Those Dancing Feet ~ A Short Story

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Those Dancing Feet
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

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

Nine-year-old Edith Mullinex couldn’t keep her legs still and when her legs moved her arms moved and then her whole body moved. When this ceaseless movement turned to dancing, she believed herself to be one of the all-time great dancers of the world. She didn’t know anything about the all-time great dancers of the world but, whoever they were, she was sure she was better than any of them.

She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon and she danced every chance she got between morning and afternoon. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom and after she had eaten her lump of meatloaf and her cold mashed potatoes and her two canned plums in a puddle of mauve-colored juice, she danced her way back to the fourth-grade classroom, where all of her classmates and her teacher, Miss Divine, watched in open-mouthed wonder as she danced her way to her desk at the back of the room. Stop dancing, people would say, but she just ignored them. She knew they would never be able to understand.

“We have a real dancing problem with little Edith,” Miss Divine told Edith’s mother.

“It’s a phase she’s going through,” Edith’s mother said. “She has somehow got it into her head that she’s one of the all-time great dancers of the world.”

“It’s not normal,” Miss Divine said. “I think it calls for psychiatric evaluation.”

Thirteen-year-old Fairfax taunted Edith mercilessly when she was dancing at home, but she ignored him, as she did all the naysayers. When he tripped her while she was dancing on her way to the kitchen to eat dinner, she made the fall part of her dance and in this way annoyed him even further. When friends of Fairfax’s visited to watch a football game with him on TV, she danced all around them and in front of them, obstructing their view, until suddenly they remembered they had leaves to rake or grass to cut and left to go home.

“Boy, Fairfax sure does have a screwy sister!” they said when they were out the door.

Edith was always improvising new dance steps. When the phone rang, she danced her way to answer it and when it was time to go to bed, she danced her way into her bedroom, making closing the door part of the dance. Her mother sent her to the store with a list of things to buy. She danced her way there and she danced her way up and down the aisles of the store until she had everything on the list. People looked at her curiously, sure she was either filming a television special or was an escapee from the mental hospital.

Edith had a cousin named Pansy Mullinex. Like Edith, Pansy was very thin with lank blond hair to her shoulders and stick-like arms and legs. Edith and Pansy were the exact same age, born five days apart, and could have passed for twins. Pansy should have been in the same fourth-grade class as Edith, but she still read at a first-grade level and was in special education.

On the playground at recess, Edith showed Pansy some of her latest dance steps and soon they were dancing together. They worked up a dance routine to the song “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Edith taught Pansy the words. They sang and danced every day at morning recess and, on a good day, attracted an appreciative crowd of forty of fifty. That’s when Edith knew she loved having an audience.

The school talent contest was coming up. The whole school would be watching. First prize was ten dollars. Edith proposed to Pansy that they enter, and, if they won, they could split the ten dollars. There wasn’t much you could do with half of ten dollars, but it was more money than they were used to having at one time.

Edith chose the songs they would dance to, a combination of classics and bouncy contemporary hits that anybody who listened to the radio would know. There was some Roy Orbison (“Oobie Doobie”), Elvis Presley (“Jailhouse Rock”), Connie Francis (“Lipstick on Your Collar”), Bobby Vee (“Rubber Ball”), Tommy Dorsey (“Sunny Side of the Street”), and even some Perez Prado (“Mambo No. 49”) to add a cute Latin flavor at the end. It was a range of music to show their range and versatility.

For what to wear they chose matching black poodle skirts with white trim; white, short-sleeved sweaters with pompom ties; red ribbons in their hair, saddle oxfords and bobby socks.  To add some pizzazz, Edith bought some taps and tiny nails from a shoe repair store on Main Street and turned both pairs of shoes into tap shoes.

They rehearsed every day for two weeks on a sheet of plywood in an old wasp-infested shed behind Pansy’s house and, when it was time for the talent contest, they were both ready. Neither of them had worn makeup before, but Edith confiscated from her mother’s dressing table some face powder, lipstick and rouge to slather on their faces to keep them from looking ghostly in the spotlights.

Edith knew about the other acts and she considered them stupid. There was a girl twirling two hula-hoops, a boy playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his banjo, a boy acting like Curly from the Three Stooges, a girl moving her lips to the Connie Francis song “Who’s Sorry Now,” another boy playing spoons to the tune of “Swanee River” and other assorted acts. She knew that she and Pansy had more class and more pizzazz in their little fingers than all the others put together and were almost certain to win first prize, unless something bad happened, like freezing up in front of an audience of two hundred people and not being able to dance at all. She was sure nothing like that was going to happen.

They didn’t go on until about an hour into the show. While they waited, they stood just behind the curtain watching the contestants go on and come off. The audience applauded after each act—and there were always a few cheers—but Edith knew they were just being polite. People didn’t go to a show to just sit on their hands; they wanted to participate.

Finally, it was Edith and Pansy’s turn. They started out behind a screen with a big light shining on it from behind so that, to the audience, they were only silhouettes. They danced behind the screen and after a few seconds they came out, Edith on the left and Pansy on the right. After that they owned the talent contest. They tapped and jiggled and turned and swooped. They propelled each other into the air and did some ballet steps. Edith twirled Pansy and then Pansy twirled Edith. They joined hands and jitter-bugged, they waltzed and did some tango steps. They were a two-person conga line and then they drew some laughs when they acted like chickens pecking and scratching at the ground. They jumped, jittered and jived, drawing oohs from the audience when they both did the “splits” at the same time. Pansy remembered all the steps Edith taught her and even improvised some of her own.

When the music stopped and Edith and Pansy finished with a flourish in which they both went down on one knee with their arms extended, the crowd went wild. The clapping, cheering and whistling were deafening. They had to do several curtain calls before the show could go on.

There were more acts waiting to go on, but Edith knew it was all but over.

The show finally ended and then all that was left was for the judges to make their decision. The judges were all teachers and as Edith looked out at them from backstage, she saw they had their heads together to arrive at their decision.

The deliberations among the judges took about five minutes. When they were ready, Miss Mish, the music teacher who was also one of the judges, took to the stage to announce the winners.

Miss Mish wheezed into the microphone, “No matter who wins, there’s one thing on which we can all agree. Everybody on this stage tonight is a winner!”

The audience clapped and cheered and Miss Mish held up her hands to get them to shut up. “Our third-place winner,” she said, “is none other than Marvin Hittler and his banjo!”

Cheers and huzzahs for Marvin Hittler.

“Our second-place winner is Leeman LaFarge for his remarkable impression of Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. Come on out, Leeman, and take a bow.”

Leeman came out from backstage and, to anybody familiar with the Three Stooges, he was a perfect pint-sized version of Curly. He gave the audience a few Curley mannerisms and then he pretended to be shy and had to retreat behind the curtain.

Miss Mish clapped and wheezed into the microphone like a donkey. When the laughter and cheering died down, she brayed: “And now the moment for which we have all been waiting! The first-place winner of this year’s school talent contest is…may I have a drumroll, please!…Edith Mullinex and Pansy Mullinex! For their sparkling and innovative dance routine!”

Edith wasn’t surprised. She knew, unless the show was rigged, that she and Pansy would win first prize. She took Pansy’s hand and they both bowed graciously again and again before the audience. After they left the stage, the audience was still applauding, so they gave a curtain call and then another and another. After a few minutes, Miss Mish took to the microphone again and told everybody to shut up and go home. The show was over.

As the crowd dispersed, everybody wanted to congratulate Edith and Pansy, but especially Edith because the whole thing had been her idea. She was the star of the show.

Edith’s mother, who had been sitting in the audience, was going to give Edith and Pansy a ride home, but Edith wanted to walk home by herself. She was too excited to sit still and ride in the car, she said. She needed to dance her way home.

She said her goodbyes and danced her way down the street away from the school. It felt good to be away from the crowd and to breathe in the cool night air. Her head was still in the clouds. She still heard the music and the applause, the cheering, as her name was announced as the first-place winner and the crowd went wild! It was the happiest moment of her life!

As she danced off the sidewalk into an intersection, she wasn’t thinking about watching for oncoming cars, wasn’t thinking about anything other than how good she felt. She didn’t see the red sportscar speeding toward her.

There was a squeal of brakes, a skidding of tires and impact. A woman standing on the sidewalk screamed. Traffic came to a standstill. Somebody called an ambulance. Within minutes, they came and picked Edith up off the street and took her to the emergency room at the hospital. The hospital people were trying to call Edith’s mother, but she wasn’t home yet.

Edith died two hours later in the hospital. She never regained consciousness and never knew what happened. Everybody who knew Edith and who heard the story afterwards said the same thing: She died happy.

School closed at noon the day of the funeral so everybody could attend. Her entire fourth-grade class was there and all the teachers. She was buried in a white casket with a spray of red roses that her classmates had taken up a collection to buy for her. And, on her headstone, beneath her name, was etched one word: DANCER.

After Pansy got over the shock of Edith’s death, she assumed the dancing mantle for herself. She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon. She danced before, during and after school. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom to eat lunch.

The special education teacher, Miss Cornapple, called Pansy’s mother and said, “I’m afraid we have a dancing problem with Pansy.”

“It’s a phase she’s going through,” Pansy’s mother said. “She has somehow got it into her head that she’s one of the all-time great dancers of the world.”

“It’s not normal,” Miss Cornapple said. “I think it calls for psychiatric evaluation.”

“Maybe you just can’t stand to see anybody happy,” Pansy’s mother said.

As Pansy’s dancing skills improved, so did her reading skills. Soon she was allowed to move out of special education and take her place in the fourth-grade class. She danced and danced and danced, and she looked so much like Edith, and acted so much like her, that soon people began calling her Edith instead of Pansy and whenever it happened she never bothered to correct them. Edith was back, or maybe she had never left at all.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Brumm’s Drug Store ~ A Short Story

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Brumm’s Drug Store
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

Mayfleur had worked at her new job for only two weeks and already she was thinking about quitting. There was always so much to do, she had never had to work so hard before. She was on her feet all day long without ever a moment to herself. The worst part, though, was Mrs. Brumm watching her all the time.

Some people named Brumm owned the store. Mr. Brumm was the pharmacist. He stayed behind the pharmacy counter all the time. He smiled a lot and hardly ever said a word to anybody. If anybody asked him a question, he pointed to his wife to answer it. And his wife, Mrs. Brumm, seemed to be everywhere all at once. Nothing escaped her scrutiny. She was all-knowing and all-seeing.

There was only one customer at the lunch counter drinking coffee so Mayfleur wasn’t very busy at the moment, but she knew that Mrs. Brumm was lurking around somewhere—she could smell the stench of her sweet perfume—so she tried to look busier than she was. When the man drinking coffee asked for a refill, she was glad to be in motion for a few seconds with something specific to do. She gave him a sweet smile as she filled his cup and asked if he would like anything else.

“Mayflower!” Mrs. Brumm came around the corner without a sound. “The magazines are a mess! They need straightening! Right now!

Mayfleur jumped at the sound of Mrs. Brumm’s voice and sloshed some of the hot coffee on her hand. She put the pot back on the warmer with a clatter and then nearly fell down where somebody had dribbled some water on the floor. Her day was not going well and she had more than six hours to go.

Mrs. Brumm was right. The magazine rack was a mess. It was one of Mayfleur’s responsibilities to keep it in order, and Mrs. Brumm would accept nothing less than perfection. Mayfleur was just separating Look from Life and Superman from Justice League America, when Mrs. Brumm barked at her to drop what she was doing and fill a food order. Miss Tolley upstairs wanted a tuna salad sandwich on toast, a chocolate milk shake with a jigger of rum mixed in, a pack of Lucky Strikes—and she wanted them now.

Mayfleur knew that Miss Tolley was Mrs. Brumm’s sister and there was something funny about her. Something not quite right, but Mayfleur didn’t know what it was. Maybe she had a missing leg or something and couldn’t get out of bed. When she took the food order upstairs, she’d find out for sure.

She went behind the lunch counter and began preparing the food order, not bothering to wash her hands first. She put the wrapped tuna sandwich on toast in a white paper bag, along with the Lucky Strikes, and then she set about making the chocolate milk shake with the rum in it. (The bottle of rum was kept under the counter especially for that purpose.) She fastened a plastic lid on the milk shake and put it in its own white paper bag. When the order was ready, she carried it out the front door and around the corner to the door where the stairs were. She went up the steps slowly, looking at the grooves in the wood underneath her feet. The grooves made her think of all the people who had gone up the stairs who were now dead.

There were four apartments over the drug store. She found Miss Tolley’s door and knocked hesitantly, as though afraid she might wake someone. She heard the undoing of the locks from the inside and then the door opened and there stood Miss Tolley in a red Japanese kimono.

Mayfleur was only moderately surprised to see that Miss Tolley was a midget, no more than three feet tall. She realized it could have been a lot worse. She might have had leprosy or no arms or been covered in scales.

“Are you Miss Tolley?” Mayfleur asked.

“Well, I ain’t Virginia Mayo!”

“I have your food order from downstairs.”

“Okay.”

She took the two bags from Mayfleur and set them down. Mayfleur turned and started to leave, but Miss Tolley gestured for her to sit on her sagging sofa and “take a load off.”

“What’s your name?” Miss Tolley asked.

“Mayfleur Pickering.”

“How is Bertha treating you?”

“Who? Do you mean Mrs. Brumm?

Hah-hah-hah! Is that what she makes you call her?”

“That’s what she told me to call her from the first day.”

Hah-hah-hah! She’s a riot! I’ll bet she doesn’t give you a moment’s peace, does she?”

“Well, she is kind of demanding.”

“You don’t have to sugarcoat it for me, honey. She’s my sister. I know what a demon she is. How long you been on the payroll?”

“Two weeks.”

“I’ll bet it seems like a couple of years already, don’t it?”

Mayfleur felt uncomfortable hearing Miss Tolley talk about Mrs. Brumm that way and she wished she might go back downstairs and disappear behind the soda fountain.

“Well, if there’s nothing else,” Mayfleur said, “I really need to get back downstairs.”

“You don’t need to worry about it,” Miss Tolley said. “I call the shots around here and if Bertha don’t like it, she knows what she can do about it.”

“You ‘call the shots’?”

“I own the drugstore. Didn’t you know that?”

“No, nobody told me.”

“Not only do I own the drugstore, I also own these apartments and three other buildings besides.”

“Oh.”

“So, two weeks, you say?”

“That’s right.”

“I bet you think every day about quitting, don’t you?”

“Well, I…”

“You can be truthful with me, dearie. I know nobody can stand working for Bertha for long. You would not believe how many girls she has had working for her! I think we average about one a month.”

“Well, I don’t like to complain. I had a little trouble finding a job, so when this one came along I was glad to get it. I’d like to keep it for a while.”

“But still, you’d like to tell Bertha to take it and shove it, wouldn’t you?”

“Well, I…”

“And what do you think of the mister?”

“Who?”

“The pharmacist. His name is Lloyd Brumm. He’s Bertha’s husband, if you can call it that.”

“Oh, him! I don’t usually see him unless I have to go behind the pharmacy counter for something.”

“Don’t let the smile and the quiet demeanor fool you. He’s a drug addict and he’s just as crazy as Bertha.”

“He seems all right.”

“He’s in the perfect profession for an addict. One day he’s going to overdose himself. Do you know he used to go around telling people he was a doctor? He did it to impress the ladies. They’d see the white coat and believe him. Oh, he’s quite the ladies’ man, he is!”

“He seems harmless enough.”

“Let me warn you about him, though. He’s quite the skirt chaser. He’ll go after any female over fourteen years old. It don’t matter if she’s married or ugly or obese or covered in fur. Drugs are not the only thing he’s addicted to!”

“Does Mrs. Brumm know?”

“Of course she knows, and it don’t matter to her! It’s a marriage in name only.”

“I do feel a little sorry for him being married to her.”

“You and me both, honey, but you don’t want to waste too much sympathy on him, though. And, take my advice. Don’t ever let him get you alone if you can help it. That’s what he likes to do. Get a girl in the room alone, and then he’s all over her!”

“I never would have known!”

“And, something else I gotta tell you: he peeps at you when you’re going to the toilet.”

What?

“He’s got a peep hole in the wall. He spies on you when you’re in the bathroom.”

“Are—are you sure?”

“Yes, he’s a very sick person!”

“Why don’t you plug up the peep hole?”

“Because I’m waiting for the right time. I’m going to bust him and I’m going to bust her, too! I’m going to squash them both like bugs! Do you want to know why she watches you all the time?”

“No. Why?”

“She’s hoping to catch you stealing from her.”

“I’m not going…”

“She’s always on the lookout for a thief so she can call the police and have them arrested.”

“Why would she do that?”

“She enjoys getting people in trouble. That’s her thing. She’s an absolute lunatic. She wants to embarrass you in front of other people. If she so much as caught you taking a toothpick that didn’t belong to you, she’d be on you like a dive bomber. She’s hoping you steal money, though, out of the cash drawer.”

“I would never…”

“Her favorite thing, though, would be to catch you with him.”

“With who?”

“With Lloyd, her husband. The pharmacist. If she caught you dallying with him in the back room, that would push her over the edge.”

“I thought you said it was a marriage in name only.”

“It is, but she’s still jealous of his attentions to other women. She’s a drama queen down to her toenails. She loves explosive, emotional scenes. She watches soap operas on TV all the time. That’s where she gets a lot of her material.”

“Believe me, Miss Tolley, I would never dally with him in the back room or anywhere else! The thought of it makes me sick!”

“Makes me sick, too!”

“And I would never steal money from her. Or anything else.”

“I believe you’re a good girl, or I wouldn’t be telling you these things.”

“I’d better get back downstairs. She’ll think I’m taking too long.”

“Don’t worry about it, Mayflower. If she says anything, just tell her to talk to me. I’ve got your ass covered.”

She went back downstairs, expecting a large dose of Mrs. Brumm’s anger for taking so long with Miss Tolley’s food order, but Mrs. Brumm was standing in the back of the store near the pharmacy counter, talking to two men. When Mrs. Brumm saw Mayfleur come in the door, she stopped talking in mid-sentence and pointed. The two men turned and looked at Mayfleur. Breathless, Mrs. Brumm strode forward in a few sprinting steps.

“Here she is!” Mrs. Brumm said. “Here’s the girl! She’s the one!”

As the men came toward her, Mayfleur saw they were uniformed police officers, but still she didn’t know what was happening.

“You work for this woman?” one the officers asked.

“Yes,” Mayfleur said.

“How long?”

“Two weeks.”

“She says you’ve been stealing money from her. Money from her cash register.”

“I haven’t!”

“Of course she’d lie about it!” Mrs. Brumm said. “They always do!”

Mayfleur saw that there were several customers in the store and they had all stopped what they were doing and were looking at her. Mr. Brumm had come out from behind the pharmacy counter and was looking at her with a strange smile on his face. Mrs. Brumm was performing for the assemblage.

“She has a hundred and fifty dollars, at least, inside her purse that she keeps in the back room,” Mrs. Brumm said. “Where would a girl like that get a hundred and fifty dollars in cash?”

“I don’t have a hundred and fifty dollars in my purse!” Mayfleur said. “I have two dollars and some change. If there’s a hundred and fifty dollars in my purse, you put it there!”

“I did not!” Mrs. Brumm said.

“Anything else stolen besides the hundred and fifty?” the officer asked Mrs. Brumm.

“Yes, I’m sure she’s been stealing from me all along!”

“Oh, Mrs. Brumm!” Mayfleur said. “The magazines are all messed up. I never got a chance to straighten them earlier. I think I’ll do it now.”

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

A Mother and Her Cigarettes ~ A Short Story

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A Mother and Her Cigarettes
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

When Ruffin awoke early on Monday morning, he immediately began calculating how he might miss school that day. He could say he was sick, but if he wasn’t vomiting or didn’t have a fever, his suspicious mother wouldn’t believe him. He had to be visibly sick. Not always easy.

He realized, after a couple minutes of deep thought, that he was going to have to go to school no matter what. There was no way around it. He already had more than enough absences for the semester; any more would result in disciplinary action, which meant tedious lectures about the tragic consequences of not taking school seriously enough.

He splashed some water on his face, made a feeble effort at brushing his teeth and dressed in the same clothes he wore to school on Friday. Taking a quick look at himself in the mirror, he went downstairs to the kitchen, where his mother was sitting at the table smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. She hadn’t yet put on her wig and makeup and looked like a derelict old man.

After pouring himself a cup of coffee and adding milk, he sat down at the table, squinting in his mother’s cigarette smoke.

“Boy, I feel lousy this morning!” he said. “I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I have a splitting head. I think I probably have the flu.”

“You’re not missing school again today,” she said.

“When you were young, I bet your mother didn’t make you go to school when you were sick.”

“I don’t believe you’re sick.”

“Can’t you tell just by looking at me? My color is terrible!”

“If you miss any more school, you know what’s going to happen, don’t you? They’re going to come after me for being a lousy parent.”

“You are a lousy parent!”

“The whole world doesn’t have to know it!”

“Just feel my forehead,” he said. “I’m burning up!”

She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and finished her coffee. “You’re not sick!” she said.

When she stood up to put water on her geranium in the window over the sink, he reached across the table and stole three cigarettes out of her pack and put them in his shirt pocket.

“I saw that,” she said, slowly turning around.

“Saw what?”

“Put ‘em back.”

“Put what back?”

“I’m not as stupid as you seem to think I am. I saw you steal cigarettes out of my pack.”

“I didn’t!”

She started slapping him with both hands. He put his arms up in feeble defense.

“I’ve told you I don’t want you smoking!”

“I haven’t been smoking!” he said. “I would never smoke! It’s bad for your health!”

“You stole them!”

“All right, I’ll admit I took them. I didn’t really steal them. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“So, are you telling me you’re stealing my cigarettes but not smoking them? If you’re not smoking them, what are you doing with them?”

“I took them for a sick friend.”

“What friend?”

“You don’t know him!”

“I want to know his name!” she said, slapping him again.

“Harry Burgess! His name is Harry Burgess!”

“Tell Harry Burgess to steal his own cigarettes!”

“He can’t! He doesn’t have any hands!”

“How does he smoke, then, if he doesn’t have any hands?”

“I have to light the cigarette for him and hold it up to his lips.”

“You’re a liar!”

“No, really, mother. That is the Lord’s honest truth!”

“I want you to bring Harry Burgess to meet me. I’d like to meet a boy with no hands.”

“Well, he’s shy. He doesn’t like meeting people. People laugh at him and call him ‘meat hooks’.”

“He sounds like your type of friend.”

“I’m going to the school nurse today and tell her you beat me! I’ll have the bruises to prove it! She’ll call the police and they’ll come and take you away in handcuffs.”

“Put the cigarettes back in the pack and get your ass to school!”

On his way to school, he stopped at Finklehoff’s Sweet Shoppe and bought his own pack of cigarettes. Hungry from not eating breakfast, he also bought a donut, which he ate in a few quick bites.

Being within sight of the school building always made him feel despondent and a little suicidal. He loitered out in front for a while before going in. Soon he was joined by his friend Harry Burgess.

“Did you study for the American history test?” Harry asked him.

“Hell, no!

“Me either. All that stuff just goes right out of my head as soon as I read it. Why should I care about history stuff?”

“My old lady beat the crap out of me at the breakfast table this morning,” Ruffin said.

“You mean your mother?”

“Yeah, I mean my mother.”

“Why did she beat the crap out of you?”

“Because she’s evil.”

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.”

“I have cigarettes, though.”

“Yeah? Where’d you get ‘em?”

“I stopped at Finklehoff’s on my way to school this morning.”

“Did you steal ‘em?”

“No, I didn’t steal them! What do you think I am? I bought them!”

Together they went into the school building. It was still a few minutes to first bell, so they made their way to the boys’ restroom on the first floor. All the way in back was the traditional smoking space between the last stall and the wall. It was fairly private and there was a window there that might be raised to let out any excess smoke.

Ruffin took the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and opened it. He gave one to Harry and took one himself. They lit up and puffed greedily.

“Boy, that tastes good!” Harry said. “I’ve been having a nicotine fit all night long!”

“I know what you mean,” Ruffin said. “Smoking is one of life’s greatest pleasures!”

“Does your mother know you smoke?”

“I think she knows but she doesn’t want to admit it. She smokes like a fiend all the time, but she tells me if she ever sees me smoking she’s going to knock it down my throat.”

“That might cause you to get choked!”

“Yeah, if she caused me to choke to death, she’d go to jail, but she’d swear I had it coming. How about you? Does your mother know you smoke?”

“She doesn’t pay any attention. If she saw me smoking, she’d scream at me and lecture me, but five minutes later she’d forget about it.”

They heard the door open and close and then quiet footsteps.

“Who do you think that is?” Harry whispered.

“Probably nobody.”

Harry opened the window a little higher and began fanning the smoke with his hands.

“Don’t worry about it,” Ruffin said. “So, we’re smoking! What of it? Who cares?”

They heard the water running and relaxed. Whoever had come in didn’t care what they were doing. They kept smoking, generating an unusually large amount of smoke.

What’s going on here?” a loud voice said behind them.

Startled, they both turned and looked into the face of Mr. Emmett Terry, school principal.

“Are you smoking?” Mr. Terry said. “Hiding in the bathroom and smoking?”

“No, we were just taking a little break before going to class.”

“You’re not smoking?”

“No, we’re not smoking,” Harry said, grinding his cigarette out under the heel of his shoe.

“There’s enough smoke in here for a forest fire!”

“Oh, that! We were wondering about that too!”

“My office! Right now!”

“Yes, sir!” Harry said.

The penalty for smoking on school grounds was a three-day suspension. Mr. Terry, in this case, was not inclined to be lenient.

“The three days of your suspension will go on your permanent record as unauthorized absences,” Mr. Terry said gravely. “This could severely limit your ability to get into a good college.”

“This is going to kill my mother!” Harry said.

“Now, I’m sending a letter home with each of you for you to give to your parent or guardian. At the end of your suspension, you will not be readmitted to school until your parent or guardian comes to the school for a sit-down meeting with me, the superintendent, and the guidance counselor.”

Harry groaned.

“When you boys sneak cigarettes in the boy’s restroom, it’s a serious breach of discipline. School administration seeks the help and intervention of the parent or guardian in a situation this serious.”

“You make it sound like we killed somebody!” Harry said.

When Ruffin got home in the middle of the day, his mother was dozing on the couch.

“What are you doing home from school so early?” she asked.

“I’ve been suspended from school.”

What?

“I said I’ve been suspended from school for three days.”

“You’ve what?

His hand shook as he handed her the letter from Mr. Terry. She looked at the letter, front and back, but before she opened it she lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of blue smoke upward into his face. He was sure he was going to vomit. He was more afraid of her than he was of Mr. Terry.

Copyright 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Ship Sailed On ~ A Short Story

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The Ship Sailed On
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

Wallace Weems didn’t like offices. They were places of confinement and discomfort. He squirmed in the chair, picked up a magazine and, finding it of no interest, threw it down again. He looked at his watch and then at the clock on the wall, confirming that it was fifteen minutes after the time of his appointment. He had arrived on time, and he wondered why they couldn’t extend the same courtesy to him.

He was thinking about getting up and going home, when, finally, the young secretary came out from behind a partition and told him Mr. Strang would see him now.

“How are you?” Mr. Strang asked, shaking his hand without smiling. “Have a seat. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

He sat in the leather chair in front of Mr. Strang’s desk and wondered if he was going to have to wait some more, while Mr. Strang fumbled through some papers on his desk. Finally he set the papers aside and sat down at his desk.

“I was sorry to hear of your mother’s passing,” Mr. Strang said.

“Thank you.”

“I represented her interests for more than twenty years.”

“Oh?”

“I wanted to come to her services, but I found myself unable to get away.”

“There weren’t any services to speak of. Just a simple cremation.”

“No family?”

“Only me.”

“Oh. That’s very sad.”

“Not so sad, really. Just a fact of life.”

“So, what are your plans now that she’s gone?”

“I don’t have any plans. I haven’t had time to think about it. She’s only been gone a few days. I still find myself in a state of shock.”

“That’s perfectly understandable.”

“Even though she was over ninety years old, I had convinced myself she would never die.”

Never die?”

“That’s not quite true. I mean, I knew she would die someday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to think about it. My own death seemed more real to me than her death.”

“It was your own way of coping, I suppose.”

“Yes.”

“It helped you get through the difficult years with her.”

“When I graduated from high school, she was almost fifty years old and in failing health. She had a bad heart and cirrhosis of the liver from heavy drinking. She had smoked two or three packs of cigarettes a day since the seventh grade. She believed she would live for only two or three more years.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I also believed it. I tried to get away from her, but when I saw she was probably going to die soon, I thought I could wait. Two or three years. That’s not so long. I could ease her dying and keep her from being all alone. No more than three years and I’d be free and clear. I’d sell the house and go someplace far away. I always wanted to travel. I thought about Europe or Australia. I had always been attracted to Australia, for some reason.”

“It didn’t quite work out that way, did it?”

“No, it did not! The two or three years turned out to be more than forty years! Forty years is a big chunk out of your life. While I waited for her to die, I missed all my chances.  The boat sailed without me. I missed the chance for a college education or a career or a happy marriage. I didn’t even have any friends. I gave everything up for her!”

“Do you think she appreciated your sacrifice?”

“Of course she didn’t! She was selfish that way. She didn’t see me as a real person.”

“Surely, that’s an exaggeration!”

“No, it isn’t. She only saw me as an extension of herself. She was a person without empathy. She was unable to see anything from my standpoint.”

“Yet you loved her.”

“I wanted to kill her! I used to fantasize about pushing her down the basement steps or putting rat poison in her soup. I wanted to drop her from the highway overpass into rush-hour traffic. I wanted to take her on an ocean cruise and push her overboard in shark-infested waters.”

“Yet you never acted on these impulses.”

“Of course not! What do you think I am?”

“Well, cheer up! You’re not quite sixty. That’s not so old. You have a lot of years remaining to you. The best part is your mother left you some money. You can travel or do whatever you want now, without accounting to anyone.”

“She left me money?”

“Yes, she did.”

“She never talked to me about money, except to complain about not having enough. She always wanted me to think we were one step away from starvation and bankruptcy. We ate plenty of baloney and Ramen noodles because they were cheap.”

“She had money.”

“She wanted me to think we were poor because if I had known there was money, I might have robbed her and gone far away where she’d never find me. It makes perfect sense.”

“Well, your troubles are over. She left you in excess of one million, two hundred thousand dollars.”

What?

“She left you a fortune of over a million dollars.”

“She left me what?”

“One million, two hundred thousand dollars.”

“Are you sure there’s not some mistake?”

A few weeks later, he was on an ocean liner to the European continent. He wanted to see Paris, Rome and London. He might have flown on a plane and been there in a dozen hours, but he had always imagined himself on a mighty, ocean-going ship, and he couldn’t see it any other way.

He loved being at sea. It was everything he ever dreamed of. He was seasick on the first night out, but he refrained from eating dinner and the next morning he felt better than he had ever felt before. It was the beginning of a new life for him. He was casting off the old life like a snake shedding its skin.

He hadn’t spoken yet to any of the other passengers, but he studied them furtively and wondered what they were thinking. Some of them looked at him appreciatively and smiled knowingly. Surely they found him of some interest, or they wouldn’t bother looking at him at all.

The third night out he enjoyed a lavish dinner in the dining salon. When he was finished with his dinner, he didn’t feel like returning to his cabin alone, so he went into the bar and ordered a champagne cocktail. He found he was enjoying the music and the atmosphere, so he stayed for over an hour and had several drinks.

He returned to his cabin, more drunk than he had ever been in his life. As he switched on the lights and locked himself in, he wasn’t surprised to see his mother sitting in the chair beside the bed.

“Well, well, well!” she said in her raspy smoker’s voice. “What have we here?”

“Leave me alone, mother,” he said. “I’m enjoying myself and I’m just getting started”

“On my money!”

“It’s not your money anymore, mother. It’s my money now.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve! Squandering my money! How much did this little trip of yours cost?”

“None of your business, mother. It doesn’t in any way concern you. You’re dead.”

“You’ll never be rid of me!”

“It’ll be easier than you think.”

“Why did you have me cremated? You know how I hate cremation!”

“I wanted to make sure you were really and truly gone.”

“I’m not gone! I’m right here beside you!”

“I want to show you something, mother.”

He opened his suitcase out on the bed and pulled out a modest-looking oblong box from underneath the pants and shirts.

“Do you know what this is, mother?”

She watched, fascinated, as he set the box on the bed and took off the lid, revealing a quantity of gray ash nestled in a plastic bag.

“This is you, mother! It’s you!”

“I think you’ve taken leave of your senses!”

“Not at all, mother. And do you know what I’m going to do with you? Come along with me and I’ll show you.”

Carrying the box of ashes, reeling from the liquor he had consumed, he left his cabin like a mad man and went out onto the deck. The wind was blowing and the sea was rough, but he was not to be deterred.

“Watch me now, mother!” he said. “This is where you and I part company!”

He lifted the plastic bag out of the box and began emptying his mother’s ashes over the railing. He leaned out a little too far and when the boat gave a little lurch he lost his balance and fell headlong into the sea.

He struggled to right himself in the frigid water. He emitted one pitiful little scream, but it was already too late. No one had seen him fall. No one heard him scream. The ship sailed on. The waves closed over his head. His absence was not noted for two carefree days.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Swimsuit Optional ~ A Short Story

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Swimsuit Optional
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

Gideon Sayers had just finished tenth grade and would move on to the eleventh when school took up again. He didn’t have any specific plans for summer, but he was looking forward to having plenty of time to himself and doing exactly as he pleased. His father would be at work all day.

On the very first day of summer vacation a girl from his class named Joyce Mahoney called him on the phone.

“I don’t think I remember you,” he said. “I can’t place the name.”

“What do you mean you don’t remember me?” she said. “You see me every day at school!”

“I’m not good with names,” he said. “Describe yourself.”

“Well, let’s see. I’m taller than most of the other girls. I have short brown hair. I’m not fat like a lot of the girls.”

“A lot of people fit that description.”

“I failed the Constitution test two times. I passed it on the third try.”

“Oh, yeah! You had a crying fit in American history class and you called the teacher an effing bastard.”

“That’s me!” she said. “If I had known I was going to have to describe myself, I wouldn’t have bothered calling.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” he laughed. “The thing with girls is that they all kind of blend together for me.”

“I can see this wasn’t a good idea,” she said.

“No, no, that’s all right! What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Next week is Christine Swanson’s seventeenth birthday and we’re having a pool party at my house to surprise her.”

“I didn’t know you had a pool.”

“There isn’t any reason why you should.”

“Who did you say the party is for?”

“Christine Swanson.”

“I don’t think I know her.”

“Gideon, you are impossible!”

“Can you describe her for me?”

“She’s only the most popular girl in school! She’s a cheerleader. She was yearbook queen. Her picture is absolutely everywhere.”

“Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard or her. What about her?”

“We’re having a pool party for her at my house.”

“I didn’t know you had a pool.”

“We’re calling everybody in drama club. We didn’t want to leave anybody out.”

“I’m not in drama club.”

“That’s funny. Your name is on the list.”

“I’m not in drama club.”

“Well, somebody made a mistake, I guess.”

“Now that you’ve invited me, do you want to uninvite me?”

“No, I made the mistake of inviting you, so the invitation still stands, I suppose.”

“That’s awfully sweet of you, Janet, but I don’t really know how to swim.”

“It’s Joyce. My name is Joyce.”

“Oh. Right. I forgot for a moment to whom I was speaking. As I was saying, I’m not a swimmer. I don’t know how to swim.”

“That’s all right. Nobody knows how to swim. We just splash around in the water. The boys try to drown each other. There’s a diving board but nobody knows how to dive—they just jump off into the water. There’ll be water volleyball, music and lots of food.”

“I don’t know how to play water volleyball.”

“It doesn’t matter. Anybody can play.”

“Would I need to wear a swimsuit?”

“We have a swimsuits-optional policy.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you can swim naked if you have the nerve.”

“And what day is that?”

“Thursday next week.”

“What time?”

“Three o’clock.”

“Um, hold on a minute! I have to check my social calendar.”

He kept her hanging on for five minutes or more and when he went back to the phone, he said, “Janet, are you still there?”

“It’s Joyce.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Joyce. Well, I’m sorry, Joyce, but I won’t be able to come that day. I’m having abdominal surgery.”

“Oh. I see. I didn’t think you’d come, but I thought I’d try anyway since your name is on the list.”

“Well, thank you so much for the call. It was lovely speaking with you.”

“Yeah, you too. Good luck with your surgery.”

As he was hanging up the phone, his father came into the room, reeking of aftershave.

“Who was that on the phone?” his father asked.

“A girl from school. Joyce somebody-or-other. She invited me to a pool party at her house.”

“Are you going?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“I think you should go. You’ll have fun. You shouldn’t stay at home all the time by yourself.”

“I like being by myself.”

“I’m going away on business for a few days, until at least Monday or Tuesday. I want you to go stay with Aunt Vivian.”

“I hate staying with Aunt Vivian. I want to stay here.”

“I don’t feel right about leaving a child alone in the house that long.”

“I’m not a child. I’m almost seventeen. I’ll be in eleventh grade.”

“You’re not afraid here by yourself?”

“Of course not!”

“I can trust you to behave responsibly?”

“Of course you can!”

“And if there’s an emergency involving fire?”

“I’ll call the fire department. And if there’s an emergency involving crime, I’ll call the police department.”

“Good. I think we understand each other.”

“I’m going to need some money.”

“What for?”

“A swimsuit.”

“Of course. For the swimming party. How much do you need?”

“I don’t know. I never bought a swimsuit before. I guess about fifty dollars should cover it.”

His father took two fifty-dollar-bills out of his wallet and placed them carefully on the coffee table.

“I don’t want you drinking beer. High school boys seem to think it’s grown-up to drink beer.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. Drinking beer doesn’t interest me.”

His father jangled his keys, picked up his suitcase by the front door, waved goodbye, and then he was gone.

Before his father’s car was all the way out of the driveway, Gideon went to the phone and called his friend David Deluca. David was one of the few people in school with whom he had anything in common. Their hatred for algebra was only exceeded by their hatred for gym class.

“How are you, old friend?” Gideon said cheerily into the phone.

“Fine,” David said. “Who is this?”

“It’s your best friend Gideon Sayers.”

“Oh, yeah. Hi.”

“What’s new and different with you today?”

“My mother is finding jobs for me to do around the house.”

“Why don’t you sneak out and come over?”

“Why would I do that?”

“My father is gone and I have the whole house to myself.”

“I don’t think so, Gideon. If I left now, it would only get her started. Once she gets started, she doesn’t stop.”

“I don’t have a mother.”

“I know. She killed herself.”

“Well, you don’t have to sound so happy about it!”

“I’m not. It’s very sad.”

“Well, I’ve invited you. Are you going to accept the invitation or not?”

“I don’t think so, Gideon. I’m kind of tired.”

“You’re sixteen years old! How can you be tired?”

“My blood sugar is low.”

“Well, eat a Snickers bar and come on over.”

“I don’t think so, Gideon. I have eczema on my feet. It makes walking painful. We’ll make it another day.”

“Well, suit yourself. I had something I wanted to tell you, but now I’ll just keep it to myself.”

“What is it?”

“Joyce Mahoney called me this morning.”

“She called me, too. She’s calling everybody. She’s trying to get a big crowd at her swimming party next week.”

“Oh. She called you too?”

“Yeah, she called me too.”

“Well, are you going?”

“Sure. Why not? I think it’ll be fun. If I’m not having a good time, I can always say I have a funeral to go to and leave.”

“Are you going to swim naked?”

“I don’t think so. I have some new swimming trunks from Brazil. They’re yellow with a red stripe up the side. I want everybody to see me in them.”

“You’ll drive the girls wild, especially the fat ones.”

“How about you? Are you going to swim naked?”

“I’m not going. I told Joyce I’m having abdominal surgery that day.”

“You are such a liar!”

“Well, I had to think of something quick. That was the only thing that came to mind.”

“You should go, you know, and stop being such an old nelly. I think it’ll be fun. I’m going to borrow my brother’s car. If you want, I can stop by and pick you up and we can arrive at the party like a couple of big men on campus.”

“I don’t think so. I already told Joyce I’m not coming.”

“Call her back and tell her you are coming. Tell her your surgery has been postponed until an appropriate donor can be found and you’d be thrilled to come!”

“I don’t know, David. I feel kind of funny doing that.”

“Do you want me to call her for you?”

“No, I’ll do it. I need to think about it first, though.”

“What’s there to think about?”

“I don’t know. It’s just the way I am.”

The next day he walked downtown with his father’s two fifty-dollar bills in his shirt pocket. He went to the clothing store where his mother always bought his school clothes and found the men’s swimwear department. He selected several swim suits, size small, that he wouldn’t be too embarrassed to wear in public. He took the swimsuits into the changing room, quickly, before he met somebody he knew.

After checking the door of the changing room three times to make sure nobody could get in, he took everything off except his underpants and, standing before the mirror, began trying the swimsuits on. A yellow plaid was pleasing to the eye, but it made him look like a clown. A light-blue would have been acceptable but, when he saw it was slightly transparent, he ripped it off. A white one that hung down almost to his knees made him look like an old man and, anyway, white would show stains. He finally settled on a red one, not too tight and not too baggy, that he could see himself wearing in front of his whole class. It only made him look slightly ridiculous, instead of completely ridiculous. Well, he reasoned, he wouldn’t look any worse than a lot of other people.

When he got back home from his successful shopping trip, he felt emboldened to call Joyce Mahoney and tell her he was wrong about the day of his abdominal surgery and would be happy after all to attend the pool party.

Joyce answered on the first ring.

“Hello?” Gideon said. “Is that you, Joyce?”

“Yes, it is. Who is this?”

“This is Gideon.”

“Gideon who?”

“Sayers.”

“Do I know you?”

“From school?”

“Um, I don’t seem to remember you. Can you describe yourself?”

“Look, Joyce, I know why you’re doing this.”

“Doing what?”

”Pretending not to know me.”

“I’m terribly busy,” she said. “I’m going to have to hang up now.”

“I just wanted to ask you a question.”

“What is it?”

“It’s about your pool party.”

“What about it?”

“I was wondering if it would be all right if I change my mind and accept your invitation after all.”

There was a silence on the line, making Gideon wonder if she had hung up.

“What did you say your name is?” Joyce asked.

“Gideon Sayers.”

“Do I know you?”

“I’m in your class at school.”

“I don’t want to be mean, Glenn, but your name wasn’t on the invitation list.”

“It’s Gideon. Not Glenn.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I don’t know who you are.”

“You just called me yesterday and invited me to your party!”

“Are you sure it was me?”

“Of course it was you! Don’t you remember talking to me?”

“No, I don’t! It must have been somebody playing a trick on you.”

“It’s all right, Joyce. I know what you’re doing. Just forget I called.”

“I have to go now,” Joyce said. “It was lovely speaking with you.”

After his phone conversation with Joyce had ended, he went upstairs to his room and closed the door and locked it, even though he was alone in the house. He took off all his clothes and took the red swimsuit out of the bag and pulled it on, up his legs and over his thin thighs. After tugging the swimsuit into place, he turned and looked at himself in the full-length mirror.

It was worse even than he thought. He looked like a hairless monkey, all joints and angles, his skin as white as paste. He was meant to always be clothed. He looked so ridiculous that he couldn’t keep from cringing.

“I can’t let anybody see me like this!” he said.

He took the scissors and cut the red swimsuit into strips, relieved he would never have to wear it where anybody could see him. And after he was finished, he left the strips of red material on the floor around his bed to remind himself just how close he had come to making a complete fool of himself.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Go and Sin No More ~ A Short Story

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Go and Sin No More
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

They were acquaintances, though not quite friends. They lived the same kind of life, but they were a study in contrasts. Zelda Zane (a name she chose for herself) was in her late fifties but looked much older. She was an indiscriminate alcoholic, known to drink turpentine or paint thinner if it was all she had. A frequent user of drugs, she was always on the lookout for any new sensation, any kind of substance to ingest or pills to take. She would take anything, even pills intended for dogs. Sometimes pills she took made her feel good and other times they nearly killed her.

Her companion sitting beside her on the park bench in the mellow, late-October light was one Vicki-Vicki Vale. She was twenty-three and still wore the bloom of youth. Her hair was and clothes were not quite clean, but she made the effort every day to tidy herself up, the way a cat might do. She was a shoplifter, a sneak thief, a sometime prostitute (when she had no other choice), a dope fiend, a social drinker, a check forger, a con artist, a liar, a fourth for bridge, and just about anything else she needed to be when the occasion called for it. You name it and she had done it.

“Where did you sleep last night, princess?” Zelda asked.

“In the cemetery,” Vicki-Vicki replied.

“Anybody try to mess with you?”

“There was nobody around, except for a few ghosts. I went over to the oldest part, where the moss hangs down from the trees.”

“That’s where the cholera victims are. Their ghosts, I mean.”

“Yeah, but ghosts don’t bother me nearly as much as living men do.”

The grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace,” Zelda said.

“Isn’t that the truth?”

“It got pretty cold last night,” Zelda Zane said.

“I would have been all right if I had just had a warm blanket to roll up in.”

“No blankets for bums.”

“I had to settle for leaves. I covered myself over with leaves, the way my brother and I used to do when we were little. I shivered my ass off for a while, but then I went to sleep. If anybody had come along, they wouldn’t have even known I was there unless they stepped on me.”

“Last night was a mild autumn night,” Zelda Zane said. “It’s nothing compared to what’s coming.”

“I know. Winter. I try not to think about it too much.”

“Winters are rough when you don’t have a roof over your head.”

“Winters are rough when you do have a roof over your head.”

“Why don’t you go back home before winter comes?” Zelda Zane said.

“I don’t have a home to go to.”

“You have family.”

“My mother said she’d kill me when she sees me again. She means it, too.”

“She couldn’t be that mad at you.”

“She is, though.”

“What did you do to her?”

“We got into a fight. A fist fight. We drew blood. It wasn’t pretty. She hit me, so I punched her in the face. Broke her nose.”

“Why don’t you give her a call? I bet she’d be glad to hear from you.”

“No, she wouldn’t. She’d tell me to go to hell.”

“She’s still your mother.”

“She’d like to kill me, honest and true.” Vicki-Vicki said. “I hope I never lay eyes on her again in my life.”

“More’s the pity. My own mother died when I was eight. I lived with my grandparents until I was married the first time.”

“How did that work out?”

“The results you see before you.”

“What about you? Where did you spend the mild autumn night last night?”

“I’ve stayed the last two nights at the mission shelter. I don’t like staying there, but sometimes you just have to get inside where there are four walls and a roof.”

“I stayed in the mission shelter one night,” Vicki-Vicki said. “I swore I’d never stay there again. I’d rather die. Some of the people there have diseases, coughing their lungs out. And some of them have got bugs crawling on them.”

“I know it’s not the best company, darling, but if you live on the streets long enough, you’ll have bugs crawling on you, too.”

“I haven’t quite reached that point yet.”

“Do you have a place to stay tonight?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Well, weep no more, my lady, because I hit the jackpot this morning!” Zelda Zane said.

“What do you mean?”

“When I left the shelter at eight o’clock this morning, I was cutting across the parking lot when I happened to notice, in a big black Cadillac sitting there, a lady’s purse inside the car, on the front seat, clearly visible through the window.”

“A lady’s purse? No kidding?”

“If there is a God, I thought, the door won’t be locked. And do you know what? It wasn’t!

“So, that means there’s a God?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I opened the door of the big black Cadillac and, as slick as a pig sliding down a chute, I grabbed the purse by its handle and ran away with it.”

“The dish ran away with the spoon! Did you remember to shut the door of the big black Cadillac?”

“Well, of course I shut the door! That just comes natural. You open a door and then you shut it.”

“Well, all right. Then what?”

“I went to the library across the street and went into the ladies’ room and closed myself up in one of the stalls and I opened the son of a bitch to see what was inside.”

“Well, what was inside?”

“A lot of junk that didn’t interest me, but what did interest me was a wallet with some money in it!”

“How much money?”

A hundred and seven dollars and sixty-three cents! I left the sixty-three cents and I took the rest and put it in my pocket.”

“Then what did you do?”

“I dumped the purse and the rest of the stuff in the trash and then I came over here to the park and I’ve been here ever since.”

“A hundred and seven dollars! What are you thinking of doing with all that money? Go on an epic toot?”

“No. I was thinking I might give it to somebody in need.”

“Yeah? Who’s that?”

“Well, I was thinking I might give it to you.”

Me! Why?”

“It’s enough for a bus ticket.”

Bus ticket? I don’t need a bus ticket. I’m not going anywhere!”

“I’d be happy to give you the whole kaboodle!”

“Why would you do that?”

“You need to get the hell out of the city and go home while you still can.”

“Haven’t you been listening to what I’ve been telling you? I don’t have a home to go to!”

“You don’t want to be stuck here when winter comes.”

“You don’t need to worry about me. I can worry about myself.”

“Just tryin’ to help a friend in need.”

“I could never take your money! It’s your money!”

“Not really my money. I stole it.”

“It is your money. You found it. You seized the opportunity and you took it.”

“It belongs to the woman I stole it from.”

“Then take it back to her!”

“You know I can’t do that! The only way for this money to do any good in the world is for you to take it and get yourself home with it!”

“I’d rather die first!”

“All right, then. I won’t say anything else about it.”

“Please don’t!”

“But if you should happen to change your mind, you know where I can be found.”

“I won’t.”

They parted then. Vicki-Vicki said she had an important appointment, but it was only an excuse to end the conversation with Zelda Zane.

After Vicki-Vicki left, Zelda Zane continued to sit on the bench in the park until the sun went down behind the trees and the air turned colder. She tried to cheer herself with the thought of the hundred and seven dollars she had in her pocket, but there wasn’t much pleasure in it for her.

She went directly to the liquor store and bought an ample supply of whiskey and wine. Carrying her bulky treasure to the Chichester Motel a few blocks away, she engaged a room for two nights and possibly three. Locked away from the world in her motel room, she began the epic drinking binge that would result in her stuporous death two nights later.

The winter to come was a harsh and cruel one. People were found frozen to death all over the city: in alleyways, in the park, in the cemetery. In December, Vicki-Vicki disappeared and was never heard from again. Nobody ever knew what really happened to her.

Copyright 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Only Adult in the Room

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The Only Adult in the Room
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

Prentiss Fitch stood and watched as her mother stuffed a black dress and a pair of pointy black shoes into an already-full suitcase. She was happy that her mother was going away for the weekend but not happy that she wasn’t going to have the house all to herself.

“Please, mother! I’m old enough!”

“No, you’re not! Fourteen is too young!”

“I’m almost fifteen.”

“You still act like a child. When I see you acting like an adult, I’ll start treating you like one.”

“Squeak is as much a child as I am!”

“She’s eighteen and a senior in high school. I trust her. I’m paying her to be the adult while I’m away.”

“She’s not eighteen! She’s seventeen! I’d rather go to the funeral than to stay here with Squeak for three days!”

“I thought you liked Squeak.”

“I like her well enough, but I don’t want to be with her every minute for three days.”

“As you get older, you’ll find yourself having to do many things that you don’t especially like doing.”

“Oh, mother, I think I’ll just kill myself!”

“All right. Just don’t make a mess.”

“A fat lot you’d care if I did kill myself!”

“Whenever you say things like that, I’m aware of what a child you still are.”

“Just give me the money that you’d pay to Squeak, and when you get back you’ll never know she wasn’t here.”

“I’m not sure I follow that line of reasoning.”

“What I’m saying is, you don’t have to pay Squeak. Just call her and tell her not to come. Then you can give me the money that you would have paid her.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I don’t need a sitter, that’s why!”

“Would you rather stay at the county jail?”

“What?”

“I can drop you off at the county jail and you can spend the weekend there, safely locked in a cell.”

“They wouldn’t let you do that!”

“Oh, yes, they would! The sheriff is my third cousin. He’d do anything I asked. So, what’s it going to be? Squeak or the county jail?”

“That is such bullshit!”

“I’ve asked you not to use that kind of language. I’m your mother, not one of your school friends.”

“Nobody ever does what I want!”

“That’s not true.”

“I’m hungry! What am I supposed to eat while you’re gone?”

“Stop your whining! You sound like you’re three years old. I just spent my entire paycheck on food. If you can’t find anything to eat, I guess you’ll just have to starve.”

“I want fish sticks and Tater Tots.”

“Squeak will be here soon. She’ll fix them for you.”

“Squeak can’t cook.”

“There’s nothing to fixing fish sticks and Tater Tots. All you have to do is preheat the oven and then put them in when the oven is hot enough. The only hard part is remembering to take them out before they burn.”

“I don’t want her to fix them. I want you to do it.”

After her mother left, Prentiss tripled-locked the front and back doors and turned on all the lights in the house. She didn’t want to admit it to her mother, of course, but she was afraid alone in the house after dark. Until Squeak arrived, she would be listening for any little sound outside that might indicate somebody was trying to break in.

She went into the kitchen to find something to eat. She would leave the fish sticks and Tater Tots for another time. It would take too long to preheat the oven, anyway. She fixed herself a baloney sandwich with lots of mayonnaise, put the sandwich on a plate and carried it into the living room. Her mother didn’t like her eating in the living room, but what did it matter? When one was alone, one might do as one pleased.

She turned on the TV and sat in her favorite spot on the couch, balancing the plate on her knee. On TV was a show with singing and dancing. She saw the dancers leaping in the air and heard the singing but she didn’t care for that kind of entertainment at the moment, so she didn’t pay much attention. Her attention was focused on the front door and to any sounds that might mean Squeak had arrived.

The singing-and-dancing show ended, and a comedy show with lots of laughter came on. She tried to focus her attention on what the actors were saying, but she was too nervous. It was after eight o’clock. It had been dark out for more than two hours and Squeak hadn’t come yet. She was going to kill Squeak when she saw her!

The comedy show ended and another one started. When the second comedy show was nearly over, she decided to call Squeak’s home and find out what happened. She let the phone ring and ring, at least twenty or thirty rings, but nobody answered. Squeak’s mother, at least, should have answered.

She began to scare herself with thoughts that Squeak and her mother had been murdered by a madman lunatic prison escapee, like in a horror movie. He would rape both of them, of course, and then slit their throats. He probably knew that Prentiss was waiting at her house for Squeak to arrive. He had her address and would be coming for her next.

At night o’clock, a police drama began. There were car chases, sirens and gunshots, but Prentiss paid only the scantest attention. She heard voices outside, people passing on the street. As long as people were out there, she was probably safe from anybody breaking in. If somebody wanted to kill her, they would probably wait until two or three in the morning.

She needed to go to the bathroom, not having gone since she came home from school, but she didn’t want to leave the relative safety of the couch and the voices on the TV. Finally, when the need became dire, she armed herself with a huge flashlight and a sharp pair of scissors and went down the dark hallway to the bathroom, turning on every light as she went.

When she returned to the couch, she felt a little better and was able to breathe a little easier. After all, she wasn’t a baby. She could do whatever she had to do. It was like standing up in English class and giving a speech with her knees knocking together. Just the thought of it made her ill, but when it was all over she realized it wasn’t so bad and she had been foolish to be so scared.

As long as the police drama was on, she felt it was still early enough that Squeak might show up before bedtime. The voices of the actors, even if she couldn’t make out all the words, were comforting.

The police drama ended at ten o’clock, though, and that’s when she began to be really scared. The ten o’clock news started. She hated the ten o’clock news. She wanted to turn to another channel, but she was afraid that somebody might be watching. If they knew she didn’t like the ten o’clock news, it might make them mad enough to kill her. She was better off, she decided, to just leave the TV where it was.

She stood up and went to the front door, pulling back the curtain just an inch or so and looking out into the darkness of the front yard. She saw movement out there, close to the house, as if somebody was sneaking around, trying not to be seen. No, on second thought, it was probably only the shrubberies blowing in the breeze.

The ten o’clock news ended with a cavalcade of commercials, and the ten-thirty movie began. It was a riding-and-shooting western, but at least there was nothing horrifying about it.  She wanted to concentrate on the movie, to help her forget that she was alone, but she began to feel sleepy and longed to go to bed. She wished her mother was there and she didn’t need to be scared. She wished Squeak was there, silly and annoying, the way only Squeak knew how to be.

At eleven o’clock, she decided to call Squeak’s home again. If Squeak’s mother was in bed, the phone would wake her up, but that didn’t matter. She was an old crab anyway, and if she wasn’t on her high horse about one thing, she would be about a dozen things.

She let the phone ring and ring, as before, but still Squeak didn’t answer and neither did her mother. She seriously considered calling the police then, but she couldn’t think she would say if she did. No matter what she said, she’d sound like a fool. When you call the police, they expect you have some kind of crime to report, at the very least.

She returned to the western movie and was on the point of getting herself calmed down preparatory to going to bed when the phone rang. It was the most welcome sound she had ever heard! If it wasn’t Squeak, it had to be her own mother calling to check on her. She would let the words pour out of her, trying to keep from crying.

It wasn’t Squeak calling, though, and it wasn’t her mother. It was nobody. Or, rather, it was nobody who chose to speak. There was a brief intake of air from the other end of the line and then the connection was severed.

It could only mean one thing. Somebody was calling to make sure she was at home before they broke into the house to kill her.

Now she was scared beyond all reason. She clamped her hands over her mouth to keep from screaming. She went from the front door to the back door and back again. She turned on all the lights in the house that she hadn’t turned on already. She turned the radio on in the kitchen to dance music, loud enough so that anybody outside could hear it. She increased the volume of the TV, so that it sounded like there were many people in the house having a party.

Another hour went by. It was now after midnight. The phone didn’t ring again. She was less scared now and more sleepy. She ate a whole bag of marshmallows and some hot dogs, cold right out of the refrigerator. She wanted to go to bed, but she didn’t dare go into her bedroom and lock herself in, the way she did every other night. She thought about making a bed on the couch, but that was too out in the open and would make her too vulnerable. If anybody broke in, they’d find her without even having to look for her.

When she walked into the dining room, an idea came to her. Why couldn’t she sleep on the floor underneath the dining room table, where she would be hidden from view but would still know if anybody came into the house?

She went into her bedroom and pulled all the covers off the bed and covered the dining room table with them, making a sort of cave. Nobody would ever know she was under the table. It was dark under there, with the covers hanging down to the floor, and was probably the only place in the house where she would feel safe enough to go to sleep. Believing she was hearing voices that very moment outside in the yard, she scrambled under the table with the flashlight, wrapped herself in the blankets the best she could and soon she went to sleep.

She woke at three in the morning and didn’t know where she was. She thought she had died and was in her grave. She crawled out from under the dining room table, went to the bathroom, and walked sleepily all through the house, checking the doors and windows to make sure they will still secure. The TV was still going strong in the living room with talking and laughing, and the radio in the kitchen was broadcasting a sermon for the insomniac worshiper. She was still scared, but not like before. She went back to her bed under the table and went right back to sleep.

In the morning she didn’t wake up until after nine o’clock. She heard the blat of the TV and didn’t know at first where it was coming from. Her first waking thought was that it was Saturday and her mother wouldn’t be home until Sunday night. That meant she had to get through Saturday night the same way she got through Friday night. Damn everybody to hell for going off and leaving her alone! She couldn’t kill her own mother, of course, but she would definitely kill Squeak when she got the chance.

After a breakfast of cereal and toast, she got dressed and sat on the couch and watched some Porky Pig cartoons. She would just sit there all day long if she had to, waiting for somebody to remember that she was alone. Eventually her mother would call long-distance to check on her. She would enjoy telling her that Squeak never showed up and she was scared out of her wits in the house all night by herself, but she made it through on her own and was all the better for it.

While she was contemplating the long, lonely day ahead of her, she remembered that her mother kept a sizeable amount of cash in her jewelry box in her dresser drawer. Money for emergencies that never seemed to happen.

She went into her mother’s bedroom and rifled through the dresser until she found the jewelry box that she remembered but hadn’t seen in quite a while. She undid the little latch and opened the lid. There was the lovely money, just as she envisioned it: a fifty-dollar bill, some twenties, a few tens and some ones. Leaving the one-dollar bills behind, she took all the rest.

She went into her bedroom and packed her overnight bag, just the things she would need for one night: pajamas, house slippers, bathrobe, clean underwear, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a clean change of clothes for Sunday.

When she was ready to go, she called a taxi and went out on the front porch to wait, holding her overnight bag in front of her with both hands. The yard and the outside of the house, she was happy to note, were not as frightening in the daylight. The taxi came after ten minutes.

She told the driver to take her to the Sir Francis Drake Hotel downtown. She and her mother had stayed there for two days in the middle of winter one year when the furnace broke and couldn’t be fixed right away.

She asked for a room for one night and when the man behind the desk looked at her, he asked her if she was alone.

“Shouldn’t I be?” she asked.

“Children are usually accompanied by an adult.”

“Well, I’m not! My mother is gone until Sunday night and I don’t have any place else to go.”

“I don’t think…”

“I have the money to pay for the room, if that’s what’s bothering you.”

After a little wrangling with the manager, they decided to let her stay for the night as long as she paid for the room in advance and as long as she wrote down the name and address of her mother and father as “responsible parties.”

“I don’t have a father,” she said. “My mother will have to do.”

After she checked into her room, she took the elevator down to the lobby and enjoyed a lavish meal in the hotel dining room of fried chicken, french fried potatoes, and lemon meringue pie, sparing not a penny of her mother’s money. Then she locked herself in her room (three locks on the door), where she watched movies all evening long, until she became sleepy.

In the morning, after a restful night of untroubled sleep, she again tried to get Squeak on the phone. Still Squeak didn’t answer, and neither did her mother. Something terrible must have happened there, she thought. It better be good.

She returned home by taxi in the evening. Her mother had been back from her trip for three hours and was “frantic” that Prentiss was nowhere to be found. She was getting ready to call the police.

Nothing bad had happened to Squeak. She wasn’t dead. Her mother was in the hospital for an emergency gall bladder operation. Squeak took advantage of her mother’s unexpected absence to go joyriding across three states with her twenty-year-old boyfriend in his new car. When she came back, she told everybody she had been abducted by aliens in a flying saucer in her back yard, but nobody believed her, and after a while she was forced to divulge what really happened.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

When They Ask Where I’ve Gone

State Hospital image 6
When They Ask Where I’ve Gone
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

He slept for a long time and when he awoke he didn’t know where he was. He was in a bed with a blanket and sheet folded over his chest, wearing pajamas that belonged to somebody else. When he tried to raise himself, he saw that his wrists were tied to the bed frame with short, leather-like strips that allowed him to move only about six inches in any one direction. He didn’t like being tied down—he saw himself dying in a fire—and called out for somebody to come and help him but no one came.

The room was small and besides the bed there wasn’t much in it; only a metal cabinet near the bed. The walls were covered with green tiles, each one about four inches square. He began counting the green tiles that he could see from the bed; he had counted to thirty-seven when the door opened and a man in a white doctor’s coat entered the little room. He carried a clipboard and wore a striped tie peeking out of his white coat.

“Hello. How are you?” the man in the white coat said. “I’m Dr. West. And what might your name be?”

“My name might be Pig-Eye Tatum.”

“Hah-hah! I don’t believe that’s really your name.”

“No, it’s Randolph Scott.”

“That’s not what it says here.”

“Okay, I didn’t want anybody to know, but I’m really Bruce Wayne.”

“No, I want you to tell me your name. Your real name.”

“Is that standard procedure with mental patients?”

“I want you to tell me about yourself.”

“My name. Well, the truth is, I don’t think I have a name anymore.”

“Yes, you have a name. It says here your name is Russell Estes.”

“Isn’t that a silly name, though? I was named after somebody’s grandfather.”

“I think it’s a good name. It suits you.”

“You don’t know me. How could you know if my name suits me or not?”

“It seems to suit you, based on my first impression of you.”

“Well, Dr. West, now that you’ve engaged me in conversation, I want to ask you a question.”

“What is it?”

“Why are my wrists tied to the bed?”

“It’s for your own protection. You’re just waking up from treatment.”

“What kind of treatment?”

“Treatment that will eventually make you better.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“If there isn’t, we’ll find out.”

“How long will it take to find out there’s nothing wrong with me?”

“That all depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“In large part, it depends on how well you respond to treatment.”

“If there’s nothing wrong with me, why do I need treatment?”

“You don’t need to worry about that now. Believe me, it will all be sorted out in time.”

“Well, if you say so.”

“Now, tell me your age,” Dr. West said. “How old are you?”

“I bet you already know that.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“I’m twenty-four. How old are you?”

“Forty-one.”

“You’re getting along in years, aren’t you? I’ll bet you have a wife, don’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter if I do or not. We’re not here to talk about me.”

“No, I think a person’s age and marital status are always very interesting.”

“Well, if you must know, I had a wife, but we decided to break it off.”

“The marriage, you mean?”

“Yes, it was an amicable divorce.”

“Any kids.”

“No more questions about me, please.”

“Are you going to answer the question or not?”

“No, I don’t have any children.”

“All right, then. I won’t ask you any more personal questions.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“In a bed.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I’m in a bed in a hospital on planet Earth.”

“How long have you been in the hospital?”

“I think I’ve been here about two years if I remember correctly,” Russell said.

“My notes say you’ve been here two months.”

“Yeah, a long time.”

“How do you feel?”

“Like shit.”

“You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I’ll feel better when I’m no longer tied to the bed.”

“A nurse will come along soon and take you back to your room.”

“And untie me?”

“Yes, and untie you.”

“Speaking of my room, I don’t like my roommate. I think he might be insane. Can’t I have a room to myself?”

“All our rooms are for two patients.”

“I’ve always had a room to myself. My whole life.”

“We all have to make certain adjustments.”

“Do you want to hear the story of how I came to be here?”

“I think we might save that for…”

“I lived with my parents. There are certain advantages to living with your parents, of course, but it also means you don’t have as much privacy as you’d like.”

“It’s usually a good idea, after a certain age, to live apart from your parents.”

“Especially my parents. They’re Christian fundamentalists. They belong to a fundamentalist religious sect.”

“I see.”

“I should probably tell you I’m gay,” Russell said. “I’ve known since eighth grade and I’ve always been good at keeping it secret. My parents should have known my secret, but they never picked up on it, because, well, that’s just the way they are. They aren’t even aware of themselves, so how could they be aware of me?

“One weekend they were gone and weren’t supposed to be home until Sunday night. Believing I had the house to myself, I invited a friend over to spend the night with me Saturday night. His name was Sebastian. I called him Seb for short. He was ten years older than me. He and I had been seeing each other for a while and things were going well between us. Well, it was Saturday night about ten o’clock. He and I were alone in my bedroom with the door closed. Now, wouldn’t anybody think that a closed door would suggest the desire for privacy?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Dr. West said.

“Well, my parents returned, unexpectedly, twenty-four hours early. They could have called to let me know they would be home early, but they didn’t because it would have spoiled all their fun.”

“You think they did it on purpose?”

“They wanted to catch me in the act of doing something that would horrify them. Well, as I was saying, Sebastian and I were in my bed. Just the idea of two grown men being in the same bed at the same time was horrifying enough to my parents. Well, we didn’t hear a sound and had no reason to suspect anything was amiss and, before I knew what was happening, the door to my room burst open—pow!—and both of my parents—both of them!—were standing at the foot of my bed looking at us.”

“What did they do?”

“My mother clapped her hands over her mouth and started screaming and speaking in tongues. She saw Satan standing over me. She saw me burning in hell through all eternity. My father just looked at me, and then he bent over and vomited on the floor. That’s the effect I always had on him.”

“What did your friend do?”

“He gathered up his clothes and ran out of the house. Who wouldn’t run?”

“He was embarrassed, of course.”

“Well, my parents wondered what they had ever done to deserve a son as terrible as me. My mother wanted to call the police and have me thrown in jail but, you see, I hadn’t been engaged in any criminal behavior, even from a religious standpoint. She went on with her showy nervous breakdown, and the next day my father called the church elders and told them what had happened. They had some good advice. They knew from past experience that it only takes one doctor and one lawyer to draw up commitment papers to have a son committed to a mental hospital. Well, wouldn’t you know it! There was at least one lawyer and at least one doctor in the church who would be more than happy and more than willing to have a gay man committed to an institution where he would be not only “cleansed” and “cured,” but also punished. It’s not quite as good as jail, but almost.”

“Well, that is quite a story!” Dr. West said.

“Every word is true!” Russell said.

“And you don’t think you need to be here?”

“You can send as much electricity coursing through my brain as you want, and it’s not going to change me. I’ll still be what I am.”

“You wouldn’t like to change if you could?”

“No. I’m the most stable, well-adjusted person I know. There’s nothing wrong with me. So, the question remains: When are you going to release me and let me go home?”

“Home? You want to go back and live with your parents after the grave injustice they did you?”

“No, I don’t ever want to see them again. When I say home, I mean someplace far away where I can be by myself.”

“And where would that be?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a monastery in the Himilayas.”

“Well, the truth is,” Dr. West said, “we can’t talk about releasing you yet. We have an aggressive schedule of treatment scheduled for you for the next six weeks or so. At the end of that time, we’ll re-evaluate your situation.”

“I won’t be here for six weeks.”

“Well, you may think you don’t need treatment, but that hasn’t been determined yet from a medical standpoint. A board of doctors, not just me, will decide when you’re ready to go home.”

“I know I’m locked in, but I can always escape,” Russell said.

“And where would you go in your hospital garb and without any money? You shouldn’t think in terms of escape! You have no reason to want to escape.”

“Do you really want to help me?”

“Of course I do.”

“Unlock the door and look the other way as I slip out into the night.”

“Do you think I would be able to do that with a clear conscience?”

“Nobody has to know about it.”

“And what do I tell people when they ask where you are?”

“I don’t care what you tell them because I’ll be gone.”

Dr. West patted Russell on the shoulder then and left, as if he suddenly remembered something else he had to do. In a little while, Nurse Gertrude came into the room. She was easy to remember from the other nurses because her head bobbled continuously, setting neck wattles in motion.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

He held up his wrists. She clucked her tongue and unfastened the leather straps.

“You’re an angel,” he said. “I could give you a big kiss for that alone.”

“Don’t bother.”

He could have walked down the hallway to his room, but she insisted on pushing him in the wheelchair.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars if you unlock the door for me and look the other way as I disappear like a little puff of smoke,” he said to her over his shoulder.

“Where would you get fifty dollars?”

“I think I could go as high as seventy-five.”

“Don’t make me have to tie you up!” she said.

His roommate, Victor Hugo, was lying sprawled on his bed, snoring like a buzzsaw. His hospital gown and his bedsheet were down around his ankles.

“See what I have to put up with?” he said to Nurse Gertrude.

“Things are rough all over,” she said.

She helped him from the wheelchair to the bed. She pulled the covers up to his chin, tucked him in like a dour nanny, turned off the light and walked out, her crepe soles squeaking on the tile floor.

He lay on his back in the dark and looked at the ceiling and listened to Victor Hugo snore. He thought of the others who had been in the bed before him, looking at the ceiling, listening to somebody snore, wishing they were dead. A lot of them probably were dead. He thought he might soon be dead himself, and it was a thought that brought him a kind of comfort.

In the early hours of the morning, before even a glimmer of daylight, somebody woke him by shaking him by the shoulder. He didn’t come awake right away because he was dreaming and believed the shaking was part of the dream.

When he opened his eyes and focused them, he saw a young man he had never seen before.

“Come with me,” the man whispered. “And don’t make a sound.”

He still believed he might be dreaming, but wasn’t sure. He slipped out of the high bed and, feeling like a child playing a game, followed the unknown man out of the room into the darkened corridor. Before they had gone very far, the man turned to him and put his finger to his lips to make sure he kept quiet.

The man took him down into a part of the hospital the patients never saw. It was dark, and after a couple of twists and turns, Russell didn’t know where he was or how he might get out if he had to, but he didn’t care. He would just keep following the man until they came to where they were going.

Finally they came to a service door. It was so dark in that part of the hospital that he wouldn’t have been able to see the door if the man hadn’t been carrying a flashlight. The man reached out and put his hand on Russell’s wrist to get his attention.

“Here are some things you’ll need,” the man said, handing him a paper sack.

Russell took the sack from the man and started to open it.

“There’s a shirt and some pants in there,” the man said. “Also a jacket and a cap. In the pocket of the jacket is some cash money. It’ll be enough for you to get away. I’m going to let you out this door. Walk east about a mile or so away from the hospital and you’ll find a place to catch a bus. It’s an all-night bus, so you won’t have to wait until morning.”

“Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter who I am. You haven’t seen me.”

“Why would you want to help me?”

“No time for questions. Just go!”

The man held the door open. Russell thought he should at least thank him for helping him but couldn’t find the words. Tightening his grip on the paper sack, he smiled and nodded his head to say he understood everything. Then, with a tiny rustle of feathers, he was gone into the night like a bird being released from a cage.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

Smoker’s Lament

On the Third Day image 1
Smoker’s Lament
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

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

Grandpa’s name was Estes Liam Whiteside. He never said much but just sat quietly and smoked his Winston cigarettes. He almost always had a cigarette going; he would light a new one as soon as he finished the old one. Grandma would nag him about some things, but not about his smoking. He had always smoked and she knew he’d never be able to quit.

Grandpa was a machinist. He worked in a machine shop. I’m not sure what he did, exactly, but he got up early in the morning and went to work and was gone all day until around five-thirty in the afternoon. When he came home, he’d be tired and his shirt would be dirty so he’d take it off and sit at the kitchen table and smoke cigarettes in his sleeveless undershirt. His arms were thin; he hardly had any muscle at all.

One day grandpa had a heart attack at work. They rushed him to the hospital and put him in a bed and wouldn’t let him get up. They gave him medicine and watched his heart beating on machines. The doctor came in and saw him pretty often but usually didn’t stay long. The doctor told him he was going to have to stop smoking if he wanted to go on living. Anybody who knew grandpa knew that wasn’t going to happen. As soon as the doctor left, he told grandma to bring another carton of Winstons the next time she came to see him.

We went to the hospital every evening after dinner to visit grandpa. I was too young to visit him in his room, so I had to sit in the crowded waiting room with Gloria, my sister, and read a magazine. Sometimes mother gave me a dime to buy a candy bar or a soda, so that would help to pass the time. Of course, when I got a dime, Gloria got one, too.

After a few days grandpa left the hospital. Everybody pretended he was well again, but he wasn’t. Not really. He stayed home from work for a couple of weeks, taking long naps, reading the newspaper and watching TV. He was eager to get back to work because he and grandma needed the money and he couldn’t afford to live a life of leisure, he said.

The doctor let him go back to work with the stipulation that he be on a “reduced workload,” meaning no more than four or five hours a day. That didn’t bring in enough money, though, so grandpa ignored it. He worked his full day, as before, and went back to smoking as many Winstons as he always had, as many as three packs a day.

In about two months he had another heart attack, this time while he was mowing the lawn. They put him in the hospital again, gave him oxygen and stuck needles in his arms. The doctor said this attack was worse than the first one and caused some damage to his heart. He had “yellow jaundice,” a result of his heart not pumping enough blood through his body. If he didn’t start following doctor’s orders, he could kiss the world goodbye.

They kept him in the hospital for ten days and then let him go home. He was supposed to be on a strict diet, with no salt, butter or fried foods, but he went ahead and ate what he wanted anyway. His first meal at home, just out of the hospital, was a big plate of fried eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes. He then spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the front porch eating pork rinds, drinking beer, and smoking Winstons.

He paced the floor a lot in his bathrobe, cranky and worrying. He had to get back to work, he said. He wasn’t a rich man’s plaything and had to have enough money to pay all the bills that were coming in every day in the mail. If you can’t go to work, he said, you might as well be dead.

The doctor told him he needed to consider retiring and applying for medical disability. That wasn’t his way, he said. He had worked since he was fifteen and he couldn’t see himself sitting around collecting a government check. That just wasn’t his scene.

He went back to work, even though the doctor advised against it. His next heart attack, his third and last, happened on a Friday afternoon in November. When he became stricken and collapsed on the floor at work, his co-workers called an ambulance. They rushed him to the hospital but it was too late. He was already dead. He was fifty-seven years old.

We were at school when it happened. Mother came and got us, first my sister and then me, and took us to grandma’s house. (As soon as I looked up and saw my mother in the hallway at school, I knew what had happened.) She was driving somebody else’s car with a stick shift and didn’t know how to shift the gears; we jerked and bumped our way over to grandma’s. It was a good thing it was only a few blocks.

The minister was at grandma’s house, along with her niece and a couple of the neighbor ladies. Grandma seemed calm but she looked pale and her hair was sticking up as if a cat had been licking it. The minister held grandma’s hand and quoted scripture. He told her that grandpa was fine now, that he was looking down on her from heaven and preparing a special place for her. Grandma smiled and invited him to stay and have something to eat. I knew she wanted to get him to stop patting her and holding her hand.

People began bringing in food. There was a platter of fried chicken, a chocolate cake, potato salad, spaghetti and meatballs and a shrimp casserole (none of us liked shrimp). You had to wonder how these people came up with all that food on such short notice. (It was all part of the elaborate American death ritual.)

In the evening more people came, including my father and my mother’s sister, Aunt Aldine. Their one brother, Paul, was a teacher in the city and wouldn’t be there until the following day. There were also more relatives, more neighbors, and the minister’s wife and their two odd daughters. (One of the daughters had a harelip and the other had an artificial foot. I wanted to a closer look at both of them, but I didn’t want them to know I was interested in them in any way.)

Everybody sat around, talking in hushed voices and eating the food. They left, one or two at a time, and others came in. They all wanted to give grandma a hug and tell her how sorry they were and to ask her if there was anything they could do for her. They all wanted to hear the intimate details of how grandpa died, who was present at the time, and how the news was delivered to the bereaved. Grandma answered their questions politely, secretly wishing they would all leave so she would not have to talk anymore.

Early the next day mother took grandma and her sister Aldine to the funeral home to make the funeral arrangements. I wanted to go along, but mother said it was no place for a child. When they came back about lunchtime, we learned that there would be two nights of visitation at the funeral home and the funeral would be on the third day, just like it says in the Bible. I imagined that would be the day that grandpa would take his place in heaven, even though the minister had been telling us he was already there. The minister also told my sister and me that we would see grandpa again one day in heaven.

I had my one dark suit but had outgrown my shoes, so mother took me on an emergency shopping trip that afternoon. Of course, Gloria had to go along. She was afraid I’d get a new pair of shoes and she wouldn’t.

When we returned home with the new shoes, mother gave Gloria a home permanent to try to put some pep into her lifeless, stringy hair. She wanted her daughter, she said, to look halfway decent and not like a refugee. Gloria gagged and made faces from the chemical smell of the permanent, but mother told her to hold still and stop complaining or she was going to slap her silly.

When Gloria saw the results of her home permanent in the mirror, she cried and screamed. The permanent had not been successful—or maybe it had been too successful. Instead of the right amount of curl, there was far too much curl. Her hair looked like the horsehair stuffing from an old sofa that had been in the attic for years that father set fire to in the back yard. Gloria was going to get the scissors and cut off all her hair herself, and while she was at it she might just open a vein or two. Mother told her to stop being so dramatic and promised to get her an appointment at a beauty parlor to get her hair fixed right, but it wouldn’t be until after grandpa’s funeral.

The next day at four o’clock, grandpa’s body was “ready” for viewing. We all dressed up in our best clothes and went to the funeral home early and stood out in front until it was time to go in. (Gloria wore an old wine-colored felt hat she found in the bottom of somebody’s closet.) There were family members there I had never seen before from out of state. Grandma or mother introduced me to them, but I didn’t know who any of them were. I figured they were all as uncomfortable as I was.

Seeing grandpa in his casket was a shock for me. He didn’t look like himself. For one thing, he was wearing a gray suit with a red tie and a white carnation in his buttonhole. I had never seen him dressed that way before. He looked fine, but he didn’t look like anybody I knew or had ever seen before. His hair was smoothed down and he seemed to have a little smile on his face. As I stood looking at him, I realized he was my first dead person.

Grandpa’s casket was at the end of a long room. It was cool in the room, with only about half as much light as you would expect. Around the casket were flowers of every color, shape and size: roses, chrysanthemums, daisies, lilies, carnations, and a lot of other flowers I didn’t know the names of. From then on, the smell of flowers would always make me think of death and the funeral home.

We spent two interminable evenings at the funeral home from four o’clock until they closed at ten. When nobody was paying any attention to me, I tried to find a quiet place to sit where I could be alone and not have to talk to anybody. I wondered what grandpa would have made of all the flowers, all the people, all the talk. I’m sure, wherever he was, he was either smoking a Winston, or wanting one.

On the day of the funeral, we were ready to go by noon, even though the funeral didn’t start until two o’clock. The funeral home people took the casket to the Methodist church in the hearse. At the church, we were given a little private (family) time before the service, where we could all have one last glimpse of grandpa before they closed him up for good.

The church was filled to capacity. Grandma and grandpa knew a lot of people. The service lasted over an hour. The minister spoke and, as usual, I didn’t pay any attention to anything he said. A woman I had never seen before wearing a green dress sang I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses. We prayed again, led by the minister, and then the service was over.

All the cars lined up outside the church then and we went in a slow procession to the cemetery a few miles outside of town. Grandpa’s body was committed to the earth, as the saying goes, and that was the end of him. Next to him was the empty grave where grandma would go when her time came. Her name was already on the double stone.

Grandma surprised us all by getting married again, less than a year after grandpa died, to a man named Erville Lawson. They met at a card party and began spending a lot of time together. They both liked shopping trips and catching small fish and throwing them back again. Erville, who was not a smoker, lost his wife about the same time that grandma lost grandpa.

Grandma sold her house and moved to a different town, to live with Erville Lawson in his house. She changed all the furniture to suit her own taste. Whatever she wanted to do was fine with Erville. They got along well together for many years, until Erville was called upon to make his own final journey.

When grandma was on her deathbed, grandpa was the one she talked about, the one she saw standing over in the corner, waiting for her. He was the one she most wanted to see when she got to heaven. It was as if all the years with Erville Lawson had never happened.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

It Was Christmas

It Was Christmas (2)
It Was Christmas
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

I had an end room on the fifth floor of Richardson Hall. Having an end room meant I didn’t have to have a roommate because it was a small, odd-shaped room and there was only room for one person. I considered myself lucky to get one of the few single-occupancy rooms, especially considering who might have been my roommate.

I was in my third year at State University, so I was used to dormitory life. Richardson Hall was the oldest building on campus, built around 1895. I liked its creaking elevator, drafty windows, and high ceilings. There were people who wanted to tear it down and put a parking lot in its place, but I think it’s a shame to destroy a historic old building to make way for something new and ugly. It’s like destroying a work of art.

Well, Christmas was here again and I was one of the few staying on campus. I could have gone home, but I wanted to stay at school, even though it meant I would be alone. I didn’t mind being alone. I lived six hundred miles away and the trip by bus usually made me vomit. I could have flown, but I hated airplanes more than I hated buses.

When I told my mother I wasn’t coming home for Christmas, her feelings were hurt and she almost cried. She said she couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be with my family during the most joyous season of the year, but I told her I was run down and if I stayed at school I could catch up on my rest and read a book I was supposed to read without distractions. She accepted my explanation but wasn’t happy about it. She implied I wanted to stay at school because I was enamored of some girl there. I laughed and let her think whatever she wanted.

The cafeteria was closed for Christmas vacation, so it meant that during the twelve days of vacation I would have to eat at one of the restaurants in town or eat from my stock of non-perishable foods that I kept in the desk drawer in my room. My mother sent me five one-hundred dollar bills in a Christmas card. She wrote that she hoped I had a lovely Christmas. Go someplace nice and have a good dinner on Christmas Day, she wrote. I failed to tell her everybody else went home and I practically had the whole dormitory to myself, not to mention the entire campus.

Besides me all the way up on the fifth floor, there were only four other people in the whole building who didn’t go home for Christmas. In five floors, there were five people. I liked those odds. I liked the feeling of being by myself in this old relic of a building. If there were any ghosts—and I’m sure there were—I was sure to see them.

The toilets and showers were down the hall from my room. I always undressed in my room and wore my bathrobe down the hall to the shower. Now that I was alone, I could walk down the hall naked the way everybody else did. The first time I did it, I walked all over the floor naked, even sitting for a while on the ratty, vinyl-covered couch in the TV room. I loved the feeling of freedom, the feeling of being the last person left alive. I felt like Robinson Crusoe and, like him, I had everything I needed.

On my first night alone on the fifth floor, I covered up in bed and read by my little bedside lamp. It had turned much colder outside and the wind was kicking up. The wind rattled the old windows in their frames and soon it started to rain. I lay for a while, listening to the wind and the rain and the quiet of the old building and soon I turned off the light and burrowed under the covers, experiencing a sense of well-being.

Sometime in the night the rain turned to snow and when I got up in the morning, there were at least a couple of inches on the ground. It was perfect. Nothing felt more like Christmas than snow. I didn’t have anything for breakfast, so I dressed and walked across campus to the student union to get a cinnamon roll and a cup of tea.

While I was sitting at a table my myself looking out the window, Dorian Dye came in and helped himself to the seat beside me. I knew him slightly and didn’t like him very much. He had a thin, rat-like face and discolored teeth. He was nosy and always asked questions that were none of his business. One time he asked me how much a jacket cost that I was wearing and another time he asked me my grade-point average.

“Hello, there, stranger!” he said.

“Hi, Dorian,” I said, wishing he might disappear.

“I heard you were one of the few staying behind in Richardson Hall.”

“Who told you that?”

“Oh, a little birdie told me!”

“There’s no reason to be coy, Dorian,” I said. “Just come right out and say it.”

“So, why did you stay behind?” he asked.

“My family doesn’t like me. They paid me to stay away.”

“Oh, hah-hah-hah! I don’t think I believe that!”

“You don’t think I’d tell you the real reason, do you?”

“Okay, so don’t tell me. I don’t care. Do you want to know why I stayed behind and didn’t go home?”

“Not especially,” I said.

“My mother is bipolar and an alcoholic and I can’t stand to be in the house with her.”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Listen. I’m on the third floor of Richardson Hall and I’m the only one there, so if you get lonesome give me a holler.”

“I won’t get lonesome,” I said. “I like the solitude.”

“Yes, you’re the solitary type, aren’t you?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“When I’m in my room alone, I try not to think about the all the ghosts in the building.”

“There’s only one, isn’t there?”

“Yes, there’s the boy who hanged himself in his room, but in a building that old there’s bound to be others.”

“I don’t mind a ghost or two,” I said.

“Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve. What are you going to do?”

“Nothing special, I guess.”

“Give me a call and we’ll get together.”

“I don’t think so, Dorian. I’ll probably just do some reading and then go to bed.”

“Well, if you change your mind, let me know. My number is in the student directory.”

I knew Dorian was another loser like me; what he said about not going home confirmed it. I really did have plans for Christmas Eve, but I didn’t especially want to discuss them with Dorian.

In the afternoon it was snowing again in a Christmassy way, so I put on my boots and my coat and walked downtown. The stores were crowded, as one might expect two days before Christmas, but I braved the crowds and tried to ignore them. I spent an hour or so looking around in the bookstore and bought two books, one that I wanted to read and one that I had to read if I knew what was good for me. Then I braved the department store and walked all over the three floors, absorbing the Christmas atmosphere, listening to the Christmas music, and observing the strange cavalcade of human life. I bought myself a wool cap and a pair of gloves. Merry Christmas to me.

After I left the department store, I stopped at a diner that had festive lights in the window and sat at the counter and ate a large cod sandwich with fried potatoes they called chips and drank a chocolate milkshake. While I was in the diner, nobody spoke to me except the waitress who took my order. I might have been invisible. I might have been the ghost of the boy who hanged himself in his room.

On my way back to the dormitory I stopped at the corner grocery and bought a few oranges, some donuts, a large candy cane, a loaf of French bread, a bag of pretzels, and a small jar of peanut butter. I also bought a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of fizzy white wine. I wasn’t much of a drinker or a smoker, but I figured I needed to do something out of the ordinary to celebrate the holiday. While I was paying for my purchases, an old woman wearing rhinestone glasses who worked in the store put a sprig of mistletoe in my bag. Nobody could say I didn’t have what I needed to celebrate my first Christmas away from home.

That evening I was sleepy, so I got into bed and read for a while and then I turned off the light and lay there listening to Christmas music on the radio. It was still snowing outside and the wind was gusting against the windows. Most people don’t like the snow, but no matter how much it snowed it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was happy and comfortable—snug as a bug in a rug, as my grandma used to say when I was little.

After I was asleep, somebody knocked on my door, but I didn’t get out of bed to answer it. I preferred to let them think I wasn’t there. Maybe it was the ghost of the boy who hanged himself in his room, but I don’t think ghosts knock on doors. It was probably Dorian Dye, since he was one of the few people who knew I was there.

The next day was the day before Christmas. I got up and had an orange and a chunk of French bread and a donut for breakfast, and then I took a shower and shaved. The weather forecast on the radio said the snow would continue through the day and into the night, with the temperature in the teens. It was ideal Christmas weather.

In the afternoon I put on my new wool cap and gloves and walked downtown, welcoming the frigid wind in my face. I had an early dinner at an Italian restaurant and then I went to a movie.

There were three movie theatres in town to choose from. I went to the one that showed only old movies and saw a double feature of movies from the 1930s. It was a very old theatre, with appropriate décor and all the pungent odors, and I sat down close to the front, as I always do, and enjoyed the feeling of stepping into another time. There weren’t more than fifteen or twenty other people in the theatre—it was, after all, Christmas Eve—and nobody made a sound when the movies were playing, not even laughing when something funny happened.

When the show was over and I left the theatre, the snow had stopped but the wind was just as cold as before, if not colder. There were still lots of people everywhere, but not nearly as many as before. Most people had gone home, I supposed, to rest up for Santa.

When I got back to the dormitory, it was after eleven o’clock. I put on my pajamas and bathrobe and, since it was Christmas Eve, opened my bottle of wine. I drank about half the bottle sitting up in bed, listening to the radio, until I was partly drunk. I saw out the window that it was snowing again. When I was seven years old, I would have been watching in the sky for signs of Santa.

Thinking of Santa made me think of home and my parents. I wondered what they were doing on Christmas Eve. It was the first Christmas Eve of my life that I hadn’t been with them. They had probably eaten a silent dinner and when they were finished, my mother would start clearing the dishes off the table and my father would go into the living room and expire in front of the TV. I wondered if they were lonely and thinking of me, their only child.

That night I dreamed of the boy who hanged himself in his room in Richardson Hall. He came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. I sat up and introduced myself. He had dark circles around his eyes and his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets, but he tried to smile. He still had the noose around his neck that he hanged himself with. I asked him why he was so unhappy, but he didn’t answer. I also asked him if he would do it over again if he had the chance but he didn’t answer that, either.

A little while later I dreamed that I got out of the bed and looked at myself in the mirror over the sink without turning on the light, and I had become the boy who hanged himself in his room. The boy was me. I was the boy. We were the same person. I tried to remove the noose, but the knot was so tight I couldn’t get it loose.

Christmas morning I slept until ten o’clock. I got dressed and was just about to go over to the student union for a light breakfast, when there was a knock at my door. I thought it might be the ghost of the boy who hanged himself in his room, so I opened the door and when I did I was disappointed to see Dorian Dye. He was singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I wanted to smack him in the mouth to get him to shut up.

“Have you seen any ghosts?” he asked as he came into my room and draped himself on my bed.

“A few,” I said.

“Are you lonely yet and wishing you had gone home instead of staying in this dreary old place?”

“Not a bit, Dorian,” I said. “Would you please get your shoes off my bedspread?”

“Yes, sir!” he laughed. “Do you know Vernon Vogel?”

“No, I don’t know Vernon Vogel,” I said with a hint of impatience. “Is that a person?”

Hah-hah-hah! Well, of course he’s a person! What else would he be?”

“I don’t know, Dorian. You tell me.”

“Well, Vernon has a car.”

“I’m so happy for him.”

“Well, since Vernon’s alone for Christmas, and since I’m alone for Christmas, and since Vernon has a car, we’re going to Pirandello’s for Christmas dinner. They have a special Christmas buffet. Have you ever been to Pirandello’s?”

“Once, I think.”

“I told Vernon about you, all alone here on the fifth floor, and he and I both decided it would be the neighborly thing to do to ask you to come along. We’ll make it a threesome.”

“I don’t think so, Dorian. Thanks for thinking of me, though.”

“Do you think you’re too good for Vernon and me?”

“Of course not, Dorian! I just don’t feel much like going. I have a sore throat and I’m kind of achy. I might be coming down with something.”

“What will you do for dinner?”

“I don’t know. Probably not much of anything.”

“We’ll have fun and the food will be great.”

“I don’t think…”

“What will you do if you don’t go? Just sit here all alone in your room?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking I might…”

“If you don’t have the money for Pirandello’s, I can pay for both of us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Dorian! Of course, I have the money for Pirandello’s!”

“So you’ll go, then?”

“All right, I’ll go.”

“Excellent! Meet me downstairs at four o’clock and we’ll go to Vernon’s room.”

I wanted to go out for Christmas dinner with Dorian and Vernon Vogel about as much as I wanted to eat ground glass, but it was more fun than I thought it would be. Vernon, a pleasant enough fellow, was the proud owner of a sleek red sports car.

Pirandello’s was about fifteen miles outside of town. It was a swanky place and packed with people, as if nobody stayed at home for Christmas dinner anymore. As Dorian said, the food was terrific. I ate more than was healthy, including turkey, duck and beef, not to mention three desserts.

When we left Pirandello’s, Vernon had had a little too much champagne—I had only had two glasses—so I drove back to school. I was glad for the chance to drive a European sports car for once in my life.

Back at Richardson Hall, Dorian wanted me to walk downtown with him to take in the Christmas lights, but I told him I had a headache and just wanted to go to my room.

I got into bed and drank the second half of the bottle of wine from the day before, listening to Christmas carols on the radio. Christmas really was a special time of the year. There was nothing else like it. My mother would be happy to know I had Christmas dinner with friends (even if they weren’t exactly good friends) and wasn’t alone.

I slept all night without waking up. In the morning I woke up to the phone ringing down the hall. I looked at the clock and saw it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. Who gets up that early the day after Christmas? I groaned and rolled over and went back to sleep.

In a little while the phone rang again. Everything was so quiet and the phone so loud that it seemed it was in the room with me. It was probably a wrong number or somebody calling somebody who wasn’t there. Without bothering to put on my bathrobe, I opened my door and went down the chilly hallway and lifted up the receiver, ready to slam it down again.

It was my mother. As soon as I heard her say my name, I knew something was wrong.

My father had a heart attack in the early-morning hours of Christmas Day. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital and he died around noon. He was fifty-one years old.

When I hung up the phone from talking to my mother, I wasn’t sure if anything was real. It was Christmas, my father was dead without warning, and I was standing in the silent hallway on the fifth floor of Richardson Hall in my flannel pajamas. I was stunned. I had to wait an hour or so before I could think, or get dressed, or do anything.

I called the airport and reserved a seat on a flight for later that day. I packed my bag and when it was time to go, I called a taxi.

During the short flight, I sat staring out the window and didn’t exchange a word with a single person. My tearful mother picked me up in her Cadillac when my flight landed. From there it was on to the funeral home to pick out a casket and plan a dignified burial. I kept thinking that if I had gone home for Christmas in the first place, my father wouldn’t have had a heart attack and wouldn’t have died. I knew my mother was thinking the same thing. I was the villain of the day.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp