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By Appointment or By Chance

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By Appointment or By Chance ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was 1899. The old century was in its death spiral and a new century was about to be born. At this auspicious time of new beginning, I opened a business on the main street of the town of Bended Knee.

I had worked as a teacher, a journalist and a clerk in a department store in the city, but I dreamed of a profession where I was in sole command. I hated having to be accountable to anybody for anything. I wanted to be accountable only to myself.

I went to a demonstration of photography in a college lecture hall and, after sitting through a lecture and a practical demonstration of portrait photography, I was certain it was something at which I could make a living. I bought a couple of books and studied them, front to back, with interest. I took my savings and bought a camera and all the necessary equipment. In Bended Knee, I rented a commercial space in the heart of the business district. I employed a carpenter to construct a wall, so that the front part of the space would be public and the back part private. A professional sign painter painted my name across the window and the words Portrait Photographer underneath and, underneath that, By Appointment or By Chance.

Photography had been around since the days of Andrew Jackson or before, but to most people it was still a novelty. If you lived in a small town, it was all the rage to put on your glad rags and go and sit for your portrait, especially if you were beautiful. Then, no matter how poorly time treated you, no matter how ugly and corpulent you became, you would always have the photographic image of yourself to remind the world of your former glory. Your descendants would still have it in a quaint little frame decades after your death and one day they would sit around and say to each other, “Now, just who was he?” or, “Didn’t she die of diphtheria when she was only about twenty-three?”

Families wanted their portraits taken as a group and then separately. Some families had as many as eight or ten children. Mothers wanted their children to sit for a portrait every year, traditionally on their birthdays. Mantelpieces and chairside tables abounded with portraits in frames. People gave them to relatives as gifts at Christmas. Photography as a business was a modest gold mine for the right sort of fellow.

And then, of course, there was death photography. People wanted portraits of their deceased family members, in a coffin or on a bed, sometimes posed with the living members of the family or with the family dog, sometimes sitting propped up as though still alive. Some photographers painted eyes or rosy cheeks on the finished portraits, but I never employed that vulgar technique. I figured that once a person was dead, it was pointless to try to make him or her seem alive again.

While business was booming in my studio in town, I was willing, more often than not, to go out of town to take portraits of the deceased, since the deceased were not able to come into the studio and sit for their portraits. I could usually charge any amount for this service and people would pay it because the resultant photo was a blessed remembrance of the departed loved one and money was, where the death sentiment was concerned, no object. This is not to say I cheated people; I charged them what I thought they could pay. If someone lived in a fine house with many rooms and beautiful furnishings, I had no qualms about charging top prices. If, however, they dressed in rags and lived in a falling-down shack, I did the work for practically nothing.

At the time of which I speak, I was still about twelve years away from owning my first automobile, so I traveled by horse-drawn wagon. I had a specially-made enclosed wagon to keep my equipment dry if it should happen to rain, and it rained more than it didn’t, at any season of the year. So, I found myself slogging over unfamiliar country roads, looking for a place I wasn’t sure existed. Sometimes it took me all day to get to where I needed to go and I would end up staying the night. I wasn’t above bedding down inside my wagon if there was no other choice. I kept telling myself that next year, or maybe the year after, I’d hire an assistant to do the driving, carry the equipment and perform other trivial tasks. I might even train him to go on the out-of-town forays on his own.

Children died more often than adults. There was always a fever or an infection or pneumonia or something to carry them off. If you thought about it at all, you knew that a competent doctor might have fixed them up with a pill, a bottle of medicine, or just a word of advice, if only a doctor had been around when needed. I photographed dead babies in sateen-covered boxes in the family parlor, surrounded by sprays of forget-me-nots; babies in their mother’s arms, with a brood of older children looking on; babies just ready to go into their graves with smiles on their faces and a stuffed toy in their arms; twin babies in one tiny coffin with their arms entwined. Once I photographed a baby and a little brown-and-white dog side by side in a wooden box, ready to embark together on their journey through eternity.

Then there were the older children: the tiny six-year-old girl whose father accidentally shot her through the heart; the boy, eight years old, who didn’t get out of the way of the train fast enough; the girl, age ten, who died of heart failure when her mother locked her in a mausoleum at the cemetery to teach her a lesson. Most parents were good parents, though, and wanted a photographic remembrance of their child. I gave them what they wanted and needed. For a price.

I was on my way back to town after one of these missions to photograph a dead boy (he fell on a pitchfork in the barn, punctured his stomach, and bled to death before the doctor arrived; his mother pretended he wouldn’t be quite so dead as long as she had a photograph of him laid out in a little flower-bedecked coffin in the family dining room), when I saw a woman dressed in black standing beside the road underneath a big tree waving a white handkerchief to attract my attention. I stopped the wagon and looked at the woman with a distinct lack of friendliness.

“Are you the man what takes photographs of the dead?” she asked.

“That’s what it says on the side of the wagon,” I said.

“I’m Mrs. Wallace Worth,” she said. “I live in that house over there.” She pointed and I looked. It was a large brick house set back about two hundred feet from the road.

“I’m just coming off a case,” I said. “I’m headed back to town.”

“Well, you might come back tomorrow if you’re agreeable.”

“I don’t think I can do that,” I said. “Just what is it you need?”

She looked at the ground and put her hand to her forehead and said, “Death has paid a call at my house.”

“You want a photograph of the deceased?”

“Yes, but it’s more than that.”

“What, then?”

“You look like a strong man,” she said, “and quite young.”

I thought for a moment that she was making advances at me. I gave her a sour look to let her know I was not at home for that kind of nonsense.

“My husband, Wallace Worth Senior, is lying in his coffin in the bay window between the parlor and the dining room. The sun shines on him most of the day. He hasn’t been embalmed and it’s been three days now.”

“Why don’t you go ahead and bury him?”

“Tomorrow, April twenty-third, would have been his fifty-seventh birthday. When he knew he was dying, he made me promise that I wouldn’t have him buried until that day. He was very superstitious. He studied numerology and he believed that nothing would ever go right for him in the afterlife or for his kinfolk still living on the earth if he did not go into the ground on the day he was born.”

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

“So, if you could consent to take my dear husband’s photograph before he at last goes into the ground on his birthday, I will make it worth your while.”

“I won’t do it for less than fifty dollars,” I said, believing she would balk at the price and I could be on my way.

“All right, but we’ll negotiate terms later on. You see, there’s more to my request than I’ve stated.”

“I haven’t eaten since early this morning,” I said.

“I believe we might deign to find you a crust of bread somewhere in the house for you, sir,” she said.

She instructed me to pull my wagon around to the side of the house where she was waiting for me. When she took me inside, there was the unmistakable stench of death.

“I know,” she said. “He’s starting to smell. Nature takes its course.”

I took my handkerchief out of my pocket and held it over my mouth and nose. It was probably a good thing I hadn’t eaten.

“Just show me where the deceased is,” I said, “and we’ll get this thing over with.”

He was lying in a mahogany casket, very expensive looking, suffused with milky light from a bay window. Enormous potted ferns lay at the head and foot of the casket. Smaller containers of flowers were ranged on the floor along the front.

“He loved the sunlight,” Mrs. Worth said. “I just couldn’t see blocking out the light with heavy curtains. It’ll be the last earthly light he’ll ever see.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll bring in my equipment from the wagon and we’ll have this done in no time at all.”

While I got the camera set up and everything ready to take the picture, Mrs. Worth and the housemaid, Nola, hovered in the background. I got the feeling that Mrs. Worth thought I needed to be watched lest I steal something valuable.

I took two photographs of the deceased from different angles and then Mrs. Worth wanted one where she was standing next to the casket looking down into her husband’s face. When I was finished, I said, “That’ll be fifty dollars, ma’am, if you please. When your photographs are ready, I’ll send you a postcard and you can pick them up in town at your convenience.”

I made ready to leave and Mrs. Worth just stood there looking at me with Nola hovering behind her shoulder.

“I believe I mentioned there was something else,” Mrs. Worth said.

“Yes?”

“My son, Wallace Worth Junior, died a day and a half after his father. He is upstairs in his room, lying on his bed. He has been bathed and dressed for burial.”

“You want a photograph of him, too?” I asked.

“Yes, I do and then…”

“Then what, ma’am?”

“Nola and I are here alone. Neither one of us are very strong. After you take Junior’s picture, I would like to prevail upon you to pick him up and carry him downstairs and place him in the coffin with his father and then close the lid. The boys will be here early in the morning—on my husband’s fifty-seventh birthday, I believe I mentioned—to perform the burial.”

“Did your son die of anything contagious? Anything I need to know about?”

“Oh, no, sir! He had heart trouble. Nothing catching, I can assure you.”

“How old is the boy?”

“He’s fifteen years old, sir, and not very big. I don’t think he would weigh more than about ninety pounds. I’ll pay you twenty extra dollars to carry him downstairs and place him in the coffin with his father and close the lid.”

“So, that’ll be fifty to photograph your husband, thirty to photograph your son, and twenty to carry the boy downstairs. That’s a hundred all together.”

“That seems fair, sir. I have the cash in the wall safe in my bedroom.”

“All right, let’s photograph the boy, then.”

Mrs. Worth took me up a broad carpeted staircase, up one flight and then up another. We went down a hallway to a closed door, first Mrs. Worth, then me, and then silent Nola. Mrs. Worth turned to look at me before she opened the door.

“In the midst of life we are in death,” she said.

She opened the door and I saw the boy, Wallace Worth Junior, lying on his back on the bed. I walked over to the bed and studied the photographic subject for a minute or two, trying to decide the best angle from which to photograph him.

He was dressed in a fine-looking dark suit with knickers, gray stockings and expensive-looking, high-top leather shoes. He wore a high collar with a cravat, just as a grown man would, and in the cravat a diamond stickpin.

“He looks very natural,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

I heard Mrs. Worth sob behind me and Nola followed suit. “Maybe it would best if you just leave me to my work,” I said.

Mrs. Worth and Nola went out of the room and I carried my camera up the many steps to the little bedroom on the top floor where the boy lay. I got set up to take the picture and, as usual, I photographed the deceased from a couple different angles. When I was finished, I carried my camera back down and loaded them into my wagon, so I would be ready to leave as soon as I did the rest of what I had promised to do.

When I went back inside, Mrs. Worth and Nola were waiting at the foot of the stairs for me. Without a word, the three of us went up silently up the stairs again to the boy’s bedroom.

I could have picked him up and thrown him over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, but I didn’t think that was appropriate under the circumstances. Looking at his face, I bent over him and slipped my right arm underneath the upper part of his back and my left hand underneath the crook in his knees. I hefted him off the bed and when I did I had the surprise of my life.

The boy sputtered and let out an exhalation of air. I continued to hold him, not knowing what else to do, and his entire body bucked as if he had just sat on hot ashes. I eased him back down on the bed and took a step back.

“This boy’s not dead!” I said.

He gasped for air and continued sputtering and making guttural sounds. When I could take my eyes off him, I looked to Mrs. Worth and I saw that she had collapsed on the floor. Thinking she had just fainted from the shock of seeing her boy come alive when she thought he was dead, I leaned over and hefted her onto the bed. While I was doing this, the boy swung his legs over the side of the bed and leaned forward so that his face was parallel to the floor.

“Get a wet cloth!” I said to Nola.

Nola was standing in the doorway sobbing, but she went out of the room at my command and when she returned with the wet cloth I could see that Mrs. Worth wasn’t breathing. Not being a doctor, I didn’t know what to do for her, so I began rubbing and patting the backs of her hands while Nola dabbed at her head with the wet cloth.

After about five minutes of these ministrations, I leaned over to Mrs. Worth and put my ear against her chest. I heard nothing.

“I’m afraid she’s dead,” I said. “The shock was too much for her.”

At this news, Nola shrieked and ran from the room. I heard her shoes clomping all the way down the stairs. What she did then I had no way of knowing.

I turned to the boy, Wallace Worth Junior, sitting propped up against the headboard of his bed, feet on the floor. “Are you all right?” I asked him.

“Um, no,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I’m a photographer. Your mother asked me to come up here and take your picture.”

“Why would she do that? Have I been asleep?”

“I’m afraid your mother and your father are both dead.”

“He looked at the still form of his mother and all he said was, “Oh.”

“Where is the nearest doctor?” I asked him.

“Um, I’m not sure there is one out here. My father wanted to live in the country. He hated the town.”

“You know, don’t you, that your father is laid out in his coffin in the parlor downstairs?”

“Yes, I know that,” he said. “We were going to have a funeral.”

“Do you know where that girl lives? That Nola? It seems that she’s the only person here now to do anything for you.”

“She’s ignorant,” he said. “She can’t do anything without mother telling her what to do.”

“Would she be able to go and find a doctor?”

“She wouldn’t be able to find her own bunghole with both hands.”

“Well, I’m going back to town now,” I said. “When I get there, I’ll go to the sheriff and tell him what happened out here. He’ll send somebody out to see to things. Do you want to stay here with your mother, or do you want to come with me?”

“No, I’ll go,” he said. “She wasn’t really my mother, anyway.”

“If you want to take some things, pack a bag or anything, I’ll wait,” I said.

“You can wait here for me,” he said. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”

To keep from being in the small bedroom where I would have to look at a dead woman, I went out of the room, back along the hallway, and sat on the top step and leaned my head against the wall. In fifteen minutes, Wallace Worth Junior appeared, carrying a small valise. He went to the kitchen and got himself a drink of water and then he was ready to go.

It was late afternoon with a sky that threatened rain. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to make it back to town before the rain started. After a couple of miles, I turned and looked at Wallace Worth Junior, expecting him to show signs of mortal illness. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. His parents were dead but he was alive. It was a dilemma any way you looked at it.

“Do you have any family in town?” I asked

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

“You’ll have to have somebody to stay with,” I said.

“If they’ll get the dead bodies out of my house, I can stay there.”

“No, I don’t think they’ll let you stay way out here by yourself in that big house.”

“Who’s going to stop me?”

“Well, you’re a minor.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means you won’t be legally recognized as an adult until you’re at least eighteen years of age.”

“The house is mine now. I know father would have wanted me to have it, now that she’s dead.”

“Your mother thought you were dead.”

“She wasn’t my mother, I told you. She was my stepmother.”

“Well, whatever she was, she thought you were dead.”

“I was dead.”

“And you came back to life?”

“It’s happened before. I don’t know why.”

“You’re a miracle of medical science, then,” I said.

“I saw God,” he said. “I spoke to Him.”

“What did he say?”

“I would expect you to ask a question like that.”

Silly as it was, my feelings were hurt. “You don’t know anything about me,” I said. “I’m doing you a favor by giving you a ride to town.”

“Don’t you think I could find my own way to town if I needed to?” he said.

“You can get out and walk to town for all I care!”

“God is a slight man with thin lips. People think of him as having a long white beard, but he’s clean-shaven.”

“That’s a fascinating piece of useless information,” I said.

“He wears a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. He wears a monocle in his right eye.”

“Don’t tell me God has an eye deficiency!” I said.

“Go ahead and make fun of me. I don’t care.”

“Did God have any special message for you?”

“He told me to await further instructions.”

I laughed and had a little coughing spell. That was enough God talk. When I was through coughing and could speak again, I said, “You must be hungry.”

“Why must I be hungry?” he asked.

“Your step-momma said you had been dead for a day and a half.”

“I was dead.”

“All right. I believe you.”

“Yes, I’m hungry,” he said. “I could eat.”

“When we get to town, then, we’ll get you a good meal.”

“In the morning I’ll see my father’s lawyer and tell him they’re dead. He’ll advise me what to do.”

“You’ll need a place to stay tonight,” I said.

“I can manage,” he said.

“We’ll get you a room in the hotel for tonight. I’ll pay for it, but you’ll need to pay me back as soon as you can.”

“Most people are evil,” he said. “I see the evil, the vileness, hanging over them like a cloud. I don’t see it in you, though.”

“Is that your way of thanking me?” I asked.

“Not at all.”

“You do flatter me.”

When we got back to town, I headed straight for the hotel. I had my horse stabled there and locked my wagon so nobody would become curious about what might be inside worth stealing. These trivial matters tended to, Wallace Worth Junior and I went into the hotel restaurant and sat at a round table. After we placed our order, I noticed the other people in the restaurant looking at us, before I realized they were looking at him.

“You see the way they’re looking at me?” he said.

“They’re not used to seeing a young fellow all dressed up in formal attire. There aren’t any opera houses or ballrooms in this town.”

“You really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He had a pointed way about him, old beyond his years. I could almost believe I was conversing with a grown man rather than a boy in his teens.

“They know I’ve seen God and will see Him again.”

“They don’t know any such thing,” I said.

The food came, huge amounts of beefsteak, boiled potatoes, carrots and green beans. The boy ate as much food as I’ve ever seen any one person eat at one time, and then he said he was tired and wanted to go to bed. I figured he must be upset at the strange turn of events his life had taken that day, but he seemed perfectly calm and unemotional.

After I paid the tab for our meal, we went into the hotel, where I engaged a room for him to stay for the night. I asked him if he was afraid to stay by himself in a strange hotel room and he laughed at me. “I’ve been by myself since the day I was born,” he said.

“You are an odd one,” I said.

He signed his name in the hotel register and the clerk handed him the key. Before he went upstairs to his room, I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I’d come by in the morning at eight-thirty to take him to his father’s lawyer and for him to meet me in the lobby at that time. He nodded his head and turned and went up the stairs.

When I got home, I took a hot bath and fell into bed and slept soundly until thunder woke me up at seven in the morning. I dressed and consumed a light breakfast and then I set out for the hotel. I was sitting in the lobby reading a newspaper at twenty minutes after eight. I expected Wallace Worth Junior to come down the stairs at any moment.

At eight forty-five he still hadn’t made an appearance and at nine o’clock I was still sitting there holding the newspaper in both hands. At ten minutes after nine, I went over to the desk and asked the clerk if he could check on the boy in room three-twelve for me. He had been supposed to meet me and he never appeared.

The clerk checked his book and looked up at me and said, “A boy, you say?”

“Yes, a boy,” I said.

“A small boy?”

“No, a big boy. Almost an adult.”

The clerk looked down and then looked back at me and sighed. “Room three-twelve has not been occupied for several days,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I was with the boy last night. I engaged the room for him to spend the night in and he was supposed to meet me here, in the lobby, this morning at eight-thirty.”

“Are you sure it was this hotel?” the clerk asked.

“Will you let me take the key and go up to room three-twelve and check for myself?”

“That would be against regulations, sir.”

“Then open the door yourself to make sure the boy is all right.”

The clerk went with me up to the third floor. We walked to the door of room three-twelve and he inserted the key into the lock and pushed the door open for me to enter. The bed was neatly made up. The window shades were drawn. It was clear the room had not been occupied the night before.

“He signed the register last night,” I said to the clerk. “I was with him. His name, Wallace Worth Junior, will be there if you only bother yourself to look.”

We went back down to the lobby and the clerk checked the register from the night before. “No such name here,” he said.

“Can I look?”

He turned the register around and I read over the four or five names from the night before. The name Wallace Worth Junior was not there.

I thanked the clerk and went back out into the rain. I went to my photography studio and opened for business. Because of the rain, it was a slow morning. I had a chance to develop the plates from the day before. First I did the boy who died from the pitchfork wound through the stomach and then Wallace Worth Senior. Those photographs turned out beautifully.

The two plates I had taken of Wallace Worth Junior baffled me. There was no boy there, no Wallace Worth Junior—only a neatly made-up bed with an attractive embroidered coverlet. Why would I have taken photographs of an empty bed? I had no explanation.

By afternoon I was starting to feel sick. I ached in every joint and was having trouble swallowing. I couldn’t keep anything on my stomach, even a sip of water. I knew I had a fever.

That night I was so sick I was sure I was dying. My mind was still clear enough for me to know I had failed to ask one very important question when I was in the Worth house: exactly what did Wallace Worth Senior die of? I had spent more than two hours inside a pest house filled with disease germs. I was so disgusted with myself for not being more careful that I thought I deserved to die.

I didn’t want to die alone and have my disgusted, bloated body found only after the neighbors noticed a terrible odor, so I checked myself into the nearest hospital. The doctor took one look at me and put me in the isolation ward. I was sure I was going to die, if not that night then very soon.

For two days and nights I was in and out of consciousness. I was barely aware of anything but I knew that nurses and doctors fussed around my bed at all hours of the day and night.

On the third day I woke up and was surprised to find I was still alive. A nurse with a big mole on her cheek was standing beside my bed looking down at me.

“I saw God,” I said to the nurse. “I spoke to Him.”

“What did he say?” she asked.

“I would expect you to ask a silly question like that.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“God is a slight man with thin lips. People think of him as having a long white beard, but he’s clean-shaven.”

“I don’t think I would have recognized him,” the nurse said.

“He wears a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. He wears a monocle in his right eye. He spoke to me.”

“What did he say?”

“He told me to stand by for further instructions.”

The nurse was gone and there was somebody else standing beside my bed. The hours passed. The window in my room went from light to dark. I heard it raining outside and thundering and those were sounds I had always liked.

Once when I woke up from one of my naps, Wallace Worth Junior was standing at the foot of my bed, smiling at me.

“I wondered what happened to you!” I said. “I’m happy to know you made it all right.”

Then I realized that somebody else was standing there to the side of Wallace Worth Junior. He was a slight man with thin lips, only a little taller than Wallace Worth Junior. He wore a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. In his right eye was a monocle.

“Who are you?” I asked.

The slight man with thin lips smiled at Wallace Worth Junior and then they both smiled at me. They were there to convey to me, I knew, with no words being spoken, that I was going to live.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Mouse in the House

H MOUSE

Mouse in the House ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(A slightly expanded version of a story I posted in December.)

“How’s the room?” Clarice Herron asked, and as soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew she had asked the same question almost every day for the last three weeks.

“It’s fine,” Evan Rawley said, as he had said all the other times she asked him. “I’ve seen a mouse a couple of times but he doesn’t bother me.”

“Did you know we have a mouse in the house, Marvin?” she asked her husband.

“A what?”

“I asked you if you knew we have a mouse in the house?”

“What am I supposed to do about it? Drive off a cliff?”

“I’ll buy some traps,” she said.

“Don’t do it on my account,” Evan asked. “The mouse doesn’t bother me and I think traps are cruel.”

Marvin Herron put the folded-up newspaper aside and regarded Evan Rawley closely as if he were some kind of specimen he had found on the back steps. “You’ve been here how long now?” he asked.

“Three weeks yesterday,” Evan said.

“And how do you like it so far?”

“This is my first time away from home. I’m still finding my way around.”

“Are you homesick?” Clarice asked.

“A little, I suppose. I’ll have to get used to it, though.”

“How old are you, now?” Marvin asked.

“I’m twenty-three, sir.”

“Oh, yeah. I think you told me that before. And you don’t have to call me ‘sir’. I was twenty-three myself not so very long ago. Seems like yesterday.”

“Oh, brother!” Clarice said.

“Did you say something?” Marvin asked her.

“I said supper is on the table.”

She dumped the vegetables into a bowl and put the meat on a platter and carried them to the table.

As they ate, Marvin seemed more inclined than usual to draw Evan Rawley out. “If you decide you like it here and you want to stay for the term, we can give you a good monthly rate.”

“Yes, sir,” Evan said. “I appreciate that.”

“Now, what is it exactly you do at the university?”

“I’m an assistant professor in the English department. I hope to get a full professorship, but they tell me I have to do this first for at least two years.”

“When you’re young, two years seems like a long time, but it goes by fast,” Marvin said.

“The voice of the sage!” Clarice said and gave Marvin a wry smile.

“Do you have a girlfriend back home?” Marvin asked.

“Oh, no, sir!” Evan said. “I never seem to find the time for that.”

Marvin began talking about “when he was young,” and how different things were then. His first love occurred at only sixteen years. He thought he wanted to get married but soon discovered what a mistake it would have been at that age.

“When he starts talking about himself that way,” Clarice said, “he could go on all night.”

At nearly two o’clock in the morning, Clarice couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t done anything during the day to tire her out. She tried reading a novel and, while it bored her, it didn’t make her want to sleep.

Turning out the light, she pulled the blanket up to her chin and listened to the faraway sounds: a tractor-trailer truck out on the highway, a jet taking off (or was it landing?), a dog barking in somebody’s back yard. Everything so banal.

She couldn’t sleep and the reason was because she couldn’t stop thinking about Evan Rawley. He was so young and his skin so pale and unblemished. She couldn’t help noticing his muscular thighs and buttocks through his dressy pants, and whenever he flexed his arm, his bicep underneath the sleeve of his button-down oxford dress shirt was as big as a melon. His smile was sweet and shy and the way the hair grew on the back of his neck right down into the collar of his shirt was nothing short of fetching. She was a middle-aged woman, married for over twenty years, but her appetite for certain things had not diminished.

She got out of bed and, without putting on the light, slipped a bathrobe over her pajamas and crept up the stairs to the door of Evan’s room. She leaned her ear against the door and listened for any sounds. Figuring he had to be asleep at that hour, she put her hand on the knob, turned it, and went inside.

There was just enough light from the window to see Evan in the bed, sleeping sweetly on his back with his hands over his stomach. He looked just like a young prince. She approached the bed and stood there without making a sound. When he didn’t move, she touched his light-brown hair with her right hand and then, not being able to resist, began stroking it. So soft and tactile, just the way she knew it would be. She continued touching his hair and rubbing her fingers along the stubble on his cheek until he jerked awake, making a little gasping sound.

What?” he said. “What’s the matter?”

He jumped out of bed and turned on the light. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is anything wrong?”

She gave him a reassuring smile and shook her head.

“I was having a dream,” he said, “and I thought you were part of the dream.”

“I’ve been dreaming about you, too,” she said.

“What’s the matter? What time is it?” He looked at the clock and when he saw what time it was he groaned.

“I have felt a very deep attraction to you ever since the first time I laid eyes on you,” Clarice said.

What?

“You are a most attractive young man.”

“You woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that?”

“And not only that, but I’ve seen the way you look at me,” she said.

What? No, ma’am! I haven’t!”

“I want you to know that it’s all right.”

“I haven’t!”

“Haven’t what, dear?”

“I haven’t looked at you!”

“I wanted to tell you this: if you’d like to get better acquainted, I’d like it too. My husband is away from home a lot. I have plenty of time to myself.”

“No, ma’am! You’ve made a mistake! I’ve never had any thought like that about you!”

“You don’t have to be shy with me, dear,” she said. “I know these things are not always easy.”

“I don’t know what to say!”

“You don’t have to say anything now. Just go back to sleep. But in your waking hours think about what I’ve said.”

At breakfast, Marvin read the morning paper, as was his custom. Clarice filled his coffee cup and set a plate of food on the table in front of him. He set the newspaper aside, only because he couldn’t do two things at once. He was halfway finished eating when he looked at his wife and spoke.

“Where’s what’s-his-name?” he asked. “Our boarder?”

Clarice shrugged her shoulders and said, “He’s gone.”

“What? Gone already?”

“I went up to tell him his breakfast is ready. I thought maybe he overslept. When I opened the door, I saw he had left and taken everything with him.”

“Did he owe us money?”

“He was paid up through the end of next week.”

“I thought he liked it here!”

“I thought so, too.”

“What is the matter with people? He’s the third boarder that’s left in the middle of the night without saying anything.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You just can’t figure people sometimes.”

“Maybe we’d better just forget about renting that room,” Marvin said. “It must be the mouse.”

“I don’t think the mouse has anything to do with it,” she said. “I’ll run the ad again and maybe next time we’ll find a young man who isn’t so skittish.”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Birth of the Dodo

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Birth of the Dodo ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

(This short story is a continuation of “I Have Never Known the River Ishcabob to Flood.”

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 Miss Kay Francis.”

Who, sir?”

“Miss 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 Photography 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 similar to 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 in school in the lower grades. I took a deep breath and started for home. I wasn’t anticipating meeting any Followers, but if I did I was sure I’d know what to do. And when I got home, Mrs. Goldoni my housekeeper who was turning into an insect, Lulu the human-sized doll, and Sheridan my dodo bird son would be waiting for me in my own four-story house on the banks of the River Ishcabob. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

(To be continued.)

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

His Name, He Said

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His Name, He Said ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Velma Durfee had, at one time, a husband, but he was long gone. The only thing she had to remember him by was a son, Chester, and a daughter, Camille. Chester was seven and Camille nine. The three of them—Velma, Chester and Camille—lived in a small frame house between the railroad tracks and the sewage treatment plant. Velma was employed as office assistant to an osteopathic doctor with a large walk-in practice in town, in the upper floor of an old building across from the county courthouse.

As a single mother, Velma did her best but she sometimes felt that she wasn’t equal to the task. She didn’t much like the kind of life she was living. She was lonely and she didn’t have enough money to live the way she wanted to live. To keep from being depressed, she took tranquilizer pills that her employer doctor provided to her without a prescription. And, whenever the opportunity presented itself, she complemented the tranquilizer pills with beer, wine, and sometimes whiskey straight out of the bottle in copious proportions.

One day she met a man. He was muscular, tall and good-looking, with red-brown hair and perfect teeth. He was, she believed, the man she had been waiting for all her life. His name was Charles Leland Jaffe—always Charles, never Charlie or Chuck. He asked her out on a date and, when that date went so well, he asked her out again and again.

All at once she developed a new outlook on life. She woke up in the morning with a smile on her face and she kept the smile throughout most of the day, even through the most difficult days of car trouble, payments in arrears, and three-day measles. The number-one thought on her mind was when she was going to see Charles Leland Jaffe again.

He had a room in a hotel, causing Velma to think that he was very likely not going to be around for very long. When she asked him where he had been and where he was going, he told her the place he had come from became irrelevant as soon as he left it and the place he was going to was never known. He had a way with words that she had never before known in a man.

And he was always a gentleman. All the other men she had ever gone out with were only counting the minutes until they could take advantage of her, but Charles Leland Jaffe was different. He was polite and respectful and never, ever put his hands on her in an inappropriate way. Even when they were dancing, he always behaved with impeccable propriety.

Velma was in love. She believed that marriage was imminent, and it had all happened so fast, in a matter of two weeks or less. She figured that Charles Leland Jaffe was waiting for the right time to ask her to marry him. He would take her away from the town she had lived in all her life, and she would escape her dreary life and it was all going to be so wonderful. Chester and Camille would at last have the father they deserved and would have advantages in life that Velma alone would never have been able to give them.

On a Friday afternoon, Charles Leland Jaffe picked Velma up from the doctor’s office where she worked. It had been raining all day and had turned much colder. Velma wasn’t feeling well; she had developed a cough and a headache. She had had a run-in with a patient that day and the patient reported her to the doctor for being rude and unprofessional. The doctor, usually so kind and genial, had taken the patient’s side and had given Velma a dressing-down that had left her shaken and angry.

In his intuitive way, Charles Leland Jaffe knew that Velma was in a low state and on the verge of being ill. He kept a small brown bag in the back of his car. In the bag, he said, he had something that would make Velma feel much better in a very short time.

As she watched him prepare the injection, she rolled up her sleeve and allowed him to apply the tourniquet to her upper arm, there in the front seat of his car parked on busy Main Street. She felt the needle going into her arm and it was a delicious kind of hurt. Within minutes, she felt wonderful; energy and goodwill were coursing throughout her body and all the bad feelings had dissipated.

He took her to a wonderful restaurant and they had a lovely meal. The food tasted better than any food Velma had ever eaten. Charles Leland Jaffe ordered a bottle of good wine and the two of them drank the entire bottle. When they left the restaurant, he took her to his hotel room, where they spent the night in his bed, and the experience was wonderful beyond words. This is what my life will be like from now on, Velma told herself.

Velma continued to see Charles Leland Jaffe on a regular basis. They had happy times together. He introduced her to good music, foreign films and abstract art. Anytime Velma was not feeling as well as she might, Charles Leland Jaffe gave her one of his injections. When she asked him what the injections were, he told her it was a combination of life-giving drugs and would never harm her in any way. She told him she didn’t want to get addicted to anything that came out of a needle and he laughed at her. Nothing to worry about, he said. Everybody needs something now and then to help them grapple with life.

Still Charles Leland Jaffe said nothing about marriage, but Velma wasn’t worried. She didn’t want to rush things; above all, she didn’t want to scare him off. Now that she had found him, she wasn’t going to let him go. She was so happy and she knew that nothing but good times awaited her. She drank almost all the time when she was alone, and when she was with Charles Leland Jaffe she insisted he give her one of his life-giving injections. She shunted the care of her children off on neighbors and an old aunt or two who knew something was wrong with didn’t know what to do about it.

On a Friday evening in late October, Velma went out on the town with Charles Leland Jaffe. They had a steak dinner in a candlelit restaurant and then went to a nightclub where they listened to music and danced. Velma knew she was drinking too much for her own good, but everything felt so good, she just wasn’t going to impose any restrictions on herself. For his part, Charles Leland Jaffe had only a drink or two and didn’t overdrink.

About eleven o’clock, Charles Leland Jaffe told Velma he wanted to see the doctor’s office where she worked. There’s nobody there, she said. That’s all right, he said. We can make love on the examining table in the examining room. Nobody will ever know, but every time you look at it you’ll remember what we did and feel good about it.

Velma couldn’t bring herself to say no to anything Charles Leland Jaffe wanted to do. She got in the car with him and he drove to the building on Main Street where she worked and he parked the car on the street right in front of the office. Since it was after eleven o’clock on Friday night, the only people around were high school kids in cars wanting to be seen by other high school kids in cars.

She took the keys out of her purse and unlocked the downstairs door and they went up the stairs in the dark, holding hands. Better not to turn on too many lights, she said. Somebody might notice and suspect we’re burglars. Walking through the dark quiet building with nobody there only added to the excitement and feeling of adventure.

There were two more doors to unlock before they were in the doctor’s office proper. The first thing they saw were rows of empty seats in the waiting room. This is it, she said. It’s not very exciting, I’m afraid.

He wanted to see the rooms where the doctor saw patients. There were two examining rooms at either end of the office. They were small and full of chairs, low white cabinets, and medical equipment. On the walls were medical charts. Charles Leland Jaffe appeared to be impressed. I want to see where the drugs are kept, he said.

Velma found the keys on the key ring that opened the big drug closet that was always kept locked, even during business hours. When she opened the door, Charles Leland Jaffe whistled through his teeth, a sound she had never heard him make before. That is a lot of drugs, he said. About three quarters of a million dollars’ worth, she said. Osteopathic doctors always dispense drugs from their offices. Patients love them for it.

They heard a sound out in the hallway that was probably the night watchman. I don’t want him to see me here, Velma said. He’ll tell the doctor and I’m in enough hot water as it is.

So, Velma and Charles Leland Jaffe left the doctor’s office. Velma relocked the doors and after she checked and rechecked them to make sure they were locked, they got back into Charles Leland Jaffe’s car and he drove to his hotel. In his room, they talked for a while and then Charles Leland Jaffe produced his little brown bag. He prepared an injection and Velma bared her arm without a word. After the injection was delivered, they both undressed and got into the big bed.

In the morning when she woke up she knew that something wasn’t as it should be. She looked at the clock and saw it was after nine o’clock. She got out of the bed, surprised to find herself naked, and when she looked around the room from a standing position she knew the room wasn’t the same as it had been when she went to sleep. She had the unsettling feeling that she was in a different room altogether.

After a minute of trying to clear her head and remember what had happened, Velma realized that the thing about the room that was different was that all of Charles Leland Jaffe’s clothes and personal effects were gone, his suitcases, his shoes and his shaving articles from the bathroom. Also gone were her clothes that she had draped over a bedside chair when she took them off, and her purse.

She called down to the front desk. I’m looking for Mr. Charles Leland Jaffe, she said to the desk clerk. Mr. Jaffe checked out about two this morning, the clerk said. Did he leave a message or say where he was going? People checking out never tell us where they’re going.

She wrapped herself in bedsheets and, barefooted, went downstairs in the elevator and got herself a cab to go home. People stared at her, but she barely noticed and didn’t care.

When the osteopathic doctor opened his office on Monday morning, he saw that the drug closet had been cleared out, about three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of drugs. When Velma didn’t show up for work, the doctor called her at home and received no answer. The next call he made was to the police. I know what she did, he said, and I never would have believed her capable of such a thing.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

What That Poor Woman Must Be Going Through

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What That Poor Woman Must Be Going Through ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Marcelle was all about beauty. She owned Marcelle’s Salon of Beauty on Second Street, between Fife’s Package Liquors and Bold’s Auto Garage. She was so good at the art and science of dispensing beauty that all her customers had standing appointments. Friday was her busiest day. All the ladies in their golden years wanted to look good for the weekend, but especially for church services on Sunday.

Carmen Gance was the last to arrive. Her appointment wasn’t until eleven, but she always came early. She helped herself to a cup of tea and sat down to wait her turn.

“How’s the arthritis?” Otha Talley asked her.

Carmen knew that Otha only asked about one’s ailments so she could talk about her own.

“All cleared up,” Carmen said.

“How did you manage it?” Leona Woolrich asked.

“Easy,” Carmen said. “As soon as I stopped complaining about it, it went away.”

“We should all try that,” Marcelle said.

“I don’t have arthritis,” Doris Fingers said.

“Well, if it works for arthritis, it should work for anything,” Marcelle said.

“I have pain in every inch of my body,” Otha said. “Can you imagine that? Absolutely everything hurts.”

“Even your female parts?” Leona asked.

Especially my female parts!”

“Drink a bottle of whiskey every night before you go to sleep and that should help,” Arlene Braithwaite said.

“Thanks, dear,” Otha said. “I’ll give it a try.”

“Did I tell you the latest about my nephew, Charlie, and that crazy wife of his?” Leona asked.

“Now, who did Charlie marry?” Doris asked.

“You know, dear!” Leona said. “He went over to China and put down ten thousand cold, hard ones to get himself a Chinese wife.”

“Why did he do that? Couldn’t he get himself an American wife?”

“Well, you know some men like the Orientals. American men believe that an Oriental wife will be submissive in all ways.”

“It doesn’t quite work out that way, though, does it?” Carmen said.

“No, honey, it doesn’t,” Leona said. “At least not in this case. They were only married two years and she decided to call it quits. You know how they talk. She said, ‘You tebble husband! You asshole! Me go back China! You kiss China girl yellow ass!’”

“My goodness!” Doris said. “That’s a remarkable interpretation! You should go on the stage!”

“Well, anyway,” Leona said. “She left him and now he has to scrape the money together for the divorce.”

“The world’s all screwed up,” Arlene said. “We already know that.”

“Speaking of ‘screwed up’,” Carmen said. “I heard that Midge Mulvehill’s son Todd came out as gay.”

“I’m so happy for him!” Doris said.

“Isn’t he only about thirteen?” Otha Talley asked.

“He’s twenty-seven,” Carmen said. “He was thirteen fourteen years ago.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. Oh. And that’s not all. He’s dating a doctor.”

“A male doctor?”

“Well, if he’s gay, he wouldn’t be dating a female doctor, now, would he, dear?”

“I’m sure I know nothing about it.”

“That poor woman!” Leona said.

“Who?” Doris asked.

“Midge Mulvehill. What that poor woman must be going through!”

“Why?”

“Having a gay son.”

“Would it be better if he was a serial killer?”

“Yes, I think it would. At least a serial killer is normal.”

They all laughed and Leona looked embarrassed. “I guess I didn’t mean it quite the way it sounded,” she said.

“Maybe you’d better just keep still on that particular subject, dear,” Doris  offered.

“Well, anyway, to each his own!” Arlene said. “Live and let live!” She raised her can of Coke all around as though delivering a toast.

“You always were so good at clichés, dear,” Carmen said.

“Time for your wash, Leona,” Marcelle said.

“Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone,” Leona said, standing up and going into the next room with Vivian, the little shampoo girl.

“She’s aged so much in the last year or so,” Doris said.

“I think her mind is really slipping,” Otha said.

“She’s putting on weight like crazy,” Carmen said.

“Speaking of putting on weight,” Arlene said, “have any of you seen Richard Helm lately? He was always so good-looking and now he’s an absolute blimp since his mother died.”

“Poor thing,” Doris said. “I heard he’s absolutely eating himself into oblivion with grief.”

“Of course, one wonders why he never got married,” Carmen said. “He was always so manly. When I was young, I was absolutely crazy about him. All the girls were.”

“There are rumors about him, I’m afraid,” Otha said.

“What kind of rumors?” Arlene asked.

“He goes on these mysterious trips three or four times a year and nobody knows where he goes.”

“Maybe he’s a secret agent,” Doris said.

“I don’t quite see him as the secret agent type,” Otha said.

“What then?”

“I think he’s leading a double life.”

“Now that his mother is dead,” Carmen said. “He can do whatever he wants. He got plenty of money from her estate.”

“Somebody needs to make it their business,” Arlene said, “to find out where in the hell he’s going and what in the hell he’s doing.”

“You do that little thing, Arlene, dear,” Doris said. “You make it your business.”

“Why should I give a shit what he does?” Arlene said.

“That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard you say in a long time,” Otha said.

Leona came back into the room with her hair dripping, a towel around her shoulders. “I heard every word you bitches said about me,” she said. “Just because I’m in the next room doesn’t mean my hearing is defective.”

“Uh-oh!” Carmen said. “We’re caught! And are we ever embarrassed!”

“You all are a bunch of swine!”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Doris said.

“You’re just a hypocrite, Leona,” Otha said, “among all the other things you are. Do you expect us to believe that you don’t talk about us the minute our backs are turned?”

“Of course not!” Leona said. “Some of us have honor if others of us do not!”

They all laughed loud and long. Leona looked at them, stone-faced, and then she too laughed. “Give me a damned cigarette,” she said finally to Marcelle.

“I didn’t know you smoked, dear!” Carmen said.

“I didn’t until this moment, dear,” Leona said. “Now, tell me, which of you assholes have seriously been considering gender reassignment surgery?”

“What kind of a question is that?” Arlene asked.

“My mind is slipping. Remember? There’s no telling what I’ll say next.”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Mr. Fellowes

mr-fellowes

Mr. Fellowes ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“Ella! Ella! Ella! Oh, baby! Give me a great big kiss! Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo! Ella! Ella! Ella!”

The boys hid behind parked cars as they chanted. Ella Peebles walked on, her head down, trying to ignore them. She didn’t know who the boys were, but it didn’t matter. All boys were the same to her. She hated all of them.

“You’re not there,” she said, more to herself than to them. “You don’t exist.”      

Ella was fifteen. She knew a girl one year older who went out with a boy just one time and ended up pregnant. Ella wasn’t going to let that happen to her. Just the word was awful: Pregnant. What a terrible, disgusting word! You’re sick for nine months and then this awful little thing comes out of your body and you have to feed it and take care of it for the rest of your life and put up with its sass. You are never free again to do the things you want to do and you’ll never have any money to go to the show or buy a magazine or an ice cream cone because the baby will take all your money and all your time.

She knew the chanting boys were out to get her pregnant. That’s the one thing boys wanted most. She heard it in health class in a girls-only lecture and slide show. The message of the lecture was clear: Don’t let your guard down and let boys get you pregnant! The awful sperm penetrating the egg! Could anything be more revolting? It only took one boy and it only took one time. It was just too easy and the consequences were too awful for the girl but not for the boy. After the boy gets you pregnant, he’s free to go and get somebody else pregnant. He can keep doing it over and over again, as many times as he wants. If God wasn’t a boy, things wouldn’t be the way they are.

When Ella walked through the door at home, she heard her brother Percy laughing. Laughing was better than crying. She went into the kitchen and saw Percy sitting on Mr. Fellowes’s lap. Mr. Fellowes was mother’s latest boyfriend. He was showing Percy how to drink beer out of a can and smoke a cigarette at the same time, which, he said, is something you must learn to do when you spend a lot of time in saloons. Mother was sitting at the table, too. She was laughing so hard her mascara was running down her cheeks and she had to keep wiping it off with her fingers. It was odd to see mother laughing that way because she took a lot of pills and drank whiskey straight out of the bottle and was usually either crying or knocked out in front of the TV.

“Oh, I wish I had a camera!” she spluttered out around her laughter.

Percy was nine, small for his age. He was enjoying the attention from mother and Mr. Fellowes. He held the cigarette between his fingers and took a puff on it and waggled his head like a girl.

“You should see yourself!” Ella said. “You look so silly!”

Percy stuck his tongue out at her and hopped off Mr. Fellowes’s lap. He wasn’t ready just yet to give up being the center of attention. He minced and waggled his hips from the stove to the refrigerator and back, while mother and Mr. Fellowes roared with laughter.

“You look just like a little queer!” Ella said.

“Ella! That’s not a very nice thing to say to your brother!” mother said, suddenly serious. “Where do you hear words like that?”

“Every day at school,” Ella said. “People say it all the time.”

“Well, not in this house!”

Mother pretended to be a righteous mother in front of Mr. Fellowes, but Ella and Percy knew otherwise. When she got mad enough, she could swear and rant better than any sailor. She could also slap people in the mouth and throw dishes across the room and break them against the wall and then make Ella clean up the broken pieces. Ella had just learned the word hypocrite and she knew that’s what her mother was. A person who pretends to abhor the thing that he or she really is.

Ella stood in the kitchen doorway and looked at mother and Mr. Fellowes. He was a large man with a lumpy body and a bald head. He wasn’t good-looking, but mother said she was finished with good-looking. They’re the ones that get what they want out of you and then they go off and leave you high and dry. Mr. Fellowes was the reliable type who could provide a woman with exactly what she needed. Sure, he wasn’t exciting, but who needs it? A home and security are much more important.

“Wash your hands for supper,” mother said to Ella and Percy. “Mr. Fellowes brought us supper and we’re all going to eat together.”

She began taking the stuff out of the refrigerator. There was a whole chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and a bag of donuts. Percy wanted to get right to the donuts, but mother told him he couldn’t eat any of those until he had had a good supper.

Ella sat down at the little square table with her back to the wall. Percy sat across from her, mother to her right, and Mr. Fellowes on her left.

“I want a leg!” Percy squealed. “And I want some potato salad!”

While Ella was pulling the meat off a thigh with her fork, she felt Mr. Fellowes’s eyes on her. When she looked at him, he smiled and winked.

“How’s the world been treatin’ you, princess?” he asked.

She shrugged and said, “I’m not a princess.”

“She’s too ugly to be a princess!” Percy said, his mouth full of potato salad. “Princess is pretty.”

“Well, she needs to fix her hair up and wear a bit of makeup,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“I don’t know about makeup,” mother said. “I don’t want her lookin’ like a tramp before her time.”

“A little bit of makeup won’t make her look like a tramp,” Mr. Fellowes said. “Too much makeup could be bad, but a little bit applied artfully might make all the difference.”

“I don’t want any,” Ella said.

“He’s only trying to be nice,” mother said. “You don’t have to get snippy about it.”

“It’s all right,” Mr. Fellowes said. “I grew up with three sisters. I know all about the moods of young girls.”

“I’ve tried to get her to get a nice hairstyle,” mother said, “but she just doesn’t seem to care about it.”

“She’s at that age,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“Could we please talk about something else?” Ella said.

“You really do need to have your hair cut and styled, honey,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“Hey, I’ll get mine cut and styled!” Percy said. “How would that be?”

Mother started laughing again. “You’re a regular little comedian, aren’t you?” she said.

When the meal was finished and Percy had eaten three donuts, Ella stood up and started clearing the table. Mr. Fellowes had just lit a cigarette. He grabbed Ella by the wrist and pulled her onto his lap. She tried to get away but he put his arms around her and held her against his chest.

“She’s a little big for lap-sitting,” mother said.

“Nobody’s ever too big for a little lovin’,” Mr. Fellowes said.

“Let me up!” Ella said. “Your cigarette smoke is going right in my face.”

“Indulge me for a little while, girl. It’s been a long time since I had a pretty girl on my lap.”

“What about me?” mother said.

“You’re past the girl stage, I’m afraid. You’re now in the matron stage.”

“I don’t think I like that!”

Mr. Fellowes nuzzled his face into Ella’s neck and held her tight.

“She’s never been what I would call an affectionate child,” mother said.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Mr. Fellowes said, “but I think you need to take yourself a good bath.”

Percy laughed and mother slapped him on the arm to make him stop.

After the dishes were washed and put away, mother and Mr. Fellowes left to go to the show. Ella and Percy turned on all the lights in the house and sat in front of the TV and watched detective and doctor shows until time to go to bed.

The next morning Ella awoke with a pain her side. Her nose was all stopped up, she had a headache, and her eyes looked puffy. When she realized what was wrong, she had a mortified feeling unlike any she had ever felt in her life. It was like finding out she had a fatal disease and would soon be dead.

While Mr. Fellowes was holding her on his lap—in his arms—at the supper table, some of his sperms went inside her body and penetrated her eggs. She was—that horrible word!—pregnant. She must have breathed them in through her mouth and nose. That’s the only way it could have happened. Mother would die when she found out.

At school she could barely sit still and pay attention. When people spoke to her, she didn’t hear what they said because her mind was preoccupied with the predicament she was in. In gym class, which she had always hated anyway, she fainted during calisthenics and the gym teacher told her to get dressed and get herself to the nurse’s office right away. She might have something catching.

The nurse was out for the moment, but Ella made herself at home and laid down on the cot against the wall behind the file cabinets. She felt better lying on the cot because nobody could see her and the nurse’s office was quiet and cool.

In a half-hour or so the nurse came back and when she saw Ella on the cot, she asked her what was wrong.

“I got sick in gym class,” Ella said.

The nurse stuck a thermometer in her mouth and took her blood pressure. She had a fever of a hundred and one and her blood pressure was high.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong,” the nurse said. “Your clothes are soaked through and you’re pale.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Ella said.

“Okay. Go on back to class then.”

“If I tell you what’s wrong, will you promise not to tell anybody?”

“Cross my heart.”

“I’m pregnant.”

“Uh-oh! That’s not good, is it? Who’s the boy? Do you know?”

“What boy?”

“The boy who impregnated you.”

“There’s no boy, except the ones that were yelling at me on the street yesterday, and I don’t think that’s when it happened. They were too far away.”

The nurse sighed and looked over her shoulder as if she might find some help there in another part of the room. “Okay, tell me what happened,” she said. “I’m here to help and I promise I won’t tell a soul.”

“It’s Mr. Fellowes,” Ella said.

“Who is Mr. Fellowes?” the nurse asked.

“He’s my mother’s boyfriend.”

“So, you had sexual relations with Mr. Fellowes?”

“No.”

“Who, then? Who did you have sexual relations with?”

“Nobody. Not even myself.”

“Have you and your brother been experimenting?”

“He’s nine. He still believes in the Easter Bunny.”

“Okay. Well, we’re not getting anywhere, are we?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“If you’re pregnant, there has to be a boy or a man involved.”

“It happened yesterday.”

“What happened?”

“Mr. Fellowes’s sperms got inside my body somehow and broke open my eggs. I knew as soon as I got up this morning that I was pregnant.”

“This happened yesterday?”

“Yes.”

“And you did not have sexual relations with Mr. Fellowes?”

“Are you kidding? With my mother and little brother sitting right there?”

The nurse stood up and got a wet washcloth and put it on Ella’s forehead. “You just lie here for a while until you feel better,” she said. “I’ll call your mother and she can come and get you and take you to a doctor to find out what’s really wrong.”

“Please don’t call my mother! I think it’ll just about finish her off when she finds out I’m pregnant.”

The nurse went out of the room. When she didn’t come back right away, Ella knew she was calling her mother. It was the last thing she needed.

She stood up off the cot, feeling light-headed, and went out into the deserted hallway. All the way down at the far end were the doors leading out of the building. She put her head down, thinking that would make her less noticeable, and walked to the doors as quietly as she could.

The sunlight hurt her eyes and she thought she was going to be sick again, but she rallied herself and got away from the school as fast as she could before anybody saw her.

She walked a long way, a couple of miles at least, to the edge of town and beyond. She came to a high bridge that she remembered like a bridge from a dream. It was on an old highway that nobody used much anymore because a new one had been built.

She walked out onto the bridge, squinting in the sunlight, and when she was about halfway across, she stopped and looked down at the river. It looked ugly and dirty; moving fast because there had been a lot of rain lately. Limbs and cardboard boxes and other unidentifiable things floated along with the current.

She eased herself over the railing and stood on a little ledge not more than three inches wide. She had to turn her feet sideways to be able to stand on it. When she closed her eyes, she could hear the river and feel it churning, eighty or so feet down. With her eyes closed, it wouldn’t be so bad. She wouldn’t have to see the water as she jumped in. And when it was all over she wouldn’t have to go to school anymore. No more worries ever again, about being pregnant or anything else.

Tilting her head back as far as she could in the awkward position she was in, she saw birds nesting in the framework of the bridge high above her head. Something seemed to have upset them. They were flying around frantically, squawking and ruffling their feathers. They made her forget for a moment about everything else.

While she was watching the birds, a red pickup truck stopped on the bridge. She had to turn her head to see it. A man got out of the truck and walked over slowly to her. He wasn’t an old man but not so young, either. It was hard to tell exactly what he looked like because he wore dark glasses that kept his eyes hidden and a cowboy hat like cowboys wear in the movies.

“You shouldn’t be playing here on this old bridge,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”

“I wasn’t playing,” she said.

“What are you doing, then?”

“I wasn’t doing anything.”

“Are you a runaway?”

“No.”

He took hold of her arm and helped her over the railing. “You’re just a kid,” he said. “Does your mother know you’re here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you here alone?”

“Yes.”

“Most kids would be in school now, unless you’re special in some way.”

“I’m not special.”

“Do you want me to give you a ride back to town?”

“I just left town,” she said. “I think I’ll just keep walking.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “Don’t let the wild animals get you.”

He got back into his truck and drove away. Ella watched him until he was out of sight and then she walked the rest of the way across the old bridge and down a hill. Weeds and wild flowers grew on both sides of the highway. She smelled something pleasant and flowery but she didn’t know what it was. She saw a fox looking out at her from the brush and it made her feel that she and the fox had something in common.

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 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.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp