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Welcome to the Neighborhood

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Welcome to the Neighborhood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m really not that ugly.”

“Hah! That’s what you think!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re the one that started it.”

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

“Who cares?”

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

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

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

“Why do you care what it is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not me!”

“You won’t go with me?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I admit nothing.”

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

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

“Then you’ll go with me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t do that!”

“How about ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’?”

“No, I hate that song!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

“His mother knows those people.”

“What people?”

“Don’t be coy.”

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

“I don’t think I’ve heard that one.”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

“So?”

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

“Why not?”

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

“Oh, my gosh! She’s retarded?”

“You catch on fast.”

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

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

“Are you making this up?” Carmen said.

“She’s a lesbian.”

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” the old man asked.

“I live across the street.”

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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Washed in the Blood

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Washed in the Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

“Hello,” he said sleepily.

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

“Yes,” Vincent said. “Who is this?”

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Thanks for calling.”

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

“What about?”

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

“Well, I’m pretty busy today.”

“Would tomorrow be better?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” Vincent said.

“May we sit?”

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

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

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

“Grief counseling?”

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

“I don’t think…”

“The group meets twice a month, on alternating Fridays. I believe this coming Friday, the day after tomorrow, is their night to meet. Please feel free to attend if you’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock.”

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

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

“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”

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

“Why would she do that?”

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

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

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

“Why is that?”

“You have no other family, I understand?”

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

“But no family nearby.”

“That’s right.”

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

“Not all do.”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“Another chance to do what?”

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

“It is for some people.”

“What?”

“Being alone is good for some people.”

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

“Got it.”

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

“Plans?”

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

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

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

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

“I just want you to know that if you need help we have ladies in the church, volunteers, who will come in a morning or two a week a help out with laundry or household chores.”

“Ladies?”

“Yes, they’re older women, retired, with plenty of time on their hands. They like to help out bachelors and widowers. People like yourself.”

“Do they get paid by the hour?”

“They don’t get paid at all. They’re Christian ladies. They like to help out where help is needed.”

“Like Superman?”

“Well, not quite like Superman. Superman’s a fictional character. These are real people.”

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, thanks for stopping by.”

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

“People like me?”

“Yes, the theme is going to be ‘succor for the lonely’.”

“Sucker?”

“Yes, ‘succor for the lonely’. The meeting starts at seven o’clock. We’d be happy to have you join us. Dress is casual.”

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Okay, but I won’t be there.”

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

“I know that.”

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

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

“They’re the same.”

“No, they’re not.”

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

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

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

“Just one more thing. Your house.”

“What about my house?”

“Your house has many rooms.”

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

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

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

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

“Halfway house! What’s that?”

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

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

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

“Where would I live?”

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

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

“Well, that’s not quite the way I’d…”

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

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

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

A Visit to Miss Goodapple’s

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

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

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

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

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

“How is Ruby these days?”

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

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

“A bit of a tramp, too.”

“She knew how to have a good time.”

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

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

“Well, it’s true.”

“Were you there?”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“How do you know it happened, then?”

“Everybody said it happened.”

“That doesn’t mean it did.”

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

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

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

“She’s thirty-two.”

“Who is she marrying?”

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

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

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

“Don’t you think I know that?”

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“And now she’s gorgeous?”

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

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

The operation? There were about four.”

“Well, who paid for it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like the neck,” he said.

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

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

“Andy’s,” grandma said.

“And his mother is who?”

“Janice.”

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

“She’s got the lupus now.”

“Oh, isn’t that too bad!”

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

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

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

“Your heart aches,” Audrey Stoller said.

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

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

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

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

Tsk-tsk-tsk! What a shame!”

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

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

“That’s all you can do, honey.”

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

“Third,” Cleland said.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

“Who’s that man?” he asked

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

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

“No.”

“Is he at work?”

“No, he died.”

“What was the matter with him?”

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

“What did he do before he died?”

“He was a businessman.”

“A businessman?”

“Yes, he owned a store downtown.”

“What kind of store?”

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

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

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

“What does ‘before my time’ mean?”

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

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

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

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

“No. I don’t want one.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Bean?”

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

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

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

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

“Sure, I’ve done it a few times.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A facelift? How could she afford that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Poor old soul!”

“He’s been off his rocker for years.”

“What exactly is the matter with him?”

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

“Oh! Tsk-tsk-tsk!

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

“Isn’t that sad!”

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

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

“At her age?”

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

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

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

“Lots of women have both, you know!”

“Let’s not get started on that!”

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

“So will you!”

“I’ll be surrounded by loved ones.”

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

“That’s very cynical.”

“And true.”

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

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

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

“No. Why should it?”

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

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

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

“Not recently.”

“There’s nothing more grotesque.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

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

“What if the loved one is a man?”

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

“Or a stud for his ear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a sip!” grandma said.

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Tractor Pulls and Wrestle Mania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

From the Shallow to the Deep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!” the boys shouted.

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

Yes!

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

The boys laughed appreciatively.

“And it must be presentable.”

“What does that mean?” somebody asked.

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

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

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

Hah-hah-hah!

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

“No!”

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

No!”

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

Yes!

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

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

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

A collective groan went up.

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

“How high?” somebody asked.

“Thirty feet.”

“What if we can’t do it?”

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

No, sir!

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

Yes, sir!

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

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

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

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

“What was?”

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

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

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

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

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

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

“Do you think I’d let you drown?”

“I don’t know, sir. Would you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand that, sir!”

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

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

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

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

“What name?”

“What?”

“What’s your name?”

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

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

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

“I see. Give him my regards.”

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

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

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

“How did what go?”

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

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

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

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

“I know you are, sir.”

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

“I guess I’m just not normal.”

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

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

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

“I don’t know. Had a fit?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s not funny!”

“It’s not meant to be.”

“For the next month your wings are clipped.”

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

“Sounds like a million laughs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

State of Desire

State of Desire ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

My name is Charles R. Some people call me Charlie but mostly I’m known as just plain Charles. I had been married for twelve years and had two children. We lived the American dream in a mortgaged-to-the-hilt ranch house in the suburbs. I had a job I didn’t like very much as an editor at a publishing firm. I had been with the company for seven years and had been passed over for promotion in favor of younger, less-experienced people. I hated every minute I spent in the corporate world. I wanted to throw everything down and become a writer. Not practical, you say? You’re probably right.

Every morning I got into my aging Pontiac and drove the twelve miles to work. The morning drive could be fraught with drama, depending on the weather, time of year and traffic conditions. A sudden thunder storm, a little bit of rain or unexpected snow flurries? A cardboard box falls off the back of a truck onto the highway? Any ugly and unexpected occurrence on the highway might make me up to an hour late for work. Late again? Don’t worry about it. Just make up the time at the end of the day.

My gas tank was nearly empty, so on Monday morning on my way to work I stopped at Gus Gray’s to fill up. Right away I saw there was a new attendant manning the pumps. He smiled at me as I pulled up and rolled down my window. His name, stitched on the pocket of his shirt, was Ian.

“Fill it up?” he asked as I rolled down my window.

“Why not?” I said, devil may care.

After he pumped the gas, he was cleaning my windshield.

“New here?” I asked.

“Last week.”

“You like it?”

“Who likes pumping gas?”

“Probably nobody,” I said.

I didn’t think about Ian again until the next time I needed gas and stopped in at Gus Gray’s. He was standing beside the pumps as if I was the only customer all day. He put the gas in my car and cleaned my windshield and before I left I asked him to check the oil.

As he raised the hood, I got out of the car and stood beside him. I watched him as he bent over under the hood. He checked the oil and said it was okay and closed the hood.

“You’re different,” I said, inclined to engage him in small talk.

“How’s that?” he said.

“Your fingernails are clean.”

He laughed. “Nobody notices.”

I notice.”

He was about thirty or thirty-two. He had brown hair, what little I could see of it under his cap. His face was covered with brown-blond stubble, just enough to become him. He was trim-waisted, shirt tucked neatly into his pants. He wore new-looking work boots.

“Gus Gray knows who to put out front to attract the customers.”

“Are you flirting with me?” he asked.

“I would never do that,” I said, embarrassed.

The next time I went into Gus Gray’s, it was for an oil change. I hoped Ian would be there. It was raining, so he was inside at the cash register. I gave him the keys to my car and sat down to wait while he went to move my car. When he came back in, he didn’t seem to notice I was sitting there. I got up and bought a soda out of the vending machine.

“Slow day?” I asked.

“What?” he asked.

“I said it’s a slow day because of the rain.”

“Oh, yeah. People don’t get out if they don’t have to.”

“Then why am I here?” I said.

He smiled and shrugged and I felt like a babbling fool.

I sat back down with my soda and, after I had drunk about half of it, he said, “Gus is off today so I have to take care of any customers.”

“It’s always nice when the boss is gone, isn’t it?” I said.

“Yeah. Gus is all right but he runs a tight ship.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“You know what they say, though. It’s a job.”

“I don’t like my job very much, either,” I said.

“What do you do?”

“I work for a publishing company downtown.”

“You’re a publisher?”

“Just an editor.”

“What does an editor do?”

“I make sure copy is ready for publication.”

“What’s ‘copy’?”

“Stuff that other people write.”

“If you don’t like it, why don’t you quit?”

“I have a mortgage and two kids.”

“And a wife?”

“Yeah, a wife, too.”

“Most people have at least one wife running around,” he said.

“How about you?” I said. “Do you have a wife?”

“No,” he said. “No wife.”

“Smart man,” I said.

Over the next three months or so I saw Ian every time I stopped in for gas. We usually exchanged a few words of no importance that I remembered days later.

On days I didn’t need gas, I usually drove by the station just to get a glimpse of him. Why Ian, out of all the people I knew and saw every day? I wasn’t sure. There was a spark there, a connection. Yes, he was handsome and I was physically attracted to him, but it was more than that. On his part, I knew he recognized me from other customers, but other than that I didn’t know what he thought of me or if he thought anything at all. I was behaving like an immature high school student and I needed to snap out of it before I made a complete fool of myself.

One morning on my way to work I stopped it at Gus Gray’s. I hoped to have a few words with Ian, maybe ask him to have lunch one day or a drink after work. He wasn’t waiting at the pump as usual and he didn’t come bounding out of the station. The weasel they called Johnny Walker Red was there instead. He had long red hair that made him look like Rita Hayworth. I was sickened at the thought of having anybody but Ian pump my gas.

“Where’s Ian?” I asked Johnny Walker Red.

“Who?”

“Ian.”

“Don’t know no Ian.”

“He works here.”

“Oh, yeah! I forgot his name. I think Gus said he’s sick or something. In the hospital.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“I dunno.”

“When’s he coming back?”

“I dunno. I ain’t his keeper.”

I paid for my gas and went on to work. I felt low and unhappy all day long. I only wanted people to leave me alone. I couldn’t wait to get back home in the evening so I could be by myself.

I waited a few days and went back to the station, hoping Ian would have returned. This time Gus Gray waited on me.

“Where’s Ian?” I asked him.

“He called and asked for a few days off. I think he’s been in the hospital.”

“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”

“Nope.”

“Is he coming back?”

“I guess so. He didn’t say.”

It was about this time that I started having trouble at work, which involved  enforced overtime. We had missed a couple of deadlines recently and the boss was ready to bring out the guillotine and start using it. We were all going to have to knuckle down and work extra hours every day just to get caught up. It moved me one step closer to quitting but not without punching a few people in the nose first.

On Monday it was time to fill up my gas tank again. When I pulled into Gus Gray’s, Ian was standing at the pump. I had never been more happy to see anybody in my life. It was all I could do to keep from getting out of the car and embracing him.

“May I help you, sir,” he said, as I rolled down my window.

“You’ve been gone,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“I missed you.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Fill it up,” I said.

When he brought me the change from the twenty-dollar bill I used to pay for my gas, he gave me one of Gus Gray’s business cards. He had crossed through the print on the front and written his name and phone number on the back.

“In case you ever want to talk,” he said.

I drove on to work, happier than I had been for long time. The good feeling lasted through the entire day. I was kind to my co-workers and felt calm and relaxed. I took an extra long lunch, by myself, and walked three blocks away from the office and had a good fish dinner at a better place than I usually go.

That evening, while my wife and kids were watching TV, I went to the phone with the card in my hand. Heart pounding, I picked up the receiver and then put it back again. I hadn’t planned on calling him at that moment; it was only a dry run to show myself how easy it would be.

On top of all the overtime at work, I began having trouble at home. My wife and I began arguing about small things. She had a biting tongue and so did I. A lot of the self-restraint I prided myself on had left me. I hated arguing and bickering but I couldn’t seem to help myself. My parents had had a miserable marriage and I seemed to be following their example.

The fight of all fights came on a Sunday. I had been hoping to have a peaceful day at home, resting up for the upcoming week of hell at work, but my wife and I started arguing at the breakfast table. After several hours of anger and tension, I packed a bag and went to a motel so I could be alone.

After I checked into the motel, I had a nap and then a quiet meal in the motel restaurant. After dinner, I sat down on the bed and called Ian’s number. He answered on the third ring.

He knew from the first word who I was. I didn’t have to explain myself. He said he was expecting me to call any time.

“Gus fired me,” he said.

“Why?”

“I’m too slow. I spend too long with each customer, while other customers are waiting. Not only that, I’m not assertive enough. He wanted me to push products to customers. Spark plugs, fan belts, wiper blades, motor oil, and all that kind of stuff. I told him I wasn’t hired to be a salesman, so he fired me.”

“We’re going away together,” I said.

“What?”

“I’m going to quit my job in the morning. I hate it and I’m tired of being unhappy. I’ll pick you up wherever you say at nine o’clock, so pack a bag.”

“That’s a little impulsive, isn’t it?” he said.

“Probably, but I don’t care.”

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long will we be gone?”

“I don’t know.”

In the morning I was up at six o’clock. After breakfast, I called my place of employment and instructed the secretary to tell the boss I was quitting. I’d never have to see or speak to that son of a bitch ever again. I’d mail them a letter of resignation later if they had to have it in writing.

I put my stuff in the car and checked out of the motel. I stopped at the bank and withdrew eight hundred dollars in cash from my savings account and arrived at the address Ian had given me at ten minutes to nine. He was waiting outside with a small suitcase. I asked him how he was, but he didn’t seem to want to talk so that was altogether fine with me. I didn’t feel much like talking in the morning either.

I didn’t know where I was going. I went out through town to the highway and headed west.

At lunchtime I had driven two hundred miles. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the highway at the edge of a small town. We sat across from each other in a sunny booth.

He told me a little bit about himself. His parents, both dead, had been alcoholics. His mother kicked him out of the house as soon as he graduated from high school. He had had an older brother who died from a drug overdose. He had been married briefly at twenty-one to a girl he hardly knew. The marriage lasted less than a year. For the last ten years or so he had gone from job to job, looking for something, he wasn’t sure what.

“A life of failure and unhappiness,” he said.

“So is everybody else’s,” I said.

He told me, reluctantly, why he had been in the hospital. When he was three years old, he had rheumatic fever and it left him with rheumatic heart disease, from which he would probably die by the time he was forty. He made it clear he didn’t want sympathy or pity.

“When it comes, I’ll be ready for it,” he said.

I drove all day in a westerly direction, stopping only at mealtimes and to fill my car up with gas. Neither one of us talked about where were going or what we’d do when we got there.

At eleven o’clock that night, after driving for about fourteen hours, I had to stop. We found a quiet, inviting-looking motel just off the highway and I engaged a room for two.

We talked for a while and watched an old black-and-white movie on TV. When the movie was over, he said wanted to take a shower. He came out of the bathroom naked and got into bed. I got into bed wearing pajamas. We kissed. Finally I had the thing I wanted since the first time I saw him.    

After a long silence, he turned to me and asked, “What state are we in?”

“Does it matter?” I said.

“I don’t want to go back,” he said. “I don’t want to go on.”

“You’ll find another job,” I said. “Don’t worry about that.”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. I don’t want another job. I’ve had enough jobs. I think I’ve come to the end. Of something.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you ever thought about a suicide pact,” he said. “With another person, I mean.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve thought about a lot of things.”

“It’d be better,” he said. “If two people did it at the same time.”

“Why better?” I asked.

I knew what he meant, but I wanted to see what he’d say.

“Not as lonely. To be able to show the world at the end that you’re not such a loser that you have to do it alone.”

I showed him the gun I had in my suitcase.

“I have two bullets,” I said.

He smiled as if he thought I was making a joke and then he knew I wasn’t.

“I can’t think of anything better,” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“Make it quick,” he said.

“All right.”

“Wait until I’m asleep.”

“In the back of the head,” I said. “You won’t feel a thing.”

I sat there in the chair beside the bed with the gun in my right hand. He turned over in the bed away from me and pulled the blanket up under his chin and in a couple of minutes I knew he was asleep.

There was just enough light coming in from the window that I could see him. I watched him all night, listening to him breathe and sigh, and I knew he was the only person in the world I had ever loved.

He slept through the night and when he woke up a little after daylight he turned and looked at me.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“It’s time to get up and get dressed,” I said. “We’ll get some breakfast.”

We were on our way again in a half-hour. We crossed one state line and then another and then another. I would keep going for as long as I could or until I ran out of highway.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Billie Diderot of the Lemon-Colored Hair

Billie Diderot of the Lemon-Colored Hair ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post.)

We had just finished supper when we heard a car out front. The kids, sensing excitement, went tearing out the door, knocking aside anything in their path. I went out, too, with mama right behind me.

What we had heard was a new-model Ford car with my brother Tafford driving. After seeing the car and then seeing Tafford, the next thing I saw was that somebody was in the car with him and that somebody was a woman.

“Tafford got himself a wife!” mama said.

“Tafford got himself a new car!” I said.

Lupe, Willoughby, and Wiley were jumping up and down and screaming. As soon as Tafford stopped the car, they were all over him, kissing and hugging him and tugging on his arms.

“You can help me carry in the stuff I got in the back of my car,” he said.

“Oh, what did you bring us?” Lupe cried.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Mama went down the steps off the porch and ran to Tafford and threw her arms around him. “I was afraid you was dead, son!” she said.

Tafford laughed. “Why would I be dead?”

“When we don’t hear from you for so long, I imagine all sorts of things.”

“Well, I’m here now and that’s what matters, ain’t it?”

Mama hung on to Tafford’s arm. “Who’s that woman?” she asked.

“Come on out of the car, Billie, and meet my family!” Tafford said.

She got out of the car and stood beside it, looking confused, trying to smile, tugging at her clothes. She wore a flowered dress and white shoes but the thing you noticed first about her was her hair the color of a lemon. It hung in billowy cascades around her ears to her shoulders. I had never seen hair like it before in my life.

“Mama,” Tafford said, “this is Billie Diderot. She’s going to be staying with us for a few days.”

She took two steps toward mama and held out her hand. Mama wasn’t used to women shaking hands, but she took hold of it anyway.

“Pleased to meetcha,” Billie Diderot said.

“How d’ya do,” mama said without smiling and then to Tafford she said, in a whisper that all of us heard, “She ain’t your wife, is she?”

Tafford threw his head back and laughed. “Hah-hah-hah! That’s a good one, mama! No, she ain’t my wife. We’re just taking a little trip together. And not as man and wife, neither!”

Tafford introduced Billie to me, Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby, shaking hands with all of us, and then Wiley and Willoughby got into Tafford’s car and wallowed around on the seats while Lupe sat behind the wheel and pretended to drive.

“Hey!” Tafford said. “Stop that now, you kids, and help me carry these things in!”

Billie had two suitcases that I carried inside, while Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby carried in the packages from the back of Tafford’s car. As soon as they got them inside, they began tearing them open to see what was in them. When they found cookies and donuts, they began stuffing them into their mouths like hungry animals, even though they just had supper.

“They’re a bunch of barbarians!” Tafford laughed, while Billie stood beside him looking uncomfortable.

As soon as mama came inside, Billie went to her and whispered something in her ear.

“It’s out back,” mama said. “Go through the kitchen and out the back door. You’ll see it.”

“When we have visitors, I’m a little embarrassed we don’t have indoor accommodations,” mama said when Billie was out of the room.

“Don’t think anything about it,” Tafford she. “She ain’t society.”

When Billie came back in, she wanted to wash herself, so mama gave her a washrag and a bar of soap and hustled the rest of us out of the kitchen so she could have a little privacy.

Since Tafford and Billie weren’t “man and wife” and wouldn’t be sleeping in the same bed, mama decided the best place to put Billie was in the attic room. The room hadn’t been cleaned in a while, at least two years, so mama put all of us to work sweeping the floors, putting clean linens on the bed, and removing any junk that had accumulated in the interim. We were all sure we had been ill-used from the unexpected work.

“I don’t want to hear any grumbling,” mama said, “while we got a guest in the house.”

After Billie finished with her “privacy” in the kitchen, mama offered to heat up the leftovers from supper, but Tafford said they had eaten in Pecksville on their way in and wouldn’t need anything else till breakfast.

So we all sat around “visiting” for a couple of hours and by then it was nearly ten o’clock. Tafford said they were tired from the long day, so it was time to say “good night.” Mama showed Billie up the stairs to the attic room while I followed behind carrying her suitcases. I set the suitcases down on the floor at the foot of the bed and went back down to my own room, where Tafford was already asleep.

The next morning Billie was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and she looked better than she had the night before. She wasn’t dressed yet but wore a thing that ladies wore before they got dressed, called a kimono, I guess. She smiled when I came into the room.

“I’ve forgotten your name already,” she said. “I’m just terrible at rememberin’ things!”

“It’s Tyler,” I said.

“Tyler and Tafford! Ain’t that cute!”

“Wasn’t meant to be cute,” mama said.

I was getting the impression Mama didn’t like Billie very much.

“What are the two younger boys’ names, now?”

“Willoughby and Wiley,” I said.

“Two W’s and two T’s. And in the middle of all these boys is one girl.”

“That would be Lupe,” I said.

“As in Lupe Velez?”

“I don’t know. Who’s Lupe Velez?”

“She’s a Mexican movie actress, just the cutest little thing you ever saw. She’s got these big dark eyes and…”

“No,” mama said, “we didn’t name her after no Mexican movie actress. That was a name her papa picked out. I can’t say I ever liked it very much but it was his wish.”

“And now he’s dead?” Billie asked.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“At a young age?”

“Not yet fifty.”

“And left you with five children to take care of?”

“I wouldn’t have had ‘em in the first place if I hadn’t been able to take care of ‘em.”

Tafford came into the room and poured himself a cup of coffee. Billie smiled at him but he didn’t smile back.

“Did you sleep well, son?” mama asked.

“I didn’t wake up a single time. You could have fired a gun over my head.”

He sat down at the table with his cup and lighted his own cigarette.

Mama brought the food to the table and we began eating.

“Aren’t you going to call the kids?” Billie asked.

“They’ve already ate,” mama said. “They get up early in summertime and they don’t want much breakfast.”

“Where are they now?”

“Down to the river, I think.”

“And you think that’s safe?”

“Sure, why not? They’ve learnt to look after themselves.”

“I wonder if I could take a little bath out back after breakfast?” Billie asked. “All I need is a pan of water and a piece of soap and a little privacy.”

“I don’t know why not,” mama said. “As long as the kids ain’t around. Nobody will be spyin’ on you, I’m sure.”

For a while, we were all in the service of Billie’s bath. Mama told me to get the washtub and fill it with water from the pump, while she heated the kettle to add some warm to it. Tafford set up a screen in the yard at the corner of the house so Billie could have complete privacy from prying eyes, wherever they might be.

I didn’t want to be anywhere near the back yard while Billie was taking her bath so I went out front and pulled some weeds out of mama’s flowerbeds and when I was finished with that I sat in Tafford’s car and pretended it was mine and I was driving around the city having a good time keeping one step ahead of the law.

When I went in for supper, Billie was helping mama get the food on the table. She wore pants and a loose man’s shirt that showed how thin and small she was. She had washed her hair with her bath and had tied a red ribbon around it that held it back from her face. She had painted her nails, too, and put on some makeup. I had the idea that she was trying to get Tafford to pay attention to her, but if that was what she was about it wasn’t working because he barely looked her way.

Mama had a time getting the kids to wash their hands and faces and, with that little drama concluded, we all sat down and began eating.

“What did you do with yourself all day long?” Billie asked Tafford, flashing him a pretty smile.

“I’m on vacation,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything.”

Billie, sitting to the left of Lupe, put her arm around her and made over her because she was the only girl in a family of boys.

“How you doin’, darling?” she asked.

“Fine,” Lupe said, licking gravy off her knuckles.

“I bet you’d like to have a new hairstyle, wouldn’t you?”

“What?”

“I’ve been thinking ever since I first saw you that I’d like to cut and style your hair. With your mama’s permission, of course.”

We all looked at mama to see what she’d say.

“I don’t see anything wrong with her hair,” mama said. “It could be a little cleaner, I guess.”

“It needs some body, is what it needs,” Billie said.

“She’ll never know it needs anything until you tell her it does,” Tafford said.

“Well, if she wants to, I don’t object, I guess,” mama said. “If you can get her to sit still long enough.”

“How much will it cost?” Lupe asked.

Billie laughed. “Not a single samolian, baby doll!”

The next day it rained, so Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby hung around in the house or on the porch. They tried to keep themselves entertained, but more often than not they ended up fighting and mama or Tafford had to separate them. Tafford asked them if they’d like to go for a ride in his Ford and Wiley and Willoughby started jumping up and down and screaming.

“I want some ice cream,” Wiley whined.

“Stop at the store and get me some canned salmon and a box of soda crackers,” mama said.

“Bring me some movie magazines,” Billie said. “Whatever they have that’s new.”

“Maybe I won’t do any of that,” Tafford said as he walked out the door.

Lupe didn’t want to go for a ride in Tafford’s Ford in the rain because she was mad at Willoughby for getting her in a headlock and not letting her go until mama made him.

“Now is a good time to have a go at that hair,” Billie said, and Lupe agreed.

She took Lupe into the kitchen and had her stand on a chair and lean over the sink while she washed her hair with shampoo that smelled like flowers. Then she had her sit at the table, draped the damp towel around her shoulders, and took the scissors and started snipping away.

She cut off about half of Lupe’s hair and then she put curling things in what was left. Lupe sure did look silly with those things in her hair. It looked like a bunch of brown butterflies had landed on her head and died.

While they were waiting for Lupe’s hair to dry, Billie painted Lupe’s fingernails and toenails bright red and put lipstick on her lips and a little rouge on her cheeks. The funny thing was that Lupe submitted to all the beauty business and held as still as a statue and didn’t grumble.

When Billie had taken the curling things out of Lupe’s hair and combed the hair out, she looked like a miniature version of Billie, only her hair wasn’t lemon-colored like Billie’s. Billie handed Lupe the mirror so she could take a good look at herself.

“I look like somebody else,” Lupe said.

“Don’t you like it?”

“I’d like it better if it was somebody else.”

“Why, I think you look beautiful,” Billie said. “You look like a blossoming young woman, which is what you should look like at your age. If I had a camera, I’d take your picture and send it to all the movie magazines. I’m sure someone would offer you a contract to star in the motion pictures.”

When Wiley and Willoughby came back, they look one look at Lupe and started having fun with her.

“You look so stupid!” Wiley said.

“You look like a turd!” Willoughby said.

“You still look like a boy! Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that!”

“We ought to take her picture and hang it out in the garden. Don’t need no other scarecrow!”

Lupe chased Wiley and Willoughby from room to room, her fists doubled up, the curls on her head bouncing. When she tried to punch or kick them, they managed to stay out of her reach, laughing the whole time. We all laughed, too, including mama. When Lupe began crying with frustration, we laughed harder. Finally she ran out of the house into the pouring rain and down the road.

“She’ll ruin her coiffure!” Billie said.

When she came back, her hair was all flat again with the curls gone. The makeup had washed away in the rain, too. There wasn’t anything she could do about the paint on her fingernails and toenails, though; she’d have to wait for it to wear off. Mama told us if we made any more fun of her, we’d get slapped.

Tafford and Billie had been with us and week and showed no signs of leaving. When Billie wasn’t in the attic room upstairs, she was taking baths behind the screen in the back yard or sitting at the kitchen table or on the front porch smoking cigarettes and reading magazines. Sometimes she helped mama with the housework or cooking or washing, and for that reason mama had warmed up to her some.

One sleepy, hot day when there wasn’t much to do between meals, Tafford asked me if I’d like to go for ride. There was something he wanted to talk to me about, he said. Sure, I said.

We’d gone out a couple of miles from home. Tafford knew the roads well. He pulled over by some railroad tracks and asked me if I’d like him to show me how to drive.

Since I was about ten years old, I had dreamed of driving and owning my own car and getting away on my own the way Tafford had done. It didn’t need any coaxing to get me behind the wheel of the Ford.

In about five minutes, he explained to me how to drive. He told me what to push and what to pull and how to keep the car on the road without running it into a ditch.

“Just takes a little confidence,” he said. “If you’re scared all the time you going to hit something, then you going to hit something.”

“I can do it,” I said.

Driving was about what I expected. After about ten minutes or so, I drove like I had been doing it my whole life. It wasn’t that hard. All you had to do was watch where you were going, keep control of the car and not let it wobble. Anybody with half a brain could do it.

“I like driving,” I said after I had driven a few miles.

“Better find a place to turn around and go back,” Tafford said. “I ain’t got that much gasoline.”

He took over driving from there and drove to a place overlooking the river where we both got out and leaned against the front of the car and watched the river. It was so peaceful and private I could have stayed there the whole rest of the day.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Billie.”

“Just another silly girl from the city.”

“If you don’t like her, why is she with you?”

He sighed and took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “I work for a businessman in the city,” he said. “I’m what’s known as an operative. That means I do what needs to be done, whenever it needs doing, no matter what it is.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Oh, different things. I collect payments, deal with clients. Sometimes I’m just a driver. I pick people up and take them to their hotel or wherever they need to go. Sometimes I’m only a messenger boy or a go-between.”

“How come you never told us anything about it before?” I asked.

“Well, I like to keep my personal and professional lives separated from each other.”

“All right. What does any of that have to do with Billie?”

“Sometimes the businessman I work for needs a thing done that’s hard to do, but somebody’s got to do it. Do you follow?”

“I guess so.”

“I get paid and when the man in charge tells me what to do, I have to do it and leave any personal feelings out of it. That’s where Billie comes in.”

“What did she do?”

“She didn’t do anything. She saw something she would have been better off not to have seen, that’s all.”

“What?”

“She saw a woman being murdered and she saw the man that did it, too. She was the only other person there. Her testimony in court will send that man to jail for the rest of his life.”

“Oh.”

“It just so happens that the man who did the murder is a powerful man with lots of money and connections. He’s paying the businessman I work for, and the businessman is paying me, to take care of this little problem for him.”

“Wait a minute! Are you saying you have to…”

“That’s right. I should have already done it by now, but I wanted to give the poor kid a few good days before I…”

“Hold on a minute! You brought Billie down to our house to…”

“I’m not going to do it in the house, silly! Not with mama and the kids there!”

“Why don’t you stay at home with us and not go back to the city and send the businessman you work for a telegram and tell him he’ll have to get somebody else to do his dirty work?”

“That wouldn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“It’s part of my job. You have to take the good with the bad. And anyway, I know what they do to people who go back on them. Do you want that to happen to me?”

“No.”

“I have to go through with it. I can’t back out now.”

“Can’t you just give Billie some money to send her away somewhere far away, like California?”

“They’d find her but they’d take care of me, first.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“First of all, I want you to promise me you won’t ever tell mama or any of the kids about any of this. Not ever, not even in fifty years when you’re all old.”

“I won’t tell.”

“I believe you. Second, I might need your help when the time comes getting Billie’s things together out of the room upstairs so I can make mama and the kids believe she had to leave in a hurry without saying goodbye.”

“I guess I can do that.”

“Third, I might need you to help me to dispose of, you know…”

“The body?”

“Yeah. Remember that old abandoned mine way back in the hills that people used to talk about?”

“I guess so.”

“The road is so washed out you can hardly get to it anymore, but I think I know of a way in. I’m going to need some help, though, and that’s where you come in.”

“I’ll do what I can to help you, but I’m not going to jail for you.”

When we got back to the house, I was feeling so blue like I just wanted to cry. At the supper table, I could hardly stand to look at Billie as she laughed with the kids and petted Lupe. I just wanted to yell out at her to warn her to get herself far away and dye her hair and change her name and not ever come back.

For several days I had a stomach ache and fever. I vomited some and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Mama said I had the summer ague. She made me drink plenty of water and eat cabbage and oranges. She wanted to take me to the doctor in town, but I’d just about rather die than do that.

I didn’t speak to Tafford again about what he had told me at the river. When we were alone in my room at night before going to sleep, we didn’t talk at all or we only talked about things we had done that day. I knew what he had to do and that he didn’t have any choice about it if he wanted to go on living. I mostly just wanted him to get it over with and be done with it. When the time came that he needed my help, he’d let me know.

Five days later, after Tafford and Billie had been with us for two weeks and two days, I was sleeping late in the morning. I usually got woke up about daylight with all the noise the kids made, but I guess mama had made them be quiet this morning so I could get some extra sleep.

When I woke up, I looked at the clock and when I saw it was ten minutes after nine I started to get up and that’s when I saw Tafford sitting on the other bed, wearing his clothes, smiling at me.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“All our worries are over,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Everything is taken care of.”

“You mean you…?”

“That’s right. Happy days are here again.”

“But how?”

“It’s better for you not to know. Nobody can make you tell something you don’t know.”

That evening Tafford took us all to the best restaurant in Pecksville for steaks or fried chicken or whatever we wanted. We were all happy, except a little sad that Billie wasn’t there to enjoy the dinner with us.

“She could at least have told us goodbye,” mama said.

“She told me to thank you for your hospitality,” Tafford said. “She said she had a truly wonderful time and that she would carry all of you in her heart for as long as she lives.”

“I hope you can bring her down again for another visit.”

“We’ll see.”

Tafford left again the next day. We wouldn’t see him again for a long time and maybe never.

I often thought about Billie and took comfort in the thought that Tafford hadn’t killed her but had let her go. I thought I spotted her in town a couple of times but was sure afterwards that it couldn’t have been her.

At any time, I could imagine Tafford marrying Billie and the two of them driving down to our place in yet another new Ford with three little Tafford look-alikes with lemon-colored hair hanging around their necks. It was a pleasant enough dream but I had the feeling it was never going to happen.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp