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By Appointment or By Chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want a photograph of the deceased?”

“Yes, but it’s more than that.”

“What, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

“Yes, I do and then…”

“Then what, ma’am?”

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

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

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

“How old is the boy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This boy’s not dead!” I said.

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

“Get a wet cloth!” I said to Nola.

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, no,” he said. “Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

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

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

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

“Who’s going to stop me?”

“Well, you’re a minor.”

“What’s that mean?”

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

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

“Your mother thought you were dead.”

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

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

“I was dead.”

“And you came back to life?”

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

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

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

“What did he say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did God have any special message for you?”

“He told me to await further instructions.”

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

“Why must I be hungry?” he asked.

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

“I was dead.”

“All right. I believe you.”

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

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

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

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

“I can manage,” he said.

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

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

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

“Not at all.”

“You do flatter me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are an odd one,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, a boy,” I said.

“A small boy?”

“No, a big boy. Almost an adult.”

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

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“That would be against regulations, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“Can I look?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did he say?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“What did he say?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” I asked.

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

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Boys on the Rock ~ A Capsule Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Mouse in the House

H MOUSE

Mouse in the House ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

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

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

“I’ll buy some traps,” she said.

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

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

“Three weeks yesterday,” Evan said.

“And how do you like it so far?”

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

“Are you homesick?” Clarice asked.

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

“How old are you, now?” Marvin asked.

“I’m twenty-three, sir.”

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

“Oh, brother!” Clarice said.

“Did you say something?” Marvin asked her.

“I said supper is on the table.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?” he said. “What’s the matter?”

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

She gave him a reassuring smile and shook her head.

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

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

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

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

What?

“You are a most attractive young man.”

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

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

What? No, ma’am! I haven’t!”

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

“I haven’t!”

“Haven’t what, dear?”

“I haven’t looked at you!”

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

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

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

“I don’t know what to say!”

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

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

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

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

“What? Gone already?”

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

“Did he owe us money?”

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

“I thought he liked it here!”

“I thought so, too.”

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Young Pope ~ A Capsule Review

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The Young Pope ~ A Capsule Review by Allen Kopp

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Gospel Hour ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

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

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

And this is just one sentence!

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Birth of the Dodo

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Birth of the Dodo ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

(This short story is a continuation of “I Have Never Known the River Ishcabob to Flood.”

The sky was overcast. No sunshine for days. I was sitting on the couch with my feet propped up, reading an article entitled “How to Take the Rigor Out of Rigor Mortis,” when Mrs. Goldoni came into the room. I heard her insect feet clicking long before she appeared.

I looked up from my magazine and said, “Why are you still here?” There was just a touch of malice in my voice, but nothing I said ever seemed to bother her.

“I’m staying on as housekeeper,” she said. “At least for a little while.”

“Did I say I need a housekeeper?”

“No, sir,” she smiled, “but I’ve lived in this house for many years, and I think it’s only fair that I stay on and help you until you’ve had a chance to get used to the place.”

“I can get used to the place on my own,” I said, “without any help from you or anybody else.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“And while we’re on the subject of ‘this place’,” I said, “yesterday I was downstairs and I noticed some rooms I hadn’t seen before. When I tried to go into them, I discovered to my disappointment that they were locked.”

“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Isn’t this my house?”

“That cannot be disputed, sir.”

“I bought it, paid for it with every cent I had. You signed the papers transferring ownership to me.”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Rooms in my house belong to me, then, don’t they? I should be able to go into them whenever I want.”

“That’s true, sir, but this is not like any other house,” she said.

“In what way is it not like any other house?”

“You’re finding out, sir, as you go along.”

“As I go along,” I said.

“That’s the thing we all have to do. Learn as we go.”

“I tell you I don’t need a housekeeper!”

“I think you do, sir,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you say that I’m the boss and you’re the employee?”

I would expect these words to hurt Mrs. Goldoni’s feelings, but they seemed to have no visible effect on her.

“I’ll leave, sir, whenever you say.”

“What I want you to do,” I said, “is get the keys to the rooms that are locked so I can open the doors and see what’s inside the rooms.”

“That might not be so easy, sir,” she said.

“Why not?”

“As I’ve said before, it’s an old house and a different sort of a house.”

“Different, yes. I turned a corner yesterday and saw a strange woman walking toward me. She was holding her arms out stiffly at her sides and taking skating steps as though she walked on invisible skis. She was wearing a billowing white robe that went from her neck down to her feet. I just caught a glimpse of her face, but she had, I’m sure, the face of Miss Kay Francis.”

Who, sir?”

“Miss Kay Francis, the nineteen-thirties movie star. Long dead and mostly forgotten.”

“I don’t keep up with the movies,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Did the lady speak to you?”

“No, Mrs. Goldoni, she didn’t. I wanted to ask her what she was doing in my house, but she was gone before I had a chance to say anything.”

Mrs. Goldoni laughed. “That’s the way things happen here.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t want people in my house?”

“Is anybody bothering you, sir?”

I thought for a moment. “Well, no,” I said. “Not exactly.”

“If anybody bothers you, sir, you be sure and let me know and I’ll tell them to stop.”

“Yes, but who are they?”

She laughed and straightened the dust bonnet on her head, apparently casting about in her head for the right words. “So many people have lived in the world and have died. You are now in the place where you can see some of them.”

“I can hardly accept that as an answer,” I said with what I hoped was a measure of sternness.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

She gave me a wan little smile and maneuvered her legs about to leave the room.

“How’s the arthritis?” I asked.

“Oh, we manage!” she said cheerily.

“Sometime we’ll have a long talk over a cup of tea,” I said, “and you can explain to me how arthritis turns you into an insect.”

She was gone, though, so I was sure she didn’t hear me. Like a mother, she had the facility of not hearing what she didn’t want to hear, but always hearing what you wish she hadn’t.

Two days later, I was walking along an unexplored corridor on one of the lower floors in my house, when I turned a corner and saw several people, mostly women, crowded around the doorway of a room I had not had the pleasure of visiting.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

Some of them turned and looked at me and, I swear, they dissolved into the air as soon as they saw me. There were still four or five people remaining, though, blocking my way and keeping me from going into the room.

“It’s all right,” I heard Mrs. Goldoni say. “Let him come in.”

The room was small with a bed; four women, including Mrs. Goldoni, were standing around the bed. There was a person in the bed and a sort of tent over the person made of bedsheets. The only parts of the person that weren’t underneath the tent were head and shoulders.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

“This is Lulu, your wife,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’s giving birth.”

As astonished as I was at that statement, I was more astonished at Lulu in the bed. She was a human-sized doll with a painted face and a lacy Jane Austen cap on her head. Her lips were drawn on in the shape of a cupid’s bow and her cheeks were red. Her eyes were small and sparkling, with lashes like spiders’ legs.

“Very funny,” I said. “You know I don’t have a wife.”

“Well, if didn’t have a wife before, you have one now!” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“So, that’s the way marriage happens here?” I asked. “You’re not married and then you are married before you even know it?”

“Well, yes, if sometimes happens that way here.”

A woman standing at the foot of the bed was holding a stopwatch. “The pains are closer together now,” she said anxiously to Mrs. Goldoni.

Mrs. Goldoni said to me, “You can either go back upstairs where you’re comfortable, or you can stay here and witness the birth of the dodo bird.”

“’The birth of the dodo bird’,” I said. “I believe the dodo is extinct.”

“You’re about to find out!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Here comes the head!”

Lulu the doll didn’t make a sound, but the women standing around the bed made encouraging little clucks with their tongues. I stood there watching, not sure what I was about to see. In about two minutes, Mrs. Goldoni pulled from underneath the sheet-tent a fully formed dodo bird. She held it up so I and the others could get a look at it.

“Is that really a dodo bird?” I asked in amazement.

“What do your eyes tell you?” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Wait a minute!” I said. “A dodo is a bird and birds are hatched from eggs.”

“Not always!” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Nobody has seen a dodo bird for hundreds of years,” I said with real and not fabricated wonder.

The dodo bird made pitiful little squeaks with its mouth. Mrs. Goldoni handed it off to one of the women and bent over Lulu with her ear to Lulu’s mouth. I didn’t hear a sound but I knew that Lulu was whispering into Mrs. Goldoni’s ear.

“She wants to know if the baby is all right,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Yes, dear, the baby is a fine male dodo bird, exactly as you expected.”

I looked at Lulu’s face but saw no change in her expression because she was a doll and doll’s expressions remained the same, no matter if a dodo bird has just come out of their bodies.

“She’s wants to name him Sheridan,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

The women clapped their hands and gave little expressions of approval and Mrs. Goldoni turned to me.

“The baby needs to be fed and changed and I think it’s time for the poppa to go back upstairs.”

“I’m not really the father of a dodo bird,” I said. “I think you’re playing a joke on me.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to sort this all out before you’re through,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Through with what?” I asked, but she took hold of my elbow and ushered me out of the room and closed the door firmly.

I went back upstairs, excited at the prospect of being the father of a dodo bird. Nobody else I knew could claim the distinction. I wanted to take a picture of the dodo, my son Sheridan, because I was sure my friends were not going to believe me. (I was forgetting for the moment, I suppose, that I didn’t have any friends and wasn’t likely to make any new ones.)

I began looking through my things for the camera that I once owned, but had no luck finding it. I needed to buy myself a new one. It’s so seldom that you become a father, especially the father of a male dodo bird named Sheridan, that you must have pictorial documentation so that people may know you’re not going insane or are already there.

Out the windows on the upper floor of my house, I could see the scenic little town of New Garland nestled among the hills. Somebody had told me when I first came to the house that New Garland was a mile-and-a-half away. Since shank’s mare was my only means of getting anywhere, I would walk there tomorrow and find a shop that sells cameras and buy one.

In the morning after breakfast, I went to my room and dressed in outdoorwear, cap, jacket and hiking shoes. When I went back to the kitchen to tell Mrs. Goldoni I was going to be gone for at least a couple of hours, she was sitting at the table with Mrs. Woolwine, the smashed-flat woman who ran the bed and breakfast next door. They liked to have confabs a couple of times a week in which they exchanged gossip and talked about their various ailments.

“How are you, Mrs. Woolwine?” I asked.

“Feeling a little flat these days,” she said.

“How’s business?”

“We’re full up,” she said. “We’re always full up. People love to stay here on their way to some other place.”

“Wonderful!” I said.

“Are you going somewhere?” Mrs. Goldoni asked me.

“Yes, I’m going to walk to New Garland. I’m in the market for a camera. I want to take some pictures of Sheridan so people will believe that I really have a dodo bird in my house.”

“The proud poppa!” Mrs. Woolwine said with her flat smile.

“No, it’s not so much pride as it is amazement. You know and I know and everybody else knows that I can’t be the father of a dodo bird, except in the sense that I would be the father of a kitten that I found on the street and took home to raise into a cat.”

“I wouldn’t talk that way around Lulu if I were you,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’ll think you don’t love her anymore.”

“I don’t love her and never have loved her. She’s a doll. You know she’s a doll, I know it, and I’m sure Lulu knows it. Dolls don’t give birth to anything, but especially they don’t give birth to dodo birds.”

“Sometimes they do,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“I might eat lunch in town,” I said, “so If I’m not back by lunchtime, go ahead without me.”

“New Garland is a long way to walk,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Watch out for the Followers.”

“The Followers? The Followers of what?”

“The Followers of the Father of All Lies.”

“He’s also called by a lot of other names,” Mrs. Woolwine said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“They want your soul,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “They’ll take it, too, if you let them. You’ll be safe as long as you ignore them and don’t engage with them. They can’t take your soul without touching you, and they can’t touch you unless you allow it.”

“They try to seduce you,” Mrs. Woolwine said.

“It sounds like a story to scare children,” I said with a laugh. “Believe me, I’ll be fine.”

So, I set out in a northerly direction alongside the River Ishcabob toward the town of New Garland. After a half-hour or so of walking, I heard screaming and looked to the source of the screaming out in the middle of the river. It was a woman flailing about in the water, apparently drowning.

“Help me!” she screamed. “Save me! I’m drowning! Oh, I’m drowning!”

I stood on the banks of the River Ishcabob watching the drowning woman. I didn’t for one second consider trying to save her. My shoes were new and I didn’t know how to swim, anyway. I had had a scratchy throat for the last couple of days and I knew that getting myself all wet wouldn’t help it any.

The woman stopped screaming, stopped waving her arms, and went under for the last time.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” I said, hoping that if there were any Followers around they would hear me.

The town of New Garland was old and quaint. There were a few people on the streets, but they moved quickly and didn’t look at me. As I looked at the little shops on the main thoroughfare, I doubted that I would be able to buy a camera in this place.

After I walked a couple of blocks, I saw a place of business with a shining glass window on which was painted the legend Witherspoon’s Photography Studio, and underneath that, Photographs of the Deceased. I went inside and was greeted by a tall man with a drooping mustache and a high collar.

“What might I do for you today, sir?” he asked with a friendly smile.

“I’m looking to buy a camera,” I said.

“A camera?” he asked. “You want to buy your own camera?”

“Yes. I had a camera before but I can’t seem to find it anymore.”

“They’re very expensive, I’m afraid, sir,” he said.

“What year are we in here?” I asked.

“Would you like to sit for your portrait?” he asked. “It only takes a few minutes.”

“Well, no, I wasn’t wanting a picture of myself. I have plenty of pictures of myself and I keep them hidden away. I have a dodo bird in my house and I want a picture of my dodo bird before it gets away or before something happens to it.”

“Do you have your dodo bird with you?” he asked, looking down at my feet.

“No, no!” I said, running out of patience. “I want to buy a camera so I can take my own picture of my dodo bird.”

“You can’t buy a camera here, I’m afraid, sir.”

“Well, where, then?”

“You could try the town of Gladstone.”

“And where is that?”

“It’s about twenty miles that way,” he said, thrusting his chin toward the street.

“I’m walking,” I said. “I obviously won’t be walking twenty miles to buy myself a camera.”

“Well, sir, since you’re here, would you like to sit for your photograph today?”

He took me into another room and I sat on a small dais that resembled the throne of an emperor. After the man and another man fussed with my hair and clothing, I was aware of a bright flash and then it was all over.

“Call for your picture in a week,” the man said. “You don’t have to pay until then.”

After I left the photography studio, I was hungry and thirsty. I spotted a place across the street with a sign that said Fine Eats, so I crossed over and went inside.

There was nobody else inside Fine Eats, so I sat down at a table next to a window overlooking the street. A very small woman came out from the back and set a glass of water down by my elbow and handed me a menu.

“Fried catfish today’s specialty,” she said. “Served with slaw and fried potatoes.”

I looked at the menu, but I couldn’t keep from looking at the tiny woman over the top of the menu. She had red wooly hair piled high on top of her head. Her ears stuck out very far on each side of her head and her eyes were blank but bright like the eyes of a doll. On the backs of her hands were what appeared to be the kind of spikes you would find on the back of a Gila monster in the Mohave Desert. I couldn’t help but believe that she had an affliction similar to the one that was causing Mrs. Goldoni to turn into an insect.

I glanced over the menu and said, “The fried catfish will do.”

She brought me a beer in a large glass container to keep me occupied until the fried catfish was ready.

The food was excellent, I had to admit. I couldn’t remember when I had food that tasted so good. I couldn’t, in fact, ever remember eating any food of any kind before, although I had a vague recollection of eating breakfast that morning. Something was happening to me and I didn’t know what it was. I was experiencing many things I had never experienced, including an uncharacteristic loss of memory. Maybe I too was turning into something other than what I started out to be.

The tiny woman waitress didn’t come back, so I paid for my lunch with Roman coins and left Fine Eats and went back out onto the street.

The clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining. The birds were singing. It was a spring day that reminded me of spring days when I was in school in the lower grades. I took a deep breath and started for home. I wasn’t anticipating meeting any Followers, but if I did I was sure I’d know what to do. And when I got home, Mrs. Goldoni my housekeeper who was turning into an insect, Lulu the human-sized doll, and Sheridan my dodo bird son would be waiting for me in my own four-story house on the banks of the River Ishcabob. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

(To be continued.)

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

His Name, He Said

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His Name, He Said ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Velma Durfee had, at one time, a husband, but he was long gone. The only thing she had to remember him by was a son, Chester, and a daughter, Camille. Chester was seven and Camille nine. The three of them—Velma, Chester and Camille—lived in a small frame house between the railroad tracks and the sewage treatment plant. Velma was employed as office assistant to an osteopathic doctor with a large walk-in practice in town, in the upper floor of an old building across from the county courthouse.

As a single mother, Velma did her best but she sometimes felt that she wasn’t equal to the task. She didn’t much like the kind of life she was living. She was lonely and she didn’t have enough money to live the way she wanted to live. To keep from being depressed, she took tranquilizer pills that her employer doctor provided to her without a prescription. And, whenever the opportunity presented itself, she complemented the tranquilizer pills with beer, wine, and sometimes whiskey straight out of the bottle in copious proportions.

One day she met a man. He was muscular, tall and good-looking, with red-brown hair and perfect teeth. He was, she believed, the man she had been waiting for all her life. His name was Charles Leland Jaffe—always Charles, never Charlie or Chuck. He asked her out on a date and, when that date went so well, he asked her out again and again.

All at once she developed a new outlook on life. She woke up in the morning with a smile on her face and she kept the smile throughout most of the day, even through the most difficult days of car trouble, payments in arrears, and three-day measles. The number-one thought on her mind was when she was going to see Charles Leland Jaffe again.

He had a room in a hotel, causing Velma to think that he was very likely not going to be around for very long. When she asked him where he had been and where he was going, he told her the place he had come from became irrelevant as soon as he left it and the place he was going to was never known. He had a way with words that she had never before known in a man.

And he was always a gentleman. All the other men she had ever gone out with were only counting the minutes until they could take advantage of her, but Charles Leland Jaffe was different. He was polite and respectful and never, ever put his hands on her in an inappropriate way. Even when they were dancing, he always behaved with impeccable propriety.

Velma was in love. She believed that marriage was imminent, and it had all happened so fast, in a matter of two weeks or less. She figured that Charles Leland Jaffe was waiting for the right time to ask her to marry him. He would take her away from the town she had lived in all her life, and she would escape her dreary life and it was all going to be so wonderful. Chester and Camille would at last have the father they deserved and would have advantages in life that Velma alone would never have been able to give them.

On a Friday afternoon, Charles Leland Jaffe picked Velma up from the doctor’s office where she worked. It had been raining all day and had turned much colder. Velma wasn’t feeling well; she had developed a cough and a headache. She had had a run-in with a patient that day and the patient reported her to the doctor for being rude and unprofessional. The doctor, usually so kind and genial, had taken the patient’s side and had given Velma a dressing-down that had left her shaken and angry.

In his intuitive way, Charles Leland Jaffe knew that Velma was in a low state and on the verge of being ill. He kept a small brown bag in the back of his car. In the bag, he said, he had something that would make Velma feel much better in a very short time.

As she watched him prepare the injection, she rolled up her sleeve and allowed him to apply the tourniquet to her upper arm, there in the front seat of his car parked on busy Main Street. She felt the needle going into her arm and it was a delicious kind of hurt. Within minutes, she felt wonderful; energy and goodwill were coursing throughout her body and all the bad feelings had dissipated.

He took her to a wonderful restaurant and they had a lovely meal. The food tasted better than any food Velma had ever eaten. Charles Leland Jaffe ordered a bottle of good wine and the two of them drank the entire bottle. When they left the restaurant, he took her to his hotel room, where they spent the night in his bed, and the experience was wonderful beyond words. This is what my life will be like from now on, Velma told herself.

Velma continued to see Charles Leland Jaffe on a regular basis. They had happy times together. He introduced her to good music, foreign films and abstract art. Anytime Velma was not feeling as well as she might, Charles Leland Jaffe gave her one of his injections. When she asked him what the injections were, he told her it was a combination of life-giving drugs and would never harm her in any way. She told him she didn’t want to get addicted to anything that came out of a needle and he laughed at her. Nothing to worry about, he said. Everybody needs something now and then to help them grapple with life.

Still Charles Leland Jaffe said nothing about marriage, but Velma wasn’t worried. She didn’t want to rush things; above all, she didn’t want to scare him off. Now that she had found him, she wasn’t going to let him go. She was so happy and she knew that nothing but good times awaited her. She drank almost all the time when she was alone, and when she was with Charles Leland Jaffe she insisted he give her one of his life-giving injections. She shunted the care of her children off on neighbors and an old aunt or two who knew something was wrong with didn’t know what to do about it.

On a Friday evening in late October, Velma went out on the town with Charles Leland Jaffe. They had a steak dinner in a candlelit restaurant and then went to a nightclub where they listened to music and danced. Velma knew she was drinking too much for her own good, but everything felt so good, she just wasn’t going to impose any restrictions on herself. For his part, Charles Leland Jaffe had only a drink or two and didn’t overdrink.

About eleven o’clock, Charles Leland Jaffe told Velma he wanted to see the doctor’s office where she worked. There’s nobody there, she said. That’s all right, he said. We can make love on the examining table in the examining room. Nobody will ever know, but every time you look at it you’ll remember what we did and feel good about it.

Velma couldn’t bring herself to say no to anything Charles Leland Jaffe wanted to do. She got in the car with him and he drove to the building on Main Street where she worked and he parked the car on the street right in front of the office. Since it was after eleven o’clock on Friday night, the only people around were high school kids in cars wanting to be seen by other high school kids in cars.

She took the keys out of her purse and unlocked the downstairs door and they went up the stairs in the dark, holding hands. Better not to turn on too many lights, she said. Somebody might notice and suspect we’re burglars. Walking through the dark quiet building with nobody there only added to the excitement and feeling of adventure.

There were two more doors to unlock before they were in the doctor’s office proper. The first thing they saw were rows of empty seats in the waiting room. This is it, she said. It’s not very exciting, I’m afraid.

He wanted to see the rooms where the doctor saw patients. There were two examining rooms at either end of the office. They were small and full of chairs, low white cabinets, and medical equipment. On the walls were medical charts. Charles Leland Jaffe appeared to be impressed. I want to see where the drugs are kept, he said.

Velma found the keys on the key ring that opened the big drug closet that was always kept locked, even during business hours. When she opened the door, Charles Leland Jaffe whistled through his teeth, a sound she had never heard him make before. That is a lot of drugs, he said. About three quarters of a million dollars’ worth, she said. Osteopathic doctors always dispense drugs from their offices. Patients love them for it.

They heard a sound out in the hallway that was probably the night watchman. I don’t want him to see me here, Velma said. He’ll tell the doctor and I’m in enough hot water as it is.

So, Velma and Charles Leland Jaffe left the doctor’s office. Velma relocked the doors and after she checked and rechecked them to make sure they were locked, they got back into Charles Leland Jaffe’s car and he drove to his hotel. In his room, they talked for a while and then Charles Leland Jaffe produced his little brown bag. He prepared an injection and Velma bared her arm without a word. After the injection was delivered, they both undressed and got into the big bed.

In the morning when she woke up she knew that something wasn’t as it should be. She looked at the clock and saw it was after nine o’clock. She got out of the bed, surprised to find herself naked, and when she looked around the room from a standing position she knew the room wasn’t the same as it had been when she went to sleep. She had the unsettling feeling that she was in a different room altogether.

After a minute of trying to clear her head and remember what had happened, Velma realized that the thing about the room that was different was that all of Charles Leland Jaffe’s clothes and personal effects were gone, his suitcases, his shoes and his shaving articles from the bathroom. Also gone were her clothes that she had draped over a bedside chair when she took them off, and her purse.

She called down to the front desk. I’m looking for Mr. Charles Leland Jaffe, she said to the desk clerk. Mr. Jaffe checked out about two this morning, the clerk said. Did he leave a message or say where he was going? People checking out never tell us where they’re going.

She wrapped herself in bedsheets and, barefooted, went downstairs in the elevator and got herself a cab to go home. People stared at her, but she barely noticed and didn’t care.

When the osteopathic doctor opened his office on Monday morning, he saw that the drug closet had been cleared out, about three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of drugs. When Velma didn’t show up for work, the doctor called her at home and received no answer. The next call he made was to the police. I know what she did, he said, and I never would have believed her capable of such a thing.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp