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In the Shape of a Man

In the Shape of a Man ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Alexander comes to Marceline in the night, undresses in the dark, and gets into bed beside her. She smells his clean man smell and is aware of the mere animal presence of him: a torso, a head and shoulders, two arms and two legs. The mattress sags under his weight and she sinks closer to him, huddling beside him under the blankets. Timidly she runs her finger along his pectoral muscles and when he seems annoyed she stops.

She can’t, of course, do all the things she longs to do, but it is enough to just have him there in the bed beside her, to watch his handsome profile in the dark. She is reminded of the phrase from the Bible: My cup runneth over. She is too happy, too fulfilled, to sleep well, but it doesn’t matter. She can work on very little sleep or no sleep at all and nobody will notice her heavy eyelids or how sloppily she is dressed or the mistakes she will make in her typing.

When she wakes in the morning he is gone. She sees at once that she is going to be late, but she doesn’t care. She places her hand on the bed where his body has lain and she believes she can still feel his warmth. When she feels herself starting to drift off to sleep again, she throws back the cover and jumps up with alarm.

After performing the necessary ablutions in the bathroom, Marceline dresses hurriedly and goes into the kitchen. Mother is sitting at the table underneath the chicken clock with her back to the wall. She still holds her cards from the gin rummy game the night before. Her glasses glint and her fingernails glisten in the morning light coming from the window.

“Good morning, mother,” Marceline says as she sets about making her morning cup of tea. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. Alexander was with me last night. He’s very passionate, such a wonderful lover. I’m a lucky woman.”

A quick look at the chicken clock tells her she doesn’t have time for breakfast, only her scalding cup of tea. Oh, well, she isn’t hungry, anyway. She can get something out of the vending machine at work.

Before she goes out the door, she takes a quick look at her mother and blows her a kiss. “I’ll be home at the usual time!” she calls cheerily. “God willing, of course!”

She misses the early downtown bus and has to wait fifteen minutes for the second one and when she gets on the bus she doesn’t get a seat and has to stand the whole way. When she walks into the office, half-an-hour late, Mr. Frizzell frowns at her and points at his watch. She smiles and goes on to her desk, ignoring the inquisitive glances of her co-workers.

“Late night last night?” Miss Arlette asks archly.

Marceline ignores her, hangs up her coat and sits down at her desk and begins working.

She despises Ivan-Bello (she has worked there for twelve long years) and the people in it. Her days are routine and uneventful. Her real life seems at times like a prison sentence from which there is no reprieve. The building she works in is old, dreary and dilapidated. Rats run along pipes hanging from ceilings. Plaster and paint rain down on people’s heads. Elevators are permanently out of order. And the people in the company are well-suited to their environment; they are unimaginative, unoriginal, colorless and not worthy of interest. Marceline knows, however, that in describing them in this way, she is also describing herself.

Some of her co-workers, especially the younger women, look upon Marceline with suspicion because they know nothing about her and they think there is something fishy about somebody who isn’t friendly with them. They make jokes behind her back about her sack-like dresses, unflattering hairstyle, and lack of makeup. Knowing she isn’t married, they speculate about whether or not she is a virgin or even if she is a woman. They play little tricks on her, like breaking the lead points off all her pencils or putting a rubber spider on her shoulder while she’s sitting at her desk.

At lunch she buys a sandwich and a bottle of pop in the employees’ lunchroom and takes them to the mannequin storage room. It is cool and quiet in the mannequin room—only the mannequins—and she can have a little time to herself away from ringing phones, clacking typewriters and the self-important voices of those around her.

She goes to the back of the room where the mannequins are closest together, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. Some of them are clothed but most are unclothed. Even with no clothes, their painted-on faces are always the same. The men are handsome and the women are beautiful. Some of them have brilliant, life-like eyes and mouths showing pearl-like teeth. They’re lifelike (but not in the way of real people), agreeable and pleasant to be near. They make her feel happy in her life and less alone. Sometimes she kisses one of the more appealing male mannequins full on the lips; she enjoys the sensation and never thinks how peculiar such an action might appear to the casual observer.

She finds a place to sit on a display case where a mannequin has recently been removed and eats her sandwich slowly and when it is gone she finishes her bottle of pop. The empty bottle makes a convenient ash repository, so she lights up a cigarette and blows the smoke out luxuriously. People in the mannequin factory are desperately afraid of fire and she would probably be fired if management knew she was smoking in the highly combustible mannequin room, but that doesn’t keep her from smoking. She is not careless the way some people are; if there’s ever a fire it will be through no fault of her own.

As she leaves the mannequin room, she conceals the pop bottle with her ashes and cigarette butt in it in the folds of her dress. On the way back to her desk she throws the bottle away in one of the tall trash cans, hiding it underneath a mound of papers. Nobody can ever claim she isn’t careful.

In the half-hour or so that she has been away, Mr. Frizzell or somebody else has piled more work on her desk that has to be finished by the end of the day. She never hurries herself because she knows in the world of business everything is always urgent. They’ll have the completed work when they have it and if that doesn’t suit them, well, they’ll just have to go up to the roof and take a sixty-foot dive into the trash cans in the alley.

When the day is finally over and Marceline goes back home, mother is still sitting at the kitchen table holding her cards. She lifts mother up—so light!—and carries her into the living room and sets her on the couch and turns on the TV. Mother enjoys the chatter, the endless commercials, the applause and the mindlessness, of late-afternoon TV fare.

She cooks a modest dinner for herself and mother and when it’s ready she carries mother into the kitchen again and slides her up to the table in her customary chair. She has a full place setting for mother—knife, fork, spoon, folded napkin beside the plate—but the truth is mother doesn’t eat much because she isn’t real. She weighs fifteen pounds. She is a life-size doll; that is, she is one of the mannequins from Ivan-Bello, wearing her real mother’s clothes, wig and glasses. Marceline brought her home from work on the bus one day, paying the fare for her as if she were a real person. People on the bus looked at her if she was a crazy person, but nobody said anything and she just smiled to herself at her little joke.

Her real mother, not the mannequin, has been dead for a year and a half. All that remains of her on this earth is an urnful of ashes on the dresser in her bedroom. She died in her bed, in her sleep, not knowing anything, at age seventy-six. For the last twenty years of her life, she had been in what might modestly be described as “poor health.”

Mother was Marceline’s only friend and companion. They never fussed or quarreled in the way of other mothers and daughters. They were together always, each an extension of the other, and when mother died Marceline couldn’t bear coming home every day to an empty house.

One day when she is eating lunch and smoking her Camel cigarette in the mannequin storage room, she notes the resemblance between mother and one of the female mannequins. They each possess the same small, pointed nose, the same high cheekbones and the tiny dimple in the chin. When she looks at the mannequin for long enough and squints, she sees her mother and hears her voice. That’s when she decides to claim the mannequin for her own after office hours and take it (her) home with her on the bus.

When dinner is over, Marceline returns mother to her TV in the living room and washes the dishes. She lets mother watch her favorite programs throughout the evening. When it’s time to go to bed, she undresses her, puts her nighty on over her head and tucks her comfortably under the covers.

The man who comes to her that night is Tab. He isn’t beefy and muscular like Alexander but tall and thin, with blue eyes and flaxen blond hair. He whispers Marceline’s name when they are in the throes of passion and she is embarrassed to think that mother might hear them through the thin wall. When it is all over, Tab leaves and Marceline falls, with the help of a pill, into a blissful sleep that is broken only by the harsh buzz of the alarm clock at six-thirty in the morning. It is time to begin another day.

Another noon when she is lunching and smoking in the mannequin room (nobody has a clue where she is or what she is doing), she spots a male mannequin she has never seen before. He has dark-red hair and long-lashed, amber eyes. He has broad shoulders (but not too broad), a narrow waist, and stands about five feet, ten inches tall. He is in almost every way the perfect man, except, of course, that he isn’t a real man but a facsimile of a man. Marceline knows at the moment she sees him that she must—she simply must—have him. Sensibly or not, she names him Finch.

The next day she brings to work in a shopping bag an old tweed suit that belonged to her deceased father, as well as shirt, bow tie, belt, old-fashioned union suit, overcoat and hat. After five o’clock that day, when everybody else has gone home, she goes up to the mannequin storage room and dresses Finch up in the clothes she has brought, takes him down to street level by way of the fire stairs and home with her on the bus. People look at her and snigger but she doesn’t care.

At home once again, she puts Finch in her bedroom and closes the door. She isn’t ready just yet for mother to meet him. She expects a honeymoon period with him before he and mother become acquainted.

She enjoys undressing Finch at bedtime and putting him to bed and getting in beside him. All night long, she tricks her mind into believing she is not alone in the bed but with a man. And while he may not exactly be a real man, he has dimension. He possess the bodily proportions of a real man—meaning, of course, that he is made up of more than air. She finds that Finch is more satisfying than either Alexander or Tab.

In the middle of the morning Mr. Frizzell summons Marceline to his office and gestures for her to sit in the chair in front of her desk.

“I’m going to ask you a question,” Mr. Frizzell says, “and I want you to tell me the truth.”

She smiles, wishing she could stub out her cigarette on his veiny nose.

“Have you been stealing property belonging to Ivan-Bello?”

“Why would I do that?” she asks.

He sighs, folding his pudgy hands on the desk in front of him. “Somebody saw you leaving the building with one of our mannequins.”

Who was it?”

“It doesn’t matter who it was.”

“I’ll bet it was Miss Arlette, wasn’t it?”

“I doesn’t matter who. Did you steal one of our mannequins?”

“No, I didn’t steal it.”

“But you took it?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I wanted it.”

“To sell?”

“No, not to sell.”

“For what, then?”

“I wanted it.”

“It’s company property. We can’t have people stealing from the company. It’s grounds for immediate dismissal.”

“You’re firing me?”

“You have the rest of the day to say your goodbyes.”

It’s a little early for lunch, but she goes immediately to the employee lunchroom and buys a sandwich and a bottle of pop and takes them up to the mannequin storage room.

She knows she will not be seeing the mannequins again, so she says goodbye to as many of them as she can. She tenders an apology to the room in general and then smokes the last cigarette she will ever be smoking in the place.

All the way in back of the huge storage room are some old barrels containing papers, books, cloth samples and mannequin clothing. She picks up a little wedge of wood and lights the end of it with her cigarette lighter and throws it into one of the barrels. She isn’t sure if the fire will take hold or not, but after she leaves the building and goes home for the last time she doesn’t give it much thought.

The next morning she gets out of bed and dresses for work at the usual time, careful not to disturb Finch in the bed. She has her cup of scalding tea, gives mother a tiny goodbye peck on the cheek and walks the three short blocks to catch the downtown bus.

The bus can only go so far. It’s four blocks or so from her destination when it becomes snarled in traffic. Rather than waiting for the traffic problem to resolve it, she gets off the bus and walks the rest of the way.

Right away she notices the stench of burning.

Ivan-Bello has been burning all night long and has just about burned itself out. While the outside walls still mostly stand, all the floors, from six on down, appear to have collapsed in on each other. Police keep onlookers back at a safe distance.

As Marceline stands with dozens of other people and watches the fire, she is thankful for many things, not the least of which is that Ivan-Bello is no more. More importantly, however, mother and Finch are safe at home and she’ll see them again in just a little while and the three of them will be together forever.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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Lamented

Lamented ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

A child’s life in school is a continuous round of simple commands: stand up, sit down, go out, come in, open the book, close the book, stop talking, start reading, don’t run, spell the word, solve the problem, go to recess, come in from recess, go to lunch, come back from lunch, don’t copy your answers from your neighbor, write legibly, don’t knock anybody down on the playground, don’t press anybody’s fingers back the wrong way, don’t stand up in the swing, don’t lie to me, don’t spread disease germs, use the bathroom when you’re supposed to and don’t wet your pants.

Recess was over and all the children came back into the room quietly and took their seats. Looking out over the ten-year-old faces, Miss Snow saw that one piece of the mosaic was missing. On the outer row of desks, next to the wall, third seat from the front, the space ordinarily occupied by Ella Ruffin was without a face and without a body.

“Does anybody know where Ella Ruffin is?” Miss Snow asked.

No answer.

“Did anybody see Ella?”

“She was sitting out on the playground when the bell rang,” Kay Hood said.

“Why was she doing that?”

“I don’t know, Miss Snow.”

“All right, everybody open your social studies books to page thirty-eight and begin reading the chapter on Peru. I’m going outside for a minute and see if anything has happened to Ella.”

She was sitting all alone at the corner of the playground, a tiny, frail child in a vast expanse of asphalt.

“Didn’t you hear the bell?” Miss Snow said.

“I heard it,” Ella said.

“What’s the matter? You’re not sick, are you?”

“No, I’m not sick.”

“Well, come back inside, then. We’re just starting social studies.”

“I can’t get up,” Ella said.

“Why not? Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m not hurt. It’s worse than that.”

“Ella, I haven’t got all day! What is the matter with you?”

“I wet my pants.”

“Oh, Ella! Why didn’t you go to the restroom when everybody else went?”

“I didn’t have to go then.”

“Do you want me to bring you some paper towels?”

“No.”

“You can’t sit there all day. Come on inside and we’ll get you cleaned up.”

“I’m not getting up.”

“Why not?”

“After I peed in my pants, I did the other. You know. I pooted in my pants. It was an accident. I sneezed and it just happened.”

“You go on home, then, and get yourself cleaned up. You’re excused for the rest of the day.”

“I can’t go home. There’s nobody there. The door’s locked and I don’t have a key.”

“Do you want me to call your mother?”

“She’s in Atlantic City.”

“What about your father?”

“He’s been drunk for three days.”

“Don’t you have an older sister?”

“She’s in the hospital with vaginal bleeding.”

“I’ll go get the school nurse and she’ll bring a big towel to tie around your waist and she’ll take you back to her office and get you cleaned up.”

“No, I’m not getting up. I’m too embarrassed.”

“Ella, there’s no reason to be embarrassed. It was an accident. Everybody has accidents.”

“How many people have you known of that’ve peed in their pants at school and then pooted on top of it?”

“All right. We all have embarrassing moments. We’ll get it straightened out.”

“People will laugh at me when they see what I did.”

“No, they won’t. Nobody will even know.”

“They already know. They were talking about it.”

“Who was?”

“Certain people.”

“You can’t sit there. It’s going to rain. Just look at the sky. If you can’t go home now, you’re going to have to come inside. Come on in now and we’ll get you cleaned up.”

“I think I’d just rather sit here for a while.”

“Ella, I’m responsible for you and I can’t just let you sit out here by yourself during school hours.”

“I’ll be all right. When school’s over, I’ll go home just like I always do. If you would be so kind as to have somebody bring me my coat, that’s all I ask. It’s yellow. It’s hanging in the cloak room next to the fire extinguisher.”

“Well, all right. I guess I can do that. But if it starts to rain, you come back inside, do you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If nothing else, go to the girls’ restroom on the first floor and wait it out. Nobody will see you.”

“I will.”

Miss Snow went back upstairs to her classroom and put Ella Ruffin out of her mind for the time being. In a half-hour or so, the sky turned dark and the wind blew briskly from the southwest. The rain began lightly at first and then came down in torrents. The windows had to be closed and the lights turned on.

When Miss Snow’s eyes were once again drawn to Ella Ruffin’s empty desk, she remembered something she was supposed to do. What was it? Oh, yes. She was going to have somebody take Ella’s coat down to her, the yellow one hanging in the cloak room next to the fire extinguisher, but she somehow forgot. Poor Ella. A little girl outside in a rainstorm without a coat. She’d probably end up with a terrible cold, at the very least.

A lightning strike that shook the building to its foundations caused the lights to go out. Miss Snow knew that nobody was going to learn anything as long as the storm kept up, so she told everybody they could close their books and sit quiet as mice and not make any kind of disturbance. A few of the children were nervous and worried about the storm, but most of them were excited and couldn’t sit still. They hoped that school would be called off for the rest of the day and they would be released into the wild like a bunch of captive birds.

The children jabbered among themselves and Miss Snow let them do as they pleased as long as they didn’t make too much noise. The other fourth grade class across the hall was not making a sound; likewise the fifth grade classes down the hall.

Miss Snow stood up from her desk and went to the window, hoping to see some sign that the storm was dissipating, but there was no indication at all that their old school building and everybody in it was going to be saved from annihilation by lightning and thunder. From her third-floor perch, she could see the playground, but not clearly.

Water had collected at one side of the gently sloping playground, as it always did during a heavy rain. Gravity forced the water into a trough where it ran off into storm drains.

She was going to turn away from the window and go back to her desk when she saw something that arrested her attention. In the rushing water that had collected and was running off, she thought she saw a small, shabby, blonde girl in a plaid dress, face down, arms out, being carried along in the torrent. She couldn’t be sure of what she saw and when she strained to get a better view she decided that what she had seen was a clump of old newspaper.

When the rain let up a little and the sky became lighter, the lights still hadn’t come back on, so the principal, Mr. Murtaugh, sent word to all the classes that school was suspended for the day and everybody could go home or could go to the devil if that’s what they wanted.

Miss Snow dismissed her class and they left, eagerly, in a happy, holiday mood. She herself was relieved that another day was over, another week, and for two days and nights she wouldn’t have to give school a single thought.

In the night she woke up thinking about poor little Ella Ruffin. She hoped she had made her way home in the storm and hadn’t caught a cold. She probably should have insisted that Ella come inside, not matter how embarrassed she was. And maybe she should have called for help when she thought (or imagined) that she saw Ella’s body floating in the runoff water during the storm, but she didn’t, and in those situations it’s best not to think about it anymore. She was sure it all worked out for the best.

Monday morning was a new day. The sun was shining and the air cool and fresh. As teachers and students alike arrived at school, they all heard the sad news.

Ella Ruffin had been found dead in the river, several miles away from the school. Nobody knew how she came to be there. Police were not ruling out the possibility that she had been abducted by a madman, sexually molested and killed, and her body dumped into the river.

The police came to the school and asked Miss Snow a myriad of questions. Did the little girl leave school before she was supposed to? What was she wearing? Did Miss Snow notice anybody suspicious-looking near the school that day? What kind of family did the little girl have?

Miss Snow told them all she knew. Ella lived outside of town on a farm, or what used to be a farm. The family was poor and there were many children, who often came to school dirty and poorly clothed. Ella usually kept to herself and didn’t mix much with the other children. She wore ragged clothes and always seemed sad and underfed. You couldn’t look at her without feeling sorry.

When all their questions had been satisfied, the police left and Miss Snow took a deep breath and hoped she wouldn’t have to speak to them again. The whole thing was too distasteful to even talk about.

The class took up a collection for a floral tribute for Ella. The entire fourth grade class attended the funeral, including Miss Snow. Ella wore a white dress with a white ribbon in her hair and a spray of white flowers in her hands. Since the family was without funds, an anonymous benefactor from town paid all expenses.

On a certain day a few days later, Miss Snow arrived at school early, before anybody else was there. She had some work to do that she wanted to get done before her students arrived.

She turned on the lights and opened some of the windows to air out the room and then she sat down at her desk and started working. A slight stir in the room caused her to look up and when she did she saw Ella Ruffin sitting at her usual desk on the outside aisle, third row from the front.

The apparition seemed so real that she spoke to it.

“Ella,” she said, “what are you doing there?”

But, of course, there was no answer. Ella just kept working, kept writing, and Miss Snow knew from the way she looked that she wasn’t really there, or, anyway, not in any physical sense. She wore the white dress and the white ribbon in her hair. She was altogether clean, something she had never been in life, and, not only clean, but glowing with a kind of radiance.

“Ella, how are you?” Miss Snow spoke again. “I was very worried about you.”

Ella did not look up or acknowledge Miss Snow in any way. She continued to write and in a little while she became dim and disappeared as if she had never been there at all.

When Miss Snow’s students arrived, she had everybody pitch in and clean out Ella’s desk, throw away any old papers, and turn in her textbooks. Then they took some cleanser and wet paper towels and gave the desk and its seat a good cleaning from top to bottom. When they were finished the desk gleamed. She then pushed it out into the hallway for the janitor to pick up and put in the storeroom for when a spare desk was needed.

The next time Miss Snow saw Ella, she was floating up near the ceiling, as if floating was the most natural thing in the world for her to do. She floated on her stomach and when Miss Snow became aware that she was there, she turned over and floated on her back and made her way out of the room that way.

Finally Miss Snow believed that Ella was taunting her in a way and she wanted it to stop. One afternoon after everybody had gone home and Miss Snow was still at her desk, she looked up and there saw Ella standing a few feet away looking at her.

“Did you want something, Ella?” she asked. “Can I do something for you? I think you need to go on to wherever you’re supposed to be and not hang around here anymore. It’s not healthy for you or for me.”

Ella made no reply.

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Miss Snow said, “but, really, considering the circumstances of your miserable life, don’t you think you’re better off where you are now? I know it’s not your fault, but your mother and father ought to be ashamed of themselves for having more children than they could reasonably take care of.”

Still no reply.

“I’m going to go home now, Ella, and I want you to know that this is the last time we’ll be seeing each other. I won’t see you again, Ella. Do you understand what I’m saying? You’re going to have to quit haunting me or whatever it is you’re doing because it’s not helping either of us.”

Ella smiled blandly and faded into the air, as if she had never been there at all.

It was Thursday before Easter. School was closed for Good Friday, so Miss Snow was going out of town for a couple of days, up to the small town where her parents and her retarded sister lived. She went home and packed her suitcase and collected her mail and set out in her car, glad for the chance to get away for a while.

After she had driven for an hour or so, it began to rain; a light rain at first and then a pounding, punishing rain. She turned on her wipers and headlights and cringed when the lightning ripped the sky. She turned on the radio and found some soothing jazz music to calm her nerves.

It was an old country road, curvy and hilly. She had to watch every second because it was fully dark now and the road was unpredictable: a hilltop curve followed by a precipitous drop as if you were skating off the side of a mountain, followed by a curve in the other direction and then a climb up a steep hill with woods on both sides.

Once when the lightning flashed, Miss Snow realized she wasn’t alone in the car. In the passenger seat beside her was Ella Ruffin. When Miss Snow became aware of her presence, she realized that Ella had her head turned slightly and was listening to the music on the radio.

“Don’t you like this music, Ella?” Miss Snow said. “Do you want me to find another station?”

While she was turning the knob on the radio, she came to a low place in the road where water was flowing across. It was so dark she couldn’t so how far the water went and she had no way of knowing how deep it was, but she was tired and impatient and couldn’t stand the thought of anything holding her up. She drove into the water, hoping against hope that it wasn’t too deep to drive through, and when she had driven a hundred feet or so, the water drowned out the engine. She tried to restart it, but it showed no signs of life.

“What do I do now, Ella?” she said.

But when she turned to her right in the dark she saw that Ella was no longer there.

Believing she had no other choice, she opened the car door and when she did the cold water rushed in and covered her feet. Shivering, she stepped out into water up to her knees. When she was leaning back into the car to get her purse and some papers, a wall of water she never saw came out of the darkness and overtook her and knocked her down. She struggled the best she could, flailing arms and legs, but the water carried her away and she was dead in a matter of minutes. Her body was found three days later a couple of miles away, bloated and unrecognizable.

Miss Snow’s fourth grade class took up a collection to buy her a floral tribute to go alongside her closed casket. The entire fourth grade class attended her funeral, accompanied by their newly hired teacher, a fat lady named Mrs. Bertha Boykin, who was nothing like—looked nothing like—the late and lamented Miss Snow.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

You Can Leave Any Time

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You Can Leave Any Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Jenks arrived for her appointment with Dr. Capers on time. She gave her name to the inscrutable Asian nurse and took a seat in the dreary waiting room where everything was gray—gray walls, gray floor, gray chairs. She hated her visits to the doctor, always made worse by having to wait. She would rather dig in the dirt with her fingernails than sit and wait her turn.

Underneath the No Smoking sign on the wall opposite, somebody had written, in large block letters, the word PUSSY. Mrs. Jenks’s eyes traveled from the obscene word to the faces of the only other two people in the room, a man and a woman, obviously a married couple. With her wide painted mouth and curly red hairdo, the woman resembled a circus clown. The man, with his bow tie, protruding ears, long neck, and wooden-like bald head with a tuft of hair on top, resembled nothing so much as a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The circus clown looked at Mrs. Jenks and smiled, showing horse-like teeth. “How you today?” she asked.

Mrs. Jenks managed a tight smile but, in an attempt to forestall any conversation, picked up a battered copy of Popular Mechanics and pretended to be engrossed in its contents.

“Who you talking to?” the ventriloquist’s dummy asked.

“We’re not alone,” the circus clown said, nudging the ventriloquist’s dummy with her elbow.

The ventriloquist’s dummy looked at Mrs. Jenks over the top of his glasses; his lips drew back in a grimace.

“Oh, hello!” he said. “I thought we were alone.”

“We’ve been here over an hour,” the circus clown said, “and in all that time there hasn’t been a single person go in or come out. You have to wonder what in the holy hell those people are doing back there.”

“Doctors are busy,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“That’s no excuse! They need to have a little more consideration for the patient.”

You’re not the patient,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “I am.”

“Oh, excuse the hell out of me! If you’re the patient, then why am I here?”

“You can leave any time.”

The circus clown looked at Mrs. Jenks and rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that just like a man?” she said. “He’s too much of a baby to go see the doctor on his own. I have to take him as if he’s a tiny child.”

“I’m a sick man,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “I need you to help me in case I falter.”

The circus clown pursed her lips and blew out a stream of air in derision. “You are so full of it!” she said. “If anybody falters, it going to be me!”

“Let’s not fight in front of this lady,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“Nobody’s fighting,” the circus clown said.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”

“My panties are perfectly fine. You don’t need to worry yourself about my panties.”

The ventriloquist’s dummy made a sound with his lips like fshaw-fshaw-fshaw that Mrs. Jenks realized was laughing.

“No, honestly,” the circus clown said, “my husband isn’t right in the head at all. I guess you can tell that just by looking at him.”

“This lady doesn’t want to hear about my troubles,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“He has fits and fainting spells. Have you ever been sitting across from a person at the dinner table and have them faint on you and end up with their face in the mashed potatoes and gravy? The first time it happened I thought he was dead. Every time it happened after that I thought he was just being an ass, so I ignored him. When he came to—or pretended to come to—I told him to get up and quit acting like an infant and clean up the mess he made.”

“Nobody wants to hear all that!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“When they had him in the hospital, they did every test known to man and—do you know what?—they couldn’t find a thing wrong with him. It should be obvious to any five-year-old child that there’s something terribly wrong with this man! What is the matter with these people?”

“Doctors! the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “They only do all that shit so they can charge you a lot of money.”

“Well, anyway, getting back to my story,” the circus clown said. “When he was three years old he was kicked down an elevator shaft and landed on his head. I think that is the root of all his troubles! Those doctors don’t need to look any farther than that! He’s never been right in the head since he was three years old.”

“You didn’t even know me then,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“He can’t drive a car anymore so I have to take him to the doctor or the grocery store or anyplace else he wants to go. It’s as if I have no life of my own because I have to take care of this adult-sized baby!”

“You’re welcome to go any time,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

Mrs. Jenks sighed and stood up and went over to the little sliding window to the receptionist’s area and rattled it to get the attention of whoever might be on the other side.

“Yes?” the Asian nurse said, sliding back the glass, obviously annoyed at being bothered.

“Is Dr. Capers even in?” Mrs. Jenks asked.

“Well, of course he in,” the Asian nurse said. “What you think?”

“It’s taking him an awfully long time.”

“He in. Just take seat and wait turn. He see you shortly.”

“These people are driving me crazy,” Mrs. Jenks said in what she hoped was a soft voice so that only the Asian nurse could hear.

The Asian nurse looked over Mrs. Jenks’s shoulder disinterestedly to see who she was talking about. “Just be oh-so patient,” she said. “Take seat and wait turn.”

“What did that slanty-eyed son-of-a-bitch say?” the ventriloquist’s dummy asked Mrs. Jenks as she sat back down.

“Nothing that helps.”

“I’d like to slap her silly!”

And suddenly Mrs. Jenks had a warm feeling for the ventriloquist’s dummy because she was thinking the very same thing.

“Honestly!” the circus clown said. “I feel like sending them a bill for all my time they’ve wasted. They need to realize my time is as valuable as theirs.”

“I’m just on the verge of walking out the door and telling them to kiss my ass!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“We’ve waited this long,” the circus clown said. “We’ll give it a few more minutes.”

“Let’s set this place on fire!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“You can’t do that!” the circus clown said. “There’s nothing here that would burn.”

“Magazines!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“And how long do you think it’d be before they call the police and have you arrested for arson?”

“I’ll be gone by then.”

“See how crazy he is?” the circus clown said to Mrs. Jenks. “He thinks he can go around setting fires and everybody will think it’s all right.”

“They need to be taught a lesson,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“You can’t do it that way!” the circus clown said. “If they take you to jail, it’ll be up to me to figure out a way to get you out! And I might just decide to leave you there!”

Ignoring the circus clown, the ventriloquist’s dummy began gathering up the old magazines and piling them on the floor in the middle of the room. Some he ripped apart and others he opened up and tossed upside down so they would burn better. When he had a knee-high pile of magazines, he took out his cigarette lighter and set fire to them.

The fire was just beginning to burn efficiently when the Asian nurse opened a door from within and stepped into the waiting room.

“No fire allow in doctor waiting room,” she said, without a change in her mask-like face.

“Oh, my!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “It’s getting out of control, isn’t it?”

He stomped out the flames with both feet and looked at the Asian nurse with a guilty smile. “Just having a little fun!” he said.

“Doctor leave, big hurry,” the Asian nurse said, ignoring the smoke from the magazines. “He go out on biiiiig emergency.”

“Is he invisible?” the circus clown asked. “We didn’t see him leave.”

“Private entrance back of building,” the Asian nurse said.

“I don’t think he was ever even here,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “I think they’re just screwing with us.”

“You’ll be getting a bill from me for my time that you’ve wasted today,” the circus clown said.

“Doctor say you call again next week. Have a nice day! Bye-bye!

“Well, how do you like that?” the circus clown said. “He’s wasted all our time today and we never even laid eyes on him!”

“Terrible way to treat people!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

Mrs. Jenks wasted no time in getting out of the building, away from the circus clown and the ventriloquist’s dummy. She was fuming because she didn’t like Dr. Capers anyway, and this was absolutely the last time she would ever go to him. Who does he think he is, anyway? He’s not the only doctor in the world!

She was just getting into her car when the circus clown ran up behind her.

“I wonder,” the circus clown said, “if you could give us a ride. You see, our car broke down and we’re just stuck here.”

“Where are you going?” Mrs. Jenks asked.

“Burkhardt.”

“I’m not going to Burkhardt,” Mrs. Jenks said. “That’s fifty miles away.”

“So much for the milk of human kindness.”

“Can’t you call a taxi?”

“Do you know how much that would cost?”

“No, and I don’t care. I’m sorry for your troubles but we all have them.”

“I’m sorry to do this to you, honey,” the circus clown said. “You seem like a nice enough woman, but we’re going to take your car.”

What?”

The ventriloquist’s dummy handed a gun to the circus clown and the circus clown pointed the gun at Mrs. Jenks.

“What is this?” Mrs. Jenks said. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Either we take your car, or I shoot you and we throw your body in the river. Nobody would ever know how it got there.”

“You must be out of your mind,” Mrs. Jenks said. “I’m not letting you take my car. You’ll have to kill me first.”

The circus clown pointed the gun at Mrs. Jenks. “You think I won’t shoot you?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think you will.”

But, instead of shooting her, the circus clown hit Mrs. Jenks with the gun, on the side of the head, just above the ear, with enough force to crack a coconut.

Mrs. Jenks was just aware of the circus clown and the ventriloquist’s dummy getting into her car and driving away with a squeal of tires. Time seemed to slow down as she fell backwards. The blow to the back of the head, coupled with the blow to the side of the head, rendered her unconscious there on the abandoned parking lot of Dr. Capers’ clinic.

When she regained consciousness, it was almost dark. She was aware of pains all through her body but especially her head. She pulled herself to a sitting position and looked around for someone who might tell her what had happened, but saw no one. She stood up then, took a few halting steps, and began walking in the direction of the most beautiful faraway lights she had ever seen.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

I Had a Bone

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I Had a Bone ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

August had to look away as his father moved Mrs. Bone around the dance floor, weaving in and out among the other fools like a couple of mechanical dolls. His father, looking like an undertaker in his conservative blue suit, clutched Mrs. Bone to him as if he thought she might try to get away.

Something about them as a pair was all out of proportion. He was six inches taller than she was, but she was much wider. She wore a dress that exposed far too much of her body for a woman her age; her bare arms were massively flabby and white. The heels of her shoes were so high she walked like a tightrope walker.

When they returned from dancing, father pulled Mrs. Bone’s chair out for her and she turned and gave him a sweet smile before she sat down. He could be quite the gentleman when he wanted to be.

“Oh, my, that was fun, wasn’t it!” Mrs. Bone said. “We need to do that more often!” She picked up her martini and gulped it down.

“Not as young as I once was,” father said, breathing heavily and straightening his tie.

Mrs. Bone took a cigarette out of her bag; father lit it for her dutifully. “Would you like to dance with me, August?” she asked.

“I don’t know how,” he said.

“I can show you. It’s easy.”

“No, thank you.”

“You need to learn sometime.”

“I wouldn’t push it if I were you,” father said. “August is not exactly the dancing type.”

“Oh, I see!” Mrs. Bone said, looking confused.

“While you were dancing I was wondering something, Mrs. Bone,” August said.

“Yes?” Mrs. Bone said brightly, obviously pleased that August was interested enough to address her directly and ask a question.

“Where is your husband? Where is Mr. Bone? Did he die?”

“August!” father said. “That’s enough!”

“What did I say?”

“That’s not a question you need to be asking.”

“It’s all right,” Mrs. Bone said. “Of course he’s curious. I’m not a widow, August. Mr. Bone and I were divorced five years ago.”

“Don’t most divorced women go back to the name they had before they were married?”

“Some do, I suppose. I didn’t because I have three children. They naturally kept their father’s name and it would have been confusing for me to have a different name.”

“Oh. Well, where are they now? Your children, I mean.”

“They’re staying with their aunt this evening.”

“That’s enough questions, August!” father said.

“No, it’s all right,” Mrs. Bone said equably. “We’re just getting acquainted.”

“Are they boys or girls?”

“I have three lovely daughters.”

She’s running true to form, August thought. So typical, so conventional, right on down the line. After being in her company for ten minutes, you know everything there is to know about her.

“My youngest, Bitsy, is eight. Then Charlaine is eleven. Evie, my eldest, is fourteen, the same age as you.”

“I’m fifteen,” August said.

“Oh, yes, you recently had a birthday, didn’t you?”

Mrs. Bone was on her fourth martini and, while August didn’t know much about drinking, he knew it was starting to affect her behavior. She had a silly grin on her face; he found himself thinking that if somebody were to slap her across the mouth, really hard, the grin would still be there.

“They’re lovely children,” father said. Only August heard the insincerity in his voice.

“I’m so proud of them,” Mrs. Bone said. “And I can’t wait for you to meet them, August. I’ve told them all about you.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Well, they’ve met your father and they’re naturally curious about you.”

“That’s funny, because I’m not the least bit curious about them.”

Father gave him a warning look and Mrs. Bone laughed merrily. Father was going to reprimand August for his tactlessness, but just then the waiter arrived with their dinner on a big tray.

Before they ate, father ordered a bottle of the “best” champagne. He and Mrs. Bone drank it like water, on top of the martinis they had already had.

While August ate his fried chicken and au gratin potatoes, he stole little glances at Mrs. Bone. She ate her lobster thermidor like a starving lumberjack, butter sauce dripping down her chin. For several minutes she said nothing as she stuffed the food into her mouth.

“Oh, this is such a lovely place!” she gushed. “I’m so glad we came!”

“The food is certainly good,” father said.

After he finished his steak, father and Mrs. Bone danced again. When they returned to the table after their dance, father was pale and sweating.

“I’m going outside to get some fresh air,” he said.

“Do you want me to come with you, honey?” Mrs. Bone asked.

“No, you stay here and keep August company.”

After father left, Mrs. Bone turned to August and smiled. She was drunk and her lipstick was smeared almost up to her nose from her dinner. “So, August,” she said, “tell me about yourself. What do you like to do when you’re not in school?”

“Well, in addition to trying to reanimate the dead, I like deep-sea diving and competitive knife-throwing.”

“Oh, you sly boots!” she said. “I know you’re joshing me! Your father told me all about your over-active imagination.”

“Do you know my mother committed suicide?”

“Yes, I believe your father mentioned that fact.”

“She was emotionally disturbed.”

“That’s so sad.”

“I was in the sixth grade. I found her when I came home from school. She was hanging from a rafter in the garage. It was Halloween so when I first saw her I thought she was a Halloween decoration. I called for an ambulance but of course it was too late. She had been dead for hours.”

“That must have been so difficult for you. Not only losing your mother that way, but for you to be the one to find her.”

“Yes, it was difficult. I’ve been a difficult boy ever since, and when I’m grown up I’ll be a difficult man.”

“I’m so sorry for you.”

“Oh, don’t be. I’m fine.”

“I wonder if I should go check on your father. He was awfully pale.”

“Oh, no, he’s fine, I’m sure. He’ll find somebody out there to have a smoke with and forget about us for ten or fifteen minutes.”

“I think your father needs a woman in his life,” Mrs. Bone said. “A man without a woman is just a boat adrift at sea.”

“Did you know he’s a homosexual?”

“What?”

“Are you not aware that my father is a homosexual?”

“Why, no! He hasn’t mentioned anything like that to me.”

“No, he wouldn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think it’s why my mother killed herself. He preferred man love to her love.”

“This is not just another figment of your imagination, is it?”

“Are you implying I’d make something like that up?”

“I’m not implying anything, but I’d like to find out for myself if it’s true or not.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Would he tell me if I did?”

“Probably not. He’d say he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, if it’s true, it’s a dirty trick to play on me.”

“I don’t think he looks at it that way.”

“I might thank you later for telling me,” Mrs. Bone said, “or I might not.”

When father came back to the table, he was ashen and seemed barely able to stand on his feet. “Too much to drink,” he said. “I’m not feeling well. I need to go home and lie down.”

Mrs. Bone stood up. “Do you need to see a doctor?” she asked.

“No, I’ll be fine as soon as I get home.”

Father paid the check and they went outside to the car. Mrs. Bone offered to drive home, but father said he could make it. He drove to Mrs. Bone’s dark house and parked the car out front and turned off the engine.

“You don’t have to walk me to my door,” Mrs. Bone said.

“I will, anyway. There might be some evildoers lurking in the bushes.”

“What?”

“Nothing. I don’t know what I’m saying.”

August sat in the back seat and waited while father escorted Mrs. Bone to the door. He was only gone for a couple of minutes and when he came back he said nothing.

When they got home, August went into his room and changed into his pajamas and got into bed and started reading. He could hear father retching in the bathroom until he went to sleep.

In the morning August was sitting in the kitchen eating toast and corn flakes when father came down from upstairs wearing only his bathrobe. He set about making himself some coffee.

“Do you feel all right now?” August asked.

“I think so. I got all the liquor purged from my system. If I had thought, I would have known that six martinis topped off with large quantities of champagne would make me sick.”

“Glad you’re feeling better.”

“What did you think of Ida?”

“Who?”

“Mrs. Bone.”

“Her name is Ida Bone?”

“That’s right.”

“Ida Bone. I had a bone.”

“What did you think of her?”

“I didn’t like her.”

“Why not?”

“Her perfume smells like the stuff they use at school to clean vomit up off the floor.”

“That’s not a good enough reason for not liking her.”

“Well, I think she’s a phony. She tries to look younger than she is and she gives me the creeps. She looks like a pig in drag.”

“That’s not very nice.”

“What did you say to her last night in the restaurant while I was away from the table?”

“Nothing. Small talk. She asked me what I like to do in my spare time.”

“You weren’t rude to her?”

“Of course not.”

“When I dropped her off at her house last night she acted funny. She seemed to want to get away from me. She slammed the door in my face and didn’t even say good night.”

“I think you can cross her off the list and go on to the next one.”

“There is no ‘next one’. I think I’m done with trying to find a substitute for your mother.”

“Fine by me,” August said. He looked at his father to see if he was going to say more, but he just sighed and sat down wearily at the table.

“I’m going to be gone until Monday night,” father said.

“Where are you going?”

“To the lake with Tom and Brett. They asked me, so I figured ‘why not’.”

“Brett is the one with the black beard?”

“Yeah.”

“You like him?”

“Yeah, I like him.”

“Do you like him a lot?”

“What are you saying, August?”

“Nothing.”

“Will you be all right here by yourself?”

“Sure, I love having the house to myself.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I have to read a book for English and write a report.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“I’ll manage to work in some fun.”

When father went upstairs to get ready to leave at noon, August felt a sense of accomplishment, of a job well done. He had played the situation with Mrs. Bone like a virtuoso. He was sure now that father would never want to see her again, and he would have bet all his money, if he had any, that Mrs. Bone was finished with father. He turned on the TV and lay down on the couch. A movie that he wanted to see was just starting. He’d watch it through to the end, and, after that, the possibilities for enjoyment were limitless.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Ask Satan Anything

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Ask Satan Anything ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The year is 1933 and the time late summer. The sleepy town of Hartwell sits on the edge of the windblown prairie. For three nights out of the year, the town is touched by magic, excitement and mystery. The carnival is in town.

The beautiful lights of the Ferris wheel can be seen a mile away. The merry-go-round never stops—music, lights and dizzying motion, a magic all its own. A clown in pajamas of red polka dots, smile painted on, shoes a foot-and-a-half long, walks among the crowds selling balloons—only five cents apiece. In that tent over there you can have your fortune told by an old gypsy hag with missing teeth and a crystal ball. Feeling lucky tonight? Try your luck at one of the games of skill. After you’ve won all the prizes and amazed everybody with your dexterity and strength, step this way and have a delicious hot dog, a bag of peanuts, a Coca-Cola, or a cardboard wand covered with pink cotton candy. And the smells all mixed in together are wonderful. How can you be here and not feel happy to be alive?

The freak show is a popular attraction. People line up to buy tickets to see the thousand-pound woman, the eight-foot-tall man, the lobster girl, the octopus boy, the pin head, the Siamese twins, the human alligator, the walking skeleton, the cobra woman, the bird girl, the albino midgets, and the two-headed baby floating in a jar of formaldehyde.

This year a new attraction has been added, something new and altogether different. For ten measly cents, you can meet Satan. Live and in person! And, not only that, you can ask him any question your heart desires. Haven’t you always want to talk to Satan, to ask him anything? Now’s your chance!

All the seats are taken. The show is about to begin. And let us say a word or two about the people in the audience. They are of all kinds: young and old, male and female, farmers in overalls and their wives in sack dresses, town ladies with painted faces and feathered hats, business men and their hatchet-faced wives, pimple-faced teenage boys ogling women as old as seventy, secretaries who work in stifling offices during the day and forfend the sexual advances of men old enough to be their grandfathers, mill workers who never learned to read but pretend otherwise, saints and sinners, whores and liars, extortionists and embezzlers, people who would sell their own grandmother to the highest bidder. They all have one thing in common: they all want to meet Satan.

Ellis Crumshaw sits on the aisle about halfway back. He has a child’s face in a man’s body. He is twenty but could pass for fifteen. He used to sleep nights and digest his food without any trouble, but now he is in a lot of trouble. He has asked God to help him but God seems not to be listening. He has nowhere left to turn. Satan might be the answer.

He has been seeing a country girl named Nonnie Lowbridge. She’s thirty if she’s a day and might be thirty-three. She says she’s going to have a baby and that Ellis Crumshaw is the father. He has been with her three times. It’s possible he’s the father but he doesn’t believe he is. He knows from hearing other people talk that she would invite any man into the barn and lift up her skirts for him, whether she knows the man or not.

Nonnie Lowbridge is insisting that Ellis Crumshaw marry her, and fast, before people can see the baby swelling in her stomach. If he doesn’t marry her, she says, she will not only get her brothers to beat the shit out of him, but she will go to the police and tell them he forced himself on her. For that, he will go to the penitentiary for the rest of his life for taking advantage of a poor country girl and leaving her with a bastard baby. The other prisoners will use him for a punching bag when they find out what he did and will probably kill him, not quick but slow.

Ellis doesn’t want to marry Nonnie Lowbridge, but he is certain he doesn’t want to go to prison, either. He has seen I Was a Prisoner from a Chain Gang and The Big House and he knows he’d probably last only a day or two behind bars. He has thought about pushing Nonnie Lowbridge off the bridge into the river, but he is certain somebody would see him and he would end up in prison for murder, which must be a lot worse than being in prison for forcing yourself on a girl and leaving her with a bastard baby. He has thought about killing himself but he doesn’t have the nerve. As the saying goes, he is between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The show, as we said, is about to begin. The people are quiet, waiting. If anybody speaks at all, it is in a low voice and only a word or two. The chairs face a little stage with a heavy curtain. A light at the bottom of the curtain shines upward and is the only illumination; all other lights have been dimmed. What is going on behind the curtain is anybody’s guess.

After a few bars of recorded violin music, the curtain opens. An old man sits on the stage in a rocking chair smoking a cigarette. His hair is sparse and white. He wears a black suit and an old-fashioned string tie. He regards the people in the audience with a smile and a slight nod, continuing to smoke the cigarette. There’s a snigger or two from the audience and somebody coughs. This is not what people have expected.

The old man continues to draw on his cigarette for a minute or two as if he has all night and then he addresses the audience.

“You are all familiar with me,” he says in a strong, clear voice. “I’m standing by your side when you tell a lie or when you call your neighbor a dirty swine or when you cheat on a test in school; when you’re fornicating with a person you’re not married to or when you steal your neighbor’s newspaper; when you see your wife’s fat ass and it makes you think of some other woman, maybe the preacher’s wife or your son’s second-grade teacher; when you wish your chattering mother-in-law would take the gas pipe; when you cause a deliberate dent in your brother’s Ford because you’re jealous that he has a new car and you don’t. I am everywhere. From the moment you open your eyes on this world, I am there to catch you when you fall.”

He pauses and draws the smoke from the cigarette down into his lungs.

“After those brief introductory remarks,” he says. “I will now take questions from the audience.”

His deep-set eyes scan from left to right and back again. He holds the cigarette up near his face and smiles. Anybody paying any attention sees that the cigarette doesn’t burn down the way a cigarette always does but stays the same as if it has just been freshly lighted.

“Any questions?” he asks again, to spur the audience along.

“Where’s your pitchfork?” someone asks.

“It’s in your eye or in your back or wherever I want it to be,” the old man says. “Always at the ready.”

“How old are you?” someone asks.

“I am older than the human race. I was the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to partake of the forbidden fruit. She fell readily and then she took Adam with her, thus resulting in the sorry state of the human race forever after. Be ever mindful of the role Eve plays in the Downfall of Man.

“I was Cain, who killed Able. I was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver. I was the Emperor Nero who partied by the light of burning Christians. I was Napoleon Bonaparte, who tore Europe asunder with his mad ambition and military adventuring. I was every despot since the beginning of man who trod on the backs of the masses. I am everywhere, in every age. If you have been told in your religious training that God is everywhere, you must know that I also am everywhere.”

“I don’t believe you’re really Satan,” someone says. “You just look like a tired old man to me.”

He stands up from the chair, takes two steps to the left, raises his arm and from the end of his finger discharges a red-and-yellow fireball into the air that flashes for an instant and then dissipates, leaving a sulfurous smell. Everybody in the audience jumps, screams, gasps, or does all three.

“Now that I have your attention,” the old man says as he reseats himself, “are there any other questions?”

“What does the future hold for us?” someone asks.

“The future for the human race will be a tableau of chaos and confusion, bloodshed and warfare, anarchy and wholesale death. Any other questions?”

“What did you say when God kicked you out of heaven?”

Goddamn it all to hell.”

“Why doesn’t God just kick the crap out of you once and for all and be done with it? After all, He’s God. He can do whatever he wants.”

The old man laughs. “He won’t do that. Then He wouldn’t have any more sport with me.”

“Could you ask Him to forgive you and take you back into heaven?”

“I am a reprobate. If you look that word up in your dictionary, you will see it means a person who is irredeemable and beyond God’s forgiveness.”

“What makes you so bad?”

“My badness feeds on itself. It grows and grows until one day it will consume the whole world.”

“What happens then?”

“The end. The Apocalypse. The earth will become a fiery hell, an everlasting burning hell.”

“And all the ‘saved’ go to heaven?”

“That’s not my department.”

Ellis Crumshaw can stand it no longer. Everything he has heard and seen convinces him beyond any doubt that this old man is Satan. He stands up and steps to the left out into the aisle and takes a few steps toward the stage.

The old man sees Ellis coming toward him hesitantly and frowns. He has been confronted before by hecklers or someone intent on doing him harm and must be wary.

“Yes, young man?” he says. “What’s the trouble?”

“Please, sir,” Ellis says. “I need your help.”

“Have you murdered somebody?”

“No. I want you to take me back to hell with you.”

Everybody turns in their seats to get a look at Ellis.

“You’re a strapping young fella,” the old man says with a smile. “You have many good days ahead of you. You don’t want to do a foolish thing you can’t undo.”

“No,” Ellis says. “You see, there’s a girl…”

“There’s always a girl, isn’t there?”

“No, there’s this girl. She’s older than me. Quite a bit older. She says she’s going to have a baby and that I’m the father. She says I have to marry her or she’s going to the police and tell them I raped her.”

“And did you rape her?”

“No, I didn’t. Her name is…”

“Don’t tell me her name. I don’t need to know her name. I see her plain as day when I look in your face. I know her. She’s one of ours. She’s going to have a baby all right, but the baby ain’t yours. She needs a husband, all right—and fast—before her maw and paw find out the father of her baby is her own brother. She wants desperately to marry somebody and she wants that somebody to be you because you’re young and good-looking and she wants to train you in her own ways.”

“What should I do?”

“You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to marry her. You don’t even have to see her again if you don’t want to. If she confronts you, tell her you know who the father of her baby is and it ain’t you.”

“Thank you, sir!”

“And stay away from that sort of woman, you hear me? They’ll eat you alive.”

“Yes, sir!”

He sits backs down, embarrassed, wondering where he ever found the courage to approach Satan in front of all those people. He is sure his face is as red as it’s ever going to be.

When the show is over and Ellis is leaving the tent along with the others, someone takes hold of his arm.

“What is it?” he says with a start.

“He wants to see you,” the unknown someone says.

He doesn’t even need to ask who he is.

The old man has taken off his coat and tie. He has a towel around his neck as if he has just done battle with an opponent in the ring. He is sitting on an orange crate, drinking whiskey from a bottle. He smiles when he sees Ellis but doesn’t get up.

“Sit down, boy,” he says, pointing to another orange crate.

Ellis hikes his trousers and sits, feeling nervous to be this close to Satan.

“What’s your name?” the old man asks.

“Ellis Crumshaw.”

“Live around here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I thought it took a lot of nerve for you to do what you did tonight in front of all those people. How did you know I wouldn’t turn you into a pile of ash?”

“I didn’t even think about that.”

The old man laughs and takes a drink from the bottle. “How would you like a traveling job?” he asks.

“Doing what?”

“I need a bodyguard and a valet.”

“What’s a valet?”

“Somebody to brush the dust off my shoes, send my suit out for cleaning, bring me an egg sandwich whenever I want it, find the nearest liquor store.”

“I guess I could do those things,” Ellis says.

“Do you like traveling?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never traveled.”

“Never been anywhere, I’ll bet.”

“No, sir.”

“Wouldn’t you like to get out of this jerkwater town and see the world?”

“I guess so.”

“You’d get room and board and, while the job doesn’t pay much, you’d get a stipend.”

“What’s a stipend?”

“You’d always have a little money to call your own.”

“Oh.”

“So, you want the job or not?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“We pull out early Thursday morning. If you want the job, be here at six-thirty sharp and I don’t mean quarter-to-seven, either.”

“Yes, sir.”

When Ellis gets home, his mother is already in bed. He is so excited about having a traveling job without even looking for one that he can’t sleep. He thinks about the exciting cities he’ll see and things he’ll do and people he’ll meet.

He has all the next day to pack a suitcase and prepare his mother for his departure. He doesn’t mention that he will be working for Satan because he is sure she will get the wrong idea and it will trouble her. He tells her he is going into the show business and will write her a letter whenever he can.

And, so, in this way Ellis Crumshaw becomes attached to a traveling show. He never gives Nonnie Lowbridge another thought but is mindful, always, of the part that Eve plays in the Downfall of Man.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

She Can Bake a Cherry Pie

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She Can Bake a Cherry Pie ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Judith Call was thirty-four and still unmarried. She lived outside town with her widowed mother and her younger brother, Curt. She had believed, since about age thirty, that she would never have a husband and would end up sole custodian of her mother’s dotage, while will-o-the-wisp Curt went about pursuing his own selfish interests, never giving a thought to anybody but himself. And one day Curt would bring home a wife (a pretty one but with the kind of prettiness that doesn’t last) and he’d become a father, and Judith would be the slightly odd maiden aunt who bakes cookies and saves Christmas wrap and quietly passes gas in church.

She had one physical deficiency that might have made her less marriageable than she might otherwise have been. Her eyes didn’t work in concert. She seemed to be looking in two directions at once; that is, here and there. People who knew her best were used to this abnormality and barely noticed it, but people meeting her for the first time pitied her and wondered if she was quite “all there” and if she needed help in getting to where to she was going. Wearing dark glasses covered up her abnormality and made her seem the same as anybody else, but there always came a time when the dark glasses had to come off.

Her mother always spurred her on, telling her eyes don’t make any difference.

“Any man would be lucky to have you,” she was fond of saying. “Any man worth having won’t care about at all about your funny eyes. He’ll see you for the lovely person you are.”

Judith, however, knew how important appearances are to the world in general. For a man to see her inner beauty, he would first have to look into her eyes, and if there was anything wrong there he wouldn’t look any farther.

Doctors told her the situation might one day work itself out on its own, but until then there was nothing medically to be done.

Curt had a friend named Gerald Pierson, handsome, slender and dark-haired. He was steady, decent, polite and always well-groomed. If Judith or her mother could have put all the qualities of a good husband and father (a regular Prince Charming) into a cup and shaken it and poured it out on the table, Gerald Pierson would have come tumbling out.

Finally, after a certain amount of coaxing by his mother, Curt agreed to invite Gerald Pierson to dinner on a Sunday afternoon in early summer. The mother didn’t think it was necessary to inform the son of the real reason for the invitation.

Judith would cook the dinner all on her own and it would be something wonderful. Gerald Pierson, who barely knew anything about Judith except that she was Curt’s sister, would see her in her own home. He would eat the food she had cooked with her own hands and see a side of her he hadn’t known existed. In one afternoon, he would witness all her best qualities and would come to think of her in a way he hadn’t thought of her before: a good wife for him and a loving mother for his children. She could give him the serene and comfortable home that every man wants. She could be the rock upon which he anchors his life.

Outwardly Judith seemed indifferent to the news that Gerald Pierson was coming for dinner, but privately her heart beat a little faster and her blood quickened in her veins. It might just be the thing she had been waiting for. When she logically analyzed the situation, she realized there was a very good chance that she and Gerald might discover they had a lot in common. A spark might be ignited at the dinner table on Sunday, a spark that could turn into a white hot flame. She couldn’t keep from smiling to herself when she saw the possibilities that lay before her.

She didn’t want to seem to be making too much of a fuss, but she planned the menu carefully. She loaded her cart with the largest and most expensive ham in the store, fresh cherries to make a pie, fresh spinach, freshy picked green beans, and anything else she could think of, sparing no expense. It seemed almost like Christmas. As an afterthought, she bought a bottle of before-dinner wine and a different kind of wine to serve during the meal.

Mother went to church Sunday morning and when she came home she was chirrupy and cheerful. She set the dining room table with the best dishes and didn’t have much to say.

Curt slept the morning away from his late Saturday night. He got up at eleven o’clock, took a shower and dressed in a white shirt and gray dress pants instead of the usual jeans.

“Why so fancy?” he asked when he walked into the dining room and saw the table. “Gerald is not royalty. He’s just a regular guy.”

“We don’t very often have a chance to entertain guests,” mother said.

When Gerald arrived in early afternoon, Curt met him at the door. They shook hands and Curt pulled him inside, as if he needed some persuasion.

“What’s with the jacket and tie, cowboy?” Curt said. “You didn’t need to dress up, you know. We’re strictly informal here.”

“I like to put on the dog every now and then,” Gerald said.

He greeted Judith and mother shyly and shook their hands.

“I’m so glad you and Curt are friends,” mother gushed. “I haven’t always approved of some of his chums.”

“Gerald doesn’t want to hear that,” Curt said.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Gerald said politely.

Curt and Gerald sat on the couch and talked about things they knew, while mother and Judith went into the kitchen to put the finishing touches on the meal. Before the dinner was ready, Judith came out of the kitchen bearing a tray with the little glasses of wine. She held the tray out to Gerald and then to Curt.

Fancy-Schmancy,” Curt said. “Where did these glasses come from?”

“They’ve been in the china closet for seventy-five years,” Judith said.

Gerald laughed and looked up her into her funny eyes. She looked back at him with crooked confidence and went back into the kitchen feeling that things were going well.

“Are you going to wear your dark glasses while we’re eating?” mother asked conspiratorially.

“No, I don’t think I will. It’s good for him to know the truth about me, don’t you think?”

Curt and Gerald took their places at the table, and mother and Judith brought the food in from the kitchen.

“This certainly looks wonderful!” Gerald said.

“I hope you like ham,” Judith said.

“Of course I like ham.”

“I’m starved,” Curt said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Well, whose fault is that but your own?” mother said.

Before they ate, mother insisted on saying grace: “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“A-men!” Curt said.

“I hope you don’t mind the prayer,” mother said.

“Of course not,” Gerald said.

“Some people are funny about those things.”

“Not me.”

“He’s a regular all-American guy!” Curt said.

“How do you like living way out here?” Gerald asked. “This far out of town, I mean.”

“It’s great,” Curt said. “The nearest house is so far away you can’t even see it. You can go outside naked and nobody will see you.”

“You don’t go outside naked, do you?” mother said.

“Well, maybe I will sometime. Hah-hah-hah!

During a lull in the conversation, Judith cleared her throat and, determined to look Gerald clearly in the eye, said, “You and I were in high school together.”

“Were we? I don’t remember.”

“We didn’t have any classes together. I was two grades ahead of you, but I remember you. You were very popular.”

“Was I?”

“Always getting your picture in the yearbook.”

“That’s our Gerald!” Curt said. “Big man on campus.”

“That’s not quite the way I remember it,” Gerald said.

“Well, anyway, it was a long time ago,” Judith said, “and it doesn’t matter much now.”

“The big man on campus doesn’t stay that way forever,” Curt said and punched Gerald on the arm.

“This is the best meal I’ve had in a long time!” Gerald said. “I’m so happy you asked me!”

“You’ll have to come again soon,” mother said. “We’d love to have you.”

When they were finished eating, Curt said, “What’s for dessert?”

“It’s a surprise,” mother said.

Judith went into the kitchen and when she came back she was carrying a tray with four servings of cherry pie, each with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

After a couple of bites, Gerald said, “Cherry pie is my favorite and this is the best cherry pie I’ve ever tasted.”

“Judith baked the pie,” mother said. “And in fact she cooked the whole meal on her own. All I did was set the table.”

“It could not have been better,” Gerald said.

After a while Curt and Gerald rose from the table and went out through the kitchen. Curt wanted to take Gerald down to the barn to show him the horse that he was trying to sell at a profit.

“He likes you,” mother said as she and Judith cleared the table.

“Who does?” Judith said.

“Gerald.”

“I think he likes everybody.”

“No, he looks at you in a special way. I’ve seen that look before.”

“You’re imagining things.”

“I don’t think he even noticed that your eyes are funny.”

“How could he not notice?”

“If he noticed, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Now that you have his interest, I think you should pursue it.”

“Pursue what?”

“Invite him on a picnic. Just the two of you. Picnics are always a good way for two people to get to know each other better. Make some chicken sandwiches and potato salad. Men like potato salad.”

“I wouldn’t want him to think I’m setting a trap for him.”

“Some men want to be trapped. They just don’t always realize it.”

“You’re being ridiculous, mother.”

The phone rang and mother answered.

“Run down to the barn and get Curt,” she said to Judith. “This is the call he’s been waiting for about the horse.”

“Can’t you just take a message?”

“He particularly wanted to speak to this person.”

“Oh, all right. I don’t want to, but I will.”

She crossed the back yard, trying to keep from stepping in the mud. At the point where the back yard ended, the barn was about three hundred yards down to the right.

She didn’t see Curt and Gerald anywhere so she figured they must still be in the barn. The door was partly opened. She swung it back, took a few steps inside and paused for a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.

She heard a voice, maybe a laugh, but she wasn’t sure if it was Curt or Gerald. She was reminded of the time when they were children and Curt would call her to come into the barn and when she did he’d hide from her and jump out and make her scream.

She was going to call out to Curt but then she saw the white of his shirt over to the left against the wall, behind the stall where the horse was. She squinted her eyes then, not sure of what she was seeing. It was not only Curt but also Gerald, standing together.

Taking a few steps closer but still not close enough that they knew she was there, she knew in one fleeting moment what she was seeing. Curt and Gerald were locked in a tight embrace, kissing passionately. Gerald had his back to the wall and Curt was leaning into him. Gerald’s hands were around Curt’s shoulders. Curt’s trousers were on the ground around his shoes. When she saw Curt’s hands, she knew they were fumbling with—trying to undo—Gerald’s belt.

Judith’s one thought was that she didn’t want to be seen, that she didn’t want Curt and Gerald to know she knew what they were doing. She ran out of the barn, back up the muddy road, to get back into the house before she was discovered.

She came to the back yard and saw the house. A hundred feet more and she would be safe inside. She ran across the yard, not caring that she was treading mud. Almost safe, she forgot the low-hanging limb on the sycamore tree. Almost safe, she hit the limb—whack!—in the middle of the forehead and was knocked on her back.

She lost consciousness for a few seconds, maybe a minute or two, and when she regained herself her mother was kneeling beside her asking if she was all right.

With her mother holding onto her arm, she made her way into the kitchen and sat in a chair at the kitchen table. She sobbed, once and then twice, and mother thought it was from pain, but it was more from what she had seen.

“I’m going to call the doctor,” mother said.

“No, I’m fine,” Judith said. “It was just a stupid accident. I should have known better.”

“I’m going to have that limb cut off.”

“No! Don’t do that! That limb has been there my whole life.”

“Where’s Curt? He can drive you to the hospital.”

“I don’t need to go to the hospital. Curt is down at the barn entertaining his friend. Leave them to it.”

Mother hovered over Judith, daubing at her head with a wet rag. “You’re going to have a goose egg right in the middle of your forehead.”

“Good. That completes the freak look.”

“You might have a concussion.”

“I’m fine. Stop fussing.”

Mother placed her hands on both sides of Judith’s face and tilted her head back.

“Look at me!” mother said. “Can you see me all right?”

“Of course I can see you all right!”

“Oh, my Lord!”

“What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Your eyes!”

She looked closer at Judith’s eyes to make sure of what she was seeing and then she went out of the room and came back with a hand mirror.

“Look at yourself!” she said.

Judith held the mirror up, looking at her eyes from the right and then from the left. “For the first time in more than twenty years,” she said, “my eyes are as straight as anybody else’s.”

“This morning when I was in church I asked the Lord to fix your eyes, and He did! It’s miraculous! God is good!”

“It’s not every day I get knocked unconscious by a blow to the head,” Judith said. “Maybe I ought to try it more often.”

She put the mirror down and went out of the room.

“Where are you going?” mother asked.

“I’m going to bed.”

“But it’s still daylight outside. It’s not even seven o’clock.”

“The day is over for me.”

“What about your dinner guest? He’ll want to say goodbye before he leaves. He’ll want to thank you for the lovely meal.”

“Just give him a message for me.”

“What message?”

“Tell him I won’t be bothering him again.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“Good night, mother.”

She went upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom, pulled the curtains closed and got into bed. Her head throbbed but she wasn’t going to let it keep her from sleeping.

In a few minutes she heard voices and laughter outside in the driveway and she knew it was Curt and Gerald. They would be leaving together in Gerald’s car. Curt probably wouldn’t be returning home until morning. Yes, God is good, as mother said, to let all the pieces fall into place exactly as they should.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

When Woolworth’s Closed Its Doors

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When Woolworth’s Closed Its Doors ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

He sat on a hard-backed chair and wished he was someplace else. His name was Cleland Entwistle and he was nine years old. It was his day to stay with grandma and it was grandma’s day to visit friends. Come rain or come shine, come hell or high water, he had to go along with her whether he wanted to or not.

They were in Lucille Alcorn’s home, in her comfortable living room. Lucille Alcorn herself sat on a settee to the left of the fireless fireplace. Around her were her old friends Jane Peabody, Shirley Singletree, Mildred Entwistle (Cleland’s grandma), and Grace Milford. They were all widows except for Grace Milford, who never married. She was an old maid schoolteacher all her life, until she turned seventy and was forced to retire.

These five women had all known each other for a long time, in some cases fifty years or more. They all loved to talk and they were never without things to talk about. They talked about family, their own and others. They talked about friends, acquaintances and neighbors, and if their talk bordered on the malicious or the exaggerated, they were forever unconcerned. They talked about themselves, their trips to the doctor and the medical procedures they might have experienced; their shopping and their cooking; their problems with cleaning ladies; their hairdressers; their run-ins with the auto mechanic who was always out to cheat them; books they had read or wanted to read; movies they saw or wanted to see; television shows they watched that they found risqué or offensive; the pastor at their church (just a little too sexy for his own good), his fat wife and two ferret-faced daughters.

“I heard the pastor’s younger brother is a homosexual,” Jane Peabody said. “Everybody was talking about it in church on Sunday.”

“That must be a terrible blow for the family,” Grace Milford said.

“Yes. They’ve tried to keep it hidden but you know how those things always come out.”

“Do you think the pastor will be asked to move on because of it?”

“It’s possible. There are some awfully narrow-minded people in the congregation.”

“There are worse things that being a homosexual,” Lucille Alcorn said.

“Name one.”

“Serial killer.”

“You know,” Shirley Singletree said, “I think my hairdresser is a homosexual. There’s just something about him.”

“What’s his name?”

“Julian LaGrange.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of him. He wears silk scarves and he always smells like a whorehouse.”

“That’s the one.”

“They just give me the willies,” Grace Milford said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to mix in with decent people. I mean, they have diseases!”

“Yes, they should all be put out on an island somewhere in the middle of the ocean so they won’t contaminate the rest of us.”

“That’s not very Christian,” grandma said.

What?”

“We’re not supposed to judge people. Leave that to the Lord.”

“How would you feel if your daughter married one of them?”

“I don’t have a daughter.”

“But if you did?”

“I don’t know. I’d guess I should stay out of it if the daughter was old enough to know her own mind.”

“You would stand by and let your daughter go to wrack and ruin?”

“I don’t have a daughter.”

Cleland looked beseechingly at grandma and mouthed the words: I want to go home. She gave him a stern look. He knew what the look meant: Behave yourself and be quiet.

“Did any of you go to Val Acker’s funeral last week?” Jane Peabody asked.

“I wanted to go but that was the day I had the plumbers,” Grace Milford said.

“She was only fifty-six, poor old darling.”

“She was so fat,” Lucille Alcorn said, “she got to where she couldn’t even take one step without help.”

“Isn’t that a shame?”

“They had to special-order a large-sized casket. From another state. While they were waiting on the casket, they had no other choice but to put poor Val on ice.”

“I heard it was the kind of casket they bury elephants in,” Shirley Singletree said.

“I didn’t know they had caskets for elephants.”

“She sure was fat.”

“When I was in high school, I used to baby sit her and her little brother,” grandma said. “She was fat even then, when she was no more than eight or nine years old.”

“I guess some people are just born fat and stay that way their whole lives.”

“Her mother would always pay me fifty cents an hour. If I had a dollar or a dollar-fifty, I’d go down to the Woolworth’s and buy lipstick and face powder and girly stuff. My mother never knew what I was spending my money on. She thought I was saving it for college.”

“When Woolworth’s shut its doors, that’s when the world changed,” Lucille Alcorn said.

“You’re right,” grandma said. “Nothing was ever the same again after that.”

“I remember when the Woolworth’s downtown caught on fire and burned,” Jane Peabody said. “We were heartbroken. There were lots of things Woolworth’s had that other stores didn’t have.”

“It took them a year or so to build it back but when they did it was bigger and better than ever. The new one had a lunch counter and a bulk-candy counter and everything. It had a smell all its own, a smell from heaven. People came from all over for the grand opening.”

“Yes, I remember the grand opening,” Shirley Singletree said. “My cousin and I got dressed up for it. We pretended we were going to a movie premiere.”

“Well, I guess it’s as close as we ever had to a movie premiere in this town.” Lucille Alcorn said.

“When I got a little money,” Grace Milford said, “I didn’t buy cosmetics; I’d buy cigarettes. My friends and I would go to the cemetery and we’d smoke the whole pack. They tasted awful, but we thought we were so grown up. My mother would have strangled me if she had known.”

“When we were fourteen,” Shirley Singletree said. “We bought a pack of rubbers out of a machine. We didn’t even know what they were for, but we wanted to see what they looked like. We unrolled them, wondering which part of the anatomy they were used on. We didn’t know if you wore them on your thumb, or your big toe, or what. They were oily and kind of disgusting. We took a look at them and then threw them away and washed our hands.”

“What’s a pack of rubbers?” Cleland asked. It was the first he had spoken.

All the women turned and looked at him.

“What’s a pack of rubbers?” he asked again.

“It’s nothing at all, honey,” Grace Milford said. “Just something kids buy when they think nobody’s looking.”

“Who is this little man?” Jane Peabody asked.

“You’ve met him before,” grandma said. “I had him with me at the lodge dinner at church last spring.”

“Oh, yes, I remember him. He’s grown quite a bit since then, hasn’t he?”

“Is he Kenny’s boy or Andy’s?” Lucille Alcorn asked.

“Andy’s,” grandma said.

“Now who was it Andy married?”

“Earline Jett.”

Now with everybody looking at him, Cleland began to enjoy being in the spotlight. “I had a little brother,” he said, “but there was something wrong with his heart and he died. He was six weeks old. His name was Marcus. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night, I think about him in the dark inside his grave and I get scared.”

“You need to think about happy things and then you won’t be scared any more. Do you like clowns? Think about clowns.”

“Clowns scare him,” grandma said.

“Andy and Earline Jett are still young,” Shirley Singletree said. “They ought to have more children.”

“Janice can’t have any more. She’s not very well.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Female trouble. You know.”

“Oh, isn’t that shame!”

“What grade are you in, cupcake?” Grace Milford asked.

“Fourth,” Cleland said.

“Did you know I used to teach little boys and girls just your age?”

“No.”

“I taught elementary school for thirty-seven years until I got too old.”

“They told you to get in your car and go home?”

“That’s right.”

He was awfully bored and was ready for some diversion. He kicked off his shoes and laid across the chair and looked up at the ceiling. He was careful not to look at grandma because she’d point her finger and tell him to sit up straight like a normal person.

From upside down, lying on his back across the chair, he spied a picture on the mantel of a gray-haired man in a dark suit.

“Who’s that man?” he asked

“That’s my husband,” Lucille Alcorn said.

“Where is he now? Is he at work?”

“No, he died.”

“What was the matter with him?”

“He got sick and they took him to the hospital and he died.”

“Was he old?”

“Not very old.”

“That’s enough questions, Cleland!” grandma said.

“What did he do before he died?”

“He owned his own business.”

“What kind of business?”

“He owned a clothing store downtown.”

“Clothing? You mean likes suits and hats and underwear and things?”

“That’s right. It was before you were even born.”

“A long time ago?”

“Yes, a long time ago.”

“Cleland, stop talking now!” grandma said.

All the women laughed and Cleland felt embarrassed.

“What did I say?” he said.

“You sit there and don’t say a word and once you start talking, you don’t stop.”

“You got a girlfriend, honey?” Jane Peabody asked.

“No, I don’t want one.”

“You’ll change your mind about that, I’m sure.”

It was time to serve refreshments. Lucille Alcorn went into the kitchen and came back a few minutes later pushing a little cart with a pot of tea on it, a plate of cookies, a bottle of wine and some wine glasses. She poured a cup of tea for everybody and then passed around the plate of cookies.

Cleland drank his tea, slowly at first and then faster. It was slightly bitter with a little tang of lemon and a little sugar, but it tasted good. With his cup in his right hand, he took a cookie in his left hand and bit into it. He was careful not to drop any crumbs on furniture or the carpet.

The cookies were orange and lemon, the best cookies ever. Cleland ate three or four and drank two cups of tea. The refreshments were always the best part of the visits.

When he was finished, he wasn’t shy about announcing that he needed to use the bathroom. All the women stopped what they were doing and looked at him strangely as if he had said pack of rubbers again.

“Up the stairs,” Lucille Alcorn said. “Down the hallway on the left.”

He planned on taking his time because he wasn’t having a good time and he wanted to leave. The longer he stayed away, the less time he’d have to sit there and listen to grandma and the others talk about things that didn’t interest him. And, anyway, he enjoyed being in a strange house and looking at things he hadn’t seen before and walking through strange rooms.

He went up the stairs slowly, planting his feet firmly on the carpet and holding on to the mahogany banister, barely making a sound. Being quiet was part of the fun because he was going to do things he wasn’t supposed to do. Halfway up the stairs, on a landing, was a huge grandfather clock. It was old-looking and mysterious with its ponderous pendulum going back and forth, counting out the endless seconds. He stood looking at the clock for a minute and then moved on.

The bathroom was large, cool and quiet, with an old-lady smell like the stuff they use under their arms. There was an old claw-footed tub like nobody had anymore. The floor was black-and-white squares with a blood-red rug by the tub to catch drips.

He closed the door for privacy and, after he did what he had to do, he spent a long time washing and drying his hands. After he folded the towel neatly and hung it back on the towel bar, he opened the medicine cabinet over the sink and looked at the bottles, jars and little boxes arrayed neatly on the shelves. He saw nothing of interest and reclosed the door.

In the hallway across from the bathroom was a bedroom. He walked in slowly, as though entering an unexplored cave. It was cool and dark, with heavy draperies covering the windows. He walked around the high bed to the other side of the room, where there was a door.

He opened the door slowly, as if a skeleton might jump out at him, and saw it was a closet. Clothes hung in parallel lines, way up over his head. He couldn’t imagine anybody ever having that many clothes. He took a few steps into the murk and stale air of the closet and then he saw something that might have startled him out of a year or two of growth. Someone was standing against the back wall.

It was a man, an older, gray-haired man dressed in a tuxedo. He was smiling, he had a little mustache; his lips were red and his teeth like pearls. His right arm hung at his side and his left arm was extended as though about to take hold of something being handed to him.

“I…I was just…” Cleland began, but then he realized he wasn’t talking to a living person. It was a man that had been stuffed like a cheetah or a gorilla. It was Lucille Alcorn’s dead husband. He was dead, all right, but he wasn’t in any grave the way other dead people are. She had him stuffed and hidden in her closet. It was an exciting thing to stumble upon and he was sure he was the only person in his class at school to have seen a dead stuffed man up close.

He walked closer to the stuffed man, looking at him carefully to make sure he wasn’t going to move unexpectedly. He touched the hand; it felt smooth and cool like a dinner plate. He looked up into the face; it was shiny and there were a few tiny cracks around the mouth. The stuffed man seemed to be working up his facial muscles to speak and, if he spoke, Cleland was anxious to hear what it was he was going to say.

A creak in some other part of the house made him think somebody was coming, so he turned to go back downstairs, when he saw a gray object on the floor next to the right shoe of the stuffed man. He had to get down on his knees and move the cloth of the pants leg slightly out of the way to see it was a large gray rat, stiffly dead. Its eyes were fixed and staring, just like the eyes of the stuffed man, and its little paws were outstretched, as if in the act of running. When Cleland saw how his whiskers had grown quite long and curved downward, he felt sorry for him and believed he deserved better than lying dead on the floor of a closet at the foot of a stuffed man. He picked him up by the tail and looked around for a more fitting place.

On the dresser in Lucille Alcorn’s bedroom was a large wooden box with a carved lid. Grandma had a wooden box something like it, although not as big. It was a jewelry case.

He opened the lid of the jewelry case and saw a surprising array of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, a veritable king’s ransom in jewels. The case was almost full but there was still plenty of room inside for a good-sized rat.

He didn’t want to just put the rat in on top of the jewels and then close the lid; something more was needed. In the top drawer of the dresser was a stack of ladies’ handkerchiefs. He took out two of them and, refolding one lengthwise, placed it on top of the jewels and laid the rat carefully on top of that. Then he used the other handkerchief as a cover for the rat and closed the box.

He went back downstairs, believing he had done a good, kind thing.

Grandma looked at him but didn’t say anything as he re-entered the room. If they had been at home, she would have asked him where he had been and what he had been doing. He couldn’t keep from smiling.

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

“Can I have some wine?” Cleland asked.

“No!” grandma said.

“Just a sip?”

“Can’t he at least taste it?” Lucille Alcorn asked. “He’s been such a good little thing all afternoon, sitting with a bunch of old hens.”

“Well, all right,” grandma said, “you can taste it but you won’t like it.”

With his back to grandma so she couldn’t see what he was doing, he filled the little glass and swallowed it down like water. It was bitter and sour, it burned his throat and almost made him gag, but he told everybody afterwards that he liked it.

Finally it was time for Cleland and grandma to go home. All the women embraced each other as if they were setting out for Asia and wouldn’t see each other again for a long time. Grace Milford bent over and gave Cleland a wet kiss on the cheek. Her breath smelled like the monkey house at the zoo.

Going home, grandma had to walk slow because her knees were worn out and didn’t work so well anymore. Sometimes she put her hand on Cleland’s shoulder to steady herself.

“Did you enjoy yourself this afternoon?” she asked.

“The cookies were good,” Cleland said.

“You ate too many. You probably spoiled your supper.”

“I liked them.”

“We’re having liver and onions for supper.”

“I don’t like liver and onions.”

“What were you doing so long when you went to use the bathroom?”

“I was only gone a minute.”

He was bursting to tell grandma about Lucille Alcorn’s dead husband upstairs in the closet, but he knew it would lead to inevitable questions that he wasn’t in any way prepared to answer. Instead he said, “They have a big house, don’t they? I wish we lived there.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp