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His Butterfly

His Butterfly ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pierce of the United States Navy had seen the world and known many woman. In 1902, while stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, he took unto himself a Japanese wife. She went by the name of Butterfly and she was young, innocent, untried and untested. Any objective observer might have said the marriage between Lieutenant Pierce and his Butterfly was a misalliance and doomed to failure.

Butterfly believed that Lieutenant Pinkerton would take her back to America with him—what American husband wouldn’t?—and she would be happy for the rest of her days. Happy knowing she was the perfect wife for her perfect American husband.

Forward-looking—and impelled by her desire to be a good American wife—Butterfly abandoned the religion of her Nipponese ancestors and converted to Christianity. Her family, never too keen on her marriage to an American in the first place, disowned and abandoned her. She believed, however, that her all-consuming love for Lieutenant Pinkerton would see her though any of life’s tribulations.

Lieutenant Pinkerton rented a pretty little house with sliding doors on a hillside in Nagasaki. He and Butterfly were blissfully happy for a few days, but then he was called away again. Such is the life of the navy man. Not to worry, though. He would be back and get his Butterfly and take her back to America with him and all would be well.

Butterfly waited. Days became weeks and weeks months. Every day she went to the top of the hill overlooking Nagasaki harbor and watched for signs of the return of Lieutenant Pinkerton’s ship, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Every day she returned to the little house with the sliding doors with a lump of disappointment in her throat, but with the belief and the hope that the next day would be the day of his glorious return.

Suzuki, Butterfly’s faithful servant, wanted to write to Lieutenant Pinkerton, wherever he was, and tell him he had a son, but Butterfly wouldn’t let her; she would tell him herself, whenever the time was right, and that would be upon his return to Nagasaki. (The boy, conceived on the wedding night, was called Sorrow. When his papa returned to claim him, he would be called Joy.)

Time passed, more time than Butterfly ever imagined, and still the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln did not reappear in Nagasaki harbor. A wealthy man of Butterfly’s own race, having heard the talk of her erstwhile American husband, proposed marriage to her, but she turned him down. She already had a husband, she said, and she didn’t want another.

And then the day came, as Butterfly knew it would!

The American consul sent word that Lieutenant Pinkerton was back in Nagasaki! Her joy knew no limits. When she thought about the moment when she would lay eyes on him again, she felt that she would not be able to continue breathing. Her chest would not contain her wildly beating heart. She would die of happiness.

With Suzuki’s help and the help of her tiny son, Butterfly gathered flowers to adorn the house. The three of them put flowers everywhere, making the indoors seem like an extension of the garden.

Finally, after these hurried preparations, the moment arrived. Pinkerton was on his way up the hill. When she saw him far away out the window, she drew in her breath and covered her mouth with her hand. She asked the Christian God to give her strength.

When the knock came, Suzuki opened the door. There stood Lieutenant Pinkerton, much the same as the last time she saw him, his face a little thinner and graying at the temples.

He took a few steps inside the door, smiling and uncertain. Butterfly wanted to run to him, but that was not the way of her people. As she watched him remove his hat and walk nearer, her face clouded when she saw he was not alone. Coming through the door behind him was a stylish American lady in a beautiful white dress. In about three beats of her heart, Butterfly understood all.

“Everything looks lovely,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said, seeing the flowers. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.”

He was going to take Butterfly’s hands in his, but she bowed in front of him.

“I am honored,” she said.

“I want you to meet someone,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said. “This is Laura. My wife.”

The stylish American lady in the white dress stepped forward smiling. “How do you do?” she said. “I’m so happy to meet you!”

“I am honored,” Butterfly said, bowing again.

“I hope you have been well,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said formally.

“Yes. Well,” Butterfly said.

“I wasn’t sure if you would remember me after all this time.”

Butterfly turned away and Suzuki helped her out of the room.

When Suzuki came back a few minutes later, alone, Lieutenant Pinkerton was waiting.

“Butterfly asks to be excused at this time,” Suzuki said. “She extends every apology.”

“I’ve come for the child,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said.

“Child?”

“Yes, my son. I mean to take him back to America and give him the upbringing he deserves.”

“You don’t think he belongs with his mother?”

“He will have a mother. My wife.”

“Butterfly begs your forgiveness. She asks that you return tomorrow at this time, when she will be better able to converse with you.”

“Well, all right,” Lieutenant Pinkerton said. “I guess I can do that. But tell her I won’t tolerate any monkey business of any kind from her or any of her family. I’ll come back tomorrow at the same time to collect the child. Tell her to say her goodbyes and have his suitcase all packed. I won’t brook any further delay.”

After Lieutenant Pinkerton left, Suzuki went to the room at the back of the house where Butterfly was. She was standing at the window looking out at the trees.

“Japanese wife is a not real wife for American husband,” Butterfly said.

“He will come back tomorrow at the same time to take the boy,” Suzuki said.

“He will not take my son from me.”

“What will you do?”

“I know I can’t beat him in a court of law, so I will beat him another way.”

“What way?”

“After we dine, you will take the boy into the hills to the home of your mother and father. Don’t tell anybody where you are going. Stay there until I send word that it is safe to come back.”

“My family will be happy for me to pay visit with delightful boy,” Suzuki said.

During the unhurried meal that they took on the terrace, Butterfly informed the boy that he was going away for a few days to the country with Suzuki.

“Aren’t you coming, too?” he asked.

“Not this time,” Butterfly said. “I have to stay home and tend the flowers.”

“After we get to the river, we’ll take the boat the rest of the way,” Suzuki said. “You’ll like the boat.”

Suzuki put the things she would need and the things the boy would need into a bag, changed her shoes, and she was ready to go. Butterfly walked to the road with them, carrying the boy. At the point of departure, Butterfly handed him over to Suzuki.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!” She said. She kissed the boy on his forehead and on each cheek and he began to cry.

“Soon you will be back home again,” Butterfly said. “You will not be lonely.”

“Don’t worry about us,” Suzuki said. “There is a full moon tonight and we have friends all along the way.”

When Lieutenant Pinkerton returned the next day with his American wife and the American consul, Sharpless, Butterfly greeted them graciously, as she would any old friend. She served them tea and poppyseed cakes and asked them questions about America and about their sea voyage. After an hour or so of small talk, Lieutenant Pinkerton, who had been squirming impatiently the whole time, asked where his son was.

Butterfly looked at him and smiled her sweet smile. “He is not here,” she said.

Not here?” Lieutenant Pinkerton said. “Didn’t you hear what I said yesterday? I mean to take the boy with me and our boat leaves at four o’clock.”

“He is not here,” Butterfly said.

“Where is he?”

“He is not here and the time of his return has not been decided.”

Lieutenant Pinkerton stood up abruptly and glared at Butterfly. “I don’t know what you are playing at here, but whatever it is it’s not going to work. If you think you can defy me, you will feel the full force of American jurisprudence.”

“Have another cup of tea,” Butterfly said.

Lieutenant Pinkerton was not accustomed to having his desires thwarted, as Butterfly well knew. He would threaten or intimidate as he saw fit. She would stand against him like a small boat in a big storm. The Christian God stood beside her.

“If you stand in the way of my taking my son with me today,” he said. “I want you to know I will be back with a team of American lawyers trained in Japanese law. We Americans are very determined in all things.”

“I hope you have a most safe and pleasant journey back to America. I will tell my son upon his return that his father paid us a visit and inquired after his health.”

Sharpless and Lieutenant Pinkerton’s wife gave Butterfly sympathetic smiles. The wife approached Butterfly and wanted to shake her hand but Butterfly retreated to the far side of the room with downcast eyes.

Butterfly expected more raging from Lieutenant Pinkerton that day or the next, but she heard nothing. When she went to the top of the hill overlooking Nagasaki harbor, she was relieved to see the American ship had departed.

Suzuki and the boy returned home after four days in the country and it was a most joyous reunion. The boy had many stories to relate to his mother about boats on the river and about the farm animals he had seen.

He grew up to be a decent young man with the beauty of two races. Butterfly gave him the name Benjamin Pink, so he would never forget his American father. He got a job at the American hospital as an orderly and hoped to train as a doctor’s assistant. He married a comely Nagasaki girl and within five years they had three children, two boys and a girl. No matter how large the family became, he would always insist that Butterfly live with them. He couldn’t envision them ever living apart.

Butterfly heard many years later that Lieutenant Pinkerton was dead. She wrote his American wife, whose kind face she remembered, a letter of condolence. A month later she received a reply, telling her that Lieutenant Pinkerton had never stopped thinking about his little Japanese Butterfly and the little son he never laid eyes on. He hoped they might all of them meet together in heaven one day so he could beg their forgiveness.

After reading the letter, Butterfly wiped away her tears, the last she would ever shed for Lieutenant Pinkerton, and put the letter in a drawer where it wouldn’t be disturbed. Someday, when the time was right, she would get the letter out again and, as they all saw around the table, she would tell them what a fine American man he was and how lucky she was to have known him.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

When Woolworth’s Closed Its Doors

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

(This is a slightly different version of a short story I posted before.)

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

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

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

“I hear the pastor’s younger brother is in all kinds of in trouble,” Jane Peabody said. “Everybody was talking about it in church on Sunday.”

“What kind of trouble?” Grace Milford asked.

“He got a girl in a bad way and when it all came to light he refused to marry her.”

“A baby?”

“What else? He’s twenty-three and it seems the girl is only a senior in high school.”

“That sounds like a case of statutory rape.”

“I think the little girl was willing. At least that’s what everybody says.”

“Even so, it’s a crime if the girl’s underage. He could go to jail.”

“He ought to be horsewhipped.”

“The family tried to keep it hidden, but once the ladies in the church get hold of it, it might as well be printed on the front page of every newspaper in the country.”

“People certainly get themselves into some messes, don’t they?”

“I hope it’s not too much of an embarrassment for the pastor,” Lucille Alcorn said. “I think he has enough problems as it is.”

“Having an ugly wife, you mean?”

“No, I don’t mean that. I mean other things.”

“Remember that old song that says, ‘if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, just make an ugly woman your wife’.”

“I’m sure there’s some truth to that.”

“Did I tell you my hairdresser broke his arm and is going to be out for at least two weeks?”

“No! Who’s your hairdresser?”

“Julian LaGrange is his name. He’s an absolute treasure.”

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

“That’s the one.”

“He’s just a little too feminine for my tastes. I mean, how do you know he’s not breathing disease germs all over you while he’s doing your hair. Those people have diseases, you know!”

“I don’t think Julian has any diseases. He’s like one of the girls. I would trust him with my life.”

“Well, those people give me the willies, anyway.”

“We’re supposed to be tolerant of others,” grandma said.

“What?”

“We’re not supposed to judge.”

“Well, how would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry one of them?”

“I don’t have a daughter, but if I did I don’t think I’d be in charge of choosing her husband.”

“You’d just go ahead and let her do it? Marry one of them hairdressers?”

“If she wanted to, I guess I couldn’t stop her.”

“My tolerance just doesn’t extend that far!”

Cleland caught grandma’s eye and mouthed the words: I want to go home. She gave him a stern look that said: Behave yourself and be quiet.

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

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

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

“She was so fat she couldn’t even take one step on her own anymore. Over four hundred pounds, they say.”

“Isn’t that a shame?”

“They had to special-order a large-sized casket. From another state. While they were waiting on the casket, they had to put poor Val on ice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the women turned and looked at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Andy’s,” grandma said.

“Now who was it Andy married?”

“Earline Jett.”

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

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

“Clowns scare him,” grandma said.

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

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

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Female trouble. You know the story.”

“Oh, isn’t that shame!”

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

“Fourth,” Cleland said.

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

“No.”

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

“Who’s that man?” he asked

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

“Where is he now? Is he at work?”

“No, he died.”

“What was the matter with him?”

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

“Was he old?”

“Not very old.”

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

“What did he do when he was still alive?”

“He owned his own business.”

“What kind of business?”

“He owned and operated a clothing store downtown.”

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

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

“A long time ago?”

“Yes, a long time ago.”

“Cleland, stop talking now!” grandma said.

All the women laughed and Cleland felt embarrassed.

“What did I say?” he said.

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

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

“No, I don’t want one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I have some wine?” Cleland asked.

“No!” grandma said.

“Just a sip?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The cookies were good,” Cleland said.

“You ate too many. You spoiled your appetite for supper.”

“I liked them.”

“We’re having liver and onions.”

“I don’t like liver and onions.”

“Be glad you have healthy food to eat.”

“I’d rather have fried chicken.”

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

“I was only gone a minute.”

He was bursting to tell grandma about Lucille Alcorn’s dead husband upstairs in the closet, but he knew it would lead to inevitable questions that he wouldn’t want to answer. Instead he said, “They have a big house, don’t they? When I’m grown up, I’m going to have a house like that.”

“Best of luck,” grandma said.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Strange Innertube

Strange Innertube ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Like the four points of a compass, they sat evenly spaced around the table. Miss St. Clare and Miss Wheaton were north and south; Mr. Faulkner and Mr. Dade east and west. When addressing each other, they never used first names, but were always Mr. and Miss.

No one had spoken for several minutes. Miss St. Clare made little clicking sounds with her knife and fork as she attempted to cut her meat. She lost control of her knife and dropped it. Mr. Faulkner had been nearly asleep but the sound of the knife hitting the floor brought him back.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Just somebody being clumsy,” Miss Wheaton said.

Mr. Dade laughed and stuck his fingers in his mouth to straighten his dentures.

“You know, this spring weather makes me want to go on a cruise,” Miss St. Clare said.

“Yes, let’s all go on a cruise,” Miss Wheaton said.

“Where shall we go?”

“I hear Havana is nice.”

“Farther than that. How about Rio?”

“Yes, I think Rio would be perfect.”

“I can’t go,” Mr. Dade said. “I get seasick.”

“Well, you fly down, then, and we’ll meet you there.”

“I’ve been to Rio,” Mr. Faulkner said. “If I was going on a cruise, it wouldn’t be South America.”

“Where, then?”

“I don’t know. Up the west coast to Alaska or up the east coast from Florida to New England.”

“A domestic cruise,” Miss Wheaton said.

“Oh, that sounds lovely,” Miss St. Clare said.

“None of us are going anywhere,” Mr. Dade said.

“What?”

“I said none of us are going anywhere.”

“That’s true,” Miss St. Clare said, “but it never hurts to indulge in a little fantasy.”

“To help get us through,” Miss Wheaton said.

“What is this meat?” Miss St. Clare asked.

“I think it’s veal,” Mr. Faulkner said.

“It doesn’t look like anything I ever saw before,” Mr. Dade said.

“I think it’s made from old innertubes.”

“It’s funny you should mention innertubes,” Mr. Faulkner said. “When I was three years old my grandfather took us swimming to a river in Ohio. I remember floating on an innertube. I thought it was the most fun in the world. And not only an innertube, but I was wearing water wings. When was the last time you saw water wings? Last night it all came back to me in a dream. I could see myself. I was three years old again.”

“I hate it when people talk about their dreams,” Mr. Dade said.

“He died not long after that,” Mr. Faulkner said. “My grandfather, I mean. He was only in his fifties. He was an alcoholic. We went out for his funeral. I was a little thing.”

“I don’t think young people even know what innertubes are anymore,” Miss St. Clare said. “You have to be our age.”

“What do you mean ‘our’ age?” Mr. Dade said. “You’re four years older than I am.”

“I think people make too much of age,” Miss Wheaton said. “It’s only a number. I think of myself as still young.”

“When was the last time you looked in the mirror?” Mr. Dade said.

“I avoid mirrors. They have no meaning for me. What matters is not on the outside but on the inside.”

“You know, I’ve had four husbands,” Miss St. Clare said, “but I think I’d get married again if I had the chance. I find Dr. Wolfe awfully attractive. He’s like a combination of Cary Grant and Burl Ives.”

“You’ll have to hit him over the head and drug him,” Mr. Dade said.

“Which one is Dr. Wolfe?” Miss Wheaton asked.

“He’s very distinguished, rather heavyset with graying temples and a big mole the size of a grape on his cheek. He’s about fifty, I think.”

“Oh, that one!” Mr. Dade said. “Haven’t you heard? There’s a rumor going around that he’s gay.”

“He is not!” Miss St. Clare said. “You’re just jealous because I said I find him attractive.”

“Have it your own way, lady,” Mr. Dade said. “Whatever makes you happy.”

“I’ve had two husbands,” Miss Wheaton said, “and two were enough for me. I wouldn’t get married again if Gary Cooper walked in here and got down on one knee and proposed to me.”

“Gary Cooper’s dead, but even if he wasn’t I don’t think he’d want to marry you.”

“You know what I mean! You don’t have to be so cynical all the time.”

“I was a newspaper reporter for thirty years. If that doesn’t make you cynical, nothing will.”

“What about you, Mr. Faulkner?” Miss St. Clare said. “What did you do in the world?”

“I was head of my own company. At one time, I employed as many as a hundred people.”

“What kind of company was it?”

“Wealth management. Securities, stocks and bonds.”

“Ever do any embezzling?” Mr. Dade asked.

“No, I never went in much for embezzling.”

“I hear embezzling’s the thing if you don’t get caught.”

“I knew some Faulkners once a long time ago,” Miss St. Clare said. Wasn’t your wife’s name Catherine or Margaret or something like that?”

“I never had a wife,” Mr. Faulkner said.

“What? You were never married?”

“Nope.”

“Didn’t you get awfully lonely, being alone?”

“I didn’t say I was alone. I said I wasn’t married.”

“You had a girlfriend?”

“No.”

“No wife and no girlfriend and you weren’t alone?”

“That’s what I said.”

“You must tell us all your secrets, Mr. Faulkner,” Miss Wheaton said. “We’ve told you ours.”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business, but if you must know, my partner in life was a man.”

“A man!” Miss St. Clare said.

“Well, I might have known!” Mr. Dade said. “I never would have guessed it, but I might have known.”

“Where is he now?” Miss Wheaton asked. “Is he still alive?”

“No, he died a number of years ago. His name was Patrick White. He and I had twenty-three wonderful years together. When I die…”

“Which might be any minute now,” Mr. Dade said.

“When I die, I’ll be buried right beside him.”

“That’s very sweet,” Miss Wheaton said.

“It’s kind of creepy if you ask me,” Mr. Dade said.

“Nobody did.”

“Well, we’ve learned a lot about you today, Mr. Faulkner,” Miss Wheaton said.

I had a wife,” Mr. Dade said, “and—believe me—she was a pain in my ass. She drank herself to death.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Miss St. Clare said.

“We had two daughters and—wouldn’t you know it?—they were both just like their mother.”

“Where are they now?”

“I don’t know. They never come and see me. When they found out I wasn’t leaving them any money, they dropped me like I had the plague. Family!

“We’re your family now, Mr. Dade,” Miss Wheaton said.

“All four of us sitting at this table,” Mr. Faulkner said. “We have nothing to live for. We have no one. There is absolutely no reason to go on another minute.”

“You never know what the day will bring,” Miss St. Clare said.

“Old reruns of Bonanza, unidentifiable food, enemas, bad days and worse nights.”

“When we’re finished with dinner, let’s play some cards,” Miss Wheaton said. “I think that will cheer us all up a little.”

“No! I hate cards!” Mr. Faulkner said. “I hate all the stupid games that people play!”

“Would you rather play charades?”

There was a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder, and everybody looked toward the window.

“I think it’s going to rain,” Miss St. Clare said.

“Brilliant deduction,” Mr. Dade said.

“I like rain,” Miss Wheaton said. “I like to be inside when it’s raining and look out.”

“It got dark so quick,” Miss Wheaton said.

“That’s the way it is in the spring.”

“I like spring.”

“What month is it?” Mr. Dade asked.

“It’s April, I think. Or May.”

“No, I mean what time is it?”

“I don’t know. It was six o’clock about an hour ago.”

“What difference does it make what time it is?” Mr. Faulkner said. “We eat dinner, we sit around and watch some stupid shit on TV, and then we wait around until it’s time to go to bed. It’s the same thing every day. Every day. Every day until we die.”

The rain began to pummel the glass and Miss St. Clare got up from the table and ran to the window like a child.

“Oh, just look at it come down!” she said.

“I like storms,” Miss Wheaton said.

The next flash of lightning caused Miss St. Clare to suck in her breath and jump back from the window.

“That was close!” she said.

“That’d be a good way to die,” Mr. Faulkner said. “A bolt of lightning from the sky. Quick and painless.”

“How do you know it’s painless?” Mr. Dade asked.

“It would overpower you. You’d be dead before you feel anything.”

“You always get around to the subject of death, don’t you?” Miss St. Clare said.

“Do you know anything better to talk about?”

The storm gathered intensity. Lightning flashed. Thunder peeled. Wind howled. Rain fell in sheets. Windowpanes shook as though under siege. The storm seemed centered directly in the sky above their heads.

When the lights flickered and went out, Miss St. Clare screamed and grabbed her throat. Miss Wheaton patted her hand to comfort her.

Miss Wheaton stood up from the table. Seemingly able to see in the dark, she went to the sideboard and retrieved two candles in holders, lit them and set them in the middle of the table.

“Candlelight is so romantic,” Miss St. Clare said, having recovered her nerves.

“It transforms the room,” Miss Wheaton said. “Suddenly it’s 1816 and we’re in a medieval castle.”

“You’re a little off with your dates,” Mr. Dade said. “Eighteen-sixteen isn’t medieval.”

Miss St. Clare leaned back in her chair and cocked her head to the side. “Oh, listen!” she said. “Somebody’s playing the piano. Isn’t it lovely?”

“It’s Clair de Lune,” Mr. Faulkner said. “My brother and I used to play it for violin and piano when we were in high school.”

Miss Wheaton and Miss St. Clare stood up and began dancing together to the music. They danced around the table and then they moved farther away, to the middle of the room, where candlelight met shadows.

Mr. Dade leaned back in his chair and lit his after-dinner cigar. Mr. Faulkner fanned his hand in front of his face to keep the smoke away.

“Look at those two old dames,” Mr. Dade said. “The candlelight makes them look young again.”

“No reruns of Gunsmoke tonight if the power doesn’t come back on,” Mr. Faulkner said. “The only thing to do is to go bed and listen to the rain.”

“You know,” Mr. Dade said. “I think I’m going to make love to both of them tonight in my room. First one and then the other.”

“Who?”

“Miss Wheaton and Miss St. Clare.”

Mr. Faulkner laughed. “I don’t see that happening.”

The storm continued unabated. Rain lashed the windows. Lightning purpled the air. Thunder shook the trees to their roots. To those who lived through it, it felt a little bit like the end of the world.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

I Want People to See Us Together

Posted on

I Want People to See Us Together ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this short story previously in a different version.) 

Carl Piccarelli was forty-eight years old. He thought he still looked young until he looked in the mirror and saw the gray pallor of his skin, the dark circles around his eyes and a hairline that receded more with every passing year. Young was not the word for the way he looked. Ghoulish was more like it. Better to stay away from mirrors.

It was now thirty years since high school. He lived in the same house and thought the same thoughts as he did then. He slept in the same bed, with the same mattress and box springs, and wore the same clothes and shoes. The bathroom was the same and the kitchen. The pictures on the wall in his room were the same, as were the dresser and chest of drawers. The closet door, badly in need of painting, still had the same crack. The carpet, still the same ugly green, had the same unidentifiable stains. When he chose to be honest with himself, he saw that his life was badly in need of change, of forward movement.

His father had died, his sister and his brother. He was the last male heir in a line that went back to the stone age. When he died, without issue, the line was finished. He sensed the disapproval of all the male progenitors, including the two that he knew, and it put a smile on his face. He welcomed extinction.

His mother was over eighty, still much the same as when he was a small child. The skin sagged more, the shoulders drooped, the hair silvered, but she was still as indomitable as ever. She would live to be a hundred at least. She might be the first woman in history to not die at all.

Night after night he sat and watched TV with her in the darkened living room. She liked the westerns and the love stories, the game shows and the musical variety. Anything light and wholesome, life-affirming. She didn’t like movies—they were mostly too long for her—or anything with smart-mouthed children, sexual innuendo or off-color jokes. Dancing was all right, as long as it was the wholesome kind, like the dancing cowboys in Oklahoma.

Whenever Carl suggested watching a program that interested him, something other than the usual fare, she agreed, but when he saw after a few minutes that she was bored and unhappy, he turned back to what he knew she would like. He could have gone on to bed or gone into another room and read a book, but she didn’t like watching TV by herself. What’s the use of having a family, she would say, if I have to sit here all by myself in the dark?

She had given up driving, so he had to take her wherever she wanted to go, whether it was to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones or to the beauty parlor to get her hair re-crimped and re-tinted. He usually waited in the car at the beauty parlor, no matter how long it took, no matter how hot or cold the weather. He absolutely refused to wait inside and have all the ladies looking at him, thinking what a mama’s boy he was.

His mother was at the age where a lot of her friends and distant relatives were dying. Trips to funeral homes or to various unfamiliar churches became commonplace. He sat through services honoring people he never saw or heard of before. These affairs were always accompanied by introductions and hand-shaking with people whose hands he would have preferred not to touch.

On Saturday morning, he did the grocery shopping, but his mother always accompanied him to make sure he got the most for his money. Don’t get that one, she’d say. Get this one. It’s twenty-nine cents less. If he wanted to buy a cake with white fluffy icing, she told him the sugar would make him jittery and would only add to his waistline. When you get older, she said, you gain weight easier and you can no longer eat the way you used to.

“Of course, mother,” he’d say. “I know you’re right. You’re always right.”

On Sunday, there was always church. He preferred to just drive her there and go back and pick her up an hour-and-a-half later, but she wouldn’t allow it. “I want you to go with me,” she’d say. “I don’t want to sit there by myself. Church is for families. I want people to see us together.”

So, he’d get up on Sunday morning, dress in either of his outdated suits, put on a dress shirt that was frayed at the collar and a clip-on tie that was thirty years old, and suffer through a long service that meant little to him. He tried to feel elevated or enlightened by what he heard and saw in church, but for him it just wasn’t there.

And then, when the service was concluded, he stood by and wore a tight smile as his mother greeted her old-lady friends. This is my wonderful son, she’d say. He’s the light of my life.

She thought she knew him so well, but there was, by necessity, a part of himself that he kept hidden.

It started in high school. There was a boy named Evan Alexander. He was one year older than Carl but seemed much older. He talked of improbable sexual experiences he had had with married women. Not only that, he openly experimented with drinking and drugs and didn’t seem to worry about the consequences. He was so handsome, so daring and different that Carl felt important, for the first time in his life, just having Evan as a friend.

One weekend Evan’s parents were out of town and Evan had the house to himself. He called Carl and asked if he’d like to come over. Carl couldn’t get there fast enough, telling his mother he was going to an impromptu boy-girl party. She didn’t approve, but she didn’t try to keep him from going.

Evan was drinking beer and smoking pot. Carl accepted a beer, but he was reluctant to smoke pot. Evan seemed like an expert. He showed Carl how to draw the smoke into his lungs. Carl choked and Evan laughed. Carl hated smoking pot but he pretended to like it because he didn’t want Evan to stop being his friend.

After two more beers, Carl’s inhibitions began to melt away. They went into Evan’s bedroom and closed the door. They smoked another joint and Evan took his pornography collection out of the closet and showed it to Carl. Carl had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but not to the point where he wanted to leave.

Evan asked Carl if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures. Carl had heard about boys doing things with each other, but he never expected to be offered the opportunity to do them himself. He ended up staying the whole night.

When he got home in the morning, his mother was distraught because he had been gone all night and hadn’t bothered to phone. She was just on the point of calling the hospitals, she said. He told her an improbable story about having to stay the night with a friend who was sick and afraid to be alone. She knew he was lying. She barely spoke to him for two weeks and turned her back on him whenever he came into the room.

He went to Evan’s house several more times when Evan’s parents were away. He thought about Evan all the time. When the phone rang, his heart skipped a beat. He was grateful to Evan above all things for letting him discover his own true nature. He knew now what had been bothering him through all his growing-up years. When people found out the kind of person he was, they would call him names and think ill of him, but he didn’t care. His mother, if she knew, would go to bed and die. He didn’t care about that, either.

Then graduation came and Evan was finished with high school. He landed a job in California and went away, vowing never to return. Carl didn’t want to believe that he would never see Evan again. He wrote chatty, confiding letters, even going so far as suggest that he himself come to California so the two of them could continue their friendship, but Evan wasn’t receptive to the idea.

There were others after Evan, all of them easily forgotten. None of them meant to Carl what Evan had meant. In his mid-twenties, Carl decided from that moment on that he would live the life of a celibate. He didn’t want to go through life looking for another Evan and never finding him.

All the dull years went by and Carl found himself getting perilously to fifty. He didn’t want to be fifty any more than he had wanted to be forty. He had nothing to show for all the years he had lived. He had to do something, he believed, or his life was over.

He bought himself a computer and taught himself how to use it. It would help relieve the tedium of television and of being alone all the time with his mother. She didn’t approve of his having a computer because it kept him occupied in another room away from her, but she managed to keep her complaining on the subject to a minimum. After a while, he joined, anonymously, an online club for like-minded men. His mother never went near the computer, so he felt safe in indulging in these, for him, secret activities.

He began corresponding with a man in Russia named, appropriately, Sergei. Sergei told Carl all about his life in Russia. He was thirty-six years old and had never married. His mother and father were dead. He had learned English as a child in a private school run by English nuns. He lived in a house with two older brothers and one sister. He was lonely and still hoped to find the one person on earth who was right for him. The picture he sent showed a smiling, handsome, dark-haired, young man standing in front of a falling-down house.

Carl located the one picture of himself that he thought was flattering and sent it to Sergei. As soon as Sergei saw the picture, he said, he felt an instant connection.

Carl told Sergei the truth about himself, no matter how distasteful. He didn’t want any secrets between them. All his family was dead and he had always lived alone with his mother, who would probably never die. He told him his true age and that he only had a high school education. He read books and liked foreign films but he didn’t consider himself very smart. And, yes, he also hoped to find the one person in life who would make his heart sing.

Sergei wanted to come to America and become a citizen. He was proud to know a man like Carl, he said; it made him want to make his home in America that much more. Carl wrote that if he wanted it badly enough, he would make it happen.

Carl and Sergei corresponded for several months. Carl looked forward to Sergei’s messages. If a day passed without a message from Sergei, he felt downhearted and irritable; he had to restrain himself to keep from snapping at his mother whenever she asked him pointless questions.

Then Sergei sent a message saying he had lost his job in the car manufacturing plant where he worked. His brothers told him he couldn’t go on living in the house with them unless he paid his share of the rent and paid for the food he ate. It’s a cruel world, he said. I wish I was dead.

The time was perfect for him to come to America. It was the one thing he had always wanted to do. He believed it was his destiny. There was just one thing standing in his way. He didn’t have enough money for the plane fare to cross the vast ocean; he needed about twenty-two hundred dollars. If Carl could lend him that much money, Sergei would come to him and they would be together. Of course, he would pay back the money just as soon as he could. He heard that good-paying jobs were easy to come by in America, that everything was better in America.

Carl had three thousand dollars in the bank, all the money he had in the world. If he sent twenty-two hundred to Sergei, he would have eight hundred left. It would be enough for them to go away together. They would both get jobs.

They’d go out West somewhere. They would drive day and night, eating in roadside diners and spending the night in small, out-of-the-way motels. Sergei would be seeing America for the first time. It would be the best time that either one of them ever had. He’d send his mother a postcard to let her know he was fine but was never coming back. She’d be hurt at first but would come to accept that it as the natural order of things for an almost-fifty-year-old son to leave his mother.

He went to the bank and transferred twenty-two hundred dollars to the place in Russia that Sergei had designated. He felt a thrill when the woman at the bank told him the transaction went through successfully.

He went right home right away, his heart singing, and sent Sergei a message telling him the money was on its way. Please let me know when you have it, he said, and on what day you plan to come. I will pick you up at the airport. Even though I feel we already know each other so well, I can’t wait for the moment when we finally meet in person.

At the supper table Carl’s mother complained of a pain in her back. She was afraid she had kidney stones. She was going to go to bed right after supper. Carl was uncharacteristically happy and smiled at everything she said. She didn’t notice anything different about him.

After his mother went to bed, Carl began putting things in his battered old suitcase. Just the necessary items: clean socks and underwear, two new toothbrushes and toothpaste. Of course, if Sergei needed anything, he’d be more than welcome to use what was Carl’s. Better not to take too much, though. Travel light.

The next day he didn’t hear from Sergei or the day after that. On the third day, he sent Sergei another message asking him if he received the money. By nightfall he was dismayed but not alarmed that Sergei didn’t write back.

On the fifth day he was worried that something might have happened to Sergei. Maybe he was sick or hurt and there was nobody to let him know. He tried to be patient but it wasn’t easy. He expected things to happen quickly after he sent the money. What could be causing the delay?

After one week, he awoke with the bitter realization of what had happened to his twenty-two hundred dollars. Sergei didn’t exist. The whole thing had been a ploy to steal money from him, and he fell into the trap like a know-nothing fool. There were, of course, people who made their living that way, swindling money out of unsuspecting Americans. Once they have your money you never hear from them again.

For several days, he stayed in his room with the door locked. He turned the computer off and wouldn’t turn it back on. He didn’t bathe or brush his teeth. He knew his mother was mad at him and he didn’t want to be in the same room with her; he didn’t want to hear the claptrap coming from her TV. Late at night after she had gone to bed, he crept into the kitchen without turning on any lights and got himself a sandwich or a piece of fruit. He felt like nothing—less than nothing. He felt like a ghost.

He began vomiting blood. He was dying, he knew, and he didn’t much care. He was amused by the thought of his mother having a yard sale after he was dead to sell his clothes, books and all his possessions. Nobody would want anything that had ever belonged to him. He didn’t want it himself. It was all worthless junk.

He had a disturbing dream in which he shared the same casket with the rotting corpse of his father, dead fifteen years. He screamed and clawed at the sides and ceiling of the casket for somebody to come and let him out, but he knew it was no use. Nobody would hear him and if they did they wouldn’t care.

After he made up his mind to kill himself, he began to feel better. He got out of bed, took a shower and put on clean clothes. He left the house at seven in the morning, before his mother was even out of bed. Realizing he was hungry for the first time in days, he stopped at a pancake house and ate a huge, calorie-laden breakfast.

He drove all over town, to the places he knew as a child. The school where he had attended grade school was still there and didn’t look much different; the same swings, sliding board and merry-go-round, the same blacktop and chain-link fence. He drove to the house his family had lived in up until his fifteenth year, when they were all still alive, and stopped and parked on the street and just looked at the house until an old woman walking a dog began giving him the evil eye.

He spent some time in the park, sitting on a quiet bench in the sun. He regretted all over the loss of his money and how guilelessly he had parted with it. There had always been people like him in the world on which others—Sergei, if such a person even existed—had profited. But the good thing was that he had learned his lesson. He would never be a victim again. Of anyone.

In the attic was a network of cross beams and also old ropes hanging down, left over from the previous owners. It would be so easy for him to put one of the ropes around his neck and jump off a chair into the oblivion that he desired. His mother would be the one to find him, of course, but it would take her a while because she never had any reason to go to the attic. The smell of his rotting body would probably be the thing that would give him away.

There were many ways that a person might commit suicide. Jumping from a tall building? No, too gruesome and too public. Gunshot to the head? No, too bloody, and what if you don’t die right away? Pills? How many and what kind? Getting into a bathtub full of water and slashing the wrists? Well, that’s a possibility but it would hurt terribly. He wanted something clean, painless and aesthetic.

He had read in the newspaper about the son of a successful novelist who bought a length of rubber hose from a hardware store and drove far out into the country away from his home and connected the rubber hose from the exhaust pipe into the car’s interior through an almost-closed window. Breathing in the car’s exhaust through the rubber hose killed the novelist’s son, and it must have been quick, too.

On his way home, Carl stopped and bought a thirty-foot length of rubber hose. When he went to pay for it, the old man running the store asked him what he intended to use it for, but he said he was buying it for somebody else and didn’t know its intended use.

With the rubber hose in the trunk of his car where his mother would never see it, ready to be used whenever he wanted it, he felt calm and almost happy. He wasn’t just going to let the years roll over him anymore and not fight back. He had a plan and he was going to put that plan into action. He had even thought of where he would go to do it, a forgotten place far out of town on a country road, on a river, where they used to go on picnics when he was little. People went there long ago, but nobody went there now.

Now that he had decided on the place, he had only to decide on the day and time.

When he got home after being gone all day, the house was quiet and dark. His mother was in her room with the door closed. When he went into his own bedroom, he noticed right away that something was different. The computer was turned on; he hadn’t had it on for about ten days. The chair of his desk was pulled out and his papers were rifled.

He was putting things back in order when his mother appeared in the doorway. Her hair was disheveled and her pale face tear-stained.

“I want you out of this house,” she said.

“What?”

“I said I want you to get out of my house.”

“Is something wrong?”

“I know what you are and I know what you’ve been doing behind my back.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re not the only one who can use a computer, you know.”

“You’ve been spying on me?”

“You’re a filthy abomination.”

“You had no right to spy on me.”

“I have every right to know what’s going on in my house.”

“I believe it’s my house, too,” he said.

“I’m glad your father is dead. It would have broken his heart to know what his son had become.”

“I’m not going to fight with you, mother.”

She went toward him with her fists doubled up. She was going to strike him in the face but instead broke down in wailing sobs. “How could you do such a thing to your mother?”

“Whatever I did, mother, it was none of your business, and it had nothing to do with you.”

“I want you out of this house. Tonight!”

“I’m not going anywhere, mother!” he shouted as she turned and went back to her bedroom and slammed the door.

His hands were shaking and his mouth dry. He hated ugly scenes. He was reminded of the terrible fights she used to have with his mild-mannered father. He always believed that his father went to his grave before his time because of her.

Not knowing what else to do, wanting to get his thoughts in order and wanting to be out of the house, he drove to a seedy bar on the other side of the park, sat at the bar and drank three beers in quick succession. The noise in the bar, the smoke and the music were somehow comforting to him.

He went back home at nine o’clock, expecting that she might have the door barred to him in some way, but he let himself in with his key and saw to his relief that nothing had changed. No lights were on. She was still in her room with the door closed.

He locked himself in his room and went to bed as if nothing had happened. He slept soundly and awoke to the sunlight streaming in and the birds singing. He put his bathrobe on over his pajamas and went into the kitchen and cooked bacon, eggs and French toast, enough for two.

By nine o’clock, his mother still wasn’t up. He didn’t hear her moving around in her room; he didn’t hear the toilet flush. He went to the door of her room and knocked gently.

“Mother, I’ve cooked breakfast!” he said.

Finding the door unlocked, he opened it and went in. The room was dark and smelled faintly of something foul. She was lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.

At first he thought she was dead but when he saw her still breathing, he laid her out flat, put a pillow under her head and covered her with her favorite yellow blanket. He went into the kitchen and called an ambulance.

He followed the ambulance to the hospital in his car and sat in a room of chairs until the middle of the afternoon before a doctor came out to tell him what was wrong.

“She’s had a massive stroke,” the doctor said. “It’s bad.”

“Will she recover?” Carl asked.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think she’ll last more than a few days.”

She died three days later. The funeral was well-attended by all the sobbing old ladies, bosom friends of his mother, that Carl had met, either at church or at the funerals of others. They all expressed their tearful condolences; a couple of them kissed him on the cheek. Some of them had spinster daughters or granddaughters they wanted him to meet.

The money from the sale of the house and all its furnishings, combined with Carl’s mother’s estate, brought him enough money to live comfortably without having to work for a paycheck ever again. He donated his clothes, shoes, coats, hats, suits, socks, underwear—even his pajamas—to charity and bought everything new. Out with the old. In with the new.

He bought an extravagant red car with a powerful engine his mother would have hated. He bought an expensive set of suitcases and filled them with books, childhood mementoes, pictures and other things from the house he wanted to keep.

He loaded the suitcases into the back of his car, all of his past life fit snugly between the front and back seats. As he drove away, he took one last look at the house he had lived in all his life. He could see his mother standing on the front lawn clutching her chest, looking at him with everlasting disapproval.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Washed in the Blood

Posted on

Washed in the Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this story previously in a different version.)

The funeral was Saturday the twelfth. Vincent spoke to no one for several days, but on Wednesday the sixteenth he received an unexpected phone call.

“Am I speaking with Vincent Spearman?” a resonant male voice asked.

“Yes,” Vincent said. “Who is this?”

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

“No, I’m fine,” Vincent said. “I don’t need anything.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah. Thanks for the kind words.”

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

“What about?”

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

“Well, I’m pretty busy today.”

“Would tomorrow be better?”

“No, we’d better do it today. I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Fine! I’ll be there in, let us say, about an hour.”

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

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

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

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

“My goodness!” the reverend Nesselrode said, laughing heartily. “It certainly is lovely to see you again! How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said.

“May we sit?”

Vincent led the reverend Nesselrode into the living room and watched as he placed himself in the middle of the couch and sprawled his big legs. Vincent sat in the chair across the room in front of the window with the closed drapes and looked warily at the reverend.

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

“I want you to know that we offer grief counseling at the church.”

“What?”

“It’s to help people like you work through your feelings of loss in a group setting with others who know and understand what you’re going through. The group meets twice a month, on alternating Fridays. I believe this coming Friday, the day after tomorrow, is their night to meet. Please feel free to attend if you’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock. Dress is casual.

“I don’t think so,” Vincent said. “I would never be able to talk about…”

“I understand what you’re saying, Vincent, but I hope you’ll keep an open mind. I think it might help you. The people in the group are very lovely, very understanding people.”

“I’m sure they are, but talking about my ‘feelings’ in front of a roomful of strangers is not my idea of a good time.”

The reverend Nesselrode put his fingers over his mouth and sucked air in through his nostrils. He knew he was taking the wrong approach. Some people are just difficult to reach, but he had a very good record of breaking through.

“Your mother spoke of you on several occasions,” he said.

“Why?”

“She was worried about you. She was concerned that, after her passing, you’d be all alone. There’s no other family, I understand.”

“I have some cousins living up in Minnesota. Or maybe it’s Montana. One of those.”

“No family living nearby?”

“No.

“How are you managing with the household chores all on your own? Things like cooking, laundry and house cleaning?

“I manage. I’ve always looked after myself.”

“Eating a healthy diet?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Vincent. I’m not trying to pry into your affairs. I just want you to know that if you need help we have ladies in the church, volunteers, who will come in a morning or two a week a help out with laundry or household chores.”

“Ladies?”

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

“Do they get paid by the hour?”

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

“Like Superman?”

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

“I see.”

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

“No, I don’t need anybody.”

“Well, you’re lucky. Most men are helpless without a woman around.”

“Not me.”

The reverend Nesselrode narrowed his eyelids and took a couple of deep breaths. “You’re about forty, aren’t you?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“It’s not too late for you to have a family of your own.”

What?

“We have many lovely single ladies in our congregation who would be happy to meet you.”

“Why would they be happy to meet me?”

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

“I wouldn’t know what to say to people like that. I’d just be looking for the first opportunity to leave.”

“I know. You’re naturally shy. I understand that, but I hope you’ll at least think about what I’m saying to you. The message is this, Vincent: it’s no good being alone. You don’t have to be alone in this world.”

“Maybe I like being alone.”

“If you want to know the truth, Vincent, I think you’re saying that because you just lost your mother and you’re in a fragile emotional state.”

“I’m not. In a fragile emotional state. I knew for a long time my mother was dying. I was prepared for it.”

“Even though your mother is gone, you still have a life.”

“All right. Well, thanks for dropping by!”

“What plans do you have for the future?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Come, now, Vincent! You must want something out of life.”

“To be a better person, I suppose.”

“Well, that’s a step in the right direction! You can be a better person by becoming a church member and attending regular services.”

“If you want to know the truth, Mr. Nistlerod, I don’t think I’m ready for this conversation and I don’t think I ever will be.”

“We’re having a special prayer meeting on Saturday evening that you might find enlightening. The theme will be ‘succor for the lonely’.”

“Sucker?”

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

“Am I the sucker?”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“So, will we see you at the prayer meeting on Saturday evening?”

“No. I won’t be there.”

“Vincent, sir, if you’ll pardon my saying so! You haven’t been receptive to anything I’ve said. I feel I haven’t been able to get through to you.”

Vincent laughed, recalling his mother. “She always said I’m stubborn. Of course, she was stubborn, too.”

“I find your resistance difficult to fathom with your mother being the devout Christian she was.”

“She wasn’t really a devout Christian. She pretended to be devout because she was afraid of dying and going to hell. When she was younger, she was a big-time liar and whore. A champion sinner!”

“Well, I don’t know of her distant past, but I can assure you she confessed all her transgressions to the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever they were, and was forgiven. She was washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”

“Do you think she believed that?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“She had you fooled, too, then.”

The reverend Nesselrode took a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose loudly. There were tears of frustration and failure in his eyes.

“There is one more topic I wanted to broach with you today, Vincent, but I don’t know if now is the proper time.”

“Don’t hold anything back.”

“I’m going to make you a proposition and I ask that you give it serious consideration.”

“What kind of proposition?”

“You live all alone in this big house. It has how many rooms?”

“Fifteen.”

“And how many bedrooms?”

“Six.”

“Why does one young man living alone need a house with fifteen rooms and six bedrooms?”

“I think I’m beginning to understand,” Vincent said.

“There’s no other way to say it than to just come right out and say it,” the reverend Nesselrode said.

“You want me to donate my house to the church.”

“It would make an excellent halfway house.”

“A what?”

“Halfway house. A place for troubled young offenders to stay while they’re getting their lives in order.”

“Are you out of your mind? I don’t want people like that in my house!”

“Oh, no, no, no! You don’t understand! You wouldn’t still live here! We’d swap you for a smaller, more modern house or a nice apartment in town.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, you know that? You come here pretending to be concerned for my welfare, and all the time you only want me to give you my house. I see right through you!”

“Please, Vincent, don’t think of it in those terms!”

“I warned my mother about you church people, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“I’m afraid you have the wrong idea, young man. I have nothing but the best intentions toward you. I just thought we might come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. I merely wanted to propose the idea to you and see if you might be receptive.”

“No, I’m not receptive!”

“Very well. I see where we stand. I thank you for taking the time to talk to me today and I apologize if I offended you. Would you like to pray with me before I go?”

“No!”

“Well, I’ll be running along, then. I’ll leave you my card in case you have any questions about any of the things we discussed today.”

The reverend Nesselrode took a card out of his wallet and put it on the lamp table by the couch and then stood up and quietly went out the door.

After the reverend Nesselrode was gone, Vincent triple-locked the door, closed all the curtains and went upstairs. Across the hallway from the top of the stairs was the room that had been his bedroom all his life. He went inside and closed the door and locked it.

He pulled a .45 caliber handgun out of the dresser drawer, held it in his hand and stood looking at himself in the dresser mirror. He pointed the gun at his temple and then inserted it in his mouth and after a few seconds withdrew it.

Turning from the mirror, he pointed the gun at his chest and pulled the trigger without hesitation. The blood poured from him, soaking his shirt, pants and shoes. After teetering backwards and forwards for a few seconds, he fell to the floor, pulling the bedspread off the bed and covering himself with it the best he could.

“Oh, God!” he said.

He knew then that there was someone else in the room with him. He thought at first it was his mother but when he lifted his head up and looked toward the door he saw it was an oddly familiar man.

“Who are you?” he asked, but before the words were out of his mouth he knew it could only be the Jesus Christ, the one and only, come to wash him in the Blood of the Lamb and take away all his sins. It might be seen as a miracle, except that there was no one there to see it. In the last few seconds of his life he became a believer.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Frozen Charlotte

Frozen Charlotte ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The snow has stopped falling. The temperature hovers at fifteen degrees. The wind is minimal. The air crackles with electricity. The stars twinkle like diamonds on a bed of blue-black velvet. Atmospherically it is the best Christmas Eve on record.

Roads are snow-packed and have been for weeks. The best way to get from place to place is by horse-drawn sleigh. The automobile is still not in common use, as it is 1897, but those days are coming.

Charlotte Little will be attending the party at the Whites on her own, even though she is only twelve. Vardaman will drive the sleigh. He will watch out for her and see that she returns safely.

It is to be a party for adults as well as children. There will be an orchestra, bountiful food and drink, musical acts, caroling, magic tricks, surprises and a visit from Santa. Those who attend the party will remember it all their lives into old age. They will take memories of the party to their graves.

As the best friend of Amy White, Charlotte will be an honored guest at the party. She doesn’t mind that she has to go alone but finds it rather exciting and grown-up. She has a new dress made for her by a real dressmaker. It is white bombazine with red satin trim. It reminds her of peppermint, of Christmas. She has never had a dress before of which she is so proud.

She is to leave at five o’clock. Allowing for no mishaps with the sleigh, she will arrive at the party at six o’clock. She is dressed and ready to go hours in advance. Mother tries to get her to eat before she goes, but she is too excited; there will be lots of time to eat later.

When she goes down to leave, mother and father are waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Mother has her coat and scarf for her and father her fur hat, gloves and galoshes, but she doesn’t want to put any of them on. She has spent hours getting herself ready for the party and doesn’t want to spoil the effect. The coat will flatten the frills and puffs of her dress and the fur hat will mess up her hair. She doesn’t need the boots at all but will walk in tracks that have already been made. As a kind of concession, she puts the scarf around her shoulders and slips the gloves on her hands.

Vardaman is waiting for her in the sleigh at the front gate, whip in hand. He is so bundled up in his riding accoutrements that only his eyes can be seen. Charlotte gets into the sleigh, piling her warm winter coat and fur hat on top of the lap robes in the corner of the seat. She throws her galoshes on the floor of the sleigh and forgets about them. Who wears galoshes with a fancy Christmas dress?

Vardaman drives slowly at first and then faster. Soon he seems to be flying without leaving the ground. The trees and farmhouses whiz past in an icy blur. Charlotte breathes deeply of the icy air and looks up at the twinkling stars. Already she is having a good time, and she’s not even at the party yet. She spreads her coat over her lap, but that is the only concession she makes to the cold.

She doesn’t speak a word on the way. If she has anything to say, she would have to say it to Vardaman and she rarely speaks to Vardaman unless he speaks first. He is what they call all business.

The trip goes smoothly enough without incident. Vardaman has guided the sleigh expertly and efficiently, as he always does. He pulls up to the side of the house belonging to the Whites and gets out, throwing a blanket over the horse’s back. His back is sore and he is in a hurry to get inside and take off his coat and outer wrappings and warm his feet at the kitchen fire. In his haste, he fails to notice that Charlotte hasn’t moved from the sleigh. She still sits there, not moving, her icy blue eyes staring straight ahead.

Sometime during the trip, Charlotte’s blood freezes in her veins. Her heart stops pumping blood and turns into a useless, frozen muscle in the middle of her upper torso. Her eyes become fixed in their sockets, frozen in place, eyelids opened. How can someone so dead look so alive?

It is the easiest of deaths. She has felt nothing, not even a tingling sensation. From one second to the next, she is here and then she is gone.

The party disperses at eleven o’clock. Those who expected Charlotte to attend are disappointed, but they figure something must have come up unexpectedly at the last minute to keep her home.

Vardaman, sated with food and drink, comes out and is happy to see that Charlotte has taken her place in the sleigh and is ready to go home. He is all too eager to get home to his warm bed. He wakes up the horse and takes the blanket off his back and in thirty seconds the sleigh has taken to the road.

He turns and asks Charlotte if she had a good time at the party. He believes she answers in the affirmative but, of course, no answer is forthcoming.

When they get back home, it is near midnight on Christmas morning. Unknown to anybody, Charlotte has been sitting in the back of the sleigh on a frigid Christmas Eve for seven hours.

He stops the sleigh at the front gate. When Charlotte doesn’t get out as he expects, he turns around in the seat and looks at her, at her blue, staring eyes. Right away he knows something is wrong. He runs to the front door and bangs loudly. Mother and father, both in their night clothes, know that something is wrong and come running out.

When they see that Charlotte is frozen through and through, they take her in and set her by the fire. They try to lay her flat, but she is frozen in a sitting position. They rub her hands and wrists and pat her cheeks. They put more wood on the fire. They believe all they have to do is thaw her out and she will revive and start breathing again. Not knowing what else to do, mother sends for the doctor.

In the morning they send for the undertaker’s men. They come promptly and take Charlotte away. In the afternoon on Christmas Day, mother and father pay a call at the undertaking establishment. They choose embalming for their little girl and, after she is embalmed, they want her dressed in her fancy, red-and-white Christmas dress that she wore to the party. They pick out the finest and most expensive cast-iron coffin with a little window over the deceased’s face. Only the best will do.

Two days before the New Year, a service is held at the Methodist chapel for Charlotte Little. All the same people who were at the White party attend the service, except now they are in black and are no longer smiling. Everybody wants to know how such a thing could happen. How could a little girl go out on a freezing Christmas Eve in only a thin dress and no coat, hat, gloves or galoshes? Some of the ladies look accusingly at mother and then look away quickly when she looks back.

The ground is hard as iron. No new graves can be dug until there is an appreciable thaw. Frozen Charlotte is kept in the frigid sub-basement of the church for the duration. All through the winter, people may come and visit her and pay their respects. They line up and peer into the little window over her face and are subdued into silence by the mystery of death.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Frozen Charlotte

Frozen Charlotte ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The snow has stopped falling. The temperature hovers at fifteen degrees. The wind is minimal. The air crackles with electricity. The stars twinkle like diamonds on a bed of blue-black velvet. Atmospherically it is the best Christmas Eve on record.

Roads are snow-packed and have been for weeks. The best way to get from place to place is by horse-drawn sleigh. The automobile is still not in common use, as it is 1897, but those days are coming.

Charlotte Little will be attending the party at the Whites on her own, even though she is only twelve. Vardaman will drive the sleigh. He will watch out for her and see that she returns safely.

It is to be a party for adults as well as children. There will be an orchestra, bountiful food and drink, musical acts, caroling, magic tricks, surprises and a visit from Santa. Those who attend the party will remember it all their lives into old age. They will take memories of the party to their graves.

As the best friend of Amy White, Charlotte will be an honored guest at the party. She doesn’t mind that she has to go alone but finds it rather exciting and grown-up. She has a new dress made for her by a real dressmaker. It is white bombazine with red satin trim. It reminds her of peppermint, of Christmas. She has never had a dress before of which she is so proud.

She is to leave at five o’clock. Allowing for no mishaps with the sleigh, she will arrive at the party at six o’clock. She is dressed and ready to go hours in advance. Mother tries to get her to eat before she goes, but she is too excited; there will be lots of time to eat later.

When she goes down to leave, mother and father are waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Mother has her coat and scarf for her and father her fur hat, gloves and galoshes, but she doesn’t want to put any of them on. She has spent hours getting herself ready for the party and doesn’t want to spoil the effect. The coat will flatten the frills and puffs of her dress and the fur hat will mess up her hair. She doesn’t need the boots at all but will walk in tracks that have already been made. As a kind of concession, she puts the scarf around her shoulders and slips the gloves on her hands.

Vardaman is waiting for her in the sleigh at the front gate, whip in hand. He is so bundled up in his riding accoutrements that only his eyes can be seen. Charlotte gets into the sleigh, piling her warm winter coat and fur hat on top of the lap robes in the corner of the seat. She throws her galoshes on the floor of the sleigh and forgets about them. Who wears galoshes with a fancy Christmas dress?

Vardaman drives slowly at first and then faster. Soon he seems to be flying without leaving the ground. The trees and farmhouses whiz past in an icy blur. Charlotte breathes deeply of the icy air and looks up at the twinkling stars. Already she is having a good time, and she’s not even at the party yet. She spreads her coat over her lap, but that is the only concession she makes to the cold.

She doesn’t speak a word on the way. If she has anything to say, she would have to say it to Vardaman and she rarely speaks to Vardaman unless he speaks first. He is what they call all business.

The trip goes smoothly enough without incident. Vardaman has guided the sleigh expertly and efficiently, as he always does. He pulls up to the side of the house belonging to the Whites and gets out, throwing a blanket over the horse’s back. His back is sore and he is in a hurry to get inside and take off his coat and outer wrappings and warm his feet at the kitchen fire. In his haste, he fails to notice that Charlotte hasn’t moved from the sleigh. She still sits there, not moving, her icy blue eyes staring straight ahead.

Sometime during the trip, Charlotte’s blood freezes in her veins. Her heart stops pumping blood and turns into a useless, frozen muscle in the middle of her upper torso. Her eyes become fixed in their sockets, frozen in place, eyelids opened. How can someone so dead look so alive?

It is the easiest of deaths. She has felt nothing, not even a tingling sensation. From one second to the next, she is here and then she is gone.

The party disperses at eleven o’clock. Those who expected Charlotte to attend are disappointed, but they figure something must have come up unexpectedly at the last minute to keep her home.

Vardaman, sated with food and drink, comes out and is happy to see that Charlotte has taken her place in the sleigh and is ready to go home. He is all too eager to get home to his warm bed. He wakes up the horse and takes the blanket off his back and in thirty seconds the sleigh has taken to the road.

He turns and asks Charlotte if she had a good time at the party. He believes she answers in the affirmative but, of course, no answer is forthcoming.

When they get back home, it is near midnight on Christmas morning. Unknown to anybody, Charlotte has been sitting in the back of the sleigh on a frigid Christmas Eve for seven hours.

He stops the sleigh at the front gate. When Charlotte doesn’t get out as he expects, he turns around in the seat and looks at her, at her blue, staring eyes. Right away he knows something is wrong. He runs to the front door and bangs loudly. Mother and father, both in their night clothes, know that something is wrong and come running out.

When they see that Charlotte is frozen through and through, they take her in and set her by the fire. They try to lay her flat, but she is frozen in a sitting position. They rub her hands and wrists and pat her cheeks. They put more wood on the fire. They believe all they have to do is thaw her out and she will revive and start breathing again. Not knowing what else to do, mother sends for the doctor.

In the morning they send for the undertaker’s men. They come promptly and take Charlotte away. In the afternoon on Christmas Day, mother and father pay a call at the undertaking establishment. They choose embalming for their little girl and, after she is embalmed, they want her dressed in her fancy, red-and-white Christmas dress that she wore to the party. They pick out the finest and most expensive cast-iron coffin with a little window over the deceased’s face. Only the best will do.

Two days before the New Year, a service is held at the Methodist chapel for Charlotte Little. All the same people who were at the White party attend the service, except now they are in black and are no longer smiling. Everybody wants to know how such a thing could happen. How could a little girl go out on a freezing Christmas Eve in only a thin dress and no coat, hat, gloves or galoshes? Some of the ladies look accusingly at mother and then look away quickly when she looks back.

The ground is hard as iron. No new graves can be dug until there is an appreciable thaw. Frozen Charlotte is kept in the frigid sub-basement of the church for the duration. All through the winter, people may come and visit her and pay their respects. They line up and peer into the little window over her face and are subdued into silence by the mystery of death.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp