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Seven Seconds

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Seven Seconds ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Angela McNeill traveled down by train to see Harry Vance and they spent that last Sunday together. They walked in the park, holding hands, and sat for a long time watching the swans gliding back and forth across the lake. It was a day in April and the weather could not have been finer.

He took her hand and said he wanted to marry her in June.

She avoided looking directly at him. “That doesn’t give me much time,” she said.

“Time to do what?” he asked.

“A wedding takes a lot of planning,” she said.

“It’s going to be a small wedding,” he said.

“Yes, but I want everything to be just right.”

It was a conversation they had had many times before. She was in “no hurry” to get married, while he couldn’t get it done fast enough. He was a college student and wanted to get the wedding out of the way in June, between semesters. Then, by the beginning of the fall semester, they would have found a place to live and would be “settled.” His parents were giving them a thousand dollars as a wedding gift to “get started” on.

“I don’t think your parents like me very much,” she said.

“Of course they like you! Why wouldn’t they?”

“They think I’m not right for you.”

“Nobody said any such thing! You’re just looking for complications that don’t exist.”

“I just want everything to be right, that’s all.”

“You’re thinking about your parents, aren’t you?” he said.

“No. Why should I?”

“You’re afraid you’ll have a bad marriage just because they did.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You don’t have to say it. I know what you’re thinking.”

“Let’s not talk about it,” she said. “Let’s not spoil the day.”

Angela hadn’t told Harry the whole truth about her mother. When Angela was little, her mother cast a pall over her family with her dark moods and sudden emotional shifts. In one evening or one afternoon, she would go from laughing and happy to raging and accusing. She’s just high-strung and emotional, Angela’s father used to say. She doesn’t mean anything by it.

Angela thought for years her mother was evil but then she found out the truth: she suffered from hereditary mental illness, passed down to her from her mother and grandmother. Feckless doctors gave her pills that were supposed to “calm her down,” but they only seemed to make her worse. When the pills didn’t provide the kick she wanted, she began supplementing them with whiskey. Soon she was an alcoholic in addition to being a drug abuser. She smoked countless cigarettes and had started at least two small fires in the house.

A divorce followed soon after. Angela and her brothers and sisters (nine all together) went with their father and moved to another city to make a fresh start. Angela’s mother, unable to take care of herself, went to live with her sister, who ran a kind of boarding house.

Angela was certain she was following in her mother’s footsteps. She would not escape the mental illness. She felt it, like a cancer inside her, that would one day consume her: the black moods, the despair, the hopelessness, the days when she couldn’t get out of bed. Could she marry Harry Vance and let him find out too late what she was going on inside her? The answer was no. She wasn’t going to inflict such pain on Harry or any children they might have.

That last Sunday evening they had a lavish, candlelit dinner together, paid for by money that Harry’s father gave him. When they were finished eating, it was almost time for Angela’s train.

“You can spend the night if you want to,” Harry said.

“I have a job to go to in the morning, dear,” she said. “I have to get up early.”

“When we’re married, you’re going to quit that job.”

“And what will we do for money until you graduate and get a job?”

“I don’t know. I can always rob a bank, I guess.”

“I don’t think that’s a very practical idea.”

He got her to the station just in time. She boarded her train and waved to him from the window. It was the last time they would ever see each other.

The next morning she arose at the usual time and ate a light breakfast. She dressed herself with care, making sure everything was exactly right. Before she was ready to go, she sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a quick note. She didn’t even have to think before she wrote because she had thought it all out beforehand.

When it was time to leave for work, she put the note in her purse, put on her new spring jacket, slipped on her shoes and left her apartment. She didn’t go to her job, though, and didn’t bother to call to say she wasn’t coming.

She took a cab to the tallest building in the city, about twelve blocks from where she lived. She tipped the driver generously and he helped her out of the car and wished her a good day.

As usual, there were lots of people everywhere. Always a busy city. She took the crowded elevator to the eighty-sixth floor. She had been there before and knew there was an observation deck on that floor.

The people on the observation deck were so enthralled by the exhilarating view at more than eight hundred feet (it was like looking down from the top of a mountain) that nobody looked at her.

After standing at the rail for a few minutes, looking down, she took off her coat, folded it neatly and placed it over the rail, putting her purse on the floor underneath the coat. She then swung her legs over the rail, first the left and then the right, until she was sitting on the rail. Before anybody had a chance to see what she was doing and try to stop her, she let go of the railing and leaned forward slightly. Gravity did the rest.

She landed, feet first, on the roof of a parked limousine. Hardly anybody saw it. It happened so fast. Somebody called for an ambulance. In a minute or two, a couple hundred people knew that something had happened and wanted to see what it was.

A student photographer happened to be nearby with his camera. Approximately four minutes after Angela died, the student photographer took her picture. Instead of a grisly, horrifying scene of a smashed body, the picture was of a young woman with her shoes off, her stockings down around her ankles, her clothing barely disarranged. The expression on her face was one of peace and composure. The picture, when printed in the newspaper, bore the caption: The Most Beautiful Suicide.

In her purse was the note she had written right before leaving her apartment: I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family—don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiancé asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.

Harry Vance saw no hint (he told everybody), not the slightest suggestion, in all the time he spent with her on Sunday, that she was contemplating such a move. If he had known, he would never have let her out of his sight. She was the one he wanted to marry, the only one. There would be nobody else. Sixty years later, when he went to his grave, it was as a single man.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Literary Hatchet, Issue #26

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The Literary Hatchet
Issue #26

The Literary Hatchet is an independent international journal devoted to emerging and established voices crafting provocative short fiction and thoughtful poetry and prose. Published three times a year! (Stefani Koorey, editor; Eugene Hosey, editor; Michael Brimbau, editor.)

The latest issue of The Literary Hatchet, Issue #26, containing short stories, poems, and works of original art, is now available for purchase for $14 per copy on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B085RNP1CV/

(I have six short stories in this issue of The Literary Hatchet: “It’s Not the Pale Moon That Excites Me,” “Strange Innertube,” “Good Fortune Comes Your Way,” “His Butterfly,” “The Spring He Built the Garage,” “I Want People to See Us Together.”) 

As Long As I Live

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As Long As I Live ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The precious, leaden moments slipped away. Time was running out. He had five more days. He could see a clock on the wall but tried not to look—he could go mad looking at the clock! And though he was alone, he had nothing resembling privacy; someone was watching him all the time. They thought he might try a do-it-yourself job, which could make you laugh if you thought about it long enough.

They brought him magazines but he didn’t open them. They offered him tranquilizers (handed through the bars one at a time, of course) to calm his nerves, but he declined them. They brought him cigarettes, candy and chewing gum, but they lay untouched. They brought him writing paper to write any farewell letters, but he had none to write. They offered to bring in a TV to brighten his final hours, but a TV would only remind him of the things he was trying to forget and he declined it. When asked what he wanted for his final meal, he said he wanted only the Last Rites administered by the prison chaplain.

He had had many confidential conversations with the prison chaplain and had been absolved of his sins. He signed the papers to have his body donated to medical research. He said all the goodbyes he needed to say. Nothing was left undone.

The guard, the one named Finch, told him the best thing he could do for himself in preparation for the Big Day was to clear his mind—let go of guilt, remorse, painful memories—anything that was gnawing away at his mind. It was the best advice he had received in prison—or in life, for that matter.

Five more days; nothing to do but wait. It was all downhill now. He was ready to go, ready for his sentence to be carried out. (I’m ready for my execution, Mr. DeMille!) His whole life, from the very beginning, had been leading up to this moment.

He regarded his reflection in the mirror and thought how soon he would be only a shadow, a shade, a memory to anybody who might have any reason at all to remember him. When he was gone, it would be as if he never existed; he would leave nothing behind.

He lay on his bunk and looked at the ceiling. He turned on his side and looked at the wall. He thought about his body that would soon be a nameless, faceless laboratory specimen. (If there’s anything you can use that might help somebody else, welcome to it!) He thought about the oxygen that kept him alive, no matter how unworthy, and the heart that miraculously pumped blood to every part of his body.

On Wednesday morning, two days before the Big Day, the guards bound his hands and feet and ushered him into a small room in a part of the prison he had never seen before. They set him down at a table with his back to the wall and left.

Four other men were in the room; they were all on the other side of the table, facing him. He knew that one was the prison warden but he didn’t know who the others were. He relaxed in the chair and took a deep breath. He had nothing more to fear.

“How are you holding up?” the warden asked.

“I’m all right.”

“Do you need anything? Anything we can do for you?”

“Nothing.”

“I see from your records that you have no family. You’re forty-two years old, married twice but divorced both times, no children.”

“That’s right. Family all dead. A couple of ex-wives who would love to pull the switch.”

“Your health is good. No diseases, no addictions.”

“You know what they say: health is wealth.”

“Your psych report looks good.”

“That’s because I’m so stupid.”

“That’s not what it says here. Your intelligence is far above average.”

“I’m a good faker.”

“You took a wrong turn somewhere.”

“Many wrong turns.”

The warden set aside the papers, folded his hands and cleared his throat. “I’m going to make you a proposition,” he said.

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“Do you believe the earth has been visited by alien beings?”

“Is this a joke?”

“No, it’s not a joke. Do I need to repeat the question?”

“No, I got it. It’s just not the kind of question I expected to be asked. Do I believe the earth has been visited by alien beings? I’ve never really thought about it, but I suppose I would have to say yes, I believe the earth has been visited by alien beings.”

“Would you believe me if I told you the United States government has been in contact with an alien race, an alien intelligence, for thirty years or more?”

“Sure, I’d believe it. Why not?”

“They want a small number of men from earth.”

Who does?”

“The alien race.”

“What do they want them for?”

“That’s the thing. We can only speculate.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we don’t know.”

“They’re from another planet?”

“Let’s just say they exist in another world.”

“I honestly don’t know what you’re trying to say to me.”

“As a model prisoner, you qualify for a special program.”

“Yeah? What program is that?”

“You can go and live among this alien race for the rest of your life, if you so choose.”

What?

“It’s entirely your choice. You get to choose. Only you, nobody else. If you choose not to participate, your sentence will be carried out on Friday night.”

“I’m not sure I’m hearing this right. I can do what?”

“Your death sentence will be commuted if you choose to go live in another world with an alien race.”

“I must be dreaming. I’ll wake up any minute.”

“It’s no dream.”

“This is for real?”

“Absolutely for real!”

“This is not just another psychological test where you gauge my reaction?”

“It’s not a test.”

“All right. When do I go?”

“Day after tomorrow. Friday.”

“And what will those aliens do to me? Will they cut me up in little pieces? Will they eat me for dinner? Will they make me a slave?”

“They promise humane treatment. That’s all I know.”

“Well, that sounds good enough for me. Where do I sign?”

“You don’t need time to think about it?”

“No. I’ll do it.”

“Once you’ve decided, you can’t change your mind.”

“I don’t want to change my mind. I’ll go. Anything is better than the forty thousand volts.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

They removed him to an isolation cell so he couldn’t talk to anybody. No guards, no chaplain, no fellow prisoners, nothing. Complete isolation. Food and drink would be given to him through a little compartment in the door, without any human contact.

He still believed they might be playing a trick on him, but as the hours went by he began to have a different view of midnight Friday night. Instead of darkness and oblivion, he now saw something different, a tiny light at the end of a long tunnel. He wasn’t going to be fooled, though. The world had a way of dashing his brains out at every turn.

In his different cell, he could no longer see the clock, but he knew from the light coming in at the window that it was Wednesday night. Then it was Thursday morning. His breakfast was handed in at the little opening in the door and then, hours later, lunch.

Thursday afternoon and evening seemed interminable. He lay on the bunk, paced the floor, counted the tiles in the floor, counted his breaths. When the evening meal was delivered, he called through the opening that he needed to speak to the warden, but there was no response. He wanted some questions answered before he was going to climb on any old spaceship to the stars.

Finally it was Friday morning, his last day in prison, his last day on earth. He felt brave and almost happy and then his insides quaked with terror. He had changed his mind. He didn’t want to go. What had he signed on for? He wasn’t going to be the plaything of hideous aliens on a faraway planet. There was no way of knowing what kind of tortures they might subject him to. Maybe he wouldn’t even be able to breathe when he got there. He wanted to put a stop to this thing. He wanted to die as scheduled at midnight and let that be the end of it.

He wasn’t able to touch his breakfast, but when lunch was delivered he felt calm again, his hands had stopped shaking, his heart was no longer hammering in his chest and his breaths didn’t choke him. He ate everything on his lunch tray and then he took a restful nap.

He was awakened by the opening of the door to his cell. It was the warden, the doctor and the chaplain. The warden had some “release forms” for him to sign; he signed them without even looking at them. The doctor gave him shots in both arms, checked his blood pressure and listened to his heart. When he was finished, he nodded to the warden to indicate that everything was all right. The chaplain then stepped forward to administer the Last Rites. He spoke a few lines of Latin, made a few sweeping gestures with his hands, and then he was finished.

“Just a few more hours now and you’ll be on your way,” the warden said, smiling encouragingly and touching him on the upper arm. “You have my very best wishes for a safe journey.”

As soon as the warden and the others left, he received his dinner tray. He ate all the food and drank the tea. When he was finished, he lay down on his bunk with his hands behind his head to wait for what was going to happen next.

The next time the door opened, he jumped up expectantly. “Is it time?” he asked. It was two men he had never seen before. They escorted him to the shower room, told him to strip down, wash thoroughly with a special soap they gave him, take care of any personal needs he might have, and when he was finished to dress in a heavy nylon jumpsuit that encompassed his body like a cocoon.

He was then put in a “holding cell.” On his way to the cell, he caught a glimpse of a clock; it was ten minutes after eleven. He had less than an hour.

A short time later, two mysterious “attendants,” faces covered, came to the holding cell and, without speaking a word, escorted him up three flights to the roof of  the prison.

On the prison roof was a wooden structure about twenty feet high, not unlike a gallows. He was taken to the top of the structure and placed on his back on a low platform. A helmet was placed on his head and his arms and legs strapped down. Then, still without speaking, the attendants placed a cover over his body, like the lid of a coffin, blocking out the starry sky. Then the attendants were gone, having completed their job.

He lay still and waited. He hated the feeling of being helplessly tied down and unable to move. His heart pounded and he was sweating. Was he going to suffocate? How long would he have to wait before something happened?

Ten minutes passed and then fifteen and then thirty. He wanted to call for the attendants to come and let him out, but he was sure nobody would hear him. He was scared and ready to call the whole deal off. He didn’t want to go to…wherever it was. He’d rather face the electric chair and have it over and done with. Clean and quick.

It started with a gentle vibration like the rocking of a rowboat, followed by bright lights all around that he could see even with the helmet over his head and the cover over his body. The vibrating intensified, becoming a shaking that he felt in his gut the way he felt a carnival ride when he was ten years old. A low rumbling sound like a car with a hole in its muffler became louder and louder, a gradually rising crescendo, until it was so loud he wanted to cover his ears if only he could lift his arms.

He felt himself being lifted up then—up, up, up into the sky—gently at first and then faster. His fear was replaced by a sense of well-being, a feeling of joy that he hadn’t felt in a long time and maybe never. It was the last thing he knew before he lost consciousness.

He was in the land of oblivion for what might have been a minute, a day, a month, a lifetime, or a thousand years. When he regained himself, he was lying in a brightly lighted white room. He was aware at once of another person standing nearby.

“Where am I?” he asked. “Am I on a Mars?”

“Not Mars,” a male voice said. “You wouldn’t be able to breathe on Mars.”

“Where am I, then?”

“The land where the bong tree grows.”

“How did I get here? Am I dead?”

“We’ll keep you here for a couple of days to make sure you’re not having any serious side effects.”

“Side effects from what?”

“Are you hungry? I can get you some food.”

He lifted his head to see the person he was speaking to. “Are you a doctor?” he asked.

“Enough of a doctor for you.”

After two days of “medical evaluation,” he was taken to his own house, a low structure built into the side of a hill. Two young attendants brought him food, clothes to wear, and anything else he might need. When he tried to speak to the attendants, they looked away and wouldn’t answer.

The house contained every comfort. There were thousands of books (in English and other languages) arranged neatly in bookcases, American magazines dating from the 1940s and ‘50s, a record player with a collection of records, a bed, chairs, couch, table, piano, prints on the walls. Much better than his prison cell. Nothing to complain about.

After five days of being left alone, the first “tissue sample” was taken from his arm by a silent attendant.

“What is this for?” he asked.

“I don’t understand your language,” the attendant said.

The next day he was given pills with his food.

“What are the pills for?” he asked.

“To keep you healthy,” was the reply.

It took him a while to figure out the attendants weren’t human. They were human-like machines.

Left on his own as he was, he began taking long walks. There were trees, hills, flowers (profuse and enormous), birds, and small scurrying animals in the underbrush, much like on earth. Unlike earth, though, the sky was more violet than blue. Trees grew to the astonishing height of hundreds of feet. Water in streams sparkled like liquid diamonds, as if the water contained some quality that water on earth was lacking.

And in all his long walks, he never met another human. Had he ever been any place on earth where dozens or hundreds of people weren’t clamoring to be seen and heard? He was convinced at times that he was dead and what he was experiencing was the afterlife.

Far off in the distance from his house, he could see a high wall or fortress, but it was too far away to tell what it was. In the opposite direction, equally far off, was a similar fortress. If he watched long enough, he saw strange silver streaks in the sky going to—or away from—the fortresses. If he looked at the silver streaks long enough, they disappeared.

The next time an attendant came to take a tissue sample from his body, he asked what the fortresses were.

“It’s the walled cities where they live,” the attendant said.

“Where who lives?”

“The Sylphs.”

“Who are they?”

“They created all this.”

“All what?”

“I’m afraid I’ve said too much.”

Attendants came regularly and collected tissue samples, to which he readily submitted. Every day they brought pills with his food, which he took obediently; he didn’t want to consider the consequences of not taking the pills. He had the idea that if he rebelled against anything that was asked of him, he might be sent back to prison and the electric chair.

In a dream, on a hill not far from his house, he met an old man dressed in shabby evening attire. The old man offered him a smoke, which he declined.

“Sit down and rest for a while,” the old man said. They both sat on a rock projecting out of the hillside.

“None of this is real, is it?” he asked the old man.

“As real as you are,” the old man said.

“I think I might be dead.”

“A man can think too much, you know.”

“What are those huge walls?” he asked. “Over there and over there?”

The old man laughed and took a draw on his pipe. “It’s where they live,” he said.

“The Sylphs?”

“Yes, you’ve heard about them?”

“Yes. Who are they, anyway?”

“They created all this. They’re the reason you’re here.”

“Why do I never see them?”

“They don’t want you to see them. All they want from you is your DNA.”

“My what?”

“They take tissue samples from you, don’t they?”

“Why, yes. How did you know?”

“They’re making clones.”

“Clones?”

“Yes, they’re very capable. They can do anything, except fight their own wars.”

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

“The Western Sylphs are at war with the Eastern Sylphs. It’s a war that never ends. The Sylphs are unable to fight on their own, so they use clones. The tissue samples they take from you are used in making the clones to fight the wars. When they’re killed in battle, it’s just so much trash.”

“What’s wrong with the Sylphs? Why can’t they fight their own wars?”

“You haven’t seen them. As smart as they are, they’re very weak. They’re all white and only about four feet tall. They have huge heads and faces like hideous frogs.”

“If I go to the walled city, will I see them?”

“They’d never let you in.”

“But you’ve seen them?”

“Yes, I’ve seen them.”

And then, after a significant silence, he asked the old man the question that most troubled him: “What is this place?”

The old man looked at him, smiled, and shook his head. “It’s probably not what you think.”

“A planet far from earth?”

“That’s what people think, but that’s not what it is.”

“What is it, then?”

“It’s what you call a parallel world. It exists right alongside earth, but, of course, people on earth are not aware of it, because they’re not supposed to be. There are many parallel worlds. Probably thousands. Maybe millions.”

“I’ve never heard of a parallel world! Why me?”

“You are fulfilling your destiny, that’s all.”

He was going to ask the old man who he was and why he knew so much, but the strange call of a bird distracted him. He turned his head to look at the bird and when he turned back, the old man was gone.

Later, he thought of the dream as a “vision.” He didn’t know who the old man was and never saw him again but believed he was a manifestation of God.

The pills he took every day kept him from being older. After fifty years or a hundred years, he still looked the same as when he first arrived. Tissue samples continued to be taken on a regular basis. It was the only requirement made of him. The rest of the time he was left alone.

After two hundred years and more, in the natural order of things, he began to change. His body thickened; he became stooped. His skin lost its color and became white. His hair came out and soon it was as if he had never had any hair at all. His hands and feet became webbed; his nails lengthened and became talon-like. At first he was alarmed by these changes, but then he stopped bothering to look at himself in the mirror and stopped thinking about the way he looked. If he ever had any vanity or pride, it was gone.

His physical transformation complete, he began receiving telepathic communications. Go to the Walled City of the Western Sylphs, he was told.

The trip took two days; he moved slowly and had to make his way through swamps and undergrowth. Large birds constantly circled overhead to help him find the way. When he finally reached the Walled City, a gate opened for him as if by magic and he entered.

The Sylphs received him as one of their own and assimilated him into their millions. He was revered because he came from another realm and was hundreds of years old.

After he had lived among the Sylphs for a time and had absorbed their ways and customs, he forgot he had ever been anything other than a Sylph. He had no recollection of ever being a human man, of ever existing on earth. This too was part of his inescapable destiny.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

During the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603), there were malcontents—religious dissenters and Separatists—who didn’t like their country and wanted to live elsewhere. England was overcrowded, disease-ridden, and becoming more and more libertine and loose in its values. Constant religious fighting raged among Catholics, Protestants, and Church of England. The New World, which meant the North American continent, beckoned. It was largely untouched and contained unlimited land and unimaginable natural resources, which would translate into wealth, power and prestige. Every European power wanted to be the first to claim this prize.

In 1587 a group of 115 colonists set out for the New World. Their destination was the Chesapeake Bay, but they ended up on Roanoke Island off the coast of what is today North Carolina. Roanoke Island was completely unsuited for colonization. The colonists believed they would, in time, be relocated to a better place. They were essentially abandoned, cast off, sacrificed. What was going on here? Their leader, John White, set off to England to get help (the voyage across the Atlantic took about four months). He promised to return as quickly as he could with supplies and whatever help was needed. He had a personal interest in the venture because his daughter was among the colonists. When he returned to Roanoke Island three long years later, there was not a sign of the 115 colonists. They seemed to have vanished, along with their houses and any other trace of them. What could have happened to them? Were supernatural forces at play? It’s a mystery that has endured for four hundred years.

In the nonfiction book, Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, author Lee Miller lays out a compelling case that the 115 Roanoke colonists were sabotaged by someone who didn’t want the venture to succeed. Who could that someone be? There were only a few men in the government powerful enough to pull off such a scheme. Lee Miller narrows it down to Walsingham, powerful member of the queen’s Privy Council. Walsingham despised the upstart Sir Walter Raleigh, who had become the queen’s favorite. If the colony had been a success, it would have been in a feather in Raleigh’s cap. If it failed, it would cast a pall over Raleigh’s career from which he might never recover.

Several rescue attempts were launched to save the 115 colonists stranded on the inhospitable Roanoke Island, but all of them failed or were scuttled by co-conspirators who were in on the plot. The 115 colonists were left to die, to fade away, to succumb to disease and starvation. And why was their fate such a mystery over all the centuries? Why was the public left to believe that the colonists simply “disappeared?” They didn’t just disappear; they were sacrificed and then the truth was covered up. If the truth had been told, it would have been very bad publicity for colonization in the New World.

Roanoke, Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony is a minutely and meticulously detailed account of the feckless and ill-advised Roanoke Colony, of the treachery and political machinations that made the venture the failure it was. The message is simple: powerful politicians will screw over anybody they can, will double-deal their way into hell, and then lie about it to make sure the truth is never known. Sound familiar?

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Poor People of Our County

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Poor People of Our County ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Nineteen twenty-one was the year mama lost her mind and went into the mental asylum and daddy, tired of being alone, found himself a woman friend and left home. If he had any misgivings about going off and leaving his son and daughter, he soon dispelled them. Phinis was fifteen, almost a man, and Isolde was seventeen, already a married woman. She had been married to Dexter Wooley for six months. Dexter was twenty-nine years old and had a job on a road crew.

Dexter was a steady-enough fellow but he drank too much. One night while drinking, he got into a fight with a fellow named Sutton from out of state and punched him so hard he knocked him into the river. Sutton flailed his arms and legs and screamed that he didn’t know how to swim, but Dexter ignored him. Sutton drowned and after that Dexter was wanted for second-degree murder by the local police. If that wasn’t bad enough, Sutton’s two brothers were looking for Dexter, saying that when they got hold of him they would hang him by the heels from the bridge during cottonmouth-infested high water.

So, Dexter went into hiding for a while; nobody knew where he was. Right after he left, Isolde discovered she was going to have a baby. She was little more than a child herself, weighing less than a hundred pounds. She would not have an easy time of it.

For the first time in their lives, Phinis and Isolde were left on their own. As brother and sister, they had never been especially good friends, preferring instead to go their own separate ways, but now they were all the family left and they had to rely on each other.

“Do you think mama will come home?” Phinis asked late one night when a thunderstorm woke him up.

“I think she will,” Isolde answered from the rocking chair. She was mending baby clothes and hadn’t been to bed yet.

“I wish we could go visit her.”

“It’s not that kind of a hospital where she is. They don’t allow visitors.”

“Why not? We’re family.”

“I don’t know. It’s more like a jail, I guess, than a hospital.”

“Mama’s in jail?”

“That’s just the kind of a hospital it is. They have to keep the patients locked up and apart from each other.”

“I wish we could go visit her.”

“After the baby’s born, we’ll all go visit and she can meet her grandson for the first time.”

“Do you think daddy will come home before the baby’s born and before mama comes home?”

“I think he will, but you never know with daddy.”

“Do you think Dexter will come home before the baby’s born?”

“I feel it in my bones. And won’t he be surprised when he sees his son for the first time? I can’t wait to see his face.”

This same conversation—the same questions and the same answers—occurred almost every day.

Isolde tried to keep busy but there wasn’t much she could do because she was weak and sick a lot of the time. She swept out the house every day and folded and refolded baby clothes and put them in a trunk and took them out again and looked at them. When the clothes, some of them decades old, started smelling musty again or looking dull, she’d wash them all over again from the beginning.

She liked to read. She had a few old newspapers and magazines that had somehow accumulated, mama’s King James’ Bible, and a battered copy of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. She had read The Old Curiosity Shop all the way through once and was reading it again. She was surprised at the things she learned from reading that she didn’t know before. Someday she hoped to go to the library at the county seat and see what books she could read.

On one of her good days, she said she was hungry and wanted a stew for supper. She sent Phinis to Ivan’s to buy a turnip, a little bit of beef, a couple of carrots and some celery. As always whenever food was needed, he went to the jar on the top shelf in the kitchen and counted out the money. When he saw how little was left, he kept it to himself. He didn’t want Isolde to have more to worry about; the baby was enough.

He spent longer than usual in the store. It was a friendly place and he liked the smells and the piles of stuff stacked on the shelves waiting to be bought. He walked up and down every aisle and looked at everything. It was just a little country store, but to him it contained unimaginable riches. Some day he would have enough money to buy  anything he saw. As he was standing at the counter to pay, he saw some oranges in a crate and bought two, one for Isolde and one for him. They would be good for dessert after the stew.

While he was gone, Isolde had had another sinking spell. She was deathly pale and there was blood on her lips, meaning she had been vomiting blood again. He gave her the sack of stuff from the store and she began making the stew.

She ate hardly anything but smiled a lot and seemed happy. “I think I saw daddy and Dexter this morning,” she said.

“Where?” Phinis asked.

“Walking by on the road.”

“I don’t think it could have been them. They would have stopped in to see us.”

“I guess it couldn’t have been. Maybe I just dreamed it.”

“I have dreams about mama,” he said. “I hear her voice and when I get out of bed she’s cooking breakfast. I can smell it.”

“Dreams are funny sometimes.”

“Do you think we’ll die before mama and daddy and Dexter come home?”

“Why would we die?”

“I don’t know. Just something I think about sometimes.”

“I don’t feel like eating my orange now,” she said. “I’ll eat it later.”

A few days later, on a rainy Saturday, Isolde wasn’t able to get out of bed. She screamed with the pain and couldn’t keep anything down.

“Is it the baby?” Phinis asked.

“No, it’s not time for the baby. Dexter isn’t home yet.”

“If I knew where he was, I’d go and find him and bring him home.”

“If mama was here, she’d know what to do.”

“I’m going to go and get Miss Settles.”

Before he left, while he was putting on his coat and hat, she called him over to the bed and took his hand in hers, a thing she had never done before.

“I’m sorry to put all this off on you,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here.”

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’m the only one here.”

“You’re a better brother than I deserve.”

“Try to rest now. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Miss Settles had just washed her hair, but as soon as Phinis told her Isolde’s baby was coming, she grabbed her bag and was off in her old Ford car. He could have ridden with her but didn’t think about it until after she was gone. He rested for a couple of minutes on her porch and then ran home, getting there about the same time she did. With her was her assistant, a large albino woman named January Maitland who had a voice like a man and what looked like cotton dust on her upper lip.

As Miss Settles and January Maitland began working over Isolde on the bed, Phinis stood in the doorway, relieved now that he wasn’t the only one there.

“Brother, you don’t need to see any of this,” Miss Settles said to him. “You take yourself a long walk to the county seat and back and don’t come home until you’re good and tired.”

“Is she gonna be all right?” he asked. “There’s a lot of blood there.”

“We’ll do all we can.”

To the accompaniment of Isolde’s screams, he took some money out of the jar in the kitchen and left.

The county seat was a long walk and he was feeling tired before he even started, but he walked with a lightness in his step because the baby was coming and Isolde would stop being sick and be her old self again. The baby coming early would be the beginning of good things happening. Daddy would come home and they would all go and get mama out of the mental hospital and bring her home. Dexter would fix his troubles with the law and would walk a free man again. They’d all sit around the table, eating fried chicken and chocolate cake. Daddy and Dexter would smoke cigarettes and drink beer and mama would hold the baby on her lap and smile. When they heard how well Phinis took care of things while they were gone, they’d say good things about him until he blushed and had to hide his face.

Phinis had been to the county seat many times, but it was always a revelation to him with its cars and people and the little shops that sold everything from farm implements and cars to cigars and ladies’ dresses. He stopped at the movie theatre, closed now, and read the posters for the westerns and comedies and romances that would be playing there in days to come. He had never seen a movie in his life, but had read about them and wanted to.

He went into a working man’s lunch counter, sat at the counter and ordered a  plate of eggs and ham and a root beer as if he had been ordering things in a restaurant all his life. From there he went to the drugstore where he bought a peppermint stick for the baby and a magazine for Isolde with stories for women.

He didn’t know how long he had been gone but it must be four hours at least and it would take him another hour to walk back home. The aching muscles in his legs didn’t matter; he could rest when he got home. He felt a happy anticipation when he thought about seeing the baby for the first time and making sure Isolde was all right. He hoped Isolde was right about the baby being a boy. His nephew.

It was just beginning to get dark when he turned off the lane toward the house. Miss Settles and January Maitland had just come out the door and were standing on the porch carrying white-wrapped bundles.

“Hey!” he called to them. “How’s the baby?”

“I’m sorry,” Miss Settles said. “I did all I could.”

“What?”

“The baby was born dead, a little boy, and the mama lost so much blood I couldn’t save her, either.”

“What was that you said?”

“I did all I could. You have my sympathy.”

“Do you mean Isolde died?”

“I am so sorry.”

“And the baby too?”

“He never felt nothing. He never knew nothing.”

He looked from Miss Settles to January Maitland and back again in confusion. “What do I do now?” he asked.

“You don’t need to do nothing,” Miss Settles said. “Try to get word to her husband.”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“Look,” she said, shifting her bag from one hand to another. “My little brother, Hiram Settles, will come by tomorrow to perform the burial. In the meantime, sit with her tonight. Say your goodbyes. That’s what family does. Light a candle and say a prayer for the repose of her soul.”

He put his hand on the doorknob, started to go inside, faltered.

“You don’t need to be afraid to go in there,” Miss Settles said. “There ain’t any mess. We cleaned it all up. The two of them are lying side by side now on the bed. They look just like they’re asleep. It was a hard struggle but she’s in a better place now.”

Isolde was lying under a sheet, clean and peaceful. He expected her to open her eyes and ask if he had seen Dexter. Beside her was the baby, fully formed, looking like one of the little dollies she used to play with when she was a small child.

He pulled up the rocker beside the bed and sat down. With nobody there to see it, he cried bitter tears. Isolde lying there dead with her little baby was the most pitiful thing he had ever seen in his whole life. He wished he could kill Dexter Wooley for doing such a thing to Isolde and then going off and leaving her. He would never do such a thing to any woman for as long as he ever lived.

He lit a candle as Miss Settles told him to do and read aloud from mama’s Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still…”

Rain began pounding the roof, shattering the silence. He sat beside the bed all night long, sleeping little. The candle burned down and went out.

At seven o’clock, Hiram Settles came with his young graveyard assistant. As they carried the empty coffin into the house, Phinis directed them to the bedroom. He looked away as they picked up the two bodies from the bed, first Isolde and then the baby, and placed them in the coffin and put the lid in place.

After Hiram Settles and his assistant extended their matter-of-fact condolences, Phinis held the door for them as they carried the coffin outside and loaded it into the back of the truck in the rain.

The truck made a terrible noise and belched out a cloud of exhaust. Phinis stood on the front porch and watched until it was out of sight and then he went back into the lonely house.

He was as tired as he had ever been in his life, numb with tiredness. He slipped out of his clothes and got into bed and slept until it was night again.

When he awoke, rain was again pounding the roof and it took him a while to remember all that had happened. Oh, yes, he was alone in the house. Isolde died, and her baby died, too. She was right. The baby was a boy.

He went into the kitchen to see what food was left. There wasn’t much, and only a little money left in the jar. He would starve to death if he stayed at home by himself. He couldn’t eat the leaves off the trees or the grass in the yard. He had to go find daddy and tell him all that happened, but find him where? He didn’t even know where to begin.

Mother had an older sister named Ruth. She lived in St. Louis. She was the only living family member that he knew about. He remembered seeing her once when he was only five or six years old He didn’t know exactly where she lived but he knew her name and would find her. She could maybe help him find daddy or tell him what he should do.

St. Louis was a hundred and seventy miles away. He didn’t have money for a bus ticket. He’d hitchhike, or walk every step of the way if he had to.

Having a plan was a good thing. St. Louis was a long way off, but he’d make it, for sure. He put a few things in the little suitcase that belonged to mama: the food that was left, the money jar, a change of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, mama’s Bible, The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, pictures of mama and daddy and Isolde, a comb and a toothbrush. He needed to travel light.

He waited then for morning and, just as the sun was coming up, set out in a northerly direction. He didn’t know exactly how to get to St. Louis, but he’d figure it out as he went along.

He walked all day, hitching rides for a couple of short distances. At ten o’clock, it seemed he had traveled a long way from home, but still had a long way to go. He was thinking about where he might spend the night when a couple of boys came upon him out of the dark. They were some older than he was, but not much. They said their names were Freddy and Len. They wore cowboy hats and boots.

“Where you headed?” Freddy asked.

“St. Louis,” Phinis said.

“Do you live there?” Len asked.

“No, just sightseeing.”

“We’re looking to steal a car.”

“What for?”

“It beats walking, don’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Phinis said. “I never stole a car. I don’t think I’d care to go to jail.”

“You’re a real smart guy, aren’t you?” Len said.

“No. My sister just died and her baby. My mother’s in the mental asylum and my father went off and left us. I had to leave home.”

“Oh, what a shame!” Freddy said. “We’re orphans, too.”

“I didn’t say I’m an orphan.”

“If you’re not an orphan, what are you, then?”

“I don’t know. I’m tired. I need a place to stay tonight.”

“We’re camping over in them woods over there. Do you want to throw in with us?”

“I don’t know. I’m not stealing any car.”

“We’ve got a tent and a campfire and some food. There’s room for one more in the tent if you’d care to join us. We were just fooling about stealing a car.”

“No, I’ll just keep looking,” Phinis said.

“Did you ever rob a store? It’s real easy if you’ve got a gun.”

“No, I never robbed a store and I don’t want to. I don’t want to go to jail.”

“Did you ever rape a woman?”

“No.”

“I’ll bet you’ve never done anything, have you?”

“No.”

“Life ain’t been very fair to you, has it?”

“I never thought about it.”

“We’re not really rapers and robbers,” Cal said. “He’s full of shit for saying that. He’s play-acting like a little child.”

“You got any money?” Freddy asked.

“None to speak of,” Phinis said.

“The world is just an awful place, ain’t it?”

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Until I Die

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Until I Die ~ A Noir Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post and has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)

Henry Hudson was waiting at a stoplight in town the first time he saw her. She passed within two feet of his car. She was with three other young people, obviously high school students. She had hair the color of burnished copper; she was wearing green. He was sure her eyes would be green, too.

The next time he saw her was at the public library. He was sitting on a bench reading a newspaper when she came in alone and sat down at a table and opened a book. She was dressed casually but in excellent taste. No blue jeans with tears in the knees or sneakers. Everything about her was perfect. From her hair to her skin to her fingernails, from her shoes to her purse, she generated good taste. She exuded perfection.

He saw her three more times in the next two weeks. The first time she was coming out of the drugstore with a woman obviously her mother. The next time he was driving by on Main Street when he saw her walking on the sidewalk, alone, in front of city hall. The third time she was with somebody else in a red car.

Then he saw her picture in the newspaper. Her name was Colleen Cork and she was eighteen. She was the daughter of Dr. Sidney Cork, neurosurgeon. She was named Outstanding Young Citizen of the Month by the mayor’s office for her charitable work, for her high scholastic standing and for her talent as a singer and musician. When she graduated from high school next year, she planned to go to New York and become a professional musician. The world would open up at her feet.

So now she had a name. He looked up her address in the phone book and found it easily enough. With the help of a map, he found the street where she lived and then the house. It was a large, scenic, three-story brick house on a verdant lot with towering trees in the front yard. The house, the whole setting, was perfect, as he knew it would be.

He parked across the street and watched the house, imagining the perfect life she must live with her perfect family. She would have a brother or two, manly and, like her,  good-looking; a handsome, heroic, distinguished father with graying temples who saved lives; an attractive, slim-hipped mother who hosted charity luncheons and boasted an ancestral lineage dating all the way back to the Pilgrims. An all-American family devoid of strife ugliness, and dysfunction.

As for his own family, they lived above the funeral home that his grandfather and then his father owned and operated. His mother had nervous breakdowns the way other people have colds. She committed suicide when he was sixteen by drinking a corrosive poison. Her death two days later in the hospital was a psychological blow from which he would never fully recover. He would carry her sadness around with him always, like a weight around the neck.

After high school, he studied embalming for a few semesters. He was all ready to take up the family business when he came to the astounding conclusion that he didn’t have the stomach for that kind of life, dealing with grieving family members and handling cadavers all the time. It wasn’t the kind of life he wanted. He told himself he was choosing life over death, but the truth was he was choosing to do nothing.

After he left school, he began drinking heavily and at twenty-five he was a full-fledged alcoholic. Doctors told him his liver was aging five times faster than normal. When he came to the realization he would die if he didn’t stop drinking, he spent several years in and out of different hospitals taking different “cures.” In time, only his willpower and determination made him stop drinking.

His father died and left him the family fortune, which was not millions but a little in excess of two hundred thousand. It wasn’t enough to live the life of an international playboy and jetsetter, but it gave him a reasonable income that he could draw on for  years to come (if he didn’t live to be too old) without having to scratch for a living in the workaday world.

He lived, by himself, in the funeral home establishment outside of town. It was no longer a funeral home but his home, the only home he had ever known. It had fifteen rooms but he only ever used five. He never went down to the basement where the embalming rooms were and all the tools and equipment, including some caskets that had never been used.

He had always been a solitary person. He had never known romantic love or even real friendship. He always believed that one day he would meet his ideal. She, like his mother, would have hair the color of burnished copper and green eyes. She would be a little taller than average and have natural grace and dignity. She would speak quietly but forcefully and she would always be on the side of right. Just being in her presence would make him a better person, would rectify all his errors and false steps and make everything right in the world.

The more he saw Colleen Cork, the more he was convinced she was the one he had been fated to meet out of all the others. All he had to do now was to have her make the miraculous discovery on her own.

He began driving around the high school at times he believed he would be most likely to see her, when school was taking up in the morning and letting out in the afternoon. More often than not, he would catch a glimpse of her, always surrounded by admirers and hangers-on. He would drive on then, satisfied, until the next time.

Once when he was driving by on Fourth Street near the school, he saw her go into the bookstore. He parked the car at a meter and got out and went into the store behind her. While she was looking around in the store, he followed along, hanging back just enough so that if she turned around she wouldn’t see him. When he saw that she was standing in the cashier’s line to pay, he picked up a book to buy without even looking at the title. He stood behind her in line, as close to her as he could get without jostling her. She never once turned and looked at him or knew he was there.

Any time he saw information about her in the newspapers, he cut it out and added it to a scrapbook. She was captain of the debating team, president of the music guild, on the board of the library and children’s hospital. She was chosen to participate in a statewide music competition in the state capitol. She appeared in the high school production of a play called Street Scene and might be interested in pursuing an acting career when she finished her education, in addition to her music. Everybody who saw her performance in the play said she was a “natural.”

He had taken to driving by her house almost every night at ten o’clock. Sometimes the house would be dark and at other times there would be lights in all the windows. He imagined which upstairs room would be hers. He could picture her sitting up in bed reading a book or washing her face in the bathroom before going to bed.

One night, when driving past didn’t seem satisfying enough, he stopped on the other side of the street and parked. He had been sitting in his car for about ten minutes when a police car pulled up alongside and stopped. He smiled because he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.

He rolled down his window and looked up into the face of a middle-aged police officer. “Good evening,” he said pleasantly.

“Would you step out of your vehicle please?” the officer said.

“Why?”

“Just do as I say and there won’t be any trouble.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“I need to see your operator’s license.”

“My what?”

“Your driver’s license.”

He took it out of his wallet and handed it to the officer, who looked at it for a long time underneath the flashlight.

“You don’t live here,” the officer said. “This is not your address.”

“That’s right.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“I wasn’t doing anything, really. Just waiting for a friend.”

“What friend?”

“I don’t know where he went. That’s why I’m waiting for him.”

“You need to go on home, now. It’s late. When people see you waiting around out here in the dark for no reason, they think you’re a prowler and they become alarmed.”

“I’m not a prowler.”

“Well, go on home, then. This is not your neighborhood.”

“Yes, sir.”

He was going to have to be more discreet. He didn’t care what people thought of him, but he didn’t want Colleen Cork to hear about him and get the idea that he meant to do her harm or that she needed to be afraid of him. He had only the kindest and most generous intentions toward her.

He was trying to think of a way that he might approach her without alarming her or making her suspicious. If he only had some pretext to talk to her, it might break down the barrier between them, but what could the pretext be? He was mulling these questions over in his mind when he heard the news.

He saw it in the morning newspaper: Country Club Trio Killed in Saturday Night Car Crash.

Colleen Cork was a member of a string trio performing at a function at the country club on Saturday night. About eleven o’clock, after the function ended, the car in which the trio were riding was struck head-on by a drunk driver going eighty-five miles an hour about five miles outside of town. Two of the young musicians were pronounced dead at the scene. The third died at the hospital before morning. The drunk driver was not injured. Charges were expected to be filed.

The world turns on such events. Everything changes in the blink of an eye.

On seeing the news, he lost consciousness. When he awoke again, he began drinking whiskey and taking pills. He intended to kill himself, but twenty-four hours later he was still alive. God had kept him alive, when a lesser man would have succumbed.

After he sobered up and thought clearly again, he knew what he was going to do.

Colleen Cork lay in state at the Vernon Vale and Sons Mortuary Chapel on Mission Street. On Tuesday morning the body would be removed to the Central Avenue Methodist Church for an eleven o’clock service. Private interment would follow at the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost.

On Tuesday morning at two o’clock, he got out of bed after several hours of sleep and dressed entirely in black. He drove his car to the Vernon Vale and Sons Mortuary Chapel on Mission Street. Using a crowbar, he easily broke the lock on a side door and made his way in the dark, with the aid of a small flashlight, to the viewing chapel where Colleen Cork’s body lay.

She lay in a white casket, dressed in a white gown, with a wreath of rosebuds in her hair. He wept with gratitude when he saw her beauty was in no way diminished by the violent way in which she died. Quickly, before any alarms were raised, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her out of the building, stumbling with her in the dark as he ran back to his car. He opened the door and slid her easily enough onto the back seat and covered her with a blanket. The whole thing had taken less than ten minutes.

In the lower basement of the funeral home was a vault-like room where his grandfather and his father used to prepare bodies for burial. He unlocked the door with the only key in existence, turned on the lights, carried the body of Colleen Cork inside and placed it in a massive, antique, cast-iron coffin from his grandfather’s day. Nothing less would do.

He learned from the newspaper that the purloined body of the beautiful Colleen Cork caused quite a stir in the town. Nothing like it had ever happened before. What kind of a depraved person would steal a body from a funeral home hours before the funeral? Police were investigating but so far had no leads. Everyone was wondering how the family would proceed with the funeral with the body missing.

They would be coming for him, he knew. The policeman he encountered on Colleen Cork’s street would remember him, would remember what he looked like and remember his car. It wouldn’t take long for them to figure out what he had done.

Every time he heard a car outside, he imagined it would be them. They had come for him with a warrant to search the house. They would find Colleen, take her away, put her in the ground, send him to jail for the rest of his life. It was the ending he abhorred.

On the third day, early in the morning, he began taking barbiturate sleeping pills, two or three at a time, swallowing them with swigs from a bottle of rye whiskey. Over a period of two or three hours, he took the entire bottle of a hundred pills, drank the whole bottle of whiskey.

Feeling himself to be floating, he descended the steps to the lower basement where the still-beautiful Colleen Cork waited for him. When he opened the door to the vault where she lay and beheld her, he wept once again at the richness of the beauty that now belonged only to him.

He lay down beside her in the coffin to her left, inclining his head toward hers, smelling the chemicals that had gone into her body. He didn’t have long to wait now, he knew. He was fading. Floating. Ebbing. He embraced easeful death lying beside the only person in the world he had ever loved and he was happy. It was the thing he had waited for his whole life.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

It’s You I Adore

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It’s You I Adore ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted a different version of  this story previously.) 

Roland Finney is a mystery. He is forty-two years old and lives with his mother. He’s quiet and unassuming, keeps to himself, mows his lawn, picks up his morning newspaper, shovels the snow after a storm, never speaks to anybody. At seven-thirty every morning he leaves quietly for work and gets home at four in the afternoon and hardly ever goes out again. Nobody knows where he works or what kind of a job he has. On weekends he takes his mother on errands.

Carmen Giles lives next door to Roland Finney. She also lives with her mother. She is nearing forty years old, has been married and divorced two times. After the second divorce, she moved “back home,” as the saying goes, “to get her life in order.” She and her mother get along fine together as long as they avoid discussion of certain topics, such as Carmen’s choice of boyfriends.

Over a period of a year or more, Carmen Giles has developed an unhealthy interest in Roland Finney, amounting almost to obsession. It maddens her that he is single, she is single, they seem compatible in every appreciable way, and their paths never cross.

She watches him out the upstairs window with her binoculars as he cuts the grass in his back yard. He wears a sleeveless undershirt, khaki pants and tennis shoes. She likes the play of his biceps as he pushes and then pulls the mower. On his face is a look of concentration. She likes the neat, straight rows of his cutting. A man who cuts that precisely and evenly must have a lot of good qualities. He would hang up his own clothes and rinse his own dishes and not leave it for somebody else.

He shuts off the mower and sits in a lawn chair and picks up a newspaper and opens it. He is a man who likes to read and wants to know what’s going on in his world. He’s not the kind who would lay on the couch in front of the TV all the time. His mother comes out of the house and brings him a bottle of beer. She is a troll-like woman with stooped shoulders and hair dyed an awful red that hangs down to her shoulders. He takes a drink of the beer and holds the bottle between his thighs so his hands are free to turn the pages of the paper.

In the year-and-a-half that Carmen has lived next door to Roland Finney, she has never heard him utter a single syllable. He is possibly the quietest, most maddening man she has ever encountered. She has thought on occasion that she will go over and introduce herself, begin a friendly conversation with him, but somehow she just doesn’t have the nerve. Maybe he doesn’t speak, or maybe there’s something wrong with him, like mental retardation, and she would only embarrass him and herself, too.

When a letter is misdelivered to her mailbox, a letter that belongs to him, she sees it as her chance to engage him in conversation. She takes the letter and knocks on his door assertively, but he doesn’t answer—nobody answers, not even his troll-like mother—so she drops it through the mail slot in the door and leaves. She is certain he is at home since his car in the driveway and believes he might have come to the door if he had wanted to.

At night she lies in her upstairs bedroom and thinks about him and imagines him lying in his own bed in the room just across the yard from hers behind the heavily curtained window. When his light is off, she’s sure he must be asleep. He’s the type who would wear pajamas. His mother would take them out of the clothes dryer and fold them neatly and put them in his dresser drawer for him. He’d wear them for a few nights and then take them off and put them in the laundry and get out a clean pair.

One Saturday night she is watching TV with her mother when she hears a car stop out front and the honk of a horn. She goes to the front window and pulls back the curtain a little and peeks out. The idling car is stopped at the curb in front of Roland’s house, taillights gleaming in the darkness. The horn honks again and in a minute Roland comes running out of his house and gets into the car and it speeds off.

Where is he going on a Saturday night and who is he going with? With this question burning in her mind, she can no longer concentrate on the TV programs. Here she sits with her mother, while she should be the one going out having a good time on Saturday night. She feels lonely and left out, maybe even a little jealous.

“Aren’t you feeling well?” her mother asks.

“I feel all right,” Carmen says. “It must be something I ate.”

“Want an Alka-Seltzer?”

“No, I’m going to bed.”

“Don’t you want to watch the late movie? It’s Joan Crawford.”

“Joan Crawford gives me nightmares.”

Lying in her bed in the dark, she realizes she is in love with Roland Finney, or close to it. That’s why she feels so unhappy and jealous to know he left in a car with somebody else on Saturday night. Yes, she loves him. There can be no other explanation. Absolutely she loves him, in a way she’s never loved before. She knows deep down that he would love her too if only he was given the chance.

The next morning is Sunday. She sleeps late and when she wakes up she begins drinking vodka martinis instead of eating breakfast. While she’s enjoying the lightheaded feeling alcohol always gives her, she goes into the kitchen and begins making oatmeal raisin cookies. She prepares the batter and, while the cookies are in the oven, she washes her face, puts on clean clothes and makeup to make herself look better than she feels.

When the cookies are done baking and have cooled long enough, she puts three dozen in a tin box in a nest of wax paper and closes the lid. After a couple more quick drinks, she makes her drunken way out the door with the tin of cookies and goes over to Roland’s house and knocks on his door.

She is certain Roland will answer the door this time but, no, it’s the woman. She scowls at Carmen as if she’s an annoying vacuum cleaner salesman. The corners of her mouth turn down.

“Yes?” she says.

Carmen smiles but her mouth is suddenly dry. “Good morning! My name is Carmen. I’m your next door neighbor.”

“Yes?”

“I know we’ve never been properly introduced, but I just wanted to…”

“Are you selling something?”

“Why, no.”

“What’s that you got there?”

“It’s some cookies I baked. Oatmeal raisin. I baked more than my mother and I can possibly eat, so I thought you and your son might like to have some of them.”

“My son? What are you talking about?”

“Is he here?”

“Is who here?”

“I’d like to give them to him myself.”

Who is it?” she hears his voice call from another room. The first words she ever hears him speak.

Carmen pushes past the woman and enters the house uninvited.

“Wait a minute!” the woman says. “You can’t just come barging…”

Who is it?” Roland calls again.

She follows the sound of his voice into the kitchen. He’s sitting at the table with a newspaper spread out before him. When he stands up, she sees he’s wearing a bathrobe. His legs are bare.

What?” he says, and that one word is all he can say because she surprises him by running to him and holding him in a tight embrace around the shoulders. Dropping the tin of cookies to the floor, she tries to kiss him on the lips but he deflects it by stepping back.

He takes hold of her arms to try to free himself. “I think you have the wrong house!” he says. “I don’t know you!”

“I’ve wanted to meet you for the longest time!” she sobs.

What? Who are you, anyway?”

“Oh, I’m sorry! My name is Carmen Giles. I’m your next door neighbor. I see you every day. I watch you out the upstairs window with my binoculars.”

“I think you have the wrong person.” He pushes Carmen gently aside and goes out of the room.

The woman is standing in the doorway to the kitchen, looking at her, wondering what’s she’s going to do next.

“That’s about it, girly!” she says. “We don’t know you and from what I’ve seen we don’t want to know you.”

“Oh, dear!” Carmen says. “I’ve made a terrible mistake, haven’t I? I’ve been drinking vodka martinis all day and I’m not myself. I don’t ordinarily act like this. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Just go.”

“I’d like to apologize to your son.”

“What are you talking about? My son?”

“I’m sorry if I embarrassed him.”

“My son? You think he’s my son?”

“Well, isn’t he?”

She starts to say something else, but the words won’t come. She bends over and vomits vodka martinis all the floor. When she is finished, she stands up and wipes her mouth on her sleeve. The woman, the wife, takes her by the arm, escorts her to the door and ejects her with a little shove.

The next day, once again sober, she tells her mother about meeting the Finneys.

“I was feeling generous and a little sentimental, I guess, and I wanted some company. I baked more cookies than I wanted. I put some of them in one of those tins from Christmas and I took it over to give to them. Just a friendly gesture and so innocent! After living next door to them all this time, I wanted to meet them. In all innocence, I swear! When I knocked on the door, that horrible woman answered. She’s even worse-looking up-close than she is from a distance. She invited me into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. He was sitting at the kitchen table practically naked.  He stood up and smiled at me. Then he wanted to give me a big hug. I don’t object to an innocent hug, but I could see right away that he was putting more oomph into it than was necessary. He actually groped my backside with both hands until I squirmed loose. I was plenty embarrassed, but I tried to laugh it off. I handed him the tin of cookies and I said, ‘I have all these home-baked cookies, more than I will ever eat, and I thought you and your mother would like some.’ At that, they both started laughing, a sickening, cackling laugh! They were laughing at me! I felt humiliated! Then the old woman said, ‘You think he’s my son, you silly goose? He’s not my son! He’s my husband! I’m his wife! Hah-hah-hah!’ Then the man said, ‘Just because I’m married doesn’t mean I can’t have some fun!’ Then he leered at me suggestively and laughed. Well, I got out of there as fast as I could and came home. They are disgusting people and when I see them again I’m going to pretend they’re not even there!”

“How about some stuffed porkchops for supper?” her mother says.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Look in His Eye

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The Look in His Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted a different version of this story previously.)

She worked as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. She hated her job but she went to work every day and performed her menial duties to the best of her ability because she had a dependent child to take care of on her own, a nine-year-old son named Devin. She had been a widow since Devin was three, when Devin’s father was killed when a scaffolding he was working on, forty feet high, collapsed and sent him and two other workers to their deaths.

When she wasn’t working, she liked to have a good time. She smoked a lot of cigarettes and sometimes she drank enough beer to make her sick all the next day, but she was an attentive mother to Devin and rarely punished him for not eating his vegetables, making a mess of his room, or getting less-than-spectacular grades on his report card.

Usually on the weekend she engaged an old lady from the neighborhood or a high-school girl to sit with Devin, watch TV with him (no monster movies), give him pizza or a sandwich for dinner, and then make sure he brushed his teeth and went to bed at a reasonable hour. Sometimes she would not come home until the next morning. More than once, the old woman staying with Devin got tired of waiting and took him home with her and put him to bed on her couch, leaving a note for mother to let her know where they were.

Mother attracted boyfriends effortlessly. She specialized in low-life, no-account men, she said. Some of them had long hair and tattoos and were just out of jail. They were all right for a little while but she soon grew tired of them and could never take them seriously.

And then she met Kelly Gottschalk. He was different from her other boyfriends. He had gone to college but, more importantly, he had been an officer in the marine corps. He had a flat-top haircut and he wore form-fitting shirts that showed off his bulging muscles. He had been married to a couple of different ladies (not at the same time), but he found out after he married them that he didn’t like them as much as he thought and divorced both of them.

Mother had Kelly over for spaghetti so he and Devin could meet and get acquainted. From the beginning, they didn’t have much to say to each other, but they shook hands politely at the front door and smiled. Mother and Kelly hardly looked Devin’s way or spoke to him during dinner. Mother spoke quietly into Kelly’s ear as if she didn’t want Devin to hear what she said. Her eyes shone and she giggled a lot; she could hardly keep her hands off Kelly. Devin had never seen her act so silly. When dinner was over, they sat on the couch and watched TV, holding hands, while Devin went to his room and closed the door.

Devin wanted to tell mother he didn’t like Kelly, that just the look in his eye gave him a bad feeling, but he said nothing because she seemed happy and he didn’t want to give her anything to feel bad about.

A few days after the spaghetti dinner, mother told Devin that she and Kelly were getting married and there were going to be some big changes in their lives. Finally she could quit her job at the nursing home and stay at home and be a real wife and mother. They were going to live in Kelly’s house, with its big yard, garage, and basement. Devin would, of course, have his own room. He was lucky because he could keep going to his old school, although he would have a lot farther to walk.

Mother and Kelly were married by a justice of the peace (how romantic!) and were gone for three nights, during which time Devin stayed with a neighbor lady and her yapping miniature schnauzers. He couldn’t wait for mother to get back home so he could feel normal again, but the only problem was that when she came back Kelly was with her.

Within a week they had left their small apartment and moved into Kelly’s house. Devin had bad dreams at first because his room was upstairs and he was lonely and the stairs creaked on their own as if a ghost was walking up and down them. If he called out to mother, she didn’t come to him the way she used to because her bedroom was downstairs and Devin couldn’t sleep with her whenever he was scared and couldn’t go barging into her room any time he felt like it because it was Kelly’s room too and mother said they needed their privacy, as all newlyweds do.

She didn’t quit her job right away as she thought she would, because, as it turned out, she had some old debts to pay off and she didn’t want to have to burden Kelly with them. It meant that Devin, with mother at work all day, was left alone in the house with Kelly.

Devin still didn’t like Kelly very much but he would try for mother’s sake. He’d be civil if nothing else. He’d stay out of Kelly’s way as much as he could, watch TV, stay in his room reading his comic books, or occupy himself with something in the yard.

Kelly had other ideas, though, about the way Devin should spend his time. He believed in military-style discipline. To begin with, the TV would not be turned on during the day. It sucked up too much electricity and it was a bad influence on kids; it made them soft and unrealistic and made them want things they couldn’t have.

“Your mother indulges you too much,” Kelly said.

“What does that mean?” Devin asked.

“She lets you have your way all the time. She spoils you. I won’t do that.”

“That’s all right. I like to be left alone.”

“Yeah? Well, those days are over.”

After the “honeymoon” was over and mother had returned to her job at the rest home, Kelly gave Devin a broom and a dustpan and put him to work cleaning his room, pulling all the furniture way from the wall and cleaning behind it. When that was finished, he gave him a scrub brush and a can of cleanser and made him get down in the bathtub and clean the tile.

“That isn’t fair,” Devin said. “All this dirt was here before I came here. This is somebody else’s dirt.”

“Yeah? Well, tell me about fair,” Kelly said. “Life isn’t fair, is it? The sooner you learn it, the better.”

How Kelly loved his little book of rules!

You will take baths regularly, of course, if not daily. (He came into the bathroom while Devin was in the tub to make sure he wasn’t wasting water.) After the bath, clean the tub thoroughly, tidy the bathroom, and hang all towels neatly on their racks. We don’t live on Park Avenue and we don’t have a maid. You will be your own maid, which includes hanging up your clothes and putting your dirty socks and underwear in the laundry basket at the bottom of the basement stairs to be sorted later.

We observe nine o’clock bedtime every night of the week, even on weekends. (No more late movies on TV.) Going to bed early and getting up early is a healthy habit and it instills discipline.

Every morning, you will make your own bed before breakfast and before getting dressed. Change the sheets at least once a week and take the dirty sheets down to the basement and put them in the washer.

You will only have one light on at a time and that’s the light you’re using. When you go out of a room, turn off any lights that are on. When you open the refrigerator door, get out everything you need at once. Opening the refrigerator door repeatedly wastes electricity.

Mow the lawn at least once a week. Keep the rows straight and even. Rake up the cut grass and put it in bags made especially for that purpose. After the grass is mowed, pull the weeds growing in the flower bed. Repeat in one week.

At first Devin enjoyed operating the powerful mower, but the sun was hot, his arms ached and he hated having Kelly finding fault with everything he did.

“Go over that row again,” Kelly barked. “You missed some sprouts growing there.”

Mother came out of the house to observe. “That mower is too heavy for him,” she said. “You have to remember he doesn’t have the strength of a grown man.”

“He’s never too young to learn to do things right,” Kelly said.

“Watch him and make sure he doesn’t lose any fingers or toes,” she said.

Kelly had a temper and he liked to pout, mother said. She would do whatever was needed to stay on his good side. She didn’t want to cross him or do anything to make him mad.

“I hate him,” Devin one evening when he was drying dishes after supper.

“He’s trying to be a good father to you,” mother said.

“He’s not my father. I hate him.”

“You have to give him a chance. This is all new for him.”

“Can’t we go back home and forget about him?” Devin asked.

Mother laughed. “This is home now,” she said.

And then there was the attic and after the attic the basement. They hadn’t been cleaned out in years, Kelly said, and it was high time.

The attic was full of dust and cobwebs. There was old furniture and stuff his mother and father used and, even before them, his grandparents. Kelly wanted everything straightened up, righted, and dusted off. That meant lugging the vacuum cleaner up the steps and plugging it into the one bulb that hung from the ceiling and sucking up all the spiders and cobwebs and the years’ accumulation of dust. Then there was the nightmare of bundling up all the things to throw away, according to Kelly’s exact specifications, and setting it out for the trash collectors to pick up.

The basement was dark and frightening, with strange smells and piles of old furniture and boxes everywhere. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling all the way to the floor, making it seem like Dracula’s castle. Devin saw his first rat when he was moving some boxes and ran out into the yard, shivering with revulsion.

“I can’t do this!” he said. “I’m not a slave, for Christ’s sake!”

Summer vacation was over and he started fourth grade. It was the first time in his life that he was glad to return to school. He had to walk a mile each way, but he didn’t mind it so much, even when it was raining. He liked the rainy days best because on those days there was no yard work to be done.

Mother was tired and nervous when she got home from work. She cooked the supper that they ate in silence. Devin saw that she had changed since she married Kelly. She had dark circles under her eyes and she didn’t laugh anymore. He wished that things could be the way they used to be.

On some days Kelly told mother to leave the supper dishes for Devin to do on his own. He would take her into the living room and get her to lie across his lap while he rubbed her shoulders and whispered in her ear. Mother seemed to like that kind of treatment, but Devin hated Kelly for it. He hated to see them together. Sometimes they went into their bedroom and closed the door early in the evening, before dark, and Devin wouldn’t see them again until the next morning.

It was well into fall and the big trees in the yard were shedding their leaves. There were thousands of leaves, millions of them, so many that Devin had to rake every day after school just to keep up with them. They used to be able to burn the leaves but now they had to bag them up in yard-waste bags. Devin didn’t know which was harder. raking the leaves or getting them into the upright bags. Kelly wasn’t much help—though always present—because he had a couple of slipped discs in his back and couldn’t bend over and couldn’t lift.

On a Sunday afternoon toward the end of October, Devin was in the side yard working on the leaves. He had a sore throat, didn’t feel well, and wanted to go to his room and spend the afternoon doing what he wanted to do. The leaves were never-ending.

Kelly, for once, was occupied elsewhere. He had bought a vintage 1956 Cadillac and was restoring it. The Cadillac was in the driveway, near the house, and Kelly was underneath it with only his big feet sticking out. The tires had been removed and the front end of the car was jacked up; only a thin arm of metal kept the car suspended in the air.

Devin found a formidable-looking slingshot by the back fence. He didn’t know who it belonged to, but since he found it in his yard he would claim it as his own. He picked it up and pulled back on the rubber sling to test its resiliency. It begged to be tried out. Since Kelly wasn’t paying at attention at the moment, there was nothing to keep him from firing a few missiles into the air.

In the back yard was a walnut tree. The branches were heavy with walnuts but a lot of them had fallen to the ground and lay scattered about. (Yes, Devin would have to bag them up, too, when the time came.) He picked one up and felt its hardness and solidity. He shot one up into the walnut tree, scaring a squirrel and causing some birds to take to the air.

He fired one over the house and watched the satisfying arc it described in the air. He kept firing them in all directions, realizing it was the most fun he had had for a while. He didn’t care if Kelly saw that he was playing instead of working. He’d like to shoot one squarely between his eyes.

One of the walnuts went wildly astray. He saw too late that it was headed toward the Cadillac. If it hit the Cadillac of anywhere near it, Kelly would be out from under the car and all over him in a matter of seconds.

The walnut hit the jack holding up the car. It made a ping! sound and bounced off. The jack held for a couple of seconds and then shimmied and collapsed as if by design. The Cadillac came crashing down on Kelly. He let out one short, sharp scream and his legs twitched.

Devin dropped the slingshot and ran for the back door. Mother was standing in the kitchen. She already knew something had happened. She took one look at Devin and followed him out the door. She ran to the Cadillac to try to help Kelly, but of course there was nothing to be done.

A neighbor called the ambulance. The ambulance people came with their emergency equipment and lifted up the Cadillac high enough to pull Kelly out. They rushed him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Lots of people came to the funeral home to see Kelly laid out in his casket. All the people from the neighborhood were there, all of mother’s coworkers, people she knew from as far back as high school. Relatives she hadn’t seen for years heard about the accident and came to pay their condolences.

Mother was standing in front of Kelly’s casket in her black dress. Devin went and stood beside her.

“Do you think it hurt when the car fell on him?” he asked.

“I don’t think he felt anything,” she said. “They said he died instantly.”

“I’ve never seen a dead person before.”

She put her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. She started crying again.

“I’ve had two husbands and they both died in accidents,” she said. “I’m through with marriage. I will never be a widow again.”

What was going on in Devin’s mind no one could ever know, least of all her. He was the only person in the world who knew what really happened to Kelly. He would never tell anybody; people would think he did it on purpose and he would go to jail for the rest of his life. No, it was his one true secret and he would hold it close for as long as he lived.

Some new people came in and mother went to greet them, leaving Devin standing alone in front of the casket. How different Kelly was now, lying on his bed of peach-colored satin. No longer the big, blustering man, barking out orders in his best military style. He would go into the ground tomorrow after the funeral and turn to dust in his grave, never to speak another word.

Devin felt conspicuous standing there in the open. He heard his name spoken behind him. People were looking at him, feeling sorry for him. He went and found a chair against the wall where nobody could see him, flattened his hands under his thighs and took a deep breath. He wanted only to leave, to be left alone, to get into bed and cover up his head without anybody watching him or speaking his name.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Twenty-Minute Rest Stop

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Twenty-Minute Rest Stop ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Paul Penlow waited two hours for the bus and when it came he was the first to board. He took a seat in the back next to the window and watched the other passengers as they boarded and took their seats. When about half the seats were taken, the big-bellied driver got on, took a quick look behind him, and roared off the narrow parking lot onto the highway.

In the next small town, the bus stopped to take on more passengers. Three nearly identical old ladies with white hair boarded, moved slowly down the aisle, and surrounded Paul Penlow where he sat. Two sat in the seat in front of him and the other one took the aisle seat to his left.

He could have stood the intrusion of the trio into “his” space, but what he could not tolerate was the smell of their perfume. He would become ill if had to breathe it all the way to where he was going. He considered standing up and moving to another seat (there were plenty) but instead he opened the window a couple of inches and let the wind blow in his face.

“Do you mind, kiddo?” the old woman beside him said. “This is not a good day to be blown away.”

“I could move to another seat,” he said.

“Oh, please don’t do that! I want you to stay right where you are!”

You could move to another seat.”

“Yes, but why would I do that? I just sat down and this is where I want to be.”

“I have asthma,” he said. “I need the window open to help me breathe.”

“Well, in that case let’s compromise. You keep the window open one inch instead of two and I’ll put on my headscarf.”

She took a lavender headscarf out of her purse, put in on her head and tied it under her chin.

“That’s better,” she said.

“Are you three sisters?” Paul asked.

They all three laughed the same musical laugh.

“Not only are we sisters but we’re triplets! It’s quite rare. I’ll bet you’ve never met any triplets before, have you?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“We were all born within one hour of each other on October the tenth. I won’t tell you what year because then you’d know how old we are! I’m Peg and these are my sisters Dot and Lou.”

“I’m Paul,” he said.

Dot and Lou turned around in their seats so they could shake his hand.

“We travel a lot, the three of us,” Peg said. “You meet some interesting people when you travel. Any time we take a bus trip, we always try to find a nice young person to sit with. It doesn’t matter if it’s a he or a she. If you strike up an interesting conversation with your seatmate, it makes the trip that much more enjoyable.”

Dot and Lou stayed turned around so they could join in the conversation.

“Everybody has a story,” Dot said, “and most of the stories are more interesting than you could ever imagine.”

“I have a story,” Paul said. “I’m going home. I haven’t been home for three years. I’ll bet you’d never guess where I’ve been.”

“At sea?” Lou asked.

“No. Guess again.”

“In jail?”

“No, but you’re getting warm.”

“I know where you’ve been,” Peg said. “You’ve been in a mental hospital.”

“That’s right! How did you know?”

“Oh, I know things about people.”

“She’s been doing it all her life,” Dot said. “She looks at people and knows things about them that nobody else knows.”

“What else do you know about me?” he asked.

“Well, let’s see,” Peg said. “You killed somebody but you didn’t mean to.”

“Why, that’s uncanny!” he said.

“Who did you kill?” Lou asked. “Was it your wife?”

“No, I never had a wife. It was my father.”

“Why did you kill him?” Peg asked.

“I had a mental disorder. I thought he was somebody other than who he was. I was afraid of him. I thought he was going to kill my mother and me, so I killed him first.”

“Who did you think he was?” Dot asked.

“I thought he was a demon like you see in a horror movie. The demon had killed the man who was really my father and taken over his body. He was just waiting until the time was right to kill me too.”

“Did the demon have horns?” Peg asked.

“Yes, horns, and eyes that glowed like coals.”

“How did you kill him? Did you shoot him?”

“No, I strangled him with a length of rope. It was so easy! I was so strong!”

“So what happened after that?” Lou asked.

“My mother found him dead in his bed the next morning with the rope still around his neck. She called the police. When they came, they knew right away I had done it, but of course I denied it.”

“Oh, that’s a sad story!” Peg said.

“Those are the best kind!” Dot said.

“They were going to lock me up in the penitentiary for the rest of my life, but psychiatrists examined me and said I had a textbook mental illness. I didn’t kill my father because I hated him or because he was mean to me or anything like that. I killed him, I believed, to save myself. They put me in a hospital for the dangerously insane. Now, after three years, they’re letting me go home. They say I’m cured. If you want to know the truth, I think they wanted my room to give to somebody else.”

Are you cured?” Lou asked.

“No, I don’t think so. Not entirely, anyway. Do you know what I’m going to do when I get home?”

“No. What?”

“We live on a farm. Out back is an old barn. When I was little I liked to play in the barn to get away from my family and be alone. The barn has a hayloft and strong rafters. I’m going to climb up into the hayloft, tie a rope to one of the rafters with the other end around my neck, and jump off.”

“You’re going to kill yourself?”

“That’s right. I’ve been thinking about it for three years. It’s the only reason I’m going back home. There’s no other reason, really.”

“I won’t tell you you shouldn’t do it,” Peg said. “I’m sure you already know that.”

“I made up my mind a long time ago.”

“Well, if that’s what you want,” Peg said, “you’re a grown-up person.”

C’est la vie!” Lou said.

“The world will go on without you,” Dot said.

“I sure would like to see my mother’s face when she finds me hanging there.”

“Won’t it be awfully upsetting for her?” Peg asked.

“I think she’ll be glad. She never really liked me.”

At the next twenty-minute rest stop, he got off the bus, while the triplet sisters stayed in their seats. He had to stand in line outside the door to the men’s room and when he was finished there, he had to stand in line to buy a Coke out of a vending machine.

He bought four Cokes. He thought the triplet sisters would appreciate a cold drink on a warm day. He had always been thoughtful that way; generous, you might say.

He had a little trouble carrying four Cokes in two hands, but he couldn’t keep from smiling as he re-boarded the bus. He stopped in the aisle, though, Cokes in hands, when he saw the triplet sisters were no longer there. He thought for a minute he was on the wrong bus, but, no, it was the same driver and the same passengers. It was the same bus, all right.

He drank all four Cokes and when he was finished he stowed the empty bottles under the seat. When he got home, he wouldn’t be hungry and wouldn’t need to eat before going to bed. His stomach was full of Coca-Cola.

His mother sure would be surprised he was home after all this time. He had been going to call her and tell her he was coming, but he somehow forgot. 

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

We first met boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade in Daniel Woodrell’s 1986 novel, Under the Bright Lights. He’s back two years later in Muscle for the Wing, another crime romp set in the fictional bayou city of St. Bruno. Muscle for the Wing is not as atmospheric as  Under the Bright Lights, but there’s still plenty of murder, mayhem and people doing ugly things to each other.

Wanda Bone Bouvier is the redhaired femme fatale in Muscle for the Wing. (She inflames men’s passions, don’t you know.) She’s married to the much-older Ronnie Bouvier, who is behind bars.  She claims to love Ronnie, but that does not keep her from being carnally unfaithful with tough-guy Emil Jadick. She’s going to get revenge on Emil for Ronnie’s sake (and at his direction from the state penitentiary), but she admits openly that she “digs” Emil’s muscular body. (She’s a good-time girl who will take her fun wherever she can get it.) Emil wants Wanda to be his number-one girl—and his alone—not knowing she will eventually hurt him in a big way. When she gets a job as a do-anything stripper in a naughty nightclub, it’s all part of Ronnie’s plan.

When young, off-duty police officer Gerry Bell is shot to death at a gentlemen’s poker game at the country club by intruders set on robbing the wealthy poker players, police officer Rene Shade is called in to figure out what happened. Evidence leads to Emil Jadick and his two dimwitted associates, all members of a white supremacist prison clique called “the Wing.”

World-weary, boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade has lived in St. Bruno his whole life; he knows the city and he knows the people. In investigating the murder of Gerry Bell, he’s drawn into a morass of crime and corruption, involving some of his old friends and associates, including friend-since-childhood Shuggie Zeck, who beats his wife to a bloody pulp. In St. Bruno, everybody is tainted in some way. There’s no such thing as innocence. Everybody is guilty of something. You can’t even tell the good people from the bad ones.

Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. If you like redneck noir, nobody does it better. His books are a delight to read, even if you are on your second reading. I highly recommend The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp