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Author Archives: allen0997

One of My Own

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One of My Own ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

When Alvin Goldsmith married Alma Mound and the babies started coming, he knew life for him would always be a struggle. After the first year of marriage, they brought Earl into the world. Then there was Peggy, then Damon, and then a girl they named Storm. After the fourth baby in five years, Alvin said there would be no more. One more would upset the balance.

Alvin had never been smart. He graduated from high school, but just barely. His last two years he was so lax and so lazy that, when he was allowed to graduate with his class, it was an act of generosity. Two weeks after graduation, he went to work in a shoe factory operating a leather press and stayed for thirteen years until the factory shut its doors. After that he painted houses, worked in a lead mine, drove a school bus, worked as a janitor in a church, clerked in a hardware store, did cleanup work in a cemetery, and even for a while worked as a trash collector.

The growing-up years of his quartette of children passed in a kind of blur to Alvin. They were starting to kindergarten and, then, before Alvin knew it, he was putting on his one blue suit that he wore to weddings and funerals and going to their high school graduations. Peggy and Storm were both married by the time they were nineteen and started having babies of their own. Earl, never much interested in the girls, moved to Alaska with a couple of his male friends and got a job there. He sent greeting cards to Alvin and Alma on Christmas and birthdays, but he would never come back home, he said, not even for a visit. He was happy in Alaska and didn’t want to be reminded of his growing-up years.

The only one of the four children that had ever caused Alvin and Alma any trouble was Damon, the third child and the younger of the two boys. As a child, he had temper tantrums in which he pounded his head against the wall. If anybody ever crossed him or kept him from doing what he wanted to do, he went into the kitchen and began taking dishes out of the cabinet and throwing them against the wall and breaking them. He played cruel tricks on his sisters, one time putting a decaying skunk in their bedroom, another time taking some of their clothes and books out into the front yard and setting fire to them. He called his mother vile names and painted obscenities on the wall of his room in his own blood. Alvin and Alma were intent on getting him through high school, after which they considered their duty to him was finished and the boy was on his own.

Damon’s high school years were fraught with trouble and heartache. He was always in trouble at school. He cheated on tests, stole money from girls’ purses, engaged in fistfights on little provocation, threatened to kill a teacher for touching him on the arm. At night, he went out and drank, sometimes not getting home in time to go to school the next morning. He shoplifted cigarettes and small food items. He had been barred from every pharmacy in town because he roamed their aisles and pilfered drugs.  Alvin prayed, though he knew he was wrong in doing so, that Damon would take the combination of drugs that would end his own life and in doing so, bring the family tragedy to an end.

Finally, through the grace of God, Damon graduated from high school. He had the lowest grade point average in his class the highest number of days missed, but still he made it through. The entire family attended his graduation and were happy for him. The next day he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He spent six months in the state mental hospital, after which he was said to be cured of whatever had been wrong with him and sent home.

He got a job as an apprentice meat cutter for minimum wage. In the evenings, he would come home wearing his white apron covered with blood, in which he seemed to take pride. Sometimes he brandished a meat cleaver in his mother’s or his father’s face, but they could ignore this as long as he was going to work every day and staying at home in the evenings and watching television and napping in the recliner.

He began dating a checker named Joanne in the supermarket where he worked and, in a few weeks, they announced they were to be married. Joanne was going to have a baby, but she hoped nobody would notice until after the wedding. They rented a small house a few blocks from the supermarket where they both worked and, seven months after they were married, Joanne gave birth to a son, Matthew.

In the year after Matthew’s birth, Damon began going around with other women, barflies and other low types. He stole money from Joanne’s purse, just as he had stolen money from girl’s purses in high school, and he began staying out all night, sometimes being gone for two or three days at a time. When Joanne confronted him over the loss of the rent money, he hit her in the head with a bottle and tried to strangle her. As he held her down on the floor, she slashed him across the face with a steak knife and got away. After that, she quit her job as a checker and took Matthew and went back to her childhood home to live with her widowed mother.

By now, Alvin was sixty-three and, after forty-five years, he had to give up working. He had a heart murmur, a fatty liver, arthritis, asthma, and deteriorating disks in his spine. Every movement for him was painful. He and Alma, sitting at the kitchen table, figured they could get by on what little money they had, since they only had themselves to take care of and didn’t need anything in the way of luxuries.

Just when Alvin was looking forward to not having to go to work every day anymore, his son Damon was once more thrust upon him. Damon had lost his job, his home and his wife. He had no place to lay his head. Alvin and Alma had to take him in. He needed them. They didn’t have any other choice. What parent can turn away a child, no matter how old the child is? They allowed him to move into his old room, telling him they were no longer going to play any more of his old games. He either had to get himself straightened up, or he had to get out.

He did all right for a couple of months but after he started feeling better he was up to his old tricks. He stole his father’s pain medication. He took grocery money from his mother’s purse and used it to buy whiskey. He stayed out all night and slept all day. He was dirty and sloppy and his mother had to pick up after him the same way she had done when he was five years old. Anytime she tried to speak to him in a sensible way to get him to try harder and do better, he called her a meddling old bitch and demanded that she leave him alone so he might live his life the way he saw fit.

When Damon pushed Alma against the refrigerator, causing her to fall and sprain her wrist, Alvin told him he had to get out before the day was through. He would have to make his own way in the world. His parents were no longer responsible for him. He got his things together and left, damning his parents to hell and telling them he’d come back and, when he did, they’d better start saying their prayers.

“Have somebody come and change the locks on the doors tomorrow,” Alvin said to Alma.

Without telling Alvin, Alma took a few lessons on gun safety and how to shoot and, after that, bought a small handgun at a gun shop twenty miles out on the highway. She learned how to load and how to shoot at a moment’s notice. She wouldn’t let Alvin know she had the gun but if he happened to see it, he would know she was only doing what she had to do to protect their lives, which was all they had in the world worth protecting.

Two weeks after Damon left, Alma heard a car door slam out in front of the house just as she was finishing up with the supper dishes. Alvin had gone out to the garage and wouldn’t have heard the door. When she went to the window, she saw Damon coming toward the house carrying a shotgun. She heard him try to open the door and, when his old key wouldn’t work, he began shouting and swearing.

“Go on, now, son!” she called to him. “We’ve already made it clear we don’t want any more trouble with you!”

“Let me in!” he bellowed like a bull.

“No!” she said. “I’m not going to let you in! If you don’t go away and leave us alone, I’ll call the sheriff! I swear I will!”

He banged on the door with his fists and, when she still didn’t open the door, he blasted the lock with his shotgun. It fell away like a cheap plastic toy.

Not knowing what else to do, she ran into the bedroom and got her gun that she kept on the top shelf in her closet, in a place where Alvin would never see it. She ran holding the gun out in front of her and into the front room, where Damon was just coming through the door. When he saw her, he leveled his shotgun at her.

She believed in her heart that he was going to kill her in the next few seconds and after he killed her he’d kill Alvin too. To keep that from happening, she fired one shot at Damon and that’s all it took. The bullet from her gun hit him squarely where his heart was, as if she had been shooting at targets her whole life. He sucked in his breath, fell to the floor and was dead.

The story was in the newspapers and on television. Rural Woman Kills Schizophrenic Son in Self-Defense. No Charges to be Filed.

There were more than two hundred people at the funeral. Everybody heard about the killing and wanted to be part of the excitement. No matter how many people expressed condolences and sincere regrets, Alma was sure that many of them looked upon her with disgust and believed she was a monster for killing her own son. It’s easy to judge people when you don’t know all there is to know.

Alvin wanted to put it all behind him, to live the rest of his life in peace, but Alma couldn’t let it go.

“I would rather have cut off my hand than to lift it against one of my own,” she said.

“No, old girl,” Alvin said. “You did absolutely the right thing. Nobody blames you. If you hadn’t done what you did, you and I would be in our graves right now.”

“When I think about my poor boy and his miserable life, I don’t know if I can stand it,”

“You’ve got to! There’s no other choice.”

“There’s nothing I can ever do to make it up to him now.”

The river ran about a mile behind Alvin and Alma’s house. After three days of rain, she heard talk about how it might flood. She thought about the swirling waters and what a comfort it would be to have them rise over your head and take away all your troubles and all your sins. Like being baptized in the River Jordan.

Not being able to sleep, she got out of bed at three in the morning and slipped a jacket on over her pajamas and stepped into some old boots she kept for rainy weather. She tied a headscarf around her head and got a flashlight out of the kitchen drawer and walked down to the river in the dark and silence, being observed only by an owl or two or a possum.

When she came to the river, she thought she’d be afraid but she wasn’t. Without hesitating, she stepped into the water as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. She kept walking without stopping and when the water was up to her chin and there was only one more step to take, she stopped and looked up into the trees and, just past the trees, at the shining stars. She saw Damon looking down at her from heaven and she heard him whisper the words: Mama, I forgive you.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

I Want People to See Us Together

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I Want People to See Us Together ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Note: This is a re-post of a story I posted just one month ago, slightly revised.)

Leigh Abbott was forty-eight years old. He thought he still looked young until he looked in the mirror and saw the gray pallor of his skin, the dark circles around his eyes, and a hairline that receded more with every passing year. Young was not the word for the way he looked. Ghoulish was more like it. Better to stay away from mirrors.

It was now thirty years since high school. He still lived in the same house and thought the same thoughts as he did then. He slept in the same bed and wore the same clothes and shoes. The bathroom was the same and the kitchen. The pictures on the wall in his room were the same, as were the dresser and chest of drawers. The closet door, badly in need of painting, still had the same crack; the carpet, still the same ugly green, had the same unidentifiable stains. When he chose to be honest with himself, he saw that he was in a state of stasis, rather than one of flux.

His father had died, his sister and his brother. He was the last male heir in a line that went back to the stone age. When he died, without issue, the line was finished. He sensed the disapproval of all the male progenitors, including the two that he knew, and it put a smile on his face. He welcomed extinction.

His mother was over eighty, still much the same as when he was a small child. The skin sagged more, the shoulders drooped, the hair silvered, but she was still as indomitable as ever. She would live to be a hundred at least. She might be the first woman in history to not die at all.

Night after night he sat and watched TV with her in the darkened living room. She liked the westerns and the love stories, the game shows and the musical variety. Anything light and wholesome, life-affirming. She didn’t like movies—they were mostly too long for her—or anything with smart-mouthed children, sexual innuendo or off-color jokes. Dancing was all right, as long as it was the wholesome kind, like the dancing cowboys in Oklahoma.

Whenever Leigh suggested watching a program that interested him, something other than the usual fare, she agreed, but when he saw after ten minutes or so that she was bored and unhappy, he turned back to what he knew she would like. He could have gone on to bed or gone into another room and read a book, but she didn’t like watching TV by herself. What’s the use of having a family, she would say, if I have to sit here all by myself in the dark?

She no longer drove, so he had to take her wherever she wanted to go, whether it was to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones or to the beauty parlor to get her hair re-crimped and re-tinted. He usually waited in the car at the beauty parlor, no matter how long it took, no matter how hot or cold the weather. He absolutely refused to wait inside and have all the ladies looking at him and wondering, maybe even laughing at him and tittering behind their hands.

His mother was at the age where a lot of her friends and distant relatives were dying. Trips to funeral homes or to various unfamiliar churches became commonplace. He sat through services honoring people he never saw or heard of before. There affairs were always accompanied by introductions and hand-shaking with people whose hands he would have preferred not to touch.

On Saturday morning, he did the grocery shopping, but his mother always accompanied him to make sure he got the most for his money. Don’t get that one, she’d say. Get this one. It’s twenty-nine cents less. If he wanted to buy a cake with white fluffy icing, she told him the sugar would make him jittery and would only add to his waistline. When you get older, she said, you gain weight easier and you can no longer eat the way you used to.

Of course, mother, he’d say. I know you’re right. I bow to your superior judgment.

On Sunday, there was always church. He preferred to just drive her there and go back and pick her up an hour-and-a-half later, but she wouldn’t allow it. I want you to go with me, she’d say. I don’t want to sit there by myself. Church is for families. I want people to see us together.

So, he’d get up on Sunday morning, dress in either of his outdated suits, put on a dress shirt that was frayed at the collar and a clip-on tie that was thirty years old, and suffer through a long service that meant little to him. He tried to feel elevated or enlightened by what he heard and saw in church, but for him it just wasn’t there.

And then, when the service was concluded, he stood by and wore a tight smile as his mother greeted her old-lady friends. This is my wonderful son, she’d say. He’s the light of my life.

She thought she knew him so well, but there was, by necessity, a part of himself that he kept hidden.

It started in high school. There was a boy named Eliot Ellsworth. He was one year older than Leigh. He was sexually precocious; he talked about improbable experiences that he had with older women. Not only that, but he experimented with drinking and drugs. He carried a switchblade knife in his book bag. He said he would stab to death anybody who insulted him. Leigh was scandalized but entranced. Eliot was so different from anybody else. Leigh felt important, for the first time in his life, when he was with Eliot.

One weekend Eliot’s parents were out of town and Eliot had the house to himself. He called Leigh and asked if he’d like to come over. Leigh couldn’t get there fast enough, telling his mother he was going to an impromptu boy-girl party. She didn’t approve, but she didn’t try to keep him from going.

Eliot was drinking beer and smoking pot. Leigh accepted a beer, but he was reluctant to smoke pot. Eliot seemed like an expert. He showed Leigh how to draw the smoke into his lungs. Leigh choked and Eliot laughed. Leigh hated smoking pot but he pretended to like it because he didn’t want Eliot to stop being his friend.

After two more beers, Leigh’s inhibitions began to melt away. They went into Eliot’s bedroom and closed the door, even though there was nobody else in the house. They smoked another joint and Eliot took his pornography collection out of a drawer and showed it to Leigh. Leigh had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but he wouldn’t have gone home at that moment for anything in the world.

Eliot asked Leigh if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures with another boy. Eliot ended up staying the whole night.

When he got home in the morning, his mother was in tears. He told her an improbable story about having to stay the night with a friend who was sick. She knew he was lying. She barely spoke to him for two weeks and turned her back on him whenever he came into the room.

He met with Eliot several more times when Eliot’s parents were away. He thought about Eliot all the time. When the phone rang, his heart skipped a beat. He was grateful above all to Eliot for showing him his true nature. He knew then, for the first time in his life, that when people come into our lives, it’s for a reason.

Then graduation came and Eliot was finished with high school. He landed a job in another state and went away. Leigh never saw him again. Leigh wrote him several letters, hoping they might get together again, but Eliot never wrote back.

There were a few others after Eliot, all of them easily forgotten. None of them meant to Leigh what Eliot had meant. In his mid-twenties, Leigh decided from that moment on that he would live the life of a celibate. There would be only one Eliot in his life.

All the dull years went by and Leigh found himself perilously close to fifty. He still felt, on the inside, like a high school boy. He bought a computer to help relieve the tedium of television and of being alone all the time with his mother. She didn’t approve of computers because it kept Leigh occupied in another room away from her, but she indulged him in his little hobby. He joined, anonymously, an online club for like-minded men. His mother would never know.

He began corresponding with a man in Russia named Sergei. (How Russian can you get?) Sergei told Leigh all about his life in Russia. He was thirty-two years old and had never married. His mother and father were dead. He had learned English as a child in a missionary school. He lived in a house with his two older brothers and one sister. He was lonely and still hoped to find the one person on earth who was right for him. The pictures that he sent of himself showed a smiling, handsome, dark-haired, trim young man in front of a dilapidated house.

Leigh located the one picture of himself that he thought was flattering and sent it to Sergei. As soon as Sergei saw the picture, he said, he felt an instant connection.

Leigh told Sergei the truth about himself, no matter how distasteful. All his family was dead and he had always lived alone with his mother, who would probably never die. He told him his true age and that he only had a high school education. He read books and liked foreign films but he didn’t consider himself very smart. And, yes, he too still hoped to find the one person in life who would make his heart sing.

Sergei wanted to come to America and become a citizen. He was proud to know a man like Leigh, he said; it made him want to make his home in America that much more. Leigh wrote that if he wanted it badly enough, he would make it happen.

They corresponded, via the Internet, for close to a year. Leigh looked forward to Sergei’s messages. If a day passed without a message from Sergei, he felt downhearted and irritable; he had to restrain himself to keep from snapping at his mother whenever she asked him pointless questions.

Then Sergei sent a message saying he had lost his job in the car manufacturing plant where he worked. His brothers told him he couldn’t go on living in the house with them unless he paid his share of the rent and paid for the food he ate. It’s a cruel world, he said. I wish I was dead.

The time was perfect for him to come to America. It was the one thing he had always wanted to do. He believed it was his destiny. There was just one thing standing in his way. He didn’t have enough money for the plane fare to cross the vast ocean; he needed about twenty-two hundred dollars. If Leigh could lend him that much money, Sergei would come to him and they would be together. Of course, he would pay back the money just as soon as he could. He heard that good-paying jobs were easy to come by in America. Much better than Russia.

Leigh had three thousand dollars in the bank, all the money he had in the world. If he sent twenty-two hundred to Sergei, he would have eight hundred left. It would be enough for them to go away together. They would both get jobs.

They’d go out West together somewhere. They’d drive day and night. They would eat in roadside diners and spend the night in small, out-of-the-way motels. They’d have the best time they ever had in their lives. He’d send his mother a postcard to let her know he was fine but never coming back. She’d be hurt at first but would come to accept it. There comes a time when every boy has to leave his mother. My time is long-past due, don’t you think?

He went to the bank and transferred twenty-two hundred dollars to the place in Russia that Sergei had designated. He felt a thrill when the woman at the bank told him the transaction went through successfully.

He went right home right away, his heart singing, and sent Sergei a message telling him the money was on its way. Please let me know when you have the money, he said, and on what day you plan to come. I will pick you up at the airport. Even though I feel we already know each other so well, I can’t wait for the moment when we finally meet in person.

At the supper table Leigh’s mother complained of a pain in her back. She was afraid she had kidney stones. She was going to go to bed right after supper. Leigh was uncharacteristically happy and smiled at everything she said. She didn’t notice anything different about him.

After she went to bed, Leigh began putting things in his battered old suitcase. Just the necessary items; clean socks and underwear, two new toothbrushes and toothpaste. Of course, if Sergei needed anything like that, he’d be more than welcome to use what was Leigh’s. Better not take too much. Travel light or don’t travel at all.

The next day he didn’t hear from Sergei or the day after that. On the third day, he sent Sergei another message asking him if he received the money. By nightfall he was dismayed but not alarmed that Sergei didn’t write back.

On the fifth day after he sent the money, he was concerned that maybe something had happened to Sergei. Maybe he was sick or hurt. Of course, there was nobody to let him know if anything had happened. He needed to be patient but it wasn’t easy. After he sent the money, he expected things to happen quickly. What could be the reason for the delay?

One week after sending the money, Leigh awoke in the morning with the realization that he had been played for a sucker. The whole thing with Sergei had been perpetrated to swindle him out of money. Maybe Sergei didn’t even exist.

He imagined a group of people sitting around a table in Russia, scheming to snare unsuspecting fools in America. This looks like a good one, they’d say. Play on his loneliness and vulnerability. Send him a picture of an attractive man. Get him to share confidences. Make him feel a connection that, of course, doesn’t exist. Go in for the kill. I think we can get at least two thousand out of this one. Damn, if this isn’t a sweet way to make money without having to work for it!

He continued sending messages every day to Sergei. Of course, they were unanswered. Sergei, he knew now, didn’t exist.

For several days, Leigh didn’t have the will to get out of bed in the morning. His life was nothing and it was going to stay that way until he died and they put him in the ground alongside his father. When his mother came in at ten o’clock in the morning to see if he was all right, he told her didn’t feel well and wanted only to rest. He would stay in bed until the time that he felt like getting up. He had nothing to get up for. You need to see the doctor, she said. Do you need me to call him for you? I need only for you to go away and leave me alone, he said.

On his third day in bed, he began vomiting blood. He was dying, he knew, and he didn’t much care. His pictured his mother having a yard sale after he was gone, selling his clothes and shoes and things. Nobody would want anything that he had ever owned. He didn’t even want it himself.

He had a disturbing dream in which he and his father were buried in the same coffin, except that he wasn’t quite dead yet. His father, who had been dead for fifteen years, had worms and maggots crawling out of his eye sockets. Leigh couldn’t get away from him. All he could do was scream and flail his arms and legs. When he woke up, he realized he had been sleeping too much. He was about to sleep himself to death.

He got out of bed and took a shower and after he was dressed in clean clothes he got into his car and drove away without a word to his mother. On his way to wherever he was going, he stopped at a restaurant he had never noticed before and had a chicken dinner.

After he left the restaurant, he drove out of town on a road that he hadn’t been on since he was a child. As he remembered the road, he remembered also a high bluff overlooking a river. It used to be a picnic spot. He had been there a couple of times with his parents when he was in fourth or fifth grade. Now, if only he thought about it hard enough, he could remember how to get there.

He came to a turn-off and a voice in his head told him to take it. He made a left-hand turn and after a while found himself going up a hill. Yes, he recognized the hill. He saw himself in the back seat of his father’s old black Mercury and his mother and father in front, arguing about some little thing, as usual. He remembered the same huge tree beside a ditch with some of its roots exposed and a field with some cows standing behind a wire fence.

He took another turn and, after an ascendant half-mile, he was at the place he remembered. The picnic tables had been removed and the road was partly washed away, but it was the same place. He parked the car and got out.

About fifty yards from where the picnic tables used to be was the bluff. It was a drop of a hundred feet or so, equivalent to the height of a ten-story building. At the bottom of the bluff were rocks and small trees. When the river was at its highest peak, it came right up to the foot of the bluff. A fall or a jump from the bluff would certainly kill a man instantly.

His mind went blank as he stood two feet from the edge of the bluff and looked down, feeling the wind on his face and smelling the river. Here was the resolution of his unhappy life. It could all be over in less than a minute if he only had the courage to step forward.

He was thinking these bitter thoughts when he heard a slight sound to his right and slightly behind him. He turned and saw a dark-haired man standing there looking at him. His first thought was of Sergei, but he knew, of course, that that was ridiculous.

 “Thinking about jumping?” the man said.

Leigh managed a tight little smile, put his hands in his jacket pockets, and turned and headed for the car.

“Wait a minute!” the man said. “Stay and talk for a while!”

“I came up here to be alone,” Leigh said. “Now that I’m not alone anymore, I’d rather be someplace else.”

“Hey, man! Isn’t that a rather cutting thing to say to somebody you just met?”

“How is it that you just happened to come along while I was here? The odds are about a million to one that we would both be in the same place at the same time.”

“That’s how fate works, I guess, man.”

“Don’t call me ‘man’. It sounds supercilious.”

“Super what?”

“Did my mother send you to spy on me? How much is she paying you? I can just hear her: My boy has been acting a little strangely lately and I want to know what he’s doing when he’s away from home.”

“Mother problems? I know what that’s like, except my mother is dead.”

“Well, I’m going now,” Leigh said. “It’s been lovely talking to you.”

“I know you!” the man said.

“What?”

“Even if we’ve never met before, I know you! You’re a universal type. A middle-aged man living with his mother, pretending to be something he’s not. She browbeats you, doesn’t she? She still treats you like a child. She doesn’t acknowledge that you’re not the same person you were when you were eight years old.”

“Are you a psychiatrist?” Leigh asked.

“No, I’m not a psychiatrist, but do you know what I’d like right now?”

“No, and I don’t care.”

“I’d like a shrimp salad and a bottle of imported beer.”

“Sea food makes me vomit and I don’t drink beer,” Leigh said.

“I have a room at the General Sherman Motel,” the man said. “You’d love it! It looks just like the motel in Psycho. I haven’t seen Norman Bates yet, but I’ll bet he’s around somewhere.”

“I’m leaving now,” Leigh said.

“How about if you take me by my motel to get cleaned up and then we’ll go on and get something to eat?”

“I have exactly two dollars,” Leigh said. “I just gave all my money away to a person I didn’t know. You’re looking at the stupidest person alive.”

“Hey, we’ve all been that, man!”

Leigh stepped around him and got into his car, put the key into the ignition and turned it. As he was putting the car in gear, the man jumped in on the passenger side.

“You know, you’re very annoying,” Leigh said. “If I find my mother sent you, I’m going to kill you, you know.”

“Forget about mother for a while. She’s not here”

“How do I know you’re not a serial killer? How do I know you won’t lure me into your room at the General Sherman Motel and hack me to pieces with a big knife?”

“That’s just a chance you’ll have to take, man!”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

By Appointment or By Chance

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By Appointment or By Chance ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was 1899. The old century was in its death spiral and a new century was about to be born. At this auspicious time of new beginning, I opened a business on the main street of the town of Bended Knee.

I had worked as a teacher, a journalist and a clerk in a department store in the city, but I dreamed of a profession where I was in sole command. I hated having to be accountable to anybody for anything. I wanted to be accountable only to myself.

I went to a demonstration of photography in a college lecture hall and, after sitting through a lecture and a practical demonstration of portrait photography, I was certain it was something at which I could make a living. I bought a couple of books and studied them, front to back, with interest. I took my savings and bought a camera and all the necessary equipment. In Bended Knee, I rented a commercial space in the heart of the business district. I employed a carpenter to construct a wall, so that the front part of the space would be public and the back part private. A professional sign painter painted my name across the window and the words Portrait Photographer underneath and, underneath that, By Appointment or By Chance.

Photography had been around since the days of Andrew Jackson or before, but to most people it was still a novelty. If you lived in a small town, it was all the rage to put on your glad rags and go and sit for your portrait, especially if you were beautiful. Then, no matter how poorly time treated you, no matter how ugly and corpulent you became, you would always have the photographic image of yourself to remind the world of your former glory. Your descendants would still have it in a quaint little frame decades after your death and one day they would sit around and say to each other, “Now, just who was he?” or, “Didn’t she die of diphtheria when she was only about twenty-three?”

Families wanted their portraits taken as a group and then separately. Some families had as many as eight or ten children. Mothers wanted their children to sit for a portrait every year, traditionally on their birthdays. Mantelpieces and chairside tables abounded with portraits in frames. People gave them to relatives as gifts at Christmas. Photography as a business was a modest gold mine for the right sort of fellow.

And then, of course, there was death photography. People wanted portraits of their deceased family members, in a coffin or on a bed, sometimes posed with the living members of the family or with the family dog, sometimes sitting propped up as though still alive. Some photographers painted eyes or rosy cheeks on the finished portraits, but I never employed that vulgar technique. I figured that once a person was dead, it was pointless to try to make him or her seem alive again.

While business was booming in my studio in town, I was willing, more often than not, to go out of town to take portraits of the deceased, since the deceased were not able to come into the studio and sit for their portraits. I could usually charge any amount for this service and people would pay it because the resultant photo was a blessed remembrance of the departed loved one and money was, where the death sentiment was concerned, no object. This is not to say I cheated people; I charged them what I thought they could pay. If someone lived in a fine house with many rooms and beautiful furnishings, I had no qualms about charging top prices. If, however, they dressed in rags and lived in a falling-down shack, I did the work for practically nothing.

At the time of which I speak, I was still about twelve years away from owning my first automobile, so I traveled by horse-drawn wagon. I had a specially-made enclosed wagon to keep my equipment dry if it should happen to rain, and it rained more than it didn’t, at any season of the year. So, I found myself slogging over unfamiliar country roads, looking for a place I wasn’t sure existed. Sometimes it took me all day to get to where I needed to go and I would end up staying the night. I wasn’t above bedding down inside my wagon if there was no other choice. I kept telling myself that next year, or maybe the year after, I’d hire an assistant to do the driving, carry the equipment and perform other trivial tasks. I might even train him to go on the out-of-town forays on his own.

Children died more often than adults. There was always a fever or an infection or pneumonia or something to carry them off. If you thought about it at all, you knew that a competent doctor might have fixed them up with a pill, a bottle of medicine, or just a word of advice, if only a doctor had been around when needed. I photographed dead babies in sateen-covered boxes in the family parlor, surrounded by sprays of forget-me-nots; babies in their mother’s arms, with a brood of older children looking on; babies just ready to go into their graves with smiles on their faces and a stuffed toy in their arms; twin babies in one tiny coffin with their arms entwined. Once I photographed a baby and a little brown-and-white dog side by side in a wooden box, ready to embark together on their journey through eternity.

Then there were the older children: the tiny six-year-old girl whose father accidentally shot her through the heart; the boy, eight years old, who didn’t get out of the way of the train fast enough; the girl, age ten, who died of heart failure when her mother locked her in a mausoleum at the cemetery to teach her a lesson. Most parents were good parents, though, and wanted a photographic remembrance of their child. I gave them what they wanted and needed. For a price.

I was on my way back to town after one of these missions to photograph a dead boy (he fell on a pitchfork in the barn, punctured his stomach, and bled to death before the doctor arrived; his mother pretended he wouldn’t be quite so dead as long as she had a photograph of him laid out in a little flower-bedecked coffin in the family dining room), when I saw a woman dressed in black standing beside the road underneath a big tree waving a white handkerchief to attract my attention. I stopped the wagon and looked at the woman with a distinct lack of friendliness.

“Are you the man what takes photographs of the dead?” she asked.

“That’s what it says on the side of the wagon,” I said.

“I’m Mrs. Wallace Worth,” she said. “I live in that house over there.” She pointed and I looked. It was a large brick house set back about two hundred feet from the road.

“I’m just coming off a case,” I said. “I’m headed back to town.”

“Well, you might come back tomorrow if you’re agreeable.”

“I don’t think I can do that,” I said. “Just what is it you need?”

She looked at the ground and put her hand to her forehead and said, “Death has paid a call at my house.”

“You want a photograph of the deceased?”

“Yes, but it’s more than that.”

“What, then?”

“You look like a strong man,” she said, “and quite young.”

I thought for a moment that she was making advances at me. I gave her a sour look to let her know I was not at home for that kind of nonsense.

“My husband, Wallace Worth Senior, is lying in his coffin in the bay window between the parlor and the dining room. The sun shines on him most of the day. He hasn’t been embalmed and it’s been three days now.”

“Why don’t you go ahead and bury him?”

“Tomorrow, April twenty-third, would have been his fifty-seventh birthday. When he knew he was dying, he made me promise that I wouldn’t have him buried until that day. He was very superstitious. He studied numerology and he believed that nothing would ever go right for him in the afterlife or for his kinfolk still living on the earth if he did not go into the ground on the day he was born.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that superstition,” I said.

“So, if you could consent to take my dear husband’s photograph before he at last goes into the ground on his birthday, I will make it worth your while.”

“I won’t do it for less than fifty dollars,” I said, believing she would balk at the price and I could be on my way.

“All right, but we’ll negotiate terms later on. You see, there’s more to my request than I’ve stated.”

“I haven’t eaten since early this morning,” I said.

“I believe we might deign to find you a crust of bread somewhere in the house for you, sir,” she said.

She instructed me to pull my wagon around to the side of the house where she was waiting for me. When she took me inside, there was the unmistakable stench of death.

“I know,” she said. “He’s starting to smell. Nature takes its course.”

I took my handkerchief out of my pocket and held it over my mouth and nose. It was probably a good thing I hadn’t eaten.

“Just show me where the deceased is,” I said, “and we’ll get this thing over with.”

He was lying in a mahogany casket, very expensive looking, suffused with milky light from a bay window. Enormous potted ferns lay at the head and foot of the casket. Smaller containers of flowers were ranged on the floor along the front.

“He loved the sunlight,” Mrs. Worth said. “I just couldn’t see blocking out the light with heavy curtains. It’ll be the last earthly light he’ll ever see.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll bring in my equipment from the wagon and we’ll have this done in no time at all.”

While I got the camera set up and everything ready to take the picture, Mrs. Worth and the housemaid, Nola, hovered in the background. I got the feeling that Mrs. Worth thought I needed to be watched lest I steal something valuable.

I took two photographs of the deceased from different angles and then Mrs. Worth wanted one where she was standing next to the casket looking down into her husband’s face. When I was finished, I said, “That’ll be fifty dollars, ma’am, if you please. When your photographs are ready, I’ll send you a postcard and you can pick them up in town at your convenience.”

I made ready to leave and Mrs. Worth just stood there looking at me with Nola hovering behind her shoulder.

“I believe I mentioned there was something else,” Mrs. Worth said.

“Yes?”

“My son, Wallace Worth Junior, died a day and a half after his father. He is upstairs in his room, lying on his bed. He has been bathed and dressed for burial.”

“You want a photograph of him, too?” I asked.

“Yes, I do and then…”

“Then what, ma’am?”

“Nola and I are here alone. Neither one of us are very strong. After you take Junior’s picture, I would like to prevail upon you to pick him up and carry him downstairs and place him in the coffin with his father and then close the lid. The boys will be here early in the morning—on my husband’s fifty-seventh birthday, I believe I mentioned—to perform the burial.”

“Did your son die of anything contagious? Anything I need to know about?”

“Oh, no, sir! He had heart trouble. Nothing catching, I can assure you.”

“How old is the boy?”

“He’s fifteen years old, sir, and not very big. I don’t think he would weigh more than about ninety pounds. I’ll pay you twenty extra dollars to carry him downstairs and place him in the coffin with his father and close the lid.”

“So, that’ll be fifty to photograph your husband, thirty to photograph your son, and twenty to carry the boy downstairs. That’s a hundred all together.”

“That seems fair, sir. I have the cash in the wall safe in my bedroom.”

“All right, let’s photograph the boy, then.”

Mrs. Worth took me up a broad carpeted staircase, up one flight and then up another. We went down a hallway to a closed door, first Mrs. Worth, then me, and then silent Nola. Mrs. Worth turned to look at me before she opened the door.

“In the midst of life we are in death,” she said.

She opened the door and I saw the boy, Wallace Worth Junior, lying on his back on the bed. I walked over to the bed and studied the photographic subject for a minute or two, trying to decide the best angle from which to photograph him.

He was dressed in a fine-looking dark suit with knickers, gray stockings and expensive-looking, high-top leather shoes. He wore a high collar with a cravat, just as a grown man would, and in the cravat a diamond stickpin.

“He looks very natural,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

I heard Mrs. Worth sob behind me and Nola followed suit. “Maybe it would best if you just leave me to my work,” I said.

Mrs. Worth and Nola went out of the room and I carried my camera up the many steps to the little bedroom on the top floor where the boy lay. I got set up to take the picture and, as usual, I photographed the deceased from a couple different angles. When I was finished, I carried my camera back down and loaded them into my wagon, so I would be ready to leave as soon as I did the rest of what I had promised to do.

When I went back inside, Mrs. Worth and Nola were waiting at the foot of the stairs for me. Without a word, the three of us went up silently up the stairs again to the boy’s bedroom.

I could have picked him up and thrown him over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, but I didn’t think that was appropriate under the circumstances. Looking at his face, I bent over him and slipped my right arm underneath the upper part of his back and my left hand underneath the crook in his knees. I hefted him off the bed and when I did I had the surprise of my life.

The boy sputtered and let out an exhalation of air. I continued to hold him, not knowing what else to do, and his entire body bucked as if he had just sat on hot ashes. I eased him back down on the bed and took a step back.

“This boy’s not dead!” I said.

He gasped for air and continued sputtering and making guttural sounds. When I could take my eyes off him, I looked to Mrs. Worth and I saw that she had collapsed on the floor. Thinking she had just fainted from the shock of seeing her boy come alive when she thought he was dead, I leaned over and hefted her onto the bed. While I was doing this, the boy swung his legs over the side of the bed and leaned forward so that his face was parallel to the floor.

“Get a wet cloth!” I said to Nola.

Nola was standing in the doorway sobbing, but she went out of the room at my command and when she returned with the wet cloth I could see that Mrs. Worth wasn’t breathing. Not being a doctor, I didn’t know what to do for her, so I began rubbing and patting the backs of her hands while Nola dabbed at her head with the wet cloth.

After about five minutes of these ministrations, I leaned over to Mrs. Worth and put my ear against her chest. I heard nothing.

“I’m afraid she’s dead,” I said. “The shock was too much for her.”

At this news, Nola shrieked and ran from the room. I heard her shoes clomping all the way down the stairs. What she did then I had no way of knowing.

I turned to the boy, Wallace Worth Junior, sitting propped up against the headboard of his bed, feet on the floor. “Are you all right?” I asked him.

“Um, no,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I’m a photographer. Your mother asked me to come up here and take your picture.”

“Why would she do that? Have I been asleep?”

“I’m afraid your mother and your father are both dead.”

“He looked at the still form of his mother and all he said was, “Oh.”

“Where is the nearest doctor?” I asked him.

“Um, I’m not sure there is one out here. My father wanted to live in the country. He hated the town.”

“You know, don’t you, that your father is laid out in his coffin in the parlor downstairs?”

“Yes, I know that,” he said. “We were going to have a funeral.”

“Do you know where that girl lives? That Nola? It seems that she’s the only person here now to do anything for you.”

“She’s ignorant,” he said. “She can’t do anything without mother telling her what to do.”

“Would she be able to go and find a doctor?”

“She wouldn’t be able to find her own bunghole with both hands.”

“Well, I’m going back to town now,” I said. “When I get there, I’ll go to the sheriff and tell him what happened out here. He’ll send somebody out to see to things. Do you want to stay here with your mother, or do you want to come with me?”

“No, I’ll go,” he said. “She wasn’t really my mother, anyway.”

“If you want to take some things, pack a bag or anything, I’ll wait,” I said.

“You can wait here for me,” he said. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”

To keep from being in the small bedroom where I would have to look at a dead woman, I went out of the room, back along the hallway, and sat on the top step and leaned my head against the wall. In fifteen minutes, Wallace Worth Junior appeared, carrying a small valise. He went to the kitchen and got himself a drink of water and then he was ready to go.

It was late afternoon with a sky that threatened rain. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to make it back to town before the rain started. After a couple of miles, I turned and looked at Wallace Worth Junior, expecting him to show signs of mortal illness. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. His parents were dead but he was alive. It was a dilemma any way you looked at it.

“Do you have any family in town?” I asked

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

“You’ll have to have somebody to stay with,” I said.

“If they’ll get the dead bodies out of my house, I can stay there.”

“No, I don’t think they’ll let you stay way out here by yourself in that big house.”

“Who’s going to stop me?”

“Well, you’re a minor.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means you won’t be legally recognized as an adult until you’re at least eighteen years of age.”

“The house is mine now. I know father would have wanted me to have it, now that she’s dead.”

“Your mother thought you were dead.”

“She wasn’t my mother, I told you. She was my stepmother.”

“Well, whatever she was, she thought you were dead.”

“I was dead.”

“And you came back to life?”

“It’s happened before. I don’t know why.”

“You’re a miracle of medical science, then,” I said.

“I saw God,” he said. “I spoke to Him.”

“What did he say?”

“I would expect you to ask a question like that.”

Silly as it was, my feelings were hurt. “You don’t know anything about me,” I said. “I’m doing you a favor by giving you a ride to town.”

“Don’t you think I could find my own way to town if I needed to?” he said.

“You can get out and walk to town for all I care!”

“God is a slight man with thin lips. People think of him as having a long white beard, but he’s clean-shaven.”

“That’s a fascinating piece of useless information,” I said.

“He wears a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. He wears a monocle in his right eye.”

“Don’t tell me God has an eye deficiency!” I said.

“Go ahead and make fun of me. I don’t care.”

“Did God have any special message for you?”

“He told me to await further instructions.”

I laughed and had a little coughing spell. That was enough God talk. When I was through coughing and could speak again, I said, “You must be hungry.”

“Why must I be hungry?” he asked.

“Your step-momma said you had been dead for a day and a half.”

“I was dead.”

“All right. I believe you.”

“Yes, I’m hungry,” he said. “I could eat.”

“When we get to town, then, we’ll get you a good meal.”

“In the morning I’ll see my father’s lawyer and tell him they’re dead. He’ll advise me what to do.”

“You’ll need a place to stay tonight,” I said.

“I can manage,” he said.

“We’ll get you a room in the hotel for tonight. I’ll pay for it, but you’ll need to pay me back as soon as you can.”

“Most people are evil,” he said. “I see the evil, the vileness, hanging over them like a cloud. I don’t see it in you, though.”

“Is that your way of thanking me?” I asked.

“Not at all.”

“You do flatter me.”

When we got back to town, I headed straight for the hotel. I had my horse stabled there and locked my wagon so nobody would become curious about what might be inside worth stealing. These trivial matters tended to, Wallace Worth Junior and I went into the hotel restaurant and sat at a round table. After we placed our order, I noticed the other people in the restaurant looking at us, before I realized they were looking at him.

“You see the way they’re looking at me?” he said.

“They’re not used to seeing a young fellow all dressed up in formal attire. There aren’t any opera houses or ballrooms in this town.”

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

He had a pointed way about him, old beyond his years. I could almost believe I was conversing with a grown man rather than a boy in his teens.

“They know I’ve seen God and will see Him again.”

“They don’t know any such thing,” I said.

The food came, huge amounts of beefsteak, boiled potatoes, carrots and green beans. The boy ate as much food as I’ve ever seen any one person eat at one time, and then he said he was tired and wanted to go to bed. I figured he must be upset at the strange turn of events his life had taken that day, but he seemed perfectly calm and unemotional.

After I paid the tab for our meal, we went into the hotel, where I engaged a room for him to stay for the night. I asked him if he was afraid to stay by himself in a strange hotel room and he laughed at me. “I’ve been by myself since the day I was born,” he said.

“You are an odd one,” I said.

He signed his name in the hotel register and the clerk handed him the key. Before he went upstairs to his room, I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I’d come by in the morning at eight-thirty to take him to his father’s lawyer and for him to meet me in the lobby at that time. He nodded his head and turned and went up the stairs.

When I got home, I took a hot bath and fell into bed and slept soundly until thunder woke me up at seven in the morning. I dressed and consumed a light breakfast and then I set out for the hotel. I was sitting in the lobby reading a newspaper at twenty minutes after eight. I expected Wallace Worth Junior to come down the stairs at any moment.

At eight forty-five he still hadn’t made an appearance and at nine o’clock I was still sitting there holding the newspaper in both hands. At ten minutes after nine, I went over to the desk and asked the clerk if he could check on the boy in room three-twelve for me. He had been supposed to meet me and he never appeared.

The clerk checked his book and looked up at me and said, “A boy, you say?”

“Yes, a boy,” I said.

“A small boy?”

“No, a big boy. Almost an adult.”

The clerk looked down and then looked back at me and sighed. “Room three-twelve has not been occupied for several days,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I was with the boy last night. I engaged the room for him to spend the night in and he was supposed to meet me here, in the lobby, this morning at eight-thirty.”

“Are you sure it was this hotel?” the clerk asked.

“Will you let me take the key and go up to room three-twelve and check for myself?”

“That would be against regulations, sir.”

“Then open the door yourself to make sure the boy is all right.”

The clerk went with me up to the third floor. We walked to the door of room three-twelve and he inserted the key into the lock and pushed the door open for me to enter. The bed was neatly made up. The window shades were drawn. It was clear the room had not been occupied the night before.

“He signed the register last night,” I said to the clerk. “I was with him. His name, Wallace Worth Junior, will be there if you only bother yourself to look.”

We went back down to the lobby and the clerk checked the register from the night before. “No such name here,” he said.

“Can I look?”

He turned the register around and I read over the four or five names from the night before. The name Wallace Worth Junior was not there.

I thanked the clerk and went back out into the rain. I went to my photography studio and opened for business. Because of the rain, it was a slow morning. I had a chance to develop the plates from the day before. First I did the boy who died from the pitchfork wound through the stomach and then Wallace Worth Senior. Those photographs turned out beautifully.

The two plates I had taken of Wallace Worth Junior baffled me. There was no boy there, no Wallace Worth Junior—only a neatly made-up bed with an attractive embroidered coverlet. Why would I have taken photographs of an empty bed? I had no explanation.

By afternoon I was starting to feel sick. I ached in every joint and was having trouble swallowing. I couldn’t keep anything on my stomach, even a sip of water. I knew I had a fever.

That night I was so sick I was sure I was dying. My mind was still clear enough for me to know I had failed to ask one very important question when I was in the Worth house: exactly what did Wallace Worth Senior die of? I had spent more than two hours inside a pest house filled with disease germs. I was so disgusted with myself for not being more careful that I thought I deserved to die.

I didn’t want to die alone and have my disgusted, bloated body found only after the neighbors noticed a terrible odor, so I checked myself into the nearest hospital. The doctor took one look at me and put me in the isolation ward. I was sure I was going to die, if not that night then very soon.

For two days and nights I was in and out of consciousness. I was barely aware of anything but I knew that nurses and doctors fussed around my bed at all hours of the day and night.

On the third day I woke up and was surprised to find I was still alive. A nurse with a big mole on her cheek was standing beside my bed looking down at me.

“I saw God,” I said to the nurse. “I spoke to Him.”

“What did he say?” she asked.

“I would expect you to ask a silly question like that.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“God is a slight man with thin lips. People think of him as having a long white beard, but he’s clean-shaven.”

“I don’t think I would have recognized him,” the nurse said.

“He wears a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. He wears a monocle in his right eye. He spoke to me.”

“What did he say?”

“He told me to stand by for further instructions.”

The nurse was gone and there was somebody else standing beside my bed. The hours passed. The window in my room went from light to dark. I heard it raining outside and thundering and those were sounds I had always liked.

Once when I woke up from one of my naps, Wallace Worth Junior was standing at the foot of my bed, smiling at me.

“I wondered what happened to you!” I said. “I’m happy to know you made it all right.”

Then I realized that somebody else was standing there to the side of Wallace Worth Junior. He was a slight man with thin lips, only a little taller than Wallace Worth Junior. He wore a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. In his right eye was a monocle.

“Who are you?” I asked.

The slight man with thin lips smiled at Wallace Worth Junior and then they both smiled at me. They were there to convey to me, I knew, with no words being spoken, that I was going to live.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Boys on the Rock ~ A Capsule Book Review

the-boys-on-the-rock-cover

The Boys on the Rock ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Boys on the Rock by John Fox is similar in theme, tone and style to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both are coming-of-age stories with the protagonist/antihero as first-person narrator. In The Boys on the Rock, we have Bill “Billy” Connors as the Holden Caulfield-like narrator. In 1968, we find Billy as a high school sophomore. He’s an only child and his parents are off on their own planet. His mother is an attractive thirty-four-year-old housewife, and his father is ten years older than she is and getting old before his time. Billy is on the swim team at school and, except for swimming, he isn’t much interested in school. He experiments with dating girls, following the lead of all the other boys, but that isn’t really where his interests lie. He smokes, drinks, swears, hangs out with his friends, and lives a private, inner life.

During the arduous and drawn-out process of selecting a presidential candidate in 1968, Billy volunteers in the campaign office of his congressional district in New York for Eugene McCarthy. Billy is for Eugene McCarthy, he says, because McCarthy is against the war and against the draft. Like all the other boys his age, Billy is afraid of having to fight in the Vietnam war. He believes that a liberal candidate like Eugene McCarthy, if elected to the White House, will end the war before Billy has to face the possibility of being drafted into the army.

While working on the McCarthy campaign, Billy meets Al DiCiccio, a college student four years older than Billy to whom Billy is immediately attracted. That’s why Billy was never much of the hit with the gals. He prefers his own gender. He isn’t surprised by his feelings for Al DiCiccio, but he has to keep it a secret. He knows how he will be treated if the truth comes out. When he wants to tell somebody what he is feeling and to ask for advice about “what to do,” he decides to tell a young swim coach at his school, believing the coach will be, if not understanding, at least sympathetic. The coach advises Billy to seek counseling to become “cured” of what the coach sees as a sickness. This is exactly the kind of advice that Billy doesn’t want to hear.

When Billy discovers that his feelings for Al DiCiccio are reciprocated, the two meet in secret a few times, but they are essentially incompatible and the relationship is doomed to failure. Al is interested in a political career, he says, and he believes that a politician must have a wife and children. He is willing to end his volatile relationship with Billy on those terms. We know, though, that with Al out of the picture, there will be others for Billy to turn to. He is, after all, only seventeen years old. He’s just getting started.

The Boys on the Rock is a small, gem-like novel (146 pages) incorporating themes of family, friendship, alienation, and finding one’s way in the world. It’s almost effortless reading and reminds us how effective simple, uncluttered, first-person narration can be.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Mouse in the House

H MOUSE

Mouse in the House ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(A slightly expanded version of a story I posted in December.)

“How’s the room?” Clarice Herron asked, and as soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew she had asked the same question almost every day for the last three weeks.

“It’s fine,” Evan Rawley said, as he had said all the other times she asked him. “I’ve seen a mouse a couple of times but he doesn’t bother me.”

“Did you know we have a mouse in the house, Marvin?” she asked her husband.

“A what?”

“I asked you if you knew we have a mouse in the house?”

“What am I supposed to do about it? Drive off a cliff?”

“I’ll buy some traps,” she said.

“Don’t do it on my account,” Evan asked. “The mouse doesn’t bother me and I think traps are cruel.”

Marvin Herron put the folded-up newspaper aside and regarded Evan Rawley closely as if he were some kind of specimen he had found on the back steps. “You’ve been here how long now?” he asked.

“Three weeks yesterday,” Evan said.

“And how do you like it so far?”

“This is my first time away from home. I’m still finding my way around.”

“Are you homesick?” Clarice asked.

“A little, I suppose. I’ll have to get used to it, though.”

“How old are you, now?” Marvin asked.

“I’m twenty-three, sir.”

“Oh, yeah. I think you told me that before. And you don’t have to call me ‘sir’. I was twenty-three myself not so very long ago. Seems like yesterday.”

“Oh, brother!” Clarice said.

“Did you say something?” Marvin asked her.

“I said supper is on the table.”

She dumped the vegetables into a bowl and put the meat on a platter and carried them to the table.

As they ate, Marvin seemed more inclined than usual to draw Evan Rawley out. “If you decide you like it here and you want to stay for the term, we can give you a good monthly rate.”

“Yes, sir,” Evan said. “I appreciate that.”

“Now, what is it exactly you do at the university?”

“I’m an assistant professor in the English department. I hope to get a full professorship, but they tell me I have to do this first for at least two years.”

“When you’re young, two years seems like a long time, but it goes by fast,” Marvin said.

“The voice of the sage!” Clarice said and gave Marvin a wry smile.

“Do you have a girlfriend back home?” Marvin asked.

“Oh, no, sir!” Evan said. “I never seem to find the time for that.”

Marvin began talking about “when he was young,” and how different things were then. His first love occurred at only sixteen years. He thought he wanted to get married but soon discovered what a mistake it would have been at that age.

“When he starts talking about himself that way,” Clarice said, “he could go on all night.”

At nearly two o’clock in the morning, Clarice couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t done anything during the day to tire her out. She tried reading a novel and, while it bored her, it didn’t make her want to sleep.

Turning out the light, she pulled the blanket up to her chin and listened to the faraway sounds: a tractor-trailer truck out on the highway, a jet taking off (or was it landing?), a dog barking in somebody’s back yard. Everything so banal.

She couldn’t sleep and the reason was because she couldn’t stop thinking about Evan Rawley. He was so young and his skin so pale and unblemished. She couldn’t help noticing his muscular thighs and buttocks through his dressy pants, and whenever he flexed his arm, his bicep underneath the sleeve of his button-down oxford dress shirt was as big as a melon. His smile was sweet and shy and the way the hair grew on the back of his neck right down into the collar of his shirt was nothing short of fetching. She was a middle-aged woman, married for over twenty years, but her appetite for certain things had not diminished.

She got out of bed and, without putting on the light, slipped a bathrobe over her pajamas and crept up the stairs to the door of Evan’s room. She leaned her ear against the door and listened for any sounds. Figuring he had to be asleep at that hour, she put her hand on the knob, turned it, and went inside.

There was just enough light from the window to see Evan in the bed, sleeping sweetly on his back with his hands over his stomach. He looked just like a young prince. She approached the bed and stood there without making a sound. When he didn’t move, she touched his light-brown hair with her right hand and then, not being able to resist, began stroking it. So soft and tactile, just the way she knew it would be. She continued touching his hair and rubbing her fingers along the stubble on his cheek until he jerked awake, making a little gasping sound.

What?” he said. “What’s the matter?”

He jumped out of bed and turned on the light. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is anything wrong?”

She gave him a reassuring smile and shook her head.

“I was having a dream,” he said, “and I thought you were part of the dream.”

“I’ve been dreaming about you, too,” she said.

“What’s the matter? What time is it?” He looked at the clock and when he saw what time it was he groaned.

“I have felt a very deep attraction to you ever since the first time I laid eyes on you,” Clarice said.

What?

“You are a most attractive young man.”

“You woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that?”

“And not only that, but I’ve seen the way you look at me,” she said.

What? No, ma’am! I haven’t!”

“I want you to know that it’s all right.”

“I haven’t!”

“Haven’t what, dear?”

“I haven’t looked at you!”

“I wanted to tell you this: if you’d like to get better acquainted, I’d like it too. My husband is away from home a lot. I have plenty of time to myself.”

“No, ma’am! You’ve made a mistake! I’ve never had any thought like that about you!”

“You don’t have to be shy with me, dear,” she said. “I know these things are not always easy.”

“I don’t know what to say!”

“You don’t have to say anything now. Just go back to sleep. But in your waking hours think about what I’ve said.”

At breakfast, Marvin read the morning paper, as was his custom. Clarice filled his coffee cup and set a plate of food on the table in front of him. He set the newspaper aside, only because he couldn’t do two things at once. He was halfway finished eating when he looked at his wife and spoke.

“Where’s what’s-his-name?” he asked. “Our boarder?”

Clarice shrugged her shoulders and said, “He’s gone.”

“What? Gone already?”

“I went up to tell him his breakfast is ready. I thought maybe he overslept. When I opened the door, I saw he had left and taken everything with him.”

“Did he owe us money?”

“He was paid up through the end of next week.”

“I thought he liked it here!”

“I thought so, too.”

“What is the matter with people? He’s the third boarder that’s left in the middle of the night without saying anything.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You just can’t figure people sometimes.”

“Maybe we’d better just forget about renting that room,” Marvin said. “It must be the mouse.”

“I don’t think the mouse has anything to do with it,” she said. “I’ll run the ad again and maybe next time we’ll find a young man who isn’t so skittish.”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Young Pope ~ A Capsule Review

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The Young Pope ~ A Capsule Review by Allen Kopp

His name is Lenny Belardo. When he is about ten years old, his ridiculous-looking hippie parents drop him off at a Catholic orphanage, where a kind nun named Sister Mary becomes a surrogate mother to him. Fast-forward about thirty-seven years. Lenny Belardo is the first American Pope, Pope Pius XIII, Holy Father to a billion Catholics around the globe. In HBO’s ten-part series, The Young Pope, English actor Jude Law plays Lenny Belardo/Pope Pius XIII with an American accent and a sleek hairpiece.

With his youth and good looks, Pope Pius XIII could be the flashiest Pope ever, but he is just the opposite. He doesn’t care about being famous or about inspiring adoration in the masses. He is not the traditional Pope; he is many things; he is a contradiction. He smokes cigarettes. Some think he is a saint, while others fear him. In his first homily to the public, delivered at nighttime in St. Peter’s Square, he appears in very dim light so people cannot see his face. He won’t allow himself to be photographed or for his likeness to be used on Vatican souvenirs to sell to tourists. When someone asks, “What is his sexual orientation?,” the answer is, “He doesn’t have one.” He wants to flush out homosexuals and pedophiles from the priesthood. “Homosexuality and pedophilia are two very different things,” a fellow priest points out to him. “Yes,” he says, “but there is no room in the priesthood for either of them.” In his searing address to the Conclave of Cardinals, he tells them he wants complete obedience to himself and absolute devotion to God. From now he, he tells them, they will isolate themselves from the world so they might worship God in the appropriate manner. This means they must give up their worldly lives and return to the original notion of what it means to be a priest.

As we see in American politics, the Pope’s rivals will attempt to destroy him by any means at their disposal. When they try to manufacture a clandestine love affair for him with the wife of one of the Vatican Swiss Guards, it backfires. The Cardinal Secretary of State, who orchestrated the invented affair, ends up apologizing to the Pope and kissing his foot in the Vatican garden. The Pope refuses to play into the hands of the entrenched, old-guard priests who have been in the Vatican for decades and have outlived their usefulness. He refuses to resort to the old tricks that have been used for centuries. Rivalries and jealousies among the cardinals mean nothing to him. He is supremely confident. If he isn’t a saint, he seems like one at times. Someone asks him, “Just who are you?” They can’t figure him out. This makes for very interesting TV for the discriminating viewer who is looking for something a little more challenging to watch and think about than the usual TV fare.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Southern writer T. R. Pearson (born 1956 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) has a writing style all his own, as you will know if you’ve ever read any of his books. It’s a style that might discourage a lot of readers, but if you persevere and don’t give up after a few pages, you get into the rhythm of the writing and find that it’s fun and not all that difficult to read. Some writers, such as William Faulkner, write such long, esoteric, cerebral sentences that it’s sometimes hard to understand what the man is saying; you might have to go back and break the sentence down into its separate clauses before you know what’s going on. While T. R. Pearson writes some very long sentences, he’s not as challenging to read as William Faulkner and you should be able to extract the meaning of his sentences at the first reading, as long as you are paying attention and don’t have too many distractions. Here is an example of one of T. R. Pearson’s sentences, from his novel Gospel Hour:

But she failed unaccountably to disclose to him just what precisely had transpired there in the sanctuary between the doxology and the bi-weekly prayer for the shut-ins which left Donnie Huff quite unable to anticipate the visit he received come Tuesday evening from a Laurel Fork delegation, the call he entertained from Mrs. Troy Haven and Mrs. Norma Baines and the Reverend Mr. Worrell’s wife Louise in addition to Miss Cindy Womble who’d seen fit herself to tote with her her sizeable hooters that Donnie Huff commenced straightaway to appreciate and know in his heart such gladness about that he left the ladies to stand for a time on the front slab while he simple gazed enchantedly through the screenwire until Opal Criner prevailed upon him to admit please the pack of them into the house.

And this is just one sentence!

Gospel Hour is a comic Southern novel about good-old-boy Donnie Huff who lives in a small house with his wife, Marie; his mother-in-law, Opal Criner; and his small son, Delmon. Donnie Huff is not very smart or ambitious. He swills beer and spends his evenings in front of the TV. He works as a lumberjack with a crew of other men just like him. One day when these men are poaching lumber (stealing lumber that doesn’t belong to them), Donnie Huff has an accident with a skidder (whatever that is) and ends up in the river upside down underneath the skidder. When his co-workers pull him out of the river, they believe he’s dead. After a couple of minutes, though, he revives. He has had, they believe, the rare experience of dying and being brought back to life.

Donnie goes on about his business and doesn’t think much about what happened to him in the river. All he saw, he says, were green spots. Nothing much to rave about. When his devoutly religious mother-in-law Opal Criner and other ladies of the church find out that he has had a dying-and-brought-back-to-life episode, they make it into a transformative religious experience. Egged on principally by his religious mother-in-law, Opal Criner, Donnie becomes convinced that he saw Jesus at the portal of heaven and that Jesus touched a “downy patch” on his arm. Suddenly Donnie, who never attracted much positive attention before in his life, becomes a celebrity. People begin donating money to his “ministry.” Donnie knows a good thing when he sees it. He’s tired of scratching out a living as a lumberjack. There’s real dough to be made as a minister. People want to be healed of their afflictions and they believe that touching the “downy spot” on Donnie’s arm that Jesus touched will do it for them. Donnie’s biggest sceptic is his droll wife, Marie. She’s mainly interested in decoupage and she’s not buying into Donnie’s sudden religious conversion.

Religion, as we see in Gospel Hour, is, in some (but not all) instances, a “business” whose main goal is reaping profits. When Donnie sees people in a tent revival who are sincerely crushed by grief, disappointment, and the general nastiness of life, his true conversion begins. He can’t really help these people by letting them touch the “downy spot” on his arm, he realizes, and he can’t fool them into believing he’s something he’s not. Even though he’s not very smart, he sees the phoniness in what he’s doing, and this, at the end of the novel, is his real moment of triumph.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp