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When the Time is Right

When the Time is Right ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this story before, in a slightly different version, under a different title.)

The new gardener came in late summer. His name was Geoff Tallis. He wasn’t like the others. He wasn’t a grizzled old man with a sour smell, dirt under his fingernails and hair coming out of his nostrils. He was trim and light on his feet, like a boxer who knew all the moves. He hardly ever spoke and when he did his voice was quiet and confident. He cleaned up the lawn in record time, after a summer of neglect, without complaint and without excuses. And when he was finished for the day, he put away the tools and left without fanfare; never left anything out to get rained on.

Roddy was fifteen and just starting tenth grade. Summer was over and school had taken up again. Sitting in class all day long listening to people talk about things that didn’t interest him left him with a lot of pent-up energy. After depositing his books in his room, he liked to spend time outside, breathing pure air, walking around in the yard or just sitting quietly underneath the trees in the front yard listening to the birds twitter.

When Roddy saw Geoff working in the side yard, he approached him shyly, not knowing how he would take to being disturbed. Realizing Roddy was nearby, Geoff looked up from his work and smiled and gave a little wink. It was the wink that lifted Roddy’s heart and made him smile for the first time all day. Nobody had ever winked at him before.

Emboldened by these outward signs of friendliness, Roddy began speaking to Geoff whenever he got the chance. Roddy opened up to Geoff in a way that was rare for him. Geoff listened when Roddy spoke, never interrupting him or seeming impatient. They talked about clouds, animals, mountains, South America, Mars, the War of 1812, and anything else that came into Roddy’s head. He was amazed at how the words poured out of him and he didn’t have to worry about sounding stupid or being embarrassed. And, when all other subjects were exhausted for the moment, the talk inevitably turned to Roddy’s family.

“Watch out for my mother,” he said. “She’ll smile to your face and then stab you in the back. She fired the last gardener for cutting back the hibiscus bush too much. She didn’t even give him any warning. He was here and then he was gone. There were no goodbyes.”

“I’ll try to keep her from stabbing  me,” Geoff said.

“Have you met my sister?”

“I’ve seen her.”

“She’s a viper.  You don’t want to have anything to do with her. Her name is Janice. She’s seventeen and a senior this year. She’s ten times worse than my mother.”

Geoff laughed. “She can’t be as bad as all that!”

“You’ll find out if you’re here long enough. And then there’s my father. He’s a lawyer. He works all the time. He doesn’t want to be bothered with little domestic details. He leaves everything to my mother. He might come out of the house and fire you, but he’ll be polite about it.”

“I’ll try not to give him any reason.”

“Well, how about you? What about your family?”

“I don’t have any to speak of. My father died when I was five years old. My mother got married again and moved away. I had one older brother but he died.”

“What made you become a gardener?”

“I don’t know. I like being outside and watching things grow. I don’t plan on being a gardener forever.”

“What will you do then?”

“I don’t know. I’m open to all possibilities. I can do carpentry, house painting, and I’ve worked as a machinist.”

“Do you like doing those things?”

“I have to make a living. I like it as long as it pays me money.”

Another time Roddy talked to Geoff about school. He never talked to his parents about school. They only lectured him about applying himself and getting good grades. Geoff spoke to him as an equal, never talked down to him and never gave out with platitudes about staying in school and becoming a success in life.

“I don’t like school very much,” Roddy said. “I don’t fit in very well.”

“Why not?” Geoff asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I’m not like other people. I can’t wait to finish with school and get away from my family and everybody in this town.”

“Where will you go?”

“Out West somewhere, I think.”

“Where men are men?”

“Yeah. Wide-open spaces.”

Roddy began looking forward to seeing Geoff in the afternoons after school and was disappointed when he wasn’t there. He was afraid his mother would fire him or he’d quit without saying anything, and he’d never see him again. He didn’t know where Geoff lived or anything else about him, so that would be the end of that.

On a Friday afternoon, Roddy found Geoff in the yard with his hand bleeding.

“Why didn’t you knock on the door and ask my mother for help?” Roddy asked.

“I didn’t want to bother her.”

“You need to wash that out.”

He took Geoff into the kitchen and held his hand under the faucet. Then he gave him a cold root beer out of the refrigerator and told him to sit at the table while he went to get some antiseptic and a bandage.

The next day Geoff gave Roddy a little gift. It was an insect trapped in a nugget of amber.

“It’s for helping me yesterday,” Geoff said. “I’ve had it since I was twelve years old. I thought you’d like it.”

“It’s beautiful!”

He held it up to the light so he could see the insect better.

“It’s just between you and me,” Geoff said. “Don’t tell the others.”

“No, I won’t.”

He put the nugget in his pocket and went into dinner with a happy smile on his face. Janice couldn’t stand for him to be happy.

“When you’re smiling, you’re up to something and I bet it isn’t anything good,” she said.

“Mind your own business,” he said.

“I saw you out there talking to the gardener.”

“So what? I’m the only one in the family who treats him like a human being.”

“What were you two talking about?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Mother, I think you should fire that gardener,” Janice said.

“Why?”

“I don’t like his looks. He looks at me funny.”

“He doesn’t look at you,” Roddy said. “He looks through you.”

“We’ll only fire the gardener,” father said to Janice, “if you’ll do all his work after school and do it as well as he does.”

“Has he said anything to you, Janice?” mother asked.

“No, he hasn’t said anything, but he looks at me funny.”

“Funny how?”

“Like he’s thinking things.”

“Well, if he says anything inappropriate, you let me know.”

“He would never look at you!” Roddy said. “He has better taste than that. You’re only jealous because he doesn’t look at you!”

“Neither one of you should be associating with him on a personal basis,” mother said. “He’s a grown man and we don’t know anything about him.”

A few days later, Roddy’s mother accosted him in the hallway when he came inside after spending a half-hour or so talking to Geoff.

“What is that man saying to you?” mother asked.

“What man?”

“The gardener.”

“He’s not saying anything! We’re just talking!”

“He’s not trying to get you to do drugs, is he?”

“Of course not! Do you know how ridiculous that is?”

“Is he telling you dirty stories?”

“Why would he do that?”

“I want to know what he says to you!”

“He doesn’t say anything! We’re just talking!”

“We’ve all noticed how much time you’re spending with him. Even the neighbors have noticed. You need to stop hanging around him. You’re keeping him from his work!”

Roddy the next day told Geoff what his mother had said.

“I have to stop talking to you so much,” he said. “My sister is jealous if she thinks I have a friend. She sees me talking to you and then she goes and tells my mother made-up stories. She’s a natural-born troublemaker.”

“I get it,” Geoff said. “I don’t want to be the cause of any trouble.”

“I didn’t want you to think I stopped talking to you because I was mad at  you.”

“I’d never think that,” Geoff said.

“If she fires you, please don’t go away without saying goodbye.”

Roddy began having trouble in school. He was caught cheating on an geometry test. When he got into an argument with a history teacher and she told him to shut up, he threw a book across the classroom and went outside and smoked a cigarette.

When quarterly grades came out, it was worse than he expected. He was failing geometry and almost failing two other classes. If he didn’t get himself “straightened out,” as his father said, he was going to “flunk out” of school, and then where would he be? He’d end living at the city dump, a worthless hobo, without family and friends.

His father engaged a tutor, a former college professor named Mr. Hatley. Two evenings a week Roddy spent three hours with Mr. Hatley in his “study” in the basement of his home. Mr. Hatley believed the only way to save a slacking boy was through hard work and military discipline. He drilled Roddy relentlessly on the finer points of higher mathematics. Roddy hated him instantly.

One evening when Roddy was returning home from a tutoring session, his heart gave a leap when he saw Geoff standing in the front yard close to the house.

“Are you looking for me?” he asked.

“I need a place to stay tonight,” Geoff said. “I thought I’d stay in the storeroom of your father’s garage, but I wanted to tell you about it first.”

“You can have the guest room.”

“The storeroom is good enough and I’ll be gone in the morning before anybody even knows I was here.”

“You’ll get cold.”

“I don’t mind.”

“You can stay in my room with me.”

“And how do you think that’ll go down with your parents?”

“They won’t have to know about it.”

“I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”

“You won’t. It’ll be all right.”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“My parents go to bed at ten. Come to the kitchen door at ten-thirty and I’ll let you in.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Roddy went to his room at ten o’clock when his parents went to bed and, true to his word, he went downstairs to the kitchen at ten-thirty and opened the back door. Geoff was standing outside in the dark.

Roddy held his finger to his lips to indicate silence and the two of them, with Roddy leading the way, crept up the stairs in the dark and along the hallway to Roddy’s room.

“You can relax,” Roddy said, after locking the door. “Nobody comes in unless I say.”

Geoff took off his coat and sat down in the chair and untied his shoes. “If you have an extra blanket,” he whispered, “I can sleep on the floor.”

“Nothing doing,” Roddy said. “You’ll sleep in my bed.”

“I’m not taking your bed.”

“I meant both of us.”

Roddy turned off the light and they both got into the bed. They went to sleep to the sound of the rain on the roof and the wind gently pressing against the windows.

When Roddy awoke in the morning, Geoff was gone; there was no sign he had even been there.

In school all day long Roddy was more calm and courteous than usual. He smiled at the history teacher with whom he had been feuding and admired her expensive leather bag. He passed a geometry quiz and was hating geometry a little less. A girl in his class invited him to a party on Saturday night; he didn’t want to go but was pleased to be asked.

When he got home, his mother was out for the afternoon and Janice was waiting for him.

“I know what you’ve been up with to the gardener,” she said. “I can’t say I’m a bit surprised.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about! I know you sneaked him into your room last night. How many other nights have you sneaked him in? I can only imagine what’s going on in there!”

“It’s none of your business!”

“I heard you creeping past out in the hallway last night and when I opened my door to see what was going on, I saw you take that man into your room in the dark.”

“What of it? It’s none of your business!”

“Do you know that what you’re doing is a crime? They’ll put you in jail for it!”

“Oh, shut up! You don’t know the first thing about it.”

“I suppose you just ‘talked’!”

“I don’t have to explain anything to you!”

“I’m going to tell mother and father! They’ll be appalled that such a thing is going on in their own house after they’ve gone to bed!”

“Nothing is going on! He’s my friend, that’s all. You’re just jealous because he doesn’t want you!”

“Mother will call the police and they’ll come and take your ‘friend’ away and lock him up for the rest of his life. You’re a minor and he isn’t. Do you know what a serious crime that is? There are names for men who do that sort of thing!”

He pretended to shrug off the conversation with Janice, but in truth he was badly shaken. She could cause all kinds of trouble if she wanted to. He had always hated her but never more than now.

At the dinner table she looked at him smugly but didn’t say anything. He knew she was waiting for the right time to ruin his life.

He didn’t see Geoff for three days. When he asked his mother where he was, she told him he needed to forget Geoff. He wasn’t an appropriate friend for a high school boy.

On the fourth day, when Roddy was walking home, Geoff was waiting for him on the corner down the street from the school.

“Where have you been?” Roddy asked. “She fired you, didn’t you?”

“No, she didn’t have to fire me. I quit.”

“Do you have another job?”

“I’m going away. I wanted to say goodbye. You’ve been a real friend to me.”

“I’m coming with you!” Roddy said.

“Do you know how far we’d get? They’d come and get you and they’d lock me up. They’d say I abducted you.”

“I’d tell them the truth!”

“It wouldn’t make any difference. You’re a minor.”

“Will I ever see you again?”

“When you’re older.”

“Do you know…”

“What?”

“Never mind. I won’t say it now, but I’m sure you know what it is.”

“I wanted to give you this.”

He reached into his pocket and took out a small object and placed it in Roddy’s palm.

“What is it?”

“It’s an 1877 fifty-dollar gold piece.”

“You’re always giving me things. I’ve never given you anything.”

“Keep it to remember me by.”

“I’ve never had such a wonderful thing. Thank you.”

“I’ll write and let you know where I am.”

“I hope you will.”

They shook hands and then Geoff walked away quickly.

Father hired an old Italian man to take Geoff’s place. Janice never mentioned Geoff’s name to Roddy again.

Roddy never stopped thinking about Geoff. He knew they would see each other again, that Geoff wouldn’t forget him. He kept the gold coin and the amber nugget in the drawer by his bed and took them out and looked at them almost every night before going to sleep. He never told anybody about them.

The high school years passed in a blur. In his senior year he turned eighteen right before his graduation. While his classmates were excited about going to college, getting married or starting jobs, he was silent about his future plans. He told his parents he had booked passage to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion. He was going away for good and they would never see him again.

A week after graduation, he received a letter postmarked Denver, Colorado. He always knew the letter would come at the right time.

He took the gold coin to a gold merchant and was surprised to discover it was worth a lot more than he thought. After he bought his bus ticket, he had enough left over to buy himself a sturdy suitcase, some warm clothes and a pair of cowboy boots.

Geoff met him at the train in Denver. He still looked amazingly the same—the same dark eyes and thick hair—but Roddy had changed from boy to man.

Roddy and Geoff lived together for the next sixty years. Geoff died in late winter, an old man, and was buried on the lonely wide-open prairie, with an empty grave beside him for when Roddy needed it. They had both known from the beginning that this was how things were always meant to be.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

For Sentimental Reasons

For Sentimental Reasons ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this story before, in a slightly different version, with a different title.)

Hearing Russell’s footsteps on the stairs, Vee set a glass of orange juice on the table and cracked two eggs into the skillet. When he came into the sunny kitchen, she smiled and wished him a good morning and asked him if he’d like bacon with his eggs. Not waiting for an answer, she took four slices out of the refrigerator and laid them carefully in the skillet beside the eggs.

He helped himself to some coffee and sat down at the table. He looked across the table at Vee’s husband, Milt, but Milt didn’t look back. He was absorbed in the morning newspaper. He loved reading about crime in the city. It seemed to somehow make him happy.

“You’re such a sharp dresser!” Vee said to Russell from her place at the stove, pointing to his natty black pants and red-plaid shirt. “A lot of college students go around looking like bums all the time.”

Russell smiled modestly and downed his orange juice.

“Did you say something?” Milt asked, looking around the edge of the newspaper.

“I was just saying to Russell here how he always looks so dapper, even early in the morning.”

“Oh, Russell!” Milt said, putting down the paper. “I almost forgot about Russell! He is a quiet boy!”

“He’s hardly a boy!” Vee said, setting Russell’s plate down in front of him. “He’s a fully grown man! Just look at those arms!”

“I work out when I have the time,” Russell said.

“Whatever makes you happy,” Milt said. “Say, I was just reading in the paper where a family of six was murdered in their own beds. No sign of forced entry. Police don’t have a clue who did it. Can you beat it? What is the world coming to? And over on Polk Avenue, in those old apartment buildings near the post office, a woman stabbed her common-law husband in the neck and went off to work and left him on the floor to bleed to death.”

“Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?” Vee asked. “It’s a beautiful morning!”

“I heard yesterday about an old woman who lived alone. Somebody broke into her house and after they stole her money and jewels, they killed her. Slit her throat. She had two big dogs. They didn’t have any food for a long time so they ate her body, right down to the bones! Did you ever hear of anything so awful?”

“Russell doesn’t want to hear that gruesome talk!” Vee said. “He’s young and full of life!”

“It’s all right,” Russell said. “I don’t want you to do anything different on my account.”

“How do you like your room?” Milt asked.

“I like it fine, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’. This isn’t the army.”

“No, sir. I know it’s not the army.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-four in October, sir.”

“It’s probably hard for you to believe right now,” Milt said, “but I was twenty-four not so long ago.”

“Russell’s a graduate student,” Vee said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“A what?”

“He’s earned his undergraduate degree. Now he’s in graduate school.”

“Oh, right! I guess you can’t have too many degrees.”

“I should be able to get my master’s degree in two more semesters,” Russell said.

“So you’ll only need the room for two semesters,” Vee said.

“As far as I know.”

“Oh, I hope you’ll stay longer than that! You’re the best boarder we’ve ever had!”

“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble renting the room to somebody else,” Russell said. “It’s a comfortable room, conveniently located, and you are an exceptional cook.”

Vee smiled with pleasure and set down her cup. “It’s sweet of you to say so,” she said. “Most people don’t usually have anything good to say.”

“We don’t want any beatnik types with their bongo drums,” Milt said.

Vee laughed. “You’re so behind the times, dear!”  she said. “There aren’t any beatniks anymore!”

“You know what I mean!” Milt said. “We only want the decent-living, clean-cut types. The ones who don’t make a sound at night because they’ve got their noses buried in books all the time.”

“I think he’s saying he approves of you, Russell!” Vee said.

“We don’t need to overdo it,” Milt said.

Russell finished his breakfast and stood up. He offered to carry his plate to the sink, but Vee told him she’d take care of it.

“I won’t be here for dinner,” he said, as he left. “I’m going to be working late at the library.”

“It’s all right, darling!” Vee called. “Have a wonderful day!”

Darling?” Milt said.

Milt left to go to work. The day was long and dull for Vee. She washed the breakfast dishes and when she was finished she lay down on her unmade bed and read an article in a magazine about a woman who was spontaneously turning into a man, and when she was finished reading she dozed for a while until a big truck passing on the street in front of the house woke her up.

She carried her broom and dustpan up the stairs and let herself into Russell’s room with her spare key. It was her duty as landlady to tidy up, empty the trash, sweep the floor, put clean towels in the bathroom and clean sheets on the bed.

Not only was Russell neat in his dress, but also in the way he lived. The covers on his bed were pulled up over the pillows. There were stacks of books and papers on the desk, but, other than that, no clutter anywhere; no dirt and no piles of dirty clothes. In the bathroom, the towels hung neatly; there were no splashes on the mirror; the bathtub gleamed, as if it had just been scrubbed.

Before going back downstairs, she lingered for a while over Russell’s belongings. She ran her fingertips over his alarm clock and his jade elephant that she admired every time she was in his room. She picked up a couple of the books and opened them, read a few words, and set them back down exactly where they had been. She opened the closet door and marveled at the perfect order: coats, jackets, shirts, pants. On the floor were four pairs of shoes aligned with precision. On the inside of the closet door was a rack of belts and ties, the ties arranged according to color.

One thing she expected to see in Russell’s room but didn’t: a picture of a lovely young woman. Of course such a handsome, intelligent, smartly turned-out young man would have a girlfriend, a real homecoming queen type, who would be waiting for him to come home and marry her when the time was right. Beauty is always rewarded with beauty, isn’t it? Isn’t that the way the world works?

In the afternoon she took a long bubble bath and washed her hair and set it. When she was finished, she dressed in fresh clothes. There was no reason for her to look slouchy all the time. She wasn’t an old woman, not yet, and she didn’t want to get old before her time. Of course, it didn’t help being married to an old stick like Milt, but she wasn’t going to let him drag her down even more than he already had.

At dinnertime she set three places at the table, even though she knew Russell wouldn’t be there. Milt didn’t notice the extra plate or that she had fixed herself up and looked better than usual. He came into the kitchen and sat down at the table at six-thirty, the time they always ate. She served up the food and they sat in silence; she stared absently out the window into the back yard or at the empty plate and unused silverware across from her. Milt didn’t talk about his day; they were all the same and had been for twenty-five years or more.

When dinner was over she washed the dishes and Milt, bone-tired as usual, retired to his spot on the couch in front of the TV. He would watch one mindless show after the other, all evening long, until it was time for the ten o’clock news and then he’d turn off the TV and get into bed, literally asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Vee went to her room at eleven o’clock and closed the door. She lay for a long time without sleeping, listening to the sounds outside: the wind in the trees, distant traffic on the highway, the faraway barking of a lonely dog.

At one o’clock, she had been dozing lightly but awoke when she heard the floor creak upstairs over her head. It meant Russell was home. She imagined him taking off his clothes and getting into bed. He’d be tired out from his long day, a day well-spent, and would go to sleep quickly.

An hour later she was still awake. She got out of bed and, without turning on a light, put on her bathrobe and stepped into her slippers. She crept slowly out of her room, careful not to make a sound, feeling her way along the wall, and up the stairs to the door of Russell’s room.

The door wasn’t locked. She turned the knob and stepped into the room. There was just enough light coming in at the window that she could see him sleeping in the bed, lying on his back. The blanket was pulled up to his waist. He wore an undershirt.

She stood for a minute beside the bed, watching him sleep. He had his right arm over his head with his left arm resting at his side. She was reaching out her hand to touch him when he opened his eyes.

He reached over and turned on the lamp beside the bed and looked at her with alarm. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is anything wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. I…”

“There’s not a fire, is there?”

“No, there’s no fire.”

“Why are you coming into my room late at night without knocking?”

“Please don’t be mad at me! I missed you at dinner and I just wanted to make sure you made it in all right.”

“Of course I made it all right!” he said. “Why wouldn’t I? You don’t have to watch out for me.”

“I know. I wouldn’t blame you for being terribly angry, but…I just couldn’t seem to help myself.”

“Why not?”

“You’re special to me.”

“What are you talking about? You woke me up to tell me that?”

“I can’t stop thinking about you. I like looking into your beautiful dark eyes and talking to you and being in the same room with you.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“I just like being near you.”

“Oh, I think I get it now! I’m not going to have sexual intercourse with you. Now or at any other time.”

“No, it’s not that!” she said. “That’s not what I want!”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to turn off the light. I want you to close your eyes and pretend I’m somebody else. I want to touch your face and your hair. I want to feel your arms and your chest, your legs and your feet. I want to feel you all over.”

“That’s a very odd request. Do you always do that with your boarders?”

“Oh, no! This is the first time!”

“Does Milt know about it?”

“Milt doesn’t know a thing.”

He threw back the blanket that covered his lower body and stood up from the bed. He pulled his undershirt off over his head and stepped out his pajama bottoms and turned off the light.

“All right,” he said in a whisper, lying back on the bed as though waiting for a medical examination. “Please make it quick, though. I’m cold and I feel kind of funny about this.”

“I promise you, nobody will ever know,” Vee said.

In the morning Vee was in the kitchen cooking breakfast when Milt came in, yawning, and took his place at the table.

“Did you hear anything unusual last night?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.

“I heard a dog barking but it didn’t keep me awake,” she said.

“With all the crime in the city, you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. You can’t be too careful these days.”

She handed him the morning paper to get him to stop talking it and he opened it and began reading a story on the front page about a triple homicide.

“One of the people killed was a niece of the mayor’s wife! Can you beat it?”

“Eat your eggs while they’re hot,” she said.

He was halfway finished with breakfast when he noticed someone was missing from the breakfast table.

“Hey, where’s what’s-his-name?”

“Who?”

“Our little boarder.”

“Do you mean Russell?”

“Yeah, Russell. Where is he?”

“He’s gone.”

“He had an early class or something?”

“No, he left. He moved out.”

“Moved out? What are you talking about? He just said yesterday he liked it here and wanted to stay. Did something happen?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Did he skip out on the rent?”

“He was paid up until the first of the month.”

“What is wrong with these people? He’s the third boarder we’ve lost in less than a year! They’re here and everything is fine, and then the next day they’re just gone without so much as a wave goodbye! It must have something to do with all this crime!”

“I’ll place the ad in the paper again,” she said, “but I don’t think we’ll get anybody as sweet as Russell ever again. Not in a million years.”

She turned her head away and went out of the room so Milt wouldn’t see her tears. She stayed in her bedroom until he left for work and then she went into the kitchen and began gathering up the dirty dishes to wash them. She hoped that Russell might come by later in the morning so they could have a private talk, just the two of them, without Milt, and she could apologize for what happened and set things right. Oh, how she hoped!

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp  

Dickie Manly

Dickie Manly ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Arlene Upjohn sat on the high porch of the old house she shared with her mother, swinging herself gently in the old-fashioned porch swing that belonged to her grandparents. She held a woman’s magazine on her knees and, turning the pages, looked at the pictures and the advertising without much interest. When someone passed on the street in front of the house, she watched them warily to see if it was anybody she knew.

In a little while a young man approached on foot. When Arlene saw him, she felt a little flush of pleasure and interest. One didn’t often see his kind on this street. He wore dark glasses and a dark suit and carried a briefcase.

Arlene watched him without letting him know she was watching him. Surprising her, he approached the porch and, looking up, spoke to her.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “I’m a little lost. I’m looking for the Presbyterian church.”

“The what church?”

“Presbyterian.”

“It’s not on this street,” she said. “Keep going for a couple more blocks and then turn to the right when you come to Fulton Street. That’s where the church is.”

“I’m not too far off then.”

“Are you a minister?” she asked.

“Do I look like a minister? I’m a salesman.”

“What do you sell at a church?”

“Books.”

“Books for people to sing songs out of?”

“Something like that.”

She went back to her magazine, thinking the young man would walk on, but he continued to look up at her.

“My name’s Dickie Manly,” he said.

“Well, isn’t that fine!”

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t think my name could possibly be of any concern to you.”

“Why don’t you come down off that porch and let me get a better look at you?”

“I’ll stay where I am, thank you!”

“Can I come up there and sit beside you? I’ve been on my feet all morning and I’m pretty tired.”

“No! Don’t come up! My mother’s in the house! She’s getting ready to go for her doctor’s appointment and she wants me to go with her.”

“Is she sick?”

“That’s why she’s seeing the doctor.”

“Well, could I trouble you for a glass of water? I’m very thirsty.”

“You can have a drink of water if you promise to leave before my mother sees you.”

“All right. I’ll leave.”

“I’ll go inside now and get your water.”

“Might I come inside with you?”

“No! My mother is very particular! I’ll get the water and bring it out here.”

“When you have the glass of water in your hand, will it be all right if I come up the porch steps and take it from you?”

“No, that won’t do! I’ll set the glass on the top step and after I’ve resumed my seat you can come up the steps and get it.”

“Well, if that’s the best you can do.”

“I’ll be right back in just a minute. If you go away before I come back, it’ll be altogether fine with me.”

“I won’t go away. I’ll wait right here.”

Entering the house, she went into the kitchen, filled a clean glass with cool water and took it back out to the porch. When she saw that Dickie Manly was still there, she set the glass on the top step and stepped back.

With a smile, he climbed the eight steps and picked up the glass of water and drank until it was empty.

“Thank you,” he said, setting the glass back down.

“Now, will you please go before my mother comes down from upstairs and sees you?”

“All right. I’ll go. Might I ask you a question first?”

“What is it?”

“What do people do in this town for fun?”

“Stay at home and mind their own business.”

Hah-hah! You’re really not as hard as you pretend to be! You’re lonely like everybody else. Why don’t you loosen up and have some fun?”

“Look, mister…”

“Dickie.”

“Look, Mr. Dickie, you don’t know anything about me and I’ll thank you to stop pretending you do.”

“You must be thirty years old. I would venture to guess you don’t get asked out on too many dates. You have a lot of lonely evenings at home with mama.”

“How do you know I don’t have a husband and three children?”

“I noticed right away you’re not wearing a wedding ring. That generally means a person isn’t married. I’ve trained myself to notice little details like that.”

“You might do well to mind your own business.”

“For myself, I’m twenty-six. If you’re thirty or thirty-one, I don’t mind a few years’ age difference.”

“I think I hear my mother coming.”

“Will you have dinner with me tonight at my hotel?”

“No! I can’t! You’re a stranger!”

“What’s so bad about that? We’re all strangers until we get to know each other.”

“You’re trying my patience!

“It’s the Edgewater Hotel. Meet me in the lobby at six-thirty and I’ll reserve a table in the restaurant.”

“No! Don’t expect me to be there because I won’t!”

“I’ll bet it’s been a long time since a man asked you out to dinner. Maybe never.”

“I have a boyfriend.”

“No, you don’t!”

“I’ll be spending the evening with my boyfriend, if it’s all the same to you!”

“I know when people are lying.”

“Why would I take the trouble to lie to you?”

“Edgewater Hotel, room three-twenty-six. Dickie Manly’s the name.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Manly.”

“Call me Dickie.”

“I can’t say it’s been a pleasure meeting you because it hasn’t.”

“Until this evening, then.”

“I won’t be there! Plain and simple!”

He bowed from the waist like a viscount and then he was gone.

As Arlene sat and waited in the doctor’s office waiting room for her mother that afternoon, she felt a pang of conscience that she had been so unyielding with Dickie Manly. He was probably a very decent fellow and not at all bad looking. What would be the harm in having dinner with him at his hotel? How many times was she going to be asked out before she was too old to be of interest to anybody?

She was restless all the rest of the day and her mother said she looked “peaked.” She could hardly stand her mother’s incessant chatter about trivialities. She went out into the back yard to be alone, but her mother soon came out, too, wanting polish applied to her fat fingers and toes.

“I want you to drive me to prayer meeting tonight,” her mother said. “We’ll  need to leave at about quarter to seven.”

“Sorry, mother. I have plans. You’ll have to call a cab or get Beulah to come by and pick you up.

Plans? What plans?”

“My friend Edith Farris and I are going to take in the new movie at the Odeon downtown.”

“I thought you said Edith Farris was in New York.”

“She’s back.”

“Well, isn’t that strange?”

“What’s strange about it?”

“She was on a trip to New York and now suddenly she’s back.”

“Well, you know what people are like. They change their minds pretty fast sometimes.”

“Well, all right! If seeing a movie with a high school friend is more important that doing what your mother wants, then go ahead and see the damned movie!”

“I’ll call Beulah and ask her to come by and pick you up.”

“Don’t bother! I think I can take care of it myself!”

Her mother didn’t speak to her or look at her for the rest of the day.

She changed her clothes and at six o’clock sped off in her mother’s old Chrysler that her mother was no longer able to drive. She arrived at the Edgewater Hotel at twenty minutes after six and went into the lobby and sat down in a conspicuous spot where anybody getting off the elevators would be sure and see her.

At fifteen minutes before seven Dickie Manly hadn’t appeared. She began to worry that possibly he forgot that he invited her to dinner. He had seemed so determined, though, so confident. She was certain he wouldn’t give up so easily.

At five minutes after seven she went to the hotel desk and asked the clerk to ring Dickie Manly’s room, number three-twenty-six.

“Mr. Manly checked out, ma’am,” the clerk said cheerfully.

“Checked out?”

“That’s right.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“Not to me, ma’am.”

She didn’t want to go back home so early, with nothing to show for her evening. She thought about going into the restaurant and ordering dinner alone, but she wasn’t hungry and couldn’t eat. She had to ask herself an important question: What do people do when they feel lonely, disappointed and foolish?

She went into the dark hotel cocktail lounge and took a seat at the bar. She ordered a martini and after she drank it down ordered another one. When she was on her fourth martini, a man came and sat down on the stool beside her. He smiled and offered her a cigarette which she readily accepted.

“Could I buy you a drink?” he asked.

She nodded and the drink was placed on the bar in front of her.

“My name is Cleo Hall,” the man said.

“Happy to meet you,” she said, but didn’t offer her own name.

In ten minutes Cleo Hall was nuzzling against her. He put his hand on her shoulder and when she didn’t object he put his other hand on her upper thigh.

“Would you like to go someplace more…intimate?” he breathed his hot alcohol breath into her ear.

She looked at him and nodded solemnly. Standing up from the stool, a little shakily, she waited for him to disentangle his feet and stand beside her. She took his arm then, like an old acquaintance, and together they walked out of the bar—through the hotel lobby—through the slapping revolving door—and out into the cover of night.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Maroon and Yellow

Maroon and Yellow ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Everybody knew Miss Penny. She was the elderly widow who lived in the trim white house on the corner with green window shutters and a pear tree in the front yard. She was frequently seen tending her lawn, walking along the street carrying groceries, or soliciting donations in the neighborhood for a charitable cause or to buy flowers for someone who had died. When she saw any of her neighbors, she always called out to them cheerily and waved and smiled. Everybody loved Miss Penny.

Suffer the little children to come unto me. Miss Penny’s home was something of a haven for the better-behaved, calmer children of the neighborhood. On warm summer evenings, they liked to sit in the glider on Miss Penny’s screened-in porch, sipping Kool-Aid and eating cookies, while she sat in her old-fashioned rocking chair beside her huge fern and listened to them prattle on about school or their families. She smiled and laughed, encouraged them to be themselves, not be sullen and withdrawn. She was like the indulgent grandmother they wished they had. Sometimes she gave them small amounts of money to do little jobs for her, such as sweeping the front walk, putting birdseed out for the birds, or lifting down a box from the top shelf in the closet.

Tippy Kepke lived on the other side of the street, down the block from Miss Penny. She was fourteen years old and lived with her parents and her two manly older brothers. She thought all her teachers in school were bitches or assholes. Her parents were assholes, and she wanted, more than anything, to see her two brothers eat shit and die. She regarded Miss Penny warily and pondered why a woman that old was still allowed to live.

Tippy was unpopular in school, but she knew a way to change all that. She would try out for cheerleader, and if she was lucky enough to be chosen over the other nitwits who tried out, she would be welcomed into the world to which she so fervently aspired: the world of handsome, sleek, well-dressed boys, and pretty girls with perfect hair and skin; the world in which boys would pick her up in their very own cars for Saturday night dates; the world in which she, even she, might be homecoming queen and get her picture in the society column.

She stole a book from the library that told all about cheerleading, with cheerleader routines and yells; pictures of how cheerleaders dressed, how they deported themselves. There were drawings at the back of the book that demonstrated exercises that cheerleaders ought to undertake, because—don’t you know?—a cheerleader needs to be in tiptop physical condition and have winning muscle tone. A cheerleader is a winner and not a whiner. A cheerleader sets an example for the other students in the school, girls and boys alike. A cheerleader excels in all things, at all times. Yes, being a cheerleader is not something to be taken lightly. The cheerleader of today might be the movie star of tomorrow. Anything is possible in the world of the cheerleader.

She began to think of herself as the “cheerleader type.” She tried to do the exercises in the book but she hated any kind of physical exertion and soon became bored and achy. What she was able to do, though, was to pay closer attention to her grooming and appearance. She began washing her hair and face more often and making sure she didn’t have dirt under her fingernails.

The biggest obstacle to not becoming a cheerleader, she believed, was not having the cheerleader outfit with the school colors, maroon and yellow. The outfit consisted of short skirt, long-sleeved blouse, jumper, knee socks, and optional sweater for colder weather. The entire outfit might be purchased at Delaney’s department store for thirty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents: not a lot of money when one considered what it might mean to her future. If she had the outfit, she’d wear it to the tryouts and, surely—if there was a God in heaven—that would give her an edge over the others, even if her cheerleader moves were not all they should be.

She knew it was useless to ask her mother for the money. It would only get her started on one of her boring lectures about how hard money is to earn and to keep after it’s earned. She might steal the money if she knew who she might steal it from.

Then she thought of Miss Penny. She knew that Miss Penny sometimes paid children in the neighborhood money for doing little things for her. She would go to Miss Penny and offer her services for the paltry sum of thirty-nine and ninety-five cents, plus tax. She could work the money out somehow: cleaning house, washing dishes, doing laundry, yard work, or whatever the silly old cow needed.

It was a good plan and she congratulated herself for thinking of it.

The next morning after her mother left for work and her brothers were away doing whatever brothers do, she went to Miss Penny’s front door and knocked timidly. Not getting any answer, she walked all the way around the house a couple of times. Then she tried the back door, found it unlocked, and entered the kitchen without making a sound.

Standing for a moment just inside the door, listening, she heard nothing. Miss Penny must be gone, probably to the store or the beauty parlor, or maybe visiting a neighbor. Maybe she would only be gone for a minute or two. Whatever Tippy was going to do, she had to do it fast before Miss Penny came back and found her. If she could find some money and take it and then leave, that would be perfect. Miss Penny would never know who took it. But where would an old woman keep money in her house? That was the question.

She crept soundlessly through the kitchen and then the dining room into the front room, and there was Miss Penny, asleep on her back on the couch, her chest moving up and down with her breathing. Her right arm was up over her head and her left arm by her side. The television set, to the right of the couch, was on, but with the sound turned so low it could barely be heard.

If Miss Penny woke up at that moment and saw her in her house, she’d scream and jump up and call the police and have a great squawking fit. Tippy couldn’t let that happen. They’d come and take her away in handcuffs and lock her up and she’d never, ever, be cheerleader after a thing like that happened.

She had to act fast. A sound outside scared her. Someone was coming! She felt genuine panic rising inside her, the panic of being found out doing something horrible. She felt faint with confusion and fear. Not knowing what else to do, she ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife from a knife rack on the counter beside the sink. Gripping the knife so hard it hurt her hand, she ran back into the front room where Miss Penny lay.

A sudden solution occurred to her, as though whispered into her ear. Stab the old bitch to death and take the money out of her purse and get out of the house as quickly as she could! Nobody would ever know she did it. She had hardly known Miss Penny and had never been in her house before. The police would think a burglar or a drifter had done it.

With the first thrust of the knife into her flesh, the old woman woke up, gasped for air, tried to sit up. She opened her eyes and when she saw Tippy and knew what was happening to her, she closed them again quickly, as if on a horrible vision. The life went out of her so fast and so easily!

The deed done, Tippy took the knife back into the kitchen, washed it off with hot water—including the handle—and put it back into its rack along with the other knives.

Miss Penny’s purse was easy to find. It sat on top of the dresser in the bedroom, plain as day. Tippy didn’t even have to look for it. She opened the purse, took out the wallet and inside found two twenties, a ten, and two ones. Fifty-two dollars! Enough to buy the cheerleader outfit and have some left over to buy something else. It had all been easier than she thought it would be.

That evening she was especially kind to her family. She smiled at her brothers and helped her mother with dinner and then, when the meal was over, cleared the table and washed the dishes while the rest of the family watched television.

The next morning she slept late, after a night of untroubled sleep. After a light breakfast, she got dressed and walked downtown to Delaney’s. The day was sunny and fresh and much cooler than it had been. There was a hint of autumn in the breeze.

Delaney’s had the cheerleader outfit in stock, in exactly the right size. Tippy’s heart sang! Finally, good things were going to happen for her. Doors would open that had previously been closed. It was the turning point she had been hoping for.

With the bulky Delaney’s bag containing its treasure gripped tightly in her fingers, she went straight home, without any dawdling. She couldn’t wait to take the bag up to her room, lock herself in, take the things out of the bag, admire them one by one and try them on in front of the mirror.

When she got home, she went into the house by the back door, as she usually did. She couldn’t have seen the police cars parked at the curb.

Her mother was standing in the living room. When she heard Tippy entering from the kitchen, she turned and looked in her direction, her face pale and stricken. She took the Delaney’s bag from Tippy’s hands as if not really seeing it and gestured to the two police officers standing a few feet away. Tippy hadn’t seen them at first. She showed by the look on her face that she knew why they were there and what it was going to mean to her future.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Spiritus

Spiritus ~ A Ghost Story by Allen Kopp 

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

My name is Igor Dillingham. In 1893 I was twenty-one years of age. I was twenty-one then and I’m twenty-one now. Twenty-one I shall always be. Every time I look at myself in a mirror, I see my twenty-one-year-old self looking back at me. I will never be forty or sixty or eighty, but always the same as I am now, for I am dead and I dwell in the spirit world.  

A lot of years have gone by, I know, although time, the passage of years, means nothing to me. I still dwell in our old house. The house, old as it is, is also big. I forget exactly how many rooms there are in it but, since I am the only one left, all the rooms belong to me. The house, I was told, was built a long time ago by a rich man with many children. All of the original family are gone—I’ve never met any of them—and I have never encountered any of them in the spirit world. They have all moved on, as the saying goes.

Now the house is falling down in places. The paint is all gone, the wood is old, ugly and gray, the roof has holes in it; mice, bats and spiders are my eternal companions. I hear, always, the flutter of wings above my head as birds nest in the attic. Some of the windows are broken out, but it makes no difference to me because I am a spirit and spirits don’t mind the cold wind and rain.       

Sometimes I go out of the house, but the truth is I have no place to go. On occasion, just to prove to myself that I still can, I go outside and travel a mile or two in any direction. In these little forays out into the world, I never see a living person but only wild animals and birds, which is altogether fine with me. Animals, even if they can’t see me, sense that I’m there and are not afraid.

The road that leads down to our house was washed out in a flood forty years ago. Nobody bothered to build the road back. Even if people could get down here, they have no reason to do so. It is a place completely shut off from the world and forgotten. I think isolated is the word. If I saw a living person who wasn’t a spirit, like me, I wouldn’t know what to do. I suppose I’d run and hide and make sure I gave him good enough reason to want to leave.  

In my aloneness, I am sometimes reminded of the people I once knew when I was alive. I had a sister, Sobriety, and a brother, Claxon. Sobriety had an enormous head; she was what’s known as hydrocephalic. She stayed in a crib in an upstairs room most of the time, tended only by a mute servant that mother employed. I used to go into her room to visit her and try her to keep from feeling lonely, but I’m not sure if she ever knew I was even there. Mother sold her to a traveling freak show when she was about twelve years old for fifty dollars. After the freak show people took her away, I never saw her again. I don’t know what ever became of her but I hope one day I will meet her in the spirit world and rejoice to see that she is cured of her affliction.

My brother Claxon was covered with a scaly growth all over his body that made him look like a human frog. He never spoke in words but he made croaking sounds and he knew how to laugh. He was my closest friend; he and I communicated without words in the way of brothers. One day he made the mistake of defying mother in a very bad place—at the top of the stairs. She rushed him and pushed him. He fell all the way to the bottom of the stairs and broke his neck. He died later the same day. She didn’t want anybody to know what she had done, so she buried him in the hog yard out back before anybody had a chance to ask any questions. I nailed together a small cross and put it over the place where I thought he was buried, but the hogs trampled it into the mud.

Claxon wasn’t the first person mother killed, nor would he be the last. When I was six years old, she poisoned the man who was my father, or the man I believed was my father. She claimed he became sick in the night of unknown causes and was dead by the rising of the sun. She collected on his life insurance and become a modestly wealthy woman. That’s when she realized how profitable death could be for her.

She soon married another man with whom she had been communicating through a lonely hearts club. After six months of marriage, she murdered him by dropping a meat grinder on his head and claiming it was an accident. He didn’t have life insurance, but he had over a thousand dollars in a bank account and a small horde of silver coins, all of which became hers as his grieving widow.

About the time mother killed her second husband, she hired an itinerant worker to do small jobs for her. She had him tend the garden, paint the barn and mend the fence before she took him into her bed. He was her plaything for a few weeks, until he became tiresome to her and then she poisoned him—making certain first, however, that he had no relations who might come looking for him later. 

There were others after that. She placed an ad in a newspaper in the city for single gentlemen who might be interested in the pastoral life on a lush farm away from the hustle-bustle of the city. With a small investment of a thousand dollars, they might “buy into” a growing enterprise that had unlimited potential for growth and profit.

I don’t know how many “gentlemen” mother lured away from the city and killed, but I do know our hog yard out behind the barn became quite crowded with rotting corpses, while the wad of cash she kept hidden underneath the floorboards in her bedroom grew ever larger.    

I was the only living witness to mother’s depredations, but she thought I was too stupid to see anything, to know anything. From the time I was eight years old, I began writing everything down: names and ages of the people who ended up in the hog yard, where they came from, physical characteristics (bald, wears glasses, speaks with a stutter, speaks with an accent, missing fingers on right hand), how much money they brought to the “enterprise” and anything else I could see that set each one apart from the others. I also added to the record the details of how she sold Sobriety to a traveling freak show for fifty dollars and how she pushed Claxon down the stairs and broke his neck. I spared none of the distasteful details.

By the time I was a grown man, I had filled an entire notebook with these observations. If mother killed me, as I was certain she would one day, I hoped that my notebook would end up in the proper hands and justice would be served.  

She was gone for three days and didn’t tell me where she was going. When she came back, she had a new husband, a man named Jules DuFray. He was slick, well-dressed, the opposite of a farming man; he wore suits instead of overalls, even all the way out here where nobody ever saw him. I don’t know whatever possessed him to want to marry a pizzle-faced old harridan like my mother, but there you have it. She had always had a way with men. There’s no accounting for tastes, I suppose.

For several days I stayed out of mother’s way, keeping to myself in my room or in the woods. She and her new husband spent most of their time in mother’s bedroom with the door closed. When I passed by in the hallway, I could hear them grunting, breathing,  groaning. When we all sat down to dinner (cooked by a moronic “serving girl” that mother hired with one of her newspaper ads), mother was polite and subdued, almost as if she had been drugged. I knew she was putting on an act for her new husband, while all the time hatching some scheme in her head that would bring her enough money to live like the queen she imagined herself to be.

When I saw the cans of kerosene she had stored under the stairs, I knew that her plans involved burning the house—with me in it, of course—and then collecting on the insurance. She would make it look so convincingly like an accident that she would fool anybody who needed fooling.

I was afraid to go to bed and go to sleep, afraid that I would wake up and the house would be burning and it would be too late for me to get out. I sat in a chair in my room, fully clothed, dozing lightly, clutching my notebook, ready to escape the house at the first sign of smoke or fire.

Finally I could stand it no longer, this waiting for mother to kill me, waiting for the house to go up in flames. One morning I set out on the road for the nearest town, over ten miles away, to deliver my notebook to a man of the law, a person of authority who could set about bringing mother’s killing to an end.

I hitched rides part of the way, so I came to the town of Wadsworth by noontime. I asked an old man sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store where I might find the sheriff. He told me what I needed to know and in a half-hour I was sitting across a desk from an old man wearing a badge. I gave him my notebook and told him my fantastic story, or as much of it as I could get out without crying. He listened to me with unremitting seriousness and told me he would read every word of what I had written and look into my allegations as soon as time permitted. He gave me some water and some jailhouse food and, after I had rested for a while, I began the long walk back home.

Mother was waiting for me. She somehow knew where I had been and who I had been talking to. Without a word, she split my head with an ax and then hit me with a cane until I was dead as I lay on the floor. I felt my spirit leave my body and go up through the ceilings and floors of the house to the attic. It is here I have been ever since.

Mother and her new husband Jules DuFray got away before the sheriff and his men arrived. I don’t know where they went, but my mother, true to her fashion, disappeared as completely as if she had never existed. I’d like to think that she somehow, somewhere, met justice, but I’m more inclined to believe she just transferred her activities to another location.

I stood at the attic window and watched the men exhume the thirty or so bodies from the hog yard. When they were all finished collecting bodies and collecting evidence from the house, they put a heavy padlock on the front door and left. They didn’t know I was still here, and if they had known they wouldn’t have cared. I was as nothing, a tiny puff of air that disappears as soon as you see it.  

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Not a Cough in a Carload

Not a Cough in a Carload ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Berna Taffin worked at Peek-a-Boo Laundry. All day long she put dirty sheets, towels and diapers into one machine to wash, and took them out again and into another machine to dry. Endless stretching, lifting and bending to make the world clean for democracy. The white overalls she wore, like a man’s, were stained and dirty at the end of her nine-hour shift.

She moved through her daily duties like an automaton, without thought and without feeling. To her co-workers, she was sexless and devoid of personality. If spoken to, she answered curtly and briefly. Nobody tried to make her their friend. People avoided being near her.

Did she have a husband? Children? She had to have a family somewhere. People don’t spring from rocks. Possibly she came from outer space. The people at the laundry wondered about her, as people will, and, when the answers were not forthcoming, they forgot about her.

The truth was Berna Taffin did have a home and a family. Her family consisted of an elderly father and mother, Roman and Arletta. They were superannuated and confined to their reclining easy chairs in the long, darkened living room of their sixteen-room house in the oldest part of the city that nobody cared about any more. Children in the neighborhood said the house was haunted. They hooted and moaned and ran past in the dark.

At the end of her shift, Berna put on her long man’s coat and man’s hat and left Peak-a-Boo for the day without a word to anybody. She walked down the street and caught the bus. In fifteen minutes she got off the bus and walked the rest of the way home, often stopping in at the neighborhood market to buy cigarettes and whatever else was needed.

She bought four cartons of cigarettes a couple times a week. The manager of the store was always happy to see her and greeted her with a smile. None of his other customers bought so many cigarettes. If they did, he’d be the Cigarette King.

Besides the cigarettes, she bought four cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup, a bar of Palmolive soap, a four-pack of toilet paper, four cans of sardines, six cans of Vienna sausages, four cans of peaches in heavy syrup, and a large box of vanilla wafers. At the cash register, she stood down while the manager tallied her purchases. He would have made small talk if she had seemed less forbidding.

He put all her purchases into a heavy-duty bag and folded down the top to make it easier for her to carry. As she turned to go, he went around in front of her quickly and opened the door.

“It’s pretty heavy!” he said. “Are you sure you don’t need no help?”

She ignored him and breezed past out the door into the chilly darkness.

She let herself in at the back door with her key. Right away she heard the yammer of the TV and smelled the ever-present cigarette smoke. She took the four cartons of cigarettes out of the bag and took them into the cloud of smoke that was the living room. She put two cartons on the chair-side table by Roman’s chair and the other two cartons on Arletta’s table. They didn’t look away from the TV, didn’t acknowledge Berna’s presence unless she got between their eyes and the TV screen. She knew they knew she was there. Nothing made them as happy as their cigarettes. Cigarettes were their gold.

They each smoked a carton a day, sometimes more. Each time they opened a new pack, they threw the empty pack on the floor. They had lighters for lighting up, but most of the time they chain-smoked, meaning they lit a new cigarette from the old one they were about to finish. When they had a butt to dispose of, they threw it into a large glass bowl for that purpose kept within easy reach. The glass bowl smoked continuously like an inactive volcano.

The TV played around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It was never silent. Whether it was a western, a comedy, a drama, singing and dancing, news, sports, movies, puppet shows for the under-five set, or just talking for the sake of talking, it was all the same. Every show, commercial break, or burst of artificial laughter was the cue to take another one out of the pack and light up.

They watched twenty hours a day. What little sleeping they did, they did in their chairs a few feet in front of the never-silent TV. Walking was difficult for them. They could make it to the toilet and back two or three times a day, but these excursions into another part of the house usually elicited cries of pain and distress.

Berna returned to the kitchen and took her purchases out of the bag. She opened one of the cans of Vienna sausages and emptied it onto a plate. She did the same with a can of the sardines, emptying it onto another plate. She carried the plates into the living room and presented the plate of sardines to Roman and the plate with the Vienna sausages to Arletta. Neither of them required a fork; they always ate with their fingers. After Berna went back into the kitchen, she could hear them smacking as they ate and sucking on their fingers.

One Friday at Peek-a-Boo when Berna was near the end of her shift and getting ready to go home, the boss came out and broke the news to the workers. Peek-a-Boo was going out of business. The land Peek-a-Boo sat on, and indeed the entire block, had been sold to make way for an apartment building.

Berna had worked at Peek-a-Boo for twenty-seven years. Some of the other people had been there longer than that. They wailed and worried about what they would do. Berna left quietly without a word to anyone and caught her bus home.

The next week Berna received her final paycheck from Peek-a-Boo in the mail. She took it to the bank to cash it, and withdrew, in cash, all the money she had in her account, a little in excess of two-hundred thousand dollars. She had worked all those years and never spent as much as she earned.

The bank teller, after trying to talk Berna out of withdrawing all her money, put the money into a canvas bag and handed the bag over the counter, with a warning that carrying that much money on her person, on the street, might be dangerous.

Berna carried the canvas bag under her coat and when she got home she took it upstairs to her bedroom and threw it on the floor of her closet.

She planned on putting Roman and Arletta into an old-folks’ home and taking her money and going away somewhere by herself, maybe to Peru or Iceland.

But when she asked herself the hard questions, she didn’t have any satisfactory answers. What would she do when she got to Peru or Iceland? Look for a job in a laundry? What if there were no jobs in laundries? What then? And how would she manage, alone in a foreign country, if she didn’t know the language? What language did they speak in Peru or Iceland, anyway?

And when it came to Roman and Arletta, wouldn’t she miss them quite a lot if she never saw them again, even though she got awfully sick of them sometimes?

She would defer the questions to a later date. She didn’t have to be in any hurry. She had the money to be independent. She could do whatever she wanted to do, at the time of her own choosing.

But the truth was she didn’t go anywhere or do anything. She installed herself on the sofa in the long, low-ceilinged living room along with Roman and Arletta. She began sleeping on the sofa instead of going upstairs to her bed. The sound of the TV became so incessant, so familiar to her, that she couldn’t do without it. It became as necessary to her as her own heartbeat.

And she didn’t even have to leave the house anymore if she didn’t want to. When the cartons of cigarettes needed to be replenished, or when there was no more toilet paper or not enough Vienna sausages, sardines, Campbell’s vegetable soup or vanilla wafers, she put in a call to the neighborhood market. They delivered whatever was wanted and sent a bill at the first of the month.

Months went by and then years. Berna put Peek-a-Boo out of her mind and stopped thinking, when she woke up in the morning, that it was time to go to work. Those days were over. She had been released from her jail.

Roman was the first to succumb to lung disease. Berna noticed at the end of an episode of I Love Lucy that no smoke was coming from his quarter; he hadn’t lit up for at least a couple of hours. When she got up from the couch and looked closely at his face, she knew he was dead.

She covered him over with a sheet of heavy plastic and sprinkled him with fragrant bath salts. They would go on the same as always. Arletta was unaware that he was dead and Berna thought it best that way.

After three days, Berna realized the cigarette smoke in the room was one-half what it had been. She began smoking herself, for the first time in her life. In a short time she was chain smoking up to a carton or more a day. She began buying the large quantities of cigarettes for herself that used to be for Roman.

She and Arletta kept the room filled with smoke, exactly as it had been when Roman was alive. The TV played on. Bonanza was followed by Hazel; Petticoat Junction by Please Don’t Eat the Daisies; The Beverly Hillbillies by The Naked City; Lassie by Laramie; The Munsters by… On and on without end.

During an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Arletta made a choking sound in her throat and, not surprisingly, she too was dead from lung disease. Berna covered her over with a large sheet of plastic and sprinkled her with fragrant bath salts, after which she went into the kitchen and emptied a can of Vienna sausages onto a plate and carried the plate back into the living room and ate the little sausages with her fingers, making smacking sounds and licking her fingers. Between bites, she lit a cigarette and blew as much smoke out into the room as she could manage in one breath. And the TV played on. The Red Skelton Show was just beginning. If ever she needed a good laugh.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Don’t Wait Up

Don’t Wait Up ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

On a beautiful Friday evening in October, nobody under the age of twenty wanted to stay at home and listen to Jack Benny on the radio. Ruby Leftridge arranged to meet her friend Marcella Rogers on the corner by the cemetery. They were going to walk downtown to see the horror double feature at the Odeon Theatre.

“I don’t want you to go!” Ruby’s mother said. “There’s a crazed killer on the loose killing people! He strangles women!”

“Nobody’s going to strangle me, mother!” Ruby said. “You can’t let your life be ruled by fear. I’ll be fine. I won’t be alone. I’ll be with Marcella the whole time.”

“And what could she do for you?”

“She can scream really loud!”

“You always have to make a joke out of everything, don’t you?”

“Not always, but usually.”

“I don’t want two uniformed officers to wake me up late tonight with the sad news that my daughter has been murdered!”

“You won’t! I’ll be home about eleven. Don’t wait up!”

Ruby had known Marcella Rogers since sixth grade. She was a tall girl who sometimes seemed all knees and elbows. She saw herself as a great beauty. She had a receding chin and an unflattering mane of hair that she barely kept clean. She was twenty years old and worked as a typist in a real estate office full of men. She was always imagining the men in her office were in love with her and would leave their wives if only she gave them a little encouragement.

“Did you hear about the killer on the loose?” Marcella asked.

“Yes,” Ruby said.

“Isn’t it thrilling?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It scares all the old ladies, including my mother.”

“I think it’s tremendously exciting to have a maniac on the loose,” Marcella said.

“I hope they catch him soon,” Ruby said.

“Why? Are you afraid?”

“No. I don’t think it’s my destiny to die at the hands of a strangler.”

“Well, you never know. I wonder if he’s good-looking!”

“Who?”

“The strangler, silly!

“As long as he’s killing people, I don’t think it matters whether he’s good-looking or not. He can be an absolute perfect specimen of manhood and they’ll still fry his carcass in the electric chair. He’ll make a handsome corpse, as if anybody will be paying attention to the way he looks.”

“Oh, Ruby! You have no romance in your soul!”

“Not when it comes to cold, sadistic killers, I don’t.”

“You don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s just misunderstood.”

“We’re all misunderstood but we don’t go around murdering people.”

“Say, I want to tell you about this new man in our office,” Marcella said. “His name is Jake something or other. I haven’t spoken one word to him yet, but I feel a sort of connection with him. I’ll be sitting at my desk working and I’ll look up and he’ll be looking at me from across the room. He can’t seem to take his eyes off me.”

“He’s probably the strangler and he’s planning on making you his next victim,” Ruby said.

“He is so good-looking and he has the most beautiful eyes! I’m hoping he’ll ask me out on a date.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Oh, Ruby! I could never do anything so forward!”

“Send him a love note the way we used to do in junior high school.”

“Now you’re being silly.”

In two more blocks they came to the Odeon, its marquee of a thousand lights that welcomed all comers to step in out of the darkness and escape in a cinematographic dream.

“I wonder if I’ll see anybody here tonight I know,” Marcella said, as they took their place in line.

“You’d better not go off with one of your cute boys and leave me to walk home by myself at eleven o’clock. If you do that, our friendship is over!”

“Oh, honey, I would never do that!

After they bought their tickets, they went inside and stood in line at the refreshment stand to buy popcorn and sodas.

“It’s really crowded tonight!” Marcella said. “Hey, you! I want a large popcorn with extra butter and a large Coke!”

Most of the good seats were taken, so they sat close to the screen to get away from the rowdy high-schoolers who whistled and stamped their feet and threw popcorn.

The lights went down and the audience grew quiet. For the next three hours they would be drawn into the fabulous black-and-white fantasy world so far removed from real life. The first feature cast its spell and when it finished the second feature began after a five-minute interval.

When the show was over and Ruby and Marcella were filing out with the crowd, Marcella said, “There wasn’t a single person here I knew tonight.”

“You knew me,” Ruby said.

“Of course, dear,” Marcella said. “I wasn’t talking about you.”

“Well, after that horror extravaganza, are you ready to go home?”

“Let’s walk slow. The wind is blowing the leaves so beautifully.”

Three blocks past the movie theatre, the streetlights were farther apart; the streets were dark and deserted. They met a dark figure walking toward them, but he walked past without seeming to notice them.

“That might have been the strangler,” Marcella said.

“If it was, he wasn’t interested in us,” Ruby said.

“Don’t horror movies make you a little afraid to go upstairs by yourself with no lights on?” Marcella asked.

“Horror movies are just make-believe.”

“Well, I guess it’s kind of fun to be scared,” Marcella said, “as long as you know it’s not going to hurt you. In ninth grade, we used go into the cemetery at midnight without a flashlight and try not to scream. The first person to scream had to buy the next pack of ciggies.”

“My mother would never let me go out at midnight,” Ruby said.

“Mine, either, but I did anyway. I climbed out the window after she went to bed.”

“If my mother thought I was smoking, she would have killed me.”

“Mine too. Ever hear of Sen-Sen?”

“Yeah, it tastes worse than the cigarettes.”

“You’ve smoked?”

“Once or twice. I’d never take it up as a regular habit.”

“Well, I think it’s fun to smoke,” Marcella said. “It makes you feel sophisticated. Do you have any cigarettes on you?”

“No, do you?”

“No, I smoked my last one at the office this afternoon.”

“When did you take up smoking?”

“Oh, ages ago! I smoked all the way back in high school.”

“I never knew it.”

“Say, did you notice that boy taking the tickets when we went in tonight? He was awfully good-looking. I’ve seen him before. When I handed him my ticket, his hand touched mine and I felt an electric current pass between us.”

“He might be the strangler.”

“Oh, honey! You can’t believe that every man you see is the strangler!”

“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to think to protect ourselves?”

“The strangler is probably far away from here by now, in another state. Maybe ‘he’ is a ‘she’.”

“Did you ever hear of a woman strangling other women?”

“No, but I’ll bet it’s happened before.”

“That would really surprise people!”

“Yeah, what fun!”

They came to the corner by the cemetery.

“Well, I guess it’s time to go home,” Marcella said. “I hope my mother has gone to bed so I don’t have to listen to any more of her nagging.”

“It’s been fun,” Ruby said. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”

“Surest thing you know!”

“Don’t let the strangler get you!”

“Not a chance!”

They parted there, Ruby going in one direction and Marcella in another.

In the three blocks she had to walk to get home, Ruby saw no one. A dog barked at her and a car passed, blinding her with its headlights, but all was quiet except for the wind in the trees.

Her mother had left a light on for her downstairs and gone to bed. She went into the kitchen and made sure the back door was locked and then she went upstairs and went to bed.

She went to sleep right away and slept soundly. She was in a deep sleep when her mother came into her bedroom and woke her up after three o’clock.

“Marcella’s mother is on the phone,” she said. “She wants to talk to you.”

The voice sounded remote and far away when it said, “Marcella didn’t come home last night.”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Eunice Rogers, Marcella’s mother. I thought maybe she decided to spend the night at your house.”

“No, she’s not here. I left her on the corner about eleven o’clock and came home. That was the last I saw of her.”

“Did she say where she was going after you left her?”

“She didn’t say, but I’m sure she meant to go home.”

“I’m worried.”

“Have you called the police?”

“No, I wanted to check with you first.”

“I’m sure she’s all right.”

“I’m not sure. This is so unlike her.”

“If I can do anything to help, let me know.”

“Thank you, dear, and if you hear from Marcella, will you call me?”

“Of course I will!”

Ruby didn’t sleep any more that night. She was sure something terrible had happened. If Marcella had been going someplace else after they parted, she would have mentioned it.

Two grim-faced police officers came in the morning and questioned Ruby in her bathrobe. She told them everything, about the two of them walking to the movies and then walking home, but she knew she wasn’t able to add anything they didn’t already know.

Marcella’s body was found in a ditch alongside the highway a mile or so out of town late the next day. She had been strangled with a two-foot length of rope. Police were investigating but had few leads.

After Marcella, everybody was waiting for the next strangulation. If it could happen to a girl like her, who would be next? People were afraid to go out at night and talked of little else. There were neighborhood watches and vigilantes roaming the streets with guns.

The strangler never struck again and was never apprehended. People speculated about what happened to him. Did he go away to continue his killing in some other location? Did he decide he had killed enough and didn’t need to do it anymore? Was he alive or was he dead? Was he somebody who people saw everyday shopping and paying his bills and going about his business in town? The possibilities were almost limitless.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

You May Know Him as a Ghoul

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You May Know Him as a Ghoul ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Blaise DeBeulah awoke to the rising of the sun and switched on the radio beside his bed. Dark Eyes by the Vincent Lopez Orchestra was playing. The beautiful melody brought a smile to his face, making him forget for the moment that had to get out of bed, get dressed, and face another distasteful day. He was just drifting off to a warm, intoxicating dreamland awash in saxophones and violins, when Bertha DeBeulah came bursting into the room.

“Get out of that bed, you lazy slug!” she commanded. “Do you think the world owes you a life of comfort and ease?”

“No, mother. The world doesn’t owe me anything. I’m getting up now.”

“Your brothers and sisters are hungry! They want fresh meat! Now!

“I’m doing the best I can, mother. I’m not feeling very well.”

“Well, isn’t that just too bad?

“I was out last night until dawn. Fresh meat isn’t so easy to come by anymore.”

“I don’t want to hear any of your feeble excuses! And when I say fresh meat, I mean fresh! No more freshly dug-up corpses! The embalming fluid ruins the taste, and the ones you’ve been dragging home have been anything but fresh! After a body has been dead three or four days, it tastes terrible.”

“I know mother. I’m doing the best I can. I hang around the cemetery all day long, waiting for a funeral, but they have been few and far between.”

“I told you I don’t want to hear any lame excuses! If there haven’t been any funerals, you have to do the killing yourself! How about some nice, juicy, muscular gravediggers?”

“Would those be for you to eat, or for the brothers and sisters, mother?”

“Don’t you get fresh with me! I’ll tell your papa, Benedictus DeBeulah, you smarted out to me and he’ll knock your block off!”

“Yes, I know, mother. I know. He has knocked my block off so many times that my head no longer sits straight on my shoulders.”

“Well, it serves you right! And if you don’t bring home some fresh meat—and I mean fresh—I’ll let the brothers and sisters eat you!”

“I’m not exactly fresh, mother. I’m two hundred and thirty-seven years old.”

“You don’t have to tell me how old you are, Mr. Smarty Britches! I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it any time I choose!”

“Yes, mother, I know. You’d be doing me a blessing.”

“What was that?”

“I said I’ll be on my way as soon as I find my shoes.”

Though he was two hundred and thirty-seven years old, Blaise DeBeulah could pass for nineteen whenever he wanted to. He wrapped himself in a long trench coat and a scarf that, thanks to the icy wind, allowed him to cover the lower part of his face. He topped off the invisible man look with a broad-brimmed hat worn low over the eyes. Dressed in this way, he could pass for anybody, anywhere, without attracting any particular kind of attention.

To get to the cemetery, he had to pass through downtown. Since it was a college town, there were always lots of interesting people around his own age (not two hundred and thirty-seven, but nineteen), and he enjoyed seeing them and walking among them. He might even pass for one of them: a tall, well-dressed, rather stately young man, dignified and poised, aloof and intriguing.

He liked to linger outside a malt shop where people his age gathered. It had a red-and-white awning and exuded attractive smells such as cinnamon, chocolate and peppermint. The thing that attracted him most, though, was the music that was piped out to the sidewalk: the romantic dance bands and orchestras, the velvet-voiced crooners, the bouncy girl singers, the snappy dance numbers. It was like nothing he had heard before in his two hundred and thirty-seven years of a ghoul’s life.

He longed to go inside the malt shop, to sit at the counter and order a drink, maybe strike up a conversation with someone and end up slow-dancing on the dance floor with everyone watching. It was not going to happen, though. He had a ghoul’s hands and a ghoul’s legs. When people saw his face, they would know it was a ghoul’s face and they would run screaming from the place in terror. He would be more embarrassed than he could possibly imagine. Somebody would call the police and they would come and take him away and lock him up. He couldn’t let that happen.

With a lump of regret in his throat, he passed on to the cemetery, the music sounding in his head long after he could still hear it.

One small, poor-looking funeral was in progress on a hillside. A dozen or so black-garbed mourners gathered around an open grave. A priest said a prayer and when he was finished the mourners dispersed and a man standing by with a shovel began filling in the grave.

Blaise moved on. He wasn’t going to dig in the dirt with his hands just to get a freshly buried body. It would taste like embalming fluid, anyway, he was sure, and the brothers and sisters would gag. They could always tell a body that had been embalmed from one that hadn’t. He’d have to look elsewhere.

He knew that if he didn’t find a really fresh corpse he’d have to kill a man or a woman, or maybe a child, on his own. He hated the killing; he didn’t even like killing animals. He’d almost rather die himself.

He came to another funeral, a much larger one this time. A prominent man, a person of some fame, had died. There were maybe two hundred mourners on their feet around a dark-wood casket that gleamed in the sun. Some of the mourners cried and some smiled and laughed as if they were at a cocktail party. A holy man gestured over the casket with his arms and when the service was finished the people let out a gasp of relief like children released from school. They moved away quickly, some of them lighting cigarettes, toward cars dispersed along a scenic hillside.

Blaise stood behind a tree and watched. After a few minutes, all the mourners were gone and the casket was left unattended in the sun. The gravediggers hadn’t appeared yet to finish their job. The funeral director was nowhere to be seen; he was off someplace, probably having a cigarette or a nip from a bottle.

Without thinking what he was doing, Blaise approached the casket and lifted the lid. The deceased was an old man with a mottled face and a bald head. He appeared to have been ninety years old or older.

He scooped the old man up in his arms and, balancing the body against his right shoulder, managed to reclose the lid with his left hand. If all went well, the gravediggers would come and bury the empty casket, never suspecting that the body inside had been purloined.

He couldn’t exactly walk back through the streets of the town carrying a dead body, so he took it to the designated hiding place, a scooped-out trench along the north wall, hidden behind some bushes. He covered the body with dead leaves as an extra precaution and when he was finished he left the cemetery.

From a payphone downtown he called Daedalus, Bertha DeBeulah’s factotum, with his usual message in code: Some lovely peaches are to be had at the north wall. Daedalus would go and collect the body as soon as it was safe, take it back to the house and drop it down the meat chute in the kitchen wall, to the brothers and sisters who dwelt below.

Blaise walked the rest of the way home, then, relieved that he had delivered a body without having to kill it on his own and relieved, also, that he wouldn’t have another confrontation with Beulah DeBeulah at least for a day or two. Maybe something cataclysmic would happen in the meantime, such as a meteor colliding with earth.

He spent the rest of the day locked in his room, catching up on his sleep and dreaming about what his life might have been like if he had been born into a real family instead of a family of ghouls. He might have been one of those sleek college boys popping up soda pop rickeys to his heart’s delight. He might have driven a car and carried books under his arm.

About nine o’clock that night, he was listening to music on the radio when he heard a terrible commotion downstairs. He went to the top of the banister and looked down. Bertha DeBeulah and Benedictus DeBeulah were fighting, yelling at each other, throwing objects across the room. It was nothing new. He went back to his room and shut the door.

The fighting was not to be ignored, though. Bertha DeBeulah and Benedictus DeBeulah were engaged in all-out war, causing the old house to quake on its foundations. Blaise went downstairs, thinking to separate them and get them to stop fighting, but he could see it was no use. They were mad with rage. When he tried to get between them to pull them apart, Benedictus DeBeulah pushed him so hard against the wall that he went through to the next room.

“Stop it!” Blaise cried. “If you don’t stop it, I’m going to call the people from the insane asylum to come and get you and lock you up, where you belong! Then where would the brothers and sisters be?”

“I’m sick and tired of her!” Benedictus DeBeulah roared. “I’m going to kill the evil old bitch once and for all! Satan will be happy when she finally arrives in hell!”

“Kill me?” Bertha DeBeulah screeched. “I don’t think so! Not if I kill you first!”

Blaise could see they meant to do each other seriously bodily harm. He was going to run to the neighbors for help, but then he remembered they lived in a swamp and there weren’t any neighbors for miles.

Bertha DeBeulah and Benedictus DeBeulah had each other around the neck. There is nothing on earth like two old ghouls fighting to the death. They may destroy the earth, but one of them will live and the other one die.

Benedictus DeBeulah’s strength proved superior in the end, however. He pried Bertha DeBeulah’s fingers from around his neck and reared back and knocked her block off with so much force that her head flew off her shoulders and hit the wall like a bloody cabbage.

Bertha DeBeulah wasn’t finished yet, though. Her headless body rose up from the floor and produced from the air a ball of flame, a gift from her beloved Satan. She directed the ball squarely at the midsection of Benedictus DeBeulah and he became the ball of flame. He ran through the house, arms flailing, but he wasn’t able to extinguish the flames that engulfed him. He grabbed the dining room curtains and pulled them down on top of him. The curtains helped to extinguish the flames and keep the rest of the house from catching on fire, but they were of no use to Benedictus DeBeulah. He was not only clearly dead, but really most sincerely dead.

When it was all over, Blaise gathered up the charred remains of Benedictus DeBeulah and the headless remains of Bertha DeBeulah and dragged them into the kitchen and threw them down the meat chute. The brothers and sisters wouldn’t know that they were eating their own mother and father, but if they did know they wouldn’t care. Fresh meat is fresh meat.

After Blaise rested and had a cooling drink of water and some onions and herbs (he was trying to take up a vegetarian diet), he became fully aware of his good fortune. For the first time in his life, he was free of family exigencies, free to do as he pleased rather than as he was told.

He would buy a phonograph and all the latest recordings. He would buy a car and learn to drive and find the best tailor in town and have some stylish suits made to order. He would get to know some of those young college students and invite them to parties. He would tell them of his experiences in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. They would love him. They would find him fascinating.

Just as he was contemplating his life to be, he heard the brothers and sisters howling below-stairs like the wild animals they were. They were well-fed, so what was wrong with them now? He would just ignore them and tomorrow, or maybe the next day, he would have a special treat for them.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Each Dark Door

Each Dark Door ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Jenks owned a three-story apartment building downtown. Every first of the month she visited the building and collected the rents due her. Most of the renters paid their rent on time (they were afraid not to pay, knowing she was the aunt of the deputy sheriff), but always there was somebody who didn’t have the money and would hide when she knocked or would confront her with a sad story about being sick and not being able to work or having a sick baby who needed medicine. More likely than not, those were the ones who had spent all their money on drink, lost it in an impromptu poker game, or never had any to begin with, because, well, things hadn’t been going so well lately.

A first of the month came when Mrs. Jenks was laid up in bed with her bad gallbladder and wasn’t able to leave the house. Instead of worrying herself sick about collecting the rents on time, she sent her granddaughter Virginia to do it for her. Virginia was sixteen.

Armed with the money pouch (held firmly against her body with her hand through the strap), Virginia started with the first door on the left on the first floor and worked her way down the left side, and when she was finished on the left she moved over to the right.

The hallway was musty-smelling and dark at all hours and was in no way pleasing or inviting. There were twelve closed doors with each door seeming to hold the possibility of menace. Some of these people are trash, grandma said, but if they pay their rent on time I can tolerate their trashiness as long as they don’t carry diseases or have bugs. If anybody gives you any guff or is rude, you be sure and write down their names. They might find themselves served with an eviction notice next week if they’re not careful.

Some didn’t answer their doors, as grandma had said, but were obviously there because Virginia could hear them moving around inside. Most of them were forthcoming, though, even if they were trash. They invited her inside with a smile while they counted out the money they owed or sat at the kitchen table and wrote out a check. She was offered things to eat and drink, including a vodka martini, which she politely declined.

At an apartment on the third floor, a blonde woman wearing a red-and-yellow Japanese kimono answered the door. She invited Virginia inside and asked her to sit down while she and her roommate, a dark-haired woman wearing men’s pajamas, got the rent together.

“We’ll have to pay you in small bills,” the blonde woman said. Her name was Hortense and her roommate’s name was Hazel.

“That’s all right,” Virginia said.

“We’ll need a receipt,” Hazel said. “We don’t want anybody saying we didn’t pay up on time.”

They counted out the money and when they handed it to Virginia she put it in the canvas money pouch and wrote it down in the pay book and gave them a  receipt.

“Would you like a cup of coffee or something?” Hortense asked Virginia after the transaction was completed.

“I’d like a drink of water.”

“Well, come on into the kitchen.”

On the table were remnants of breakfast, even though it was past lunch time. Hortense motioned for Virginia to sit at the table while she got a glass and filled it with water.

“The first of the month sure comes around fast,” Hortense said. “Just when you’re thinking your rent is all paid up, here it is the first of the month again and you have to fork over more dough.”

“Yeah, ain’t life a bitch, though,” Hazel said. “A bitch from beginning to end.”

“Life’s a bitch, so I became one!” Hortense said, laughing like a hyena.

Virginia didn’t get the joke, but she smiled anyway and felt uncomfortable.

“When you knocked on the door, we were just finishing breakfast. If you had knocked a half-hour earlier, we wouldn’t have heard you because we were asleep.”

“Tell her the rest,” Hazel said, “or she’ll think we sleep this late all the time because we’re lazy.”

“We work nights,” Hortense said. “We don’t get off until two or three in the morning and sometimes later than that, so that’s why we sleep so late.”

“What kind of jobs do you have?” Virginia asked.

“We’re ‘B girls’ at the Crescendo Club.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re hostesses,” Hazel said. “We dance and drink and pretend we’re having a good time. We cozy up to the men without dates and get them to stay longer and spend their money on drinks.”

“Sometimes we go to their hotel rooms and sleep with them,” Hazel said, “if they’re not too vile and there’s enough money in it for us.”

“You shouldn’t be telling her that!” Hortense said. “She’s just an innocent young girl!”

“She has to learn some time, doesn’t she?”

“It’s all right,” Virginia said. “I’ve read Peyton Place. I know all about that stuff.”

“Your mother let you read a book like that?”

“She didn’t know I read it.”

“How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Tenth grade?”

“Eleventh.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No. My parents don’t let me date yet.”

“You don’t know anything about men yet, do you?”

“No.”

“Well, don’t rush things.” Hortense said. “You don’t want to end up like us.”

“And why is a pretty little thing like you collecting the rent money in a hell-hole slum like this?” Hazel asked.

“I’m doing it for my grandma. She’s sick. She’s going to have her gallbladder out.”

“That old water buffalo that owns the building is your grandma?”

“That’s right.”

“You don’t look a thing like her!”

“I don’t look like anybody,” Virginia said.

“I’ll bet you have brothers and sisters, don’t you?”

“One brother. He goes to veterinarian school.”

“Is he good-looking?”

“No.”

“You’re not supposed to ask a girl a question like that about her own brother,” Hazel said.

“Well, I had a brother and I always thought he was very good-looking,” Hortense said.

“That’s because you’re twisted,” Hazel said. “Your whole family is twisted.”

“What about your mother and father?”

“What about them?”

“What do they do?”

“My father’s an accountant, I think, and my mother’s a housewife.”

“Does your pa go out drinking at night and slap your ma around when he comes home?”

“No, he mostly sleeps in the chair.”

“Is your ma pretty? Does she have lots of pretty clothes?”

“No, she’s tired all the time.”

“What do you want to be when you get through with school?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I always thought I’d like to be a writer, but I’ll probably end up being a housewife like my mother.”

“What’s your favorite subject in school?”

“I don’t know. English, I guess.”

“You don’t like math, do you?”

“How did you know?”

“You’re the artistic type, I can tell.”

“I guess so.”

“You have awfully pale skin,” Hortense said. “Have you ever thought about wearing a little lipstick?”

“My mother doesn’t let me wear makeup.”

“Would you like to try a little lipstick and see how it looks? Your mother doesn’t have to know.”

“I guess so.”

She went into the bedroom and came back with a tube of lipstick and a little mirror. She titled Virginia’s head back and slathered the blood-red stuff on her mouth. When she was finished, she told her to blot her lips and look at herself in the mirror.

“See? Doesn’t that make a difference?”

“It makes me look like somebody else,” Virginia said.

“That tube is practically new. You can have it. I have a whole drawer full.”

“Thank you.”

Hazel pulled Virginia’s hair to the back of her head. “Your hair is so lifeless,” she said. “You could use a good cut and some curl.”

“My mother cuts my hair.”

“What does she use? A steak knife?”

She twisted and pinned the hair so that it stayed up, exposing Virginia’s rather large ears.

“What do you think?” she asked, holding the mirror up so Virginia could see herself.

“I don’t know,” Virginia said doubtfully.

“She looks like a regular uptown sophisticate!” Hortense said.

“You know, I have a daughter just a little younger than you,” Hazel said, “but I haven’t seen her since she was seven. I have a son, too. He’s nine.”

“What of it?” Hortense said. “Everybody’s got kids! It’s the disease of the human race.”

“Well, if we stopped having kids, that’d be the end of the world,” Hazel said.

“An excellent idea, if you ask me!”

“Can you imagine being the last person on earth to die? There’d be nobody to come to your funeral.”

Virginia stood up. “Well, thank you for the glass of water and the lipstick and the advice about my hair, but I think I’d better be going now. Grandma will be wondering what happened to me.”

“So soon?” Hazel said. “We don’t very often have company.”

“Wait a minute,” Hortense said. She slipped a bracelet off her own wrist and put it on Virginia’s. It was a band of alternating red and yellow stones, worthy of the Queen of the Nile.

“How beautiful!” Virginia said.

“Wear it to remind yourself to come back and see us again real soon. Next time we’ll have a real party!”

When Virginia left Hortense and Hazel’s apartment, she walked down the three flights of stairs to the street, smelling the various smells of the building along the way, some good but mostly bad. She held the money pouch, much fatter than when she started, pressed tightly against her body the way grandma showed her, so nobody would come up behind her and grab it out of her hand. It would finish grandma off if anything happened to it. It would have to pay all the bills for the month.

The weather was fine and the park was close at hand. She decided to stop for a while before going on home. Grandma wouldn’t mind waiting a little longer for her money.

She sat on a bench in the sun, placing the money pouch firmly against her left hip where she could feel it without seeing it. She breathed deeply. The fresh air smelled good, of freshly cut grass and water from the fountain. Since it was Saturday, there were lots of people about: children playing games, men walking dogs, mothers airing their babies. In a little while a young man came along and sat down on the bench beside her.

“Hi there!” he said with a smile. He was older than she was, the kind of boy her mother would warn her to stay away from. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

She was thinking about getting up and walking away when he surprised her by offering her a cigarette out of his pack. Without thinking, she accepted it and waited for him to light it. She had never smoked before and was a little flattered that he would think her the kind of girl who smoked. In her lipstick and with her new pinned-up hairdo, she felt sophisticated and grown-up. She could more than hold her own against any forward man in the park.

“Do you come to the park often?” he asked.

“You’re full of questions,” she said. “Don’t you know it’s not polite to ask strangers questions?”

“I didn’t mean any harm,” he said. “I’ll leave if you want me to.”

She smiled at him, liking him better than before. “It’s all right,” she said. “I don’t really mind.”

“My name’s Boyd Pitkin,” he said.

“Your name doesn’t really interest me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Rita Hayworth.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

“I think so.”

“Are those diamonds you’re wearing?” he asked, pointing at the red-and-yellow bracelet Hortense had given her.

“No, silly! Diamonds are clear and sparkly, like little pieces of ice.”

“Well, how would I know? I’m not an expert on diamonds.”

“Well, now you know.”

“Would you like to go someplace else?”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Someplace where we can be alone.”

“Why would I want to be alone with you?”

“Can you give me one good reason why not?”

“How do I know you’re not a murderer?”

“Do I really look like a murderer?”

She turned and looked at him closely. He needed a shave, but he looked clean and healthy. He wasn’t exactly handsome but his brown eyes were appealing and he had good teeth.

“Murderers don’t always look like murderers,” she said.

“I’ve got my car parked just over the hill,” he said. “Would you like to go for a drive?”

“I don’t believe you’ve got a car.”

He took keys out of his pocket and jingled them close to her face. “I’ll take you wherever you say.”

“No, thanks. I shouldn’t be talking to a strange man in the park. I have to go home now.”

“Well, it was lovely meeting you, Rita. Maybe we’ll meet again at some time in the distant future.”

“I doubt it,” she said saucily, and it was the last thing she would say to him.

She was nearly home when she realized she didn’t have the canvas money pouch. She ran breathlessly back to the bench in the park, but, of course, the man—Boyd Pitkin, if that was really his name—was gone. Hoping against hope, she searched the ground, behind and under the bench, but the pouch was gone forever. Not knowing what else to do, she sat down, leaned forward with her nose touching her knees, and wailed like a wild animal.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Alligator Bag

Alligator Bag ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Her name was Laverne Mulvaney, but everybody called her Toots. She made her home on the streets and in the alleyways of the city. She was in middle age but looked older. She was an unregenerate alcoholic, dirty and ugly. When people passed her on the street, they turned away in revulsion.

She stole, and after she stole she ran. She outran her pursuers more often than not. She stole a melon from an open-air fruit market, gloves and costume jewelry from a department store, a fifth of whisky from the package store, a loaf of bread from a delicatessen, a can of tuna, a jar of pickles, a quart of milk, a cheap coat from an inattentive diner at a lunch counter, a man’s hat from a barber shop, a sign from a restaurant window that said Open All Night, a fox fur coat from the balcony of a movie theatre, a box of bird seed from the pet store, a pair of shoe laces and several pencils from the blind man on the corner, a bottle of aspirin from the drugstore, a movie magazine, a bottle of perfume, a hot water bottle, a toothbrush, a card of bobby pins, a box of suppositories, a small box of Valentine candy. The list was without end and included anything she might reasonably lay her hands on and carry away. What she couldn’t eat, drink, or use herself, she sold or gave away to friends.

One of her favorite places in the city was the municipal bus station. There were always so many people there that she blended in and nobody noticed her. On a November afternoon her feet were cold so she stopped in to warm them. She used the restroom facilities and afterwards she washed up at the sink: face, neck, arms and hands. If anybody gave her a sour look or a put-upon look because she was using too much soap or taking too much time, she ignored them with the haughtiness of a queen.

She sat down on a bench in the women’s lounge. For the first time all day she felt warm enough and she could feel her toes again. She longed to lay down on the bench and go to sleep, but she knew it was useless. A bus station employee would spot her, call security, and she would be taken to the door and ejected. She couldn’t say she didn’t deserve it.

A tall woman with red hair came into the lounge and right away Toots recognized her as a woman of quality. She wore a fur coat and expensive-looking pumps. She held herself erect; her skirt swayed with every step. She took a comb out of her alligator bag and fussed with her hair in front of the mirror. After she put away the comb she applied lipstick and when she was finished she smiled at her image in the mirror, turning her head this way and that, liking what she saw.

The red-haired woman sat down on the bench and for a moment looked at the floor, at the wall. Then she opened her bag and took out a handkerchief and wiped the corners of her mouth. She stood up, slipped off her coat, placed her bag on the bench and, covering it with her coat, went into a stall and closed the door.

Toots approached the fur coat stealthily. She had always wanted a coat like that, so luxurious and warm. If she only had such a coat, she wouldn’t have to be cold all the time. And wouldn’t she be the envy of all the other bums? She could just see their eyes popping out of their skulls.

She touched the coat, finding it the softest, most luxurious piece of merchandise she had ever felt. She wanted it terribly, but she wasn’t sure if she had the courage. She had to act fast; the red-haired woman would be back any second.

Picking up the coat, she was going to sling it over her shoulders and run for the door, but then she saw the bigger prize underneath the coat: the alligator handbag. If you were lucky enough to find an alligator bag, you were almost certain to find a large amount of cash in it. The coat might be worth a lot, but there’s nothing like cash. Cash, enough of it, would buy as many coats as madame desires.

Breath catching in her throat, she grabbed the alligator bag and slipped it inside her coat, leaving the fur on the bench.

With the bag warm against her heart, she ran blocks away from the bus station and ducked into an alley where she might open it unobserved. At the end of the alley was a private place where no one would see her. She fell to her knees and opened the bag and looked inside.

There was the wallet, the most prized item in the bag. She opened the wallet and looked at the red-haired woman’s driver’s license. Her name was Mrs. Melba LaForce, of 1506 Cordovan Place. She was just around forty years old; five feet, eight inches tall, with red hair.

None of it mattered, though. What mattered was the money: two hundred and seventy-three dollars in twenties, tens, fives, and three singles. Her biggest score in a long history of thievery.

Toots held the money in her hand, feeling genuinely happy for the first time in longer than she could remember. If it had been enough to buy a meal or a room for the night or a bottle of wine or whiskey, she would have felt fortunate, but this was beyond her wildest imaginings. Enough to make a real difference in her life. Enough to get herself cleaned up and straightened out. Enough to stop living the degrading life of a degenerate bum. Enough, maybe, to go home and pick up where she left off all those years ago.

Before she left the alley with the alligator bag, she combed her hair with her newly acquired comb and outlined her lips with lipstick. If her face hadn’t been so dirty, she would have slicked it down with face powder. The powder would have to wait; a good face-washing would have to come first.

Carrying the alligator bag over her arm as if it belonged to her and had always belonged to her, she walked to the Bijou Hotel and checked in. The Bijou was far from the finest hotel in the city, but it was a long way from being the worst.

She would have paid for the room in advance, but when she signed the hotel register Mrs. Melba LaForce, the desk clerk handed her the key to her room without even looking at her. She was wearing lipstick, for God’s sake, and her hair was done up. She looked respectable. People couldn’t help but see that.

Her room on the top floor was clean and quiet. The first thing she did, after locking the door, was to dump the contents of the alligator bag out on the bed. Among the practical things that she might use, such as the comb and hairbrush, were credit cards to some of the finest stores in the city. She would buy herself some nice things, a pair of shoes, a coat, some gloves. Stolen credit cards had a fleeting life, though; after they were reported stolen, they were essentially useless and the person trying to use them might be pinched.

Before she went shopping, she wanted to get herself cleaned up. She filled the bathtub with scalding water, washed herself from head to toe with hotel soap, and when she was finished she did it over again.

After she was clean, for the first time in longer than she could remember, she hated putting her dirty old rags back on, but she didn’t have any other choice. It wouldn’t be for long, though. She would go shopping, buy herself some new glad rags, and dump the old stuff in the trash can.

After dressing in her old things, she made her face up in the bathroom mirror. She put the face powder on so thick that she looked like a ghost, but a respectable ghost. She darkened her brows with eyebrow pencil and drew her lips on in a ruby-red bow. Then she fluffed up her clean-for-a-change hair and stepped into her broken-down oxfords and tied them. After giving herself the once-over in the dresser mirror, noting how smart the alligator bag looked hanging from her wrist, she was ready to go.

Going down in the elevator of the Bijou Hotel, she felt her old familiar craving for drink. She would buy herself a bottle after the new clothes, but it would be her tapering-off bottle. She would drink half of it after she got back to the hotel, get a restful night’s sleep, and tomorrow she’d drink the other half and that would be the end of her drinking. Then she was going to have the new life she deserved, a different kind of life.

She smiled at the desk clerk as she handed him the key to her room. She was a paying customer deserving of respect; the key and the room were hers until she no longer wanted them.

Outside the hotel, on the sidewalk, a man and a woman stood as if waiting for someone. The man was a police officer in uniform. The woman had red hair and was wearing a fur coat.

“That’s her!” the red-haired woman screeched. “That’s the bitch that stole my alligator bag!”

Toots turned and started to run, but it was no use. The policeman was young and fleet of foot. He caught up with her, grabbed her by the arm and twisted it behind her back.

“Did you snatch this lady’s pocketbook at the bus station?” he asked.

“Let me go!” Toots yelled. “I’m an American citizen!”

The red-haired woman came up behind the police officer and grabbed Toots by the hair and pulled her backwards off her feet and began pummeling her in the face with her fits.

“How dare you!” she screeched. “You scum! You filth! You should be flushed down the toilet!”

“Some people have it all,” Toots said, and the red-haired woman reared back to hit her again.

“That’s enough of that!” the policeman said.

He clapped the handcuffs on Toots and led her to a police car waiting around the corner of the Bijou Hotel. A small crowd of bums gathered to watch.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp