extended up to my neck and shoulders. When I showed my mother, she took my temperature and, finding I had a fever of a little over a hundred, called the doctor. He said it sounded like the three-day measles. I was to stay in bed and rest and keep away from other people because it was contagious.

“How on earth did you get the measles?” she asked.

“How should I know?” I said.

Having the measles wasn’t as bad as having a cold or the flu. I could have anything I wanted to eat and everybody left me alone to do as I pleased. The only thing I didn’t like about the measles was that I had to stay away from the TV.

My spots (or my fever) didn’t go away after three days, so I ended up getting the whole week off from school. When I went back on the following Monday, a few people were still out with the pink eye (taking full advantage, I knew). I learned that two others besides me (so far) had the three-day measles. One had returned and the other was still out.

I noticed that Alvin Fritchie, the one who started the whole pink eye thing, hadn’t returned to school yet. I asked several people what happened to him, but nobody knew. I figured he got the three-day measles on top of the pink eye. He might have died and nobody would even know or care. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had given his desk to somebody else.

Finally Alvin returned without fanfare after more than two weeks. I looked for him at recess and found him standing by himself, as usual, over by the fence.

“How do you feel, Alvin?” I asked.

“I feel all right.”

“Get over the pink eye?”

“Yeah.”

“Why were you gone for so long?”

“My mother died.”

“Oh? Did she have the pink eye, too?”

“I came back just for today to tell everybody I’m leaving and I won’t be back.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to live with my aunt in Kansas. I guess I’ll be going to school there.”

Those were the last words I ever heard him say. He left at the end of the day without saying a word to anybody. No goodbyes or anything else. Nobody ever mentioned him again. He just faded away like something you thought was there that really wasn’t.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Deep in the Arms of Love

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Deep in the Arms of Love

Deep in the Arms of Love ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a story I posted earlier.)

We were lost again. We had a roadmap but didn’t seem to know how to use it. I had been driving earlier but now Drusus was driving. His wife, Pearline, sat between us, and I sat next to the window. Mama and Adele were in the back.

The seat wasn’t long enough for mama to stretch out all the way so when she needed to lie down she used Adele’s lap as a pillow. We were all a little worried about mama. We had to stop every now and then for her to get out and walk around. She was carsick and sometimes she vomited. I couldn’t help but notice there was some blood coming up. I had to look away.

We were on our way to the city, which was a lot farther away than we had thought. Adele was going to sing in a radio contest and mama was going to see a specialist.

Mama had been asleep and when she woke up, she said, “Sing me a song, honey.”

“I don’t feel like singing,” Adele said. “I feel like throwing up.”

“Give us just one song,” I said. “You can entertain us while you practice up for the contest.”

“I don’t need any practice. I know those songs backwards and forwards. I sing them in my sleep all night long.”

“I know you’re going to win,” Pearline said. “It’s a feeling I have, deep down.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of it,” Drusus said. “There’s hundreds of other people with that same deep-down feeling.”

“I have as much chance as anybody,” Adele said.

“We leave it in the hands of the Lord,” mama said.

The hick singing teacher giving Adele lessons thought she had great promise. She could sing any kind of music—opera, even—but she was best at popular tunes like “Makin’ Faces at the Man in the Moon” and “Love, You Funny Thing.” She was as good as anybody on the radio or in the movies.

“And I have a good feeling about the new doctor you’re going to see, Mrs. McCreary,” Pearline said. (She and Drusus were so newly married that she still couldn’t bring herself to call her mother-in-law Hazel.)

“You and your feelings,” Drusus scoffed.

“She has a positive attitude,” I said.

“I try not to fret about it,” mama said. “It’s in the hands of the Lord. He has already ordained what will be.”

We didn’t like to talk about it, but mama’s doctor at home had just about given up on her. We called him a horse doctor because he didn’t seem to know very much. If you went to him with anything more serious than a cold or a sore toe, he was in over his head. The specialist in the city was just about her last chance to be well again.

Mama groaned a couple of times and when she was finished groaning, she said to Adele, “You still got the name and address of that doctor I’ve got the appointment with on Friday, don’t you, baby?”

“It’s in my bag,” Adele said. “You saw me put it in there.”

“Don’t you lose it.”

“I won’t.”

“Dr. Ficke says he’s one of the best doctors in the state and you don’t have to be rich to get in to see him.”

“I bet it helps, though,” I said.

We came to a tiny town with a cutoff to a different highway. Drusus took the cutoff going a little too fast. Mama almost fell onto the floor and let out a little yelp. Pearline fell over against me and righted herself as if I was poison to the touch.

“Be careful, honey!” Pearline said.

“Well, this is it!” Drusus said. “This is the right way now. I just know it. We are officially not lost anymore.”

Happy days are here again,” sang Adele. “The skies above are clear again. So, let us sing a song of cheer again. Happy days are here again!”

As if to confirm that we were finally going in the right direction, we passed a sign that you couldn’t miss if you were alive. “Only two hundred and thirty-seven more miles,” I said.

“Seems like we already came about a thousand miles,” Adele said.

“How about you, Wynn?” Drusus asked me. “Do you want to drive for a while?”

“No thanks,” I said. “You’re doing fine.”

I went to sleep with my head against the door and woke up when we had a blowout and Drusus pulled off the highway to change the tire.

We all got out of the car, including mama. She took a few wobbly steps and smoked a cigarette and said she was feeling a little better. She wanted to know what state we were in. When we told her, she laughed for some reason.

We took advantage of the unscheduled stop to have a drink of water and a bite to eat. We still had some bread left over, Vienna sausages, fruit, and other stuff. Mama didn’t want anything to eat but she drank a little bit of water and some coffee. Pearline spread a blanket on the ground for her and Adele to sit on. Mama sat for a while and then lay down and looked up into the trees.

“This is nice,” she said, “lying still on the ground and not having tires turning underneath me.”

“I think mama’s sicker than she lets on,” I said to Drusus when we were changing the tire.

“That doctor in the city will fix her up,” he said.

“She’s trying to put a good face on it for Adele’s sake. She doesn’t want to spoil her chance of singing on the radio.”

“Everything will be all right,” he said, as if trying to convince himself as much as me.

Mama went to sleep on the blanket and we had to wake her up to get her back in the car. I took over driving from there, even though I liked it better when Drusus drove and I could just sit and think.

We were all tired and we knew we were going to have to stop someplace for the night. We hadn’t made very good time, what with our getting lost and mama being sick and all.

At dusk we stopped at an auto court where, according to their sign, they had clean cabins and cheap. I went inside and engaged the room and then we drove around to our cabin, which was cabin number twelve in the back. With the shade trees, the two rows of trim white cabins, and the azalea bushes everywhere, it was a pretty place and plenty inviting.

We tried to get mama to eat something, but she just wanted to go to bed. Pearline and Adele helped to get her out of her clothes and into bed while Drusus and I sat on the front step and smoked.

“If Adele wins that prize money,” he said, “we can pay back Uncle Beezer the money he advanced us for this trip.”

“We can’t expect her to give up the prize money for that,” I said. “If she wins, the money is hers to do with as she pleases.”

“And what would she do with it, anyhow?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe it would be her one chance to get away from home, out into the real world. She might get a real singing career going for herself.”

“Do you really think she has a chance?”

“You’ve heard her sing,” I said. “Isn’t she as good as anybody you’ve ever heard?”

“Yeah, she’s good,” he said.

“If she wins the money, it’s hers. We can’t touch it.”

“Maybe she’ll offer it. At least part of it.”

“We can’t ask her for it, though.”

After a couple of minutes in which neither of us spoke, Drusus said, “Pearline thinks she’s going to have a baby.”

“A baby!” I said. “That was fast work. You’ve only been married a month.”

“The curse of the married man,” he said.

“What do you mean? Don’t you want it?”

“We’re poor,” he said. “We don’t have anything. Even the car I’m driving belongs to somebody else.”

I laughed. “How do you think other people manage?” I asked. “How do you think mama and daddy managed? They were dirt poor and they had eight kids.”

“The poorer they are the more kids they have, and the more kids they have the poorer they are.”

“You’re not sorry you married Pearline, are you?” I asked.

“Well, no. Not exactly. I probably wouldn’t do it again, though, if I had it to do over.”

“I’ll be sure and tell Pearline you said that.”

“Don’t tell anybody any of this,” he said. “She doesn’t want anybody to know about the baby just yet, because it makes it look like we had a shotgun wedding. I swear the baby wasn’t on the way yet when we got married.”

“You don’t have to convince me of anything,” I said.

“Not a word to mama or Adele yet. Pearline wants to make sure about the baby before she tells anybody.”

“Mum’s the word,” I said.

Drusus and I had to sleep on the floor in the cabin but I didn’t mind. I was just glad to be able to stretch out and rest my weary bones. I laid down near the screen door where I could feel a cool breeze and hear the trees rustling. After being on the dusty road all day, it felt like heaven.

As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear Adele softly singing mama’s favorite song: “Deep night, stars in the sky above. Moonlight, lighting our place of love. Night winds seem to have gone to rest. Two eyes, brightly with love are gleaming. Come to my arms, my darling, my sweetheart, my own. Vow that you’ll love me always, be mine alone. Deep night, whispering trees above. Kind night, bringing you nearer, dearer and dearer. Deep night, deep in the arms of love...”

I woke up in the morning to the sound of the birds singing. I stood up to slip into my shirt and pants and that’s when I saw Adele and Pearline sitting quietly in chairs at the foot of the bed. Pearline was smoking a cigarette.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“We can’t wake mama,” Adele said.

“Is she breathing?”

“I don’t think so.”

“We’d better get a doctor,” I said.

Pearline looked at me and shook her head and that’s when I knew that mama was dead.

I shook Drusus gently by the shoulder to wake him up. When I told him what had happened, he, of course, had to see for himself. He went over to the bed and put his ear to mama’s chest. Hearing nothing but silence, he then held a mirror to her nose. He looked at the mirror and threw it down on the bed like a little boy with a toy gun that no longer works.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go another mile farther from home,” Adele said.

“We’d better call somebody and tell them what happened,” Pearline said.

“No,” Drusus said. “We’re not calling anybody. They’ll ask us a lot of questions. They’ll hold us here until they know what happened. They’ll make Adele miss her chance to sing on the radio.”

“We can’t go off and leave mama here,” I said.

“Of course not,” he said. “We’re taking her with us.”

After Adele and Pearline got mama into her clothes, Drusus carried her out to the car in his arms. I opened the door for him and he slid mama into the corner of the back seat where she was propped up and her head was not lolling to the side. He then took a length of rope and tied it around mama’s chest so she would stay upright and not fall over from the movement of the car. Adele gave mama’s dark glasses to Drusus to put on her and we found a straw hat that belonged to Uncle Beezer in the trunk and put it on her head. With the hat and the glasses and in her regular clothes, she didn’t look like a dead person.

“I’m glad she died in a pretty place like this instead of on the road,” I said.

“We’ve come this far,” Drusus said. “She would want us to keep going as far as we can. She wouldn’t want Adele to miss her chance to sing on the radio because of her.”

We all got into the car and Drusus started her up. As we were pulling out of the place, the manager stopped us and leaned into the window and looked at all of us, including mama. He smiled in a friendly way and said he hoped we enjoyed our stay and God grant that we should come back that way again.

When we were on the highway again and going at full speed, Adele began singing mama’s favorite hymn: Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in His blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. Perfect submission, perfect delight, visions of rapture now burst on my sight; angels descending bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love…”

Nobody said anything for a long time after Adele finished singing. We all had the feeling, though, that nothing was going to stop us now. That old car of ours was sure burning up the miles.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

I Liked Her Better When She was Ugly

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I Liked Her Better When She was Ugly

I Liked Her Better When She was Ugly ~ A Short Story
by Allen Kopp

She set her battered suitcase on the bed and began putting things in it: a dress and then another dress, a pair of shoes, stockings, a hairbrush.

“How long are you going to be gone?” Freda asked.

“Two days,” her mother said. “Now, we’ve already been all through that. I’ll be back on Sunday night.”

“I want to go with you.”

“You’d hate it. Funerals are terrible.

“I’ve never been to a funeral, so I don’t know if it’s terrible or not.”

“Take my word for it.”

“If I have to stay here by myself, I might not be here when you get back.”

“Where will you be?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“I really don’t need any trouble from you right now.”

“What am I supposed to eat while you’re gone?”

“I spent my entire paycheck on food. I don’t think you’ll starve.”

“But I don’t know how to cook!”

“Get Squeak to cook something for you.”

“Squeak’s a mess. She doesn’t know how to cook, either.”

“I thought you liked Squeak.”

“Why does she have to stay with me? I’m old enough to take care of myself.”

“No, you’re not. Squeak likes staying with you. It makes her feel grown up.”

“You pay her, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You can just save your money and let me stay by myself. I’ll invite some friends over and we’ll have a party.”

“Now you’re talking nonsense.”

“When you talk about having a party or Squeak talks about it, it’s fine, but when I talk about it, it’s nonsense.”

“That’s because I’m an adult and you’re a child.”

“Squeak’s not an adult. Not yet, anyway.”

“Well, she’s closer to it than you are.”

“It’s terrible being a child, isn’t it?”

“Not everybody thinks so.”

Her mother left and, while Freda waited for Squeak to arrive, she sat in the middle of the couch facing the TV and had her dinner, which was a cold hot dog right out of the refrigerator, a piece of pimiento cheese, a couple of dill pickles and a piece of lemon pie, not baked but out of a box from the grocery store.

One show ended and another began. When she looked at the clock and saw it was after seven-thirty, she hoped that Squeak had decided not to come and she would be staying by herself after all, in which case it would Squeak’s fault and not her own.

Squeak finally showed up, though, with an overnight bag in one hand and her school books in the other.

“You’re late,” Freda said.

“My mother made me wash every dish in the house before I left.”

Squeak was a big girl with a broad face and a high forehead. Her pale skin and very fair hair gave her the appearance of having no eyebrows. She was one of the less popular girls in school, although she tried hard.

“Have you had your dinner?” Squeak asked.

“Hours ago,” Freda said.

“Go to bed, then.”

“I never go to bed this early on Friday night!”

“If you’re not going to bed, then, I want you to do something for me.”

Squeak gave to Freda a picture of a woman’s face she had cut out of a magazine. “I want you to draw my eyebrows on just the way they are in this picture.”

She handed Freda the eyebrow pencil, turned all the lights on in the room and lay down on the couch. After she adjusted her hips and crossed her ankles, she snapped her fingers to let Freda know she was ready.

Freda studied the picture, eyebrow pencil poised in hand. “I’m going to make you look so glamorous!” she said.

She leaned heavily on the eyebrow pencil, almost breaking it a couple of times. After she drew the first eyebrow on with some difficulty, the second one was easier.

“There!” she said with satisfaction.

“How do I look?” Squeak asked.

“Less surprised.”

Squeak sat up and studied herself in the hand mirror. “You’ve made them too dark,” she said. “I look like a prison matron.”

“I like prison matrons,” Freda said.

“You got anything to eat in the house?”

“You don’t think my mother would go away for two whole days and not leave food for me to eat, do you?”

They went into the kitchen. Freda sat at the table while Squeak looked in the refrigerator. She took out the pickles, cheese and butter.

“How about a grilled cheese sandwich?” she asked.

“I’d like one,” Freda said.

“I thought you said you already ate.”

“I did but it was hours ago.”

“Well, I haven’t eaten since lunch at school today and I’m starved,” Squeak said. “It was some kind of slop on toast. I couldn’t even eat it.”

“You need to diet anyway.”

“That’s not very nice,” Squeak said.

“Only speaking the truth.”

“Well, you have to be careful and not hurt a person’s feelings, you know.”

Squeak put the pickles on the table. Freda took off the lid and stuck her fingers in the cold green liquid.

“You got a boyfriend?” Freda asked.

“Hell, no!” Squeak said. “I don’t want one.”

The skillet heated while she slathered butter on the bread.

“Why not?”

“They’re a pain in the butt is why not.”

“Wouldn’t you like to have a boyfriend that looks like Rock Hudson?”

“Rock Hudson is a total fake. There are no people in the world who look like him.”

“My mother says the guy at the gas station looks like Rock Hudson.”

“I know who you mean. He’s got black hair. He sort of looks like Rock Hudson a little bit, but he’s got broken-off teeth and he walks with a limp.”

“He smokes cigarettes, too, when he’s pumping gas,” Freda said. “He’s going to blow his ass clean off.”

“You shouldn’t say words like ‘ass’.”

“Why not?”

“You can say it in front of me because you know me but you shouldn’t say it in front of just anybody. It’s not refined.”

“What’s ‘refined’ mean?”

“You know what ‘refined’ means. It means doing and saying the right things so you meet the right people and find yourself a good husband.”

“I don’t want a husband,” Freda said.

“Of course you don’t! Not yet, anyway. You’re only ten years old.”

“I won’t ever want a husband, even when I’m eighty-five. I’m not ever getting married.”

“You’ll change your mind when the right one comes along,” Squeak said.

“If I can’t have one like Rock Hudson, I don’t want any at all.”

“Do you want some chicken noodle soup to go with your grilled cheese?”

After they were finished eating and Squeak had stacked the dishes in the sink to wash later, they went into the living room and sat side-by-side on the couch. The movie Now, Voyager was just starting.

“Oh, I love Bette Davis!” Squeak said. “I want to be just like her!”

“I’ve heard she’s had about six husbands,” Freda said, “and they all beat her.”

“Be still and listen.”

A homely Boston heiress named Charlotte Vale wears orthopedic shoes and matronly dresses. She doesn’t wear any makeup and her eyebrows meet in the middle like an immigrant longshoreman. She stays in her room all the time, smoking cigarettes and carving ivory boxes, because her elderly mother is cranky with her and obviously doesn’t like her very much. When a sympathetic sister-in-law arranges for Charlotte to meet a pipe-smoking psychiatrist, he sees right away that she isn’t right in the head. Her mother, of course, believes there is nothing wrong with her and she is only putting on an act to try to get attention.

Charlotte has a nervous breakdown (who wouldn’t?) and spends several months in the clubby, resort-type mental institution that the pipe-smoking psychiatrist runs in the country. When he says that Charlotte is once again ready to mingle in society, she goes, by herself, on a luxurious cruise to South America—not, however, before undergoing a physical transformation that can only be found in the movies: she loses thirty pounds, plucks her eyebrows, throws away the unattractive glasses she wears, starts using makeup, and develops a taste for high-fashion clothes. How could we have known there was a beautiful swan waiting to emerge from the ugly duckling?

On the boat, the newly beautiful Charlotte Vale meets a man (what else?) to whom she is irresistibly drawn. His name is Jerry and he is strangely attentive to her in a way that no man has ever been. (“Nobody ever called me dahling before,” she says.) They spend a lot of time together seeing the sights in South America. When there is a problem with their car, they spend a night together in a shed, doing something called bundling, which, Charlotte says, is an old New England custom.

Charlotte learns from someone who knows Jerry that his life hasn’t been especially happy, either. He has a clinging, possessive wife who won’t give him a divorce. He also has a crazy daughter named Tina who is like a younger version of Charlotte, unwanted by her mother in much the same way that Charlotte was unwanted by hers.  

The boat lands back in Boston and Charlotte says goodbye to Jerry, believing she will never see him again. All Charlotte’s friends and family, including the servants, are surprised at the extent to which she has changed. Everybody thinks she looks better, of course, except her mother, who has nothing good to say to her. She is offended by Charlotte’s new spirit of independence and threatens to take away all her money.

Charlotte becomes engaged to a Boston blueblood like herself, but she doesn’t love him and can’t forget about Jerry. She wants to break off her engagement, and it is while she and her mother are arguing on this very subject that her mother dies of a stroke. Charlotte, of course, blames herself for her mother dying that way, right in the middle of an argument. Just as she is about to descend once again into madness, Jerry reappears, as much in love with her as he was on the cruise. 

In the end, Charlotte has her mother’s money and the enormous Boston house to herself. We know she could probably go crazy again at any time, but she is, for the moment anyway, oddly contented. She has Jerry with her and also Tina, Jerry’s crazy daughter.

In the final scene, Charlotte and Jerry are standing at an open window in the library. Jerry lights two cigarettes at once in his mouth and hands one of them to Charlotte, in that odd way of his.

“Do you think we can ever expect to be happy?” Jerry asks.

Charlotte, her eyes wet with tears, says, “Oh, Jerry. Let’s not ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

The Max Steiner music swells and the camera pans upward to the summer sky, which has about as many stars in it as one might expect.   

Squeak blew her nose loudly and dabbed at her eyes. “A sweet, sad ending,” she said. “The kind that always makes me cry.”

“I thought the whole thing was silly,” Freda said.

“Don’t you think I look a little like Bette Davis?”

“No. You look more like the Bride of Frankenstein.”

“Remember what I said about hurting people’s feelings,” Squeak said. “You need to work on that.”

“There’s nothing wrong with looking like the Bride of Frankenstein. It’s better than looking like Bette Davis any day.”

“A lot you know! You’re still just a little kid.”

“If somebody told me I looked like the Bride of Frankenstein, I’d be happy.”

“I think it’s time for you to go to bed.”

“I’m thinking about staying up all night as an experiment.”

A loud knock at the door just then made Squeak scream.

“Don’t answer it!” Freda said. “It might be the police.”

Squeak stood up and went to the door, put her hand on the knob and said, “Who is it?”

“Open the door!” a voice said.

Without hesitation, Squeak swung the door open, and Stinky, her friend from high school, came inside. Behind Stinky was her boyfriend Ellison.

“What are you doing here?” Squeak asked.

“Your mother told me you were staying over here until Sunday,” Stinky said. “We thought we’d drop by and get a little party going.”

Ellison made himself at home, sitting on the couch and putting his feet on the coffee table. “Got anything to eat?” he said.

“I’m babysitting Freda,” Squeak said. “I was just about to put her to bed.”

“I can put myself to bed,” Freda said.

“Well, hello there, little chickie!” Ellison said, taking hold of Freda’s arm. “Why don’t you come and sit down beside Uncle El on this here ol’ couch?”

“Leave her alone, jerkface,” Stinky said. “Can’t you see she’s only a child?”

“Nobody ever said I don’t like a little chicken now and then! Hah-hah-hah!”

“I think you’d both better leave,” Squeak said.

“You got any liquor in the house?”

Ellison had white-blond hair and a porkpie hat seated on the back of his head. He told people he was a jazz musician but he couldn’t play a note on any instrument. He was over twenty and always chose his girlfriends from the high school crowd. He and Stinky had been going around together for about a year.

If Squeak was in the middle of the social hierarchy in high school, Stinky was all the way at the bottom. She lived with her mother and retarded sister in a residential hotel. She belonged to a girl gang, smoked cigarettes and drank hooch. The worst, though, was that she had been arrested for shoplifting costume jewelry and cosmetics.

“Let’s get this party going!” Stinky said. “It’s still early!”

“My mother wouldn’t like it if you had a party with her not here,” Freda said.

“Where is she?” Ellison asked.

“She had to go out of town.”

“Out of town where?”

“She took the bus to the city to go to a funeral.”

“Uh-oh!” Ellison said. He put his hand over his mouth.

“What’s the matter?” Freda asked.

“I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”

“Tell me what?”

“There was a terrible wreck about twenty miles out of town. A bus on its way to the city collided with a tanker truck. The truck exploded and everybody on the bus burned to death. I’ll bet it’s the same bus your ma was on.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Stinky said. “He’s making that up. If he doesn’t watch himself, I’m going to have to slap the shit out of him.”

“Why don’t one of you baby dolls go into the kitchen and rustle up some grub?” he said. “I’ll stay here and get better acquainted with the little chicken.”

“The two of you are going to have to leave,” Squeak said. “Freda’s mother is paying me to make sure nothing like this happens. You’ll have to take your party someplace else.”

“I always thought you were a fun girl!” Stinky said. “I never knew you were such a tight ass!”

“Come and give your lovin’ daddy a great big old kiss,” Ellison said to Stinky, holding out his arms to her like a mammy singer.

“Always ready to accommodate my man!” she said. She sat on the couch next to him and soon they were entwined in a passionate embrace.

“Oh, brother!” Freda said.

“Go to bed, Freda!” Squeak said.

“I don’t want to miss any of this!”

Stinky and Ellison were smacking their lips together and moaning. Stinky was pulling at Ellison’s back, trying to get him on top of her.

“I never saw anything like this before,” Freda said.

“I think they need to cool off, don’t you?” Squeak said.

She went into the kitchen and filled the dishpan with cold water and carried it into the front room and poured it over Stinky and Ellison.

“You crazy bitch!” Stinky said, pushing Ellison away and jumping up. “What’s the matter with you? I just had my hair done!”

“I warned you and you wouldn’t listen,” Squeak said. “If you don’t go now, I’m calling the police.”

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Stinky said. “I thought you were my friend!”

“All right,” Ellison said. “We’ll go. It’s no fun here, anyway. I want something to eat.”

“You haven’t heard the last of this,” Stinky said to Squeak. “I just can’t stand to see a good time wasted.”

After they left, Squeak said, “I think that’s the way Bette Davis would have handled the situation, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” Freda said.

“Go get some rags and let’s get this water cleaned up.”

“Do you think my mother really burned to death?”

“No,” Squeak said. “If there had been an accident, don’t you think somebody would have called?”

Freda ran into her room and closed the door, jumped into bed with her clothes on and pulled the covers over her head. She would have to wait until Sunday night to find out if her mother had burned to death. It was going to be an awfully long weekend.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Suicide Hotel

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Suicide Hotel

Suicide Hotel ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

(This is an expanded version of a story I posted earlier with a different title.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it a costume party?” Margaret asked.

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

“That ought to do the trick.”

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

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

“I think I will.”

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

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

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

“Let me be the first to congratulate you.”

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

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

“Is who younger than me?”

“Herman Mudge.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was until you came along.”

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

“What of it?”

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

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

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

She stood up abruptly. “I don’t know what your game is,” she said, “but I only want to be left alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

He pushed the door open and when she did nothing to stop him, he went inside, closed the door and locked it.

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

“You don’t have a husband,” he said.

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

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

He laughed and took off his hat, took a step toward her. “What do you think?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“Who are you to care about that?” she asked.

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

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

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

“There’s an intruder in my room,” she said. “Yes. A man. Room 1234. Thank you.”

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

He put his hat back on, crossed the room to the door and opened it.

“Wait!” she said. “Don’t go!”

“Why shouldn’t I go?” he said. “I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted.”

“If you go, I’m afraid I won’t see you again.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I want to know who you are and why you’ve been bothering me.”

He reclosed the door without a sound and said, “Maybe I don’t really exist at all. I might just be a manifestation of your conscience.”

“Why would my conscience look like you?”

He shrugged, looking bored; took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “You dames!” he said.

There was a loud knock just then at the door that made her jump. “Security!” a booming voice said.

She went to the door and opened it a crack. “I’m sorry, officer,” she said. “There’s no one here. I was taking a nap. I must have been dreaming.”

“No suicides here, lady!” he said.

“What?”

“I said we don’t want no suicides here. This is not that kind of a hotel.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, closing the door abruptly.

She went to the window again and looked down at the cars and the people. How surprised they would be when they saw her body hurtling through space toward them like a comet! How much more dramatic it would be if she set herself on fire and then jumped!

She tried to open the window but couldn’t. She looked around for something she could use to break the glass. Then she remembered that somebody had been in the room with her right before the security man knocked. Who was it? Oh, yes! She looked over to where he had been standing, but there was no one there. That’s odd, she thought. I might have seen him leave but I don’t seem to be able to remember it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day

They Sailed Away for a Year and a Day image 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought you needed to sleep.”

“You’re too good to me.”

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

“How many to go?” Vance asked.

“A hundred and thirty-seven.”

“A cakewalk.”

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

“Anything important?” Vance asked.

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

“No personal messages?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Having trouble breathing?” Vance asked.

“No, I guess I’ll live.”

“Are you crying?”

“Of course not.”

“If you want to cry, it’s all right.”

“I said I’m not crying!”

“What’s the matter, then?”

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

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

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

“Were?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know. I just figured.”

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

“You can talk about it to me.”

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

“Ever been married?”

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

“Must have been tough.”

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

“Do you ever see her? Talk to her?”

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

“You don’t know where she is?”

“I don’t care.”

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

“No.”

“You’re a hard case.”

“Not really.”

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

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

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

“Get up and do some work, then.”

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

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

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

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

“People die on alien planets all the time.”

“I have no intention of dying.”

“What do you miss most about earth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll be dead long before then.”

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

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

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

“You don’t know what you’re saying.”

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t care if they were.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2015 by Allen Kopp

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