The Day Belongs to the Rain ~ A Short Story

The Day Belongs to the Rain image 6
The Day Belongs to the Rain
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

The cool air came down from the north. The warm air came up from the south. When these two monolithic forces met somewhere in the middle, they engaged in fierce battle. The weather reports on the radio were dire: The storm is coming—if you aren’t in a safe place, go to one. Almost immediately, anxious mothers in plastic rain bonnets began showing up to pick up their children.

Miss Julian turned from the blackboard where she was explaining how to diagram a simple declarative sentence. Hardly anybody was paying attention to what she was saying. Most of the attention in the room was focused on the storm that was raging outside the windows. Some of the children looked worried; a couple of them were making no secret of the fact that they were afraid and about to cry. Others were enjoying the excitement that was making their day so much more interesting than they had expected. More than a few of them were blank and slack-jawed—it would take a bomb exploding to get a response from them.

“Does everybody see how to diagram a sentence now?” Miss Julian asked. “Are there any questions?”

“Are we going to die?” a boy in the third row asked.

“Of course not.”

The rain pelted the windows, louder now than it was a minute ago. The lightning crashed, the lights flickered and went out. Everybody in the room said “Oh!” as if on cue.

She knew they wouldn’t get any work done until the storm was over. “You may put away your language books,” she said, “and read your library books silently for the time being.”

A boy in the back of the room, unable to sit still any longer, stood up and went to the window. Then another boy joined him and after that another.

“What is this?” she said loudly from the front of the room. “Nobody told you to get out of your seats! School isn’t over!”

There was a knock on the door: another mother come to rescue her child from the storm. When the girl saw her mother, she went running into her arms like a war refugee. The mother and daughter left tearfully without looking back. In a few seconds, another mother came and after that they came in bunches.

Miss Melline, the fifth-grade teacher from down the hall, came to the door and motioned Miss Julian to step out into the hall.

“How are we doing in here?” Miss Melline asked, leaning in too close. She had hooded eyes like a frog.

“We’re all right,” Miss Julian said. “About half the class has already absconded.”

“Mine too,” Miss Melline said. “The little bastards. You’d think they’d never seen a thunderstorm before.”

“I wonder that they haven’t sent us word to send everybody home. Especially with the lights out.”

“I think they’re waiting for the rain to let up. If we send the students out in this raging storm, some of them will drown and the school will be faced with lawsuits.”

“I’m all for the shutting down for the day,” Miss Julian said.

“Amen to that,” Miss Melline said. She laughed idiotically and went back to her class.

The storm continued and didn’t seem to be weakening. By the time the principal’s office sent word to the teachers to send the students home early, Miss Julian only had five left who hadn’t been picked up. When she asked them if they could make it home all right, they said yes; they had just been waiting to be allowed to leave. They didn’t mind getting drenched if it meant getting to leave early.

“By morning they’ll have the lights on again,” Miss Julian said, “and everything will be back to normal.”

When she thought everybody had left and was getting ready to leave herself, she noticed someone sitting quietly in the back of the room, almost blending into the background as if he wasn’t there at all. On closer inspection, she saw it was Leander Nevins, the shabby, brown-eyed boy who never spoke unless spoken to.

“You can leave now, Leander,” she said.

“I know.”

“Is anything wrong?”

“No.”

“Come on, then. Everybody has left. I can’t leave you here all alone.”

“I’d like to stay a while longer.”

“Are you afraid to go out in the rain?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to call your mother to come and get you?”

He stood up from his desk and left the room without looking at her. She heard his footsteps going down the stairs. Relieved that everyone had finally left, she put on her coat and headscarf and locked the door. As she walked down the stairs, she was thinking about what she would do with her unexpected afternoon off. There was always laundry to do and shopping. Maybe she would just get into bed and listen to the rain on the roof.

While backing her car off the nearly empty teachers’ parking lot, she saw someone, no more than a blur, standing in the rain against the building. She couldn’t tell who it was at first, but when she rolled down the window she saw it was Leander Nevins. She motioned him over to the car.

“What’s the matter, Leander?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“You need to get on home and get in out of the rain.”

“Okay.”

“Where’s your jacket? You’re soaked through to the skin.”

“I couldn’t find it.”

“Well, get in. I’ll drive you home.”

“That’s okay. I’ll walk.”

“Get in, Leander! Now!”

He opened the passenger-side door and slid onto the seat beside her.

“Where’s your cap?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I lost it.”

She had a folded-up dinner napkin in her purse that she had been saving for just such an emergency. She took it out and gave it to him. He ran it over the top of his head and down his face.

“Thanks,” he said. “It sure is raining hard.”

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“I live out on the rural route.”

“Where is that?”

“Out of town. Out in the country.”

“You walk that far to school and back every day?”

She put the car in gear and lurched forward into the rain that was like being under water.

“I walk to the bus from my house and then I ride the bus the rest of the way. When I go home in the afternoons, I catch the bus at school and ride it as far as it goes and then walk the rest of the way.”

“Why aren’t you riding the bus today?”

“I guess I missed it.”

“Was it an accident that you missed it?”

“No, I just didn’t make it in time.”

“Is there some reason you don’t want to go home?” she asked.

“No.”

“Your mother and father will be glad to see you. They’ll be glad to know you made it home safely in this storm.”

“I live with my grandma. My parents are gone.”

She looked over at him. She hoped he’d volunteer more information, but he didn’t. He shivered, so she turned on the car heater.

“There’s a heavy old shirt on the back seat,” she said. “You can put it on since you don’t have a jacket.”

“I’m okay.”

“If you’re worried that it’s a girl’s shirt, it’s not. It belonged to my ex-husband.”

He leaned over the back seat, found the shirt and wrapped himself in it like a blanket.

Beyond the downtown business district she turned onto the old highway that went out into the country. There were no other cars on the road. Everybody else had the good sense to stay inside.

“It’s lonely this far out of town,” she said.

“Just a little bit farther and you can let me out,” Leander said.

“I’m not putting you out in this storm!” she said. “We’ll just wait it out together if we have to!”

The rain lashed the car, growing in intensity. The sky was all black. Small limbs and other flying debris slammed into the car. When she could no longer see the road, she pulled over onto the shoulder.

“We’ll just stay here for a little while until the storm lets up,” she said.

“I can walk the rest of the way from here,” Leander said.

“No! I’m not going to let you walk!”

“Well, all right, but, really, I don’t mind.”

“If anything should happen to you, don’t you think I’d be held responsible?”

“I don’t know.”

The twister that hit the car was like a many-armed, living thing. It lifted the car up, spun it around, and deposited it on the ground, on its top, in another location.

When she was lifted out of the car, she was only partially conscious. She knew that some part of her body hurt, but she didn’t know which part. She wasn’t fully conscious again until two days later, flat on her back in a hospital bed.

“I won’t ask what happened,” she said, “because I already know.”

“She’s waking up!” a nurse said.

“What was that she said?” a doctor asked.

“I said I already know what happened.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“It looks like a hospital. Am I going to live or die?”

“You have a brain concussion. You also have a couple of broken bones, but you’ll be all right. You don’t need to worry about a thing.”

“But there was another person with me in the car!”

“You were brought in alone.”

“No! There was a boy with me, one of my students. I was giving him a ride home because of the storm.”

“There was no report of another person in the car.”

“His name was Leander. He lives out on the rural route, he said. I was giving him a ride home because he missed the bus.”

“Could you have imagined it?”

“No! I didn’t imagine anything! I want to talk to the police!”

“No reports of any missing children,” the police said.

“He lived with his grandmother,” Miss Julian said. “On a farm someplace outside of town. She must be worried sick about him.”

“Do you know the grandmother’s name?”

“No.”

“Do you have an address?”

“No, I don’t know anything about the family! I only know there was a boy in my car with me. His name was Leander. I was giving him a ride home in the storm because he missed his bus.”

“That’s not much to go on, ma’am.”

“He might be badly hurt.”

“We’ll be on the lookout for him. Unless he’s reported missing by family, though, there isn’t much we can do.”

She recovered from her injuries. She was written up in the local newspaper as one of the fortunate survivors of the storm. After a few weeks, she returned to the classroom.

No trace of Leander Nevins was ever found. He was a boy so insignificant that his disappearance wasn’t noted by the world.

That might have been the end of Leander, except that every now and then Miss Julian saw him fly by the window of her classroom, his arms extended like a bird’s wings. He looked longingly through the glass. He wanted to come inside and rejoin the class. “Look at me,” he seemed to be saying. “I am here.”

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Depraved ~ A Capsule Book Review

Depraved cover
Depraved
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in a small town in New Hampshire in 1861. In young adulthood he became a doctor and changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes (or H. H. Holmes). He then embarked on a criminal career that included kidnapping, murder, arson, bigamy, insurance fraud, swindling, check forging, theft, grave-robbing, etcetera.

Because he was attractive, well-groomed, a stylish dresser and well-educated, he could easily ingratiate himself to people, men and women alike. The victims of his crimes never saw what was coming. Do you think he’d lock you in a bank vault and let you suffocate to death? No, he would never do that. His suit was too expensive, his mustache too neatly trimmed, his English too refined.

After moving to suburban Chicago, he purchased a drug store and became a druggist, but soon moved on to other business ventures. He built a block-long building nicknamed the Castle. It was a four-story mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces, including a new drugstore. Reports by the sensationist press of the day called the building “Holmes’s Murder Castle,” claiming the structure contained secret torture chambers, trap doors, gas chambers and a basement crematorium. None of these claims turned out to be true. After he became well-known for his highly publicized crimes, much of what was written about him was untrue or exaggerated. Horrific, gruesome, bloody stories sold lots of newspapers.

By his own count, Dr. Holmes murdered twenty-seven people. Others claimed the number was much higher. He murdered a former college classmate in an insurance scheme. He inadvertently killed one of his girlfriends in a botched abortion. Because of his connection with the medical profession, he provided cadavers and skeletons to medical schools. Most of the people he murdered he did so to silence them. They knew too much about him or had become inconvenient to his plans.

What finally tripped him up was an insurance-fraud scheme. He and a “business partner,” Benjamin Pietzel, set out to defraud an insurance company of $10,000 (a fortune in the 1890s.) The plan was that Dr. Holmes would insure Benjamin Pietzel’s life, fake his death, collect on the policy and then the two of them split the profits. Dr. Holmes really did murder Pietzel, however, so he could keep all the insurance money for himself. He also murdered three of Pietzel’s five children to silence them.

He was tried and found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pietzel. The police only needed to prove one of his murders to nab him. During his trial, he vehemently professed his innocence. He had done some bad things in his life, he said, but he never killed anybody. (His “confessions” about what he did or didn’t do might change daily.) He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896, just short of his thirty-fifth birthday.

Depraved, by Harold Schechter, is the true-life story of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became famous in the late nineteenth century for unspeakable murders and other crimes. He was, probably, what later would be called a sociopath or a psychopath. He himself said that, when he was born, Satan was there beside him and guided him through his life. At times he could sweetly profess shining innocence, but right at the end he admitted he was getting exactly what he deserved. Some people claimed he had supernatural abilities. After his death, several of the people who were instrumental in his capture and conviction met with unexplainable illnesses or had other misfortunes befall them.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Alienist ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Alienist cover
The Alienist
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Caleb Carr’s 1996 novel, The Alienist, is set in New York City in 1896. It is about a fictitious serial killer, the hunt for him, and the people doing the hunting. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the unorthodox “alienist” (psychiatrist) who takes it upon himself to find the killer. (The police are not interested in pursuing the case, for whatever reasons.) Dr. Kreizler enlists the aid of long-time friend John Schuyler Moore, a fashionable police reporter and man about town. Helping them is feminist Sara Howard, one of the first women to be employed by the New York Police Department (on an experimental basis, of course). She proves herself more than capable of doing whatever the men can do. She doesn’t want any of them to think she is inferior in any way because she is a woman. Rounding out the group are the Isaacson brothers (Lucius and Marcus), a pair of detective-sergeants trained in all kinds of detection arts that the others in the group aren’t privy to. Also offering support whenever it is needed (such as a fast getaway) are Cyrus and Stevie, a couple of loyal servants of Dr. Kreizler’s that he rescued from his mental-health practice.

New York in 1896 was a city of contrasts. Rich people lived in glittering palaces on Fifth Avenue, while, just blocks away, the poor lived in rows of squalid tenements. The serial killer could be just about anybody. No matter who he is, though, he is a definitely troubled. He selects his victims from children, but not just any children: they are “boy prostitutes.” He tortures and mutilates each of his victims in a certain manner that the group of investigators must try to make sense of. They assemble a psychological profile of the killer, based on little bits of information they can glean about him as they proceed. After much work and diligent research, they emerge with the information they need to apprehend the fiend. It is a triumph of good over evil.

The Alienist is meticulously detailed, atmospheric, and well-researched. It is a story about time and place as much as anything else. If you pick up the book and hold it in your hands, probably the first thing you will notice is that it is five hundred pages long. It will keep you turning the pages, but while you are reading it, you may well think it will never end. A little too long and too detailed? You decide.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

Men With Red Hair ~ A Short Story

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Men With Red Hair
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

Gerta Fain awoke at nine o’clock with the sunlight streaming through the window and the birds singing their happy song. She rolled out of bed feeling good for a reason that for the moment escaped her and then it came to her: her mother was gone for the day and she had the house to herself. She had always liked being alone and it was going to be a good day. She would roll up her hair, paint her nails and bake an angel food cake. While she was doing these things she could listen to her music on the radio and watch soap operas on television and there would be no one to complain.

She went downstairs to the kitchen and was scouting around in the refrigerator for something to eat for breakfast when she saw a man in the back yard, painting the old garage. Her mother didn’t tell her she had engaged someone to paint the garage; it must have slipped her mind.

From the kitchen window she could see him quite well. He was about thirty-five, slender, dressed in white painter overalls. The best thing about him, though, was that he had red hair that glinted in the sun. She never knew a person with red hair that she didn’t like.

Wearing only her thin pajamas and no shoes, Gerta went out the back door and down the porch steps. “Hey, you!” she said as she approached him. “I saw you out the window of my kitchen! Here I was thinking I was all alone and then I look out the window and see you!”

“Yes, ma’am!” he said. “I’ll be finished up here before you know it!”

“This garage belongs to us. It’s an old rickety thing, isn’t it? There’s hornets’ nests inside there. I’d watch out if I was you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It must have been my mother you talked to, but she didn’t tell me you were coming today. She’s gone today, though. All day. I have the house to myself and I can do whatever I want. I like it when she’s gone.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I sure do like your red hair! As soon as I saw you out the window, I noticed it. I bet you get a lot of compliments on your hair.”

“Not until now.”

“You don’t see that many men with red hair. I had a cousin with red hair, but he was shot and killed.”

“Oh?”

“You’ll be here today and tomorrow?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s only two days. Where will you be after that?”

“I don’t know. Another painting job somewhere else.”

“Do you like being a painter?”

“Better than some things.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before,” Gerta said. “Are you new in town?”

“I’ve only been here seventeen years.”

“If you do a good job on the garage, maybe my mother will have you paint the whole house.”

He looked up the slope of the yard to the house. “It’s a big house,” he said.

“Yeah, we’ve got nine rooms. I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

“Just you and your mother?”

“That’s right. I don’t have a husband. I’ve never been married. I’ll probably get married someday, but for now I like being single. You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?”

“Don’t smoke.”

“Well, I’m not supposed to smoke, either, but I do it anyway when my mother isn’t around. It’s not as if I’m a child or anything, but she doesn’t like smoking and gets awfully mad about it sometimes.”

“Well, I’d like to stand around and talk all day,” he said, “but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover in two days.”

“Oh, don’t mind me! I certainly don’t want to keep you from your work!”

“No, ma’am.”

“Would you like a drink of water? It must be awfully hot working out here in the sun.”

“I usually don’t take a drink until I’m finished working,” he said.

“Don’t you ever take a break?”

“No time to waste. Always in a hurry, I guess.”

“Oh, if it was me, I’d take a lot of breaks!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I don’t have a job,” Gerta said. “I had a job once but it was just temporary. I was a phantom shopper. Do you know what a phantom shopper is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“It’s sort of a department store spy. If they catch you spying, they’ll break both your legs. Another time I worked for a cleaning service, but I had to quit that job because the chemicals we used to clean with made me break out all over. The doctor said I had an allergic reaction. Have you been painting garages long?”

“About seven years. Seems like a lot longer.”

“Are you planning on doing that all the rest of your life?”

“No, when something better comes along, I’ll take it.”

“One of these days I’ll get me a job that lasts,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind doing what you do, but I guess there aren’t many women that do that, are there?”

“I haven’t known of any.”

“I think I’d like a job on TV,” she said. “I’d either like to be an actress on one of those soap operas or a news reporter. I could stand up in front of a map on the television screen and talk to people about what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. If they won’t let me do that, then I’d like to work behind a counter in a department store or as a supermarket checker. I’d be good at that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I was going to go back inside the house, but it feels so good being out here in the sunlight and the air that I think I’ll just stay out here for a while.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She sat down on the ground and put her knees up, forgetting for the moment that she was wearing only thin pajamas with nothing on underneath. She didn’t mind that the ground was a little bit soggy. She put her feet together and her hands on her ankles.

After a couple minutes of silence, she said, “Did I tell you that my mother is gone for the day? I like it when she’s gone. My father died a long time ago. He worked as a foreman in a factory and one day he just fell over dead. I think he was lucky in that respect. He had an easy death. I’d like to have an easy death, wouldn’t you?  Do you mind if I ask you whether or not you have a girlfriend?”

“No, I don’t have a girlfriend,” he said, “but since the two of us don’t know each other at all, don’t you think it’s better not to ask personal questions?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like to know about people, is all. Some people call it friendly and others call it nosy.”

“It’s all right. It’s just that I don’t have any time for talking.”

“I understand and I apologize.”

“No need.”

“You make me tired just by watching you,” Gerta said. “I guess I’m not much for working. My mother says I’m lazy. Well, if I’m lazy, she’s lazy too. She doesn’t do any more work than I do. I do all the housework and most of the laundry and most of the cooking. I like to cook, though, when my mother isn’t standing over me. She calls me an idiot and a dumbbell when I don’t do things the way she likes them. Is your mother dead?”

“No, but she lives far away and I never see her.”

“Families are funny things.”

“Yes, they are.”

“I prefer friends over family, but I don’t have that many friends, either. Sad to say. When I was in high school I had friends but that’s been years ago. The friends I had then have all drifted away. Some of them got married and some moved away. One or two of them are even in jail.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t like to be in jail, would you?”

“No, ma’am.”

“If they were going to lock me up for thirty years for a crime I committed, I think I would just prefer the death penalty, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“They just do the lethal injection thing now. I hear about it all the time on television. It probably doesn’t even hurt. I’m pretty sure it’s a painless death. They used to hang people by the neck or put them in front of a firing squad, but they had to stop doing that. People were complaining.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a little break for a while? Aren’t you tired.”

“No, I’m not tired.”

“You must be hungry. Would you like a sandwich or something? You can come into the kitchen and sit at the table and I’ll fix you a baloney and cheese sandwich.”

“No, thanks. I’m not hungry and I’m not tired.”

“Well, if you want to take a break, let me know.”

“I will.”

“I know I’ve just about talked you to death. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I don’t usually talk so much. You just seem like a sympathetic person that I can talk to.”

“People don’t usually notice me when I’m working.” he said. “They don’t even see me. They’re only interested in the finished job. They never think about the person doing the work.”

“Well, isn’t that just typical? Tomorrow you can meet my mother. And I promise I won’t talk so much.”

“That’s all right, ma’am.”

“You’re a real gentleman. You don’t meet many of those, anymore. I’ll go back inside now and leave you to your work. Before I go, though, I wonder if I could ask you one tiny favor?”

“What is it?”

“I have this old trunk upstairs in my bedroom. The lock is busted; the key won’t turn. There are some important papers in it that I need to get out. I’ve had a feeling ever since I first saw you that you would know how to get it opened, but I hated to ask.”

“Can you bring the trunk out here?”

“No, it’s too heavy.”

“Well, all right. I guess I can take a couple of minutes and go upstairs and take a look.”

Gerta took him into the house, through the kitchen, into the dining room, and down the hallway to the stairs. She held onto the banister as she went up ahead of him, wondering what he must be thinking.

When she came to the door of her bedroom, she paused for a moment for him to catch up. Then she opened the door and took him inside.

She was aware of how messy the room was. She hadn’t even made the bed. He’d think she had the manners of a pig.

The trunk was on the other side of the bed, beneath the window. She had to move some clothes and old blankets out of the way for him to get to it.

He knelt down. After a thorough examination of the lock, he asked her for a hammer and a screwdriver and when she produced them, he inserted the screwdriver into the lock and tapped lightly with the hammer until the lock opened.

She squealed and clapped her hands together with genuine delight. “I knew you could do it!” she said.

“It’s an old lock,” he said. “Needs some oil.”

“I want to give you something,” she said.

“Oh, no! It’s not necessary!”

“I don’t have any money, but I want to give you something!”

She opened the dresser drawer and rummaged around inside until she found a Fourth of July lapel pin that she had since she was eleven. It showed an American flag on a background of exploding shells.

“This isn’t much,” she said, “but it will help you remember that you did a good deed for a stranger and asked nothing in return.”

He stood still while she came very close and attached the pin to the front of his shirt.

“This isn’t necessary,” he said.

After she pinned the lapel pin to his shirt, they continued to stand very close to each other for a few seconds too long. Then he stepped away from her and they both realized at that moment that they weren’t alone in the room.

Gerta’s mother had returned earlier than expected. She stood in the doorway, hand on knob, glaring at Gerta and the painter.

“What’s going on here?” her mother asked. “Who is this man?”

“He’s nobody,” Gerta said. “He’s the man painting the garage.”

“What’s he doing in your bedroom?”

“We were talking and I asked him if he would take a look at the lock on my trunk.”

“Since when was there anything wrong with the lock on your trunk? That was just an excuse to get him up here, wasn’t it?”

“No!”

“I’ll go,” he said.

“That’s right! You go! And if you ever come messing around my daughter again, I’ll have you arrested!”

She stood aside to let him pass. As he was going down the stairs, she called out after him, “And I’m going to have you fired for this! Don’t think I won’t!”

“You have to ruin everything, don’t you?” Gerta said.

“So I was right! You were about to take him to bed!”

“Of course not! I was going to give him something out of my dresser drawer.”

“Give him what?”

“None of your business!”

She tried to go out of the room but her mother grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back and started slapping her. When she put her arms up to fend off the blows, her mother stripped off her pajamas with a wrenching pull and knocked her to the floor.

“Just what I thought!” her mother screamed. “You’re a cheap whore! You’re trash through and through! I can’t leave you alone for just a few hours! You should be locked up!”

“I didn’t do anything!”

She tried to stand up, but her mother kept slapping and kicking her so that after a while she just lay still and didn’t offer any resistance.

When she awoke she was on the floor and it was after two in the morning. Her head hurt terribly and her wrist, she was sure, was broken. She felt too sick and demoralized to stand upright.

Then she thought of him and it all came back. He came to paint the garage. He had the prettiest red hair she ever saw. They started talking, except that she did most of the talking. He listened politely but she knew, deep down, that he wanted her to go away and stop bothering him. She persuaded him to go upstairs with her to take a look at a lock on her trunk. Her mother came back at that moment and found them alone together in the bedroom, but they weren’t doing anything. Nothing at all. It was all so innocent. Her mother, of course, would make it out to be infinitely worse than it was, like two pigs rutting in the mud.

They’d get somebody else to finish the garage. She’d never see him again. She hadn’t even thought to ask him his name. All she knew about him was that he painted garages and had red hair. It wasn’t much to go on.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Washed in the Blood ~ A Short Story

Agnus by Konstantin Korobov
Washed in the Blood
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

He heard a car out front. Who could it be? He wasn’t used to impromptu visitors. He tried to see out the separation in the curtain, but all he saw was the sun glaring off a white car. It was probably nobody, just somebody looking for the way back to the main highway.

When the urgent knock came at the door, his heart jumped inside his chest. He didn’t want to answer, but he was standing just a few feet away, so he felt compelled to answer. When he opened the door he saw a large, pink-faced man standing there smiling at him.

“Yes?” he said, looking around the edge of the door like a frightened mouse.

“Mr. Whitson?” the large man said.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Wolfram Whitson?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Reverend Rayford Kennerly. I’m the pastor at your mother’s church.”

“Yes?”

“I was wondering if I might have a little talk with you.”

“What about?”

“I promise you it won’t take long. If you’re busy, I can come back tomorrow or the day after.”

“No, it’s all right.”

“Might I come in?”

He stood back and let the large man enter the house. They looked at each other awkwardly and then Wolfram pointed to the couch, indicating it as a suitable place for the reverend to sit.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” Wolfram asked, sitting in the chair across from the couch.

“I wanted to express my condolences at the passing of your mother.”

“That was a month ago,” Wolfram said.

“I know, and I apologize for not making the call sooner.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to ask if there was anything I might do for you.”

“Like what? Dig a hole in the back yard?”

The reverend laughed when he saw that Wolfram was making a joke. “That’s not quite what I meant,” he said. “I meant more of a spiritual nature.”

“No, there isn’t anything,” Wolfram said. “I’m fine.”

“Are you aware that we now offer grief counseling at the church?”

Grief counseling? What’s that?”

“It’s to help people like you who have recently lost a loved one: a parent, a husband or wife, a child, or even a dog or a cat. You share your feelings of loss in a group setting with others who are going through the same thing. The group meets twice a month, on alternating Fridays. I believe this coming Friday, the day after tomorrow, is their night to meet. Please feel free to attend if you feel you’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock. Dress is casual.”

“I don’t like sharing my feelings. I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Wouldn’t you like to give it a try?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It helps to keep an open mind, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose some people think it does.”

Reverend Kennerly cleared his throat and looked down at the worn carpet, shifted his big legs to a more comfortable position. “I knew your mother for many years. Not only was I her pastor; I was also her friend and spiritual advisor. She spoke often of you.”

“Spoke of me? Why?”

“She worried that you would be alone after her passing.”

“Oh, that doesn’t bother me. And I’m not really alone. I have lots of friends.”

“Well, you see, Wolfram, the thing is that most men get themselves a wife by the time they’re your age.”

“Oh, a wife!”

“Yes, a man needs a wife.”

“I don’t have one.”

“Wouldn’t you like to have one?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I just wouldn’t.”

“There are any number of lovely, single young women in your age category in our congregation who would be happy to get to know you.”

“Why would they be happy to know me?”

“We have casual get-togethers called mixers in the basement at the church. It’s a chance for the members to meet and get to know each other.”

“But I’m not a member.”

“That doesn’t matter. The mixers are for anybody.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t mix well with other people. I never have.”

“The point is, it’s not too late for you to have a family of your own.”

“If I wanted a family of my own, don’t you think I would have had it by now?”

“Well, it’s something for you to think about.”

“Yeah, I’ll think about it.”

“Well, let me ask you this. Are you eating a healthy diet?”

“Sure. I go into town about once a week to buy groceries.”

“Are you managing the household chores on your own? Laundry and housecleaning”

“Sure, I do those things. I’ve always done them. My mother didn’t do everything. After she fell and broke her leg that time, I did just about everything on my own.”

“I just want you to know that if you need help we have ladies in the church, volunteers, who will come in a morning or two a week and help out with laundry or household chores.”

“Ladies?”

“Yes, they’re older women, retired, with plenty of time on their hands. They like to help out bachelors and widowers. People like yourself.”

“Do they get paid by the hour?”

“They don’t get paid at all. They’re Christian ladies. They like to help out where help is needed.”

“Like Superman?”

“Well, not quite like Superman. Superman’s a fictional character. These are real people.”

“Real people in real life. Not super heroes.”

“Yes, that’s it. Shall I send someone out for you? Wouldn’t you like some help?”

“No, I don’t think so.

“Well, you’re very lucky, then. Most men are helpless without a woman around.”

“That’s largely a myth and a stereotype perpetrated by women.”

“May I be honest, Wolfram?”

“Of course.”

“You’re not an easy man. I’m trying to reach out to you in a Christian way and you haven’t been receptive to anything I’ve said.”

“Just being honest. My mother always said I’m a hard-nosed bastard. A lot like her, I’m afraid.”

“I think it’s more than that. I think you’re grieving for your mother. I think you’re in a fragile emotional state and I think you need help getting out of the hole you’re in.”

“I don’t need any help. I’m not in a fragile emotional state. I’m not in any hole.”

“With your mother gone, you need to ask yourself this question: Where do I go from here?”

“I don’t ask myself questions. Only crazy people ask themselves questions.”

“Come, now, Wolfram! You must want something out of life.”

“I can’t think of a thing. Air to breathe, I suppose.”

“Your mother would be so happy smiling down on you from heaven if you were to become a church member and start attending church services regularly.”

“If you want to know the truth, Mr. Whatever-Your-Name-Is, I tried church when I was younger and it left me feeling sad and hollow.”

“We’re having a special prayer meeting on Saturday evening that you might find enlightening. The theme will be ‘succor for the lonely’.”

“Sucker?”

“Yes, ‘succor for the lonely’. The meeting starts at seven o’clock. We’d be happy to have you join us. Dress is casual.”

“Am I the sucker?”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“So, will we see you at the prayer meeting on Saturday evening?”

“I’m afraid not. I have a previous engagement that evening.”

“Wolfram, sir, if you’ll pardon my saying so! Having known your mother as the devout Christian that she was, I find your resistance a little difficult to understand.”

“She wasn’t really a devout Christian. She pretended to be devout because she was afraid of dying and going to hell. When she was younger, she was a big-time hypocrite and liar. She smoked and drank and cursed like a bar on fire. She was a crook too.”

“Well, I don’t know of that part of her life, of course, but I can assure you she confessed all her transgressions to the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever her transgressions were, and she was forgiven. She was washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”

“Do you think she believed that?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Then she had you fooled too.”

The reverend Kennerly took a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose loudly. There were tears of frustration and failure in his eyes.

“There is one more topic I wanted to broach with you today, Wolfram, but I don’t know if now is the proper time.”

“Sure, lay all your cards on the table.”

“I’m going to make you a proposition and I ask that you give it serious consideration.”

“What kind of proposition?”

“You live all alone in this big house. It has how many rooms?”

“Fifteen.”

“And how many bedrooms?”

“Eight.”

“Why does one young man living alone need a house with fifteen rooms and eight bedrooms?”

“I’m beginning to see the light now,” Wolfram said.

“There’s no other way to say it than to just come right out and say it,” the reverend Kennerly said.

“You want me to donate my house to the church.”

“It would make an excellent halfway house.”

“A what?”

“Halfway house. A place for troubled young offenders to stay while they’re getting their lives in order.”

“What are you saying? I don’t want people like that living in my house!”

“Oh, no, no, no, Wolfram! You don’t understand! You wouldn’t still live here! We’d swap you for a smaller, more modern house or a nice apartment in town.”

“Well, you’ve got some nerve, you know that? You want me to believe you’re truly concerned about my welfare, and all along you only want my house.”

“That’s not true, Wolfram! We are concerned about you. When I look at you, I see a lost lamb. I only want to help in any way I can.”

“I warned my mother about you church people, but she wouldn’t listen. They’re always thinking of what they can get out of you!”

“That’s very unkind of you, young man! Having known your mother, I would have thought you were made of sterner stuff. I have nothing but the best intentions toward you. I just thought we might come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. I merely wanted to propose the idea to you and see if you might be receptive.”

“Well, the answer is no!”

“Very well. I see where we stand. I thank you for taking the time to talk to me today and I apologize if I offended you. Would you like to pray with me before I go?”

“No!”

“Well, I’ll be running along, then. I’ll leave you my card in case you have any questions about any of the things we discussed today.”

The reverend Kennerly took a card out of his wallet and put it on the lamp table by the couch and then stood up and quietly went out the door.

After the reverend Kennerly was gone, Wolfram triple-locked the door, closed all the curtains and went upstairs. At the top of the stairs was the room that had been his bedroom all his life. He went inside and closed the door and locked it.

The room had always been his own and nobody else’s. He had spent uncountable hours in that room, from the time he was old enough to have an upstairs room of his own. There was the huge bed in the middle of the room that belonged to somebody in his family who died long before he was born. His mother let him use the bed but always made sure he knew that if he ever left home the bed stayed where it was.

There was the desk where he did his homework when he was in high school. He used to sit at the desk and write awful themes for English class. Any time he had to sit still and do his school work, he was easily distracted by other things.

In his bookcase were all the books he had growing up. Sometimes he would get a book or two at Christmas. Some of them he had read and some not. He didn’t want to start a book like The Count of Monte Cristo because it was so long and he figured he would never stick with it long enough to finish it. Other books he had found or somehow come by in a way he didn’t quite remember. His great-grandmother had given him a big book in German before she died. He couldn’t read it, but he thought it made a good keepsake.

Along one entire wall was the closet that contained all the clothes he had ever worn from the time he started to school. If he took the time to go through all the stuff in the closet and all the boxes pushed against the back wall inside the closet, he was sure he would find things that would surprise him. He or his mother never threw anything away.

In the bottom drawer of the dresser was where he used to keep books and magazines he didn’t want his mother to know he had. Detective stories with pictures of big-bosomed women on the front. Magazines he had carried away from the public library. All so innocent now.

His small-caliber handgun was in the middle drawer of the dresser. He had had the gun for a dozen years and still kept it in the mail-order box it came in. He had only fired it one time, when his mother was away for eight days.

He took the gun out of its box and, seeing it was still loaded, went and stood in front of the dresser mirror where he could see himself. He pointed the gun at the middle of his chest and fired one shot. Since it was such a small gun, he thought one shot might not be sufficient, so he fired again. He watched his face in the mirror as he fired both times.

There was a lot of blood. He knew there would be. It soaked his shirt and his pants and his shoes and socks. He was surprised that his body contained that much blood. As for pain, it hurt, but not as much as he thought it would.

He wanted to remain standing but he staggered and then fell back on the floor by the bed. He tried to pull himself to a standing position but realized he was better off on the floor. There was nothing to do now but wait.

The blood continued to pour out of him. Breathing became more difficult. His vision blurred. He heard voices, but he didn’t know where they were coming from. One of the voices he was certain belonged to his mother. She would have plenty to say about what he did.

His heart sputtered like a piece of broken machinery. He turned his face to the left and looked under the bed. He grasped his left hand in his right hand. He took a few more shuddering breaths, and then the thing that he knew as his life was finished.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp   

Young Mungo ~ A Capsule Book Review

Young Mungo cover
Young Mungo
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Mungo Hamilton is named after a saint. He lives in a tenement in present-day Glasgow, Scotland, with his irresponsible mother, Maureen Buchanan (Mo-Maw); his sympathetic but odd sister, Jodie; and his thuggish brother, Hamish (nicknamed “Ha-Ha.”)

Mungo is sixteen. He and his brother and sister frequently have to fend for themselves because Mo-Maw isn’t any kind of a mother at all. She is frequently absent, an unrepentant alcoholic. She is a slattern who cares more about attracting men than taking care of her three children. The men she attracts, of course, are hardly worth having. Her latest boyfriend’s name is Jocko.

Mungo’s sister, Jodie, is a sort of surrogate mother to Mungo. She cuddles Mungo as if he was a baby. She despises her mother, with good reason, and tries to protect Mungo from her ignorance.

Hamish, Mungo’s brother, is eighteen and a junior-league criminal. He is the head of a gang of boys who wreak havoc in the streets. He is violent, unpredictable, unsettling. It is easy for the reader to imagine that he will soon end up dead or behind bars. He is the father of a small child with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend. Mungo is afraid of Hamish and doesn’t want to be like him.

Mo-Maw gets a couple of men from her alcoholics’ group to take Mungo on a hellish weekend fishing trip. She hardly knows the two, so she couldn’t know that they are convicted child molesters. This is just one example of her egregious parenting skills. The fishing trip turns out to be predictably traumatic for Mungo.

Mungo meets an older boy in his neighborhood named James Jamieson. James owns a “doocot” (a large pen or a small shed for keeping pigeons) and welcomes Mungo’s friendship. They begin spending a lot of time together at the doocot and make plans after a while to run off and effectively escape their unhappy lives. With James, Mungo experiences happiness for the first time in his life.

Young Mungo is a coming-of-age story that might be set anywhere, in any country, but this one happens to be set in Scotland. It features a young protagonist who is better, finer somehow, than the circumstances of his life. He has a sensitive nature but is misunderstood by all those around him, who only believe he should be more like other boys. The only person who understands Mungo is his sister Jodie, and she has problems of her own, including getting pregnant by one of her teachers.

Young Mungo is a very effective, very readable, novel by Scottish writer Douglas Stuart. One of the most remarkable things about Young Mungo is that it comes just a year or so after Douglas Stuart’s previous novel, Shuggie Bain. They are a most impressive one-two punch by a new, young writer. (My review of Shuggie Bain is here: https://literaryfictions.com/2021/12/09/shuggie-bain-a-capsule-book-review/)

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

State Hospital ~ A Short Story

State Hospital
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

(I posted this short story before in a slightly different version.)

Claude slept heavily and when he awoke he didn’t know where he was. He was in a bed with a blanket and sheet folded over his chest, wearing pajamas that belonged to somebody else. When he tried to raise himself, he saw that his wrists were tied to the bed frame with short, leather-like strips that allowed him to move only about six inches in any one direction. He didn’t like being tied down—he saw himself dying in a fire—and called out for somebody to come and help him but no one came.

The room was small and besides the bed there wasn’t much in it; only a metal cabinet near the bed. The walls were covered with green tiles, each one about four inches square. He began counting the green tiles that he could see from the bed; he had counted to thirty-seven when the door opened and a man in a white doctor’s coat entered the little room. He carried a clipboard and wore a red-white-and-blue striped tie peeking out of his white coat.

“Hello. How are you?” the man in the white coat said. “I’m Dr. Argyle. And who might you be?”

“I’ll bet you already know my name. I’ll bet it’s written in your notes on that clipboard.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“I don’t like my name and I don’t like saying it.”

“I need you to say it, just so I’m sure I’m talking to the right person.”

“All right. If you must know. My name is Ramon Navarro.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I’m Pig-Eye Tatum and I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Try again.”

“Lord Leopold Plumtree.”

“No.”

“Claude Wheeler?”

“Finally, that’s the name that gets the prize!”

Good! Mission accomplished! Can I go home now?”

“Well, I’m afraid not. You do understand where you are, don’t you?”

“I’m in the Nervous Hospital.”

“Why do you call it that?”

“That’s one of the more refined names for it, isn’t it? Isn’t this the place where you remove the bad parts of people’s brains?”

“I don’t remove anything. I’m not a surgeon.”

“All right, now let me ask you a question. Why are my wrists tied to the bed?”

“It’s for your own protection.”

“How do you mean?”

“You’re just waking up from treatment. We secure the wrists of patients who receive a particular kind of treatment.”

“What kind of treatment?”

“Treatment that will eventually make you better.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“If there’s not, we’ll find out.”

“How long will it take before you find out there’s nothing wrong with me and release me into the wild?”

“You don’t need to worry about that now. Tell me your age. How old are you?”

“I bet you already know that.”

“Just answer the question, please, Claude.”

“I’m twenty-three, unless I’ve lost track of an awful lot of time.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“How old are you, doctor?”

“Forty-one.”

“No longer a young man, but not old either.”

“I think that’s enough about me.”

“Are you married?”

“No more personal questions, please.”

“No, I think it’s interesting. A person’s age, I mean, and whether or not he’s married.”

“No, I’m not married. I was married but my wife and I got divorced.”

“Do you have children?”

“No, I was never blessed in that way.”

“Do you think children are a blessing?”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t they sometimes a curse?”

“I suppose so. Depending on how you look at it. No more personal questions, please.”

“When are you going to untie me?”

“The nurse will be along in a minute. She will undo your restraints and take you back to your room.”

“I don’t like my room, but I especially don’t like my roommate.”

“Why not?”

“I think he might be insane. If he doesn’t kill me, I believe I’m going to kill him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’d like a private room, please, with a private bath and a view of those big trees that you can see from the highway when you’re driving past.”

“We have very few rooms like that and they’re all taken.”

“They’re all taken by the really important patients. Isn’t that right?”

“That I wouldn’t know.”

“Do you know how long I’ve been here, doctor?”

“According to your chart, you’ve been with us almost three months.”

“That’s not right! They got it wrong! I’ve been here three years already!”

“It might seem like three years to you, but it’s been three months.”

“Do you know how I came to be here?”

“It’s getting late. I think we might save that…”

“I lived with my parents. Living with your parents in your early twenties is not that unusual, but I should have moved out when I was eighteen.”

“Don’t you like your parents?”

“No! Nobody likes their parents and mine are particularly ghoulish. I’m going to kill them when I get out of here.”

“No, you’re not. You say there’s nothing wrong with you, but wanting to kill your parents is not a sign of mental health.”

“Well, you’re the doctor. You ought to know. As I was saying, when you live with your parents, you don’t have as much privacy as you’d like.”

“It’s always better to move away from your parents after a certain age.”

“Well, the thing is, I have a deep, dark secret, doctor.”

“What is it?”

“If I told you my secret, then it would no longer be a secret, would it?”

“You don’t have to tell me your secret if you don’t want to. I thought you wanted to tell me.”

“You see, I’ve known since eighth grade that I was gay. It is an especially odious secret to have to keep from your parents when they’re religious fundamentalists.”

“They’re what?”

“They should have known my secret, but they never picked up on it, because, well, that’s just the way they are. They aren’t even aware of themselves, so how could they be aware of me?”

“So, they found out your secret? Is that it?”

“Yes, they found out my secret the hard way. They found me in bed with another man. They believe there is no greater sin than two men lying together. It’s an abomination unto the Lord.”

“All right,” Dr. Argyle, said, “It’s getting late. I believe we can pick up on this in our next scheduled office session.”

“They were gone for the weekend and weren’t supposed to be home until Sunday night. Believing I had the house to myself, I invited my friend Alban over on Saturday night. Alban and I had known each other for a long time and we were, you might say, compatible. We were in my bedroom with the door closed. Now, you have to understand, a bedroom—especially with the door closed—is supposed to be private. A closed door would suggest privacy to anybody in the world but my mother.”

“Point well taken.”

“Well, they returned unexpectedly on Saturday night, twenty-four hours early. They could have called to let me know they were coming home on Saturday night instead of Sunday night, but that would have spoiled their fun.”

“So, you believe they came home early just to catch you in the act with another man?”

“Of course they did! So, Al and I were alone in my room. There was no reason to believe we were not alone in the house and, then, the door to my room burst open—pow!—and both of my parents—both of them!—were standing at the foot of the bed looking at us.”

“What did they do?”

“My mother clapped her hands over her mouth and started screaming and speaking in tongues. She said she saw Satan standing over me and that I was going to burn in hell through all eternity. My father just looked at me and vomited on the floor. That’s the effect I always had on him.”

“What did Alban do?”

“He ran! Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t run?”

“He was embarrassed, of course.”

“He ran downstairs and out of the house. I haven’t seen him since. Poor Alban! I’m sure he thinks my whole family is crazy.”

“Poor Alban,” Dr. Argyle said.

“Well, my parents didn’t know what to do with a son as terrible as me. My mother wanted to call the police and have me thrown in jail, but you see, it’s not a crime for two men to be in bed together, so she had to take a different approach. The next day my father enlisted the aid of his doctor and his lawyer, both religious fundamentalists like himself, and the four of them—my mother, my father, the doctor and the lawyer—came up with the plan to draw up the papers to have me committed. The idea was not only to cure me and cleanse me, but also to punish me.”

“Sounds medieval,” Dr. Argyle said.

“Every word of it is true.”

“Do they come to visit you in the hospital?”

“Not once! I’m sure they’re hoping I’ll die in here so they won’t have to be bothered with me anymore.”

“Where will you go when you’re released?”

“To a place far away where I can be by myself. I’ll know when the time comes.”

“Well!” Dr. Argyle said, looking down at his watch. “I have to go now, but we’ve had a most informative first talk.”

“One more question, doctor. You know deep down in your heart that I don’t belong here.”

“That’s not a question.”

“You couldn’t unlock the front door for me and let me slip out unnoticed into the ether?”

“I’d have to go before the medical board if I did that. I could lose my license.”

“Nobody has to know. Just between us.”

“What would I tell people when they ask what happened to you?”

“Tell them I disappeared. I was here and then I wasn’t. Just one of those things.”

“They’re never believe me, I’m afraid.”

The doctor made a couple of notes and then he patted Claude on the shoulder and left the room.

“Still waiting to be untied!” Claude called to anybody who might hear him.

When Nurse Esther came in, she looked at him like he was something that came up out of the sewer.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“Please untie me,” he said in his most pitiful voice.

She made a couple of deft twists and the restraints fell away.

“I could give you a big kiss for that.”

“Don’t bother.”

“You have awfully big breasts for a nurse! Don’t they get in the way of your daily duties?”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

He could have walked down the hallway to his room, but she insisted on pushing him in the wheelchair.

He turned around in the wheelchair and looked at her slyly over his shoulder. “I’ll give you fifty dollars if you take me to the front door and let me escape into the night.”

“Where would you get fifty dollars?” she asked.

“I could go as high as seventy-five.”

“Don’t make me have to tie you up again.”

His roommate, Victor Hugo, was lying sprawled on his bed. The sheet that was supposed to cover him was down around his ankles and his hospital gown was in a wad underneath his head.

“If the scientific community ever wants to know what happened to the missing link, he’s right here,” Claude said.

“When he wakes up, you’ll wish he’d go back to sleep,” Nurse Esther said.

She helped Claude out of the wheelchair and into the bed. She tucked him in like a grumpy nanny and turned off the light and left, her crepe soles squeaking on the tile floor.

He lay on his back without moving for thirty minutes or more, but sleep wouldn’t come. He would never be able to go to sleep as long as Victor Hugo was snoring and snorting, gasping, and making clicking sounds with his teeth and tongue. He had to face the facts: he was locked up in a room with a crazy man where he himself didn’t belong. He felt a choking resentment against his mother and father, their cultish church, the hospital, and against the entire world. He never wanted any part of it.

He got out of bed, thankful at least he wasn’t tied up, found the switch on the wall and turned on the light. He looked over at Victor Hugo to see if the light had made him come awake, but he slept on, oblivious to all.

Victor,” he said in a loud whisper. “Victor Hugo! Why don’t you wake up and talk to me? Together you and I are going to break out of this place. I don’t know where we’ll go, but anyplace will be better than here. Don’t you agree? I can free you from your miserable existence if you will only let me. The two of us will soar the heavens together.”

Victor Hugo made a wet-sounding spluttery sound with his lips as though trying to speak but he didn’t speak; he kept on sleeping. Claude moved around to the side of the bed and leaned over it, his face inches from Victor Hugo’s. He put his arm around Victor Hugo’s head, his hand touching his right ear.

“You are my only friend,” he said. “How did the two of us happen to be here, together in this moment? I wish I had a good answer to that question, but I don’t.”

On the floor in the corner, between a cabinet and the wall, was a length of rope that some workman had left behind. Claude spotted it from across the room, not because it was obvious, but because he was meant to spot it. It was left there just so he would see it.

He picked up the rope, flexing it in his hands, letting the dust on it fall to the floor. It went easily around Victor Hugo’s neck. He had never strangled anybody before, with a rope or with anything else. It was easier than he thought it would be.

He pulled steadily on the two ends, without much effort. Victor Hugo stiffened, but there was no fear, no resistance. After a couple of minutes he stopped breathing. The snoring stopped, too, and the gurgling in the throat. Finally he was at peace. The whole world was at peace. Nothing before was ever so sweet.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp   

Otherlands ~ A Capsule Book Review

Otherlands cover
Otherlands
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~ 

The earth is around four billion years old. Humans have been around, in some form or another, for about a million years. One million years (1,000,0000) compared to four billion years (4,000,000,000) is just a tiny speck of time. Humans are not really that important in the scheme of things. The earth existed for a long, long time before humans came onto the scene and will exist for a lot longer after humans are gone.

Since the human lifespan is, optimistically, only about eighty to a hundred years, the concept of a billion years, or a ten billion years, or a hundred billion years is difficult for the human mind to fathom. Yet, the history of the Earth, (without humans, of course) is told in these fantastically long periods of time. Earth’s past, going all the way back to the dawn of creation, is told in Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs. The Mesozoic Era, for example, is made up of the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic Periods. The Paleozoic Era contains the Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, and Cambrian Periods.

The earth’s history is one of violent change. Mountains come and go. Oceans dry up. Rivers change their course or disappear altogether. Lush rainforests become frozen wastelands or deserts. What’s here today is gone tomorrow, or, if not gone, then radically changed. All the continents of the earth used to be clustered together in a supercontinent called Pangea. Every feature on earth has always been subject to the forces of nature. Change is constant and inevitable, although so slow that it might take tens of millions of years, or hundreds of millions.

The first animal life on earth was one-celled organisms in the water. After a fantastically long period of time, one-celled animals because multi-cellular. Each step was a building block of a fantastic master plan, conceived and orchestrated by a Super Being or God Spirit. There are many names for the Creator of all Things, whether it’s God or Ancient of Days or any one of dozens of other names. Every thinking person recognizes that there had to be some kind of creative force or plan. The world and every living thing in it did not come about by accident.  

As fascinating (and complex) as the history of animal life (and man) is on earth, the nonfiction book, Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday, is about the history of Planet Earth. Each chapter in the book examines a certain time and place:

  • Northern Plain, Alaska ~ 20,000 years ago
  • Kanapoi, Kenya ~ 4 million years ago
  • Gargano, Italy ~ 5.33 million years ago
  • Tinguiririca, Chile ~ 32 million years ago
  • Seymour Island, Antarctica ~ 41 million years ago
  • Hell Creek, Montana ~ 66 million years ago
  • Yixian, Liaoning, China ~ 125 million years ago
  • Swabia, Germany ~ 155 million years ago
  • Madygen, Kyrgyzstan ~ 225 million years ago
  • Moradi, Nigeria ~ 253 million years ago
  • Mazon Creek, Illinois ~ 309 million years ago
  • Rhynie, Scotland ~ 407 million years ago
  • Yaman-Kasy, Russia ~ 435 million years ago
  • Soom, South Africa ~ 444 million years ago
  • Chengjiang, Yunnan, China ~ 520 million years ago
  • Ediacara Hills, Australia ~ 555 million years ago

Otherlands is not an easy book to read. It’s full of technical and scientific words that the general reader will not be familiar with. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and read every word, even if I didn’t always know what I was reading. I found it helpful to just forge ahead and not be too concerned about the parts I don’t grasp (including metric measurements). Full steam ahead.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

 

I Laughed, I Cried

I Laughed, I Cried image 1

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

Bereavement Leave ~ A Short Story

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Bereavement Leave
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

(This short story is a repost. It has been published in The Dirty Pool literary magazine.)

*****

“I feel like firing somebody today,” Mr. P. said. “Who shall it be?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. C. said. “Go down the list and pick somebody.”

“Well, now, let me see,” Mr. P. said. “We have lots of suckers to choose from. Are there any standouts? Yes, there are many, many standouts. Anybody you’ve found especially offending lately?”

“Ed Boyce spends too much time in the men’s room,” Mr. C. said.

“He has a chronic bowel disorder,” Mr. P. said, “so I don’t think we could get him on that. He might counter with a lawsuit.”

“How about Frank Taplin? I’ve noticed him staring off into space a couple of times lately when he ought to be working.”

“He just lost his wife to an automobile accident. We gave him three days’ bereavement leave, but I think it takes longer than that to get over the accidental loss of a wife. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a heart, or at least pretend we do.”

Haw-haw-haw!” Mr. C. laughed. “You’re right, of course, as you usually are.”

“Always being right is the thing that got me where I am today!”

“Well, now, let me see,” Mr. C. said. “Who to fire? Who to fire? Betty Ballantine comes to mind. I don’t like the way she lounges around in the break room, showing her legs like a whore in a waterfront saloon.”

“Can’t fire Betty,” Mr. P. said. “She makes the best coffee in the office and her father is on the board at the country club. We don’t want to make him mad.”

“All right, then. How about Florence Smalls? She’s put on a lot of weight lately. That means she’s moving slow and isn’t working as efficiently as she might.”

“Lot of weight is right!” Mr. P. said. “She’s going to have a baby.”

“You don’t say! I just thought she had been eating too many donuts.”

“You can’t fire an expectant mother, no matter how much you may want to. Pick somebody else.”

“I’m starting to get one of my headaches,” Mr. C. said. “Finding somebody to fire is just too taxing! You pick somebody from the list. I’m going to take a little snooze before lunch.”

Mr. P. and Mr. C. believed in their heart of hearts that that they managed the company, but the truth was they did nothing. When there was any real work to be done, they put it off on one of their minions and sat back and took the credit (and the profits), if any was to be taken.

Mr. C. went into his private office and closed the door. Mr. P. continued studying the list for somebody to fire. When he grew weary and decided it was time to take a little break, he called one of his current girlfriends, one Pansy Ruff, on the telephone. Pansy was a failed actress and had spent some time behind bars for cashing other people’s checks.

Mr. P. and Pansy spoke for over an hour about sundry personal matters, including her two pet poodles and the lousy manicure she had from a manicurist who was obviously high on drugs. Then she told him about how she had been taxing her intellect looking at travel brochures, trying to decide on a vacation destination (the French Riviera, Rome, or both?) and grew pouty when he told her he didn’t know when he would be able to get away to join her.

“You don’t know how difficult it is to run a large corporation with thousands of employees,” Mr. P. said.

“Have one of your perky little secretaries take care of things while you’re gone,” Pansy said. She was referring, of course, to the dozens of short-skirted, large-breasted female employees of Mr. P.’s of whom she was jealous.

By lunchtime Mr. C.’s headache was better and Mr. P. had had enough of the office for one morning, so the two of them left to have a steak-lobster-martini lunch at the fanciest restaurant in town.

They made it a rule never to discuss office matters while lunching, so Mr. C. didn’t ask Mr. P. who, if anyone, he had chosen to fire. Mr. C. trusted Mr. P.’s judgment and he knew that Mr. P. would pick somebody who would be crushed at losing his job and would probably cry and throw things, maybe turn over some chairs, and would have to be removed by the security staff. It would certainly spice up the afternoon.

While they were lunching, though, they talked of personal matters. While Mr. C. had a dull, dowdy wife and three dreadful children in the suburbs, he lived vicariously through Mr. P.’s exploits with the opposite sex.

Despite Mr. P.’s penchant for the ladies, he had never married, believing it would be unfair to the female population to confine himself to just one. Also, he was afraid of how expensive a divorce would be for someone of his stature. No, he would continue to make himself available to large numbers of women and keep everybody—but mostly himself—happy.

After two hours of excellent food and drink—and after Mr. P. had ogled all the women in the place under the age of seventy—Mr. C. paid their tab and left.

Once back at the office, Mr. C. retired for a little siesta, while Mr. P. again sat down at his desk with the list. Now that his mind was clear after a good lunch and a spate of martinis, he would find the perfect candidate for termination.

In no more than five minutes, he settled on the name Paul Schiller. Paul Schiller had a German-sounding name and he wore hideous ties with birds on them and the American flag. He kept to himself and didn’t seem to enjoy the three-hour meetings that everyone was required to attend.

Mr. P. couldn’t wait to share the news with Mr. C. He buzzed Mr. C. to come into the main office and, when Mr. C. appeared looking sleepy-eyed, Mr. P. burst out with the news.

“Paul Schiller!” he said. “He’s the one we’ll fire.”

“Oh? Which one is he?” Mr. C. asked.

“He’s an accountant or something. He’s a mousy sort of a short man with a mustache. He didn’t get drunk and act like a pig at the office Christmas party the way everybody else did. In fact, he wasn’t even there.”

“I still don’t know who he is,” Mr. C. said.

“He always keeps his head down and doesn’t try to flirt with any of the ladies.”

“You’ll have to give a reason to fire him,” Mr. C. said.

“Well, word is he uses a lot of soap and paper towels when he’s washing his hands in the men’s room.”

“He must be really clean.”

“And that he has arrived for work five minutes late two times in the last year,” Mr. P. said.

“Well, that was the commuter strike and the snowstorm, I’m sure,” Mr. C. said. “Everybody was late those days!”

“Somebody else told me they saw him put a packet of sugar in his shirt pocket, obviously to take home with him. Now, when employees begin stealing sugar from the company, you know it’s time to take some action!”

“That is so true!” Mr. C. said.

“And, if all that weren’t enough, there’s simply something about the fellow I don’t like,” Mr. P. said. “I think it’s the way he carries himself when he walks. He seems just a little too sure of himself.”

“He’s cocky.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly!”

“Have your secretary show the man in, then, and we’ll get right to it!” Mr. C. said, rubbing his hands together.

Mr. P. and Mr. C. both greeted Paul Schiller with enthusiastic smiles, shaking his hand and patting his shoulder.

“Take a chair, please, sir,” Mr. P. said.

Paul Schiller sat in the large leather chair in front of Mr. P.’s desk, crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. Even now, Mr. P. thought, when he’s called into the boss’s office, this Paul Schiller person is entirely too sure of himself.

“What can I do for you gentlemen today?” Paul Schiller asked.

“You’ve been with the company now for about—what?—sixteen months?” Mr. P. said.

“That’s right,” Paul Schiller said.

“And how do you like it here?” Mr. C. said.

“Well, I have to say I’ve found it very enlightening,” Paul Schiller said.

“In what way?” Mr. C. asked.

“I’ve accomplished everything I’ve wanted to accomplish and more,” Paul Schiller said, smiling in a way that Mr. C. found disconcerting.

“That’s fine!” Mr. P. said. “The reason we asked you to come in and chat with us today is…”

“Well, I’m afraid whatever it is, it won’t matter much now,” Paul Schiller said. “I was just typing my letter of resignation when the secretary came and said you wanted to see me.”

“Oh? You’re leaving us?” Mr. C. asked.

“Yes. I didn’t think it would be necessary to give you the usual two weeks’ notice since my work here is finished,” Paul Schiller said, taking a folded letter out of his pocket and placing it on the desk in front of Mr. P.

“No, of course not!” Mr. P. said, not wanting to admit that he didn’t know what work Paul Schiller was talking about because he didn’t know what Paul Schiller’s job was.

“I’ve already removed my personal effects from my desk and said goodbye to my co-workers,” Paul Schiller said, “so I guess there’s nothing more to be said.”

He stood up and shook Mr. P.’s hand briskly and then Mr. C.’s hand and went out the door, leaving Mr. P. and Mr. C. at a loss for words.

“Well, I never!” Mr. C. said.

“That’s very disappointing!” Mr. P. said. “I thought we would at least see a temper tantrum from the fellow and have to call security.”

“You just never know about people!” Mr. C. said, shaking his head.

“Did you ever see anybody with more gall?” Mr. P. said. “He wouldn’t even let me fire him!”

“It takes all kinds,” Mr. C. said.

“I wasn’t even able to make him feel humiliated,” Mr. P. said, “and I’ve always been so good at that!”

“Well, pick somebody else from the list.”

“I’m afraid it’s going to have to wait until Monday. That fellow gave me a headache.”

“I’m going to take a little lie-down in my office,” Mr. C. said.

At four o’clock, with one hour left to go before time to go home, Mr. P. was relaxing in his big chair in front of the window, thinking about where he was going to have dinner and with whom, when he heard a commotion in the outer office. Before he had a chance to go and see what it was, three men, with several others behind them, burst into his office.

“Mr. Cornelius P.?” the tall man in front asked.

“Yes?” Mr. P. said, blusteringly. “And just who the hell might you be?”

“We have a warrant for your arrest, sir.”

What?” Mr. P. said. “I believe there’s been some mistake!”

Mr. C., also hearing the commotion, emerged from his office.

“Are you Mr. Alonzo C.?” the tall man asked.

“Well, uh…” Mr. C. said, unable to go any farther.

“I’m afraid you’re both under arrest, sir!”

“What is this all about?” Mr. P. asked.

“You’ll have plenty of time to ask questions later,” the tall man said. “All we’re here to do is to take you in.”

“In where?” Mr. C. asked, his fingertips in his mouth.

Desperate for a stalling tactic, Mr. P. began grabbing articles and papers from his desk and throwing them in all directions. While the tall man and the others were trying to get out of the way of flying articles, Mr. P. grabbed Mr. C. by the arm and they ran out their private door into the hallway.

“What now?” Mr. C. said.

“I’m not going to jail!” Mr. P. said.

“Me, either!”

“To the roof, then!”

They ran up to the roof, both knowing in their hearts that it was all over for them; there was no way to get out of the trouble they were in. They had been embezzling money from the company for years and it had been so easy. They had no reason to believe they couldn’t go on in the same way forever.

Crying real tears, they joined hands, stepped to the edge, and leapt to their deaths, thirty-three stories to the street. They created an epic traffic jam in all directions and were the top story on the evening news.

While Mr. P. and Mr. C. were sitting in Satan’s outer office, waiting to be admitted to hell, Mr. P. said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have taken quite so much money. Maybe we could have treated people a little better. Showed some humility.”

“I think it’s too late for that now,” Mr. C. said.

“Maybe they’ll let us into heaven if we apologize and promise to do better,” Mr. P. said.

“I don’t think it’ll do any good. Once you’re in hell, I don’t think there’s any getting out.”

“Who would have ever guessed that Paul Schiller was a federal investigator?” Mr. P. said.

“There’s no way we could have known,” Mr. C. said.

“Who hired the fellow in the first place?”

“It was you!

“No, it wasn’t me! I remember now! It was you!

“What does it matter now?” Mr. C. said. “I do hope, though, that I get a well-appointed room with a private bath and a view.”

“As for me,” Mr. P. said, “I’m going to insist on a supervisory position.”

“Yes,” Mr. C. said. “We’ll let them know we’re not going to take this hell thing lying down. We can beat them at their own game.”

“Yes,” Mr. P. said. “We’re two very special and unique fellows. We’re not going to stand for any ill treatment here.”

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp