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Thick Ankles

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Thick Ankles ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

He heard her voice downstairs and recognized her tread across the floor. She’d be up—he knew it—but it would take a long time, she had grown so fat. He smelled her awful perfume already; the whole house would smell of it long after she had left. He counted to himself the seconds it would take her to get up the stairs. He heard her pulling herself up by the banister; heard her huffing, her joints creaking. He pretended to be asleep, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. Before he was ready, she burst into the room like a steer out of a chute, throwing out her arms like the winner in a beauty pageant. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she had thrown some kisses.

“Uncle Hale!” she almost screamed. “You old rascal! How in the heck are you doing today?”

He opened his eyes and managed a weak smile. “How do you think?” he asked. “Now that you’re here, I’m worse than ever.”

“Always the joker!” she said. “You’ll be cracking jokes right up until the very end, won’t you?”

“What can I do for you today, Pert?” he asked. “You must want something or you wouldn’t be here.”

“Well, can’t a girl pay her old uncle a visit?”

He gestured toward her wide hips as if to indicate a girl was not the thing she was, but she didn’t catch the implication. Instead she plopped herself down in the nearest chair and placed her patent leather pocketbook daintily over her broad thighs.

“I swear!” Uncle Hale said, looking down at her feet. “Your ankles are as thick as logs.”

Suddenly Pert was solemn. “Well, if you must know,” she said, “they’re swollen.”

“Why are they swollen?”

“They’re swollen with worry.”

He laughed. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that condition. Usually worry makes your stomach hurt or your hair turn gray. Worry doesn’t usually make your ankles swell.”

“Well, a lot you know.”

“Where’s Alveda?” he asked. “I want her in the room.”

“Why?” Pert asked.

“Because if she’s in the room, plopping up the pillows and taking my temperature every few minutes, you won’t be inclined to stay so long.”

“I left her downstairs,” Pert said. “I told her she didn’t need to show me up.”

“Well, I want her here, or you’re going to have to leave.”

“Why?”

“I want my nurse with me, that’s why.”

“She’s not really a nurse,” Pert said, but she stood up and went out of the room to the head of the stairs and screamed down: “Alveda! He wants you in the room! For some reason that only God knows!”

When she went back into the room, Uncle Hale was shaking his head. “A voice like that ought to win you a first-place ribbon in a hog-calling contest.”

“Well, I’m sure I didn’t come here to be insulted,” she said, taking her handkerchief out of her pocketbook and fanning it in front of her face.

“Which brings us back to the original question,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“David’s in trouble again. We need to get him a lawyer.”

“What is it this time?”

“Well, the kids were drinking and having a barbecue or something. There was a rape. There were about five boys. David was one of them. They all say the girl was willing, but after she got back to town she wasn’t so willing anymore. She went to the sheriff’s office and charges were filed.”

“And David is innocent, I suppose?”

“He says he didn’t do anything. He was just there, he says. Never laid a finger or any other part of his anatomy on the girl.”

“Of course, that’s the story he would tell to his mother.”

“It’s serious this time, Uncle Hale. We need to get him a good lawyer. No mother wants to see her child in prison.” She sniffled into her hankie. “That’s why my ankles are swollen.”

Alveda, Uncle Hale’s nurse, pushed open the door and came into the room just as Pert was working herself up into a good cry. Pert immediately stiffened her back to let Alveda know she disliked her.

“Did you want something, Mr. Hale?” Alveda asked.

“I want you in the room so this old heifer will go away and leave me alone.”

Alveda smiled at his little joke and took a seat in a chair against the wall on the other side of the room that was hardly ever sat upon.

Pert managed a little laugh so that Alveda would know his calling her an old heifer didn’t bother her in the least. “I’d be careful who you’re calling names,” she said airily. “I could think of a few to call you too, old man, without trying very hard.”

“It’s true,” Uncle Hale said. “I am an old man. Nobody will dispute that fact. I remember when you were born. I was thirteen years old. You were my brother Ivan’s child. He was eleven years older than me. So, if I’m eighty-three now and I was thirteen when you were born, that means you’re seventy years old now.”

“What of it?” Pert asked.

“Well, if you call me old, that means I can call you old, too.”

“So what? It’s all in good fun.”

“So, that’s your idea of fun? Me calling you old and you calling me old?”

“For your information, I’m not seventy yet, not until November. I’m sixty-nine.”

“Well, that makes all the difference in the world, then, doesn’t it?”

“I didn’t come here to talk about my age,” Pert said. “I need eighteen thousand dollars and I need it bad.”

“Good God!” Uncle Hale said. “Is that how much it takes to retain a lawyer in a rape case?”

“It’s not just for a lawyer. It’s for other expenses, too.”

“What other expenses?”

“I have doctor bills.”

“You’ve had to see a doctor?”

The tears started flowing again and she dabbed at each eye in turn with her hankie. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’m dying.”

“What is it this time?”

“I have a terribly weak heart.”

“Too many cigarettes.”

“I had to give up smoking.”

“If you’d lose a couple hundred pounds,” he said, “your heart would be able to pump blood the way it’s supposed to.”

“Please stop joking for one moment and listen to me,” she said. “The doctor has given me no more than six months to live.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“It’s not so much myself that I care about. It’s David. I’m all he has in the world. I’m afraid I’ll die while he’s in this rape mess and there won’t be anybody to help him through it.”

“How old is David now?”

“He’s thirty-nine.”

“Most men age thirty-nine no longer rely on their mothers to pull them along through life.”

“David is not like others,” she said. “He was a breach birth. He came out feet first. The doctor thought he would die right away but he survived and I think the only reason he survived was because he had a mother like me.”

“And he’s been nothing but trouble ever since.”

“Having children is like a game of roulette. You spin the wheel and you don’t know what you’ll get. You hope they turn out well and most of the time they do, but when they don’t you have to take the bad with the good and help them through whatever mess they make of their lives.”

“Very sad,” Uncle Hale said, “but I’m not going to give you eighteen thousand dollars.”

The tears came out in a torrent then. “Why the hell not?” she sobbed. “You’re all the family that David and I have left in the world. I have nobody else to turn to for help.”

“Forget the expensive lawyer,” Uncle Hale said. “If David is innocent, a court-appointed attorney will be good enough.”

“I’m afraid that’s too risky! I abhor the thought of dying with my son in the penitentiary and not even being able to stand beside my grave as they lower my body into the cold ground.”

“Find out who the girl is. The victim in the rape case.”

“I already know who she is. Her name is Willie Walls.”

“More than likely a tramp. She probably makes it a practice of accusing men of raping her.”

“What’s your point, Uncle Hale? You’re making me sick to my stomach talking about that terrible woman.”

“Offer her a thousand dollars to drop the case. I’ll bet that’s more money than she ever dreamed of owning in her life.”

“Why would she drop the case for a thousand dollars?”

“She’ll be exposed in court. They’ll bring up her past to discredit her. She’ll be exposed for what she really is and will lose the case and end up with nothing. If she’s offered a thousand dollars to drop the case, she’ll be spared the embarrassment of a trial and she’ll have a thousand dollars to boot.”

“I don’t know if I would try that or not,” Pert said.

“So you want to throw away thousands on a lawyer if you don’t have to?”

“I just don’t know what’s best! I’m at the end of my tether!”

“I’ve given you what I consider sound advice. That’s the best I can do.”

“Advice is one thing, but I need money! Money is the oil that greases the machinery of the world.”

“What machinery are we talking about, Pert?”

“You have this big house and I know you have plenty in stocks and securities.”

“You don’t know any such thing.”

“Are you planning on taking it with you when you die? David and I are all the family you have left. You might as well spend some of it to help us now instead of leaving it to those who don’t deserve it.”

“Once again, Pert, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not as if I’ve ever asked you for much. It seems like now, when I’m pushed absolutely to the wall, you’d be able to help me out a little bit.”

“Eighteen thousand is not a little bit, dear. It’s a considerable sum of money. And if I gave you the eighteen thousand now, you’d be back again in no time with your hand extended even farther.”

“That is so mean and ungenerous of you, Uncle Hale! I will just never understand how you can be so heartless.”

All this time Alveda had been sitting across the room, her arm leaning on the occasional table next to the chair on which she sat, her attention divided between looking out the window at the street and the conversation going on in the room. Uncle Hale motioned for her to get up and cross the room to his bed.

“My niece is just leaving, Alveda,” he said. “You can show her out and make sure she understands that she won’t be admitted to this house again if she’s going to ask me for money.”

Alveda looked at Pert, but Pert remained sitting.

“Just what are you planning on doing with this house and all its furnishings after you die?” Pert asked. “At your advanced age, it must have crossed your mind at least once or twice.”

“I don’t think it’s necessary for me to divulge my business dealings to you,” Uncle Hale said.

“You are a mean, nasty, contemptible old man!”

“Good bye, dear! Drive carefully on your way home. Don’t let your heart fail you while you’re driving in traffic.”

“I want to know! Who are you going to leave your house and money to when you die? David and I are your only family! Isn’t it just right and natural that we should get everything?”

“You just informed me that you have six months to live. Why would you be concerned about inheriting a house?”

“It’s for David, you dolt!”

“So he can have drinking parties in it or turn it into a brothel? Maybe sell it on the cheap to support his drug habit?”

“You don’t know David. He’s a fine boy.”

“I’ve made Alveda my power of attorney, in all matters pertaining to my health and finances.”

What?

“She’s worked for me for more than three years, always doing what is required without complaint. She knows the meaning of loyalty, if nobody in my family does. Because of her faithfulness and her great help to me in the face of my declining health, I’ve signed the house over to her. When I die, she and her four fatherless children will make this house their home. And I trust they’ll be very happy here.”

“What? People like that don’t belong in a house like this!”

“People like what?”

“People from Shantytown!”

“Haven’t you heard? A law has been passed. People from Shantytown can live anywhere now.”

“I won’t let you get away with this! I’ll engage a lawyer. I’ll have you declared incompetent! I’ll fight you in a court of law. You can’t disinherit your only kin!”

“Be careful going down the stairs, dear. I know your girth makes stairs difficult for you to negotiate.”

“I’ll show you out, ma’am,” Alveda said.

“Don’t bother yourself!” Pert snapped.

They heard Pert going down the stairs and then the front door slam.

“Go to the window and watch her,” Uncle Hale said. “Make sure she gets into her car and drives away. She’s desperate now and might try something stupid.”

Alveda went and stood at the window and looked down into the street.

“Tell me what you see,” Uncle Hale said.

“She’s going down the walk. Stops and looks back. Takes a pack of Lucky Strikes out of her purse and lights up.”

“Had to give up smoking!” Uncle Hale said.

“Did you know she’s got a beautiful new Cadillac? It’s dark blue. Very fancy.”

“Does that sound like a woman desperately in need of money to you?”

“She opens the door but doesn’t get in just yet. She just stands there with the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and looks up and down the street. She takes a couple of deep drags on the cigarette and throws it down and stomps it out with the toe of her shoe. Now she’s reaching into the car for something.”

“Might be a gun,” Uncle Hale says.

“No, wait a minute. It’s a jacket. A fur jacket. It looks like mink. That woman has got herself a new mink fur jacket. She drapes it over her shoulders and gets into the beautiful new Cadillac and slams the door and starts the engine. She looks at herself in the mirror and pulls at the front of her hair. She puts the car in gear and checks to make sure no cars are coming. And now she’s driving away.”

“Whew!” Uncle Hale says. “What a liar and a hypocrite that woman is! It just takes everything out of me to be in the room with her for a few minutes.”

“Why don’t you take a little nap while I get lunch ready?”

“The doctor says I’m getting better and I can get up in a few days and get dressed. I want you to go downtown with me.”

“Okay.”

“It’ll be fun. I want to stop in and see my lawyer and I really will do the things I told Pert I’ve already done.”

“What things?”

“I’m going to make you my power of attorney and I’m going to put the house in your name, with the stipulation that you don’t take possession until I’m dead.”

“Do you think that’s wise? You niece will be laying for you now.”

“I can do what I damn well please. There’s not a thing she can do about it.”

“How do you know I won’t steal your money and poison you to get the house early?”

“You wouldn’t. I know. You’re not the grasping type.”

She smiled at him and went out of the room. He turned over on his side, adjusted the pillow under his head and settled himself down for a sleep that would rid himself of the memory of his niece’s fat buttocks and thick ankles. When he woke up, though, he would still be able to smell her perfume.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

City Dump

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City Dump ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a repost from November 2015 and has been published in 1947 Journal.)

When I was in the eighth grade, the Dutchman decided our old house needed a new roof. Instead of consulting the Yellow Pages to find a reputable roofer, he decided to save a few greenbacks by—no, not by doing the job himself—but by having a “friend” do it at a cut-rate price.

The price at which the friend agreed to replace the roof didn’t, oddly enough, include any clean-up. That means that pieces of the old roof dating from the time the house was built—boards, shingles, chunks of asbestos, nails, what-have-you—were scattered in the yard on all four sides of the house, looking like the scene of an unspeakable natural disaster. How many houses, I ask you, have a new roof while the old roof adorns the yard in the ugliest way imaginable?

The Dutchman’s solution to the clean-up was simple. He had a thirteen-year-old son: me. I weighed ninety-two pounds but was more than capable of picking chunks of debris out of the shrubs and off the lawn and placing them in a washtub. How many washtubs full does it take to hold the thousands of splintered pieces of an old roof? More than you can imagine.

He didn’t own a pickup truck so he borrowed one from another “friend.” (Where do all these friends come from?) It was an old dark blue truck that had seen better days. It was only a one-day loan, so that meant we only had one day to get rid of all the crap that surrounded the house. I was wishing I would lose consciousness and not regain it until well into the next week. I would rather have thirty hours of gym class than a day of enforced yard clean-up with the Dutchman.

After I got the washtub loaded up with stuff, it was too heavy to lift on my own. “Candy ass,” the Dutchman said. “You’re not worth the powder to blow you to hell.”

“I know,” I said. And I did know, as this phrase had been repeated to me in some form or another almost every day of my life.

The Dutchman saw that I could manage the loaded washtub only if he took the other handle. It occurred to him then for the first time that I didn’t have the strength of a grown man. Who knew?

With about eight tubs full of stuff, we had enough in the back of the truck to make a full load. I had to take a rake and distribute the stuff so we could get more in. Then, when the Dutchman was convinced the truck would hold no more, we headed for the city dump, about two miles outside of town. It felt good to sit down, even if the inside of the truck smelled like an old woman who never takes a bath.

At the city dump, the Dutchman carefully backed the truck as close to the edge of the embankment as he could get without going over the side, and we got out and started unloading. I stood up in the bed of the truck and tossed the stuff over the side but, of course, I wasn’t doing it fast enough to suit the Dutchman.

“Do you want to still be working at this at midnight?” he asked.

“I’m starting to feel sick,” I said.

By the time we got back to the house to begin work on the second load, it had started to rain the kind of rain you get in November: slow, cold and steady. The Dutchman made me put on a hat—not to protect my health but because he was thinking about how much money it might cost him if I got sick and had to see a doctor.

The second truckload to the city dump didn’t go any faster than the first one and, after two loads, we had made very little progress. This was taking a lot longer than the Dutchman thought it would. There weren’t going to be enough hours in the day. I was happy, maybe for the first time in my life, at the prospect of going to school the next day.

It was when we were working on the third load that an old man from the neighborhood stepped into the yard and motioned to us. The Dutchman stopped what he was doing and went over to him. I was near enough that I could hear.

“I know somebody that will take all that stuff away for you for a good price,” the old man said.

The Dutchman thought about it for a minute and shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “I can do it myself.”

“Looks like that boy there’s about worn out,” the old man said. He meant me, of course.

The Dutchman looked at me as though noticing me for the first time. “He’s stronger than he looks,” he said with a little laugh.

My mother came out of the house then in her plastic rain bonnet. “You know somebody that’ll do this hard work?” she asked.

“My nephew and his friend,” the old man said. “They’ve got themselves an old truck and will do little jobs here and there to earn enough money to fill it up with gas.”

“Does your nephew have a phone number?” she asked.

The old man gave the number and my mother said she would remember it without writing it down. She thanked the old man and he left.

“You come into the house,” she said to me, “and get cleaned up before supper.”

“He’s not going in,” the Dutchman said, “until the work is finished.”

“Says you,” she said.

She put her hand on my shoulder and drew me along with her into the house. It was one of the few times I ever saw her stand up to the Dutchman.

I took a bath as hot as I could stand it to get the roof grit off and put on my pajamas. I had the sniffles afterwards and there were some bleeding cuts on my hands, but I was happy and was sure I would be all right.

The next day when I came home from school, all the roof junk in the yard had been taken away. Mother told me she paid for it out of her own money and that it had been a real bargain. I was beaming with satisfaction at the dinner table that evening while the Dutchman looked unhappy and defeated, too dispirited even to complain that the mashed potatoes weren’t the way he liked them.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

With This Switchblade I Thee Wed

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With This Switchblade I Thee Wed ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

His face was skeletal, all chalky skin like raw chicken and white stubble. The only thing alive about the face was the blue eyes, filled with hate. He pointed his finger for emphasis and trembled.

“My daughter is a good girl,” he said, “and I’m not going to let you make her into a bad one.”

Carl Dickey didn’t know what to say. Anything he said wouldn’t make any difference. He stood on the front lawn, smiling to let the old man know he wasn’t afraid. Wanda stood behind the old man on the porch, a smirk on her face. Her mother stood beside her, a protective arm around her shoulders.

“She’s sixteen years old,” the old man said. “I don’t know how old you are but I’d guess you’re about twice that. She don’t know anything yet, and you’re not going to be the one to teach her.”

Carl turned his head and spit on the grass. He opened his mouth to speak but changed his mind.

“Now, I’ve got a twelve-gauge shotgun in the house,” the old man continued, “that I keep behind the bedroom door. Anybody that knows me knows I’m a crackerjack shot and they also know I mean business.”

“Are you threatening me?” Carl asked.

“Just get off my property right now before I call the sheriff!”

“I think it’s against the law to threaten people.”

Wanda’s mother whisked her into the house and the old man followed, slamming the door for emphasis.

A dog in a yard across the street began barking. Carl stood there in the dark for a couple of minutes, taking some deep breaths. He was still a little shaken at how mean Wanda’s father was. He shouldn’t have just stood there and taken it without saying anything back. By not saying anything, though, he believed himself to be the better person. Why should I stand there all night and bicker with the old ass? he asked himself. What’s to be gained by that?

He got into his car and drove off into the night. It was only eight o’clock and he didn’t want to go home. His parents would be installed in front of the TV, his father in his undershirt and his mother in her pajamas and housecoat with her hair in curling pins. He saw himself going into his room and lying down on the bed, wishing he was somewhere else, exactly as he had done in high school.

When he met somebody new, as with Wanda Fritchie, he felt a little funny for them to know he still lived with his parents, like a recent high school graduate, long after the age of thirty. His brother, two years younger, was long gone. He had a job in the city, living what his mother called the “extravagant lifestyle.” Carl envied him and wished he had the courage to do the same.

He drove around for a while, feeling a little lonely—he and Wanda had been going out tonight—and a little put out because of the way Wanda’s father had treated him. How can people be so mean? So what if there’s an age difference? It happens all the time. Women get old quicker than men, so if the man is a few years older, it works out just about right. Not that he had any intention of ever marrying Wanda. He didn’t know her well enough yet and maybe never would.

He drove to the movie theatre, almost deserted on a week night. He bought a bag of popcorn and a large Coke and sat at the front of the balcony, his favorite place to sit. Sitting there, he could see the screen without anything in his way, and he liked the feeling of being up high and knowing that people were down below. He could see them if he leaned forward in his seat, but just hearing them was enough. Except tonight it was quiet because the place was practically deserted.

The picture was loud and long and it gave him a headache. At the end of a picture he always knew if he liked it or not by the way he felt. If he felt in a good mood and not tired, he enjoyed the picture and hadn’t wanted it to end. It he felt out of sorts, irritated by one thing and another, and dreaded going to work the next day, he didn’t like the picture and would have been better off if he hadn’t seen it. The picture he just saw fell into the second category.

He felt lonelier than ever leaving the movie theatre because he was the last to leave and the old man who worked there was sweeping up popcorn and candy wrappers from between the rows of seats. When he got into his car to leave, he felt like the last person on earth because they had turned off all the outside lights and everybody else had already left. To add to his feeling of disconnectedness, a train whistle blew from a long way off.

It was eleven-thirty when he got home and he wasn’t even sleepy yet. He took off his clothes and got into bed, though, because he had to get up early and go to work.

He laid there for hours thinking about what Wanda’s father said to him. He knew the old man had a point, but he didn’t have to be so mean about it. What was he doing dating a high school girl, anyway? Anybody with any sense could see he was only asking for trouble. Quit now while you’re still in possession of your pride, he told himself.

He left work early the next day so that he might pick up Wanda as she was getting out of school. He saw her coming out of the building with a bunch of other girls. She whooped when she saw him and detached herself from the others.

She scooted across the seat and put her arms around his neck and gave him an open-mouthed kiss, which he always hated. Her mouth tasted like the bad food she had eaten, the cigarettes she had smoked and the stale air she had breathed.

“Get off me!” he said. “People are looking at us.”

“Let them look!” she said. “They’re just jealous, anyway.”

“Your old man really was really riled up last night, wasn’t he?”

She laughed. “I should say he was! He can be a real shit whenever he wants to be!”

“I don’t appreciate being threatened on somebody else’s lawn,” he said.

“Oh, he’s just full of hot air! He doesn’t mean a word he says!”

“He doesn’t know you very well, does he? He thinks you’re so innocent.”

“He still thinks of me as an eight-year-old little angel in a taffeta dress hunting for Easter eggs.”

She took a cigarette out of her book satchel and lit it. He opened his window to let out the smoke.

“I am so sick of living at home with my parents,” she said. “I hate school and I would quit in a minute if I had a good reason.”

“Better finish school,” he said weakly. “You’ll be sorry later if you don’t.”

“I’ve got two whole years to go! I don’t think I’ll make it without killing somebody.”

“Nobody likes their life. Everybody wishes they were somebody else.”

“I’ve got a plan, though,” she said.

“What plan?”

“We’ll run off and get married!”

“I never said anything about marriage!” he said.

“With us legally married, nobody can touch us. My father will just have to shut his trap because there won’t be a thing he can do about it.”

“Isn’t that a little drastic?”

“I figured you wouldn’t be quite as receptive to that idea as I might have liked, so I have an alternative plan!”

“What is it?”

“You get me pregnant and then I can quit school and, whether we get married or not, we can get an apartment and live together.”

“Wait a minute!” he said. “You’d want to get pregnant just so you could quit school?”

“Sure, that and other reasons.”

“What other reasons?”

“So you and I can be together always.”

“Yes, and with a third party there, too. Babies scream all the time and need constant attention. Are you willing to give up high school for that?”

“Sure, it happens all the time!”

“Are you up to taking care of a baby?”

“We’d manage. People always do.”

“It sounds like a living hell on earth,” he said, “if you want to know what I think about it.”

She looked at him and her smile faded and her eyes narrowed. “Are you saying you don’t want to have a baby with me?”

“No, I don’t want to have a baby with you.”

“If you loved me, you wouldn’t say that.”

“Nobody said anything about love and nobody said anything about having a baby.”

“You’re just a chickenshit, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m just a chickenshit.”

“You’re not even a man. I don’t know why I ever even bothered with you. Daddy was right about you. You are a no-good bum who will never amount to shit. I’ll have you know that I can have any boy anywhere I am, in high school or anyplace else.”

“I’m so happy for you.”

“When daddy was saying mean things to you last night, I couldn’t believe you just stood there and took it without a word. A real man would have stood up for me and declared his love and told him that nothing on earth would keep us a part.”

“I’m just not a real man, I guess.”

“I’m sorry I ever wasted a moment of my time with you. I could have gone out with good-looking men with things going for them who want to make something out of their lives.”

“I’m sorry I ever wasted a moment of my time with you, too,” he said. “You’re a sniveling little baby and your breath stinks.”

Oh!” she said, seething with indignation.

She started to get out of the car, but before she did she took a switchblade knife out of her book satchel and sliced him across the top of his arm.

“I hope you bleed to death!” she said before she slammed the door. “I hope you rot in hell!”

His arm was bleeding all over the inside of his car and he didn’t know what to do to make it stop, so he stepped out of the car and took off his shirt and wrapped it around his arm. He knew he needed help—it wasn’t one of those cuts that would heal on its own—so he drove to the hospital emergency room.

He waited about half an hour and when his turn came a young doctor took him into an examining room and closed the door. The doctor cleaned the cut, took twelve stiches and bandaged it.

“Who did this to you?” the doctor asked as he administered a tetanus shot.

“I cut myself shaving,” Carl said.

“Hah-hah,” the doctor said. “Who did this to you?”

“I had a fight with my girlfriend. I guess you’d say she’s my former girlfriend now.”

“If she did this to you, what did you do to her?”

“Not nearly as much as I would have liked.”

Carl had no trouble forgetting about Wanda. He knew he should never have become involved with one of her type in the first place. He learned his lesson.

About a month after his arm was sliced, he heard through a friend that Wanda ran off and married a twenty-eight-year-old divorced car salesman with two children and alimony payments through the roof. It didn’t take a genius to know it was never going to work out. And after him, there’d be somebody else and then somebody else and somebody else after that. Poor Wanda. He got out just in time.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

In My House are Many Rooms

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In My House are Many Rooms ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This stand-alone short story is a continuation of two previous stories: “I Have Never Known the River Ischabob to Flood” and “Birth of the Dodo.”)

For several days, rain and thunderstorms kept me inside, but I didn’t mind. I had always liked the rain. The sound of the thunder gently rolling over the hills was pleasing in a way I wouldn’t have been able to explain. I had no obligations to fulfill and so spent my time—for the first time in my life, it seemed—doing exactly as I pleased. I read, napped and, of course, I still had plenty to do putting my house in order.

Sometimes I liked getting out the hammer and nails and hanging a picture on the wall in a certain spot and then sitting for an hour or more looking at the picture, trying to decide what I had liked about it in the first place. Some of the pictures, and some of the books and other articles I took out of boxes, I couldn’t remember from my previous home. My memory continued to play tricks on me. I remembered things that hadn’t happened and forgot things I should be able to remember. I wondered if I should see a doctor, but, if I did, what kind of doctor would it be? Was I losing my mind? Mrs. Goldoni, when I bothered to ask, could offer no explanation. I told you it’s a different kind of house, she’d say.

In the evenings after supper I enjoyed sitting and reading with some music playing quietly in the background. We had no radio or television—Mrs. Goldoni explained we were too far away to get the signal—but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I would close my eyes and when I opened them again Lulu the life-sized doll and Sheridan, my dodo bird son, would be sitting in the room with me. When Sheridan saw I was looking at him, he’d give a playful squawk to let me know he knew I was there, and I was astounded all over again by his existence. I had had pets all my life, cats and dogs, but I never expected to own a real-live dodo bird. As for Lulu, she never made a sound and only moved when I wasn’t looking.

On the day one week after I had sat for my photographic portrait in the town of New Garland, I purposed to go back and get my finished portrait, as the man in the shop had told me it would be ready on that day. The rain had stopped, at least temporarily, so the day seemed auspicious for walking. I put on the same walking shoes and clothes I wore the first time I made the trip and then appeared in the kitchen to tell Mrs. Goldoni not to expect me for lunch as I intended to dine again at Fine Eats.

“I can go with you if you’d like,” she said.

I could barely suppress a smile, thinking about walking out anywhere with an old woman who was becoming an insect, with many legs to prove it. “It’s all right,” I said. “I don’t need a chaperone.”

“You have no experience with the Followers,” she said. “They can be especially nasty when they know you are uninformed. I know how to handle them.”

“Believe me, I’ll be fine. I remember: they can’t hurt me if they can’t touch me and they can’t touch me unless I let them.”

“Be suspicious of all,” she said.

“I can take care of myself.”

I was a half-mile or so from my house, walking toward the town of New Garland, when I saw a disturbing sight. A group of eight or so small children were pelting a man with rocks and clumps of mud. He, the man, was bent over, holding his coat up around his head. I don’t like getting involved in something that isn’t my business, but if I see a person or a thing being mistreated for no apparent reason, I must try to help if I can.

“Here, now!” I said, very loud, causing all the children to stop what they were doing and look at me. “Stop that! What has that poor fellow done for you to stone him?”

A grotesque girl of about eight, shoulders back and head thrust forward, approached me. She was very dirty and dressed in rags. Her matted hair hung about her head like tangled moss. I thought she was going to spit on me or jump at me and rip out my throat.

Here, now!” she said, imitating me. “Why don’t you mind your own damn business?”

The other children laughed and they all turned their attention on me. I saw at once they were Followers. The man they had been pelting looked helplessly at me across a distance of about thirty feet.

When I saw a small boy with a large, deformed head about to throw a rock at me, I held up my finger at him threateningly and said, “I have a gun in my pocket and, while I may not like to shoot children, I won’t hesitate for a second to shoot you if you throw that.”

The children laughed derisively at me, but the boy let the rock fall to the ground without throwing it. I picked a limb off the ground as big as a man’s arm and when I took a few steps toward them with the limb raised in the air, I could see they were afraid of me. They receded and retreated down a hole in the ground. A few seconds after they had all jumped in, the hole disappeared.

The man was sobbing softly. I approached him to see if I might be of help. “Are you hurt?” I asked.

His head was bleeding and the blood was running down the side of his face onto his neck. All I could do was take my handkerchief out of my pocket and hand it to him. Realizing that he might also be a Follower, I made sure my hand didn’t touch his.

“I’m new to this place,” I said. “Every day I see sights that surprise me.”

He managed a weak smile. “I’ve been her a while,” he said. “I don’t remember every being any place else.”

“Do you live around here?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“How can you not know where you live?”

He shrugged his shoulders and I had a chance to look at him closely. He had red hair the color of a new penny, skin as white as alabaster, and a small, pencil-line mustache. His eyes were a clear blue, but they had dark rings around them, as though he had been ill. He seemed all right, but I still wasn’t sure he wasn’t a Follower.

“How did those children come to be throwing rocks at you?” I asked.

“They wanted me to play a game with me and I wouldn’t comply. The object of the game was to get me in a vulnerable position and then to snatch my soul and take it with them back to hell. That’s what they’ve been trained to do.”

“That seems highly implausible,” I said. “Small children?”

“Sometimes they’re worse than the adults.”

“And you’re not a Follower?” I asked.

“Do I look like one to you?”

“I couldn’t say. What’s your name?”

“Farina Alvarez,” he said.

“Well, Farina Alvarez, since you are obviously in a bad way, I’ll help you get to where you’re going.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I’m only trying to keep away from the Followers.”

“I have a house,” I said, “on the banks of the River Ishcabob, which I have been told never floods.”

“I’m so happy for you,” he said, closing his eyes as though experiencing a wave of nausea.

“In my house I have many rooms,” I continued. “So many rooms that I haven’t even seen all of them yet.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I think we could put you up for a while, at least until you find out where you live and where you’re going.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you out any,” he said.

“I have a housekeeper. Her name is Mrs. Goldoni. She has arthritis that’s turning her into an insect.”

“What kind of an insect?”

“I also have a son named Sheridan who is a dodo bird.”

“Aren’t they extinct?”

“Well, not all of them, I guess.”

“I have a wife named Lulu. She’s not my wife in the biblical sense. She’s a doll with a funny, old-fashioned cap on her head. I was in the room when she gave birth to Sheridan.”

“Quite a family you have there,” Farina Alvarez said.

“Well, with all the room we have, I was thinking you could come and stay with us for a few days. I don’t have any friends here and you seem like a decent sort, if we can fully establish that you’re not one of them.”

“I’ve already told you I’m not.”

“Mrs. Goldoni will know as soon as she lays eyes on you.”

“Where is this house on the banks of the River Ishcabob?” Farina Alvarez asked.

“It’s back that way,” I said, pointing with the index finger of my left hand.

“But you were headed this way,” he said, pointing in the opposing direction.

“Yes, I’m on my way to the town of New Garland on an errand. If you want, you can wait here for me and I’ll pick you up on my way back home. I don’t mean that in a literal sense, of course.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “If I wait around here, the Followers are sure to come back and get me.”

“Suit yourself,” I said.

“How long do you think it’ll be before you come back this way?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. Clocks and time don’t seem to have much meaning here. Let’s just say in about three hours.”

“I know what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll find a hiding place in a tree or a cave and in three hours I’ll meet you here on this spot.”

“All right,” I said, “but if you’re not here, I’m not going to wait.”

I walked on to the town of New Garland and went straight to Witherspoon’s Photographic Studio. The same man with the drooping mustache and high collar greeted me at the door.

“Remember me?” I asked.

“Indeed, I do, sir!” he said with a smile. “You’re the one with the dodo bird son.”

“What a memory you have!”

“Not at all, sir. It’s only been one week.”

“Is my photo portrait ready for me to take home?”

“Yes, it is, sir. I have it right here.”

He bent over and produced a little photo album from underneath the counter, which he hastily wrapped in paper, tied up with a string. After he was finished wrapping the album, he put it inside a small drawstring canvas bag and handed it over the counter to me.

“For you to look at later, when you’re at home, sir,” he said.

I paid the man and thanked him and went across the street to Fine Eats. I sat at the same table as before and the same tiny waitress came out from the back. Her hair was higher and more triangular than before, her brilliant, round eyes staring and unblinking. I wasn’t sure how she was seeing me because she always seemed to be looking out the window at the street.

When I tried to get her to look directly at me and she didn’t, it occurred to me that she wasn’t a “she” but an “it.” She was a doll endowed with motion like my Lulu at home. Had the man in the photographic studio with the dropping mustache been a doll, too? Was I a doll? I was pretty sure Mrs. Goldoni wasn’t a doll because she was an insect. Was Sheridan a real dodo bird, or was he, too, a mechanical “thing.” I would be most disappointed to find out that he, above all the others, wasn’t what he appeared to be.

“Today’s special is pickled herring or spaghetti and meatballs served with a red wine and breadsticks,” the waitress intoned in her odd voice that seemed to be coming from another room.

“I’ll have the spaghetti,” I said, having no desire to engage her in further talk.

She brought the wine before the food was ready and I had two full glasses while I waited. As before, there was nobody else in the place. The street also was empty. I heard music coming from some faraway place. When I strained to hear the music better, it stopped and then when I stopped thinking about it, it started up again.

The waitress brought the food and set it down in front of me and I began eating. It was the best spaghetti and meatballs I ever had. The wine was the best I had ever tasted. When I finished eating and was ready to leave, I was a little wobbly on my legs from all the wine. I threw some money on the table and went back out onto the sunny street.

When I came to the spot where I had left Farina Alvarez, he was waiting there for me, sitting on a little hillock beside the road. He smiled and stood up and waved at me.

“No more trouble with Followers?” I asked.

“I think you scared them off for now,” he said.

After we had walked some little ways without speaking, I turned to him and said, “Are you a thing other than what you appear to be?”

“I don’t understand the question,” he said.

“Some of the people here are dolls.”

“I know it,” he said, “but I don’t think I’m one of them. And, another thing about these dolls, they can change their size really fast. One minute they’re full-sized and the next minute they’re small enough to fit into a shoebox.”

“What’s it all about?” I asked.

“I don’t know anything,” he said.

When we got to my house on the banks of the River Ishcabob, it had been raining on us for the last quarter mile or so. I didn’t mind so much because it was a warm rain and I knew I was near home and could dry off and get into clean clothes soon enough, but Farina Alvarez was freezing. His teeth chattered; he held the collar of his thin coat up around his ears. Still, I made him wait outside for a minute while I went into the house and got Mrs. Goldoni. I wanted her to look at him and confirm that he really wasn’t a Follower.

She took a step outside the front door and shaded her eyes with her hand, even though the sun wasn’t shining. Insect eyes are different from human eyes.

“Who do we have here?” she asked.

“His name is Farina Alvarez,” I said. “On my way to New Garland, I happened on a bunch of Followers taunting him and throwing rocks at him. I took pity.”

She made little clicking insect sounds with her mouth and looked him up and down. “Tell me, son,” she said. “What’s the Holy Trinity?”

“Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” Farina Alvarez said.

“He’s all right,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “He’s not a Follower.”

“You can tell just from asking that one little question?” I asked.

“Sure can,” she said. “If you ask a Follower a religious question, it makes them vomit.”

“So, he’s all right, then.”

“I just said he was, didn’t I?”

I smiled at Farina Alvarez and took him by the sleeve and pulled him into the house.

“He’s going to be staying with us for a few days,” I explained to Mrs. Goldoni. “Find a comfortable room for him to stay in.”

“Do you suppose I could get a bath?” Farina Alvarez asked.

Mrs. Goldoni took him by the arm and started to lead him away. “Give him a good room that has a view and that isn’t gloomy and scary,” I said, “and give him some of my clothes to wear. I have more clothes than I know what to do with. Let him take his pick.”

I was weary from my long walk to and from New Garland, so I laid down and had a little nap. In an hour or so, Farina Alvarez emerged, looking scrubbed and wearing some of my clothes. Mrs. Goldoni had fixed him up with a bandage on his head.

“Feeling better?” I asked.

“Except for a headache,” he said.

We sat down to supper and, as we ate, a tremendous thunderstorm shook the house and made the lights go off. Mrs. Goldoni appeared with an antique candelabra and set it in the middle of the table.

“I like I good thunderstorm,” Farina Alvarez said, “as long as I have a roof over my head.”

I could tell we were going to be friends.

After supper the lights came back on. Mrs. Goldoni washed the supper dishes and went to bed. Farina Alvarez retired to his room and I was left all alone. I remembered I hadn’t yet looked at the little photographic album wrapped in paper that I had carried home with me in a drawstring canvas bag from the photographic studio in New Garland.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in the album. The first picture was of me laid out dead in a coffin, my hands crossed over my chest. I’m wearing a dress suit, my hair is neatly parted and I have a tiny pencil-line mustache, but, more astonishingly, Sheridan the dodo bird is sitting on the half-open lid of my coffin looking down into my face. He is obviously dismayed at seeing me dead. His beak is open partway as if he is emitting one of his most pitiful squawks and his eyes look watery.

I turn the page and the second picture is equally surprising. It’s of Mrs. Goldoni, dead in a coffin, a lily in her crossed hands. Her mouth is drawn down at the corners and her hair is arranged in a severe style. I had only ever seen her with Jean Harlow hair, but this dead woman is obviously her.

On the third page is a picture of Farina Alvarez. I had only known him for a few hours, so I didn’t know why his picture would be in my photographic album. If I had learned anything in my new home, though, it was not to ask questions for which there were no answers.

On the other pages of the album were photographs of other dead people I didn’t know, even though a couple of them looked slightly familiar. The others were, I suppose, of people who somehow played a part in my long-ago life that I didn’t remember.

Then I remembered the letters on the window of the photographic studio: Photographs of the Deceased.

I could hear it raining through much of the night. Ordinarily the sound of rain acts as a soporific to me, but I had trouble sleeping. About daylight I got out of bed since I couldn’t sleep, took a long shower, and dressed. When I went into the kitchen, Mrs. Goldoni was cooking breakfast.

“We’re all dead, aren’t we?” I said to her by way of greeting.

She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. “I knew you’d figure it out on your own,” she said. “That’s what we all have to do.”

“Why didn’t you tell me when I first came here?” I asked.

“Because that’s not the way it works. For it to be meaningful, you have to find it yourself.”

“Like an Easter egg hunt?” I asked.

“We’re all put here to learn,” she said. “To find things out. You’re no different from any of the rest of us.”

“We’re in hell, aren’t we?”

“No, it’s not hell,” she said. “And it’s not heaven, either. It’s somewhere in between. It’s what the Catholics used to call Purgatory. We have to learn what we’re sent here to learn before we can advance to the next step.”

“What’s the next step?” I asked.

“Nobody knows.”

“Some people have been here for hundreds of years, if not longer. This is not a physical place. It exists in the spirit world. That’s why things are so different here from what you’re used to.”

“I have to tell you,” I said. “I don’t feel dead.”

“I know,” she said. “I don’t feel dead, either.”

“So, we just wait here and let things happen to us and try to escape from the clutches of the Followers and then, one day, we move on.”

“That’s right.”

“Why are you turning into an insect?”

“I wish I knew. It’s part of the plan of the one who made us all.”

“What will happen when you’re an insect and no longer a person?” I asked.

“I try not to think about it,” she said.

“You want to keep on being a person?”

“Yes. That’s why I say my trouble is arthritis. It’s a little conceit of mine. I don’t think insects get arthritis. If I can convince the world, and myself, that arthritis is the reason I’m turning into an insect, it makes me feel more human.”

I went and got the photo album and showed it to her. She turned the pages to the end, making the clicking sounds with her mouth.

“It’s the same for all of us,” she said.

She turned to her own picture and laid the album flat on the breakfast table.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Have you asked yourself why I’m in your photographic album?” she asked.

“My mother died when I was five years old,” I said. “I don’t remember much about her.”

“I remember everything about you, though,” she said. “I remember the day you were born.”

“So, you’re telling me you’re my mother?”

“Yes.”

“Who is Farina Alvarez?”

“I suppose you’ll find out one day.”

I put the photographic album away and Farina Alvarez emerged from his room and we had breakfast. I wanted to ask him if he knew we were dead; I wanted to show him the photographic album, but I knew I couldn’t. He had to discover these things on his own, just as I had done.

I took Farina Alvarez on a tour of my four-story house. I showed him the room with the haunted watches and the room where Sheridan was born. I took him into the room where Lulu the human-sized doll and Sheridan my dodo bird son spent most of my time, and he seemed genuinely happy to see them. He was as astonished as I was at seeing a real-live dodo bird.

When I saw the people I didn’t know lurking in the hallways or standing in a doorway, he saw them too, and he saw them as they seemed to dissolve in the air. I explained to him that they were always there but never bothered me. I showed him the River Ishcabob, which I had been told would never flood, and he saw the hundreds of workers on the river who moved so fast they were just a blur. I took him next door to the bed and breakfast and introduced him to the smashed-flat woman, Mrs. Woolwine. She gave us beer and we spent a couple of hours laughing and talking at her kitchen table.

In our long and serious conversations, Farina Alvarez told me he didn’t know how long he had been in this place and he couldn’t remember being in any other. I was gratified in a way to know that his experiences paralleled my own.

It continued to rain almost every day for two weeks and I started feeling sick. For a while I could keep my sickness hidden, but then I started to feel worse and couldn’t get out of bed. My days passed in a blur. I woke and slept and woke. I couldn’t tell the waking from the sleeping. At times I was aware that Mrs. Goldoni, Mrs. Woolwine, Farina Alvarez, and Lulu the doll were standing around my bed, looking anxiously on. Sheridan the dodo perched on the footboard, looking intently at me.

And then, once when I woke up, I was in a different place. I was in a high bed. To my right was a blue wall and to my left a bank of medical instruments. A man stood at the foot of the bed, looking down at something he held in his hands. He didn’t know I was awake so I spoke his name.

He looked at my face and smiled. He had red hair the color of a new penny and a pencil-line mustache and icy blue eyes. I was glad to see somebody there that I knew.

“Farina Alvarez,” I said again.

He came around to side of the bed where he was closer and I could see him better. “What did you say?” he asked.

“I just spoke your name. Are you going to tell me you don’t know who I am?”

“Yes, I know who you are,” he said. “You’re my patient. You’ve been very ill for a while.”

“I know,” I said. “You don’t need to tell me I’m dead because I already know it.”

“I could call you Sleepy Beauty, but since you’re a man, I guess I’ll have to settle for Rip Van Winkle.”

“Where’s Mrs. Goldoni? She needs to know where I am.”

“Is that somebody you know?” he asked.

“She’s my mother. She’s my housekeeper.”

“All right. Just keep yourself calm. We’ll bring you back by degrees.”

He turned to a woman all dressed in white. She stepped forward and took his place beside the bed. I felt a needle jabbed into my arm and then she began fussing with something I couldn’t see that was over my head.

“What is that place?” I asked.

“You’re in a hospital,” the woman in white said. “You’re going to be fine.”

“Where did he go? Where did Farina Alvarez go?”

“If you mean your doctor, he’ll be right back. He went to see another patient for a minute.”

“Tell him I need to see him. I need to tell him something.”

“You can tell me,” the woman in white said.

“I don’t want to be here! I want to go back to where I was! Tell him for me! Will you tell him for me? It’s very important!”

“Would you like to try to sit up?”

“No! I want to go back to where I was! I have people waiting for me. If I don’t come back, they’ll wonder where I am! I have to see my dodo bird and make sure he’s all right.”

“You’re very confused,” the woman in white said, “but that will pass.”

“No!” I said. “I don’t want it to pass. I want to go back to my home on the banks of the River Ishcabob.”

“There is no such place,” she said. “You’ve been dreaming. Imagining things.”

“No,” I said, more weakly this time. “I have a four-story house with many rooms on the banks of the River Ishcabob. I have family there and friends. They’ll be worried about me. I want to go back. I don’t want to be here. I want to be back there, in my home, with my friends and family.”

Farina Alvarez came back into the room and I felt comforted. He took my hand in both of his. He smiled at me and I smiled at him. He had hair the color of a new penny and a pencil-line mustache. His eyes were the bluest I had ever seen. He squeezed my hand and when he did I was borne away on a bank of black fog. I knew then that in just a few seconds I’d be back where I belonged.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Mr. Fellowes

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mr-fellowes-3-2

Mr. Fellowes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Repost of a story I posted in January, slightly revised.)

“Ella! Ella! Ella! Oh, baby! Give me a great big kiss! Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo! Ella! Ella! Ella!”

The boys hid behind parked cars as they chanted. Ella Peebles walked on, her head down, trying to ignore them. She didn’t know who the boys were, but it didn’t matter. All boys were the same to her. She hated all of them.

“You’re not there,” she said to them, but not loud enough for them to hear. “You don’t exist.”            

Ella was fifteen. She knew a girl one year older who went out with a boy just one time and ended up pregnant. Ella wasn’t going to let that happen to her. Just the word was awful: Pregnant. What a terrible, disgusting word! You’re sick for nine months and then this awful little thing comes out of your body and you have to feed it and take care of it for the rest of your life and put up with its sass. You are never free again to do the things you want to do and you’ll never have any money to go to the show or buy a magazine or an ice cream cone because the baby will take all your money and all your time.

She knew the chanting boys were out to get her pregnant. That’s the one thing boys wanted most. She heard it in health class in a girls-only lecture and slide show. The message of the lecture was clear: Don’t let your guard down and let boys get you pregnant! The awful sperm penetrating the egg! Could anything be more revolting? It only took one boy and it only took one time. It was just too easy and the consequences were too awful for the girl but not for the boy. After the boy gets you pregnant, he’s free to go and get somebody else pregnant. He can keep doing it over and over again, as many times as he wants. Just as fortune favors the bold, so nature favors the male.

When Ella walked through the door at home, she heard her brother Percy laughing. Laughing was better than crying. She went into the kitchen and saw Percy sitting on Mr. Fellowes’s lap. Mr. Fellowes was mother’s latest boyfriend. He was showing Percy how to drink beer out of a can and smoke a cigarette at the same time, which, he said, is something you must learn to do when you spend a lot of time in saloons. Mother was sitting at the table, too. She was laughing so hard her mascara was running down her cheeks and she had to keep wiping it off with her fingers. It was odd to see mother laughing that way because she took a lot of pills and drank whiskey straight out of the bottle and was usually either crying or knocked out in front of the TV.

“Oh, I wish I had a camera!” she spluttered out around her laughter.

Percy was nine, small for his age. He was enjoying the attention from mother and Mr. Fellowes. He held the cigarette between his fingers and took a puff on it and waggled his head like a girl.

“You should see yourself!” Ella said. “You look so silly!”

Percy stuck his tongue out at her and hopped off Mr. Fellowes’s lap. He wasn’t ready just yet to give up being the center of attention. He minced and waggled his hips from the stove to the refrigerator and back, while mother and Mr. Fellowes roared with laughter.

“You look just like a little queer!” Ella said.

“Ella! That’s not a very nice thing to say to your brother!” mother said, suddenly serious. “Where do you hear words like that?”

“Every day at school,” Ella said. “People say it all the time.”

“Well, not in this house!”

Mother pretended to be a righteous mother in front of Mr. Fellowes, but Ella and Percy knew otherwise. When she got mad enough, she could swear and rant better than any sailor. She could also slap people in the mouth and throw dishes across the room and break them against the wall and then make Ella clean up the broken pieces. Ella had just learned the word hypocrite and she knew that’s what her mother was. A person who pretends to abhor the thing that he or she really is.

Ella stood in the kitchen doorway and looked at mother and Mr. Fellowes. He was a large man with a lumpy body and a bald head. He wasn’t good-looking, but mother said she was finished with good-looking. They’re the ones that get what they want out of you and then they go off and leave you high and dry. Mr. Fellowes was the reliable type who could provide a woman with exactly what she needed. Sure, he wasn’t exciting, but who needs it? A home and security are much more important.

“Wash your hands for supper,” mother said to Ella and Percy. “Mr. Fellowes brought us supper and we’re all going to eat together.”

She began taking the stuff out of the refrigerator. There was a whole chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and a bag of donuts. Percy wanted to get right to the donuts, but mother told him he couldn’t eat any of those until he had had a good supper.

Ella sat down at the little square table with her back to the wall. Percy sat across from her, mother to her right, and Mr. Fellowes on her left.

“I want a leg!” Percy squealed. “And I want some potato salad!”

While Ella was pulling the meat off a thigh with her fork, she felt Mr. Fellowes’s eyes on her. When she looked at him, he smiled and winked.

“How’s the world been treatin’ you, princess?” he asked.

She shrugged and said, “I’m not a princess.”

“She’s too ugly to be a princess!” Percy said, his mouth full of potato salad. “Princess is pretty.”

“Well, she needs to fix her hair up and wear a bit of makeup,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“I don’t know about makeup,” mother said. “I don’t want her lookin’ like a tramp before her time.”

“A little bit of makeup won’t make her look like a tramp,” Mr. Fellowes said. “Too much makeup could be bad, but a little bit applied artfully might make all the difference.”

“I don’t want any,” Ella said.

“He’s only trying to be nice,” mother said. “You don’t have to get snippy about it.”

“It’s all right,” Mr. Fellowes said. “I grew up with three sisters. I know all about the moods of young girls.”

“I’ve tried to get her to get a nice hairstyle,” mother said, “but she just doesn’t seem to care about it.”

“She’s at that age,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“Could we please talk about something else?” Ella said.

“You really do need to have your hair cut and styled, honey,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“Hey, I’ll get mine cut and styled!” Percy said. “How would that be?”

Mother started laughing again. “You’re a regular little comedian, aren’t you?” she said.

When the meal was finished and Percy had eaten three donuts, Ella stood up and started clearing the table. Mr. Fellowes had just lit a cigarette. He grabbed Ella by the wrist and pulled her onto his lap. She tried to get away but he put his arms around her and held her against his chest.

“She’s a little big for lap-sitting,” mother said.

“Nobody’s ever too big for a little lovin’,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“Let me up!” Ella said. “Your cigarette smoke is going right in my face.”

“Indulge me for a little while, girl. It’s been a long time since I had a pretty girl on my lap.”

“What about me?” mother said.

“You’re past the girl stage, I’m afraid. You’re now in the matron stage.”

“I don’t think I like that!”

Mr. Fellowes nuzzled his face into Ella’s neck and held her tight.

“She’s never been what I would call an affectionate child,” mother said.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Mr. Fellowes said, “but I think you need to take yourself a good bath.”

Percy laughed and mother slapped him on the arm to make him stop.

After the dishes were washed and put away, mother and Mr. Fellowes left to go to the show. Ella and Percy turned on all the lights in the house and sat in front of the TV and watched detective and doctor shows until time to go to bed.

The next morning Ella awoke with a pain her side. Her nose was all stopped up, she had a headache, and her eyes looked puffy. When she realized what was wrong, she had a mortified feeling unlike any she had ever felt in her life. It was like finding out she had a fatal disease and would soon be dead.

While Mr. Fellowes was holding her on his lap—in his arms—at the supper table, some of his sperms went inside her body and penetrated her eggs. She was—that horrible word!—pregnant. She must have breathed them in through her mouth and nose. That’s the only way it could have happened. Mother would die when she found out.

At school she could barely sit still and pay attention. When people spoke to her, she didn’t hear what they said because her mind was preoccupied with the predicament she was in. In gym class, which she had always hated anyway, she fainted during calisthenics and the gym teacher told her to get dressed and get herself to the nurse’s office right away. She might have something catching.

The nurse was out for the moment, but Ella made herself at home and laid down on the cot against the wall behind the file cabinets. She felt better lying on the cot because nobody could see her and the nurse’s office was quiet and cool.

In a half-hour or so the nurse came back and when she saw Ella on the cot, she asked her what was wrong.

“I got sick in gym class,” Ella said.

The nurse stuck a thermometer in her mouth and took her blood pressure. She had a fever of a hundred and one and her blood pressure was high.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong,” the nurse said. “Your clothes are soaked through and you’re pale.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Ella said.

“Okay. Go on back to class then.”

“If I tell you what’s wrong, will you promise not to tell anybody?”

“Cross my heart.”

“I’m pregnant.”

“Uh-oh! That’s not good, is it? Who’s the boy? Do you know?”

“What boy?”

“The boy who impregnated you.”

“There’s no boy, except the ones that were yelling at me on the street yesterday, and I don’t think that’s when it happened. They were too far away.”

The nurse sighed and looked over her shoulder as if she might find some help there in another part of the room. “Okay, tell me what happened,” she said. “I’m here to help and I promise I won’t tell a soul.”

“It’s Mr. Fellowes,” Ella said.

“Who is Mr. Fellowes?” the nurse asked.

“He’s my mother’s boyfriend.”

“So, you had sexual relations with Mr. Fellowes?”

“No.”

“Who, then? Who did you have sexual relations with?”

“Nobody. Not even myself.”

“Have you and your brother been experimenting?”

“He’s nine. He still believes in the Easter Bunny.”

“Okay. Well, we’re not getting anywhere, are we?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“If you’re pregnant, there has to be a boy or a man involved.”

“It happened yesterday.”

“What happened?”

“Mr. Fellowes’s sperms got inside my body somehow and broke open my eggs. I knew as soon as I got up this morning that I was pregnant.”

“This happened yesterday?”

“Yes.”

“And you did not have sexual relations with Mr. Fellowes?”

“Are you kidding? With my mother and little brother sitting right there?”

The nurse stood up and got a wet washcloth and put it on Ella’s forehead. “You just lie here for a while until you feel better,” she said. “I’ll call your mother and she can come and get you and take you to a doctor to find out what’s really wrong.”

“Please don’t call my mother! I think it’ll just about finish her off when she finds out I’m pregnant.”

The nurse went out of the room. When she didn’t come back right away, Ella knew she was calling her mother. It was the last thing she needed.

She stood up off the cot, feeling light-headed, and went out into the deserted hallway. All the way down at the far end were the doors leading out of the building. She put her head down, thinking that would make her less noticeable, and walked to the doors as quietly as she could.

The sunlight hurt her eyes and she thought she was going to be sick again, but she rallied herself and got away from the school as fast as she could before anybody saw her.

She walked a long way, a couple of miles at least, to the edge of town and beyond. She came to a high bridge that she remembered like a bridge from a dream. It was on an old highway that nobody used much anymore because a new one had been built.

She walked out onto the bridge, squinting in the sunlight, and when she was about halfway across, she stopped and looked down at the river. It looked ugly and dirty; moving fast because there had been a lot of rain lately. Limbs and cardboard boxes and other unidentifiable things floated along with the current.

She eased herself over the railing and stood on a little ledge not more than three inches wide, facing out. She had to turn her feet sideways to be able to stand on it. When she closed her eyes, she could hear the river and feel it churning, about eighty feet down. All she had to take was let go, and gravity would take care of the rest. With her eyes closed, it wouldn’t be so bad. She wouldn’t have to see the water as she entered it. And then when it was all over she wouldn’t have to go to school anymore. No more worries ever again, about being pregnant or anything else.

Tilting her head back as far as she could in the awkward position she was in, she saw birds nesting in the framework of the bridge high above her head. Something seemed to have upset them. They were flying around frantically, squawking and ruffling their feathers. They made her forget for a moment about everything else.

While she was watching the birds, a black pickup truck parked on the bridge and an old man got out and approached her.

“Hey, girlie!” he said. “You shouldn’t be playing on that there bridge like that. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m stuck,” she said. “If I try to turn around, I’m afraid I’ll fall.”

“How did you get yourself into a fix like that?”

“I was going to jump and kill myself.”

“Why would you want to do a thing like that? You’re just a damn kid!”

“I guess I changed my mind.”

“Here,” the old man said. “Give me your hands and I’ll help you turn around.”

She yelped as she let go of the rail and put her hands into the hands of the old man because she thought for an instant that she was gone. The old man didn’t let go, though, and, with some pulling and grunting, he had her back on the safe side of the rail in just a few seconds. She sobbed and wet her pants and wasn’t even embarrassed because she didn’t care.

“You’d better get yourself on home now,” he said. “This is no place for kids.”

“I’m so tired I don’t think I can take another step,” she said.

“Do you want me to give you a ride to town?”

“I’m not supposed to ride with strangers.”

“Well, my old lady is in the truck, if that makes any difference.”

He took her by the elbow and led her to his truck and opened the door for her. She found herself sitting next to a tiny old woman with wooly white hair and protuberant eyes like a frog. The old woman stared at her with unabashed fascination all the way into town.

“Do you know where the high school is?” Ella said to the old man. “You can drop me there. That’s where I’m supposed to be.”

School was just letting out. Ella thanked the old man for rescuing her and got out of the truck and went into one door of the school building and out another door as if she had been there all day.

When she got home, she was the only one there. She fixed herself a sandwich and, after she ate it, she took off her clothes, wadded them into a lump and threw them in the trash, and then she took a long scalding bath.

When mother came home from work, she was in a bad mood, but Ella didn’t think it was because the school nurse had called her. No, if that had been the cause of her bad mood, she would have started ranting the second she walked in the door. The more likely cause was that she had a fever blister and it was her time of the month. With a cigarette dangling from her lip, she went into the kitchen and made of lot of noise opening a can of spaghetti and one of cream corn for supper.  

While they were eating, mother eyed Ella and Percy suspiciously as though looking for something to dislike about the way they were chewing. Finally, she said, “I’m afraid we’ve seen the last of Mr. Fellowes.”

“Why?” Ella asked.

“He decided to go back to his wife and family.”

“Did you have a fight with him?”

“No, I did not have a fight with him! If it’s any of your business! His wife is dying of emphysema and he decided he wanted to be with her at the end.”

“I liked Mr. Fellowes,” Percy said.

“Yes, he’s a real gentleman,” mother said. “They threw away the mold with that one.”

“So, will you get yourself a new boyfriend now?” Ella asked.

“Sure, I will! The old girl still has what it takes. Men flock to her like bees to honey.”

“I think it’s flies to honey,” Ella said, but mother ignored her.

When supper was finished, Ella announced she had been sick all day, but she didn’t say what was wrong. Mother put her hand to her forehead.

“I fainted in gym class today and they sent me to the nurse’s office. She said I had a fever and my blood pressure was high.”

“Whenever you have kids, there’s always something going wrong,” mother said.

“The nurse said I should just stay home from school tomorrow and rest.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“I want to stay home, too!” Percy said. “I’m sick, too!”

Ella went to bed right after supper without any TV. In the morning when she woke up it was almost nine o’clock and the house was quiet. She put her hands to her stomach to see if she felt the baby growing inside her, but she couldn’t. The good thing about pregnancy, if there was a good thing, was that you could keep it to yourself for a while before anybody would know.

All day long she napped and read magazine stories and ate snacks, enjoying having the house to herself. By suppertime she was feeling better. She got up and put on her imported red-and-yellow silk kimono and helped mother fix supper. When mother asked her if she felt like going to school the next day, she nodded her head.

On her way to history class, her first class of the day, the nurse stopped her in the hallway and gave her a pamphlet. “Read every word of this,” the nurse said. “You can’t wallow in  ignorance your entire life.” 

Ella slipped the pamphlet into her book and, sitting at a table alone, read it in third period study hall. It explained all about the reproductive mechanism and how a woman brings forth a baby. Most important of all, it explained the part the father plays in the process and what must happen for the sperm to fertilize the egg.

So, being pregnant wasn’t like catching a cold, after all. It was a little more complicated than that but, still, she would never sit on her mother’s boyfriend’s lap again, no matter how much he wanted her to. No use in letting that get started. There must be a hundred ways to keep it from happening.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

 

One of My Own

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One of My Own ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

When Alvin Goldsmith married Alma Mound and the babies started coming, he knew life for him would always be a struggle. After the first year of marriage, they brought Earl into the world. Then there was Peggy, then Damon, and then a girl they named Storm. After the fourth baby in five years, Alvin said there would be no more. One more would upset the balance.

Alvin had never been smart. He graduated from high school, but just barely. His last two years he was so lax and so lazy that, when he was allowed to graduate with his class, it was an act of generosity. Two weeks after graduation, he went to work in a shoe factory operating a leather press and stayed for thirteen years until the factory shut its doors. After that he painted houses, worked in a lead mine, drove a school bus, worked as a janitor in a church, clerked in a hardware store, did cleanup work in a cemetery, and even for a while worked as a trash collector.

The growing-up years of his quartette of children passed in a kind of blur to Alvin. They were starting to kindergarten and, then, before Alvin knew it, he was putting on his one blue suit that he wore to weddings and funerals and going to their high school graduations. Peggy and Storm were both married by the time they were nineteen and started having babies of their own. Earl, never much interested in the girls, moved to Alaska with a couple of his male friends and got a job there. He sent greeting cards to Alvin and Alma on Christmas and birthdays, but he would never come back home, he said, not even for a visit. He was happy in Alaska and didn’t want to be reminded of his growing-up years.

The only one of the four children that had ever caused Alvin and Alma any trouble was Damon, the third child and the younger of the two boys. As a child, he had temper tantrums in which he pounded his head against the wall. If anybody ever crossed him or kept him from doing what he wanted to do, he went into the kitchen and began taking dishes out of the cabinet and throwing them against the wall and breaking them. He played cruel tricks on his sisters, one time putting a decaying skunk in their bedroom, another time taking some of their clothes and books out into the front yard and setting fire to them. He called his mother vile names and painted obscenities on the wall of his room in his own blood. Alvin and Alma were intent on getting him through high school, after which they considered their duty to him was finished and the boy was on his own.

Damon’s high school years were fraught with trouble and heartache. He was always in trouble at school. He cheated on tests, stole money from girls’ purses, engaged in fistfights on little provocation, threatened to kill a teacher for touching him on the arm. At night, he went out and drank, sometimes not getting home in time to go to school the next morning. He shoplifted cigarettes and small food items. He had been barred from every pharmacy in town because he roamed their aisles and pilfered drugs.  Alvin prayed, though he knew he was wrong in doing so, that Damon would take the combination of drugs that would end his own life and in doing so, bring the family tragedy to an end.

Finally, through the grace of God, Damon graduated from high school. He had the lowest grade point average in his class the highest number of days missed, but still he made it through. The entire family attended his graduation and were happy for him. The next day he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He spent six months in the state mental hospital, after which he was said to be cured of whatever had been wrong with him and sent home.

He got a job as an apprentice meat cutter for minimum wage. In the evenings, he would come home wearing his white apron covered with blood, in which he seemed to take pride. Sometimes he brandished a meat cleaver in his mother’s or his father’s face, but they could ignore this as long as he was going to work every day and staying at home in the evenings and watching television and napping in the recliner.

He began dating a checker named Joanne in the supermarket where he worked and, in a few weeks, they announced they were to be married. Joanne was going to have a baby, but she hoped nobody would notice until after the wedding. They rented a small house a few blocks from the supermarket where they both worked and, seven months after they were married, Joanne gave birth to a son, Matthew.

In the year after Matthew’s birth, Damon began going around with other women, barflies and other low types. He stole money from Joanne’s purse, just as he had stolen money from girl’s purses in high school, and he began staying out all night, sometimes being gone for two or three days at a time. When Joanne confronted him over the loss of the rent money, he hit her in the head with a bottle and tried to strangle her. As he held her down on the floor, she slashed him across the face with a steak knife and got away. After that, she quit her job as a checker and took Matthew and went back to her childhood home to live with her widowed mother.

By now, Alvin was sixty-three and, after forty-five years, he had to give up working. He had a heart murmur, a fatty liver, arthritis, asthma, and deteriorating disks in his spine. Every movement for him was painful. He and Alma, sitting at the kitchen table, figured they could get by on what little money they had, since they only had themselves to take care of and didn’t need anything in the way of luxuries.

Just when Alvin was looking forward to not having to go to work every day anymore, his son Damon was once more thrust upon him. Damon had lost his job, his home and his wife. He had no place to lay his head. Alvin and Alma had to take him in. He needed them. They didn’t have any other choice. What parent can turn away a child, no matter how old the child is? They allowed him to move into his old room, telling him they were no longer going to play any more of his old games. He either had to get himself straightened up, or he had to get out.

He did all right for a couple of months but after he started feeling better he was up to his old tricks. He stole his father’s pain medication. He took grocery money from his mother’s purse and used it to buy whiskey. He stayed out all night and slept all day. He was dirty and sloppy and his mother had to pick up after him the same way she had done when he was five years old. Anytime she tried to speak to him in a sensible way to get him to try harder and do better, he called her a meddling old bitch and demanded that she leave him alone so he might live his life the way he saw fit.

When Damon pushed Alma against the refrigerator, causing her to fall and sprain her wrist, Alvin told him he had to get out before the day was through. He would have to make his own way in the world. His parents were no longer responsible for him. He got his things together and left, damning his parents to hell and telling them he’d come back and, when he did, they’d better start saying their prayers.

“Have somebody come and change the locks on the doors tomorrow,” Alvin said to Alma.

Without telling Alvin, Alma took a few lessons on gun safety and how to shoot and, after that, bought a small handgun at a gun shop twenty miles out on the highway. She learned how to load and how to shoot at a moment’s notice. She wouldn’t let Alvin know she had the gun but if he happened to see it, he would know she was only doing what she had to do to protect their lives, which was all they had in the world worth protecting.

Two weeks after Damon left, Alma heard a car door slam out in front of the house just as she was finishing up with the supper dishes. Alvin had gone out to the garage and wouldn’t have heard the door. When she went to the window, she saw Damon coming toward the house carrying a shotgun. She heard him try to open the door and, when his old key wouldn’t work, he began shouting and swearing.

“Go on, now, son!” she called to him. “We’ve already made it clear we don’t want any more trouble with you!”

“Let me in!” he bellowed like a bull.

“No!” she said. “I’m not going to let you in! If you don’t go away and leave us alone, I’ll call the sheriff! I swear I will!”

He banged on the door with his fists and, when she still didn’t open the door, he blasted the lock with his shotgun. It fell away like a cheap plastic toy.

Not knowing what else to do, she ran into the bedroom and got her gun that she kept on the top shelf in her closet, in a place where Alvin would never see it. She ran holding the gun out in front of her and into the front room, where Damon was just coming through the door. When he saw her, he leveled his shotgun at her.

She believed in her heart that he was going to kill her in the next few seconds and after he killed her he’d kill Alvin too. To keep that from happening, she fired one shot at Damon and that’s all it took. The bullet from her gun hit him squarely where his heart was, as if she had been shooting at targets her whole life. He sucked in his breath, fell to the floor and was dead.

The story was in the newspapers and on television. Rural Woman Kills Schizophrenic Son in Self-Defense. No Charges to be Filed.

There were more than two hundred people at the funeral. Everybody heard about the killing and wanted to be part of the excitement. No matter how many people expressed condolences and sincere regrets, Alma was sure that many of them looked upon her with disgust and believed she was a monster for killing her own son. It’s easy to judge people when you don’t know all there is to know.

Alvin wanted to put it all behind him, to live the rest of his life in peace, but Alma couldn’t let it go.

“I would rather have cut off my hand than to lift it against one of my own,” she said.

“No, old girl,” Alvin said. “You did absolutely the right thing. Nobody blames you. If you hadn’t done what you did, you and I would be in our graves right now.”

“When I think about my poor boy and his miserable life, I don’t know if I can stand it,”

“You’ve got to! There’s no other choice.”

“There’s nothing I can ever do to make it up to him now.”

The river ran about a mile behind Alvin and Alma’s house. After three days of rain, she heard talk about how it might flood. She thought about the swirling waters and what a comfort it would be to have them rise over your head and take away all your troubles and all your sins. Like being baptized in the River Jordan.

Not being able to sleep, she got out of bed at three in the morning and slipped a jacket on over her pajamas and stepped into some old boots she kept for rainy weather. She tied a headscarf around her head and got a flashlight out of the kitchen drawer and walked down to the river in the dark and silence, being observed only by an owl or two or a possum.

When she came to the river, she thought she’d be afraid but she wasn’t. Without hesitating, she stepped into the water as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. She kept walking without stopping and when the water was up to her chin and there was only one more step to take, she stopped and looked up into the trees and, just past the trees, at the shining stars. She saw Damon looking down at her from heaven and she heard him whisper the words: Mama, I forgive you.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

I Want People to See Us Together

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I Want People to See Us Together ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Note: This is a re-post of a story I posted just one month ago, slightly revised.)

Leigh Abbott was forty-eight years old. He thought he still looked young until he looked in the mirror and saw the gray pallor of his skin, the dark circles around his eyes, and a hairline that receded more with every passing year. Young was not the word for the way he looked. Ghoulish was more like it. Better to stay away from mirrors.

It was now thirty years since high school. He still lived in the same house and thought the same thoughts as he did then. He slept in the same bed and wore the same clothes and shoes. The bathroom was the same and the kitchen. The pictures on the wall in his room were the same, as were the dresser and chest of drawers. The closet door, badly in need of painting, still had the same crack; the carpet, still the same ugly green, had the same unidentifiable stains. When he chose to be honest with himself, he saw that he was in a state of stasis, rather than one of flux.

His father had died, his sister and his brother. He was the last male heir in a line that went back to the stone age. When he died, without issue, the line was finished. He sensed the disapproval of all the male progenitors, including the two that he knew, and it put a smile on his face. He welcomed extinction.

His mother was over eighty, still much the same as when he was a small child. The skin sagged more, the shoulders drooped, the hair silvered, but she was still as indomitable as ever. She would live to be a hundred at least. She might be the first woman in history to not die at all.

Night after night he sat and watched TV with her in the darkened living room. She liked the westerns and the love stories, the game shows and the musical variety. Anything light and wholesome, life-affirming. She didn’t like movies—they were mostly too long for her—or anything with smart-mouthed children, sexual innuendo or off-color jokes. Dancing was all right, as long as it was the wholesome kind, like the dancing cowboys in Oklahoma.

Whenever Leigh suggested watching a program that interested him, something other than the usual fare, she agreed, but when he saw after ten minutes or so that she was bored and unhappy, he turned back to what he knew she would like. He could have gone on to bed or gone into another room and read a book, but she didn’t like watching TV by herself. What’s the use of having a family, she would say, if I have to sit here all by myself in the dark?

She no longer drove, so he had to take her wherever she wanted to go, whether it was to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones or to the beauty parlor to get her hair re-crimped and re-tinted. He usually waited in the car at the beauty parlor, no matter how long it took, no matter how hot or cold the weather. He absolutely refused to wait inside and have all the ladies looking at him and wondering, maybe even laughing at him and tittering behind their hands.

His mother was at the age where a lot of her friends and distant relatives were dying. Trips to funeral homes or to various unfamiliar churches became commonplace. He sat through services honoring people he never saw or heard of before. There affairs were always accompanied by introductions and hand-shaking with people whose hands he would have preferred not to touch.

On Saturday morning, he did the grocery shopping, but his mother always accompanied him to make sure he got the most for his money. Don’t get that one, she’d say. Get this one. It’s twenty-nine cents less. If he wanted to buy a cake with white fluffy icing, she told him the sugar would make him jittery and would only add to his waistline. When you get older, she said, you gain weight easier and you can no longer eat the way you used to.

Of course, mother, he’d say. I know you’re right. I bow to your superior judgment.

On Sunday, there was always church. He preferred to just drive her there and go back and pick her up an hour-and-a-half later, but she wouldn’t allow it. I want you to go with me, she’d say. I don’t want to sit there by myself. Church is for families. I want people to see us together.

So, he’d get up on Sunday morning, dress in either of his outdated suits, put on a dress shirt that was frayed at the collar and a clip-on tie that was thirty years old, and suffer through a long service that meant little to him. He tried to feel elevated or enlightened by what he heard and saw in church, but for him it just wasn’t there.

And then, when the service was concluded, he stood by and wore a tight smile as his mother greeted her old-lady friends. This is my wonderful son, she’d say. He’s the light of my life.

She thought she knew him so well, but there was, by necessity, a part of himself that he kept hidden.

It started in high school. There was a boy named Eliot Ellsworth. He was one year older than Leigh. He was sexually precocious; he talked about improbable experiences that he had with older women. Not only that, but he experimented with drinking and drugs. He carried a switchblade knife in his book bag. He said he would stab to death anybody who insulted him. Leigh was scandalized but entranced. Eliot was so different from anybody else. Leigh felt important, for the first time in his life, when he was with Eliot.

One weekend Eliot’s parents were out of town and Eliot had the house to himself. He called Leigh and asked if he’d like to come over. Leigh couldn’t get there fast enough, telling his mother he was going to an impromptu boy-girl party. She didn’t approve, but she didn’t try to keep him from going.

Eliot was drinking beer and smoking pot. Leigh accepted a beer, but he was reluctant to smoke pot. Eliot seemed like an expert. He showed Leigh how to draw the smoke into his lungs. Leigh choked and Eliot laughed. Leigh hated smoking pot but he pretended to like it because he didn’t want Eliot to stop being his friend.

After two more beers, Leigh’s inhibitions began to melt away. They went into Eliot’s bedroom and closed the door, even though there was nobody else in the house. They smoked another joint and Eliot took his pornography collection out of a drawer and showed it to Leigh. Leigh had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but he wouldn’t have gone home at that moment for anything in the world.

Eliot asked Leigh if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures with another boy. Eliot ended up staying the whole night.

When he got home in the morning, his mother was in tears. He told her an improbable story about having to stay the night with a friend who was sick. She knew he was lying. She barely spoke to him for two weeks and turned her back on him whenever he came into the room.

He met with Eliot several more times when Eliot’s parents were away. He thought about Eliot all the time. When the phone rang, his heart skipped a beat. He was grateful above all to Eliot for showing him his true nature. He knew then, for the first time in his life, that when people come into our lives, it’s for a reason.

Then graduation came and Eliot was finished with high school. He landed a job in another state and went away. Leigh never saw him again. Leigh wrote him several letters, hoping they might get together again, but Eliot never wrote back.

There were a few others after Eliot, all of them easily forgotten. None of them meant to Leigh what Eliot had meant. In his mid-twenties, Leigh decided from that moment on that he would live the life of a celibate. There would be only one Eliot in his life.

All the dull years went by and Leigh found himself perilously close to fifty. He still felt, on the inside, like a high school boy. He bought a computer to help relieve the tedium of television and of being alone all the time with his mother. She didn’t approve of computers because it kept Leigh occupied in another room away from her, but she indulged him in his little hobby. He joined, anonymously, an online club for like-minded men. His mother would never know.

He began corresponding with a man in Russia named Sergei. (How Russian can you get?) Sergei told Leigh all about his life in Russia. He was thirty-two years old and had never married. His mother and father were dead. He had learned English as a child in a missionary school. He lived in a house with his two older brothers and one sister. He was lonely and still hoped to find the one person on earth who was right for him. The pictures that he sent of himself showed a smiling, handsome, dark-haired, trim young man in front of a dilapidated house.

Leigh located the one picture of himself that he thought was flattering and sent it to Sergei. As soon as Sergei saw the picture, he said, he felt an instant connection.

Leigh told Sergei the truth about himself, no matter how distasteful. All his family was dead and he had always lived alone with his mother, who would probably never die. He told him his true age and that he only had a high school education. He read books and liked foreign films but he didn’t consider himself very smart. And, yes, he too still hoped to find the one person in life who would make his heart sing.

Sergei wanted to come to America and become a citizen. He was proud to know a man like Leigh, he said; it made him want to make his home in America that much more. Leigh wrote that if he wanted it badly enough, he would make it happen.

They corresponded, via the Internet, for close to a year. Leigh looked forward to Sergei’s messages. If a day passed without a message from Sergei, he felt downhearted and irritable; he had to restrain himself to keep from snapping at his mother whenever she asked him pointless questions.

Then Sergei sent a message saying he had lost his job in the car manufacturing plant where he worked. His brothers told him he couldn’t go on living in the house with them unless he paid his share of the rent and paid for the food he ate. It’s a cruel world, he said. I wish I was dead.

The time was perfect for him to come to America. It was the one thing he had always wanted to do. He believed it was his destiny. There was just one thing standing in his way. He didn’t have enough money for the plane fare to cross the vast ocean; he needed about twenty-two hundred dollars. If Leigh could lend him that much money, Sergei would come to him and they would be together. Of course, he would pay back the money just as soon as he could. He heard that good-paying jobs were easy to come by in America. Much better than Russia.

Leigh had three thousand dollars in the bank, all the money he had in the world. If he sent twenty-two hundred to Sergei, he would have eight hundred left. It would be enough for them to go away together. They would both get jobs.

They’d go out West together somewhere. They’d drive day and night. They would eat in roadside diners and spend the night in small, out-of-the-way motels. They’d have the best time they ever had in their lives. He’d send his mother a postcard to let her know he was fine but never coming back. She’d be hurt at first but would come to accept it. There comes a time when every boy has to leave his mother. My time is long-past due, don’t you think?

He went to the bank and transferred twenty-two hundred dollars to the place in Russia that Sergei had designated. He felt a thrill when the woman at the bank told him the transaction went through successfully.

He went right home right away, his heart singing, and sent Sergei a message telling him the money was on its way. Please let me know when you have the money, he said, and on what day you plan to come. I will pick you up at the airport. Even though I feel we already know each other so well, I can’t wait for the moment when we finally meet in person.

At the supper table Leigh’s mother complained of a pain in her back. She was afraid she had kidney stones. She was going to go to bed right after supper. Leigh was uncharacteristically happy and smiled at everything she said. She didn’t notice anything different about him.

After she went to bed, Leigh began putting things in his battered old suitcase. Just the necessary items; clean socks and underwear, two new toothbrushes and toothpaste. Of course, if Sergei needed anything like that, he’d be more than welcome to use what was Leigh’s. Better not take too much. Travel light or don’t travel at all.

The next day he didn’t hear from Sergei or the day after that. On the third day, he sent Sergei another message asking him if he received the money. By nightfall he was dismayed but not alarmed that Sergei didn’t write back.

On the fifth day after he sent the money, he was concerned that maybe something had happened to Sergei. Maybe he was sick or hurt. Of course, there was nobody to let him know if anything had happened. He needed to be patient but it wasn’t easy. After he sent the money, he expected things to happen quickly. What could be the reason for the delay?

One week after sending the money, Leigh awoke in the morning with the realization that he had been played for a sucker. The whole thing with Sergei had been perpetrated to swindle him out of money. Maybe Sergei didn’t even exist.

He imagined a group of people sitting around a table in Russia, scheming to snare unsuspecting fools in America. This looks like a good one, they’d say. Play on his loneliness and vulnerability. Send him a picture of an attractive man. Get him to share confidences. Make him feel a connection that, of course, doesn’t exist. Go in for the kill. I think we can get at least two thousand out of this one. Damn, if this isn’t a sweet way to make money without having to work for it!

He continued sending messages every day to Sergei. Of course, they were unanswered. Sergei, he knew now, didn’t exist.

For several days, Leigh didn’t have the will to get out of bed in the morning. His life was nothing and it was going to stay that way until he died and they put him in the ground alongside his father. When his mother came in at ten o’clock in the morning to see if he was all right, he told her didn’t feel well and wanted only to rest. He would stay in bed until the time that he felt like getting up. He had nothing to get up for. You need to see the doctor, she said. Do you need me to call him for you? I need only for you to go away and leave me alone, he said.

On his third day in bed, he began vomiting blood. He was dying, he knew, and he didn’t much care. His pictured his mother having a yard sale after he was gone, selling his clothes and shoes and things. Nobody would want anything that he had ever owned. He didn’t even want it himself.

He had a disturbing dream in which he and his father were buried in the same coffin, except that he wasn’t quite dead yet. His father, who had been dead for fifteen years, had worms and maggots crawling out of his eye sockets. Leigh couldn’t get away from him. All he could do was scream and flail his arms and legs. When he woke up, he realized he had been sleeping too much. He was about to sleep himself to death.

He got out of bed and took a shower and after he was dressed in clean clothes he got into his car and drove away without a word to his mother. On his way to wherever he was going, he stopped at a restaurant he had never noticed before and had a chicken dinner.

After he left the restaurant, he drove out of town on a road that he hadn’t been on since he was a child. As he remembered the road, he remembered also a high bluff overlooking a river. It used to be a picnic spot. He had been there a couple of times with his parents when he was in fourth or fifth grade. Now, if only he thought about it hard enough, he could remember how to get there.

He came to a turn-off and a voice in his head told him to take it. He made a left-hand turn and after a while found himself going up a hill. Yes, he recognized the hill. He saw himself in the back seat of his father’s old black Mercury and his mother and father in front, arguing about some little thing, as usual. He remembered the same huge tree beside a ditch with some of its roots exposed and a field with some cows standing behind a wire fence.

He took another turn and, after an ascendant half-mile, he was at the place he remembered. The picnic tables had been removed and the road was partly washed away, but it was the same place. He parked the car and got out.

About fifty yards from where the picnic tables used to be was the bluff. It was a drop of a hundred feet or so, equivalent to the height of a ten-story building. At the bottom of the bluff were rocks and small trees. When the river was at its highest peak, it came right up to the foot of the bluff. A fall or a jump from the bluff would certainly kill a man instantly.

His mind went blank as he stood two feet from the edge of the bluff and looked down, feeling the wind on his face and smelling the river. Here was the resolution of his unhappy life. It could all be over in less than a minute if he only had the courage to step forward.

He was thinking these bitter thoughts when he heard a slight sound to his right and slightly behind him. He turned and saw a dark-haired man standing there looking at him. His first thought was of Sergei, but he knew, of course, that that was ridiculous.

 “Thinking about jumping?” the man said.

Leigh managed a tight little smile, put his hands in his jacket pockets, and turned and headed for the car.

“Wait a minute!” the man said. “Stay and talk for a while!”

“I came up here to be alone,” Leigh said. “Now that I’m not alone anymore, I’d rather be someplace else.”

“Hey, man! Isn’t that a rather cutting thing to say to somebody you just met?”

“How is it that you just happened to come along while I was here? The odds are about a million to one that we would both be in the same place at the same time.”

“That’s how fate works, I guess, man.”

“Don’t call me ‘man’. It sounds supercilious.”

“Super what?”

“Did my mother send you to spy on me? How much is she paying you? I can just hear her: My boy has been acting a little strangely lately and I want to know what he’s doing when he’s away from home.”

“Mother problems? I know what that’s like, except my mother is dead.”

“Well, I’m going now,” Leigh said. “It’s been lovely talking to you.”

“I know you!” the man said.

“What?”

“Even if we’ve never met before, I know you! You’re a universal type. A middle-aged man living with his mother, pretending to be something he’s not. She browbeats you, doesn’t she? She still treats you like a child. She doesn’t acknowledge that you’re not the same person you were when you were eight years old.”

“Are you a psychiatrist?” Leigh asked.

“No, I’m not a psychiatrist, but do you know what I’d like right now?”

“No, and I don’t care.”

“I’d like a shrimp salad and a bottle of imported beer.”

“Sea food makes me vomit and I don’t drink beer,” Leigh said.

“I have a room at the General Sherman Motel,” the man said. “You’d love it! It looks just like the motel in Psycho. I haven’t seen Norman Bates yet, but I’ll bet he’s around somewhere.”

“I’m leaving now,” Leigh said.

“How about if you take me by my motel to get cleaned up and then we’ll go on and get something to eat?”

“I have exactly two dollars,” Leigh said. “I just gave all my money away to a person I didn’t know. You’re looking at the stupidest person alive.”

“Hey, we’ve all been that, man!”

Leigh stepped around him and got into his car, put the key into the ignition and turned it. As he was putting the car in gear, the man jumped in on the passenger side.

“You know, you’re very annoying,” Leigh said. “If I find my mother sent you, I’m going to kill you, you know.”

“Forget about mother for a while. She’s not here”

“How do I know you’re not a serial killer? How do I know you won’t lure me into your room at the General Sherman Motel and hack me to pieces with a big knife?”

“That’s just a chance you’ll have to take, man!”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp