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Welcome to the Neighborhood

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Welcome to the Neighborhood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

A moving van pulled up at the house across the street and three bear-like men got out and began unloading furniture. A late-model red car pulled into the driveway from which four people emerged: a gangly boy wearing a backwards baseball cap and an older man from the front and a girl and a middle-aged woman from the back. The man had white hair and walked with a limp. The girl looked like a younger version of the woman, obviously mother and daughter.

“Looks like a girl about my age,” Carmen said. “She’s fat and petty ugly. We’ll see if she has her driver’s license, though. She probably even has her own car.”

“Ugly people don’t need their own cars,” Zane said. “They never go anywhere.”

He was sitting on the couch, reading a story in True Romance magazine about a woman with four husbands at the same time.

“Lots of ugly people have cars,” Carmen said.

“Lots of ugly people don’t have cars,” Zane said. “Take you, for instance.”

“I’m really not that ugly.”

“Hah! That’s what you think!”

“When was the last time you looked in the mirror?”

“You’d better quit spying on the neighbors. They’re going to see you and know what a lunatic you are.”

“You ought to see this old couch they’ve got. It looks like it’s about a hundred years old. If it was mine, I’d set it out in the yard and douse it with kerosene and set fire to it.”

“Maybe they’re just waiting for the right moment to do that very thing.”

“And there’s a big glass thing that looks like a fish tank. I always wanted a fish tank.”

“Why don’t you go over there and ask them if they’ll give it to you?”

“If they can afford a fish tank, that must mean they have lots of money and if they have lots of money that girl must have her own car. I wonder what her name is. I’m sure she’ll have an ugly-girl name like Mabel or Bertha.”

“When she sees you, she’ll see how ugly you are and think the same thing about you.”

“Could we get off the subject of ‘ugly’?”

“You’re the one that started it.”

“Hey, look at this! They’ve got a big thing that looks like a sun lamp and a huge dining room table and one, two, three, four, five, six chairs that go with it. They must have a lot of people over for dinner if they need six dining room chairs.”

“Who cares?”

“Now here comes a dresser with a big round mirror and a bed and some mattresses and a chest of drawers and—wait a minute!—here’s another bed and some more mattresses. The mattresses look brand new. They haven’t been peed on yet. Now they’re bringing out a couple of big upholstered chairs and some more boxes and—oh, my gosh!—here’s another bed and another set of mattresses. How many beds do they have, anyway?”

“Your interest in their beds is a little disturbing.”

“Now, what do you suppose that thing is? It looks like a big square washing machine.”

“Why do you care what it is?”

“I have natural curiosity. I want to know what’s going on around me. Oh, wait a minute! The girl is standing on the sidewalk looking up at the roof with her hands on her hips. She just pulled her underpants out of her crack. That’s the kind of thing people do when they think nobody’s looking at them. Come and take a look!”

“I don’t want to see any girl, no matter how ugly she is,” Zane said, but he put the magazine aside and stood up from the sofa and went over to the window. “This better be good,” he said as he reached for the binoculars.

“She’s ugly all right,” he said. “Her hair looks like a fright wig you’d wear on Halloween.”

“What did I tell you? Wait until she turns around and you get a look at her face.”

“She’s turning around now and she’s saying something to one of the moving men. She’s telling him where to take some boxes. I can almost read her lips because her mouth is so big.”

“What are you talking about?” Carmen said. She snatched the binoculars back from him. “That’s not the girl, you goof! That’s the mother! Oh, wait a minute! Here’s the girl now, just coming out of the house.”

“Oh,” he said. “The mother and the daughter look just alike. They’re both horribly freakish.”

“Well, the mother is middle-aged and has on a ton of makeup and the girl is about my age. That’s how you tell them apart.”

“What do I care how to tell them apart? Maybe I just want to ignore them and mind my own business.”

“I think we should go over there and welcome them to the neighborhood. That’s what you’re supposed to do when somebody new moves in.”

“Not me!”

“You won’t go with me?”

“No.”

“I might just have to tell mother about the collection of questionable magazines hidden in your room.”

“I don’t have any magazines in my room.”

“Don’t you know there isn’t anything that goes on in this house that I don’t know about?”

“I think you should mind your own damn business and stop snooping around!”

“So you will admit that you have magazines hidden in your room?”

“I admit nothing.”

“Just the suggestion of those magazines in the house would probably kill mother. You know she’s not a well woman.”

“Could we please talk about something else, or not talk at all?”

“Then you’ll go with me?”

“I’ll go because you’re a sick person who needs help, not because I have any magazines in my room.”

Carmen put on grandma’s widow’s hat with black feathers. The almost-opaque veil resembled a mosquito net that hung down past her chin. She got her baton out of the closet and held it in the crook of her arm, ready to twirl. Zane put on his steampunk goggles and his Trader Horn pith helmet. Arm in arm, they went out to the front yard.

The woman and the girl were taking boxes out of the back of the red car and didn’t look up when Carmen and Zane appeared. The moving men were moving something heavy out of the back of the van, keeping up a steady patter of invective.

“They look busy,” Zane said. “Maybe we’d better wait and go over later when they’re finished moving.”

“I know how to get them to notice me,” Carmen said. She began marching up and down in front of the house like a soldier on sentry duty with the baton as her gun. She marched until she was out of breath.

When they still didn’t pay any attention to her, she went into her drum majorette routine. She had auditioned for drum majorette two years earlier and, even though she hadn’t been chosen, she still knew all the moves. She kicked her left leg as high as her head, and then her right leg. She threw the twirling baton six feet into the air and caught it with the tips of her fingers.

“I saw a woman doing this on TV with both ends of the baton flaming,” she said. “She was blindfolded, but she never burned her hands. I’d like to try that sometime.”

While Carmen was twirling frenetically, Zane began doing experimental cartwheels on the grass. His pith helmet fell off every time, so he began doing them much faster. When he was able to do a cartwheel and not have the helmet fall off, he congratulated himself effusively.

The baton twirling and the cartwheels still garnered no attention from the new people, as they continued to be absorbed in the business of moving furniture, boxes and barrel-like cartons into the house.

“Am I going to set off an explosion to get them to notice me?” Carmen said. She threw the baton down and began walking on her hands on the sidewalk and then up the steps of the porch and down again, all the time maintaining her superb balance.

Zane left off doing cartwheels and began walking on his hands too, but he wasn’t as accomplished a hand-walker as Carmen. When he tried going up the steps to the porch, his arms weakened and he fell on his head.

“You’ll never be able to do that,” Carmen said. “There are some things I’m just naturally better at than you.”

“I could do it with more practice,” he said.

“This isn’t working,” Carmen said. “They haven’t looked over here a single time. I think I should sing a showtune.”

“Please don’t do that!”

“How about ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’?”

“No, I hate that song!”

“I know! I’m going to get grandpa’s wheelchair out of the basement.”

It was in a corner underneath some old clothes and a box of fur pieces and hats. Carmen brushed away the cobwebs and rolled the chair to the door and out into the yard.

They took turns riding the wheelchair down the slope of the yard toward the street, stopping just short of the sidewalk. The chair didn’t move very well on the grass, so Carmen sat in the chair and Zane got behind and pushed.

On one run, he pushed a little too hard and the chair didn’t stop at the sidewalk but kept on going and jumped the curb and went out into the street, out of Carmen’s control. She put her hands on the wheels to try to stop them but she was going too fast.

Up the hill, half a block away, Milton Sills the midget was working on his classic Cadillac-with-no-engine in front of his house. He was lying on his back and, as he was coming out from underneath, he accidentally kicked the jack loose that was holding up the front end of the car. It began rolling backwards down the hill at about fifteen miles an hour.

Carmen was on a collision course with the Cadillac but she couldn’t stop the chair. She tried dragging her feet but it didn’t help; she was going too fast. She screamed and closed her eyes and threw her arms up over her head.

The wheelchair grazed off the rear bumper of the Cadillac and turned over. The Cadillac continued down the hill until it came to rest against a tree in the yard of an old woman who wore a white pageboy wig named Mrs. Franchetti.

Carmen was half in and half out of the wheelchair. She had hit her head on the pavement and was dizzy. She was bleeding from her the bump on her head and skinned places on her arm and leg. She was certain the people across the street would have seen what happened to her, but they had all gone inside and hadn’t seen a thing.

She spent five hours in the emergency room at the hospital waiting to get fixed up. When the doctor finally saw her, he had her admitted to a semi-private room overnight, where she had to listen to the all-night moaning and gurgling of an elderly roommate. In addition to contusions and bruises, she had a mild concussion and a fractured wrist. The doctor asked her why she was playing around with old an old wheelchair. She was lucky she wasn’t killed.

When mother found out, she called Carmen a dangerous fool. She ought to be ashamed of herself for dishonoring grandpa’s memory by using his wheelchair as a toy. She was confined to the house for the rest of the summer. It was a setback to her mad desire to get her driver’s license before school started. Since she was twelve, she had dreamed of having her own car to drive to school and anyplace else she wanted to go.

After a few days, the headaches lessened and she was able to come out of her room. She sat in the living room with the TV on, looking out the window, when Zane came in, looking pleased with himself.

“Leave me alone,” Carmen said, before he had said a word.

“I heard some news that might be of interest to you,” he said.

“What is it?”

“No, if you don’t want to be bothered, I’ll just keep it to myself.”

“You’d better tell me and tell me quick.”

“I’ve been over at Kent Collier’s house all morning.”

“How could that possibly interest me? Kent Collier is a weasel.”

“His mother knows those people.”

“What people?”

“Don’t be coy.”

“You know that old thing about appearance versus reality?”

“I don’t think I’ve heard that one.”

“To bring it down to your level: appearances can be deceiving.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That ugly girl’s name is Gwennie Bell.”

“So?”

“You won’t be going to school with her and you won’t have to suck up to her so she’ll take you places in her car.”

“Why not?”

“Every morning she’ll be walking the three blocks down the hill to catch the retarded bus to take her to retarded school.”

“Oh, my gosh! She’s retarded?”

“You catch on fast.”

Mother came in from the kitchen and stood in the doorway so she could hear every word. Carmen and Zane knew she was there but pretended she wasn’t.

“And that’s not all,” Zane said. “That skinny ‘boy’ in the backward baseball cap is really a woman, thirty-three years old.”

“Are you making this up?” Carmen said.

“She’s a lesbian.”

“A what?”

“It gets better. That middle-aged woman that you thought was the mother of the ugly girl is really her sister and she’s also a lesbian. She and the ‘boy’ in the backward baseball cap are lesbian lovers.”

“Hey!” mother said. “We don’t use that kind of language in this house!”

“Who is the old man?” Carmen asked, continuing to ignore mother. “Are you going to tell me he’s really a woman, too?”

“No, he’s the father of the middle-aged woman and retarded Gwennie. So, you have an old man, two lesbian lovers and a retarded girl living in the house, making up the family. It’s a story of sexual deviancy and mental retardation.”

“You’d better not be spreading gossip,” mother said, “or you’re going to be confined to the house for the rest of the summer like your sister.”

“If you don’t believe me, call Kent Collier’s mother and ask her.”

When Carmen and Zane were out of hearing, she called the Collier home, spoke to Kent’s mother, an old friend from her school years, and confirmed all that Zane had said.

As part of Carmen’s punishment for the wheelchair, mother had the “really good idea” of making Carmen take a small gift to retarded Gwennie across the street, introducing herself and asking her to go with her to the outdoor concert in the park on Friday night. It was a lesson that would help teach Carmen humility and having respect for other people’s feelings.

“I’d rather die that be seen out in public with her!” Carmen moaned.

“That’s all the more reason for you to do it, then,” mother said.

The next day, Carmen, holding a potted philodendron as a gift, went and knocked on the door of the house across the street. The old man, the father, came to the door and when he saw Carmen he frowned and the corners of his mouth turned down.

“Is Gwennie at home?” Carmen asked, swallowing hard.

“Who are you?” the old man asked.

“I live across the street.”

“Just a minute. I’ll see if she’s busy.”

The old man went away and in less than a minute, Gwennie appeared in his place. When Gwennie saw Carmen, she had an I-don’t-know-you look on her face but then she managed a small smile. Carmen held out the potted plant; Gwennie took it from her and invited her in.

“She’s in!” Zane said, watching from the window across the street. “I just know they’re going to be the best of friends!”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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Leading Men ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Leading Men ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Tennessee Williams was the greatest American playwright of the twentieth century. He was a Southern gentlemen with a charming accent, a homosexual, a gadabout, a world traveler, a party animal, a wit and a genius. He drank to excess and took too many pills. He was as sexually promiscuous as his fame, wealth and position allowed. For about fifteen years, he had one live-in lover, one Frank “Frankie” Merlo, who was ostensibly an “assistant” whose principal duties were “sleeping with Mr. Williams” and doing whatever job needed doing.

Frank Merlo had little going for him other than his good looks and imposing physique. He wasn’t “connected,” wealthy or well educated. He had the idea that he wanted to be a movie actor but was never able to quite pull it off. (His one big chance came in Italy with Italian movie director Luscino Visconti, but his part was ultimately eliminated.) He was about ten years younger than Tennessee Williams (or “Tenn” as is he mostly known throughout this book).

Leading Men, by Christopher Castellani, is a mix of fact and fiction, real-life people and fictional constructs. Among the real-live people in the book are the two main characters, Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo; fellow American writer Truman Capote; Italian actress Anna Magnani; now-forgotten American novelist John Horne Burns; Italian movie director Luscino Visconti.

Anja Blomgren (later changed to Bloom) is a major character in the book, but she is a fictional character. She is only seventeen years old in 1953 when Tenn and Frank befriend her on their summer in Italy. After 1953, she is taken up by a famed Swedish movie director, one Martin Hovland (again a fictional character), and becomes a big movie star, always remaining friends with Tenn and Frank until their deaths. As an old woman, Anja Bloom propels the modern-day story. It seems that Tenn, right before he died in 1983, gives her the only copy of his last play, Call It Joy. This play has never seen the light of day until Anja decides, at the urging of two young, gay men, Sandro and Trevor, both Tennessee Williams aficionados, to stage it.

So, Leading Men moves back and forth from the past to the present. A lot of the past concerns Tenn and Frank in Italy in the summer of 1953 and their friendship with Anja Bloom. It is mostly the story of the stormy and co-dependent relationship between these two very different men. Frank longs to be an “artist” but always remains on the fringes of the artists’ colony. He is a member only because of his relationship with Tenn.

In later years (but also part of the chapters in the book dealing with the past) Frank develops lung cancer. For two people who spent as many years together as Frank and Tenn did, Tenn isn’t nearly as attentive to Frank as he should be after he becomes ill. He always seems to be galivanting off, pursuing his own interests, while Frank remains in the hospital, every day getting worse and closer to death.

Leading Men is only partly effective for me as a reader. The story of the relationship between Frank and Tenn is interesting and compelling, as is the story of the trajectory of Tenn’s life as a great writer, but a large part of the book is taken up with Anja Bloom and her gay friends Sandro and Trevor and their efforts to bring Tenn’s fictional last play, Call It Joy, to the forefront. I would have preferred if the story had focused exclusively on Tenn and Frank and their coterie of real-life friends, instead of on these fictional characters and fictional situations. The second half of the book doesn’t seem worthy of the first half. On the whole, however, Leading Men is worth reading and has enough good stuff in it to make it worth the time and effort.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Washed in the Blood

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Washed in the Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The funeral was Saturday the twelfth. Vincent spoke to no one for several days, but on Wednesday the sixteenth the telephone rang.

“Hello,” he said sleepily.

“Is that Vincent Spearman?” a deep voice asked.

“Yes,” Vincent said. “Who is this?”

“Vincent, this is Timothy Nesselrode. I’m the pastor at your mother’s church. I wanted to call you and see how you’re getting along since your mother’s funeral and ask if there’s anything I might do for you.”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said. “There’s nothing you can do. I don’t need a thing.”

“It’s hard to lose a loved one, I know.”

“Yeah.”

“Your mother was a highly regarded member of our congregation. She will be sorely missed.”

“Thanks for calling.”

“Well, Vincent, I’m going to be in your area later this afternoon and I was wondering if I might drop in and have a few words with you.”

“What about?”

“I promise I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”

“Well, I’m pretty busy today.”

“Would tomorrow be better?”

“No, we’d better get it over with today. I might be going out of town.”

“Fine! I’ll be there in about an hour.”

After he hung up the phone, Vincent brushed his teeth and put on his shoes and sat nervously in his mother’s wingback chair waiting for what’s-his-name to get there. He couldn’t think of any reason why this man who preached his mother’s funeral would want to talk to him. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. He would hurry it along as much as possible. Why did people always want to bother him?

Thirty-eight minutes after the phone call, there was a loud knock at the front door. He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and peered out, seeing part of the big face of the reverend Timothy Nesselrode, Doctor of Divinity.

“Vincent?” the reverend Nesselrode shouted. “Is that you?”

Vincent undid the chain, opened the door all the way and allowed the big man to come into the house.

“My goodness!” the reverend Nesselrode said, taking Vincent’s hand in both of his own. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said.

“May we sit?”

Vincent led the reverend Nesselrode into the living room and watched as he placed himself in the middle of the couch. Vincent himself sat in the chair across the room in front of the window, crossed his legs and aligned the index finger of his right hand alongside his temple.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” he asked.

“I want you to know that we offer grief counseling at the church,” the reverend Nesselrode said. “Open to the public and free of charge.”

“Grief counseling?”

“Yes, if you want to talk about your feelings of grief in a group setting with people who are experiencing the same kind of loss you are.”

“I don’t think…”

“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’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock.”

“Well, I don’t really like groups,” Vincent said, “and I’ve always hated meetings where you sit and listen to somebody talk. That’s not for me.”

“Well, the people in the group are lovely people. I’m sure you’d find it a rewarding experience.”

“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”

The reverend Nesselrode leaned forward and locked his fingers together. “Your mother spoke of you on several occasions,” he said.

“Why would she do that?”

“She was worried about you. You’re about forty, aren’t you?”

“What does my age have to do with it?”

“She was concerned that, after her passing, you’d be all alone.”

“Why is that?”

“You have no other family, I understand?”

“I have some cousins living up in Minnesota. Or maybe it’s Montana. I get those two mixed up.”

“But no family nearby.”

“That’s right.”

“You see, most men your age have a family of their own, a wife and children.”

“Not all do.”

“You made it all the way through high school?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Vincent. I’m not trying to pry. I just wanted to let you know that we have many lovely single ladies in our congregation who would be happy to get to know you.”

“Why would they be happy to get to know me?”

“It would be so easy for you to meet them. All you have to do is come to our next social mixer. We have one for the middle-aged—widows and divorcees and people like that—and also one for younger adults—people in their twenties and thirties who may have made a poor choice the first time around and are looking for another chance.”

“Another chance to do what?”

“What I’m saying is it’s no good being alone, Vincent.”

“It is for some people.”

“What?”

“Being alone is good for some people.”

“I’m sure that’s true, Vincent, but I hope you will at least think about what I’m saying. The message to you is this: you are not alone.”

“Got it.”

“What are your plans now that your mother is gone and you live in this big house all alone?”

“Plans?”

“Yes, what are you planning on doing now?”

“I’ll do what I’ve always done, I guess.”

“Are you able to take care of the housework on your own? The cooking and shopping and laundry?”

“Sure, I’ve done those things all my life.”

“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 a 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.”

“Okay.”

“So, shall I send someone out for you?”

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t really need any help like that.”

“Well, I’m happy that you are getting along so well,” the reverend Nesselrode said.

“Yeah, thanks for stopping by.”

“We’re having a special prayer meeting on Saturday evening for people like you.”

“People like me?”

“Yes, the theme is going to 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.”

“Okay.”

“So you’ll come then? To the prayer meeting on Saturday evening?”

“I don’t think so,” Vincent said. “I’m planning on being out of town on Saturday.”

“All right. Well, if you should happen to change your mind, please feel free to come anyway. I think you’ll find it very enjoyable.”

“Okay, but I won’t be there.”

“There are times in life where it’s a good to keep an open mind.”

“I know that.”

“You seem to be opposed to everything I’ve said.”

“Maybe I just don’t like your church. It’s not the idea of religion. It’s just the church.”

“They’re the same.”

“No, they’re not.”

“I find your reluctance difficult to fathom with your mother being the devout church member she was.”

“She only got that way after she got old. She was afraid of dying and going to hell. When she was young, she did some pretty bad things, from what I understand. She liked no-account men. She had some abortions.”

“Well, she was washed in the Blood of the Lamb. The Lord Jesus Christ has forgiven all her transgressions.”

“I hope so.”

“That’s the message: no matter what you’ve done, you have only to ask for forgiveness and forgiveness will be granted.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Was that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Just one more thing. Your house.”

“What about my house?”

“Your house has many rooms.”

“Fifteen,” Vincent said. “I used to go through and count them every day when I was little, as if the number might change.”

“Does a young man living alone really need fifteen rooms?” the reverend Nesselrode asked.

Vincent shrugged and wished the reverend Nesselrode would go away and leave him alone.

“This house would be ideal as a halfway house for young runaways or recovering drug addicts.”

“Halfway house! What’s that?”

“It’s a place for troubled young people to stay for a period of time, a few weeks or longer, while they’re getting their lives in order.”

“I wouldn’t want people like that in my house,” Vincent said.

The reverend Nesselrode laughed. “No, you don’t understand,” he said. “You wouldn’t still live here.”

“Where would I live?”

“We’d acquire the property from you and in return we’d swap you for a smaller house, more suitable to your needs, or a nice apartment in town.”

“So, you want me to give you my house?”

“Well, that’s not quite the way I’d…”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

The reverend Nesselrode stood up from the couch. “Well, I must be running along,” he said. “I have other calls to make. I’m so glad we had this little chat today and I hope I’ve given you something interesting to think about.”

Vincent also stood up. “Thanks for coming,” he said.

“Would you like to pray with me before I go?”

“No.”

“Well, here’s my card. If you ever want to call me for any reason, day or night, don’t hesitate to do so. And I hope you’ll think about coming to Sunday service or any of our activities during the week. I know it would have made your mother very happy for you to become active in the church.”

Vincent took the card and put it in his pocket. “I think I should tell you that my mother wasn’t what you think,” he said. “You think you knew her but you didn’t.”

“All right! Well, so great seeing you again!”

After the reverend Nesselrode was gone, Vincent triple-locked the door, turned out the lights and went upstairs. He went into his bedroom, locked the door and pulled the curtains closed.

In his dresser drawer he kept a small gun that fit snugly into the palm of his hand. He picked the gun up and looked closely at it as if seeing it for the first time. He hadn’t fired the gun in a long time but he knew it was loaded because it was always loaded.

He stood in front of the mirror and watched himself as he pointed the gun at the side of his head. Then he lowered the gun and inserted the barrel into his mouth. When he saw how silly he looked, he took the gun away and turned from the mirror.

“I don’t want to be a walking cliché,” he said.

Standing halfway between the bed and the dresser, his back to the mirror, he pointed the gun at his chest where his heart was beating and pulled the trigger. The force of the blow knocked him off his feet and the gun clattered to the floor beside him. Still, seconds passed before he felt any pain and when the pain came it was with the release of much blood.

He put his hands to his chest, covering the place where the blood was issuing forth. He was surprised at how much blood his body had in it and how warm it felt. It pumped out of him, soaking his clothes, pooling on the floor around him.

He had the feeling someone was in the room with him but he couldn’t be sure. He lifted his head from the floor and looked over at the bed and at the locked door but saw no one. Through clenched teeth, in gasping breaths, he spoke: “I am. Washed. In the. Blood of the Lamb.

Finding comfort in the words, he wanted to say them again and then again, but all the breath left his body and the light, whatever there was, went out of him.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

A Visit to Miss Goodapple’s

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A Visit to Miss Goodapple’s ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

He sat on a hard-backed chair and wished he was someplace else. His name was Cleland Camden and he was eight years old. It was his day to stay with grandma and it was grandma’s day to visit friends. He had to go along with her whether he wanted to or not.

They were in Miss Goodapple’s home, in her comfortable living room. The chairs were arranged in a circle. Miss Goodapple sat in an upholstered chair next to the fireless fireplace. Then there was Gertrude Padovesi, Audrey Stoller, grandma, and of course, Cleland, who was there because grandma was. All the women were widows, except Miss Stoller, who never married. She was an old-maid schoolteacher, or had been, until she turned seventy years old and they told her she had to retire.

They had all lived a long time and had lots of memories to talk over. They liked to talk about things that happened to them when they were young. And, of course, there were always current things to talk about concerning people they knew: who had died or was about to die, who was in the hospital for an operation, who had a baby, who was stepping out on her husband, who came home drunk the other night and was dumped on the front porch, who smashed up her car, who was a slut, a whore, or a tramp, who was never any good to begin with, who was a shifty-eyed bastard or a known child molester, who had a nervous breakdown, who came into some money, or any number of things. The list went on and on.

“I had a conversation yesterday in the grocery story over the frozen foods with Ruby Zaza,” Miss Goodapple said.

“How is Ruby these days?”

“She’s put on a lot of weight and she stopped dyeing her hair, so now it’s an ugly salt-and-pepper.”

“It’s so sad when you think about what a beautiful girl she was in high school.”

“A bit of a tramp, too.”

“She knew how to have a good time.”

“One time she was arrested for dancing naked on the bandstand in the park. It was two o’clock in the morning and nobody was around but suddenly the police just appeared. Somebody must have tipped them off.”

“That story has been told about Ruby a million times.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Were you there?”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“How do you know it happened, then?”

“Everybody said it happened.”

“That doesn’t mean it did.”

“We should invite Ruby for lunch one of these days. We could talk over old times. We could ask her if it was true about dancing naked in the park. ”

“Well, if I may change the subject,” Gertrude Padovesi said. “My niece Gloria finally found somebody who wants to marry her.”

“Isn’t she only about thirteen or fourteen?” Miss Goodapple asked.

“She’s thirty-two.”

“Who is she marrying?”

“He’s some kind of a doctor, I think, but it might just be an animal doctor. Maybe a brain specialist. I’m not sure.”

“I remember her,” Audrey Stoller said. “She was the one with the cleft palate, wasn’t she? She always looked like a scared little rabbit.”

“That’s why they call it a harelip, honey! A rabbit is a hare!”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

“Well, now she’s all grown up and no more ugly mouth.”

“What do you mean?”

“She got the thing fixed. After all these years!”

“And now she’s gorgeous?”

“Well, she won’t win any beauty contests but I guess she looks good enough for an animal doctor to want to marry her.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? Who paid for the operation?”

The operation? There were about four.”

“Well, who paid for it?”

“Her mother. Who do you think paid for it? She would have spent her last dime to make her little girl happy.”

“Well, I hope Gloria appreciates it,” Miss Goodapple said. “There’s nothing worse than an unappreciative child.”

“When I got my children raised to adulthood,” grandma said, “I figured my duty to them was over. They were on their own after that.”

“Some never grow up,” Gertrude Padovesi said. “They’ll keep on suckin’ at the tit as long as you let ‘em.”

“You don’t have to be crude,” Audrey Stoller said. “Especially with a child sitting here listening to every word.”

All the women turned and looked at Cleland. He hadn’t been paying much attention to what they were saying but instead had been looking at his intertwined fingers.

“How are you doing there, honey?” Gertrude Padovesi said. “He’s a manly little fellow, isn’t he?”

“That’s my grandson, Cleland,” grandma said. “You’ve all met him before. I had him with me at the Royal Neighbors’ dinner at the Baptist Church last summer.”

“Yes, I remember him,” Audrey Stoller said. “He wanted the neck off the turkey.”

“I like the neck,” he said.

“Well, of course, you do, buddy! It’s good munching, especially if you’ve got a meager appetite.”

“Now, is he Kenny’s boy or Andy’s?” Miss Goodapple asked.

“Andy’s,” grandma said.

“And his mother is who?”

“Janice.”

“Of course! I remember her. Awful pretty girl.”

“She’s got the lupus now.”

“Oh, isn’t that too bad!”

“I had a little brother,” Cleland said, “but he died. His name was Christopher. He was only six weeks old. He was in a little white casket with red roses all around.”

“Yes,” Miss Goodapple said. “We were all there and saw him.”

“There’s nothing worse than losing a child,” Gertrude Padovesi said.

“Your heart aches,” Audrey Stoller said.

“I think about him sometimes at night when I’m in bed and the lights are off,” Cleland said. “Sometimes it scares me and I have to cover up my head.”

“You need to think about happy things and then you won’t be scared anymore.”

“Andy and Janice are still young,” Audrey Stoller said. “They ought to have more children.”

“Janice can’t have any more,” grandma said. “And now she’s sick with the lupus.”

Tsk-tsk-tsk! What a shame!”

“What’s the long-term outlook for the lupus?” Audrey Stoller asked.

“Not good,” grandma said, “but we hope for the best.”

“That’s all you can do, honey.”

“What grade are you in, cupcake?” Miss Goodapple asked.

“Third,” Cleland said.

“You learn all about geography in school?” Audrey Stoller asked. “About where Canada is and Mexico and the Rio Grande River and the Gulf of Mexico?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you know I used to be a school teacher? I taught little boys and girls just like you for about forty-five years until they told me I was too old to do it anymore.”

“They told you it was time to go home?” Cleland asked.

“That’s right.”

He stood up and laid across the chair he had been sitting on. He spied, from upside down, a picture in a frame on the mantel of a gray-haired man in a dark suit.

“Who’s that man?” he asked

“That’s my husband,” Miss Goodapple said.

“Is he in the other room taking a nap?”

“No.”

“Is he at work?”

“No, he died.”

“What was the matter with him?”

“He had a pain in his head and he died.”

“What did he do before he died?”

“He was a businessman.”

“A businessman?”

“Yes, he owned a store downtown.”

“What kind of store?”

“A clothing store. Goodapple Fine Apparel. It was at the Corner of Main and Twelfth.”

“With suits and dresses and underwear and things like that?”

“That’s right. That was before your time.”

“What does ‘before my time’ mean?”

“It means it’s time for you to stop asking so many questions,” grandma said. “He sits there and doesn’t say a word and once you get him started talking, he doesn’t stop.”

All the women laughed and Cleland didn’t know exactly what they were laughing about, but it didn’t matter.

“Well, he’s a fine little fellow,” Miss Goodapple said, “and he’ll grow up to be a good-looking man with those dark eyes.”

“You got a girlfriend, honey?” Gertrude Padovesi asked.

“No. I don’t want one.”

All the women laughed again and Cleland, who enjoyed attention as much as the next fellow, wished they’d stop talking about him. What he wished more than anything was that it was time for him and grandma to leave.

“Grandchildren are the joy of your old age,” Miss Goodapple said.

“I don’t know,” Gertrude Padovesi said. “Out of my six, I’d gladly return two of them if I could.”

“Are you still having trouble with Diffie?” grandma asked.

“Yes, every time the phone rings I’m afraid it’s going to be her asking me for more money. I know that son-of-a-bitch Bean is standing right beside her telling her every word to say.”

“Who’s Bean?”

“Oh, he’s that silly thing she’s married to. The only way Diffie’s ever going to get her life straightened out if she gets away from him. One of these days he’s going to meet with a crowbar to the head, if there’s any justice at all in the world.”

“Invite him over and feed him some rat poison, honey,” Audrey Stoller said.
“I don’t think I’d care to spend my declining years in jail, honey.”

“If you do it right, you’ll never get caught.”

“I suppose you’re the voice of authority when it comes to poisoning people.”

“Sure, I’ve done it a few times.”

“The mention of rat poison reminds me,” Miss Goodapple said, “I’ve got mice in my basement. I hope it’s only mice and not rats. Mice are bad enough but I’m deathly afraid of rats! I don’t want to kill them. I don’t want to hurt them. I just don’t want them in my house.”

“Get yourself a cat. It’ll scare the living daylights out of any mouse or rat.”

“Hey! Have any of you heard that Una Fairdale is getting married again?” Gertrude Padovesi said. “I heard it yesterday when I got my hair done.”

“No!” Audrey Stoller said. “Who would want to marry her?”

“He’s a younger fellow. They say he’s really good looking. Looks like Robert Taylor.”

“He must be blind in one eye and can’t see out the other if he wants to marry Una.”

“No, they say she’s very attractive now. She got herself a facelift and looks twenty years younger.”

“A facelift? How could she afford that?”

“Haven’t you heard? She got a ton of money from her husband’s life insurance settlement.”

“That explains why a younger, good-looking man would want to marry her. As soon as they’re married, he’ll poison her, and all her money will go to him. Then he can live the rest of his life in luxury without having to listen to Una’s squawking mouth.”

“That’s the second time this afternoon you’ve mentioning poisoning someone, honey! What are you trying to tell us?”

“Anyway,” Grace Padovesi said. “If anybody wants to buy a beauty salon, I know where you can get one cheap. My hairdresser—her name is Ruthie Twitchell—is selling out and moving out to North Dakota to live with her daughter.”

“She’ll hate North Dakota,” Miss Goodapple said. “She’ll freeze her buns off out there. She’ll want to move back here as soon as she lives through a North Dakota winter.”

“I hate to see her go. She’s been fixing my hair for twenty years and she knows just how I like it. These younger ones coming up don’t know anything.”

“They don’t know shit!” Audrey Stoller said.

“Now who’s being crude in front of a child?” Gertrude Padovesi said.

“I heard that Miss Lewis had to put her brother in a ‘place,” grandma said.

“Poor old soul!”

“He’s been off his rocker for years.”

“What exactly is the matter with him?”

“Who knows? I think it’s heredity insanity.”

“Oh! Tsk-tsk-tsk!

“She kept him at home with her for as long as she could until he got to be too much for her.”

“Isn’t that sad!”

“Miss Lewis is a saint. Anybody else would have put him in a ‘place’ a long time ago.”

“Maybe now she’ll find herself a husband.”

“At her age?”

“Believe it or not, dear, not every woman is desperate for a husband,” Audrey Stoller said.

“Well, most are. I guess you were the exception, dear!”

“Yes, I was the exception. I chose a career instead.”

“Lots of women have both, you know!”

“Let’s not get started on that!”

“Well, when you die, you’ll die alone.”

“So will you!”

“I’ll be surrounded by loved ones.”

“That is, if they’re not too busy to come to wherever you are and watch you die, unless you’re leaving them some money and then they’ll be there to make sure they get their share.”

“That’s very cynical.”

“And true.”

“The thing to do is live for the moment and not think about dying,” Miss Goodapple said. “We’ll all die soon enough, but what good does it to do worry about it? The thing to do is live for the moment.”

“You can at least prepare yourself for it,” grandma said. “I went to Easley’s funeral home and bought myself a pre-paid funeral plan. I know exactly what casket I’ll be buried in, satin lining and all.”

“Didn’t that depress the hell out of you?”

“No. Why should it?”

“It’s cremation for me!” Gertrude Padovesi said. “It’s clean and quick and you don’t have to wait decades to turn to dust. It eliminates the part about your body turning to corruption.”

“And then you’re a pile of gray ash. Lovely!”

“Have you ever seen a rotting corpse, dear?”

“Not recently.”

“There’s nothing more grotesque.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“They do this thing now where they’ll turn your remains into a precious stone and your loved one can wear it around her neck, like a diamond necklace. How precious is that?”

“What if the loved one is a man?”

“He can have it made into cufflinks or a tie pin if he wants, I guess.”

“Or a stud for his ear.”

It was time to serve refreshments. Miss Goodapple went into the kitchen and came back a few minutes later pushing a little cart containing a pot of boiling tea and some cups, a plate of cookies, a bottle of wine and little glasses. She poured a cup of tea for everybody, without asking first if they wanted it, and then passed around the plate of cookies.

Cleland drank his tea, slowly at first and then faster. It was slightly bitter with a little tang of lemon and a little sugar, just the way he liked it. With his cup in his right hand, he took a cookie in his left hand and bit into it. Nobody admonished him about dropping crumbs on Miss Goodapple’s rug or spilling any of the tea. He was very neat for his age.

The cookies were lemon and delicious. He ate three of them and drank two cups of tea. The refreshments were always the best thing about the visits at Miss Goodapple’s.

When he was finished, he wasn’t shy about announcing that he needed to use the bathroom. Everybody stopped what they were doing and looked at him.

“Up the stairs,” Miss Goodapple said. “Down the hallway. The bathroom is on the left.”

He planned on taking his time because he was plenty tired of old-lady talk and wanted to go home. They wouldn’t notice he was gone. He enjoyed being in a strange house and he wanted to look at things.

He went up the stairs slowly, planting his feet firmly on the carpeted stairs and holding on to the mahogany banister. Halfway up the stairs, on a landing, was Miss Goodapple’s antique grandfather clock. It was old-looking and mysterious with its ponderous pendulum going back and forth, back and forth, counting out the endless minutes.

The bathroom was where Miss Goodapple said it would be. It was old-fashioned, all porcelain and white tile. He did what he had to do and, after he spent a long time washing and drying his hands, he opened the medicine cabinet over the sink and looked at the bottles, jars and little boxes sitting there. It was all stuff an old lady would use. Suppositories, seasick pills, denture cream and face cream. Nothing very interesting.

In the hallway across from the bathroom was a bedroom. It was cool and dark, with shades pulled down to the sills of the two windows and a high ceiling. He walked around the big bed to the other side, where there was a door. He opened the door and found it was a huge walk-in closet. Densely packed clothes hung on each side, high up over his head. He took a few steps inside the closet and saw something that startled him and almost made him turn around and run.

Standing at the back of the closet was a tall man in tuxedo and top hat. His head was turned slightly to the right and his arms extended at the elbow as if in supplication. Through smiling, red lips his teeth glistened like pearls.

“Hello,” Cleland said but the man said nothing and didn’t move an inch, so he said hello again. That’s when he realized the man was stuffed like people sometimes stuff wild animals they’ve killed. It must be the husband Miss Goodapple mentioned who died long ago, the one who owned the clothing store downtown. When he died, she had him stuffed and set him up at the back of her big closet so she could keep him near her without anybody knowing about it. It seemed like a good idea but also something that most people would never do. He wondered if grandma knew Miss Goodapple’s secret.

He walked closer to the man and reached out and touched the tips of his long, shiny fingers. He had never seen a dead body up close before and he was naturally fascinated. He would have something to tell the kids at school but, of course, without telling anybody in whose house he saw it.

A creak in some other part of the house made him think somebody was coming, so he started to leave the closet and go back downstairs when he saw a gray object at the feet of the man in the tuxedo. On closer inspection, it proved to be the body of a rat, dead for some time. Its eyes were fixed and staring, just like the eyes of the man in the tuxedo, and its little paws were outstretched, as if it had been in the act of running when it died. When Cleland saw how the whiskers had grown quite long and curved downward, he began to feel sorry for it and believed it deserved something better than being dead at the food of a stuffed man. He picked it up, stiff and dried-out as it was, and looked around for a more fitting place to put it.

On the dresser in Miss Goodapple’s bedroom was a jewelry box. He opened the box and saw it contained many precious jewels—diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. It was nearly full with the stuff, but there was still room in it for a good-sized dead rat.

From the top drawer of Miss Goodapple’s dresser he took two embroidered hankies. He refolded one of them length-wise, laid it on top of the precious jewels and placed the rat carefully on top of it. Then he covered up the rat with the other hankie and closed the box. He was sure the rat, if it could have known where it was, would like being in the box amid the splendor of precious jewels. It seemed a fitting place for a rat that had undoubtedly lived a good life.

When he went back downstairs, nobody remarked at how long he had been gone; nobody even seemed aware of it. He sat back down in in the chair he had been sitting in before and smiled.

The tea was all gone and now the women were drinking the wine. There was one glass still left on the little cart.

“Can I have some wine?” he interrupted the ongoing conversation to asked.

“Just a sip!” grandma said.

With his back to grandma so she wouldn’t see what he was doing, he filled the glass to the brim with the dark, rich-looking stuff and swallowed it down. It was bitter and sour and he hated it, but he said afterwards that he liked it.

Finally it was time for Cleland and grandma to go home. They put on their coats and hats and said their goodbyes. Audrey Stoller gave Cleland a wet kiss on the cheek. He turned away to hide his distaste and wiped his cheek with the back of his hand.

Going home, grandma had to walk slow because she was old and her legs hurt. She didn’t have much to say much because she wanted to get home and sit in her comfortable chair and rest for a while before time to start supper. Cleland wanted to tell her about the extraordinary thing he had seen in Miss Goodapple’s closet upstairs but he knew, even at his young age, that some things are better left unsaid.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Tractor Pulls and Wrestle Mania

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Tractor Pulls and Wrestle Mania ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

My mother-in-law’s name is Elna Olmstead. She has pink hair and looks like Edward G. Robinson. Imagine, if you will, Little Caesar (not the pizza but the Prohibition-era movie gangster) wearing a cotton-candy wig, a mass of pink curlicues and ringlets, encasing his melon-shaped head. Whenever I see Elna, I expect her to be wearing a double-breasted suit with a machine gun as a fashion accessory, but instead she’s wearing a horned helmet and an iron breastplate, like a tiny Brunehilde (complete with the German accent). Yes, she’s very small but don’t be fooled by her size. She would cut off your head with her battle-axe and serve it to the neighborhood dogs and then, without missing a beat, go inside and watch today’s episode of General Hospital.

Elna doesn’t have very high regard for men. She has had four husbands. Two of them died and the other two escaped. Of the two that died, one of them, Julius, had his heart burst (or, as Elna likes to say, his heart “busted”), and the other one, Hec, committed suicide by hanging himself from a rafter in the attic. Elna was very put out with Hec because he hadn’t finished his housework. When he was laid out at the funeral home (with a smile on his face), she was there with a big bag of pork rinds in one hand and a pint of malt liquor in the other. When she lit a cigarillo over Hec’s casket with a lighter like a torch, it activated the very sensitive fire sprinklers, and water came pouring down on her and poor dead Hec. She threatened to sue the funeral home because she had spent four hours that day at Mitzie’s House of Beauty getting her hair re-pinked.

Elna’s best friend is a former lady boxer named Doris Grotnick. Elna brought Doris along one Thanksgiving to our house for dinner. Doris proudly raised her sleeve and showed us the tattoo of the grim reaper on her upper arm and then she informed us that “Grim Reaper” was her professional name when she was in wrestling. After dinner, Elna and Doris sat at the kitchen table arm-wrestling and drinking margaritas, while the rest of us ate pumpkin pie and watched Miracle on 34th Street on television.

More than anything else, Elna and Doris love sports, but especially wrestling. They go to all the matches and have their favorite wrestlers. Elna calls them “my boys.” She got arrested at one of the wrestling matches because she had too much to drink and wouldn’t sit down and shut up. When security guards came and tried to make her leave, she hit him one of them in the face and broke his nose. When we went to bail her out of jail the next day, she had the man’s blood all over her clothes and underneath her fingernails.

Next to wrestling, Elna and Doris, these two paragons of refinement, love tractor pulls. They watch tractor pulls on TV and get so excited they pull down the curtains and bust up the furniture. Elna screams at the tractor she hopes will win, jumps up and down and flails her fists. One time she accidentally clopped Doris on the side of the head with her doubled-up fist and knocked her out. She waited until the tractor pull was over (her tractor won) and then called for an ambulance. Doris was taken to the hospital and spent two weeks recovering from a concussion.

We found out later that Doris Grotnick was a Satan worshipper and that she persuaded Elna to join her “church” (or “anti-church” if you prefer). They both dressed in black and went arm-in-arm to all the services. Elna told us that making Satan her master was the best thing she had ever done and that it had “set her free.” She tried to get the rest of us interested in Satanism. She gave us pamphlets to read, extolling the value of Satan worship, but I refused to look at them and threw them in the trash.

Elna and Doris became minor celebrities for a time when they appeared on a TV talk show in white makeup as witches and practitioners of black magic. They moaned, frothed at the mouth and rolled around on the floor to invoke the spirit of Satan for the studio audience. My wife was embarrassed and refused to leave the house for a few days. She realized, finally, that her mother was insane. I had known it all along.

For Christmas Elna bought three cemetery plots, one for herself, one for my wife and one for me. I was to be on one side of her and my wife on the other side. We were her children. Children of Satan. That’s when I decided to be cremated.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

From the Shallow to the Deep

From the Shallow to the Deep ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The first lesson was a lecture in a small room that smelled like wet towels. Nelson Hess hated it already. He sat in the back of the room observing the fifteen or so other boys who, like him, were lucky enough to be going to learn how to swim. They were all forceful, confident types; they swaggered when they walked and their voices were loud and bursting with authority. They couldn’t wait to get their suits on and get into the water.

When Boss walked into the room, the voices stopped. He was a stocky, middle-aged man with a face like a movie hoodlum. He wore a sweatshirt and black shorts and around his neck a whistle. He had more hair on his thick legs than he did on his head.

“Now, beginning swimming is not easy,” Boss barked, the gruff drill sergeant whipping the raw recruits into shape. “Most of you are not in shape for swimming and we’re going to have to get you into shape. I hope none of you are babies or whiners because if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a baby or a whiner. Or a sissy. Sissies are even worse. So if there are any sissies, whiners or babies among you, you are welcome to leave right now!”

The boys attested confidently that they were manly enough for what was coming.

“No babies?” Boss asked, holding up all his fingers. “No whiners? No sissies? No? Well, good, then! Let’s get started.” He took a deep breath and smiled sadistically.

“Everybody must have his own suit and his own towel. If you arrive for your lesson without either of these two items, you will not be allowed to participate. You will fall behind and end up failing the class and we don’t like failures. Now, do we have any failures here?”

No!” the boys shouted.

“You will not at any time ask to borrow someone else’s towel if for some reason you do not have your own. That is an unsanitary practice that we do not engage in. Does everybody understand this simple rule?”

Yes!

“Good! Now, your suit may be any color you like. Except pink. I wouldn’t recommend pink.”

The boys laughed appreciatively.

“And it must be presentable.”

“What does that mean?” somebody asked.

“Well, you don’t want your manly parts hanging out, now, do you?”

The boys laughed loud and long. Boss was one of them. He was a good guy!

“Now, we all know what horseplay is, don’t we? That’s another thing that will not be tolerated here. You will have fun, of course, but you will walk and not run at all times when you are near the pool and you will never play grab-ass with another swimmer.”

Hah-hah-hah!

“Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand what I’m saying?”

“No!”

“Good. Now, whenever you hear my whistle, whether you are in the water or out of it, you will stop what you are doing and listen to what I have to say. The whistle is the signal for you to stop and pay attention. Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand this?”

No!”

“All right, then! Over the next eight weeks, each and every one of you will learn how to swim like a champion. Are we all champions?”

Yes!

“Is there any one of you who doesn’t firmly believe in his heart that he is a champion?”

Nelson Hess took a deep breath and when he exhaled his breath was shaky. He wanted to raise his hand and dismiss himself, say he was having chest pains or had had a sudden premonition of the end of the world, but the time was past for such a move. Everybody would laugh at him and Boss would deliberately embarrass him.

“Now, at the end of your eight weeks,” Boss continued, “you will take a final exam.”

A collective groan went up.

“It’s not the kind of exam you take sitting at a desk with a pencil in your hand, though. It’s an exam that will consist of swimming the length of the pool, from the shallow to the deep, and back again. And that’s not all. Each of you will be required to dive at least once off the high dive.”

“How high?” somebody asked.

“Thirty feet.”

“What if we can’t do it?”

“Then you fail the class. You will have wasted your time and mine and made a complete ass of yourself in the bargain. Is there anybody here who thinks he can’t do it?”

No, sir!

“All right, then. Be here on Friday at two o’clock, suited up and ready to swim. And that doesn’t mean two minutes after two, either. It means two on the dot!”

Yes, sir!

After the others had left in high spirits, Nelson hung back to have a word with Boss.

“I won’t be here on Friday, sir,” he said. “Or any other day.”

Boss looked at him, seeing him for the first time, and frowned. “Why the hell not?” he asked.

“Well, this was all kind of a mistake.”

“What was?”

“My being signed up for a swimming class. I don’t want to learn how to swim.”

“Why did you sign up for a swimming class if you don’t want to learn how to swim?”

“My father signed me up. Without checking with me first.”

“Don’t you think swimming would be a good skill for a young fellow like you to have?”

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid of being in the water over my head. I’m afraid of drowning.”

“Do you think I’d let you drown?”

“I don’t know, sir. Would you?”

“If you have to ask that question, you’re in the wrong place.”

“Not only am I afraid of the water, I’m also afraid of heights. I could never jump thirty feet into the water.”

“That’s what swimming class is about. Helping you overcome your fears. Wouldn’t you like to reconsider?”

“No, sir. I made up my mind the minute I walked into this room.”

“It’s irreversible, you know. You can’t change your mind again. There are other people who want your spot.”

“I understand that, sir!”

“So, when you tell your father that you quit swimming before it even started, don’t make him think he can make a couple of phone calls and pull some strings to get you back in again.”

“That’s perfectly all right, sir. I understand completely. This is absolutely the end of the line for me when it comes to swimming.”

“You won’t get your money back. The tuition is nonrefundable.”

“I understand, sir. That’s perfectly all right.”

“What name?”

“What?”

“What’s your name?”

“Nelson Hess Junior. It’ll be under the H’s.”

Boss opened the class roll and marked out Nelson’s name. “I knew a Nelson Hess in high school,” he said.

“That would be Nelson Hess Senior,” Nelson said. “He’s my father.”

“I see. Give him my regards.”

Boss went out the door and Nelson was left alone in the quiet room. He laughed to himself, as he often did when he found himself alone. He felt weak with relief at having escaped the high dive, but, of course, that was just a small part of it.

At the dinner table that evening, Nelson Junior knew that Nelson Senior would be curious about the first day of swimming. It came about ten minutes into the deli fried chicken and potato salad.

“Well, how did it go today?” Nelson Senior asked.

“How did what go?”

“The swimming lesson, of course! I want to hear about it!”

“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” Nelson Junior said.

He told Nelson Senior everything that happened in the swimming class, everything Boss had said, leaving nothing out. When he was finished, Nelson Senior glared at him.

“I’m disappointed in you,” Nelson Senior said.

“I know you are, sir.”

“Can’t you ever be normal like other boys?”

“I guess I’m just not normal.”

“Do you know how embarrassing that is for me?”

“Really, when you think about it, sir, there’s no need for you to be embarrassed.”

“Do you know what my father would have done if I had defied him the way you’re defying me?”

“I don’t know. Had a fit?”

“It just wasn’t done when I was your age.”

“Mother would never have signed me up for a class she knew I’d hate!”

“How do you know you’d hate it? You’ve never done it!”

“You just know these things. I know I’d hate tightrope walking, too, even though I’ve never done it.”

“That’s not funny!”

“It’s not meant to be.”

“For the next month your wings are clipped.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you won’t get out of the house except to go to school. There’ll be no TV, no sleeping until ten a.m., and no lounging around the house. There’s lots of work to be done around here. You’ll clean the gutters, reseed the lawn, patch the holes in the driveway, trim the pear tree and the hedges, clean out the basement and the attic…”

“What will you be doing that whole time?” Nelson Junior asked Nelson Senior.

“I’ll be standing over you to make sure you get everything done.”

“Sounds like a million laughs.”

Nelson Hess stood up from the table and started to walk away.

“Oh, yes!” he said. “There’s one other thing. I expect you to pay me back the lost tuition money.”

“Yes, sir!” Nelson Junior said. “I’ll see how much I have in my piggy bank, sir!”

Nelson Senior went out the back door, slamming it. Nelson Junior was relieved to hear him get into his car and drive away. He hoped he’d never come back.

That night he dreamed he was drowning in the deep end of the pool. He was flailing around at the bottom, panicking, and he couldn’t make himself rise to the surface. The worst thing about it was that everybody was standing around watching with smiling interest—the boys in the swimming class, Boss, Nelson Senior, even his mother—and nobody made a move to help him. He woke up gasping for air and crying. He was sick then and barely made it into the bathroom before vomiting.

When it was time to get up and get dressed and go to school, he turned over and went back to sleep. He just didn’t have the heart to face another day. Let them come and get me, he thought.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Over the Edge of the World ~ A Capsule Book Review

Over the Edge of the World ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In the 1500s, many people still believed the earth was flat and that if you sailed far enough, you’d fall over the edge, even though the Bible states (around 800 B.C.) in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah that the world is an orb suspended in nothing. Around 1520, Portuguese explorer and navigator Ferdinand Magellan proved the world was round by sailing west to get to the East. Although Portuguese by nationality, Magellan was employed by Spain for the simple reason that the King of Portugal wouldn’t finance an expedition for him. Magellan set out to find the Spice Islands on the other side of the world to bring back treasure for Spain (all-important spices) that was to be found there.

Spain and Portugal, side-by-side European countries, were both world powers and were involved in a fierce struggle to be the first to the Spice (Molucca) Islands. Spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, etc.) were more valuable than gold and were playing an ever-important role in the world’s economy. Whichever country claimed the Spice Islands for its own was going to have an enormous economic and political advantage.

In 1519, Magellan set out with 260 men in five ships. This fleet of ships was called the “Armada de Molucca.” Over the next three years or so, the men of these five ships would experience untold danger, hardship and deprivation. Magellan was a good administrator and manager, but he was driven by ambition and seemed to lack the human element to make him popular with this men. Most of his men despised him for his hardness and cruelty and for his steadfast adherence to rules. He refused at times to give his men as much food as they needed, even when supplies were plentiful.

Magellan’s voyage to find the Spice Islands was only marginally successful, but he has taken his place in the history books because he was the first person to circumnavigate (go all the way around) the earth, a voyage of 60,000 miles. His men believed that, if they were just able to survive the hardships (hunger, danger, extremes of weather, loneliness, fear, discomfort, disease) of the voyage, they’d have enough money at the end of it to live the rest of their lives in financial security. Sadly, their dreams were never to be realized.

Magellan met a bloody end in the Philippine Islands when he overplayed his hand in trying to convert some of the natives to Christianity; some were compliant while others were not. (The irony is that Magellan wasn’t supposed to be trying to convert the natives; he was only there to claim the Spice Islands for Spain.) After Magellan’s death, his men continued on to the Spice Islands, but they knew, even the ones who despised him, that they were at a loss without his guiding hand and managerial skills.

Over the Edge of the World, by Laurence Bergreen, is a fascinating and detailed account of the life and times of Ferdinand Magellan and his daring voyage all the way around the world. It’s a true-life story with an ironic and bitter ending. Once again, we see how truth is stranger than fiction. People play only a small part in controlling their own destinies.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp