I Laughed, I Cried
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
(This short story is a repost. It was published in State of Imagination magazine.)
The world is ending, maybe in as little as two days. I feel strangely at peace; there’s some comfort in knowing that I—along with everybody else left in the world—will go out at the same time and in the same way. There’ll be no more bills to pay, no more car insurance, traffic jams, head colds, television commercials, doctor visits, taxes, corrupt politicians, backaches, family arguments, mosquito bites, or tough chicken. The list could go on and on, but I digress.
I’m in a huge shopping mall. People are going crazy, stealing everything they can carry. It’s an end-of-the-world dream come true. All that beautiful merchandise sitting there, waiting to be taken by whoever wants to take it. And who’s going to keep them from taking it? A large woman nearly knocks me down with an armful of blankets—she’s going to be warm for the end of the world. A man rushes by me for the door with a table lamp in one hand and a telescope in the other. And if you have a sensitive nature, don’t even bother looking toward the jewelry counter. Women are fighting each other over diamond necklaces, earrings and watches. There’s blood all over the floor. I see an old woman stuffing engagement rings into her bag while a couple of young girls, no more than twelve years old, tug at the bag to try get it away from her. The end of the world, I can see, brings out the very worst in people.
I’m in the book department. I see a couple of paperback books I want, but I don’t feel right just taking them without paying, even with the chaos that’s going on around me. I decide not to take them, even though I know I can, because I know I won’t have a chance to read them. Books don’t mean much now; nothing does.
On the other side of the book rack I’m facing, I see Clifford Devore. I went all the way through school with him and haven’t seen him for many years. If I had a best friend during school, it was Clifford. He’s wearing a purple-and-white striped knit cap, fastened underneath his chin. It’s the same knit cap he wore in eighth grade, a gift he received at a union Christmas party. It makes him look like a baby and I have the urge to laugh but I don’t.
“Hello, Clifford,” I say. I have to look up because he was always a few inches taller than me.
“Oh, hello, there,” he says, not smiling.
He doesn’t seem very happy to see me, but I know that the end of the world makes people behave in strange ways.
“I have to admit I’m a little afraid,” I say. “Will you stay with me?”
He just looks at me and doesn’t answer. I’m not sure if he heard what I said. A woman screaming behind me startles me and I turn around and look over my left shoulder. When I turn back to face Clifford, he’s gone, as if he disappeared into the air. I look around for him for a minute or so and then I realize it’s no use.
I see Buckwheat standing nearby, looking at me with his enormous eyes as if he knows me. He’s the little black child from Our Gang that I used to see on TV all the time when I was growing up. He’s wearing the little print dress he always wore that made me sometimes wonder if he was a boy or a girl (which I realized after seeing many times was really a long sweater that went down to his ankles, and not a dress) and curl papers in his hair. He doesn’t appear to be afraid, even though he’s surrounded by frenzied people yelling and stealing things. He has a serenity about him that tells me he’s taking the end of the world very well.
I’m ready to leave the mall to go home, so Buckwheat and I are on a moving conveyance that at first seems like an escalator and then is more like a roller coaster. We’re sitting in a comfortable seat—Buckwheat to my left—and we go up very high into the air. We pass over water down below and trains moving backwards. Now the roller coaster is more like a train and we’re on flat, regular ground. Somebody is standing at the front of the train car talking to the passengers about how the end of the world is coming, but nobody is paying any attention to what he’s saying. We’re past the time of having to listen to somebody we don’t want to listen to—another good thing about the end of the world.
The train stops and I get off, but I’m the only one who does; everybody else stays where they are. When I get to the door of the train and start to step down, I pause and look back over my shoulder at Buckwheat. He’s smiling and he gives me the high sign, which is back of hand to chin and waggling of the fingers. I give him the high sign back and get off the train.
When I get home, it’s my grandmother’s house that she lived in when I was in grade school. She’s sitting in front of the television, smoking Old Gold cigarettes and watching Liberace. He’s playing a grand piano with candelabra. The camera moves slowly around the piano, loving every inch of Liberace. He looks up as if he doesn’t know the camera is there and when he sees it he winks. Grandma thinks the wink is especially for her.
“Isn’t he just the cutest thing you ever saw,” she says.
I hear a thumping sound against the wall. “What’s that noise?” I ask.
“It’s those people that live in the other part of the house,” Grandma says.
“I didn’t know people lived there,” I say.
I go and open a door I never noticed before and, sure enough, there’s an entire other house there, with a kitchen, furniture, a dog, and a family I never saw before. I don’t know how they could have been so close all this time; seems like I would have heard or seen them before now. They seem to be having dinner; they look at me with annoyance. I apologize for bothering them and close the door as quickly as I can.
“What did I tell you?” Grandma says, not taking her eyes off Liberace.
My mother and sister are fighting, as usual; this time about my nephew, who has somehow mutated into an egg about two feet high. The egg that is my nephew is sitting on the couch. I try not to look at him because when I do I want to cry. The top of the egg is transparent and if you look down into the egg you can see my nephew’s face. He’s moving his mouth as if he’s trying to say something but no words come out; his tongue is flicking at the inside of the egg.
“He seems to want out of the egg,” I say. “Shouldn’t we try to crack it or something?”
“No,” my mother says. “All we can do is make him comfortable.”
“How do you make an egg comfortable?” I ask.
My sister stands up and I know now why my mother is so mad at her. She’s very cold and doesn’t seem to mind that her son has turned into an egg. In fact, I would say she’s glad he’s an egg.
“I’m leaving now,” she says.
My mother doesn’t say anything to my sister and doesn’t look at her as she goes out the front door. I’m thinking that my sister should never have been a mother in the first place, but I don’t say so.
As soon as my sister exits the scene, my great-great aunt, Fritzie Williams, enters. Aunt Fritzie is considerably more than a hundred years old. She’s wearing a long yellow coat made of knobby material, buttoned up to her neck; her fluffy white hair is arranged in a triangle on her head. She has two spinster daughters well into their eighties who are my third cousins.
“How are Esther and Josephine?” I ask.
“They’re spooked,” she says.
She launches into a long explanation of why she can’t take me home with her for the end of the world. While she’s talking, I visualize her house with its French doors between the dining room and living room, her big screened-in front porch, and her thick carpeting that’s the color of a Siamese kitten. When she’s finished talking, I just smile and nod my head. She turns and disappears into the wall. I know I won’t see her again.
I sit down on the couch beside the egg. He’s not making the slurping sounds with his tongue anymore so I figure he’s sleeping inside the shell. My mother also seems to be asleep, her chin on her breastbone. Grandma is still absorbed in Liberace on TV; I hear the strains of Warsaw Concerto. I look at the big grandfather clock that has been in the same place in the corner my entire life and I see that it’s stopped. I know without proof that all clocks, everyplace, all over the world, have stopped at the same time. Time doesn’t matter anymore.
The end comes that night while we are all in our beds. There’s no fireball from the sky; no tearing of the earth; no explosions or screaming. I don’t even wake up. I just have the feeling, in my sleep, of slipping out of one place and into another. When a thing really happens, it turns out to be so much different from what you imagined it would be. That’s one of the little tricks life plays on us.
I’m now in a place that must be the afterlife. The only people I’ve seen here are far off, men in dark suits and bowler hats and ladies in long ruffled dresses with parasols. If I try to approach them, they seem to get farther away.
I don’t feel hunger or thirst or any sensation of weariness. An ache I’ve had in a joint of my right foot for ten years is gone. I can lie on the ground and sleep—and the ground is more comfortable than any bed I’ve ever known—but I don’t have to sleep if I don’t want to.
Food is all around me in abundance, for the taking without effort, but eating is only for pleasure and not for sustaining life. I catch glimpses of beautiful animals—lions, peacocks, bears, elephants, giraffes—but when I look directly at them they hide from me and I don’t see them anymore.
Off in the distance on a hill I see a beautiful structure like a castle. With the sunlight shining on it just so, it appears to be made of gold. If I can just make my way over there, I’m sure I can find somebody who can tell me where I am, what it all means, and why I have the sensation of something lost that I must find again.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp