Don’t Leave Anybody Out ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The place is full of happy people. The orchestra has just warmed up and is playing a lively dance tune. Glasses clink, laughter comes from a certain quarter and seems infectious. It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1942. For one evening at least, we can forget we’re a country at war. The sky has been overcast all day, with periods of light snow and frigid, blustery winds, but the weather doesn’t dampen the spirits of the holiday crowd. If you can’t be happy tonight, you’re not capable of being happy.
Her name is Lena Rift. She is just twenty-two years old and not long out of school. She has dreams of being a professional photographer, a regular artiste, but she’s not sure if she can ever make the grade. For the time being, at least, she believes she has made an excellent start. She is a freelance portrait photographer. She wears a striking green evening gown of modest design—her mother would approve—and walks among the crowd smiling as if she is enjoying herself. Her camera alone tells people who she is and what she is there for. More often than not, especially on a busy night such as this one, she can’t go more than a few feet without somebody stopping her and wanting a photograph.
Among the photographic subjects that evening are two business men who have just pulled off a deal that will make them rich. They are both slightly drunk and pose with their cocktail glasses raised toward the camera. Then there’s the cowboy movie star sitting in his booth flanked by excited female fans who can hardly sit still long enough to have their picture taken. Then it’s on to the older man and his much-younger female companion in a low-cut red gown. As he puts his arm around her for the picture, she winces but tries to smile. Over there is a rowdy table with ten people sitting around it. Be sure and get all of us in, one of the men says drunkenly, and don’t leave anybody out.
Lena can’t help noticing a young couple sitting against the wall by themselves. The man has his arm around the girl and she leans into him as if she can barely sit upright. They listen dreamily to the music and look at each other. Lena approaches them with a smile.
“Does it show?” the man says.
“Four hours ago,” the girl says.
“Would you like a picture?”
They look at each other and laugh and the girl nods her head. “I just said I wished we had a picture of this evening,” she says.
“This is your lucky day,” Lena says, standing back and snapping the picture.
“How can we get a copy?” the man asks.
“I’ll have them developed in about a half-hour,” Lena says. “Will you still be here then?”
“Sure,” the man says.
As Lena starts to walk away, the girl says, “Don’t we need to give you our names?”
“You can if you want.”
“My name is Carmen and he’s Luther.”
“All right,” Lena says. “I’ll remember that.”
“Albrecht,” the man says. “Mr. and Mrs. Luther Albrecht, married on this day in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-two.”
“Would you like to have a glass of champagne with us?” the girl asks.
“Can’t,” Lena says. “I’m working. Some other time.”
She gets her coat, slings her camera case over her shoulder and sets out for her darkroom in her little apartment three blocks away. She walks as fast as she can, not only because of the cold, but because she wants to have the picture for the newlyweds in half an hour as she promised.
It’s when she’s holed up in her darkroom that she first hears the commotion outside: sirens and racing engines and loud male voices. Must have been a holdup or something somewhere, she thinks. She finishes as fast as she can and puts the prints in her camera case.
As soon as she steps outside again, she knows that something is terribly wrong. There’s an unusual smell in the air like singed wool and a muffled roar coming from a certain quarter. Whatever it is she will soon know because it’s in the direction she’s going.
Halfway to the club she hears the more distinct sound of breaking glass and the roar of fire engines and underneath those sounds screaming almost like people on a roller coaster when it gets to its highest pinnacle and plunges downward. She begins running but she has to be careful because of frozen patches on the sidewalk that she can’t see very well in the dark.
She rounds the corner and what she sees is a vision of hell. The club is engulfed in flame. How could it have happened so fast? It must have been a bomb or an explosion, she thinks. There is, after all, a war going on.
Thick smoke pours up into the air from the roof. People are everywhere, rushing back and forth, trying to get away or move in closer to help. Firefighters with their axes and hoses attempt to move on the building but are pushed back by billowing smoke and heat, roars and concussions from within. Part of the roof collapses as the fire builds in intensity, and the worst part is to think that hundreds of people are trapped inside.
A cordon of police holds spectators back. Lena can never get close enough to offer assistance to anybody who might need it, but what she sees is the worst thing she ever saw. Dead bodies laid out in a row on the street. Ambulances trying to move in to take away the injured. People running and wailing, some tearing at their hair or clothing. All is chaos and despair.
Newspapers the next day reveal the details. Hundreds dead and many more injured. Many victims overwhelmed by noxious fumes, super-heated air; never touched by flames. The fire started on a lower level and spread faster than anybody could imagine. Curtains, fake trees and other décor highly flammable; some exit doors covered up or locked. Club owners cited for safety violations.
Among the many dead are Carmen and Luther Albrecht. Lena recognizes a few of the other names, people she knew in passing from the club. Her father hears the news and calls to make sure she is all right. He offers to come and get her after her awful experience, but she tells him she’s fine.
“Why do you think I was spared?” she asks him.
“If I had an answer to that,” he says, “I wouldn’t be driving a cab.”
She keeps the picture of Carmen and Luther on her bureau. Wherever they are, she tells herself, they will always be together. Always smiling. Always young and happy as they were on that day.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp