Single Man in Large House ~ A Short Story

Single Man in Large House image 5
Single Man in Large House
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

They both died in their rooms upstairs, first the mother and then the father, only six months apart. The father was eighty-eight and the mother ninety-one. They left behind their only son, Gunter, age fifty-four. He was a gray, colorless man, a man without attachments or issue. He was a man who, in certain respects, barely existed.

Now that his parents were dead, the fourteen-room house belonged to him and him alone. For the first time in his life, he had absolute freedom. He could stay in bed all day if he wanted to, or eat dinner in front of the television, watching cartoons or old westerns. He could indulge any whim, such as putting on lipstick or wearing his mother’s wig just to see what it looked like.

The top floor of the old house was very hot during the summer. He liked to go up to the small bedroom all the way at the top of the house, spread a blanket on the floor, and sleep naked in front of the open windows. With the lights turned off, it was like sleeping outside. He would listen to the nightbirds and small animals doing whatever they do at night. He could feel the scented breeze wafting through the trees. The best part was when there was a thunderstorm with lighting, wind and rain. He would feel a tingle all over his body, as if he was part of the storm without a single drop of water touching him.

After his mother died, he went on a spending spree. He had always wanted a tuxedo, so he bought one, even though he didn’t need one and had no place to wear it. He would be buried in it, if nothing else.

He bought an expensive couch and matching chair and had the trash collector take away the old couch and chair. He bought all new linens for bath and bed, all new underwear and socks. He bought himself six pairs of silk pajamas in a variety of colors, including pink. He bought wine glasses and an expensive set of china. The list went on and on.

He always hated going to the grocery store and buying food. He never knew what to buy. There were too many choices and he wasn’t good at making decisions. He would end up buying impractical items, such as a three-pound box of candy or four bottles of wine because he thought the labels were pretty. After one trip to the store, he realized he hadn’t really bought anything he could eat for dinner, so he sat down and made out a list and went back to the store and bought only the things he had written down.

One day when he was in the store, surrounded by crowds of people and at least two screaming babies, the idea came to him to hire a woman as cook and housekeeper. He could afford it. It would have to be an older woman, a motherly type. She could vacuum the stairs, wash the clothes, dust the furniture and buy all the food. Then after she had bought the food she could carry it home and cook it. It was a wonderful idea and it put a crazy smile on his face.

The next day he placed an ad in the newspaper: Single man in large house seeks experienced cook, housekeeper for light housekeeping duties. Since he hated talking to people on the phone, he asked interested applicants to respond to a post office box. Within a week, he received sixteen replies.

After carefully reviewing all the applicants, he chose one out of all the others. She was an overweight, forty-five-year-old widow, an Austrian woman named Alma Bergner. She had lots of experience and glowing references, but, above all, she knew how to make genuine apple strudel. She agreed to his terms, he offered her a generous salary, and she started to work the next day.

The first day he gave her a list of items he wanted from the grocery store. When she returned from the store, she put away the groceries, made a delicious stew for dinner and did all the laundry that had been piling up for weeks. She vacuumed the stairs, cleaned the upstairs bathroom, and organized the kitchen pantry. He was so impressed with her quietly effective way of working that he wondered why he had waited as long as he did to hire her. She was unlike his own mother as a pig is from a giraffe.

One night, in the middle of the night, he awoke with the feeling that he wasn’t alone. Startled, he came partly awake and sat up in the bed.

“Who’s there?” he said.

He heard a muffled voice but couldn’t make out any words.

“If there’s anybody there, you’d better identify yourself!”

“It’s me, Vera, your mother,” a raspy voice said, and when he focused his eyes on the space at the foot of his bed, he could indeed see his mother standing there.

“My mother’s dead!” he said.

“Yes, my body is dead,” she said, a little more coherently, “but I’ve never left your side this whole time.”

He reached out to turn on the lamp beside the bed, but the lamp had vanished. It was like a dream he had when he was eight years old.

“Go away and leave me alone!” he said.

He covered up his head, but her voice only became louder.

“Look who’s giving the orders now!” she said. “Mr. Big Shot!”

“I’m so glad you’re dead!” he said. “I thought you’d never die!”

“I want that woman gone!”

“What woman?”

“That foreign woman!”

“Do you mean Alma?”

“Do you know she’s stealing from you?”

“She wouldn’t do that!”

“I saw her take a stick of butter out of the refrigerator and put it in her purse as she was leaving. Another time I saw her steal a stamp from your desk.”

“Why don’t you stop spying on people and stick to the business of being dead?”

“She’s going to poison you when she gets the chance.”

What? Why would she do that?”

“She’s going to get you to marry her and then she’s going to poison you so she can have the house.”

“Please believe me, mother, when I tell you I have absolutely no interest in being married to Alma or anybody else!”

“She’ll trick you.”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“I know what she’s like!”

“All right. I’ll ask her tomorrow if she plans to marry me and then kill me so she can take the house.”

“You don’t think she’d tell you the truth, do you?”

“Not everybody’s a liar like you are, mother! Some people actually have some integrity.”

“I know how much you’re paying her and it’s far more than she deserves! You’re throwing my money away! Before you know it, there won’t be any left!”

“It’s my money now, mother! You have nothing to say about it!”

Just then, Tom, his father, came stumbling into the room. He looked disheveled and confused. He was wearing what looked like a choir robe.

“What’s all the turmoil about?” he said, rubbing his head. “You woke me from my nap.”

Gunter groaned. “Get out of here, both of you!” he screamed. “It’s the middle of the night. You’re both dead and you’re both crazy! Now that I’m finally free of the pair of you, I won’t have you intruding on my life and on my privacy! I won’t have you barging into my bedroom at all hours, interrupting my sleep!”

“You wouldn’t even have this house if it wasn’t for me!” his father said. “You wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for me!”

“He’s right, as much as I hate to admit it!” his mother said. “You wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for us!”

“You’ve both lived your lives and now it’s time for me to live mine!”

“I can cut off your money, you ingrate!” she said.

“How are you going to do that, mother? You’re dead!”

His mother and father both faded into the wall then, and that was the end of the dream, if a dream is what it was.

A few days later Gunter went downtown to see his lawyers. He was gone all morning and when he got home he had a terrible shock waiting for him. Alma was lying unconscious at the foot of the stairs. When he saw she was still breathing, he called an ambulance. They came and took her away and a few hours later she died at the hospital of a broken neck.

Nobody could be really sure what happened because she was alone at the time, but apparently Alma had tripped when she was vacuuming and fell the entire length of the stairs. After a thorough investigation, police ruled it an accident. Gunter wanted to tell them that there might be more to the “accident” than there appeared to be, but he knew that doing so would raise questions for which he had no answers.

Alma had no family living in the United States, so Gunter paid for her funeral and burial. He couldn’t help feeling at least partly responsible for her death.

Three days after Alma’s death, when Gunter got up in the morning, on his bathroom mirror was scrawled this message in lipstick: It was no accident. You’re next.

Now, why would a dead mother threaten to kill her living son? That was the foremost question in his mind. He had no answer, except that his mother and father were awfully strange when they were alive. Not like anybody else. Outside the norm. They wanted him dead, or gone, so they could have the house to themselves to haunt on their own. He, alive as he was, was in their way. He didn’t fit in with their future plans. His whole life, he had felt he wasn’t wanted, that he was an inconvenience. Looking back on his life, he wondered why one of them, his mother or his father, hadn’t killed him at some point in his childhood. It would have been so easy when he was a baby.

A few nights later he received a message in a dream: Look in the attic.

His mother never threw anything away. If there was something she no longer needed, she didn’t discard it the way most people would; she stored it in the attic.

He hadn’t been in the attic for years. When he opened the door, the cobwebs swirled and the mice ran for cover.

There were trunks, boxes, and barrels of stuff he had never seen before; shelves loaded with wrapped parcels. It was like opening the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. He didn’t know where to begin, so he started with the nearest thing at hand, an old-fashioned trunk, what they used to call a portmanteau.

The trunk was full of books and papers on the subject of Satan worship, witchcraft, demonology, spells and incantations, black sabbath. His mother’s name was on all the books. He never had an intimation that she was interested in any such subject.

In the next trunk he found photo albums containing pictures of his mother and father performing Satanic rituals with other people. Some of the pictures were taken in their basement, where they had constructed a kind of altar. The most embarrassing aspect of these photos was that all the people, including his parents, were naked. He didn’t know how anybody could ever get his father to pose naked; it was so unlike him. They were probably in their late fifties or early sixties at the time.

Other pictures included his father fellating a man wearing a devil costume and his mother slavering over a goat. He was embarrassed for them. Such undignified behavior. He supposed it was all part of what they were required to do, but it made him want to vomit.

So, his parents were Satan worshipers. He never suspected, although it made perfect sense. They used to host parties for special people when he was growing up, but his mother always made sure he went to the movies or spent the evening at a friend’s house. There were the weekend trips to some undisclosed location, mysterious phone calls at odd times, heavy packages arriving by messenger. One time his parents took him on a trip with them to Mexico. He was excited about seeing a foreign country, but he saw nothing of it because they left him locked in a hotel room.

As for the altar in the basement, it was still there, or at least part of it was. When he was a child, his mother wouldn’t let him go down to the basement. He never knew why.

He began seeing his mother and his father every night when he was awakened from sleep. They floated over his bed, made a clatter on the stairs, or moaned and rattled chains. They were definitely taunting him.

Now, the question was how he might make his mother and father depart from the house so he could go on living there? It was the only house he had ever known, and he wanted to stay. It was a comfortable, commodious house. It was home. Hadn’t his parents lived in the house long enough? Now it belonged to him.

Again, it came to him in a dream: consult a professional spiritualist who had experience dealing with people who linger on the earth plane after they’re dead. He didn’t have a lot of confidence in spiritualism, but he supposed it couldn’t hurt to try.

Not knowing where else to begin, he read the classified ads in the newspaper. Right away one ad jumped out at him. It was a woman named Beatrice Corn. She was, according to her ad, a licensed, certified, reputable spiritualist, with one-hour consultations starting at $175.

Beatrice Corn agreed to come the next day at ten o’clock. When he told her what he wanted, she said she had seen many cases like it before. It wasn’t always easy to get an entrenched spirit to vacate the premises that they knew so well in life. She preferred the house to be as quiet as possible while performing her consultation. Also, she liked to be paid in cash but would accept a check.

She was an eighty-year-old eccentric dressed in an army uniform from the First World War and a gentleman’s top hat. He showed her the pictures of his parents engaged in Satanic worship and the books with his mother’s name on them about witchcraft, demonology, and spells and incantations. She clucked her tongue and asked to see the rest of the house.

When she went into his mother’s room, she said she felt a very strong psychic presence.

“The mother is definitely present in the house. The father too. There are also at least two other spirits in residence.

“Who are the other two?”

“I’m not sure. A couple your parents met in the afterlife, possibly. They all want you gone. I think their intention is to kill you in a horrible way so they can deliver your soul up to Satan.

“They killed my housekeeper. I don’t have any proof that they killed her, but I know they did. They wrote on my bathroom mirror that I was next.”

“How long did your parents live in this house?” she asked.

“Over sixty years.”

“Then they won’t leave willingly.”

“Is there any way to get them to leave?”

“Burn them out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Burn the house down.”

“I’m obviously not going to do that.”

“I’d advise you to sell your house and get far away from here, for your own good. Otherwise something terrible will happen. You’ve seen what they’re capable of.”

“If I leave, how do I know they won’t come after me?”

“From all you’ve told me, I would say they’re not interested in you. They want the house and they want you out of it. Spirits are always unpredictable. I would advise you to do what your instinct tells you to do.”

He thanked Beatrice Corn for her professionalism and her sensible advice. She gave him her business card and told him to call her any time, day or night. He paid her her fee and she left.

Two days later he put the house up for sale. Within a week, a funeral home agreed to his price of two million dollars. They had two funeral homes in other locations and wanted to open a third one. They were eager to close the deal and take possession of the house as soon as possible.

He made his new home in the Old World. He lived in Paris for a while and then in the Italian countryside. He could live in style wherever he wanted. The world was finally opening up for him.

Copyright © 2023 by Allen Kopp

Seven Eight Nine ~ A Short Story

Seven Eight Nine image 3

Seven Eight Nine
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~  

(This is a re-post.)

Milly Pogue was the guidance counselor. She walked with a limp because she had an artificial leg. She came into fifth-hour study hall where Penny Costello was looking at a magazine and told her she wanted to see her in her office. Without questioning the command (there would be time for that later), Penny stood up and followed Miss Pogue down the hallway to her office. Clunk, clunk, clunk went her artificial leg.

They went into the little windowless office and Miss Pogue closed the door.

“What did you want to see me about?” Penny asked. “I was busy.”

“You were looking at a magazine,” Miss Pogue said. “Sit down.”

Penny sat in the metal chair facing the metal desk and already she looked bored.

“You’re not living up to your potential, Penny,” Miss Pogue said.

“What do you mean?”

“Your math and reading scores are the lowest in your class.”

“I can’t help that! I’ve been sick!”

“You’ve missed too many days of school.”

“When you’re sick, aren’t you supposed to stay at home so you don’t spread your germs around?”

“The school nurse says there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“What does she know? She’s a crackpot. She’s not even a real nurse. She flunked out of nurses’ school.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“My mother heard it in the beauty shop.”

“It’s not true. She’s a fully accredited nurse.”

“Okay. That’s what you wanted to see me about?”

“I met with Mr. Bumpus this morning.”

“Was it good for both of you?”

“He asked me to have a private talk with you.”

“What about?”

“You won’t be passed on to the ninth grade.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’ll be repeating eighth grade next year.”

What?

“In view of your low scholastic ranking, you’ll be required to repeat eighth grade again when the new school term begins.”

“Could you put that in plain English?”

“You flunked eighth grade. You’ll have to do it all over again.”

Bullshit!”

“In these cases, we find it’s better to inform the student privately beforehand. That gives you time to adjust to the idea of repeating a grade. You’ll have time to talk it over with your mother and father before anybody else has to know about it.”

“Are you saying that when school starts up again I’ll still be in eighth grade, while everybody else in my class is in the ninth?”

“It can be a difficult adjustment, I know, but I’ll be here as your guidance counselor to help you in any way I can.”

Penny began to cry as the truth of what she was being told took root in her brain.

“I can’t repeat the eighth grade!” she said.

“What not?”

“It makes me look so stupid! Everybody will laugh at me.”

“No, they won’t!”

“Am I the only one?”

Miss Pogue looked down at her paper. “There’s one other person.”

“Are you going to tell me who it is, or do I have to ask?”

“It’s really none of your business, but if you think it’ll help, I’ll tell you. It’s Hermie Malchick.”

Hermie Malchick! Why, he’s retarded! He can’t even write his own name!”

“I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

“Do you think I’m retarded?”

“No, Penny, I know you’re not retarded.  You have the ability. You just don’t use it.”

“Everybody will laugh at me for being such a loser. Me and the retarded boy are the only two that didn’t pass the eighth grade! That must mean I’m retarded, too!”

“No, Penny. It doesn’t mean you’re retarded. It means you have to try a little harder in the future.”

“I can’t repeat eighth grade! I won’t!”

“Penny, I don’t think you have much choice in the matter.”

“We’ll get a lawyer! They’ll make you pass me on to ninth grade!”

“Can your family afford a lawyer?”

“No, but we’ll get one, anyway!”

“It wouldn’t do you any good.”

“As of this moment, I’m quitting school! I won’t ever be back! Not to this school or any school!”

“You’re too young to quit school, Penny, and you know it. You have to be sixteen, and even then you have to have your parents’ permission.”

“There’s a very good reason I won’t be coming back and it’s not only because I’m flunking eighth grade.”

“What is it?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

Oh, Penny! Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Who’s the boy?”

“You mean the father of the baby? He goes to a different school. He’s a senior.”

“Oh, Penny, that can’t be! You’re just a child yourself.”

“I know, but it sometimes happens.”

“Whoever he is, he could be facing legal issues. You’re a minor.”

“He knows all about that and he doesn’t care. You see, he’s in love with me and I’m in love with him.”

“What could you know about love at your age?”

“I know plenty. I’m not stupid.”

“Have you told your mother and father?”

“Sure. They know all about it.”

“And they approve?”

“They know there’s nothing they can do about it.”

“Oh, Penny! This is tragic. There’s no other word for it.”

“I’ll get over it. In about seven and a half months.”

“You can go on back to study hall now.”

“Hell, no! I’m not going back to study hall! I’m going home! I’m done with this place once and for all! No more school for me! Ever!”

When Penny was leaving Miss Pogue’s office, she almost ran into Hermie Malchick coming out of the boys’ restroom. She and Hermie were a matching pair. Two of a kind. Two cards from the same defective deck. If she had had a knife in her hand, she might have stabbed him in the throat with it.

Before she left school for the last time, she went up to the third floor and emptied the contents of her locker out onto the floor. One last act of defiance.

Walking home, she had to laugh at how readily Miss Pogue believed the lie about the baby. The only person she knew of who was going to have a baby was her own mother. She was an expert at it. She had had seven.

She was all smiles that evening, that school was finally out for the summer and she had three long months of vacation before she had to go back. If she had told her parents that she was never going back, it would not have gone well. There would have been a big scene, and either her mother or her father would have ended up slapping her. They would find out the truth when school took up again and she stayed at home in bed.

Her mother had her baby in the middle of June. It was a boy and they named him Skippy. Her mother had a difficult time with lasting effects. The doctor told her she’d better not think about having any more babies. Seven were enough. Any more would be excessive.

Throughout the summer, Penny began thinking of Skippy as her own child. She fed him, bathed him, got up with him in the night, and took him all over town in his perambulator, while her mother lay in bed and complained.

Old ladies looked at her with Skippy and turned up their noses, as old ladies do. It’s such a shame, they said, that a girl of such a tender age is already a mother. What is the world coming to? If she was my daughter, I’d keep her busy scrubbing the floors and cooking the meals. She wouldn’t have any time for nonsense with boys.

Copyright 2023 by Allen Kopp

Boulevard ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boulevard book cover 1
Boulevard, a Novel of New Orleans
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Jim Grimsley’s novel Boulevard is a coming-of-age story set in New Orleans in the 1970s. A young man named Newell is the main character and the novel’s protagonist. Coming from a small town in Alabama, he’s naïve and inexperienced, as we would expect him to be. Life in New Orleans is a revelation to him.

Alone in the big city. He only has a little money. He needs a job, fast, and he needs a place to stay. He walks the streets, going from restaurant to restaurant, hoping to find work as a waiter or a dishwasher. Finally he finds a job as a busboy, even though it’s not exactly what he had in mind. After checking many newspaper ads, he finds a room to rent. The room, located above a junk store in the Latin Quarter, is owned by an odd lady named Louise who turns out to be a lesbian (she also owns the junk store).

He’s delighted with the money he makes as a busboy. He furnishes his little apartment (more just a room) with purchases from the junk store. He’s doing well, until a snit among his fellow restaurant workers causes him to get fired. (Call it office politics.) Now he’s back where he started from.

He doesn’t have to wait long before finding another job. This one is in an “adult” bookstore that sells sex toys, pornographic books and magazines. In the back of the bookstore is a room where dirty movies are shown, via coin operated machines.

Newell thrives working in the bookstore in unexpected ways. He was hired by the crude manager of the bookstore because he’s “cute,” and because he’s cute he becomes a favorite with the (mostly gay) customers. He has some original ideas about presentation and organization of merchandise, bringing in more customers, and soon he is made manager and wears a dog collar.

More importantly, he discovers his own sexuality. He becomes a favorite in clubs and bars and makes some new friends, including Henry, a promiscuous, middle-aged homosexual, and Mark, a young man with whom he has a semi-serious affair. Another interesting character is Miss Sophia, the “cleaning lady” in the bookstore who has a silent crush on Newell. As we come to know Miss Sophia, we discover she is a transgender who used to be a lawyer living as a man. Also, there’s Jerry, a lonely, older, married man with whom Newell has an intense sexual encounter.

Boulevard is a story about New Orleans (and the seamy side) but is also about a sexual awakening and the loss of innocence. As the novel shows us (and is traditional in stories of this kind), you can only go so far with loss of innocence, and if you step over a certain boundary, you will find yourself in serious trouble.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

I Want to Spend Christmas with You ~ A Short Story

I Want to Spend Christmas with You
I Want to Spend Christmas with You
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

My parents got their divorce the summer I was fifteen and sold the house we lived in. My mother, my little brother, and I moved into a small, four-room flat in an old apartment building downtown. It was on the fifth floor and there were no elevators, so that meant we were constantly walking up and down the stairs.

The flat wasn’t big enough for me to have my own room, so we moved my bed into a little space off the kitchen, which was originally meant to be a pantry. It was tiny and cramped, but the best thing about it was that I had my own window with a good view of buildings and trees far off in the distance. I liked to lay in bed at night and look out at the sky. The best nights were when there was a full moon. When there were thunderstorms, it felt like the lightning was going to come in through the window and zap me into oblivion.  

Now it was Christmas again, or almost. Our first Christmas in the apartment. Our Christmas tree stood in the corner of the front room, aglow with multi-colored lights and loaded down with tinsel and ornaments, stacks of presents beneath its branches. A sprig of holly hung in the doorway into the kitchen. On the front door was a wreath that would probably be stolen before Christmas morning ever arrived.

My little brother Georgie, age six, jumped up and down on the couch and screamed. He was wholly invested in Christmas. It was snowing out, he didn’t have to go back to school until after New Year’s, and he believed that Santa was going to be especially generous with him this year.

“You’d better calm down,” I said. “Santa will pass you by if he gets word that you’ve been bad.”

“I haven’t been bad!” he screeched.

My mother came in from her bedroom, where she had been putting on makeup and fixing her hair. She was afraid I was going to divulge the great secret that Santa doesn’t really exist.

“What did you just say to him?” she asked, looking at me threateningly.

“I didn’t say anything,” I said. “I just told him he’s giving me a headache.”

“Get down from there, Georgie! You know you’re not supposed to use the couch as a trampoline! The couch is for sitting, not for jumping.”

“All this Christmas stuff is making me puke,” I said. “A person can only take so much.”

“Well, it’s too bad you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be excited about Christmas,” she said. “I guess you’ve grown too sophisticated for your family.”

“He’s grown too sophisticated!” screamed Georgie.  

“Shut up!” I said.

“When do we get to open the presents?” Georgie screamed.

“For the eighty-seventh time, we will open the presents on Christmas morning after we’ve had a good breakfast.”

“Why do we have to wait so long?”

“Because I said so, that’s why!” She sat on the other end of the sofa and patted her hair in back.  

“I want to open one now!”

“No! We’ve been all through that a dozen times. You have to wait like everybody else.”

“Tomorrow’s Christmas and we haven’t heard anything from daddy yet,” I said.

“No, and you probably won’t, either. He’s probably laying up in some hotel room, drunk as a skunk.”

 “Drunk as a skunk!” Georgie screamed.

 “I thought he’d send at least send us a present.”

 “You’re old enough to know you can’t count on him for anything.”

“We always had a good Christmas with him,” I said.

“I know, but those days are over. Your daddy is out of the picture now. He was the one that wanted the divorce.”

“I’m going to the movies tonight,” I said. “It’s a Christmas Eve horror double feature.”

“I don’t care what it is,” she said. “You’re not going to the movies on Christmas Eve. You’re going to spend the evening with your family.”

“But I’m meeting someone.”

“Call whoever it is and tell them you can’t make it.”

“Is he going to be here?”

He has a name, you know.”

“Is Regis going to be here?”

“Yes, he’s going to be here in time to eat dinner with us and later we’re all going to church.”

“I don’t feel like going to church.”  

“You feel like going to the movies but you don’t feel like going to church?”

“Church gives me a headache.”

“You’re insane.”

“If I am, I get it from you. Insanity runs in your family.”

“I think Regis is going to ask me to marry him.”

“Why would you want to marry Regis?”

“Why shouldn’t I marry him? He’s the sweetest, kindest man I’ve ever met and he’s got a good job.”

“He sells washing machines in an appliance store.”

“Someday he’ll be manager. There’s really good money in that.”

“What about daddy?”

“What about him?”

“You’re going to marry Regis without telling daddy first?”

“You’re a smart boy, but you just don’t seem to understand. There is no longer any connection between me and your daddy. We are kaput!”

“What does that mean?”

“Your daddy and I are finished with each other. All ties are severed.”

“All ties are severed!” Georgie shrieked.

“If you marry Regis, does that mean we can move out of this crummy apartment?”

“Not right away. Regis will probably move in here with us. His business hasn’t been so good lately. He’s a little strapped for cash at the moment. He expects things to pick up next year, though.”

“If Regis moves in here with us, I’m moving out.”

“Why don’t you like Regis?”

“He belongs to a bowling league.”

“A lot of men belong to bowling leagues.”

“He’s old!”

“He’s forty-three.”

“He wears cologne that smells like bug spray.”

“I’ll get him to stop wearing it after a while.”

“He has hairs sprouting out of his ears. Haven’t you ever noticed that?”

“Of course, I’ve noticed it. His grooming isn’t the best. That’s because he lives alone. All that will change after we’re married.”

“I think you should check with daddy first before you marry Regis. He might want to come back. If you marry Regis, it’ll be too late.”

“Your daddy is not coming back. Ever.”

“You might be surprised.”

“It’s time for you to face reality.”

“I am facing reality and I don’t like it.”

“I think I see Santa way up in the sky over there,” Georgie said, standing at the window.

“You’re hallucinating again,” I said.

“It’s too early for Santa,” mother said. “He won’t come until we’re all asleep. He doesn’t like for people to look at him.”

“I can certainly see why,” I said.

“I hope he remembers everything I wanted,” Georgie said.

Mother went back into the bedroom and in a little while came back out in her red Christmas dress that in my opinion was too tight. She had dowsed herself in perfume. When she saw me lying on the couch staring at the ceiling, she decided I needed something to do.  

“I want you to go down to Friedlander’s market and buy a carton of eggnog for tonight,” she said, digging in her purse for some money. 

“I don’t like eggnog,” I said.

“Well, are you the only one here? Regis says it’s not Christmas without eggnog.”

“Regis says. Regis says. What else does Regis say?”

“Can I go to the store, too?” Georgie asked excitedly.

“No! You stay here and help me wrap Regis’s present.”

“Regis, Regis, Regis,” I said as he went out the door. “He’s certainly a big man around here, isn’t he?”

The snow was falling heavier now. Cars made hissing sounds on the pavement as they passed by. Last-minute shoppers were still keeping the stores busy. With the setting of the sun, Christmas Eve had officially arrived.

The store only had one carton of eggnog left, so I grabbed it and went and stood in the long line to pay. When the cashier smiled at me and wished me a merry Christmas, I gave him a sour look.   

When I got back home, Regis had arrived with presents for all of us. He was throwing Georgie up near the ceiling and then catching him on the way down. Georgie squealed with delight. Mother stood at the stove and beamed her approval.

Regis had brought Georgie a stuffed elephant and some other toys. My present from him, still wrapped in a big box with a red bow, was at my place at the table. Before I sat down, I picked up the box and set it on the floor.

“Aren’t you going to open your present from Regis?” mother asked.

“I’ll open it later. I have a headache now.”

When we were all seated at the table, mother insisted we join hands while Regis said grace. Regis’s hand felt clammy and unclean in mine. When he finally let go, I wiped my hand back and forth along my leg before I touched any food.

While we ate, I could see that mother was wearing a diamond engagement ring. This, of course, would be her Christmas present from Regis. So, it was official, then. He had proposed and she had said yes.

Regis talked about his day at work and laughed while we ate. Mother didn’t say much. Georgie kept looking out the window for signs of Santa. When Regis seemed to have run out of things to say for the moment, mother looked at me and said she had something she wanted to tell me and Georgie.

“What is it?” I asked with a sick feeling.

“Regis has asked me to be his wife and I’ve consented. We’re going to be married on New Year’s Eve.”

“What’s the rush?” I asked.

“I think it’s so romantic to be married on New Year’s Eve,” she gushed. “It will be a new start of a new year for all of us.”

She turned and looked at Regis. There were tears in her eyes. Regis took hold of her hand and pulled her in for a kiss. I knew he was getting ham grease all over her.

“I think I hear Santa’s sleigh outside!” Georgie said.

After we finished eating, mother told me to go put on my dress pants and a white shirt for church. She would help me with my tie before we left for church.

Except there wasn’t going to be any church for me. I grabbed my coat and hat and ran out the front door before she had a chance to see what I was doing.

The snow must have been five or six inches by that time. I still had on my tennis shoes and I could feel the snow soaking through to my socks after a few steps, but I didn’t mind. I needed to talk to daddy.

I knew that Colson’s Drug Store, about four blocks down from where we lived, had a pay phone. I had a pocket full of change especially for that purpose.

Right after the divorce, daddy gave me his private number where I could reach him any time. If I ever needed him, all I had to do was give him a call.

There were a lot of people at Colson’s, mostly at the pharmacy counter. Nobody paid any attention to me as I went all the way to the back, where the pay phone was.

I was sure he would answer. He would probably figure it was me calling on Christmas Eve.

The phone rang ten or twelves times, but finally he answered.

“Hello,” a little groggily.

“Daddy?” I said. “Is that you?”

“Who is this? Is this Evan?

“Yeah, it’s me. Evan.”

“I couldn’t hear you very well at first.”

“Can you hear me better now?”

“Yeah, I hear you fine now.”

“Well, since it’s Christmas Eve, I wanted to call and wish you a merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, Evan!”

“Do you know where we’re living now?”

“No.”

“In an apartment downtown, on the fifth floor of an old building.”

“I’ve been wanting to come and visit you and Georgie, but I wasn’t sure where you were living. How’s Georgie?”

“He’s fine. Waiting for Santa to bring him everything he asked for.”

“Where are you now?”

“I’m in Colson’s Drug Store, near where we live. Do you know where that is?”

“Yeah, I’ve been to Colson’s a few times. Don’t you have a phone in the apartment?”

“We do, but I didn’t want mother to know I was calling you.”

“How is your mother?”

“She’s fine, but she’s the main reason I wanted to talk to you.”

“She’s not sick, is she?”

“No, she’s not sick. She’s getting married on New Year’s Eve.”

Daddy was silent for a moment and then he laughed. “Who is she marrying?”

“His name is Regis. He’s a creep. He smells funny. I don’t like him.”

“Maybe that’s because you don’t know him very well.”

“I want you to come and get me.”

“What?”

“I said I want you to come to Colson’s Drug Store and get me. I want to spend Christmas with you.”

“Wait a minute, Evan! I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m not living in a very nice place. I don’t even have a tree.”

“That’s all right. I don’t need a tree.”

“If your mother doesn’t know where you are, she’ll be worried.”

“I’ll call her from your place.”

I started to cry like a blubbery crybaby. I hadn’t meant to cry, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.

“Is it that bad?” he asked.  

“Mother just isn’t herself. I don’t want to be around her. She acts like Regis is some kind of a god. They make me sick.”

“All right. If it’s that bad, I’ll come and get you.”

“How long? How long will it take?”

“Give me a half-hour or so.”

“Colson’s Drug Store. I’ll be waiting outside for you.”

It was still snowing, harder than ever now, but I didn’t mind waiting in the snow for a half-hour. People coming in and out of Colson’s looked at me and then looked away. Maybe some of them thought I was going to try to rob them. I tried leaning back against the building, crossing my legs and putting my hands in my pockets. I tried to look casual, but I felt conspicuous. 

I wasn’t sure what kind of car daddy would be driving, but I looked at every car. One of them would be him.

The half-hour passed and then an hour and then two hours. I was determined to wait as long as it took. I would wait all night. I would still be waiting on Christmas Morning if I had to. My fingers and toes were numb. I could no longer feel them. I wasn’t sure if they would ever work right again or not. I didn’t much care.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Lunch at the Piccadilly ~ A Capsule Book Review

Lunch at the Piccadilly novel cover

Lunch at the Piccadilly 
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Lunch at the Piccadilly, by Clyde Edgerton, is a serio-comic novel set in a North Carolina nursing home in the 1980s. Carl Turnage is a timid bachelor in his thirties whose profession is making metal awnings. He was raised by his mother and her two sisters, Aunt Lil and Aunt Elizabeth. His mother and his Aunt Elizabeth have both died, but there’s still Aunt Lil Olive. She’s in her nineties and has recently taken up residence in a nursing home called Rosehaven. She hopes to return home to own apartment in a month or so but, with her health in decline, that might never happen.

Carl couldn’t be more attentive to his Aunt Lil. He indulges her in all her whims, including her desire to continue to drive her ’89 Oldsmobile, long after she should have given up driving. He wants to have that little talk with her about surrendering her car keys, but he just can’t seem to get around to it.

A man named L. Ray Flowers is a resident in the nursing home on a temporary basis while he recovers from knee surgery. He’s a sort of self-proclaimed minister. He wants to start a worldwide movement in which nursing homes and churches are merged into one entity called “nurches.” (He seems to know nothing about separation of church and state.) He’s in his early sixties, much younger than most of the other residents.

Most of the ladies are all aflutter over Mr. Flowers; all except one, a woman named Darla Avery who remembers him from high school, some forty-five years earlier. What Darla remembers about him isn’t a pleasant memory. She had a crush on him in high school. He asked her out on a date and when he got her alone in the car he masturbated in front of her. Darla then tells the other ladies in the nursing home that Mr. Flowers exposed himself to her, forgetting to mention that it had happened all those decades earlier. Mr. Flowers is then asked to leave the nursing home by a manager who doesn’t bother to find out the truth. They simply can’t have any old man in residence showing his private parts to any of the ladies. Does he get the benefit of the doubt? Of course not.

Clyde Edgerton’s books are what might be considered “light” reading, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in substance or literary merit. They are speedy reading, effortless reading. If you read books and you want fast, easy, and as effortless as breathing, you might give ol’ Clyde a go. You won’t be hit over the head with political correctness or pretentious, “with-it” bullshit.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

 

The Night Train ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Night Train book cover
The Night Train
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~ 

Clyde Edgerton’s 2011 novel, The Night Train, is a coming-of-age story set in 1963 in a small town in North Carolina. The South is roiled at this time by the Civil Rights movement. It seems that race relations are on everybody’s mind. There are “whites only” establishments from which black people are barred, such as restaurants, hotels, and movie theatres. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get this changed.  

Larry Lime Nolan is a black teenager living with his family in the town of Stark, North Carolina. He works in a small furniture refinishing establishment and wants to be a jazz musician. Dwayne Hallston is white. He also works in the furniture refinishing factory and is a friend of Larry’s. Some people believe it’s not a good idea for a black boy and a white boy to be friends at this time and place, but friends they are.

Larry Lime, aspiring to play piano like Thelonious Monk, takes impromptu piano lessons from an old jazz musician called the Bleeder. He thinks learning the piano will help him make his way to a better life so he won’t have to refinish furniture his whole life.   

Dwayne Hallston and Larry Lime are big fans of James Brown. They both greatly admire James Brown’s album, Live at the Apollo. They decide they will mimic the album the best they can and perform exactly as James Brown performs. (“The Night Train” is a track on that album.) Their plan is to get a on a local TV music show and from there launch into big-time showbiz.

Flash Akers is the owner of the furniture refinishing establishment where Larry Lime and Dwayne Hallston work. Larry and Dwayne try to keep out of Flash’s way because when they are at work they are engaged in a lot of non-work. Flash is a middle-aged white man living with and taking care of his mama, who is in her seventies. When she has a stroke, Flash has to call in someone to help him take care of her. Will he get a white woman or a black woman to help out? This is an important decision. A lot of old white woman don’t like taking care of stroke victims, especially if they aren’t “ambulatory.” If he gets a black woman, his mama probably isn’t going to like it. “I just want to die!” mama says. “Don’t say that, mama!” Flash says. “It isn’t nice!”   

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

 

The Christmas Guests ~ A Short Story

Before You Know I'm Gone image 1

The Christmas Guests
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

The party crowd was attentive as tiny Chickpea Knuckles, thirty-seven inches tall, stood beside the Christmas tree on her little platform and sang a medley of Christmas standards in her throaty contralto voice: “Rockin’ ‘Round the Christmas Tree,” “Blue Christmas,” “Jingle-Bell Rock,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

At the end of Chickpea’s act, the audience erupted into enthusiastic applause. Mrs. Griselda Pinkwater, sitting on the front row, beamed with satisfaction, almost as if the applause was for her. She had every right to be pleased, for she was the one had who brought Chickpea to the forefront.

Now that the musical part of the program was finished, everybody stood up. Mrs. Pinkwater became surrounded by well-wishers. Sylvia Peat, her enormous breasts trussed up inside her green silk dress, took hold of Mrs. Pinkwater’s wrist in her talon-like hands. She reeked of her expensive perfume. “Lovely Christmas party, my dear!” she gushed.

“Thank you, my dear!”

“Where did you find the adorable midget singer?”

“You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Do you think she’d sing at my New Year’s soiree?”

“You could always ask her. She doesn’t sing for free, though.”

“Is she terribly expensive?”

“With your millions, I don’t think you need worry about the cost.”

Just then Enid Goode approached from the right. She was as tall and as broad as a female warrior. “Where did you find a family of midgets?” she asked. “You clever thing, you!”

“Well, it’s a long story,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “My husband and I had the Knuckles family in our home for Thanksgiving dinner. We found them simply entrancing. When I discovered that the father, Quincy Knuckles, was headed for jail, I took pity on them.”

“Oh, dear! I hope the little man didn’t kill anybody!”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. He busted into a pawn shop.”

“Why did he do that?”

“He saw a banjo in there that he thought belonged to him.”

“A bedroll?”

“No, a banjo.”

“Here comes the Mrs. Carlotta Knuckles, the matriarch of the midget clan,” said Mrs. Pinkwater. “She is so sweet! You will absolutely adore her!”

She snagged hold of Carlotta Knuckles and pulled her into the circle of ladies.

Carlotta was wearing a slinky, gold-colored evening gown that Mrs. Pinkwater had had bought for her. She carried a long cigarette holder, taking occasional puffs on a cigarette that had gone out a long time ago.

“How do you do?” Carlotta said, looking up shyly at the ladies—all in various stages of drunkenness—that surrounded her like a forest of redwood trees.

“Isn’t she just the most precious little thing?” Betty Rowley said.

“What’s it like being a midget?” Shirley Faraday asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “It’s more respectful.”

“What’s wrong with calling them midgets? That’s what they are, isn’t it? How many are in the family?”

“Besides the incarcerated father, there’s mother, daughter and son.”

“How old is the son?” Enid Goode asked.

“He’s twenty-one, I think.”

“Where is he? I’d love to see him.”

“Twenty-one is a little young for you, isn’t it, Enid?” said Betty Rowley.

“I’ve done a lot worse!” Enid said, and all the ladies laughed.

“Well, he’s really still a boy!” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

Just then the boy in question, Bixley Knuckles, walked past, bearing a tray of drinks over his head. Mrs. Pinkwater tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and looked at her.

“You don’t have to serve drinks,” she said. “You’re a guest.”

“I like doing it,” he said. “It gives me a chance to hobnob.”

Shirley Faraday ruffled his hair. “He’s so cute I could just eat up him!” she said.

“Hey!” Bixley said. “Hands off!”

“The ladies like you,” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Of course they do, but that doesn’t mean they can paw me whenever they feel like it!”

Mrs. Pinkwater leaned over and whispered in Bixley’s ear: “All these dames are crazy and they’re all kind of drunk. Don’t take them too seriously.”

“I should say I won’t!” he said and then he was gone.

“I’d like to wrap him up and take him home,” Shirley Faraday said.

“And what would you do with him when you got him there?” Betty Rowley said.

“I don’t know. I’m sure we’d think of something.”

The crowd of ladies dispersed to freshen their drinks or to use the ladies’ room.

“How are you holding up, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Carlotta.

“All right, dear.”

A waiter came by with a tray of canapés, bent over and thrust them toward Carlotta.

“Try one,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re delicious.”

Carlotta took one each hand and began munching on them. “I have something to tell you,” she said, “and I hate to say it.”

“What is it?

“My midget husband, Quincy Knuckles, has escaped from jail.”

“Oh, my goodness! Are you sure? How did it happen?”

“He’s three feet tall. When the guards opened the doors, they were preoccupied and didn’t look down. He escaped right under their noses.”

“Oh, dear!”

“But that’s not the worst of it. When I was in the kitchen a while ago, there was a knock on the back door. I thought it was going to be another liquor delivery, but when I opened the door who do you think was standing there?”

“Let me guess.”

“It was Quincy.”

“Where is he? What did you do with him?”

“I took him upstairs and hid him when nobody was looking.”

“Oh, dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater moaned. “We’re harboring an escaped fugitive!”

“Not only that! He’s cross-dressing!”

“He’s what?”

“He’s dressed as a woman.”

“How is that going to help?”

“The police are looking for a male midget.”

“Keep him hidden and we’ll decide what to do with him when the party is over.”

“He wants to come down and join the party. He’s been in prison since Thanksgiving. He’s lonely.”

“All right, but keep him in the background. If any of my guests begin to suspect he’s more than he seems to be, he’ll have to leave. I won’t have my party ruined.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Carlotta said.

Carlotta introduced her “sister,” Corabelle, from New Orleans, to all the guests. They were charmed as she spoke to them in a soft Southern accent. When one of the male guests, Clifford Clifford, asked Corabelle to dance, she graciously accepted without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

“Where did she learn to dance like that?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to Carlotta as they stood off to the side and watched as Corabelle and Clifford Clifford moved around the floor.

“She’s always been a good dancer,” Carlotta said.

“She moves effortlessly as if she dances every day of her life.”

“What a lovely compliment!” Carlotta said. “I’ll be sure and tell him what you said. He doesn’t very often have a chance to feel good about himself.”

“And where did he get the dress and wig?”

“It’s a long story. He bought them for a lodge function that he attended as a woman. And not one of his lodge brothers recognized him, either!”

“If I didn’t already know he was a man,” Mrs. Pinkwater said, “I’d never suspect.”

“It makes me so proud!” Carlotta said.  

When Corabelle finished dancing with Clifford Clifford, others wanted to dance with her but she declined.

“I’m all fagged out for the moment, gentlemen,” she said. “I have to get myself a refresher.”

“Remember I have the next dance!” Finch Baggett called to her.

“You got it, mister!” she said.

“And I have the one after that!” Trent Trill announced.

Oh, you kid!

“I never expected her to be so popular with the men,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “And they’re all married. Their wives are looking on with dissatisfaction, if they’re not too drunk to notice.”

“It’s the novelty of the thing,” Carlotta said.

“And wouldn’t they be surprised to know that the thing is not what they think it is?”

Oh, you kid!” said Carlotta.

At the buffet table, Bixley spotted Corabelle and they began sparring playfully. When Corabelle got Bixley in a headlock, Mrs. Pinkwater and Carlotta broke them up before they gave away Corabelle’s secret.

“Let’s show them our tumbling moves,” Bixley said. “They’d love it.”

“Can’t,” Corabelle said. “I’m wearing a dress, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“So?” Bixley said.

“Go get me a glass of that champagne, sonny boy,” she said as she sat down to eat the plate of food the maid prepared for her.

The party didn’t begin to break up until after midnight.

“The best party ever!” one guest after the other said as they thanked Mrs. Pinkwater and went out the door.  

“We fooled ‘em,” Quincy said, removing the wig and kicking off the pumps. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Get me another glass of that champagne.”

“Not so carefree, mister!” Carlotta said. “You’re a wanted midget, you know.”

“I can be a woman for as long as I have to be.”

“And what happens when they pull off the wig and lift up the dress and discover you’re really a man?”

“I guess I’ll worry about that when the time comes.” 

“My husband will be home from his business trip in two days,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I suggest the entire midget family stay here until then. I have plenty of room.”

“Oh, we couldn’t impose!” Carlotta said. “Christmas is in three days!”

“You’d be doing me a favor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I hate being alone at night.”

“Your husband wouldn’t want to find us here when he comes home.”

“He won’t mind. He enjoys having company.”

“Well, it’s awfully kind of you, but I don’t know.”

“Quincy can remain your sister Corabelle for as long as you’re here. If the police come snooping around looking for Quincy, just tell them she’s your sister visiting from New Orleans. If he can fool all my party guests, he can fool the police.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Quincy said. “I don’t relish the idea of being thrown back in the can and spending Christmas in jail.”

“I don’t know how we’ll ever repay you for all your kindness to us,” Carlotta said, on the point of tears.  

“Can I sleep in that little bedroom in the attic overlooking the back yard?” Bixley asked. “It makes me feel like the captain of a ship.”

“How do you know about that room?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked.

“I did a little exploring while everybody was busy,” Bixley said. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“I can sleep anywhere,” Chickpea said, “as long as there are no snakes.”

Mr. Pinkwater, when he returned from his business trip on the day before Christmas, was not surprised to find the midgets installed in his home, but he was surprised to discover Quincy Knuckles as a woman.

“This is Miss Corabelle Hamilton, from New Orleans, Louisiana, come to spend Christmas in our home,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Quincy Knuckles is no more.”

Corabelle stood up and offered her hand to Mr. Pinkwater. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” 

“I don’t think that’s the same person at all,” Mr. Pinkwater said to Mrs. Pinkwater when they were alone. “I think they’re playing a trick on us.”

“We’re going to have such a lovely Christmas!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re like the odd children we never had.”

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Bible Salesman ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Bible Salesman book cover

The Bible Salesman
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

The year is 1950. Henry Dampier is a twenty-year-old traveling Bible salesman, living in the Southern United States. He was raised in a small town by a loving aunt and uncle. His father was killed when he was hit in the head by a tree limb on a passing truck. His mother is…well…she’s unavailable. Henry sells the Good Book because he believes in its message. He is innocent, gullible and too young to know what the world is really like.

When Henry meets Preston Clearwater (not his real name), Henry is taken in by him. Preston tells him he’s working undercover for the FBI, while in reality he’s working for an auto-theft ring. Preston offers Henry a job. Henry is the perfect dupe for a professional criminal like Preston because he believes what he is told and doesn’t ask too many questions. He accepts Preston’s job offer, believing he is entering into an honorable profession that involves the FBI. He will travel around with Preston from place to place, always on the go, driving stolen cars to wherever Preston wants them. He will, however, continue to sell Bibles.

In his travels, Henry meets a girl named Marlene Green, working at a fruit-and-vegetable stand in a little country town. He is instantly attracted to her, as she is to him. After a couple of dates, he decides he wants to marry her. That won’t be so easy, since he is a criminal and doesn’t know it yet.

One a brief vacation with his family, Henry introduces his attractive sister to Preston Clearwater. Preston is taken with the girl’s beauty and grace, even though he is about forty and she is considerably younger. (People say he looks like Clark Gable, with his stick-out ears.) The sister already has a fiancé, but she falls in love with Preston and is willing to forget about the boy she has said she will marry.

Henry always seems to be protected in life by his innocence and goodness, regardless of what criminal practices he is (unknowingly) engaged in. Life will be good to him because that’s the kind of book this is.

Clyde Edgerton (born 1945) is one of America’s best writers. His novels are decidedly “light” reading, but that doesn’t diminish their literary merit. They are breezy, fun to read, and beautifully written. When you see Mr. Edgerton, tell him I’m a big fan and have read all his books and most of them more than once.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Thanksgiving Guests ~ A Short Story

Thanksgiving 2021

The Thanksgiving Guests
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
 

She placed an ad in the newspaper: My husband and I have no family and are alone. We are looking for a poor family to spend a bountiful Thanksgiving with us. Please contact Mrs. Griselda Pinkwater at the phone number below. We look forward to hearing from you.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, she expected a flood of calls but received only one, from a woman named Carlotta Knuckles. She said she saw the ad in the newspaper and showed it to her husband. After they talked it over, they decided they would like to apply.

“There’s no applying,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “If you and your family want to come, you are welcome.”

“Oh, thank you!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “I’m sure we qualify as poor, but just how poor, I really couldn’t say. We have more than the air to breathe and the clothes on our backs, but still we’re poor.”

“Well, poor is poor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I’m sure you’re poor enough. And how many of you will there be besides you and your husband?”

“We have two half-grown children, Bixley and Chickpea.”

“Shall we say about one o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, then?”

“Oh, yes!”

Mrs. Pinkwater gave Mrs. Knuckles the address. Mrs. Knuckles wrote it down and the conversation ended.

“What do you think?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to her husband, Mr. Gunter Pinkwater. “We have some takers!”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Pinkwater asked.

“I’ve located a poor family to come and share Thanksgiving dinner with us. Their name is Knuckles.”

“That’s kind of a funny name, isn’t it?” he said.

“All names sound funny when you first hear them.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get them here just so you can rob them?”

“Why would I want to rob them? They’re poor.”

“Poor in spirit or just poor?”

“I think we can rely on a literal interpretation in this instance,” she said.

“What if they plan on coming here and robbing us when it becomes apparent to them that we are not poor?”

“Oh, Gunter!” she said. “I’m too kind and too pure to ever think of anything like that.”

“Well, it’s your funeral,” he said.

“It will be my little social experiment. I’ll write a tract about it for the ladies’ club and it’s sure to get me elected president, or at least vice-president.”

“So that’s your motive,” he said.

On Thanksgiving morning, Mrs. Pinkwater felt her nerves on edge and began drinking large quantities of wine to soothe them. Had she made a mistake in inviting a family of strangers into her home? What if she had nothing in common with them and nothing to say? What if they were dirty and smelled bad? If she felt the need to get rid of them, she would just lock herself in her bedroom and let her husband eject them in his own way. He could always say that she had just come down with a horribly contagious disease and the house was under quarantine. God willing, it wouldn’t be necessary.

At a few minutes before the hour of one o’clock, the doorbell rang and Mrs. Pinkwater went to the door herself, rather than allowing the maid to do it. When she opened the door, she had the surprise of her life. The Knuckleses were not what she expected. They were a family of four tiny midgets.

“Oh, my!” she said.

“Mrs. Pinkwater?” the woman, who would, of course, be Mrs. Carlotta Knuckles, said in her squeaky little voice.

“Why, yes, my dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Please come in!”

She held the door while the Knuckleses came into the house in a single file. The maid stepped forward to take their coats.

“Mrs. Pinkwater,” Carlotta Knuckles said, “I’d like you to meet my husband, Mr. Quincy Knuckles.”

Mr. Knuckles stepped forward after slithering out of his coat and took Mrs. Pinkwater’s hand in his own and kissed it. “Charmed, I’m sure,” he said.

“And these are my children,” Carlotta said, “Bixley and Chickpea.”

Bixley shook Mrs. Pinkwater’s hand. “I’m Bixley,” he said. “I’m the smart one in the family.”

Chickpea put the tip of her index finger to the bottom of her chin and curtseyed. “I’m Chickpea,” she said.

“Why, they’re just so cute!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Are they twins?”

“Bixley is the older of the two,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Yeah, by two years!” Bixley said.

“Well, they’re the same size so I figured they were the same age.”

“Yeah, and not only the kids are the same size, but the parents are the same size, too,” Bixley said. “I’ll let you in on a little secret about midgets. We’re as tall as we’re ever going to be. There aren’t any tall midgets. We’ll all the same size, no matter what age we are.”

“We don’t really like the word ‘midgets’,” Mrs. Knuckles said. “We prefer ‘little people’.”

“I’m a midget,” Bixley said. “It’s good enough for me.”

Mrs. Pinkwater took the midgets into the living room. “Make yourselves at home,” she said.

Mr. Knuckles climbed into the wingback chair, turned around and sat down, his wingtip shoes straight out in front of him. (He looked like a tiny king on an oversized throne.) Mrs. Knuckles and Bixley and Chickpea struggled onto the couch, one leg up with the rest of the body following, as if they were climbing onto a life raft. Mrs. Pinkwater watched them, frowning, and decided it was best to not try to help them.

“I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding your way to our home,” she said in her best hostessy voice.

“Oh, no!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “No trouble at all.”

“How many rooms do you have in this house?” Chickpea asked.

“Well, let’s see,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Counting the two rooms in the attic, we have fifteen rooms.”

Mrs. Knuckles whistled. “I can’t imagine,” he said.

Mr. Pinkwater had been getting dressed upstairs and came into the room wearing his cashmere smoking jacket that he bought in London.

“Oh, there you are, dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Come and greet our guests!”

“How do you do,” Mr. Pinkwater said politely.

Mrs. Pinkwater watched him to see if he registered any surprise at a roomful of midgets, but there was none. “How about a drink before dinner?” he asked.

“Scotch and soda,” Mr. Knuckles said.

“I’ll have the same,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“How about a little white wine?” Chickpea asked.

“I’ll have a beer,” Bixley said.

“Do you allow them to have alcoholic beverages, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Mrs. Knuckles.

“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “They’re not children, you know.”

“What will you have, darling?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked his wife.

“I’ll have some more of that wine that I was having before our guests arrived,” she said.

Mr. Pinkwater went out of the room and in two minutes he returned bearing a tray with the drinks on it, always the perfect host.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” Mrs. Pinkwater said as she sipped her wine. “I hope you brought along some great big appetites!”

“I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” Bixley said.

“It certainly smells wonderful,” Mrs. Knuckles said, draining her drink and holding up her glass so Mr. Pinkwater could get her another. “Could I help in the kitchen in any way? Peel the potatoes or anything?”

“Oh, no, honey!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Everything is under control. The cook and the maid have taken care of everything.”

“You have a cook and a maid?”

“Yes.”

“They have servants,” Mrs. Knuckles said to her husband.

“We could have had a house like this if we had stayed with the circus,” Mr. Knuckles said.

“You were with the circus?” Mr. Pinkwater asked.

“For twelve years. That’s where I met my wife.”

“After the children were born,” Mrs. Knuckles said, “I insisted that we leave the circus once and for all. I didn’t want the little darlings growing up in that kind of environment.”

“Now I’m working as a part-time janitor in an office building,” Mr. Knuckles said, “and people make fun of me, as if a midget could never have any human feelings. In the circus nobody made fun of me. Everybody respected me. I belonged there.”

“He blames me for the way his life turned out,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Who else am I going to blame?” he said.

“I’m going to be a professional wrestler,” Bixley said. “There’s big money in that for a good-looking young midget like me.”

“How many bathrooms do you have?” Chickpea asked.

The maid announced that dinner was ready. They all went into the dining room and Mrs. Pinkwater showed the midgets where she wanted them to sit.

“Do I need to get something for you to sit on?” she asked. “A phone book or a pillow?”

“Oh, no, dear, we’re fine,” Mrs. Knuckles said. “We’re used to sitting in chairs for regular-sized people.”

The midgets took off their shoes and squatted on their haunches on the chairs so that the they were high enough to eat. Awfully uncomfortable, Mrs. Pinkwater thought, but she tried not to think about it.

“Now I’ll say grace,” she said, clearing her throat. “Thank you, Lord, for the food of which we are about to partake; for our heath, home, and country, and on this Thanksgiving Day, thank you especially for the company of friends. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

“Amen,” Mrs. Knuckles said, but she was the only one who bothered.

The midgets were dazzled by the abundance of the Pinkwater table. There were all the traditional dishes—turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, big bowls of carrots and green beans—and in prodigious quantities. It looked like a table setting in a dream of heaven.

“My goodness gracious!” Carlotta Knuckles exclaimed. “Everything is just  supreme-o, Super-duper deluxe! I’ve never seen anything like this outside of the motion picture screen!”

After dinner Chickpea sang My Heart Belongs to Daddy and The Lady is a Tramp in a surprisingly strong, clear voice, while her mother accompanied her on the piano. Then Mr. Knuckles and Bixley moved some of the furniture out of the way and gave a demonstration of tumbling to the delight of Mr. and Mrs. Pinkwater.

“I keep in shape,” Mr. Knuckles said, patting his belly, “for the day when I can return to the circus.”

Mr. Pinkwater was showing Mr. Knuckles his collection of antique firearms in the den when the police arrived and took Mr. Knuckles away in handcuffs.

“How the hell did you know I was here?” Mr. Knuckles said as he was being taken out the door.

“What did he do?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Mrs. Knuckles.

“He busted out a window of a pawn shop with an artificial leg.”

“Why did he do that?”

“He thought he saw a banjo in there that he used to use in his circus act.”

“Did he get the banjo back?”

“No, it turned out to be a different banjo.”

Mrs. Pinkwater patted Mrs. Knuckles on the shoulder. She wanted to pick her up and hug her and kiss her cheek to express her sympathy but knew it wouldn’t look good in front of the police. Instead, she said, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”

“I suppose I need to get to the police station and see if he’s going to be eligible for bail or if they’re going to keep him permanently,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“Oh, no, dear! I wouldn’t dream of imposing on you in that way.”

At midnight, Mrs. Pinkwater was sitting in front of the mirror in her boudoir brushing her hair when Mr. Pinkwater came into the room.

“It was a wonderful day, wasn’t it?” she said.

“If you say so, dear,” he said.

“I think I’m going to invite them to our Christmas party.”

“Who?”

“The Knuckleses.”

“Quincy Knuckles might still be in jail then.”

“That’s all right. Carlotta can come with the children. We can ask Chickpea to sing some Christmas songs. She has a lovely voice. And, I ask you: who else has a midget singing at their party this season?”

“I’m going to be on a business trip then,” he said.

“I want all the ladies of the club to meet Carlotta Knuckles. They’ll absolutely adore her. If she doesn’t have an evening gown, we’ll get her one. A sparkly thing with tassels.”

“Where do you buy a sparkly evening gown for a midget?” he asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’. It’s more respectful.”

“You’re in love, aren’t you?”

“Tired is what I am,” she said as she crushed out her cigarette and got into bed.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Plague ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Plague book cover 2
The Plague
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Oran is a large French port on the Algerian coast (Northern Africa) with a population of 200,000. The Plague by French writer Albert Camus is a novel (a fictional account) of a plague that inexplicably strikes Oran in the 1940s. It begins with an influx of dead and dying rats into the city that nobody understands. The rats are found everywhere, in the streets, on the stairs in buildings, in private homes.  

Rats, of course, have fleas, and the fleas bite people and spread disease. The plague (pneumonic or bubonic) is an especially nasty disease that usually leads to agonizing death. As the death toll mounts every day, Oran has no choice but to close itself off from the rest of the world. Nobody can leave the town and nobody can enter. (How this is accomplished is not explained.)

The town is understandably thrown into a panic. How does a town quarantine the sick from the well? How can the sick be cared for with a limited number of people to help? How does the town keep people who might be infected from escaping the town? How can people in the town communicate with the outside world since letters might be infected with the disease? How long will the plague last? Is there any reason to hope the plague will go away as unexpectedly as it arrived? How much help can the town expect from the outside world? How can the people of the town be expected to carry on in the face of such awfulness?

Dr. Bernard Rieux is the main character in The Plague and the narrator of the story. His life every day is a living hell. He stands by helplessly as his friends and neighbors die of the disease. People look to him for answers he doesn’t have. He’s an unassuming man not given to heroics. His wife is ill (with something other than the plague) and in a sanitorium in another location.   

The people of the town behave the way people usually do in a crisis. There are acts of bravery and sacrifice, while many people in the town try to enjoy themselves any way they can, because who knows who will be the next to go? One man plots his escape from the town to return to his lost love. Another man is happy, somehow, for the plague and thrives during the epidemic. Others go the fatalistic, religious route, believing the plague is a judgment from heaven. Some of the very good people die from the disease, while some of the bad people go unscathed. Isn’t that always the way?  

The Plague, first published in 1947, is one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century. It’s a timeless and relevant story that might be set in any country in any time. It’s not always easy to read. Not for the faint of heart. After you’ve read it, you’ll feel like you’ve been to hell and back.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp