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Never Mix, Never Worry (I Was Dancing and I Was Ridiculous)

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Never Mix, Never Worry (I Was Dancing and I Was Ridiculous)

They were out all night and didn’t get home until after dawn. Honey was sick from too much to drink and went right to bed. Nick slept on the couch in the living room, slept the morning away and didn’t wake up until the middle of the afternoon. Upon awaking, he had a terrible headache that he hadn’t been aware of while he slept. He wasn’t sure if his body was going to allow him to get up, but after a while he pulled himself to a standing position, head reeling, and went into the kitchen.

Honey was sitting at the table reading a book. She had a cup of tea beside her; she always said tea with lemon settled her stomach. When Nick came into the room, she didn’t look at him but concentrated very hard on the printed page.

“Hello, Honey,” Nick said, going up behind her and putting his hands on her shoulders close to her neck. She flinched and leaned forward until he removed his hands.

“What a night!” he said with a little laugh. “I feel like eating something but when I think about what I might eat I think I’m going to puke.”

She marked her place in the book, closed it and laid it aside. “Do you want me to cook some eggs?” she asked.

Nick groaned. “I can’t stand the thought of eggs.” He went to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Don’t we have any bacon?”

“I haven’t been to the market yet. I was planning on going today but I don’t think I’m up to it.

He poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat down at the table across from her. “Can somebody please tell me what happened last night?” he said.

“You haven’t asked me how I feel,” she said.

“How do you feel?”

“Lousy. I feel lousy.”

“Were you able to stop the vomiting?” He ran his hand over his face as if trying to pull it into shape.

“Yes, a person can only vomit so much. I’ve stopped for now, but I don’t dare eat anything. I think it’s going to take several days for me to feel right again.”

“Do you want me to fix you some toast? Do we even have any bread?”

“No, if I eat anything, I’ll vomit again.”

“All right.”

“We need to talk about last night,” she said.

“Not now, Honey,” he said. “I don’t feel like a serious discussion at the moment. And, anyway, I think the least that’s said about last night, the better.”

“Better for you, you mean,” she said.

“I’m going to take a bath,” he said, standing up. “If you feel better later, we’ll go out and get some chicken or something.”

“Maybe I need to talk now!” she said in a too-loud voice.

“What about, Honey?”

“I humiliated myself last night.”

“No, you didn’t. You didn’t do anything the rest of us didn’t do.”

“I was dancing and I was ridiculous.”

“We were all dancing. It was all in good fun.”

“Then why do I feel so humiliated today?”

“You’re tired and you’re overly sensitive.”

“Don’t talk down to me!”

“I’m not!”

“I’m humiliated. I drank bourbon and scotch. Not together, but one after the other.”

“That isn’t anything to be humiliated about. We were all drinking. It was a drinking party.”

“Yes, but you know my one steadfast rule is ‘never mix, never worry’. Well, I mixed and I’m paying the price.”

“Honey, nobody’s perfect,” he said. “We all have little lapses.”

“Stop treating me as if I were a child!”

“Why don’t you go back to bed? You can stay there all day and I’ll wait on you. How will that be? If there’s anything you’d like to have to eat, I’ll go and buy it.”

“The faculty party was bad enough, but after that was over we couldn’t just go home and go to bed and quit while we were ahead the way any two normal people would. No, we had to go to an after-party party.”

“Yeah, I admit it was a mistake,” he said, “and I wish we had never gone.”

“Then why did we?”

“She’s the daughter of the president of the college and he’s a senior professor in the English department.”

“The history department.”

“It never hurts to cozy up to the entrenched people. They’ve both been around a very long time.”

“You’re thinking of your career, of course.”

“Well, one does what one can to get ahead.”

“Just once I wish you would give the same consideration to me that you give your career.”

“Honey, that’s absurd,” he said. “There’s no comparison.”

“Well, I’m glad you admit it!”

“That isn’t what I meant!”

“A night like last night causes me to question my entire existence.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are we going to spend our lives hobnobbing with disgusting people just so you can get ahead in your career?”

“No!”

“Because I’m telling you, Nick, I don’t want to live that way.”

“It was just one party.”

“You can find out a lot from one party.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“If those people, that George and his wife Martha, are representative of the life in this college, then I don’t want any part of it. The way they tear each other apart is indecent. And when they’re finished attacking each other they go after whoever happens to be present at the moment. Just being in their presence makes you feel degraded.”

“You’ve been reading too many books.”

“Did you know he called me ‘angel boobs’?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I think I heard that,” he said.

“And ‘monkey nipples’.”

“He really called you ‘monkey nipples’? I didn’t hear that. When did he call you that?”

“When you were doing your provocative dance with that horrible woman.”

“He was teasing you! It was all in good fun.”

“How can you stand by and do nothing when a strange man calls your wife filthy names?”

She began to cry. He sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. “You take things too seriously, Honey.”

“How would you like it if he called you those names?”

“I think I might have punched him in the nose!”

“But it’s all right when it’s me?”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“I can never face those two again,” she said. “I vomited all over their bathroom. It was as if they saw me without my clothes.”

“You were just being human, Honey. It happens to the best of us.”

“How can we live here and you teach here when I feel so uncomfortable?”

“It’s just something you’re going to have to get over.”

“I don’t think I can. I want you to start looking for another position right away. If not today, then tomorrow.”

“But, Honey, we just got here! Do you know how hard it was for me to get this job?”

“I don’t care! If you have as much regard for me as you do for your career, we’ll leave right away!”

“Honey, that’s so unreasonable! You can’t be serious!”

“I have never been more serious in my life.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re here and we’re going to stay.” He picked her book up off the table and threw it hard against the far wall.

“I can always leave on my own,” she said. “I don’t necessarily need you.”

“Fine. Go home to your mother. Tell her what a mistake it was to marry me.”

“I want to know what happened between you and that woman, that Martha, while I was passed out.”

“Nothing happened! What do you mean?”

“I’m not as stupid as you obviously think I am. I heard them talking about it afterwards.”

“Heard who talking?”

“George and Martha. They thought I was still passed out, but I was just lying there, fully awake, with my eyes closed. I heard the words stud and houseboy. They were talking about you! Were you a stud or were you a houseboy?”

“I didn’t hear any such thing, so I don’t know what you mean.”

“How are you going to face them again?”

“I don’t think I’ll see them again until the next faculty party and that probably won’t be for several months. Everything that happened last night will be forgotten by then.”

“Well, I can tell you right now I’m not going to any more faculty parties.”

“What do I say when people ask me where my wife is? She’s too squeamish for university life? She throws up a lot and can’t stand to be teased a little bit?”

“I don’t care what you tell people. It’s your career, not mine.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m going away tonight.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll think of something.” She got up from the table and went into the bedroom and closed the door.

“I’m hungry,” he said to himself. “I’m going to see what I can find to eat.”

He knew Honey would never leave him, but if they were ever going to settle in to university life, she was going to have to grow up. At twenty-six, she was still a child in so many ways. She needed to see the world as it really is. Yes, it’s ugly and sordid but people do what they must do to survive, to get along. You can’t teach in a university and not play the games that everybody plays. People expect you to play. They want you to be like them. If you’re not, you’ll never be accepted.

A little bit of humoring would bring Honey around. It wasn’t going to be a problem. He’d finesse his way through, just as he finessed his way through everything else. He’d buy her a new coat or a piece of jewelry and everything would be fine. She needed to get out more and meet more people. If she happened to meet a nice fellow, maybe a young athlete, who wanted to take her to bed, so much the better. Nick would encourage it. Casual infidelity was all part of the game. The sooner she realized it, the better off she’d be.

As he took the mayonnaise and pickles out of the refrigerator, he thought about Martha and felt a little stirring. He wondered what she was wearing; if she wasn’t out of bed yet, maybe nothing. He looked at the phone on the wall and wished he could call her. If he was sure George was out of the house at the moment, he’d risk it. He wanted to tell her how much he enjoyed his time with her; he hoped they’d have a chance to do it again very soon. In the morning or the afternoon, during a free hour between classes. One hour with her in own her bed with George away would be most enjoyable.

He was a stud and not a houseboy. Martha knew he was a stud. Everybody knew it. The only person who didn’t seem to realize it was his own wife. He was twenty-nine and attractive to woman. He would still be attractive to women twenty years from now, maybe thirty. It was a tremendous asset in a university, especially with a lonely, frustrated woman like Martha whose husband was a bit of a misfire. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was the daughter of the president of the university. She wielded a certain amount of influence. One good word from her might go a long way.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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The Hessian ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Hessian ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Hessian by Howard Fast is set in 1781, in Colonial America during the Revolutionary War. A group of Hessians (German mercenaries fighting for the British) has landed in Connecticut. There are only sixteen of them, plus a drummer boy and a commander, but they are up to no good and the Colonials are rightly afraid of them. Hessians have been terrorizing the Colonials all during the war. They are highly skilled warriors who soldier for pay; the mostly untrained American soldiers are no match for them.

The Hessians come upon a halfwit named Saul Clamberham. Because he has a slate in his possession with some marks on it, they deduce he is a spy, so they hang him from a tree. A twelve-year-old boy named Jacob Heather witnesses the hanging from a distance. He, of course, runs and tells everybody what he has seen. A citizen militia, armed with any kind of guns they can lay their hands on, lays in wait behind a fence and ambushes the Hessians. All the Hessians are killed, except for the drummer boy, a teen named Hans Pohl who drops his drum and runs off into the hills. He has a bullet wound in his shoulder and doesn’t get far. He ends up at the home of a Quaker family named Heather. At their peril, the Heather family hides Hans Pohl in an upstairs room of their house and cares for his wound. He might die because the wound has become infected. Sally Heather, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Heathers, sits by his bed and falls in love with him, not caring that he is one of the enemy.

A local doctor named Evan Feversham treats Hans Pohl at the Heather house, secretly, of course. Dr. Feversham is something of an outcast in the neighborhood because he is an Englishman who has come over to the American cause. The Heather family are also outcasts because they are Quakers, so they have something in common with Dr. Feversham. They all know they will be in serious trouble for hiding and taking care of Hans Pohl, the Hessian.

Authorities soon discover that the Heather family is hiding Hans Pohl. The Heathers are forced to give him up, with the promise he will be tried before he is hanged. The trial, when it is held, is a farce. Hans Pohl is tried for the murder of Saul Clamberham because he was present when it happened. It doesn’t matter how young Hans Pohl is or how innocent he appears. Because he is a Hessian, one of the enemy during wartime, he can’t be anything other than guilty.

The Hessian is told in the first-person voice of Dr. Feversham, the man who doesn’t quite belong. He is a battle-hardened veteran who believes in the American cause but also believes that anybody deserves to be treated for his wounds. He is cynical and realistic and knows that in wartime people don’t behave rationally. It’s a story that won’t have, can’t have, a happy ending. You never really learn what life is about. When you die, you don’t understand it any better than you did when you were born.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Flatiron ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Flatiron ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

New York’s iconic Flatiron Building stands at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. It’s a triangular-shaped building twenty-two stories tall, completed in 1902. Art critics and arbiters of good taste hated it from the moment it was completed, while the public loved it. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz said the Flatiron is to New York what the Parthenon is to Athens.

The Flatiron was one of the first skyscrapers in New York. Thanks to the use of the steel framework, skyscrapers could be built taller and taller because the lower walls were no longer supporting the weight of the structure. George Allon Fuller (1851-1900) was credited with the invention of the skyscraper. Tall buildings became the trademark of New York. Real estate prices were exorbitant and, the higher the building, the more money investors could get on their investments. It was, and is, all about money. Somebody figured out that a skyscraper doesn’t become profitable until the thirteenth floor.

George Allon Fuller had a daughter named Allon. She married a man named Harry Black and he eventually took over the Fuller Company started by his father-in-law and became a powerful force in the building trades in New York. (The Fuller Company became known as the “Skyscraper Trust.”)

Harry Black wasn’t an architect or an engineer but a businessman, a builder and a wheeler-dealer. He was responsible for many of the landmark buildings that still stand today, including the New York Public Library and the lavish Plaza Hotel. He figures prominently in the story of the Flatiron. He and his wife Allon were divorced after ten years of marriage. She remarried and died at age 37 of pneumonia. He also remarried and committed suicide in 1930 at age 68.

The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, is a fascinating nonfiction account of the Flatiron Building and the times in which it was built. It was a time of great excitement and growth in New York City, punctuated, of course, by periodic economic “downturns.” Many things were going on during this time. The steal industry flourished with the increased demand for steal used in skyscrapers. Moving pictures were in their infancy; the public was fascinated by this newest—and potentially profitable—form of entertainment. President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist; his vice-president, Theodore Roosevelt, then became president. The labor movement was becoming more and more powerful, causing headaches for employers and builders. In the basement of the Flatiron Building was a restaurant that seated 1500 people. It eventually became known for its jazz, another new form of American entertainment. Of course, the good times couldn’t last. They never do. The United States entered the “Great War” in 1917. Prohibition soon after closed down a lot of popular nightspots that served liquor. In 1929, the Great Depression wiped out the fortunes of a lot of the fabulously wealthy. Millionaires became paupers overnight. Nothing ever stays the same. Everything is always in a state of flux. Here today, gone tomorrow. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Welcome to the Neighborhood

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Welcome to the Neighborhood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

A moving van pulled up at the house across the street and three bear-like men got out and began unloading furniture. A late-model red car pulled into the driveway from which four people emerged: a lanky boy and a man from the front and a girl and a woman from the back. The man had a big stomach and a balding head and was slightly bent over. The girl looked like a younger version of the woman; they were obviously mother and daughter.

“Looks like a girl about my age,” Stephanie said. “She’s fat and is she ever ugly! I’ll bet she has her driver’s license, though, and probably her own car.”

“Not if she’s ugly,” Zane said from the sofa without looking up. He was reading a story in True Romance magazine about a woman with four husbands at the same time.

“Ugly people have cars.”

“If they’re ugly, they don’t need cars. They don’t have any place to go.”

“I know lots of ugly people with cars.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If she saw you, she’d think you’re ugly, too.”

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

“Who cares?”

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

“Your interest in their beds is disturbing.”

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

“Why do you care what it is?”

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

“I don’t care about seeing an ugly girl with crack problems,” Zane said, but he put the magazine aside and stood up from the sofa and went over to the window. “This better be good,” he said as he reached for the binoculars.

“She’s ugly all right,” he said. “Her hair looks like the nest of a scavenger bird.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not me!”

“You won’t go with me?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I admit nothing.”

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

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

“Then you’ll go with me?”

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

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

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

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

“I know how to get them to notice me,” Stephanie said. She began marching up and down in front of the house like a soldier on sentry duty with the baton as her gun. She marched so strenuously she became winded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t do that!”

“How about ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’?”

“No, I hate that song!”

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

It was in a corner underneath some old clothes and a box of fur pieces and hats. Stephanie pushed everything out of the way and rolled the chair to the door and out into the yard.

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

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

Up the hill, half a block away, Milton Sills the midget was working on his old Cadillac in front of his house. He was lying on his back and as he was coming out from underneath, he accidentally kicked the jack loose that was holding up the front end of the car. It began rolling backwards down the hill at about fifteen miles an hour.

Stephanie saw the Cadillac coming toward her but couldn’t stop the chair. She tried dragging her feet but there was nothing she could do; she was going too fast. She screamed and closed her eyes and threw her arms up over her head.

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

After the wheelchair turned over on its side, Stephanie was half in and half out of it. She had hit her head on the pavement and felt dizzy from it. She was bleeding and when she tried to stand her legs wouldn’t hold her. She was certain the people across the street would have seen what happened to her, but they had all gone inside and hadn’t seen a thing.

She had two broken ribs, a concussion and a fractured wrist. She spent five hours in the emergency room at the hospital waiting to get fixed up. She liked the cast on her wrist and the bandage they put on her head; it looked like she had been in a war. She hoped she would still be wearing them when school took up again.

When mother found out about the incident with the wheelchair, she called Stephanie a dangerous fool. She ought to be ashamed of herself (mother said) for dishonoring grandpa’s memory by using his wheelchair as a toy. She was confined to the house for the rest of the summer. It was a setback to her mad desire to get her driver’s license and drive wherever she wanted to go.

After a few days, the headaches lessened and she was able to come out of her room. She sat in the living room with the TV on, looking out the window at the house across the street. She hoped the fat girl would come out into the yard and she could go over and get acquainted with her, but she only caught a brief glimpse of her one time.

One day when mother went shopping, Stephanie went to visit her friend Claudia Beasley down the street. Claudia was two years older than Stephanie and a notorious gossip. If there was anything to known about new people in the neighborhood, Claudia would know it.

They shared a cigarette. Claudia had heard about Stephanie’s accident and wanted to hear all the details. Finally, Stephanie steered the conversation around to the fat girl and her family.

“Oh, them!” Claudia said. “They’re weird.”

“Why are they weird?”

“Have you seen that fat girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Her name is Veda Ann. She’s only fourteen.”

“I thought she was older.”

“Have you seen her up close? She looks like a middle-aged woman. That’s because she’s not right.”

“Not right how?”

“She’s…you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“She won’t be going to our school.”

“Why not?”

“You know that retarded bus that stops down at the corner?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s the bus she’ll be taking.”

“Oh!”

“And that old man?”

“Yeah?”

“He’s her father. He won’t hardly let her get out of the house. He’s afraid somebody will try to kidnap her.”

“Why would anybody want to do that?”

“Well, you never know about people. There are men who like retarded girls.”

“Is that woman her mother?”

“No, that’s her older sister.”

“Who’s that skinny boy?”

Claudia laughed and reached for another cigarette. “That’s not a boy, silly! That’s a woman. She’s a special friend of the older sister. They’re…you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“An old man, two lesbians and a retarded girl living together in the same house. That’s why they’re weird.”

“And to think I was almost killed trying to get them to notice me.”

As Stephanie was leaving, Claudia invited her to a dance at the armory, but Stephanie was sure mother wouldn’t let her go. There was no point in even asking.

When Stephanie got back home, mother had just returned from the store and was carrying in the groceries. Stephanie hurried into the house and went to her room and closed the door before mother saw her and had a chance to smell the cigarettes she had been smoking.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

A Head of Its Time

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A Head of Its Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in Death’s Head Grin.)

Frankie Zell was not accustomed to the fast life. She grew up on a farm, where she lived plainly and simply with her mother, father and two brothers. Painfully shy and stick-thin, she was never pretty or attractive in the way other girls thought themselves and in fact she never gave much thought at all to the way she looked.

In her late teens, though, Frankie began to change. She lost her adolescent awkwardness; she became rounded in the places where she had always been angular. She developed flawless, pale skin and a head of lustrous, chestnut-colored hair. She turned into the beauty she was always meant to be, like the lowly caterpillar turning into the ravishing butterfly.

She began to attract the attention of young boys and older boys into manhood, some of them as old as forty or fifty years. When she would go into town on a shopping trip or to pay the light bill or see the dentist, people would stop what they were doing and look at her because they weren’t used to see so pretty a girl on the streets of such a dreary town. Some more astute observers said she ought to go to Hollywood and try out for the movies. She was as pretty as Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner or any of those others.

Through a friend she became acquainted with a boy named Angus Persons who lived with his parents in the best neighborhood in town, where the finest homes were. His father was president of the bank and raised horses on a ranch he owned. Angus was the same age as Frankie and planned to be an attorney and one day go into politics. With his good looks and family connections, he would go far. He might one day be governor of the state or a senator in Washington. Frankie would be just the right kind of wife for him. They planned an elaborate June wedding to which everybody in town was invited.

Angus and Frankie indeed made a handsome couple. When they drove around town in Angus’s beautiful convertible sports car, they were like something out of a dream. People who saw them were admiring, envious, or maybe even a little bit jealous.

Frankie had never driven a car before but Angus taught her to drive. When he was busy working or at school and didn’t have time to spend with her, he let her drive his car as if it were her own. She enjoyed driving on the hilly, curvy country roads between the farm she lived on and the town where Angus lived. She liked nothing better than letting the top down on the car and driving as fast as she could and letting the wind blow her hair. She discovered that fast driving exhilarated her and made her feel free in a way that nothing else did.

On a brilliant May morning one month before Frankie and Angus were to be married, Frankie was driving in the hills and valleys she had known all her life. Bathed in the fresh morning sunlight as it was, the landscape was as beautiful as anything she had ever seen. Past fences and farms, horses and cows, and the occasional scenic barn or grain silo, she drove with abandon around curves and up hill and down dale. Her car—or rather Angus’s—was the only car on the road.

At one long downward hill with a sharp curve that wrapped around a scenic promontory of rock, signs warned prudent drivers to drive slowly and carefully. The treacherous curve could be difficult to negotiate even for the most experienced of drivers.

When Frankie Heywood came to the hill, she ignored the signs. She had driven the hill many times before and didn’t fear it. She sped up to experience once again the thrilling downward whoosh and the tension on the wheel as she struggled to keep the little car on the road.

In the middle of the curve, with her downward momentum and her accelerated speed, she lost control of the car as if an invisible hand had reached out and pulled the steering wheel sharply to the right. In the blink of an eye, the car left the road, became airborne, and sailed out over the tops of the trees. In her final seconds, Frankie had the time-stands-still sensation of being suspended above the earth—breathless and in defiance of the laws of gravity.

When she failed to appear for her luncheon date with Angus in town, he became alarmed and started calling all the places she might be, but nobody had seen her. He called her home and Frankie’s mother told him not to worry, that Frankie was probably enjoying herself too much—wherever she was—to be aware of the time. Deep down, though, Frankie’s mother believed that something bad had happened to Frankie.

The next day, when nobody still had not seen or heard from Frankie, her mother called the police and filed a missing person’s report. The police questioned Frankie’s mother and father and brothers extensively about Frankie’s habits and associations, but none of them were able to tell them anything that helped in finding her.

The police began an extensive search for Frankie between her home and the town. They theorized that she was living a secret life and had run away from home or that she had been abducted by a person or persons unknown. If they were able to find the car she had been driving, that at least might give them some clues.

Two days later a young police officer found a hubcap in the underbrush near the dangerous curve. Angus recognized the hubcap as belonging to his car. From this clue they were able to piece together what had happened to Frankie on the day she disappeared.

When they found the sports car a quarter of a mile or so from the road, concealed in the trees, Frankie’s body was in it. Her head had been sheared off at the shoulders, neatly and cleanly, as with a sharp blade.

Logic dictated that Frankie’s head would be not far from her body, but when police searched the surrounding area (and much farther away), they were never able to find any sign of the head. After a few days they gave up the search, telling Frankie’s mother and father that the head must have been carried off by wolves or some other wild animals. It was still possible, though, that the head would be found and, if so, whoever found it would be sure to report it to the police. Finding a head by itself was not that common an occurrence.

As distraught as Frankie’s mother was at having lost her only daughter, she was even more distraught at the idea of Frankie having to go to her grave without her head.

Frankie’s mother took an old china vase she had had for a long time that was roughly equivalent to the size and shape of a human head. On the front of the vase was painted a bouquet of flowers, but on the back was nothing, so on the back of this vase she painted a semblance of Frankie’s features using the watercolor paints that Frankie sometimes worked with. (Handles on the sides of the vase were a good approximation of human ears.)

When she was finished painting a fairly credible approximation of Frankie’s face on the vase, she put Frankie’s wig on it and then took it to the funeral parlor and asked the undertaker if he would put the vase where Frankie’s head should be. The undertaker was happy to comply, knowing that grief sometimes causes people to make unusual requests.

At the funeral-home visitation, people were surprised to see a painted vase in place of a real head, but most agreed the vase was less jarring than no head at all. The undertaker artfully arranged the collar of Frankie’s dress around the neck of the vase so that the vase did indeed look like a part of her body. He draped a veil across the open lid of the coffin to soften the effect, as he frequently did with the bodies of accident victims.

The entire town turned out for Frankie’s funeral, as they would have turned out for her wedding. Angus Persons, looking solemn and more handsome than ever, was impeccably dressed in a dark-blue suit and dark glasses that hid his eyes. Several young women, friends of Frankie’s who considered themselves fully capable of stepping into Frankie’s shoes, kept their eyes on Angus in the hope that he would look their way. Which one among them wouldn’t jump at the chance to marry the future governor?

Frankie’s head was never found. According to local legend, her ghost was said to walk along the highway at night near the dangerous curve, looking for her head. She wanted to find her head, the legend went, so she could stick it back on her body and go through with her wedding to Angus Persons. Every year at Halloween, different variations on the headless bride theme appeared at parties and on the streets of the town.

As for Frankie’s head, the truth was quite simple, as the truth often is. Not long after her head was separated from her body, a buzzard spotted her head lying in the brush about fifty feet from the wrecked car. It swooped down and picked up the head (by the hair) in its talons and flew away. Carrying its gruesome cargo, the buzzard was flying back to its lair (or wherever buzzards go when nobody sees them) when the weight of the head became too much and the buzzard dropped the head quite without meaning to.

The head landed in a tree, on a natural shelf formed by the convergence of several large branches thirty feet off the ground. The head was perfectly upright and lodged in such a way in the top of the tree that no amount of wind and weather would ever shake it loose. As long as the tree remained upright, the head would stay where it was and nobody would ever see it.

Crows pecked at the eyes until there was nothing left. Birds used the hair for their nests. Insects and other birds ate away at the flesh, tissue, and brain until, over time, the head was only a skull.

Several generations of chipmunks used the empty skull as their home. When the chipmunks moved on, as they inevitably do, the skull became a sanctuary for small birds, with one eye socket serving as a way into the skull and the other as a way out. As you see, nature always finds its own way to make use of things.

Copyright 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Way West ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Way West ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

For decades now, we’ve been able to get on a jet plane and fly from the middle of the country, Missouri, all the way to Oregon in the Pacific Northwest in a few hours. In the 1850s it wasn’t so easy. Back then, people traveled the distance in the most difficult way imaginable: in wagon trains of ten, fifteen or twenty wagons, usually one family to a wagon. The trains moved about ten to twelve miles a day, so the trip lasted for months. And the way was fraught with dangers and hardships, including canyons, wild rivers, mountains, vast distances without rest or water; extremes of heat, wind and cold; illness, disease and death; hostile, sometimes murderous, Indians; wild animals including buffalo and rattlesnakes (not to mention mosquitoes and other insects); the inevitable clash of personalities and all the jealousies and ugliness engendered by a group of human beings thrown together. The train comprises a microcosm, a world in miniature, the bad along with the good.

The Way West by A.B. Guthrie Jr. is the simple story of one such wagon train that sets out from Independence, Missouri, with its sites set on the storied land of Oregon. These wagon trains always had a “pilot,” an experienced man who usually knew what most of the travelers didn’t: the way was hard and dangerous and some of them weren’t going to make it. Dick Summers is the pilot in The Way West. He’s forty-nine years old, a widower, a mountain man who has traveled over the terrain before and knows what to expect. He always knows the best route to take, how to deal with the indigents, how to ford raging rivers, etc. Without him, the travelers would be doomed. Think of John Wayne.

Lije Evans was a farmer back in Missouri. Now he’s the captain of the wagon train. He tells the train when to stop and when to get a-goin’ again, but he relies heavily on Dick Summers for practical advice in all matters. Lije is traveling with his wife, Rebecca, his son, Brownie, and his faithful old dog, Rock. Lije is the central character in the novel. We see things through his eyes. His must deal with the usual collection of misfits and egocentric individuals who think they know more than he does. Thrown into the mix is a teenage temptress named Mercy McBee who—innocently enough, it seems—falls under the spell of a handsome married man, Curtis Mack, and ends up pregnant by him. Uh-oh! The leaders already said at the outset that they wouldn’t countenance adultery and fornication and would horsewhip any offenders.

The Way West is a solid, readable classic that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950. It’s an American story about westward expansion and the search for a better life in the nineteenth century when the country just wasn’t big enough and people wanted to make it bigger. Now people are much softer. When I’m with a group of people and somebody is complaining about being cold in a stifling room or they want to have all the windows closed in an airless room because they’re afraid of bees getting in, I say, sarcastically, “That’s the pioneering spirit that made this country what it is today.” People today are whiny-assed crybabies who would never be able to suffer the hardship and discomfort of traveling across a continent in a covered wagon to live in an unknown place they’ve never seen before. Does everybody have their cell phones, and how on earth are we going to charge them? How about anti-anxiety pills? Does everybody have theirs? You’re certainly going to need them when an Indian tries to scalp you.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Doctor Dispenses Drugs from His Office

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The Doctor Dispenses Drugs from His Office ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Verna Shelton’s husband was long gone. The only thing she had to remember him by was a son, Cullen, and a daughter, Corinne. The three of them—Verna, Cullen and Corinne—lived in a small frame house in a seedy neighborhood on the edge of town near the railroad tracks. Verna had a job as office assistant for an osteopathic doctor, Dr. Bunch, on the upper floor of an old building across from the county courthouse. All day long she answered phones and coordinated a steady stream of people in and out of the doctor’s two examining rooms.

As a single mother, Verna did the best she could but she sometimes she felt she wasn’t equal to the task. The problems were unrelenting. One day it was a fever and a sick stomach and then the next day a chipped tooth, a new pair of shoes, a note from the teacher demanding money, or an injured ankle that needed to be x-rayed. The money she made never went far enough.

Her personal life was no more rewarding than her professional one. She was lonely, she wanted a companion, a mate, but she had an abysmal record with the unfathomable (to her) male of the species. To make it through her difficult days, she took handfuls of tranquilizers that kindly old Dr. Bunch provided to her free of charge and without a prescription. She frequently augmented the pills with wine, beer or whiskey straight out of the bottle.

And then Cary Mulvihill drifted into town from parts unknown. He was thirty-one years old, trim-waisted, dark-haired, blue-eyed, angel-faced. As soon as Verna saw him, her heart skipped a beat and she knew she was gone. He seemed equally taken with her. He asked her out on a date and, when that went well, he asked her out again and again.

All at once she developed a new outlook on life. She woke up in the morning with a smile on her face that lasted all day long, even through the most difficult days of car troubles, payments in arrears, and three-day measles. The number-one thought in her mind was when she was going to see him again. She was—dare she even speak the words?—in love.

He had a room in a hotel outside of town, causing her to think he wouldn’t be around long. When she asked him what his business was and what he did for a living, he told her he was a writer, traveling around gathering research for a book. When she asked him what the book was about, he told her she’d find out but not until it was published and sold in bookstores everywhere.

Unlike other men of her acquaintance, Cary was always a gentlemen. He held doors for her, helped her with her wrap, lighted her cigarettes. When they were alone, he never behaved inappropriately. Not only was he good-looking, he was smart and cultured; he knew about good food, good music, foreign films, books and paintings. He was a good dancer, fond of animals and children, and spoke lovingly of his mother. He was all the things she might have hoped for in a man and never expected to find.

One Friday at the end of October, he picked her up at Dr. Bunch’s office at the end of the day. With a headache, cough and sore throat, she was out of sorts and not feeling at all well.  How can you work in a doctor’s office with people coming and going all the time and not catch whatever is going around?

Cary was sympathetic. He smiled at her and put his arm around her and drew her close in the car. “I have just the thing that will make you feel better,” he said.

He reached into the back seat and brought forth a little leather case. He opened it and took out a syringe and a little bottle of liquid.

“What is that?” she asked.

“Trust me,” he said. “It’s just the thing you need for what ails you.”

She didn’t think to resist but rolled up her sleeve dutifully. He found her vein easily enough. It was over in a few seconds.

“You surprise me,” she said. “Are you a doctor?”

“Of course not,” he said, “but I’ve done this a lot.”

They went on to dinner and the injection, whatever it was, made her feel wonderful. She reveled in the food, the music, the dancing and the wine. The feeling of well-being lasted all through the evening. When Cary took her home at two in the morning, she believed she had just passed the most best evening of her life. She awoke in the morning happy, certain the happiness would last forever.

There were other injections, of course, any time motherhood was getting her down, a tooth was bothering her, it was her time of the month, or Dr. Bunch put extra work on her. And the injections always cast their magic spell. Whenever she asked him what the injections were that made her feel so good, he smiled and told her she asked too many questions. She came to see the injections as part of the wonderment of Cary Mulvihill, unexpected and delightful.

She had every reason to believe that Cary would ask her to become his wife. She invited him for a special dinner that she cooked herself so that he might see her domestic side. Cullen and Corinne loved him, as she knew they would, and he had a special way with them. He brought Corinne a stuffed elephant and Cullen a telescope.

It was all too wonderful! She had met the man of her dreams and he was going to rescue her from her dreary life. Cullen and Corinne would at last have the father they deserved and advantages in life they wouldn’t ordinarily have: travel, good schools, a promising future. Their names would appear in the society columns.

Finally Cary asked Verna to spend the night with him in his hotel room. She knew it was coming and was thrilled beyond measure. She saw it as the prelude to marriage. She arranged for a teenage sitter to stay overnight with Cullen and Corinne, packed an overnight bag, and waited out front for Cary to pick her up. She had bought all new underwear and sleepwear so he wouldn’t see her shabby stuff.

First they had a wonderful dinner, where they laughed and danced and relaxed. When she thought about what was to come later in his hotel room, her heart pounded with excitement. It was all so romantic!

After dinner, they went for a drive through town. Cary stopped his car on the street in front of Dr. Bunch’s office.

“I though it’d be fun to see where you spend your days,” he said.

“It’s not very exciting, I’m afraid.”

“Please.”

She took the keys out of her purse and unlocked the downstairs door and they went up the stairs in the dark, laughing and holding hands.

“Better not turn on too many lights,” she said, slurring her words.

When they were in the doctor’s office, he grabbed her and kissed her in the dark. She giggled, pushed away from him and turned on the lights.

“This is it,” she said.

He looked around admiringly. “I like being in a daytime place at night after everybody has gone home, don’t you?”

He wanted to see the examining rooms where the doctor saw patients. She took him into one and then the other. There was the table, cabinets, a sink, two chairs, a small, heavily curtained window.

“I’m impressed,” he said.

“We should go,” she said. “If the night watchman sees the lights, he’ll wonder what’s going on.”

“I want to see where the drugs are kept,” Cary said.

“What?”

“Didn’t you say the doctor dispenses drugs from a large closet.”

“Oh, yes. It isn’t much to see. Just shelves of stuff.”

She opened the door to the drug closet and turned on the light. Cary whistled. “That is a lot of drugs,” he said.

“Three-quarters of a million dollars worth,” she said. “That’s why we keep the door locked at all times.”

“I like it,” he said. “I like the whole layout. I’d like anyplace where you worked.”

When at last they were in his hotel room, he ordered a bottle of champagne in a bucket of ice, just like in the movies. They sat on the couch, drinking the champagne, talking in throaty voices. She nestled closer to him, took his arm and draped it around her shoulders. He kissed her and she purred like a kitten.

“Would you like an injection?” he asked after a while.

“Everything is perfect already,” she said. “I don’t know how it could be any better.”

“It will release you from your inhibitions.”

He gave her the injection and, as she was starting to feel it, he picked her up in his strong arms and carried her over to the bed and laid her on it.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I just want you to be comfortable,” he said.

“What about you?”

“Just rest. Everything will be fine.”

When she awoke, it was daylight. Fully clothed, she lay in the same position on the bed where Cary Mulvihill had placed her. She gasped and sat up, not at all sure of what had happened.

He left her a note that read: Please be out of the room by noon. I’m leaving you money for cab fare.

When she saw a hundred-dollar bill sticking out of the top of her purse, she knew he was gone. Gone and not coming back. She ran into the bathroom and heaved up the contents of her stomach.

Cary Mulvihill—with help from compatriots, of course—took Verna’s keys and cleaned out the drug closet in Dr. Bunch’s office in the early hours of the morning while the night watchman was napping. Three-quarters of a million dollars worth of drugs.

When Dr. Bunch arrived to open the office, he saw what had happened. Verna’s not showing up for work at the usual hour aroused his suspicions. He called her at home and when he didn’t get her he called the police. They were waiting for her as she got out of the cab in front of her house.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp