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Funeral Home

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Funeral Home ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Trilby showed them the embalming room and they were duly impressed by the stainless steel table and cabinets full of bottles.

“Don’t touch anything,” Trilby said, “or I’m going to have to kill you.”

“It must be so interesting to live in a funeral home,” Pinky said.

“Yeah, it’s a million laughs.”

“I want to see the caskets,” Jo said. “I’ll pick out the one I want to be buried in.”

“Are you planning on dying soon?” Pinky asked.

“Well, you never know.”

Trilby was hosting a Saturday night sleepover for her two best pals, Jo and Pinky. Her parents were away for the weekend and they had the whole place to themselves. As usual, she had to include her eleven-year-old brother Warren in the tour, in supper, and in everything else they did. Otherwise, he’d give a full report to mother and daddy and he would make it all sound so much worse than it had been.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight after seeing the embalming room,” Jo said.

“Don’t be silly,” Trilby said. “It’s not scary unless they have a body on the table.”

“Why don’t they have one now?”

“Gee, I wasn’t able to arrange it. Maybe next time.”

“Would they let us watch them embalm a body if they had one?” Pinky asked.

“Of course not,” Trilby said. “What do you think this is? A fun house?”

“I watched once,” Warren said. “There was blood everywhere!”

“You did not, you big fat liar!” Trilby said. “Daddy would never allow you near a body.”

“He didn’t know I was watching. I was watching through a peephole.”

“What peephole? There isn’t any peephole.”

“I was dreaming that I was watching him embalm a body through a peephole.”

“That’s not quite the same thing, is it?”

“I’m going to be an embalmer when I grow up, just like daddy,” Warren said. “Then I can see as many dead bodies as I want.”

“You won’t want to see them, then,” Trilby said.

Warren ran on ahead and hid in the dark showroom where the caskets were kept. When Trilby, Jo and Pinky came into the room, he hid behind a casket and jumped out at them before the lights were on.

Jo and Pinky screamed and Pinky wet her pants. Warren laughed and Trilby made him apologize and promise to stop bothering them.

“Why don’t you go on to bed, Warren? We don’t need you here. You’re spoiling the party.”

“I thought we were going to watch a movie.”

“Jo, Pinky, and I are going to watch a movie. You’re going to bed.”

“I’m going to tell mother. She told you to include me in the pajama party.”

“Why do you want to hang with girls?” Jo asked. “Most boys don’t like to do that.”

“He’s really a girl himself,” Trilby said, “only he doesn’t know it yet.

“Shut up!” Warren said. “I am not a girl!”

“All right, you’re not a girl. How about you go on upstairs and be quiet for the rest of the evening?”

“Shut up! I can be here if I want!”

Pinky came back from changing her underpants and they began touring the casket showroom.

“Oh, there are so many of them,” Jo said, “and they’re all so pretty!”

She found a copper-colored one with salmon lining that she especially liked. She started to get in and lie down.

“Take off your shoes first!” Trilby said. “If you get any dirt in there, daddy will be sure to notice it and I’ll get the blame.”

Jo lay back in the casket and giggled. “Close the lid,” she said. “I want to see what it feels like to be dead.”

Pinky closed the lid and Jo squealed. “It’s so cozy and snug in here,” Jo said. “Quite comfortable.”

“I want to try it,” Pinky said.

She found a silvery, steel casket that she liked, kicked off her shoes and got in. “Close the lid!” she said. “This is really nice.”

“I want to do it, too!” Warren said.

“No!” Trilby said. “You haven’t had a bath in a while.”

“I’ll tell mother that you let the others do it and you wouldn’t let me,” he said.

He found a white casket with rose trim a couple of rows over and got in and lay down. He reached up and pulled the lid closed himself.

“You’d feel funny if the lid got stuck,” Trilby said.

After they had all three felt what it was like to be dead and Trilby was trying to corral them back upstairs before something bad happened, Jo noticed the museum piece made of metal against the wall.

“It’s not like the others,” she said.

“It’s over a hundred years old,” Trilby said. “It’s been used before. My dad shows it to all his friends.”

“Do you mean there was somebody once buried in it?” Jo asked, obviously fascinated.

“I guess that’s what they mean when they say it was used before,” Trilby said.

Jo approached the box and pushed up the partly closed lid. “Oh, look!” she said. “Red velvet lining! Did you ever see anything so elegant in all your life?”

She got in and lay down and Pinky closed the lid.

“I don’t think I’d do that if I were you,” Trilby said. “There’s something funny about that box.”

“What’s funny about it?” Pinky asked.

“It has a trick lock or something.”

After a minute, Jo said from inside the box, “All right, you can open the lid now.”

Pinky went to raise the lid but it wouldn’t budge. “It’s stuck,” she said.

Trilby helped her and then Warren helped too. The three of them were pushing up on the lid with all their might, but it wouldn’t move.

“That’s what happens when you do shit you’re not supposed to do,” Trilby said.

“Let me out!” Jo called. “I can’t breathe!”

“She’s panicking!” Pinky said.

“Hold on!” Trilby said in a loud voice. “We’ll have you out in a minute!”

“What are we going to do?” Pinky said. “It won’t open.”

“She’ll die in there,” Warren said.

“Oh, thank you for that!” Trilby said. “You’re such a big help!”

Trilby sent Warren to the garage for the crowbar and while he was gone she and Pinky kept pushing up on the lid.

“Get me out!” Jo said.

They heard her kicking and banging with her fists on the underside of the lid and after a while they heard her crying.

“Just lie still and try to remain calm,” Trilby said. “You’ll use up what little oxygen is in there.”

Warren returned with the crowbar and Trilby looked for a seam where she might insert the edge of it to pry the lid open, but there were no seams.

“Oh, my!” Pinky said. “I think we’d better call the police.”

“No!” Trilby said. “If we do that, my parents will have to know!”

They kept trying to think of a way to get the box open and, after a half hour or so, they no longer heard Jo moving around and whimpering.

“I think she’s dead,” Warren said.

“She is not dead!” Trilby said. “We’ll get her out. We just need to figure out how this thing opens!”

“What is your mother going to say?” Pinky asked.

“She is going to have an absolute fit,” Trilby said. “I’m afraid there won’t be any more sleepovers.”

Not knowing what else to do, Trilby began looking on the sides of the box for a release or a button to push or anything that might open the lid. She covered every inch with her hands and found nothing.

Unnoticed by Trilby and Pinky, Warren got down on the floor underneath the box and there he found a latch which, when released, cause the lid to spring open.

Jo wasn’t dead. Jo was not in the box.

“She’s gone!” Pinky said, not believing her eyes.

“Just stay calm,” Trilby said. “She can’t be gone.”

“She’s hiding,” Pinky said. “She’s playing a trick on us.”

“What did you do?” Trilby demanded of Warren. “Is this one of your tricks?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Warren said. “I got the lid to open, didn’t I?”

After looking all over the room for Jo and not finding her, Trilby and Pinky went back upstairs with Warren trailing.

“She’ll come out whenever she feels like it,” Trilby said, “and have a good laugh on us for being such dopes.”

They watched a movie and had popcorn and hot chocolate. They expected Jo to come out at any moment with a big grin on her face, but she didn’t appear.

Before going to bed, they went back down to the showroom and searched again. The old metal box was just as they had left it. No sign of Jo.

“Do you think she went home?” Pinky asked.

“I’m sure that’s where she is,” Trilby said. “I’m never going to speak to her again for scaring us like this.”

Sunday morning they awoke at eight-thirty. After a breakfast of donuts and scrambled eggs, Trilby forced Warren against his will to call Jo at home. Jo wasn’t there, her mother said. She spent the night at a friend’s house and was expected home any minute.

“She didn’t go home,” Pinky said. “What can it mean?”

“It means I’m going to kill her the next time I see her,” Trilby said.

Again they went back down to the showroom. They walked up and down the rows of caskets, looking for anything amiss. Everything, including the metal casket where they had last seen Jo, was just as they had left it the night before.

They stood looking down into the old casket, as if there they might find some clue. Trilby tried to lift up the velvet lining, but it was sown fast.

Outside they heard the faint sounds of a dog barking and a truck going by out front. When those sounds ceased, they heard something else.

“Did you hear that?” Pinky asked.

“I heard something,” Trilby said, “but I don’t know what it was.”

It was like sobbing coming from far away and then they heard the words: Get me out of here!

“It’s her!” Pinky said.

“It couldn’t be!” Trilby said.

“I know her. I know her voice.”

“It’s probably Warren playing one of his tricks.”

She called Warren down to the showroom and, when he was standing there beside them, they heard it again: Please help me! Get me out of here!

The words were faint but unmistakable.

“We have to try to help her!” Pinky said.

“You get in,” Trilby said, “and I’ll close the lid.”

“What kind of fool do you take me for?”

“My parents will be back this afternoon,” Trilby said. “If we don’t find Jo by then, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

Without further discussion, Pinky got into the old box and Trilby closed the lid but, with her fingers, kept it from going down all the way. After five minutes inside the box, Pinky got out, having discovered nothing inside except an old musty smell.

“You won’t find her that way,” Warren said.

“How do you know?” Trilby asked.

“I saw it happen in a dream.”

“Saw what happen?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“How did the dream turn out?”

“You don’t think I’m going to tell you, do you?”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Human Blood

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Human Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

School was out. Arlene Buck walked home by herself through the quiet streets of the town. It was a cloudy, warm day in late October. Leaves and debris swirled along the sidewalk in the wind. Arlene turned her head to the side to keep the wind from whipping her in the face.

When she got home, her mother and sister weren’t there. She didn’t like being the first one home with nobody there. She went into the kitchen and had a chocolate chip cookie and a drink of cold water and then left again. She would walk down to Jesus Saves and when she came back her mother and sister would be there.

Jesus Saves was at the bottom of a hill, where the street dead-ended. It was an easy walk down and a harder walk back up. Anybody in the neighborhood who went out for a walk went down to Jesus Saves and back. There weren’t many other places to walk, unless you wanted to go a lot farther.

Since Jesus Saves was where the street ended, people were always using the parking lot there for turning around because they didn’t know until they got to the bottom of the hill that the street ended there and they couldn’t go any farther. Today it was deserted, though. Nobody turning around and no cars parked on the lot. There would be no service tonight. Nobody getting saved from their sins.

Arlene was superstitious and she believed that when she walked down to Jesus Saves, Jesus wouldn’t save her until she touched the low wall on the far side of the parking lot with her foot. She did this and whirled around to walk back the way she had come, when a dark spot on the asphalt caught her eye, glistening and wet as if somebody had spilled a bucket of paint and gone off and left it. She approached the spot to see what it was. She was studying it when the door of Jesus Saves opened and a man came running out. He approached her and for an instant she thought he was going to grab her.

“Hey, you, there! What do you think you’re doing? Get away from there!” the man said.

She looked from the spot on the asphalt to the man and back at the spot. “What is this?” she asked, realizing at that moment that it was blood. “Did a dog get run over by a car?”

“No, no, no!” he said. “It’s nothing you need worry about!”

It was Reverend Pearl, a fussy little man in black who preached at funerals and saved stray souls from going to hell. He wore glasses on a string around his neck. He had broad hips and was no more than five feet, two inches tall. His mannerisms were more those of a woman than a man.

“I want to know what this is,” she said. “It looks like blood.”

“It’s no concern of yours!” Reverend Pearl said. “You go on home now! You have no business here!”

“I can be wherever I want to be,” she said.

The door of Jesus Saves opened again and two Sisters of the Church came out, lugging buckets of water and mops. They were large, homely women. They both wore loose, sack-like dresses and diapers on their heads.

“Over here!” Reverend Pearl called to the women. “Here’s where the mess is!”

The Sisters of the Church went to work, dipping their mops in the water and then swabbing at the spot. They moved the blood around until they had a sloppy pink mess. The water in the buckets, after they had dipped the mops a couple of times, looked like blood.

“We need something to soak it up,” Reverend Pearl said. “All you’re doing is making it worse. Dump this water out and go inside and get some fresh. Jesus! I never saw so much blood in my life! The police left the mess for us to clean up! How do you like that?”

Arlene stood back a few feet and watched as the Sisters of the Church moved the blood around.  Reverend Pearl forgot about her for the time, but when he saw she was still there he lost his temper.

“Didn’t I tell you to go on home just now?” he said. “There’s nothing here for you to see! Didn’t your mother ever teach you any manners?”

One of the Sisters of the Church stopped mopping and leaned over and whispered into Reverend Pearl’s ear, holding her hand over her mouth.

“Oh!” Reverend Pearl said. “Oh, my! Oh, my! Oh, my!”

“What did that woman say about me?” Arlene asked. “She whispered something in your ear about me, didn’t she?”

Reverend Pearl paid closer attention now to Arlene; he even attempted a smile. “I’m sorry if I snapped at you, little girl,” he said. “It’s just that a very bad thing happened here last night and it’s got my nerves on edge.”

What happened?” asked Arlene.

“Well, it isn’t my place to tell you,” he said. “You run on home now and I’m sure you’ll hear about it soon enough.”

As she began walking up the hill toward home, her heart beat in a funny way and she felt sick like when she had to go to the doctor. She knew something was wrong. Momma didn’t come home last night. Could the blood on the Jesus Saves parking lot having anything to do with that? What had the Sister of the Church whispered in Reverend Pearl’s ear?

She ran most of the way home and when she got there, out of breath, her sister Camille was waiting for her.

“Where have you been?” Camille asked.

“I’m afraid something terrible has happened,” Arlene said.

They waited all evening for momma to come home or at least to call them on the phone. Camille fixed dinner and while they were eating Arlene told her about the blood on the parking lot at Jesus Saves and what Reverend Pearl said and how he acted mad at first and then sympathetic.

“The blood of Jesus cleanses us of our sins,” Camille said.

“It wasn’t that kind of blood,” Arlene said. “Something bad has happened. I just know it.”

“You worry too much,” Camille said. “Everything will be fine.”

“I think we should call the police and tell them momma never came home last night.”

“She’s stayed out all night before. She likes to have a good time.”

“But she always came home the next morning,” Arlene said. “Here it is night again and we haven’t heard a word from her.”

“We’ll wait until nine o’clock,” Camille said, “and if she hasn’t come home by then, we’ll call the police.”

They washed the supper dishes and were watching TV when there was a loud knock on the door. Arlene got up off the couch and went to the front door and, opening it, was not very surprised to see her grandma on her daddy’s side standing there.

“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” Arlene said, standing aside to let grandma come through the door.

“I got some bad news for you,” grandma said, crying and wringing a handkerchief.

Momma had been murdered and her body dumped on the Jesus Saves parking lot. Police believed the murderer was somebody momma knew. Nobody saw or heard anything.

It was worse even than Arlene imagined it. And she had been the one to see all the blood.

Grandma made Arlene and Camille pack bags and go home with her. When they left the house, strangers were outside gawking at the house.

“What do they want?” Arlene asked.

“You all get away from here, now!” grandma said. “There’s nothin’ here for you to see.”

The police came and talked to all of them. All Arlene and Camille would tell them was that momma had had a lot of different boyfriends, had stayed out all night before on dates, and had always come home in the morning.

After the police were finished examining momma’s body, they released it to the Sutcliff Brothers’ Mortuary. Momma was laid out in her best navy blue dress that she always saved for weddings and funerals. Now she was wearing it to her own funeral. She looked fine, as if nothing bad had happened to her. That would erase the terrible image, grandma said, of her being butchered by a savage killer.

Just about everybody momma ever knew came to the funeral home to see her off. Distant relations from other states. People she had grown up with that she hadn’t seen for twenty or thirty years. There were lots of strangers there, too. People who had read about the murder in the newspaper or seen it on TV and wanted to witness a little part of it themselves to be able to say they had been there and seen the grieving next of kin. And now it had the added attraction of being a murder mystery because police still didn’t know who did it or why.

At the funeral home a strange man in a dark suit introduced himself to Arlene and Camille. They were sure they had never seen him before but it so happened that he was there father. He had left when Arlene was three and Camille six and neither of them remembered anything of him. All momma had ever said of him was that he was in prison and to be forgotten.

Now that momma was dead, he wanted Camille and Arlene to come and live with him. He had a new wife and he was ready to be a real father to them, finally. He lived in a small town in a distant state and they would need to leave their school and all their friends and start over in a new place. They believed they had a choice in the matter. They believed they might say no to anything that didn’t suit them.

On the day of the funeral it rained. Momma’s casket was removed not to Jesus Saves but to the Methodist church for the service. The church was full one hour before the service began. People had to be turned away or made to stand out in front of the church in the rain. The front row was reserved for Arlene and Camille, grandma, and the man who said he was their father. To Arlene none of it seemed real.

After the service was over, everybody got into cars and made a slow procession in the rain to the cemetery, where momma was laid to rest alongside her own baby brother who died when he was four years old.

During the graveside service, with all the people standing around momma’s grave, Arlene saw a man standing behind everybody else, looking on. Something about the man caught Arlene’s attention. Instead of looking down at the ground the way everybody else did, he was looking directly at Arlene. She was trying to figure out what was odd about him when he smiled and winked at her. She looked away, but she knew then that he was the man who had killed momma, the same way she knew about the blood on the parking lot at Jesus Saves.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Nighttime in the Rain

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Nighttime in the Rain ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

They converged on a bench in the park. Rufey took a little pack of crackers out of her bag that she got from the vending machine at the bus station and shared them with Peach.

“Where’d you stay last night?” Rufey asked.

“Had to get out of the rain,” Peach said. “I stayed with some friends in the warehouse.”

“I wouldn’t go anywhere near the warehouse,” Rufey said.

“Had to get out of the rain.”

“They set fires in the warehouse. The whole building is going up in flame. Nobody will get out alive.”

“I know.”

“We all have to go sometime, but I don’t want mine to be in a fire.”

“You go quick, I think, if the smoke gets to you before the fire.”

“How about you?” Peach asked. “Where did you stay last night?”

“I got into the Christian shelter,” Rufey said. “Stood in line for a couple of hours, but it was worth it to get out of the rain.”

“You got a bed?”

“Sure.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t like the shelter,” Peach said. “It stinks and there’s a low class of people there.”

Rufey laughed. “Can’t have everything, dearie.”

Peach was an alcoholic and had been a bum for over two years. To get warm or to get in out of the rain, she hung around in the library, in different churches, or in the bus station. In fair weather she sometimes she stood on the street corner and asked pedestrians for money. More often than not, they’d give her at least a quarter and sometimes the sharp edge of their tongue. “Why don’t you get a job,” they’d say, or, “Have you no pride.”

Rufey had been on and off different drugs but had never become what you would call an addict. She had been married three times, to the wrong type of men, and had never been able to make it work. She was a bum mostly through bad luck and faulty judgment. During a gambling streak in her earlier days, she lost everything and was in debt to loan sharks. She went incognito to keep them from breaking her legs, or worse. Her being a woman didn’t matter; they’d give her the same rough treatment they’d give a man.

Rufey and Peach had been friends since they started seeing each other on the streets almost every day. At first they were rivals, but, in a world where true friendship is rare, they soon saw the good sense in forming an alliance. They spoke almost every day, sharing their triumphs and disappointments. When Peach scored a fifth of whiskey, she would gladly share it with Rufey. If either of them ever had enough money to get a room for the night or a good meal, they invited the other along.

One of the things that Peach and Rufey had in common was that they were both waiting for something. A stroke of good luck. A large sum of money from an unexpected source. A duke or a prince who would spot them on the street and propose marriage. Living on the streets was only a temporary setback, a bump in the road, an illness that would pass if one only waited it out. Everything would work out in the end.

They whiled away the afternoon in the park and then evening was upon them again, threatening rain.

“What now?” Rufey asked.

“The worst time to be a bum,” Peach said, “is nighttime in the rain.”

“Maybe we can get a room.”

“Do you have any money?”

“No.

“The last time I noticed, it took money to stay in a hotel.”

As they were leaving the park, they found a wallet on the ground just inside the gate. Peach scooped it up before anybody saw it or claimed it.

“Quick!” Rufey said. “Look inside!”

The wallet contained a hundred and nine dollars. Peach took the money out and tossed the wallet away.

“Now we can have supper and get a room,” Rufey said, her eyes glistening.

They ate their fill in a cafeteria, enjoying dishes they ordinarily didn’t have, such as bread pudding and chicken livers. When they were sated and happy, they went down the street and bought a fifth of whiskey and a bottle of wine and then on to the Hotel Bijou.

The desk clerk made them pay in advance, but they didn’t mind. Peach counted out the bills on the counter and waited for the key.

“Checkout time is noon,” the clerk said.

“We’ll leave one minute before,” Rufey said.

They made themselves comfortable in their room on the fourth floor. They luxuriated on the bed and, listening to the rain, began drinking: Peach whiskey and Rufey wine.

“This is the life,” Peach said.

“Just listen to that rain,” Rufey said.

“I’m going to rest for a while and then I’m going to get up and have a bath,” Peach said.

“I could get used to this kind of life,” Rufey said.

They continued drinking and listening to the rain until they fell asleep.

In a room two floors below them, a drunk by the name of Vin Nickels had just returned to his room after a night out on the town with his pals. He took off his pants, shirt and shoes and got into bed smoking a cigarette. He passed out without thinking to extinguish the cigarette.

At three in the morning the first of the fire trucks arrived, but the hotel was already lost. Rufey and Peach didn’t know a thing. They heard nothing and saw nothing. They died happy, in their sleep, along with forty-one other nameless people. Dispatched to a better place. We saw them come and we saw them go.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Now Boarding

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Now Boarding ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

A public place, a crowded bus station, with the unmistakable smells of cigarette smoke and a backed-up toilet, more crowded than Miss Howe believed it would be. She stopped with Mrs. Greenhill just inside the door, looking for a place to go. Over there, a man and a woman just getting up. She took Mrs. Greenhill by the arm and pulled her with as much force as necessary to get to the empty chairs before somebody else got them.

Mrs. Greenhill didn’t seem to know what was happening. Miss Howe turned her around and backed her up to the empty chair and then, taking her by both hands, bade her sit. Once in the chair, Mrs. Greenhill swiveled her head from left to right. “What is this place?” she asked. “Are we here to see the doctor?”

“We’re in the bus station, mother!” Miss Howe said loudly, sitting down in the next chair.

“Are we going on a trip?”

“We’ve been through this at least a dozen times! You’re going to visit Warren and Velma at their home in Lucille.”

“Is someone going with me?”

“No, you’re going by yourself this time. All you have to do is ride on the bus and when you get there Warren and Velma will take you off the bus.”

“I don’t want to go. I think I forget to turn off the stove.”

“No, mother, the stove is fine. I checked it before we left.”

“I don’t feel like riding on a bus. I’m going to be sick.”

“I gave you Dramamine. Don’t you remember? That’s supposed to keep you from getting sick from the ride.”

“Dramamine?”

“You can doze on the bus and in a couple of hours you’ll be there and Warren and Velma will meet you.”

“Two hours?”

“You can take a little nap and be there in no time.”

“I can’t go. I have a previous engagement.”

“I know what you’re doing, mother, and it won’t work. It’s already settled. You’re going to go live with Warren and Velma for a while and we’ll see how it works out. They have a lovely room all ready for you. They live in that big old two-story house but they’ve fixed you up a room on ground floor, at the back, so you won’t have to go up and down stairs. You’ll have your own bathroom right there and everything.”

“What if I don’t want to go?”

“You don’t want to disappoint Warren and Velma, do you? They’re expecting you.”

“You can call and tell them I’ve decided not to come.”

“Now, it’s already settled, mother, and you know it. I don’t intend to have this same argument with you over and over again.”

“Nobody’s arguing except you.”

“You just sit right there in that chair and don’t get up for anything, not even if the place is on fire. I’ll go get your ticket and will be back just as soon as I can.”

“Can you hurry it up a little? I don’t want to miss that train.”

“It’s a bus, mother, and you’re not going to miss it.”

At least a dozen people in line ahead of her. Annoying people with annoying problems. Nothing ever goes smoothly. She looked at her watch and sighed.

She had to wait at least ten minutes and when she got to the window the man annoyed her further by turning his back on her. She would have stared a hole into the back of his head if she could have. Finally he turned around and smiled at her, showing a row of brown teeth.

“Some of us don’t have all day,” she said.

“May I help you?”

“One one-way ticket to Lucille on the two-fifteen bus.”

She wasn’t sure if he heard her because he left the window again and took up even more of her time. In a minute, though, he came back with the ticket.

“See that old lady over there in the blue dress?” she said, turning and pointing all the way to the other side of the enormous room.

He squinted and leaned forward. “What about her?”

“That’s my mother, Mrs. Greenhill. She’s in her eighties.”

“Yes?”

“She doesn’t hear very well and she gets confused.”

“Oh.”

“I have to leave her here. I’m attending a board meeting downtown and I don’t have much time. Her bus for Lucille leaves in half an hour. Could you go over and remind her when it’s time?”

“I guess I could get one of the girls do it,” he said.

“It would certainly be a load off my mind!”

She crossed the crowded room again, being careful to avoid brushing against anyone, even if only a sleeve. She took hold of Mrs. Greenhill’s wrist and placed the ticket in her hand.

“Here it is, mother!” she yelled. “Give it to the driver when you get on the bus.”

“What is it?”

“It’s your bus ticket! Don’t lose it! You’ll need it when you get on the bus!”

“I’m not going on any bus.”

“I just bought your ticket. You don’t want it to go to waste, do you?”

“I don’t care.”

“Your suitcase is right beside your feet. Keep an eye on it because people steal things in bus stations.”

“Nobody would want it.”

“Your money is in it and your identification.”

“My what?”

“We want people to know who you are in case you get lost.”

“I won’t get lost.”

“There’s your ticket in your right hand. Your suitcase is on the floor beside your feet. Don’t let the ticket or the suitcase out of your sight. If you need to go to the toilet, take them with you. Don’t leave them here. Somebody will steal them.”

“I won’t get lost.”

“Well, goodbye, mother. I hope you have a wonderful time.”

“I hope you have a wonderful time, too,” Mrs. Greenhill said, but she didn’t know why she was saying it.

***

Mrs. Greenhill was glad when her daughter left. She never did like having anybody telling her what to do.

What was she supposed to be doing, now? Wait for something and then get on the bus and go somewhere. Getting on the bus was easy enough, but what was it she was waiting for? That daughter of hers always had a way of making things more complicated than they needed to be.

She wanted an ice cream cone and looked around from her sitting position for a place where she might buy one but saw nothing. She had the money to buy one—she knew she did—but there was no ice cream cone to be had. She’d have to get up and go outside to find a place and she wasn’t supposed to do that. She was supposed to wait in her seat until something. Until what? She couldn’t remember.

She forgot for the moment about the ice cream cone. An enormously fat man walked in front of her, moving with the ponderous and deliberate slowness of an elephant. She was sure she had never seen so fat a man. He wore a long coat that might at one time have been used as a parachute. He found a place to sit; the chair upon which he sat nearly disappeared beneath his girth.

The loudspeaker rumbled and crackled announcing arrivals and departures. To Mrs. Greenhill, it might have been in an obscure foreign tongue. She didn’t know how anybody could know what was being said. She looked around for somebody who might help her, but the people near her didn’t see her. She was nothing. She didn’t exist.

A small girl screamed and her mother jerked her by the arm, knocking her off her feet. She didn’t fall all the way to the floor, though, because the mother kept hold of her arm. The girl screeched like an animal, dangling in a horizontal position just inches from the floor. She started crying and the mother pulled her upright and clapped her soundly on the side of the head, which made her cry even louder.

A pair of nuns came into view and Mrs. Greenhill gawped at them in fascination, as at a species of penguin. The nuns’ faces were hard and sour and they seemed to be arguing, but quietly. The skirts of their black gowns swept the filthy floor. They took seats and continued moving their mouths, consumed in their arguing.

More interesting than the nuns were a pair of husband and wife midgets. They were the size of children but dressed in adult clothes. The woman wore a white dress with puff sleeves and carried a handbag over her arm. Her face was sweet but freakish and mask-like because of the disproportionate size of her head. The man was dressed in a suit and hat and smoked a cigarette. He looked like a tiny businessman. The woman nearly lost her balance when someone ran into her. The man laughed at her and took hold of her arm to steady her. Mrs. Greenhill watched until they were out of sight.

Finally she grew restless with the waiting and began wondering if it wasn’t about time for her to get on the bus. She needed to find somebody to ask, but maybe it would be better if she waited for them to come to her. The voice on the loudspeaker came again, but not a word of it was intelligible.

She was on the verge of getting up, when a large woman with a girl of about eleven approached her. The woman sat in the chair to her left and the girl to her right. Mrs. Greenhill looked from one to the other.

“Anything the matter, honey?” the woman asked. “You look a little bewildered.”

Finally a kind word! Mrs. Greenhill could have wept. She handed the woman her ticket. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do,” she said piteously.

The woman looked at the ticket and then looked at the clock. “You got about seven minutes before your bus leaves,” she said.

“Seven minutes!” Mrs. Greenhill said. “That’s not much time!”

“You’ve still got time,” the woman said. “You need to take it slow and easy. Take your time. We don’t want to fall down, now, do we?”

“Can you show me where to go?”

“Of course, I can, honey!” the woman said.

She helped Mrs. Greenhill up and they had taken only a few steps when Mrs. Greenhill remembered her suitcase. She started to go back to get it, but the girl picked it up and carried it for her.

“Now, which way do we go?” Mrs. Greenhill asked.

“The busses board over there, honey,” the woman said.

“Where’s my suitcase?”

“Gina’s got it, honey. She’s right behind us.”

“It’s got my money in it and all my valuables. My medicine, too.”

As they passed the restrooms, Mrs. Greenhill remembered that she needed to make a stop there before she got on the bus. Once in her seat, she wasn’t getting up again.

When the woman realized Mrs. Greenhill’s intention, she said, “You’d better make it quick, honey. They announced your bus a few minutes ago.”

“Won’t be a minute.”

“Me and Gina will wait right here for you,” the woman said. “Right outside the door.”

Mrs. Greenhill hated using a public toilet, but sometimes there was no other way. She did what she had to do as fast as she could and washed her hands thoroughly.

When she exited the toilet, the large woman and the girl were not waiting by the door. They were not among the dozens of strangers walking, talking, sitting or loitering within the radius of a few yards.

Maybe they’ll be right back, Mrs. Greenhill thought. They only stepped away for a minute to buy a newspaper or get a drink of water.

She stood by the door of the ladies’ toilet for ten minutes and when the large woman and the girl didn’t reappear, she knew the worst of it. She had been robbed. Her money, her clothes, her bus ticket, her precious Bible. Everything!

When she approached the man who swept the floor and emptied the trashcans and told him what had happened, he told her she needed to report it to the office.

“Report it to the office,” she repeated.

She wasn’t even sure what he was saying.

Making her way to the door, she went out onto the sidewalk. It was the middle of the afternoon and glaringly hot. She looked one way and then the other. Both ways looked the same. She set off walking in the direction away from the sun.

After she had walked a couple of blocks, a filthy-looking bum approached and asked for a dollar.

“No!” she snapped. “I don’t have a dime!”

She walked with her eyes down after that because she didn’t want anybody speaking to her. She came to a hotel and went into the lobby that, though squalid, was much cooler than the street.

“I’m looking for someone,” she said to the desk clerk. “A fat woman with a face like an owl and a little girl of about eleven or so.”

The clerk smiled. “That sounds like Bertha Gottlieb and her daughter. The daughter may look eleven but she’s really twenty-seven. There’s something wrong with her to make her look that way.”

“Is the girl’s name Gina?”

“That’s the one!”

“Can you tell me where I might find her?”

“She robbed you at the bus station, didn’t she? Took your purse?”

“How do you know?”

“It’s what she does.”

“Where can I find her? I need to get my suitcase back.”

The clerk picked up a phone. “Hello, is this Bertha?” he said. “There’s a lady in the lobby wants to speak to you. Says you took her suitcase at the bus station. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think so. Well, you’d better give it back or the lady is going to call the police. She’s willing to pay a twenty-five-dollar reward, though, for the return of her property.”

When he hung up the phone, he was laughing. “Bertha’s indisposed,” he said. “If you’ll give me the fifty dollars now, I’ll go up and get your suitcase for you and you can be on your way.”

“You said twenty-five.”

“The price of the reward has just gone up.”

“I have no money,” Mrs. Greenhill said. “It was all in my suitcase.”

“Nothing in your pockets?”

“Only a handkerchief.”

“How about a watch or a ring or a bracelet?”

“Nothing.”

“In that case, I’m afraid we can’t help you. Move on, please. We’re awfully busy here.”

She left then, back out into the heat and glare of the sidewalk. A couple of blocks past the hotel, she heard the wailing siren of an ambulance. She waved her handkerchief but it just kept going. She heard someone laugh then and, turning, saw the bum who had asked her for a dollar.

“Did you see a fat woman with a girl who looks about eleven but is really twenty-seven?” she asked. “The fat woman would have been carrying a suitcase. The suitcase belongs to me.”

“I don’t speak no English,” the bum said, but she knew it too was a lie.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Reggie

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Reggie ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Grandma spooned ice cream into two bowls and set the bowls on the table. Reggie began eating his ice cream with relish, taking big bites and making little moaning noises as he always did when he ate something that tasted especially good.

“You gave him more than you gave me,” Lane said, looking from one bowl to the other.

“They were the same,” grandma said.

“They were not the same. You always give him more than you give me.”

“You can have my bowl,” Reggie said. “I don’t mind.”

“After you’re already eaten half of it and slobbered over the rest? How stupid do you think I am?”

“Next time I’ll weigh the ice cream ounce for ounce to make sure they’re the same,” grandma said.  “That’s the only way you’ll be satisfied.”

Reggie looked at Lane across the table with his sparkling blue eyes, and the way he smiled at her, in his smug, mocking way, made her hate him more than ever.

“I’d like to drop a brick on your head,” Lane said.

“Go ahead and try it,” he said.

“Leave your brother alone!” grandma said. “He’s not bothering you.”

“He always bothers me. He bothers me just by being where I can see him.”

“I’m afraid you’re one of those that will always find a reason to be unhappy,” grandma said.

“She’s not right in the head,” Reggie said and nearly fell off the chair laughing.

“I’m a lot more right in the head than you’ll ever be!”

“Bicker, bicker, bicker!” grandma said. “You are just going to have to try to get along.”

“I just don’t like him!” Lane said.

“I don’t care,” Reggie said. “I don’t like you, either.”

That was one of the things she hated about him most. He never backed down. When she said something mean to him, he always came back with something just as mean or meaner.

“You may find one day,” grandma said, “that all you have in this world is each other.”

“That will never happen,” Lane said.

She began taking dainty bites of her ice cream, already half-melted, and refused to look again at Reggie. He was enjoying his ice cream too much to suit her. She’d like to put some rat poison in it. He was always too happy, too sure of himself. She hated him more than she hated any other person on earth.

After Reggie finished his ice cream and went outside to play, Lane told herself it really wasn’t right to hate Reggie. She had been saved in church and she knew that as a good Christian she shouldn’t hate anybody, especially her own brother.

Well, she didn’t exactly hate him, then. And she didn’t really want him dead, either. She did, however, wish he had never been born. But, since he was born without anybody seeking her opinion in the matter, she wished somebody living in another state would adopt him and take him away to a place where she would never have to see him again.

Just think! No more Reggie! No more little white underpants for her to fold on laundry day and put in his drawer. No more having to share the back seat with him when they went on trips. No more having to give him one of her Twinkies out of her cellophane wrapper that held two. No more hearing mother coo about what a wonderful speller or what a good roller skater he is. No more having people make over him, patting him on his perfect blond head and telling him what lovely blue eyes he has while they ignore her as if she isn’t even there.

She had listened with interest to the talk going around about a child snatcher on the loose. People liked to talk about it and how awful it was. They said there were two of them driving around in a car. Not always the same car but different cars. The snatchers looked for children alone and when they found one, they stopped the car and grabbed the child and threw him into the back of the car and drove off. Nobody ever saw the child again.

She wished—without telling anybody, of course—that the snatcher would come and take little Reggie away. Not kill him or hurt him, but take him away someplace else and give him another life that he would end up liking. That would be the best thing for everybody concerned. Mother and daddy and grandma would be upset about it at first, of course, but after a while they’d get used to it. Not knowing what happened to Reggie would be the thing that would make them think it had all turned out for the best.

Any time she was slighted in the portioning out of ice cream or in any other way, she indulged in these fantasies.

In the afternoon, grandma had a headache and went to lay down for a while in her room. Lane took her library book and made herself comfortable in the big porch swing on the back porch. She opened her book and lay her head back on the pillow and began reading.

Grandma’s yard sloped down to the road behind the house about a hundred and fifty feet. Reggie was down close to the road, sitting with his back to the house, playing with the next-door neighbor’s dog, trying to get it to catch a ball in its mouth. Lane heard the dog yipping and heard Reggie laughing and talking to the dog. She concentrated on her reading and tried to tune out the noise.

She heard a car stop at the foot of grandma’s yard, heard the brakes squeal. She raised up to look over the top of the porch railing and saw a dark-green car. A man got out of the car and Reggie stood up. The man motioned to Reggie and Reggie threw the ball to the dog and went over to the man.

The man was tall and thin but Lane couldn’t see what he looked like because he wore a hat and wore dark, baggy clothing. He reached out and touched Reggie on the shoulder. They talked back and forth for a minute and then the man opened the rear door of the car and Reggie got in. He wasn’t forced in; he seemed to get in of his own accord. The man closed the door, got into the car himself, and the car drove off.

Lane wasn’t sure what she had just seen. She thought about it for a minute and then, finding herself very drowsy, went to sleep.

When she awoke, the sunny day had turned cloudy and it seemed to be about to rain. She scanned the back yard, expecting Reggie to be there, but she saw no one, not even the dog. When she went into the house, grandma turned from the stove where she was fixing supper.

“Where’s Reggie?” she asked.

“How should I know?” Lane said.

“Wasn’t he out back with you?”

“He was out back but he wasn’t with me.”

She wanted to tell grandma about the green car but decided it was in her best interests not to. Everybody would take Reggie’s side, as they always did, and she would end up getting in trouble.

At nine o’clock that night, Reggie still hadn’t turned up. Grandma, mother and daddy were in the living room. Dressed in her pajamas and bath robe, Lane stood just out of sight and listened. Mother was crying and grandma was trying to keep from crying. Daddy was mad, trying to keep from yelling at somebody for not taking better care of his son.

Lane walked into the room where they were. Mother took her by the hand.

“You didn’t see anything?” mother asked.

“Not a thing,” Lane said.

“Well, I’m calling the police,” daddy said. “Maybe they can find him.”

Lane went upstairs to her room, closed and locked the door. She looked at herself in the mirror. She had a happy expression on her face when she was supposed to be sad. She would have to watch that and not let anybody see it. How do you look sad when you’re really happy? She practiced different sad expressions, making herself look like a clown, until she got tired of seeing her own face and got into bed and turned off the light.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor

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And Now a Word from Our Sponsor ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Gloria Dawkins has been a widow for fifteen years. She is all alone in the world and loves her TV. She knows all the shows and loves them all. They make her laugh and sometimes they make her cry. They lift her up and take her out of herself. They make her think of something other than her aloneness. TV is her never-failing companion. People may die or go off and leave you, but TV is forever. Just get up and go out of the room or go to the store and buy something or go into the hospital and have an operation and when you come back TV is still there for you.

A certain TV station never goes off the air. It broadcasts all night long to accommodate its constant viewers, like Mrs. Dawkins, and its night shifters who get off work at one or two in the morning. Old movies usually run through the night.

It’s two in the morning. Mrs. Dawkins is lying on the couch, watching a movie with her favorite movie star of all time, Miss Joan Crawford. Joan’s perfect face is marred by a terrible scar that draws her eye down and makes her look like a ghoul. She’s had the scar since childhood and it turns her into a criminal and a blackmailer. She’s currently blackmailing an adulterous woman, whose husband is a doctor. While Joan is tormenting the woman she’s blackmailing, she meets the woman’s husband and it’s Melvyn Douglas. Since he is a doctor, he immediately takes a professional interest in the scar on Joan’s face. He has worked on cases like it, he says, and he believes he might be able to help.

The movie is interrupted by a stream of commercials for cat food, cars, soap, bug killer, shampoo, toothpaste, hemorrhoid suppositories, nasal spray, breakfast cereal, wrinkle cream, lawn mowers, fruit drink, hair dye for men, eye bag remover, exercise equipment, coffee makers, popcorn and lift chairs. Mrs. Dawkins’s attention wavers during the interval and she falls into a very deep sleep.

She had thought often about how she would die, but she never believed it would be so easy. Without pain and without consciousness of what is happening, she goes from sleep to death in the wink of an eye. Without a twinge of pain, her heart simply stops beating and her breathing ceases. It’s a death that anybody might envy.

Well, the TV plays on, of course. There’s nothing to stop it.

The weeks go by and the months and we see just how alone Mrs. Dawkins is. No visitors drop by to check on her, no relatives or neighbors. Nobody ever gives her a thought or cares if she lives or dies. It’s just her and her TV, which plays on, through the change of the seasons. Summer ends and fall turns to winter, and then spring comes around again. It’s been a year now, and still the TV plays on.

One year and then two, and still the TV plays on ceaselessly. The shows come and go: the game shows, the movies, the news bulletins, the sporting events, the cartoons, the police dramas, the soap operas, the situation comedies, the beauty pageants and award shows.

For many long months Mrs. Dawkins is a horrible mess lying there dead, but after a while the mice, ants, bugs (and the occasional crow that somehow gets into the house) consume all her flesh and she’s just a skeleton lying there in her pajamas and bathrobe. Not horrible at all, just a skeleton lying there in her clothes with an afghan she made herself covering her legs. If you had a camera you would want to take a picture of her. A ghoulish picture but really not without a touch of sweetness.

Three years pass and still the TV plays on. Nobody knows that Mrs. Dawkins is lying there dead. Nobody ever thinks of Mrs. Dawkins. Nobody knows she exists. The people who knew her have all died or gone away.

Huey Belasco is a bum. Not a hobo or a homeless man but a bum. He steals what he can, drinks what he can, injects into his body whatever he can. Some other bums are after him for stealing their money. It wasn’t that much—only about six dollars or so—but they will kill him if they get the chance. They’re after him and they’re getting closer. He picks Mrs. Dawkins’s little house among all the other houses in her falling-down neighborhood and breaks in.

It’s easy to force the lock on the back door. He’s met with a terrible smell that he can’t identify: a closed-up smell, like a tomb, but also it’s something else, like socks that have been worn a long time without being washed.

He finds himself in a small kitchen, dark but with just light enough to see where he’s going. Wait a minute! He hears something! A low murmur. It’s a TV turned low. Somebody is home after all. He starts to leave again, but he knows he’d rather deal with what’s inside the house than what’s outside.

He goes from the kitchen into the next room, which is a small dining area. Just beyond that is the living room where the TV is. The glow from the TV lets him see the rest of the room. There are a couple of chairs, some pictures on the wall, a table with a lamp, and a couch.

Slowly walking around the couch, he doesn’t make a sound. When he sees Mrs. Dawkins—or what’s left of her—from the glow of the TV screen, he lets out a little yelp and jumps back. He thinks for a moment he is going to be sick. After he recovers himself, he takes a closer look at Mrs. Dawkins and right away he knows she has been dead for a long time. There isn’t even much of a smell because all her flesh is gone. That tells him that nobody—nobody living, that is—has been in the house for months or maybe years and he will be safe there for the time being.

He is so exhausted from running and feels so bad from his lung and stomach troubles that he lays down on the floor right there in the living room and goes to sleep.

When he awakes, it’s daylight again. He looks at Mrs. Dawkins, as if expecting to see that she has moved, but of course she is the same. He goes into the kitchen and looks to see if there is anything to eat. In the freezer are some rectangular packages of vegetables, covered with ice. Even to a starving man, they aren’t very appetizing.

He opens the doors of the cabinets and finds some cans of stuff, spaghetti and fruit and soup. Finding a can opener in the drawer by the sink, he opens a can of chicken noodle soup, a thing he always liked when he was a child, and, taking a spoon from the same drawer where the can opener was, begins eating right out of the can.

Then a thought occurs to him. There’s a stove. There must be some pans somewhere. He finds a pan, empties the can of soup into the pan, sets it on the burner and when he turns the knob the burner comes to life with a blue flame. He heats the soup and when it is warm enough he sits down at the little table and eats it out of the pan as if he is in his own home.

After he finishes eating, he goes into the bathroom and looks into the medicine cabinet above the sink. There are several bottles of pills, none that he knows the use of except sleeping pills. Sleeping pills he can use. For later.

He hasn’t had a bath in so long he can’t remember the last time. He takes off his stinking clothes and fills the tub with water and steps in. With a bar of soap he lathers his body all over. Then he soaks for an hour or so in the warm water and when he gets out he dries himself with a towel that’s hanging above the tub and goes into the bedroom. Now that he’s clean, he doesn’t want to put his filthy old clothes back on. He needs something to wear.

He rifles through the closet and finds only women’s clothes. Well, that’s all right; he’s worn them before. He selects a dress of soft brown material and steps into it and puts his arms through the arm holes and fastens the dress in the back while looking at himself in the dresser mirror. A perfect fit. He doesn’t look too silly, he thinks. Only moderately silly. Nobody will ever see him and even if they do he’s past caring.

He sits for hours in the comfortable chair opposite the couch where Mrs. Dawkins reclines and he feels at home for the first time in years. The TV is still on, of course, but he doesn’t pay much attention. The sound of it is comforting in a way. He would never think of turning it off or changing the channel. It’s the way she wanted it and it’s the way it will stay for as long as there’s a God in heaven.

Looking at Mrs. Dawkins, he begins to wonder what she was like when she was alive. Did she have a husband? Children? What did she like to do besides watch TV? Wearing her clothes, eating her food and enjoying the hospitality of her house as he is, he begins to feels a connection to her. The more time he spends in her company, the more he begins to think of her as mother and protector.

He never though much of his own mother, or she of him. She was a drug addict. She used to hit him in the head with her fists, throw lighted matches at him, and lock him in the closet and then forget he was there. She died of a drug overdose when he was fifteen. He lived with an uncle, his mother’s brother, for two years after his mother’s death, but he ran away when he was wanted in connection with a gas station holdup and has been on the run ever since.

Now, at age twenty-seven, he knows his time on this earth is drawing to a close. He is sick most of the time. Sometimes he can’t breathe. He coughs up blood and has blackout spells. He has tuberculosis, he knows. He’s been on the streets for the better part of ten years, a life he abhors and would never wish on anybody. He envies Mrs. Dawkins in a way. She has left this awful world behind and has journeyed to a place where nothing bad can ever happen to her again.

He spends five days in Mrs. Dawkins’ company, without ever knowing her name. He eats her food and sleeps on her bed and studies her skeleton face by the hour. He sees the lights of police cars outside the house and he knows they have come for him. No—wait a minute!—that’s something that’s happening on the TV. He hears footsteps and voices just outside around the house and his heart pounds because it’s real and not on the TV, and he’s sick all over again and then he’s so weak he can’t stand and he cries for it all to be over.

It’s two o’clock in the morning, exactly five days since he came into Mrs. Dawkins’ company. He’s thankful for many things, but mostly he’s thankful to have come to a place where he can lay his head down for the last time. A place that’s not an alley or a filthy city sidewalk or a derelict building or even a hospital. He feels at peace with himself and with the world and he knows he may never find a better time than this to take his leave.

He pours the sleeping pills from the bathroom into his palm and counts them. There are eighteen. He’s weak and sick already, so he believes eighteen will be enough. He washes them down with a part bottle of sherry he found in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Right away he begins to feel an overpowering drowsiness.

He lays down beside Mrs. Dawkins on the couch; there’s enough room for both of them; neither of them are very large or take up much space. He puts his right arm over her abdomen and his nose close to where her left ear would be if she still had an ear. He feels a sublime peace unlike any he has ever known before. They will meet in the by and by, he knows, and he will have the chance to tell her all that happened.

The TV plays on, of course. There’s nothing to stop it.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

I Have Never Known the River Ishcabob to Flood

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I Have Never Known the River Ishcabob to Flood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I previously posted these three interconnected short stories separately, and now together.) 

***

Part 1

I was in a place where I had never been before. I was buying a house next to a rocky river. The house was four stories tall and there were four houses in a row, all the same shape and height. (Things seem to come in fours here.) Mrs. Goldoni was the woman from whom I was buying the house. She had white-blonde hair like Jean Harlow but that’s where the similarity ended. Her face was very wrinkled and, due to an arthritic condition, she sometimes walked parallel to the floor like an insect. Think of a cockroach or a cricket and there you have the image I’m trying to convey.

I was on the top floor looking out the window at the view. “What’s the name of the river?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni, who was standing on her hind legs fussing with the curtains.

“It’s the River Ishcabob,” she said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it,” I said.

“It’s a popular tourist attraction.”

“Does it ever flood?”

“Oh, no, sir!” she said. “Why would it flood?”

“Where I come from the rivers flood and cause a great deal of damage.”

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Mrs. Goldoni said, “and I’ve never know the River Ishcabob to flood.”

“That’s a relief,” I said. “I don’t like floods, especially if they inconvenience me.”

I had been talking to Mrs. Goldoni over my shoulder and when I turned and looked out the window again, I saw hundreds of workmen swarming over the river and on the rocky beach between the house and the river. Just a few seconds ago, they hadn’t been there. They were moving very fast so I couldn’t see what they were trying to accomplish.

“What are those workmen doing?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni.

“They’ve incurred debt, sir,” she said.

“What kind of debt?” I asked.

“Not the kind that has to do with money.”

“You mean like moral debt?”

She laughed her tinkling laugh. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand yet, sir.”

“Understand what? Am I missing something?”

Mrs. Goldoni chuckled and dropped to her tiny, clicking feet and skittered out of the room.

“What kind of arthritis is it that makes you walk like that?” I asked, but of course she was gone and didn’t hear me.

After lunch, I noticed a little room in my house that I hadn’t seen before. There were two steps going up to it and at the top of the steps were French doors just like my Aunt Susie had between her living room and dining room when I was a little boy. When you see the doors, you can’t keep from opening them.

“What’s in here?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni, who just seemed to appear from nowhere.

“Oh, we don’t go in there!” she said.

“This is my house!” I said “I think I’ll go wherever I want!”

When I opened the French doors, I could see they hadn’t been opened in a long time. Gobs of cobwebs came loose in artful drapes, and little chips of paint and tiny slivers of wood fell on my head.

Mrs. Goldoni was standing at my right shoulder looking anxiously on, and when I turned my head to look at her, I realized there were other people standing all around me.

“Who are they?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni.

“Oh, they’re always here,” she said. “They won’t bother you.”

“This is my house,” I said. “I came here to get away. I don’t want lots of strange people hanging around.”

“You’ll get used to them,” Mrs. Goldoni said, “and you’ll forget they’re even here.”

“Lord in heaven,” I said. “What have I got myself in to?”

I swung the French doors open as far as they would go and stepped inside the little room, which, to my surprise, had pink wallpaper on the walls. A tiny window kept the room from being without light. I took a few cautious steps into the room, with Mrs. Goldoni and the others behind me.

In the little room were hundreds of obviously very old, gold pocket watches suspended from gold chains, displayed on racks.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

I reached out to pick up one of the watches to get a better look and Mrs. Goldoni said, “I wouldn’t touch those if I were you!”

“Why not?” I said. “They’re in my house. Anything in my house belongs to me, doesn’t it?”

“They’re haunted,” she said.

I turned and looked at her, not sure if my ears were working right. “How can a watch be haunted?” I asked.

“If you don’t leave them alone,” she said, “you’ll find out the hard way.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’ll stir up some mean merde if you’re not careful!”

I knew just enough French to know what she was saying. I refrained from handling the watches any further while promising myself I’d find out more about them later.

After I reclosed the French doors and the crowd around me had dispersed, I decided to take a little walk outside and have a look at my immediate environs.

The “beach” between my house and the river wasn’t pretty. It was very rocky. You could walk on it, but only with sturdy shoes. I walked down close to the river and turned and looked at my house.

There they were: four, narrow, four-story houses of identical shape; almost like four pillars. The four houses were so close together, there wasn’t even room to park a car between them, but that didn’t seem to make any difference because nobody here seemed to have cars, anyway.

My house was the third house in the row, if you count from the left. I figured that all the other houses were occupied, but I knew nothing of the people who lived in them. All I knew was the fourth house in the row was a “bed and breakfast” run by an old woman who looked as if she had at some point in her life been smashed flat. I wasn’t quite sure what a bed and breakfast was, but I knew it to be some kind of commercial enterprise. I would have to let the smashed-flat woman know that I didn’t intend to take any kind of merde from anybody.

When I turned back to the river, I saw the workmen moving around furiously. One man who came near to me slowed down long enough for me to make eye contact with him.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to ask questions,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to talk to us.”

“What kind of a place is this?” I asked.

And then I went furniture shopping. There was a piece of furniture I wanted for my new house. I didn’t know what it was or what purpose it served, but I only knew I had to have it. After looking around for a long time in the store, I found one I liked. It looked like an old console TV in a wood cabinet, but nobody had those anymore. A salesman in a suit hovered near me. He spent a lot of time with me while I made my selection.

Finally I found the one I wanted to buy. The salesman said it cost four hundred dollars. I told him I’d take it and I wanted it delivered.

When I went to pay for the piece of furniture, the salesman told me it was four thousand and four hundred dollars.

“I thought you said four hundred,” I said.

“Oh, no, sir!” he said. “Its four thousand and four hundred.”

“That’s too much!” I said. “The thing’s not worth that much money.”

I found another one that I liked better that was nearer to the price I wanted to pay, and when I got home it was waiting there for me in a big box.

The pleasant-faced actor named Kyle Chandler was in a recent movie I had seen. He wasn’t the lead in the movie, but he played the brother of the lead. In the construct of the movie I saw him in, he had a congestive heart condition and died, even though he was only forty-five. We saw him dead in the hospital morgue when his brother, the lead character in the movie, showed up to identify the body.

Anyway, when I got home from buying my piece of furniture that looked like an old-fashioned console TV in a wood cabinet but wasn’t that because nobody had those anymore, Kyle Chandler was there and he was waiting to help me take the thing out of the box. We got the thing out of the box and were struggling with it to get it to the place in the room that was just right for it, when Kyle Chandler grabbed his chest and fell to the floor on his back.

Lying on the floor, his eyes were closed and he seemed to not be breathing. I leaned over and put my ear against his chest. There was no heartbeat. I realized then that all the people who had been standing around me when I opened the little room with the French doors were there again.

“Somebody get a doctor!” I said.

Nobody made a move to do anything, so I began thumping Kyle Chandler on the chest where I thought his heart must be, the way I had seen it done in the movies. I put one hand over his heart and hit the top of my hand with my other fist as hard as I could.

Kyle Chandler sputtered and opened his eyes. He looked at me and smiled. “What happened?” he asked.

“I think you were having a heart episode,” I said, “but you seem all right now.”

He stood up, smiling, not seeming to realize he would be dead if it hadn’t been for me.

At the end of the day I was lying on the floor with my biggest cat on top of me. He was purring and covered almost my entire body. I felt, as always, comforted by his warm and loving presence. We were listening to the fifties station on satellite radio and Little Richard was singing You Keep A-Knocking but You Can’t Come In!

There was a woman sitting behind a desk a few feet away from me, but she didn’t seem to notice me. I found it very easy to pretend she wasn’t there. Mrs. Goldoni was right—I was getting used to those people in my house and wasn’t bothered so much by their presence. I still didn’t know who they were or why they didn’t leave since it was my house, but I felt sure all would be revealed in time.

***

Part 2: Birth of the Dodo

The sky was overcast. No sunshine for days. I was sitting on the couch with my feet propped up, reading an article entitled “How to Take the Rigor Out of Rigor Mortis,” when Mrs. Goldoni came into the room. I heard her insect feet clicking long before she appeared.

I looked up from my magazine and said, “Why are you still here?” There was just a touch of malice in my voice, but nothing I said ever seemed to bother her.

“I’m staying on as housekeeper,” she said. “At least for a little while.”

“Did I say I need a housekeeper?”

“No, sir,” she smiled, “but I’ve lived in this house for many years, and I think it’s only fair that I stay on and help you until you’ve had a chance to get used to the place.”

“I can get used to the place on my own,” I said, “without any help from you or anybody else.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“And while we’re on the subject of ‘this place’,” I said, “yesterday I was downstairs and I noticed some rooms I hadn’t seen before. When I tried to go into them, I discovered to my disappointment that they were locked.”

“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Isn’t this my house?”

“That cannot be disputed, sir.”

“I bought it, paid for it with every cent I had. You signed the papers transferring ownership to me.”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Rooms in my house belong to me, then, don’t they? I should be able to go into them whenever I want.”

“That’s true, sir, but this is not like any other house,” she said.

“In what way is it not like any other house?”

“You’re finding out, sir, as you go along.”

“As I go along,” I said.

“That’s the thing we all have to do. Learn as we go.”

“I tell you I don’t need a housekeeper!”

“I think you do, sir,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you say that I’m the boss and you’re the employee?”

I would expect these words to hurt Mrs. Goldoni’s feelings, but they seemed to have no visible effect on her.

“I’ll leave, sir, whenever you say.”

“What I want you to do,” I said, “is get the keys to the rooms that are locked so I can open the doors and see what’s inside the rooms.”

“That might not be so easy, sir,” she said.

“Why not?”

“As I’ve said before, it’s an old house and a different sort of a house.”

“Different, yes. I turned a corner yesterday and saw a strange woman walking toward me. She was holding her arms out stiffly at her sides and taking skating steps as though she walked on invisible skis. She was wearing a billowing white robe that went from her neck down to her feet. I just caught a glimpse of her face, but she had, I’m sure, the face of Kay Francis.”

Who, sir?”

“Kay Francis, the nineteen-thirties movie star. Long dead and mostly forgotten.”

“I don’t keep up with the movies,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Did the lady speak to you?”

“No, Mrs. Goldoni, she didn’t. I wanted to ask her what she was doing in my house, but she was gone before I had a chance to say anything.”

Mrs. Goldoni laughed. “That’s the way things happen here.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t want people in my house?”

“Is anybody bothering you, sir?”

I thought for a moment. “Well, no,” I said. “Not exactly.”

“If anybody bothers you, sir, you be sure and let me know and I’ll tell them to stop.”

“Yes, but who are they?”

She laughed and straightened the dust bonnet on her head, apparently casting about in her head for the right words. “So many people have lived in the world and have died. You are now in the place where you can see some of them.”

“I can hardly accept that as an answer,” I said with what I hoped was a measure of sternness.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

She gave me a wan little smile and maneuvered her legs about to leave the room.

“How’s the arthritis?” I asked.

“Oh, we manage!” she said cheerily.

“Sometime we’ll have a long talk over a cup of tea,” I said, “and you can explain to me how arthritis turns you into an insect.”

She was gone, though, so I was sure she didn’t hear me. Like a mother, she had the facility of not hearing what she didn’t want to hear, but always hearing what you wish she hadn’t.

Two days later, I was walking along an unexplored corridor on one of the lower floors in my house, when I turned a corner and saw several people, mostly women, crowded around the doorway of a room I had not had the pleasure of visiting.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

Some of them turned and looked at me and, I swear, they dissolved into the air as soon as they saw me. There were still four or five people remaining, though, blocking my way and keeping me from going into the room.

“It’s all right,” I heard Mrs. Goldoni say. “Let him come in.”

The room was small with a bed; four women, including Mrs. Goldoni, were standing around the bed. There was a person in the bed and a sort of tent over the person made of bedsheets. The only parts of the person that weren’t underneath the tent were head and shoulders.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

“This is Lulu, your wife,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’s giving birth.”

As astonished as I was at that statement, I was more astonished at Lulu in the bed. She was a human-sized doll with a painted face and a lacy Jane Austen cap on her head. Her lips were drawn on in the shape of a cupid’s bow and her cheeks were red. Her eyes were small and sparkling, with lashes like spiders’ legs.

“Very funny,” I said. “You know I don’t have a wife.”

“Well, if didn’t have a wife before, you have one now!” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“So, that’s the way marriage happens here?” I asked. “You’re not married and then you are married before you even know it?”

“Well, yes, if sometimes happens that way here.”

A woman standing at the foot of the bed was holding a stopwatch. “The pains are closer together now,” she said anxiously to Mrs. Goldoni.

Mrs. Goldoni said to me, “You can either go back upstairs where you’re comfortable, or you can stay here and witness the birth of the dodo bird.”

“’The birth of the dodo bird’,” I said. “I believe the dodo is extinct.”

“You’re about to find out!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Here comes the head!”

Lulu the doll didn’t make a sound, but the women standing around the bed made encouraging little clucks with their tongues. I stood there watching, not sure what I was about to see. In about two minutes, Mrs. Goldoni pulled from underneath the sheet-tent a fully formed dodo bird. She held it up so I and the others could get a look at it.

“Is that really a dodo bird?” I asked in amazement.

“What do your eyes tell you?” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Wait a minute!” I said. “A dodo is a bird and birds are hatched from eggs.”

“Not always!” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Nobody has seen a dodo bird for hundreds of years,” I said with real and not fabricated wonder.

The dodo bird made pitiful little squeaks with its mouth. Mrs. Goldoni handed it off to one of the women and bent over Lulu with her ear to Lulu’s mouth. I didn’t hear a sound but I knew that Lulu was whispering into Mrs. Goldoni’s ear.

“She wants to know if the baby is all right,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Yes, dear, the baby is a fine male dodo bird, exactly as you expected.”

I looked at Lulu’s face but saw no change in her expression because she was a doll and doll’s expressions remained the same, no matter if a dodo bird has just come out of their bodies.

“She’s wants to name him Sheridan,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

The women clapped their hands and gave little expressions of approval and Mrs. Goldoni turned to me.

“The baby needs to be fed and changed and I think it’s time for the poppa to go back upstairs.”

“I’m not really the father of a dodo bird,” I said. “I think you’re playing a joke on me.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to sort this all out before you’re through,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Through with what?” I asked, but she took hold of my elbow and ushered me out of the room and closed the door firmly.

I went back upstairs, excited at the prospect of being the father of a dodo bird. Nobody else I knew could claim the distinction. I wanted to take a picture of the dodo, my son Sheridan, because I was sure my friends were not going to believe me. (I was forgetting for the moment, I suppose, that I didn’t have any friends and wasn’t likely to make any new ones.)

I began looking through my things for the camera that I once owned, but had no luck finding it. I needed to buy myself a new one. It’s so seldom that you become a father, especially the father of a male dodo bird named Sheridan, that you must have pictorial documentation so that people may know you’re not going insane or are already there.

Out the windows on the upper floor of my house, I could see the scenic little town of New Garland nestled among the hills. Somebody had told me when I first came to the house that New Garland was a mile-and-a-half away. Since shank’s mare was my only means of getting anywhere, I would walk there tomorrow and find a shop that sells cameras and buy one.

In the morning after breakfast, I went to my room and dressed in outdoorwear, cap, jacket and hiking shoes. When I went back to the kitchen to tell Mrs. Goldoni I was going to be gone for at least a couple of hours, she was sitting at the table with Mrs. Woolwine, the smashed-flat woman who ran the bed and breakfast next door. They liked to have confabs a couple of times a week in which they exchanged gossip and talked about their various ailments.

“How are you, Mrs. Woolwine?” I asked.

“Feeling a little flat these days,” she said.

“How’s business?”

“We’re full up,” she said. “We’re always full up. People love to stay here on their way to some other place.”

“Wonderful!” I said.

“Are you going somewhere?” Mrs. Goldoni asked me.

“Yes, I’m going to walk to New Garland. I’m in the market for a camera. I want to take some pictures of Sheridan so people will believe that I really have a dodo bird in my house.”

“The proud poppa!” Mrs. Woolwine said with her flat smile.

“No, it’s not so much pride as it is amazement. You know and I know and everybody else knows that I can’t be the father of a dodo bird, except in the sense that I would be the father of a kitten that I found on the street and took home to raise into a cat.”

“I wouldn’t talk that way around Lulu if I were you,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’ll think you don’t love her anymore.”

“I don’t love her and never have loved her. She’s a doll. You know she’s a doll, I know it, and I’m sure Lulu knows it. Dolls don’t give birth to anything, but especially they don’t give birth to dodo birds.”

“Sometimes they do,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“I might eat lunch in town,” I said, “so If I’m not back by lunchtime, go ahead without me.”

“New Garland is a long way to walk,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Watch out for the Followers.”

“The Followers? The Followers of what?”

“The Followers of the Father of All Lies.”

“He’s also called by a lot of other names,” Mrs. Woolwine said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“They want your soul,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “They’ll take it, too, if you let them. You’ll be safe as long as you ignore them and don’t engage with them. They can’t take your soul without touching you, and they can’t touch you unless you allow it.”

“They try to seduce you,” Mrs. Woolwine said.

“It sounds like a story to scare children,” I said with a laugh. “Believe me, I’ll be fine.”

So, I set out in a northerly direction alongside the River Ishcabob toward the town of New Garland. After a half-hour or so of walking, I heard screaming and looked to the source of the screaming out in the middle of the river. It was a woman flailing about in the water, apparently drowning.

“Help me!” she screamed. “Save me! I’m drowning! Oh, I’m drowning!”

I stood on the banks of the River Ishcabob watching the drowning woman. I didn’t for one second consider trying to save her. My shoes were new and I didn’t know how to swim, anyway. I had had a scratchy throat for the last couple of days and I knew that getting myself all wet wouldn’t help it any.

The woman stopped screaming, stopped waving her arms, and went under for the last time.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” I said, hoping that if there were any Followers around they would hear me.

The town of New Garland was old and quaint. There were a few people on the streets, but they moved quickly and didn’t look at me. As I looked at the little shops on the main thoroughfare, I doubted that I would be able to buy a camera in this place.

After I walked a couple of blocks, I saw a place of business with a shining glass window on which was painted the legend Witherspoon’s Photographic Studio, and underneath that, Photographs of the Deceased. I went inside and was greeted by a tall man with a drooping mustache and a high collar.

“What might I do for you today, sir?” he asked with a friendly smile.

“I’m looking to buy a camera,” I said.

“A camera?” he asked. “You want to buy your own camera?”

“Yes. I had a camera before but I can’t seem to find it anymore.”

“They’re very expensive, I’m afraid, sir,” he said.

“What year are we in here?” I asked.

“Would you like to sit for your portrait?” he asked. “It only takes a few minutes.”

“Well, no, I wasn’t wanting a picture of myself. I have plenty of pictures of myself and I keep them hidden away. I have a dodo bird in my house and I want a picture of my dodo bird before it gets away or before something happens to it.”

“Do you have your dodo bird with you?” he asked, looking down at my feet.

“No, no!” I said, running out of patience. “I want to buy a camera so I can take my own picture of my dodo bird.”

“You can’t buy a camera here, I’m afraid, sir.”

“Well, where, then?”

“You could try the town of Gladstone.”

“And where is that?”

“It’s about twenty miles that way,” he said, thrusting his chin toward the street.

“I’m walking,” I said. “I obviously won’t be walking twenty miles to buy myself a camera.”

“Well, sir, since you’re here, would you like to sit for your photograph today?”

He took me into another room and I sat on a small dais that resembled the throne of an emperor. After the man and another man fussed with my hair and clothing, I was aware of a bright flash and then it was all over.

“Call for your picture in a week,” the man said. “You don’t have to pay until then.”

After I left the photography studio, I was hungry and thirsty. I spotted a place across the street with a sign that said Fine Eats, so I crossed over and went inside.

There was nobody else inside Fine Eats, so I sat down at a table next to a window overlooking the street. A very small woman came out from the back and set a glass of water down by my elbow and handed me a menu.

“Fried catfish today’s specialty,” she said. “Served with slaw and fried potatoes.”

I looked at the menu, but I couldn’t keep from looking at the tiny woman over the top of the menu. She had red wooly hair piled high on top of her head. Her ears stuck out very far on each side of her head and her eyes were blank but bright like the eyes of a doll. On the backs of her hands were what appeared to be the kind of spikes you would find on the back of a Gila monster in the Mohave Desert. I couldn’t help but believe that she had an affliction like the one that was causing Mrs. Goldoni to turn into an insect.

I glanced over the menu and said, “The fried catfish will do.”

She brought me a beer in a large glass container to keep me occupied until the fried catfish was ready.

The food was excellent, I had to admit. I couldn’t remember when I had food that tasted so good. I couldn’t, in fact, ever remember eating any food of any kind before, although I had a vague recollection of eating breakfast that morning. Something was happening to me and I didn’t know what it was. I was experiencing many things I had never experienced, including an uncharacteristic loss of memory. Maybe I too was turning into something other than what I started out to be.

The tiny woman waitress didn’t come back, so I paid for my lunch with Roman coins and left Fine Eats and went back out onto the street.

The clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining. The birds were singing. It was a spring day that reminded me of spring days when I was a small child. The thought of the long walk to get back home didn’t tire me. I breathed the pure air deeply into my lungs and set out with my left foot. I would keep my eye open for a present to take to Sheridan. Just what do dodo birds like? I wasn’t sure. I had no knowledge to go on since dodo birds had been extinct for so long. I would make it my business to find out, though.

***

Part 3: In My House are Many Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be suspicious of all,” she said.

“I can take care of myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you live around here?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“How can you not know where you live?”

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes they’re worse than the adults.”

“And you’re not a Follower?” I asked.

“Do I look like one to you?”

“I couldn’t say. What’s your name?”

“Farina Alvarez,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you trying to say?”

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

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

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

“What kind of an insect?”

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

“Aren’t they extinct?”

“Well, not all of them, I guess.”

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

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

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

“I’ve already told you I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suit yourself,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Remember me?” I asked.

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

“What a memory you have!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No more trouble with Followers?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Some of the people here are dolls.”

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

“What’s it all about?” I asked.

“I don’t know anything,” he said.

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

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

“Who do we have here?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, he’s all right, then.”

“I just said he was, didn’t I?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Feeling better?” I asked.

“Except for a headache,” he said.

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

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

I could tell we were going to be friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like an Easter egg hunt?” I asked.

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

“We’re in hell, aren’t we?”

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

“What’s the next step?” I asked.

“Nobody knows.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s right.”

“Why are you turning into an insect?”

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

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

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

“You want to keep on being a person?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s you, isn’t it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Who is Farina Alvarez?”

“I suppose you’ll find out one day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Farina Alvarez,” I said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that somebody you know?” he asked.

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

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

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

“What is that place?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you like to try to sit up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp