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Each Dark Door

Each Dark Door ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Jenks owned a three-story apartment building downtown. Every first of the month she visited the building and collected the rents due her. Most of the renters paid their rent on time (they were afraid not to pay, knowing she was the aunt of the deputy sheriff), but always there was somebody who didn’t have the money and would hide when she knocked or would confront her with a sad story about being sick and not being able to work or having a sick baby who needed medicine. More likely than not, those were the ones who had spent all their money on drink, lost it in an impromptu poker game, or never had any to begin with, because, well, things hadn’t been going so well lately.

A first of the month came when Mrs. Jenks was laid up in bed with her bad gallbladder and wasn’t able to leave the house. Instead of worrying herself sick about collecting the rents on time, she sent her granddaughter Virginia to do it for her. Virginia was sixteen.

Armed with the money pouch (held firmly against her body with her hand through the strap), Virginia started with the first door on the left on the first floor and worked her way down the left side, and when she was finished on the left she moved over to the right.

The hallway was musty-smelling and dark at all hours and was in no way pleasing or inviting. There were twelve closed doors with each door seeming to hold the possibility of menace. Some of these people are trash, grandma said, but if they pay their rent on time I can tolerate their trashiness as long as they don’t carry diseases or have bugs. If anybody gives you any guff or is rude, you be sure and write down their names. They might find themselves served with an eviction notice next week if they’re not careful.

Some didn’t answer their doors, as grandma had said, but were obviously there because Virginia could hear them moving around inside. Most of them were forthcoming, though, even if they were trash. They invited her inside with a smile while they counted out the money they owed or sat at the kitchen table and wrote out a check. She was offered things to eat and drink, including a vodka martini, which she politely declined.

At an apartment on the third floor, a blonde woman wearing a red-and-yellow Japanese kimono answered the door. She invited Virginia inside and asked her to sit down while she and her roommate, a dark-haired woman wearing men’s pajamas, got the rent together.

“We’ll have to pay you in small bills,” the blonde woman said. Her name was Hortense and her roommate’s name was Hazel.

“That’s all right,” Virginia said.

“We’ll need a receipt,” Hazel said. “We don’t want anybody saying we didn’t pay up on time.”

They counted out the money and when they handed it to Virginia she put it in the canvas money pouch and wrote it down in the pay book and gave them a  receipt.

“Would you like a cup of coffee or something?” Hortense asked Virginia after the transaction was completed.

“I’d like a drink of water.”

“Well, come on into the kitchen.”

On the table were remnants of breakfast, even though it was past lunch time. Hortense motioned for Virginia to sit at the table while she got a glass and filled it with water.

“The first of the month sure comes around fast,” Hortense said. “Just when you’re thinking your rent is all paid up, here it is the first of the month again and you have to fork over more dough.”

“Yeah, ain’t life a bitch, though,” Hazel said. “A bitch from beginning to end.”

“Life’s a bitch, so I became one!” Hortense said, laughing like a hyena.

Virginia didn’t get the joke, but she smiled anyway and felt uncomfortable.

“When you knocked on the door, we were just finishing breakfast. If you had knocked a half-hour earlier, we wouldn’t have heard you because we were asleep.”

“Tell her the rest,” Hazel said, “or she’ll think we sleep this late all the time because we’re lazy.”

“We work nights,” Hortense said. “We don’t get off until two or three in the morning and sometimes later than that, so that’s why we sleep so late.”

“What kind of jobs do you have?” Virginia asked.

“We’re ‘B girls’ at the Crescendo Club.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re hostesses,” Hazel said. “We dance and drink and pretend we’re having a good time. We cozy up to the men without dates and get them to stay longer and spend their money on drinks.”

“Sometimes we go to their hotel rooms and sleep with them,” Hazel said, “if they’re not too vile and there’s enough money in it for us.”

“You shouldn’t be telling her that!” Hortense said. “She’s just an innocent young girl!”

“She has to learn some time, doesn’t she?”

“It’s all right,” Virginia said. “I’ve read Peyton Place. I know all about that stuff.”

“Your mother let you read a book like that?”

“She didn’t know I read it.”

“How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Tenth grade?”

“Eleventh.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No. My parents don’t let me date yet.”

“You don’t know anything about men yet, do you?”

“No.”

“Well, don’t rush things.” Hortense said. “You don’t want to end up like us.”

“And why is a pretty little thing like you collecting the rent money in a hell-hole slum like this?” Hazel asked.

“I’m doing it for my grandma. She’s sick. She’s going to have her gallbladder out.”

“That old water buffalo that owns the building is your grandma?”

“That’s right.”

“You don’t look a thing like her!”

“I don’t look like anybody,” Virginia said.

“I’ll bet you have brothers and sisters, don’t you?”

“One brother. He goes to veterinarian school.”

“Is he good-looking?”

“No.”

“You’re not supposed to ask a girl a question like that about her own brother,” Hazel said.

“Well, I had a brother and I always thought he was very good-looking,” Hortense said.

“That’s because you’re twisted,” Hazel said. “Your whole family is twisted.”

“What about your mother and father?”

“What about them?”

“What do they do?”

“My father’s an accountant, I think, and my mother’s a housewife.”

“Does your pa go out drinking at night and slap your ma around when he comes home?”

“No, he mostly sleeps in the chair.”

“Is your ma pretty? Does she have lots of pretty clothes?”

“No, she’s tired all the time.”

“What do you want to be when you get through with school?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I always thought I’d like to be a writer, but I’ll probably end up being a housewife like my mother.”

“What’s your favorite subject in school?”

“I don’t know. English, I guess.”

“You don’t like math, do you?”

“How did you know?”

“You’re the artistic type, I can tell.”

“I guess so.”

“You have awfully pale skin,” Hortense said. “Have you ever thought about wearing a little lipstick?”

“My mother doesn’t let me wear makeup.”

“Would you like to try a little lipstick and see how it looks? Your mother doesn’t have to know.”

“I guess so.”

She went into the bedroom and came back with a tube of lipstick and a little mirror. She titled Virginia’s head back and slathered the blood-red stuff on her mouth. When she was finished, she told her to blot her lips and look at herself in the mirror.

“See? Doesn’t that make a difference?”

“It makes me look like somebody else,” Virginia said.

“That tube is practically new. You can have it. I have a whole drawer full.”

“Thank you.”

Hazel pulled Virginia’s hair to the back of her head. “Your hair is so lifeless,” she said. “You could use a good cut and some curl.”

“My mother cuts my hair.”

“What does she use? A steak knife?”

She twisted and pinned the hair so that it stayed up, exposing Virginia’s rather large ears.

“What do you think?” she asked, holding the mirror up so Virginia could see herself.

“I don’t know,” Virginia said doubtfully.

“She looks like a regular uptown sophisticate!” Hortense said.

“You know, I have a daughter just a little younger than you,” Hazel said, “but I haven’t seen her since she was seven. I have a son, too. He’s nine.”

“What of it?” Hortense said. “Everybody’s got kids! It’s the disease of the human race.”

“Well, if we stopped having kids, that’d be the end of the world,” Hazel said.

“An excellent idea, if you ask me!”

“Can you imagine being the last person on earth to die? There’d be nobody to come to your funeral.”

Virginia stood up. “Well, thank you for the glass of water and the lipstick and the advice about my hair, but I think I’d better be going now. Grandma will be wondering what happened to me.”

“So soon?” Hazel said. “We don’t very often have company.”

“Wait a minute,” Hortense said. She slipped a bracelet off her own wrist and put it on Virginia’s. It was a band of alternating red and yellow stones, worthy of the Queen of the Nile.

“How beautiful!” Virginia said.

“Wear it to remind yourself to come back and see us again real soon. Next time we’ll have a real party!”

When Virginia left Hortense and Hazel’s apartment, she walked down the three flights of stairs to the street, smelling the various smells of the building along the way, some good but mostly bad. She held the money pouch, much fatter than when she started, pressed tightly against her body the way grandma showed her, so nobody would come up behind her and grab it out of her hand. It would finish grandma off if anything happened to it. It would have to pay all the bills for the month.

The weather was fine and the park was close at hand. She decided to stop for a while before going on home. Grandma wouldn’t mind waiting a little longer for her money.

She sat on a bench in the sun, placing the money pouch firmly against her left hip where she could feel it without seeing it. She breathed deeply. The fresh air smelled good, of freshly cut grass and water from the fountain. Since it was Saturday, there were lots of people about: children playing games, men walking dogs, mothers airing their babies. In a little while a young man came along and sat down on the bench beside her.

“Hi there!” he said with a smile. He was older than she was, the kind of boy her mother would warn her to stay away from. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

She was thinking about getting up and walking away when he surprised her by offering her a cigarette out of his pack. Without thinking, she accepted it and waited for him to light it. She had never smoked before and was a little flattered that he would think her the kind of girl who smoked. In her lipstick and with her new pinned-up hairdo, she felt sophisticated and grown-up. She could more than hold her own against any forward man in the park.

“Do you come to the park often?” he asked.

“You’re full of questions,” she said. “Don’t you know it’s not polite to ask strangers questions?”

“I didn’t mean any harm,” he said. “I’ll leave if you want me to.”

She smiled at him, liking him better than before. “It’s all right,” she said. “I don’t really mind.”

“My name’s Boyd Pitkin,” he said.

“Your name doesn’t really interest me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Rita Hayworth.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

“I think so.”

“Are those diamonds you’re wearing?” he asked, pointing at the red-and-yellow bracelet Hortense had given her.

“No, silly! Diamonds are clear and sparkly, like little pieces of ice.”

“Well, how would I know? I’m not an expert on diamonds.”

“Well, now you know.”

“Would you like to go someplace else?”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Someplace where we can be alone.”

“Why would I want to be alone with you?”

“Can you give me one good reason why not?”

“How do I know you’re not a murderer?”

“Do I really look like a murderer?”

She turned and looked at him closely. He needed a shave, but he looked clean and healthy. He wasn’t exactly handsome but his brown eyes were appealing and he had good teeth.

“Murderers don’t always look like murderers,” she said.

“I’ve got my car parked just over the hill,” he said. “Would you like to go for a drive?”

“I don’t believe you’ve got a car.”

He took keys out of his pocket and jingled them close to her face. “I’ll take you wherever you say.”

“No, thanks. I shouldn’t be talking to a strange man in the park. I have to go home now.”

“Well, it was lovely meeting you, Rita. Maybe we’ll meet again at some time in the distant future.”

“I doubt it,” she said saucily, and it was the last thing she would say to him.

She was nearly home when she realized she didn’t have the canvas money pouch. She ran breathlessly back to the bench in the park, but, of course, the man—Boyd Pitkin, if that was really his name—was gone. Hoping against hope, she searched the ground, behind and under the bench, but the pouch was gone forever. Not knowing what else to do, she sat down, leaned forward with her nose touching her knees, and wailed like a wild animal.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

When I Get to Where I’m Going

When I Get to Where I’m Going ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The new gardener came in late summer. His name was Paulo Luster. He wasn’t like the others. His clothes were clean and he didn’t have dirt under his fingernails. And when it came to his work, he worked quietly and efficiently, cleaning up the lawn after a summer of neglect. He never complained, never made excuses, hardly spoke unless spoken to. When he was finished for the day, he put away the tools and left without fanfare.

Roddy was fifteen and in the ninth grade. Summer was over and school had taken up again. Sitting in class all day long listening to people talk about things that didn’t interest him left him with a lot of pent-up energy. After depositing his books in his room, he liked to spend some time outside, breathing fresh air, walking around in the yard or sitting underneath the mulberry tree in the front yard.

When Roddy saw Paulo working in the side yard, he approached him shyly, not knowing how he would take to being disturbed. Realizing Roddy was nearby, Paulo looked up from his work and smiled. The smile was followed by a wink, as if, to Roddy’s way of thinking, they shared something vitally important but unspoken.

Emboldened by these outward signs of friendliness, Roddy began speaking to Paulo whenever he had the chance. Paulo listened attentively to Roddy when he spoke, although he usually didn’t have much to say in return. They talked about the next-door neighbors, the rosebushes and about the gophers that made tracks in the back yard. Paulo was against poisoning them.

“I’d rather poison people than gophers,” Roddy said.

“I know what you mean,” Paulo said.

The talk inevitably turned to Roddy’s family.

“Watch out for my mother,” Roddy said. “She’ll smile to your face and then stab you in the back. She fired the last gardener for cutting back the hibiscus bush too much. She didn’t even give him any warning. He was here and then he was gone. There were no goodbyes.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Paulo said.

“Have you met my sister?”

“I’ve seen her.”

“She’s a viper.  You don’t want to have anything to do with her. Her name is Janice. She’s seventeen. She’s a senior this year. She’s ten times worse than my mother.”

Paulo laughed. “She can’t be as bad as all that.”

“And then there’s my father. He’s a lawyer. He works all the time. He doesn’t want to be bothered with little domestic details. He leaves everything to my mother. He might come out of the house and fire you, but he’ll be polite about it.”

“I’ll try not to give him any reason.”

“Well, how about you? Family?”

“None to speak of. They’ll all dead. I have one brother but I never see him.”

“What made you become a gardener?”

“I don’t know. I always liked to watch things grow. I don’t plan on being a gardener forever.”

“What will you do after you’re a gardener?”

“I’m also a carpenter. A house painter. A machinist. I’ll always find work.”

“Do you like doing all those things?”

“I don’t think about whether I like them or not. I have to make a living. I like it as long as it pays me money.”

Another time Roddy talked to Paulo about school. He never talked to his parents about school. They only lectured him about applying himself and getting good grades. Paulo spoke to him as an equal, never talked down to him and never gave out with platitudes about staying in school and becoming a success in life.

“I don’t like school very much,” Roddy said. “I don’t fit in very well.”

“Why not?” Paulo asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I’m not like other people. I can’t wait to finish with school and get away from my family and this town.”

“Where will you go?”

“Out West somewhere.”

“Where men are men?”

“Yeah. Wide-open spaces.”

Roddy began looking forward to seeing Paulo in the afternoons after school and was disappointed when he wasn’t there. He was afraid his mother would fire him or he’d quit without saying anything, and he’d never see him again. He didn’t know where Paulo lived or anything else about him, so that would be the end of that.

On a Friday afternoon, Roddy found Paulo in the yard with his hand bleeding.

“Why didn’t you knock on the door and ask my mother for help?” Roddy asked.

“I didn’t want to bother her.”

“You need to wash that out.”

He took Paulo into the kitchen and held his hand under the faucet. Then he gave him a cold root beer and had him sit at the table while he went and got some mercurochrome and a bandage.

The next day Paulo gave Roddy a little gift. It was an insect trapped in a nugget of amber.

“It’s for helping me yesterday,” Paulo said. “I’ve had it since I was twelve years old. I thought you’d like it.”

“It’s beautiful!”

He held it up to the light so he could see the insect better.

“It’s just between you and me,” Paulo said. “Don’t tell the others.”

“Whatever you say.”

He put the nugget in his pocket and went into dinner with a happy smile on his face. Janice couldn’t stand for him to be happy.

“When you’re smiling, you’re up to something and I bet it isn’t anything good,” she said.

“Mind your own business,” he said.

“I saw you out there talking to the gardener.”

“So? I’m the only one in the family that deigns to talk to him.”

 “What were you two talking about?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Mother, I think you should fire that gardener,” Janice said.

“Why?”

“I don’t like his looks. He looks at me funny.”

“He doesn’t look at you,” Roddy said. “He looks through you.”

“We’ll only fire the gardener,” father said to Janice, “if you’ll do all his work after school and do it as well as he does.”

“Has he said anything to you, Janice?” mother asked.

“No, he hasn’t said anything, but he looks at me funny.”

“Funny how?”

“Like he’s thinking about things.”

“Well, if he says anything inappropriate, you let me know.”

“He would never look at you!” Roddy said. “He has better taste than that. You’re only jealous because he doesn’t look at you!”

“Neither one of you should be associating with him,” mother said. “He’s a grown man and we don’t know anything about him.”

A few days later, Roddy’s mother accosted him in the hallway when he came inside after spending a half-hour or so talking to Paulo.

“What is that man saying to you?” mother asked.

“What man?”

“The gardener.”

“He’s not saying anything! We’re just talking!”

“He’s not trying to get you to do drugs, is he?”

“Of course not! Do you know how ridiculous that is?”

“Is he telling you dirty stories?”

“Why would he do that?”

“I want to know what he says to you!”

“He doesn’t say anything! We’re just talking!”

“We’ve all noticed how much time you’re spending with him. Even the neighbors have noticed. You need to stop hanging around him. You’re keeping him from his work!”

Roddy the next day told Paulo what his mother had said.

“I have to stop talking to you so much,” he said. “My sister is jealous if she thinks I have a friend. She sees me talking to you and then she goes and tells my mother made-up stories. She’s a natural-born troublemaker.”

“I get it,” Paulo said. “I don’t want to be the cause of any trouble.”

“I didn’t want you to think I stopped talking to you because I was mad at  you.”

“I’d never think that,” Paulo said.

“If she fires you, please don’t go away without saying goodbye.”

Roddy began having trouble in school. He was caught cheating on an algebra test. When he got into an argument with a history teacher and she told him to shut up, he threw a book across the classroom and went outside and smoked a cigarette.

When quarterly grades came out, it was worse than he expected. He was failing algebra and almost failing two other classes. If he didn’t get himself “straightened out,” as his father said, he was going to “flunk out” of school, and then where would he be? He’d end living at the city dump, a worthless hobo, without family and friends.

His father engaged a tutor, a former college professor named Mr. Hatley. Two evenings a week Roddy spent three hours with Mr. Hatley in his “study” in the basement of his home. Mr. Hatley believed the only way to save a slacking boy was through hard work and military discipline. He drilled Roddy relentlessly on the finer points of algebra. Roddy hated him instantly.

One evening when Roddy was returning home from a tutoring session, his heart gave a leap when he saw Paulo standing in the front yard under the mulberry tree.

“Are you looking for me?” he asked.

“I need a place to stay tonight,” Paulo said. “I thought I’d stay in the storeroom of your father’s garage, but I wanted to tell you about it first.”

“You can have the guest room.”

“The storeroom is good enough and I’ll be gone in the morning before anybody even knows I was here.”

“You’ll get cold.”

“I don’t mind.”

“You can stay in my room with me.”

“And how do you think that’ll go down with your parents?”

“They won’t have to know about it.”

“I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”

“You won’t. It’ll be all right.”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“My parents go to bed at ten. Come to the kitchen door at ten-thirty and I’ll let you in.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Roddy went to his room at ten o’clock when his parents went to bed and, true to his word, he went downstairs to the kitchen at ten-thirty and opened the back door. Paulo was standing outside in the dark.

Roddy held his finger to his lips to indicate silence and the two of them, with Roddy leading the way, crept up the stairs in the dark and along the hallway to Roddy’s room.

“You can relax,” Roddy said, after locking the door. “Nobody comes in unless I say.”

Paulo took off his coat and sat down in the chair and untied his shoes. “If you have an extra blanket,” he whispered, “I can sleep on the floor.”

“Nothing doing,” Roddy said. “You’ll sleep in my bed.”

“I’m not taking your bed.”

“I meant both of us.”

They undressed in the dark and got into bed. They went to sleep to the sound of the rain on the roof and the wind gently pressing against the windows.

When Roddy awoke in the morning, Paulo was gone; there was no sign he had even been there.

At school all day long Roddy was more calm and courteous than usual. He smiled at the history teacher with whom he had had the argument and admired her expensive leather bag. He passed an algebra quiz and was hating algebra a little less. A girl in his class invited him to a party on Saturday night; he declined with a made-up excuse.

When he got home, his mother was out for the afternoon and Janice was waiting for him.

“I know what you’ve been up with to the gardener,” she said. “I can’t say I’m a bit surprised.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about! I know you sneaked him into your room last night. How many other nights have you sneaked him in? I can only imagine what’s going on in there!”

“It’s none of your business!”

“I heard you creeping past out in the hallway last night and when I opened my door to see what was going on, I saw you take that man into your room in the dark.”

“What of it? It’s none of your business!”

“Do you know that what you’re doing is a crime? They’ll lock you up for that!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about! We didn’t do anything!”

“I suppose you just ‘talked’!”

“I don’t have to explain anything to you!”

“I’m going to tell mother and father! They’ll be appalled that such a thing is going on in their own house after they’ve gone to bed!”

“Nothing is going on! He’s my friend, that’s all. You’re just jealous because he doesn’t want you!”

“Mother will call the police and they’ll come and take your ‘friend’ away and lock him up for the rest of his life. You’re a minor and he isn’t. Do you know what a serious crime that is? There are names for men who do that sort of thing!”

He pretended to shrug off the conversation with Janice, but in truth he was badly shaken. She could cause all kinds of trouble if she wanted to. He had always hated her but never more than now.

At the dinner table she looked at him smugly but didn’t say anything. He knew she was waiting for the right time to ruin his life.

He didn’t see Paulo for three days. When he asked his mother where he was, she told him he needed to forget Paulo. He wasn’t an appropriate friend for a high school boy.

On the fourth day, when Roddy was walking home, Paulo was waiting for him on the corner down the street from the school.

“Where have you been?” Roddy asked. “She fired you, didn’t you?”

“No, she didn’t have to fire me. I quit.”

“Do you have another job?”

“I’m going away. I wanted to say goodbye. You’ve been a real friend to me.”

“I’m coming with you!” Roddy said.

“Do you know how far we’d get? They’d come and get you and they’d lock me up. They’d say I abducted you.”

“I’d tell them the truth!”

“It wouldn’t make any difference. You’re a minor.”

“Will I ever see you again?”

“Maybe. When you’re older.”

“Do you know…”

“What?”

“Never mind. I can’t say it. I’ll save it for another time.”

“I wanted to give you this.”

He reached into his pocket and took out a small object and placed it in Roddy’s palm.

“What is it?”

“It’s an 1877 fifty-dollar gold piece.”

“You’re always giving me things. I’ve never given you anything.”

“Keep it to remember me by.”

“I’ve never had such a wonderful thing. Thank you.”

“I’ll write and let you know where I am.”

“I hope you will.”

They shook hands and then Paulo walked away quickly.

Father hired an old Italian man to take Paulo’s place. Janice never mentioned Paulo’s name to Roddy again.

Roddy never stopped thinking about Paulo. He knew they would see each other again, that Paulo wouldn’t forget him. He kept the gold coin and the amber nugget in the drawer by his bed and took them out and looked at them almost every night before going to sleep. He never told anybody about them.

The high school years passed in a blur. In his senior year he turned eighteen right before his graduation. While his classmates were excited about going to college, getting married or starting jobs, he was silent about his future plans. He told his parents he had booked passage to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion. They passed it off as part of his peculiarity.

Less than a week after graduation, he received a letter postmarked Denver, Colorado. He never doubted the letter would come.

He took the gold coin to a gold merchant and was surprised to discover it was worth a lot more than he thought. After he bought his bus ticket, he had enough left over to buy himself a used suitcase, some clothes suitable for Western wear, and a pair of cowboy boots.

Paulo  met him at the train in Denver. He still looked amazingly the same, but Roddy had changed from boy to man.

Roddy and Paulo lived together for the next sixty years. Paulo died in late winter, an old man. Roddy followed him six weeks later. They were lucky to have found each other when they did. They had both known it from the first.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Alligator Bag

Alligator Bag ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Her name was Laverne Mulvaney, but everybody called her Toots. She made her home on the streets and in the alleyways of the city. She was in middle age but looked older. She was an unregenerate alcoholic, dirty and ugly. When people passed her on the street, they turned away in revulsion.

She stole, and after she stole she ran. She outran her pursuers more often than not. She stole a melon from an open-air fruit market, gloves and costume jewelry from a department store, a fifth of whisky from the package store, a loaf of bread from a delicatessen, a can of tuna, a jar of pickles, a quart of milk, a cheap coat from an inattentive diner at a lunch counter, a man’s hat from a barber shop, a sign from a restaurant window that said Open All Night, a fox fur coat from the balcony of a movie theatre, a box of bird seed from the pet store, a pair of shoe laces and several pencils from the blind man on the corner, a bottle of aspirin from the drugstore, a movie magazine, a bottle of perfume, a hot water bottle, a toothbrush, a card of bobby pins, a box of suppositories, a small box of Valentine candy. The list was without end and included anything she might reasonably lay her hands on and carry away. What she couldn’t eat, drink, or use herself, she sold or gave away to friends.

One of her favorite places in the city was the municipal bus station. There were always so many people there that she blended in and nobody noticed her. On a November afternoon her feet were cold so she stopped in to warm them. She used the restroom facilities and afterwards she washed up at the sink: face, neck, arms and hands. If anybody gave her a sour look or a put-upon look because she was using too much soap or taking too much time, she ignored them with the haughtiness of a queen.

She sat down on a bench in the women’s lounge. For the first time all day she felt warm enough and she could feel her toes again. She longed to lay down on the bench and go to sleep, but she knew it was useless. A bus station employee would spot her, call security, and she would be taken to the door and ejected. She couldn’t say she didn’t deserve it.

A tall woman with red hair came into the lounge and right away Toots recognized her as a woman of quality. She wore a fur coat and expensive-looking pumps. She held herself erect; her skirt swayed with every step. She took a comb out of her alligator bag and fussed with her hair in front of the mirror. After she put away the comb she applied lipstick and when she was finished she smiled at her image in the mirror, turning her head this way and that, liking what she saw.

The red-haired woman sat down on the bench and for a moment looked at the floor, at the wall. Then she opened her bag and took out a handkerchief and wiped the corners of her mouth. She stood up, slipped off her coat, placed her bag on the bench and, covering it with her coat, went into a stall and closed the door.

Toots approached the fur coat stealthily. She had always wanted a coat like that, so luxurious and warm. If she only had such a coat, she wouldn’t have to be cold all the time. And wouldn’t she be the envy of all the other bums? She could just see their eyes popping out of their skulls.

She touched the coat, finding it the softest, most luxurious piece of merchandise she had ever felt. She wanted it terribly, but she wasn’t sure if she had the courage. She had to act fast; the red-haired woman would be back any second.

Picking up the coat, she was going to sling it over her shoulders and run for the door, but then she saw the bigger prize underneath the coat: the alligator handbag. If you were lucky enough to find an alligator bag, you were almost certain to find a large amount of cash in it. The coat might be worth a lot, but there’s nothing like cash. Cash, enough of it, would buy as many coats as madame desires.

Breath catching in her throat, she grabbed the alligator bag and slipped it inside her coat, leaving the fur on the bench.

With the bag warm against her heart, she ran blocks away from the bus station and ducked into an alley where she might open it unobserved. At the end of the alley was a private place where no one would see her. She fell to her knees and opened the bag and looked inside.

There was the wallet, the most prized item in the bag. She opened the wallet and looked at the red-haired woman’s driver’s license. Her name was Mrs. Melba LaForce, of 1506 Cordovan Place. She was just around forty years old; five feet, eight inches tall, with red hair.

None of it mattered, though. What mattered was the money: two hundred and seventy-three dollars in twenties, tens, fives, and three singles. Her biggest score in a long history of thievery.

Toots held the money in her hand, feeling genuinely happy for the first time in longer than she could remember. If it had been enough to buy a meal or a room for the night or a bottle of wine or whiskey, she would have felt fortunate, but this was beyond her wildest imaginings. Enough to make a real difference in her life. Enough to get herself cleaned up and straightened out. Enough to stop living the degrading life of a degenerate bum. Enough, maybe, to go home and pick up where she left off all those years ago.

Before she left the alley with the alligator bag, she combed her hair with her newly acquired comb and outlined her lips with lipstick. If her face hadn’t been so dirty, she would have slicked it down with face powder. The powder would have to wait; a good face-washing would have to come first.

Carrying the alligator bag over her arm as if it belonged to her and had always belonged to her, she walked to the Bijou Hotel and checked in. The Bijou was far from the finest hotel in the city, but it was a long way from being the worst.

She would have paid for the room in advance, but when she signed the hotel register Mrs. Melba LaForce, the desk clerk handed her the key to her room without even looking at her. She was wearing lipstick, for God’s sake, and her hair was done up. She looked respectable. People couldn’t help but see that.

Her room on the top floor was clean and quiet. The first thing she did, after locking the door, was to dump the contents of the alligator bag out on the bed. Among the practical things that she might use, such as the comb and hairbrush, were credit cards to some of the finest stores in the city. She would buy herself some nice things, a pair of shoes, a coat, some gloves. Stolen credit cards had a fleeting life, though; after they were reported stolen, they were essentially useless and the person trying to use them might be pinched.

Before she went shopping, she wanted to get herself cleaned up. She filled the bathtub with scalding water, washed herself from head to toe with hotel soap, and when she was finished she did it over again.

After she was clean, for the first time in longer than she could remember, she hated putting her dirty old rags back on, but she didn’t have any other choice. It wouldn’t be for long, though. She would go shopping, buy herself some new glad rags, and dump the old stuff in the trash can.

After dressing in her old things, she made her face up in the bathroom mirror. She put the face powder on so thick that she looked like a ghost, but a respectable ghost. She darkened her brows with eyebrow pencil and drew her lips on in a ruby-red bow. Then she fluffed up her clean-for-a-change hair and stepped into her broken-down oxfords and tied them. After giving herself the once-over in the dresser mirror, noting how smart the alligator bag looked hanging from her wrist, she was ready to go.

Going down in the elevator of the Bijou Hotel, she felt her old familiar craving for drink. She would buy herself a bottle after the new clothes, but it would be her tapering-off bottle. She would drink half of it after she got back to the hotel, get a restful night’s sleep, and tomorrow she’d drink the other half and that would be the end of her drinking. Then she was going to have the new life she deserved, a different kind of life.

She smiled at the desk clerk as she handed him the key to her room. She was a paying customer deserving of respect; the key and the room were hers until she no longer wanted them.

Outside the hotel, on the sidewalk, a man and a woman stood as if waiting for someone. The man was a police officer in uniform. The woman had red hair and was wearing a fur coat.

“That’s her!” the red-haired woman screeched. “That’s the bitch that stole my alligator bag!”

Toots turned and started to run, but it was no use. The policeman was young and fleet of foot. He caught up with her, grabbed her by the arm and twisted it behind her back.

“Did you snatch this lady’s pocketbook at the bus station?” he asked.

“Let me go!” Toots yelled. “I’m an American citizen!”

The red-haired woman came up behind the police officer and grabbed Toots by the hair and pulled her backwards off her feet and began pummeling her in the face with her fits.

“How dare you!” she screeched. “You scum! You filth! You should be flushed down the toilet!”

“Some people have it all,” Toots said, and the red-haired woman reared back to hit her again.

“That’s enough of that!” the policeman said.

He clapped the handcuffs on Toots and led her to a police car waiting around the corner of the Bijou Hotel. A small crowd of bums gathered to watch.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

 

Since Anybody Lived Here

Since Anybody Lived Here ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The Heaton house was down the street from the school, on a corner lot, high above the street. It was a big house, three stories, but the most interesting aspect of the house was that it was unoccupied; nobody had lived there for a long time.

The yard of the Heaton house was a mass of dead tangled weeds. A dead tree lay diagonally across the front yard, having pulled part of the front porch down with it. The house had once been painted white, but most of the paint had peeled off, revealing underneath the ugly gray of decaying wood. Windows on the first floor were boarded up, to discourage anybody from climbing through, but most of the higher-up windows still had glass in them, through which remnants of curtains, like ghostly apparitions, were visible from the street.

My friends and I passed the Heaton house going to and from school every day. We had heard the stories about the dead bodies in the house—some in coffins and some not—and about the old woman with the ax who would cut your head off if she got the chance; about the sounds of moans and clanking chains coming from the house late at night that nobody had actually heard but only claimed to have heard.

We longed to see the inside of the house, to see firsthand the dead bodies and whatever other horrors it held. It would be difficult to get inside, but not impossible. There’d be a certain amount of risk involved. We’d have to be careful and not get caught. If I got caught, I might go to jail but, worse than that, I’d be in all for all kinds of trouble at home, not the least of which would be months and maybe years of bitching and yelling.

On a gusty Saturday night in the middle of October, I told my mother that I was going to walk to the show downtown with my friend Alonzo Ficket. I had already seen the picture that was playing and knew all about it, so I was covered in case I was questioned about it later.

“Be home by eleven,” she said.

I met Alonzo on the corner by the church and we walked over to Carl Duffel’s house. Carl’s parents were gone for the weekend and he was left alone with Gwen, his older sister. She was a teenager, so she didn’t care what Carl did or how late he stayed out. Reggie Tolland was already at Carl’s house when we got there. Reggie didn’t have a father and his mother was always drunk, so he could stay out all night if he wanted to and nobody would even know it. We had all the bases covered.

After Carl showed us his small flashlight that fit into the palm of the hand and his pack of cigarettes and box of kitchen matches, the four of us set out for the Heaton house, about six blocks away.

Near the Heaton house, a dog started barking but, except for that, the neighborhood was quiet. The nearest streetlight was pretty far away, so it was dark enough where we were that any nosy neighbors wouldn’t see us from a distance and alert the police.

We walked all the way around the Heaton house two times, crunching leaves under our feet but trying to be as quiet as possible. There was only one small window on the ground floor that wasn’t boarded up. It was higher than our heads, but we figured that would be the best way to get inside.

We didn’t have anything as practical as a crowbar, but Reggie had a screwdriver in his coat pocket. Alonzo gave him a boost so that he could stick the screwdriver under the bottom of the window and try to pry it open.

He got the window up high enough with the screwdriver to be able to replace the screwdriver with his fingers and push up. It took a lot of effort and he was showered with old paint fragments, but he raised the window high enough to crawl through, which he did without hesitation. In two minutes we were all inside, standing in what had once been the kitchen.

Carl shone his flashlight around the large room. Against the wall were places where a refrigerator and a cook stove had been. The kitchen sink was pulled away from the wall and dangled at an inhuman angle a couple feet off the floor.

“I don’t like it in here,” Alonzo said. “It smells funny.”

“Go wait outside, then!” Reggie said.

“I think it’s interesting!” Carl said. “Let’s go this way!”

Carl had the light, so we all followed him into the next room, which would have been the dining room. The windows were boarded up from the outside, but there were still remnants of curtains hanging over the windows. From the middle of the ceiling hung part of a shattered chandelier suspended from a single wire.

“This must be where they had parties,” Carl said.

“I think I heard something!” Alonzo said, turning around quickly.

“It’s probably that old woman with the ax,” Reggie said. “She’ll come up behind you and cut your head off before you even see her!”

“Shut up! You’re not scaring me!”

“This way!” Carl said.

The next room was the front room, what would have been the living room. It was a long, rectangular room, with three large windows boarded over.

“Look!” Carl said. “There’s the stairs that go up!”

“Are we going up there?” Alonzo asked.

“Of course we are! Isn’t that what we broke in for? You can wait down here if you want to.”

Carl led the way with the light, fearlessly, and the rest of us followed.

Halfway up the stairs was a landing and then a turn to the left to go up the rest of the way.

“Don’t lean on the banister,” I said. “It’s coming loose in places.”

“The stairs are strong enough!” Carl said. “I like it here! I could live here!”

“That’s because you’re really a ghoul!” Alonzo said.

“Thanks! I like ghouls! I’d rather be a ghoul than a baby!”

“I’m not a baby. I’m not even all that scared.”

He may not have been scared, but he was holding on to the back of my jacket as if he was.

At the top of the stairs was a hallway with four doors leading to other rooms. Two of the doors were closed and the other two partly open. Carl shone his light on the walls in all the rooms, but there was nothing to see. One of the rooms was a bathroom from which the fixtures had been removed. In one of the rooms was a dusty pile of boards and a barrel with a rat’s skeleton in it. If  we had been hoping to see skeletons hanging from their necks or ghosts or dead bodies, we were disappointed.

“This is so great!” Carl said. “I’ll bet there were lots of murders that happened here!”

We proceeded down the hallway cautiously, our footsteps resounding on the bare floor. We would have had to take our shoes off to be really quiet and I don’t think any of us wanted to do that.

At the other end of the hallway was another smaller stairway going up to the third floor.

“Are we going up there?” Alonzo said. “There’s no telling what might be up there!”

“If there’s anything good to see,” Reggie said, “we’ll see it.”

On the third floor were three small rooms without doors. In one of the rooms were dusty bookshelves, empty except for a beer bottle with a cigarette butt in it.

“Somebody’s been here!” Carl said.

“Yeah, that’s real scary!” I said.

“No dead bodies and no old woman with an ax,” Alonzo said. “It all turned out to be a hoax!”

“Hey, if we had some beer we could have a little party!” Carl said. “We’ve already got the cigarettes!”

He took his cigarettes and matches out of his pocket and, sitting down on the floor and leaning against the wall, lit up. The rest of us sat down, too. After Carl had his cigarette going, he generously passed around the pack and the matches and we all lit up. Soon we were all huffing in a cloud of smoke.

“Isn’t this great?” Carl said.

“This is the best thing we’ve done since summer,” Reggie said.

“If my mother knew I was smoking, she’d just die,” Alonzo said.

“You’d better not to go home tonight, then,” Carl said. “She’ll be able to smell it.”

“I don’t think so. She smokes herself, so she’s used to the smell.”

“If the police came in now, we’d all go to jail,” I said.

“That’s not going to happen,” Reggie said. “Nobody knows we’re here. If we died here, it would be a long time before they found our bodies. They’d have to call in the FBI.”

“How long has it been since the Heatons lived here?” I asked.

“A hundred years,” Reggie said.

“I don’t think it’s been that long,” I said.

“How do you know so much about it?” Carl asked.

“My grandma remembered the family. She said they were odd. One of them committed suicide.”

“In this house?” Carl said. “I’ll bet it was in this very room!”

“Another one went insane.”

“That one probably murdered the whole family.”

“You know,” I said, sucking on my cigarette like a grown man, “we can’t ever tell anybody about this, no matter how much we want to brag about.”

“Why not?”

“If we tell one person at school, before you know it everybody will know. You know what people are like.”

“I think he’s right,” Alonzo said.

“I won’t ever tell,” Carl said. “On my word of honor.”

“I won’t ever tell anybody,” Reggie said.

“You know I won’t ever tell anybody about it,” Alonzo said. “I don’t want to go to jail. It would just about kill my mother.”

We smoked three or four cigarettes each. While we smoked we sat around talking and laughing about some of the ridiculous people at school, forgetting for the moment that we were in an unlawfully breached house.

It was after ten-thirty, so we decided it was time to go home. We each of us slithered out the same small kitchen window by which we had entered.

“We’ll have to do this again sometime soon!” Carl said.

Walking home, we all felt smart and resourceful, that we were able to see the inside of the fabled Heaton house without anything bad happening to us. My mother asked me how the movie was. I said it was a good movie and I had a wonderful time.

The next day was Sunday. My mother asked me to go to church with her in the morning, but I said I was sick at my stomach and needed to work on a book report for English class, so she relented.

I spent most of the day in my room, listening to the radio, reading the book I was supposed to write the report on, and doing plenty of nothing. I took a nap in the afternoon and woke up right before dinner.

That evening we were sitting in front of the TV watching the usual Sunday night fare, when we heard sirens. Not just one, but many.

“What in the world is going on?” my mother said.

We went out on the front porch. There was the unmistakable smell of smoke in the air.

We went back into the house and mother went into the kitchen, where I could hear her babbling on the phone. I knew she’d call one of her gossipy old friends and get the scoop without too much difficulty.

When she came back into the front room, I asked her what was burning.

“It’s the old Heaton house,” she said. “It’s been empty for years. Just a matter of time.”

“Do they know what caused it?” I asked. “It must have been lightning.”

“It’s probably some old drunken bum that went in there and started a fire to get warm.”

“I hope so,” I said.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

That night I had trouble sleeping. All night long I could hear sirens and smell smoke. Every time I went to sleep, I woke up with a start, thinking I had to get up and put out the fire before anybody knew I was the cause of it.

In the morning I walked the long way around so I wouldn’t have to walk past the Heaton house. When I got to school, I saw Alonzo first thing. He had a worried look on his face.

“Did you hear the news?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Do you think they’ll know we did it?”

“Did what?”

“Caused the fire.”

“You have to stop thinking that way!” I said. “Maybe we didn’t cause it!”

“Of course we caused it! It was the smoking!”

“Don’t say that where anybody can hear you!” I said. “Do you want to go to jail?”

“No, I really don’t want to go to jail!” he said.

“Then you don’t know anything! You didn’t see anything! You were nowhere near that house! Don’t even think about it! Got it?”

“I got it!

After lunch we saw Carl and Reggie and were able to have a private conversation with them outside the school building where nobody would hear us.

“I’m not worried,” Carl said. “Nobody saw us unless it was a ghost.”

“Nobody can prove anything,” Reggie said. “We didn’t do anything. The fire was caused by faulty wiring. It was just a coincidence that the fire started the day after we were in the house. We all know what a coincidence is, don’t we?”

“Sure, that’s a fourth grade word,” I said.

We all turned and looked at Alonzo, who looked not only doubtful but sick.

“I won’t tell anybody!” he said. “What kind of a fool do you take me for?”

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

I Am Skippy Wellington

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I Am Skippy Wellington ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I had fifteen minutes before bus time so I sat down on one of the ratty bus station seats that had part of the stuffing coming out. It was Friday night of a difficult week and I felt terrible. My toothache was killing me, I felt a cold coming on and I had heartburn from the spicy goulash I had for dinner. I took another pain pill for my tooth and was beginning to feel sleepy in the over-heated air when someone, some body, sat down beside me. I was ready to be annoyed when I turned my head and saw it was Skippy Wellington.

“How are you, Vance?” she said.

I was dumfounded, not only that she would speak to me, but that she knew my name.

“I’m fine,” I said, sounding more cheerful than I felt.

“I’m Skippy Wellington,” she said.

“I know. I’ve seen you around.”

“How are you liking school? How do you like your classes?”

“All right, I guess.”

“College is so much different from high school, isn’t it? I have a double major—English and drama—and believe me, it’s a lot of work! I was in one Drama Guild production in the fall and now I’m studying another part for a production in the spring. I hardly have time to see my fiancé. I believe you know him? Finton Beauchamp?”

“We room on the same floor.”

“Everybody tells us we need to wait to get married until after we both graduate, but that won’t be for three years and I don’t think we’re going to wait that long.”

“Well, if it was me, I think…”

“I want to ask you a personal question if you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead.”

“What’s your opinion of Finton?”

“I don’t know him very well.”

The truth was, I thought he was an abrasive, arrogant asshole, but I didn’t want to tell Skippy that.

“I mean, you see him as a boy sees him. I’d just like to know what he’s like from the perspective of a person like you, who sees him doing ordinary things like taking a shower, watching TV in his underpants, going to the toilet.”

“I don’t pay that much attention,” I said. “He’s just one of about twenty-five people on our floor.”

“I can see you don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said.

I looked at the clock on the wall and said, “It’s about time for my bus.”

“I don’t often get a chance to talk to any of his friends.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a friend.”

“I’m trying to get an idea of a side of him that I don’t ordinarily see.  Does he talk much about sex or other girls?”

“Not to me,” I said. “I don’t know him that well.”

“You see, I’m not really sure of him. I think he keeps his true self hidden, and I’m afraid I won’t find out what he’s really like until after we’re married.”

“I’m sure you’ll work it out,” I said, with what I hoped was an air of finality.

“I want to be an actress, you know! I’m talking Hollywood! I love acting. I just don’t think I could go on living if I didn’t act. Acting is my passion! It’s my life!”

“Maybe you’d better not marry Finton, then,” I said.

“That’s what I was thinking, too. I think marriage to Finton might be incompatible with a career in Hollywood.”

“You have to decide which is more important, I guess.”

“That’s exactly right! You’re so sensible!”

“Not really.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, I-I-I just want to make it through school first before I start thinking about anything like that.”

“Well, I know at least five girls who would just love to go out with you!”

“The ugly ones?”

“Now, you know and I know there are more important things than looks! What’s on the inside counts more than what’s on the outside.”

“That’s true, I guess.”

“I feel I can confide in you, Vance,” she said.

“Thanks. I feel I can confide in you, too.”

“There are things about me that Finton doesn’t know. He’s an alpha male, a real traditionalist! If he were to know the absolute truth about me, I think he might decide he doesn’t want to marry me after all!”

“Well, maybe the things you’re talking about…”

“For one thing, I’ll never be able to have children. You’re the only person outside of my family I’ve ever told.”

“Well, maybe Finton wouldn’t want any,” I said.

“Oh, I know he wants them! He’s told me so! He wants a traditional family and a traditional wife. A wife who can’t have children isn’t traditional.”

“Maybe if you just told him.”

“Well, I’ve thought about telling him, but I’m afraid it’ll ruin everything.”

“I don’t know Finton very well, but I think…”

“He thinks I’m perfect in every way. He thinks I will be the model American wife without any defects, free from the mental illness that plagues my mother and my sister. It would never occur to him that I might have irritable bowel syndrome or genital warts or anything awful like that. He sees me as a beauty queen or a sorority debutante, a future glamorous movie star, but I’m so much more than that! I’m a real person!”

“Your mother is mentally ill?” I asked.

“Yes, and it’s hereditary. There’s a good chance I’ll end up mentally ill, too.”

“If Finton really cares about you…”

“And that’s not all!” she said. “I’m epileptic! I have seizures!”

“Don’t they have medicine for that?”

“They do and I take it, but I still have seizures. I might have a seizure at any moment of the day or night and there’s nothing I can do about it. People make cruel jokes about it all the time.”

“I’ve never heard anybody make a joke about it,” I said.

“That’s because you’re pure of heart.”

“Nobody ever said that about me before.”

Skippy laughed. “Oh, you are so funny! And cute in a little, lost puppy-dog sort of way.”

“Nobody else would agree with you,” I said, “not even my mother.”

“It’s so good to have somebody like you to talk to!” she said. “Most people are so shallow! You can’t have a serious conversation with any of them.”

“Don’t even try!”

“My phone number is in the student directory. I want you to feel free to call me any time you’d like to talk!”

“Thanks!” I said, wondering exactly how desperate I would have to be before I would call her.

“And I might call you sometime, too,” she said. “If it’s all right.”

“Sure.”

“Just don’t tell Finton.”

“Of course I won’t.”

“He’s funny about things. He’ll think I’m using you to spy on him.”

“It would never enter my mind,” I said.

She began crying. I’m always surprised at how easily women and girls can cry. I took a rumpled Kleenex from my pocket and handed it to her. She dabbed at her eyes and nose.

“You’re so good!” she said. “Any girl would be lucky to have you!”

“I don’t think any of them would agree with you.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Vance. You are a wonderful person!”

I was relieved when my bus pulled up outside.

“There’s my bus,” I said. “I have to go.”

I stood up and she stood up beside me.

“Have a wonderful weekend!” she said.

“You too.”

She surprised me by putting her arms around me and kissing me on the lips. Her mouth tasted like a cherry cough drop. I was relieved when I finally got away from her.

My bus ride was smelly and soporific. When we pulled into the bus station in my home town, my sour-faced mother was there to meet me in her ancient, tank-like Oldsmobile.

“Hello, mother,” I said.

“Don’t think I’m going to cook for you and baby you all weekend long,” she said. “I’ve got my hands full.”

“Fine by me.”

“Your sister is staying with me with both kids. She says she’s left Bobo for good this time and is ready to file for divorce.”

“You’ve heard all that before,” I said.

“I think she means it this time. She’s terribly upset and the kids are out of control. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old under foot all the time. If they were mine, I’d slap them silly.”

“Suddenly I feel sick,” I said. “I think I might have to spend the weekend in my room away from the rest of the family.”

“Nothing doing, mister! I need you to help me corral the kids. You can play Monopoly and Parcheesi with them.”

“I hate Monopoly and Parcheesi! I’d rather be sitting in my room in the men’s dormitory at school.”

“That’s very selfish of you,” she said.

“I have some news,” I said. “News of a personal nature.”

“What is it?”

“I have a girlfriend.”

“This is a joke?”

“No, it’s not a joke. Her name is Skippy Wellington.”

“What kind of a name is that?”

“I don’t know. Chinese?”

“Is she pretty?”

“She’s beautiful. She’s an actress. Destined for Hollywood stardom.”

“Sounds perfect for you.”

I didn’t say anything else because she was consumed with her own problems and frankly didn’t seem all that interested in me. She lurched the car off the highway onto the lot of a pizzeria. She had promised her grandchildren she’d bring them a pizza.

Against my will, I got out of the car and went inside and ordered a large pizza with every topping imaginable and stood at the counter like a dumbbell and waited for it until it was ready.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

We Don’t Want Any Beatniks

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We Don’t Want Any Beatniks ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Hearing Russell’s footsteps on the stairs, Vee set a glass of orange juice on the table and cracked two eggs into the skillet. When he came into the sunny kitchen, she smiled and wished him a good morning and asked him if he’d like bacon with his eggs. Not waiting for an answer, she took four slices out of the refrigerator and laid them carefully in the skillet beside the eggs.

He helped himself to some coffee and sat down at the table. He looked across the table at Vee’s husband, Milt, but Milt didn’t look back. He was absorbed in the morning newspaper. He loved reading about crime in the city. It seemed to somehow make him happy.

“You’re such a sharp dresser!” Vee said to Russell from her place at the stove, pointing to his black pants and red-plaid shirt. “A lot of college students go around looking like bums all the time.”

Russell smiled modestly and downed his orange juice.

“Did you say something?” Milt asked, looking around the edge of the newspaper.

“I was just saying to Russell here how he always looks so dapper, even early in the morning.”

“Oh, Russell!” Milt said, putting down the paper. “I almost forgot about Russell!”  He is a quiet boy!”

“He’s hardly a boy!” Vee said, setting Russell’s plate down in front of him. “He’s a fully grown man! Just look at those arms!”

“I work out when I have the time,” Russell said.

“Whatever makes you happy,” Milt said. “Say, I was just reading in the paper where a family of six was murdered in their own beds. No sign of forced entry. Police don’t have a clue who did it. Can you beat it? What is the world coming to? And over on Polk Avenue, in those old apartment buildings near the post office, a woman stabbed her common-law husband in the neck and went off to work and left him on the floor to bleed to death.”

“Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?” Vee asked. “It’s a beautiful morning!”

“I heard yesterday about an old woman who lived alone. Somebody broke into her house and after they stole her money and jewels, they killed her. Slit her throat. She had two big dogs. They didn’t have any food for a long time so they ate her body, right down to the bones! Did you ever hear of anything so awful?”

“Russell doesn’t want to hear that gruesome talk!” Vee said. “He’s young and full of life!”

“It’s all right,” Russell said. “I don’t want you to do anything different on my account.”

“How do you like your room?” Milt asked.

“I like it fine, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’. This isn’t the army.”

“No. I know it’s not the army.”

“How old are you?”

“I’ll be twenty-four in October.”

“It’s probably hard for you to believe right now,” Milt said, “but I was twenty-four not so long ago.”

“Russell’s a graduate student,” Vee said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“A what?”

“He already has his undergraduate degree. Now he’s in graduate school.”

“Oh, right!”

“I should be able to get my master’s degree in two more semesters,” Russell said.

“So you’ll only need the room for two semesters,” Vee said.

“As far as I know.”

“Oh, I do hope you’ll stay longer than that!”

“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble renting the room to somebody else,” Russell said. “It’s a comfortable room, convenient to the university, and you’re certainly a good cook!”

Vee smiled with pleasure and set down her cup. “It’s sweet of you to say so,” she said. “Most people don’t usually have anything good to say.”

“We don’t want any beatnik types with their bongo drums,” Milt said.

Vee laughed. “You are so behind the times!” she said. “There aren’t any beatniks anymore!”

“You know what I mean!” Milt said. “We only want the decent-living, clean-cut types. The ones who don’t make a sound at night because they’ve got their noses buried in books all the time.”

“I think he’s saying he approves of you, Russell!” Vee said.

“We don’t need to overdo it,” Milt said.

Russell finished his breakfast and stood up. He offered to carry his plate to the sink, but Vee told him she’d take care of it.

“I won’t be here for dinner,” he said, as he left. “I’m going to be working late at the library.”

“It’s all right, darling!” Vee called. “Have a wonderful day!”

Darling?” Milt said.

Milt left to go to work. The day was long and dull for Vee. She washed the breakfast dishes and when she was finished she lay down on her unmade bed and read an article in a magazine about a woman who was spontaneously turning into a man, and when she was finished reading she dozed for a while until a big truck passing on the street in front of the house woke her up.

She carried her broom and dustpan up the stairs and let herself into Russell’s room with her spare key. It was her duty as landlady to tidy up, empty the trash, sweep the floor, put clean towels in the bathroom, clean sheets on the bed.

Not only was Russell neat in his dress, but also in the way he lived. The covers on his bed were pulled up over the pillows. There were stacks of books and papers on the desk, but, other than that, no clutter anywhere; no dirt and no piles of dirty clothes. In the bathroom, the towels hung neatly; there were no splashes on the mirror; the bathtub gleamed, exactly as it had the last time she scrubbed it.

Before going back downstairs, she lingered for a while over Russell’s belongings. She ran her fingertips over his alarm clock and his jade elephant that she admired every time she was in his room. She picked up a couple of the books and opened them, read a few words, and set them back down exactly where they had been. She opened the closet door and marveled at the perfect order: coats, jackets, shirts, pants. On the floor were four pairs of shoes aligned with precision. On the inside of the closet door was a rack of belts and ties, the ties arranged according to color.

One thing she expected to see in Russell’s room but didn’t: a picture of a lovely young woman. Of course such a handsome, intelligent, smartly turned-out young man would have a girlfriend, a real homecoming queen type, who would be waiting for him to come home and marry her when the time was right. Beauty is always rewarded with beauty, isn’t it? Isn’t that the way the world works?

In the afternoon she took a long bubble bath and washed her hair and set it. When she was finished, she dressed in fresh clothes. There was no reason for her to look slouchy all the time. She wasn’t an old woman, not yet, and she didn’t want to get old before her time. Of course, it didn’t help being married to an old stick like Milt, but she wasn’t going to let him drag her down even more than he already had.

At dinnertime she set three places at the table, even though she knew Russell wouldn’t be there. Milt didn’t notice the extra plate or that she had fixed herself up and looked better than usual. He came into the kitchen and sat down at the table at six-thirty, the time they always ate. She served up the food and they sat in silence; she stared absently out the window into the back yard or at the empty plate and unused silverware across from her. Milt didn’t talk about his day; they were all the same and had been for twenty-five years or more.

When dinner was over she washed the dishes and Milt, bone-tired as usual, retired to his spot on the couch in front of the TV. He would watch one mindless show after the other, all evening long, until it was time for the ten o’clock news and then he’d turn off the TV and get into bed, literally asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Vee went to her room at eleven o’clock and closed the door. She lay for a long time without sleeping, listening to the sounds outside: the wind in the trees, distant traffic on the highway, the faraway barking of a lonely dog.

At one o’clock, she had been dozing lightly but awoke when she heard the floor creak upstairs over her head. It meant Russell was home. She imagined him taking off his clothes and getting into bed. He’d be tired out from his long day, a day well-spent, and would go to sleep quickly.

An hour later she was still awake. She got out of bed and, without turning on a light, put on her bathrobe and stepped into her slippers. She crept slowly out of her room, careful not to make a sound, feeling her way along the wall, and up the stairs to the door of Russell’s room.

The door wasn’t locked. She turned and knob and stepped into the room. There was just enough light coming in at the window that she could see him sleeping in the bed, lying on his back. The blanket was pulled up to his waist. He wore an undershirt.

She stood for a minute beside the bed, watching him sleep. He had his right arm over his head and his left arm resting at his side. She was reaching out her hand to touch his chest when he opened his eyes.

He reached over and turned on the lamp beside the bed and looked at her. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is anything wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. I…”

“There’s not a fire, is there?”

“No, there’s no fire.”

“Why are you coming into my room late at night without knocking?”

“Please don’t be mad at me! I missed you at dinner and I just wanted to make sure you made it in all right.”

“Of course I made it all right!” he said. “Why wouldn’t I? You don’t have to worry about me.”

“I know. I wouldn’t blame you for being terribly angry, but…I just couldn’t seem to help myself.”

“Why not?”

“You’re special to me.”

“I’m not!”

“I can’t explain it very well, but I like looking at you and talking to you and being in the same room with you.”

“What does that… Oh, I think I get it!”

“I just…”

“I’m not going to have sexual intercourse with you,” he said. “Now or any other time.”

She laughed a little at the unexpectedness of the statement. “Oh, I know!” she said. “That’s not what I want anyway!”

“What do you want?”

“I want to turn off the light. I want you to close your eyes and I want to touch your face and your hair. I want to touch your arms and your chest. I want to feel you all over.”

“Do you do this with all your boarders?”

“Oh, no! This is the first time!”

“Does your husband know?”

“My husband doesn’t know anything.”

He threw back the blanket that covered his lower body and stood up from the bed. He pulled the undershirt off over his head and stepped out his pajama bottoms and turned off the light.

“Just this once,” he said in a whisper, resuming his position on the bed as though submitting to a medical exam.

In the morning Vee was in the kitchen cooking breakfast when Milt came in, yawning, and took his place at the table.

“Did you hear anything unusual last night?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.

“I heard a dog barking but it didn’t keep me awake,” she said.

“With all the crime in the city, you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. You can’t be too careful these days.”

She handed him the morning paper to get him to stop talking it and he opened it and began reading a story on the front page about a triple homicide.

“One of the people killed was a niece of the mayor’s wife! Can you beat it?”

“Eat your eggs while they’re hot,” she said.

He was halfway finished with breakfast when he noticed someone was missing from the breakfast table.

“Hey, where’s our star boarder?”

“Russell.”

“Yeah, where is he?”

“He’s gone.”

“He had an early class or something?”

“No, he left. He moved out.”

“Moved out? What are you talking about? He just said yesterday he liked it here and wanted to stay. Did something happen?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Did he skip out on the rent?”

“He was paid up until the first of the month.”

“What is wrong with these people? He’s the third boarder we’ve lost in less than a year! They’re here and everything is fine, and then the next day they’re just gone without so much as a wave goodbye! It must have something to do with all this crime!”

“I’ll place the ad in the newspaper again,” she said, “but I don’t think we’ll get anybody as sweet as Russell ever again. Not in a hundred-million years.”

She turned her head away so Milt wouldn’t see she was crying.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

This Morning It Looked Like Rain

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This Morning It Looked Like Rain ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was the annual end-of-school picnic for the teachers. Another school year filed and put away. Ethel Fix, Pauline Schoonover, Grace Wolfe and Margaret Durfee sat with Mr. Goodapple, the school principal, at his table along with Mr. Goodapple’s son, Zeke. Of the four women, three were married. Only Margaret Durfee was without a husband. Knowing that Mr. Goodapple was a recent divorcee, she made no secret of the fact that she would make herself available to him if he so desired. Mr. Goodapple, for his part, wasn’t interested in Margaret Durfee or anybody else. Whenever he realized that she was looking at him with a secret and suggestive smile (suggestive of what?), the only thing he felt for her was embarrassment.

“It turned out to be a lovely day after all,” Grace Wolfe said.

“Yes, lovely,” Ethel Fix said. “It’s supposed to rain tonight, though.”

“When we’re all safely in our beds.”

“The park is lovely in the springtime,” Pauline Schoonover said.

“Summer is right around the corner,” Grace Wolfe said.

“What are you going to do this summer?” Ethel Fix said.

“My husband and I bought a camping trailer. We thought we’d take a few little trips. Fishing trips, mostly.”

“Do you fish?”

“No, mostly I swat mosquitoes.”

“I’m going to give my house a thorough cleaning during vacation. Do a little painting.”

“Oh, do you paint landscapes or portraits?”

“No. Walls.”

“I’m going to keep to town,” Margaret Durfee said. “I don’t really have any special plans, other than to relax. I’m not seeing anybody special or anything like that. I’ll be alone most of the time.”

“Goodness!” Pauline Schoonover said. “Don’t you get lonely?”

“Well, sometimes. Maybe a little.”

Young Zeke Goodapple, age thirteen, sighed loudly and yawned. All the ladies turned and looked at him.

“I think we’re boring Zeke to death with our talk,” Ethel Fix said.

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to be rude,” Mr. Goodapple said. “Did you, Zeke?”

“Huh?”

“Tell the ladies you didn’t mean to be rude.”

“No.”

“No, what?”

“No, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“Do you have some interesting plans for the summer, Zeke?” Margaret Durfee asked.

“No.”

“That’s not true, now, is it, Zeke?” Mr. Goodapple said. “You do have some interesting plans.”

“What kind of plans?” Grace Wolfe asked.

“Tell them, Zeke,” Mr. Goodapple said. “Tell the ladies what you’re going to be doing this summer.”

“Um, I don’t remember.”

“Zeke will be taking a couple of remedial courses in summer school so he’ll be ready for junior high when school takes up again. English and math. And that’s not all, is it, Zeke?”

“What?”

“When he’s not in school, he’ll be taking swimming lessons at the YWMC.”

“Oh, won’t that be fun!” Pauline Schoonover said.

“I don’t have a suit,” Zeke said.

“A suit? Why do you need a suit?”

“A swimsuit.”

“Oh, yes! Of course!”

“I don’t really want to go into the pool,” Zeke said. “I’m afraid of the water. I have dreams where I can see myself being pulled out with hooks. Dead.”

“Oh, my!”

“The boy has a vivid imagination,” Mr. Goodapple said. “He reads horror stories every night before going to bed and I’m afraid they make him a little more morbid than he should be.”

“He probably misses his mother,” Margaret Durfee said. “He needs the steadying influence of a woman.”

“We get along fine,” Mr. Goodapple said. “We’ve adjusted quite well to the new order of things.”

“Do you like to read, Zeke?” Grace Wolfe asked.

“Sure. I like stories where all the characters get killed. I also like monster movies. I always want the monsters to win and kill all the people, but that never happens.”

“See what I mean?” Mr. Goodapple said with a laugh.

“Well, I like monster movies, too,” Margaret Durfee said, looking appreciatively at Zeke.

“Did you know my mother went off and left me?” Zeke asked.

“I don’t think we need to talk about that now,” Mr. Goodapple said.

“She married some guy I never met. He already has three kids so they didn’t have room for me.”

“We discussed it at length and decided it was best for Zeke to remain with me,” Mr. Goodapple said.

“That seems the sensible thing,” Pauline Schoonover said.

“They live in New Mexico,” Zeke said. “I don’t think I’d like living in the desert. I have sensitive skin. Mother says she’ll send me the money for a plane ticket so I can come out and visit her sometime and meet her husband and his kids. I’ve never flown in a plane.”

“That should be quite an adventure,” Grace Wolfe said.

“I’m not afraid to fly by myself. If the plane crashes, I’ll probably die quick without really knowing what happened.”

“The plane won’t crash. You’ll be fine.”

“And when you come back,” Ethel Fix said, “you can tell your friends at school all about it.”

“I don’t have many friends,” Zeke said. “I mostly just like to be alone.”

Mr. Goodapple took out a pack of cigarettes and lit up, blowing smoke over the ladies’ heads.

“I didn’t know you smoked, Mr. Goodapple!” Pauline Schoonover said.

“Never at school. Only when I’m out like this.”

“Might I have one, dear?” Margaret Durfee asked, in imitation of a screen vamp.

He handed her the pack and his lighter, avoiding her touch, and looked away as she lit her own.

“You never really know people until you have lunch with them,” Ethel Fix said.

When everybody was finished eating, the ladies started cleaning up.

“Would you like to walk down the hill to the soldiers’ memorial with me, Zeke?” Margaret Durfee asked.

“I’m kind of tired and I have a sore toe,” Zeke said, “but I guess it’ll be all right.”

“Well, let’s go, then!”

Margaret Durfee took him by the hand as if he was a small child, but when he showed her he didn’t like that, she settled with putting her hand on his shoulder.

When they were out of sight, Grace Wolfe leaned over and said confidentially to Mr. Goodapple, “I think Miss Durfee has a terrible crush on you!”

“Don’t you see what she’s doing?” Pauline Schoonover  said. “She’s trying to get to you through your son!”

“I’d watch out for her if I were you!” Ethel Fix said. “She’s one of those crazy, passionate types and you never know what they’re up to!”

He had nothing to say, but only lit another cigarette and looked at his watch. The picnic was over and, thanks be to the Lord, it was time to go home.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Things I Must Have

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Things I Must Have ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Koenig lay near death. Her four grown children had taken it upon themselves to gather in her house to discuss the disposition of her personal belongings.

“I want the Tiffany lamp,” Gwendolyn said.

“I already said the Tiffany lamp is mine!” Cupcake said.

“I’ve loved that lamp since I was a baby!”

“So? It’s still mine!”

“I want the dining room table and chairs,” Kent said. “Mother said I could have them.”

“Not so fast!” Gwendolyn said. “She said I could have them.”

“When did she say that?”

“I don’t know. Last Christmas, I think.”

“Well, she just told me last month that I could have them, so I guess that cancels you out.”

“I get the antique bed and dresser that were grandma’s,” Cupcake said. “Mother told me when I was fifteen that she wanted me to have them.”

“Well, isn’t that funny, Miss Cupcake!” Gwendolyn said. “I always thought I would get the antique bed and dresser.”

“I want the complete set of Dickens and the set of Britannica,” Kent said.

“You can have them!” Gwendolyn said. “Nobody cares about books.”

I care. The Dickens set is over a hundred years old. It’s valuable. I’m going to sell it and buy a car I’ve been wanting.”

“Why don’t you keep the Dickens books and pass them on to your children, chowderhead?”

“I don’t have any children. Remember?”

“Oh, that’s right! There’s something funny about you, isn’t there?”

“There’s something even funnier about you!”

“I get the set of antique china,” Cupcake said, “and I’m not going to sell it, either.”

“What are you going to do with it, dear?” Gwendolyn asked.

“I’m going to keep it. What do you think? I also want the china cabinet. What good is the china without the cabinet?”

“I want the rolltop desk,” Cupcake said. “Mother told me in high school when I made the honor roll that I could have it.”

“I think the rolltop desk should go to me!” Kent said.

“And why is that?” Cupcake asked.

“It’s a man’s desk. I’m a man. Remember?”

“Oh, yes, darling! I keep forgetting!”

“I get the piano,” Gwendolyn said. “I’m the only one who plays.”

“You haven’t played since you were twelve years old,” Kent said, “and you were horrible! You used to cry when mother made you practice, and then she cried when she heard how bad your playing was.”

“Well, maybe I’ll take it up again. I always feel there’s something lacking in my life. Maybe it’s the piano.”

“Maybe it’s good judgment and common sense!” Cupcake said.

“Oh, and I also get the antique vase from China,” Gwendolyn said. “Mother’s piano wouldn’t be mother’s piano without the vase sitting on it.”

“Wait a minute!” Cupcake said. “I’m the only one here who knows antiques. I think I should get the antique vase from China.”

“I want mother’s photo albums and the big picture in the attic of grandma and grandpa,” Kent said. “Also the hall tree, the antique sideboard, the library table and the brocade sofa.”

“You can have them!” Gwendolyn said. “I never liked them, anyway.”

“Excuse me!” Cupcake said. “The library table is mine! I’ve already decided where I’m going to put it!”

I’ll tell you where you can put it!” Kent said.

“I must have mother’s silver that she only used for special occasions,” Cupcake said. “The china is nothing without the silver to go with it.”

“I’m going to take the grandfather clock,” Kent said. “I’ve had my eye on it for  a long time. I’m sure mother wanted me to have it.”

“Then why didn’t she say so when she was in her right mind?”

“She did! She said it to me!”

“Don’t you think it’s funny she never told any of the rest of us?”

Dickie was the fourth and youngest child. He had not spoken until now. “You should hear yourselves!” he said. “Squabbling like a bunch of old hens over things! Mother’s not even dead yet! She may recover! She may come home from the hospital! She may live many more years!”

“We’re just trying to be prepared for when the time comes,” Kent said.

“These are the things we grew up with,” Gwendolyn said. “They’re meaningful to us. We want to make sure they end up in the right hands.”

“Meaning your hands,” Dickie said.

“Don’t you want to stake your claim to the things you want to keep” Cupcake asked. “To remember mother by?”

“No, I don’t want any of this stuff!”

“Why not?” Gwendolyn said.

“This stuff isn’t your stuff and it’s not my stuff!”

“What are you talking about?” Kent asked. “Of course it’s our stuff! Who else would it belong to?”

“I am in possession of some information that the rest of you sons-of-bitches don’t know!”

“What are you talking about?” Gwendolyn asked.

“Have you lost your mind?” Cupcake asked.

“No, I haven’t lost my mind. Mother’s lawyer called me yesterday. On the phone. Mother knew you would be fighting over her things, so she made a last-minute provision to her will. She wants everything in the house sold at auction and the money—all of it!—to go to charity.”

What?” Cupcake said.

“I don’t think mother would do that!” Gwendolyn said.

“I don’t believe it!” Kent said. “You’re making this up out of spite!”

“And that’s not all!” Dickie said. “She donated the house to the church.”

Church?” Cupcake said. “What church?”

“People from the church talked to her many times about giving them the house when she died. They finally broke her down and got her to sign an agreement.”

“This isn’t right!” Gwendolyn said. “Mother wasn’t right in the head! We can contest it! We can file a lawsuit! We can hold it up for years in the courts!”

“I don’t think so,” Dickie said. “It’s all legal and valid. If you don’t believe me, call mother’s lawyer. His name is Kenneth Ormiston.”

“Mother disinherited us!” Kent said, as if in a daze. “We don’t get anything!”

“Mother wouldn’t do that!” Cupcake said. “Not to me! I was always her favorite!”

“She won’t get away with this!” Gwendolyn said. “I’m going to have her buried face-down!”

“I don’t think it’ll make any difference to her,” Dickie said, “one way or another.”

“I don’t think I can walk!” Cupcake said, sobbing. “I need somebody to take me home!”

“Dickie,  you bastard!” Gwendolyn said. “Look what you did to your sister! I’m going to kill you!”

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

You Might Have Gone Far

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You Might Have Gone Far ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Laurette stood in the small space between the couch and the wall and ironed the shirts of a stranger. She stole little looks out the window at the street and the houses across the way as she worked. Her mother, Oona Farrington, sat on the couch sipping Coca-Cola out of the king-size bottle through a straw, thumbing through a women’s magazine. Not a care in the world.

“I had such high hopes for you when you were young,” Oona said, starting out on a wheezing high note. “You were the only one of my children with what I would call natural beauty. And here you are taking in other people’s laundry to make a living for yourself and your child.”

“I don’t have to do this, you know.” Laurette said. “I can get a job as a stripper out at the Blue Grotto any time I want.”

“When you were little, people were in awe of your beauty. If you had cultivated your natural talents as a young person, you might have gone far in the entertainment world.”

“Doing what, mother? Twirling a baton? I’m afraid there isn’t much call for that after the age of twelve.”

“It wasn’t just the baton. You played the clarinet and you sang and danced. In the seventh grade, you were in the school play. Everybody said you were the best one, the only one with any real talent.”

“And then I grew up and reality set in.”

“How long has it been since you had an alimony check from that no-good ex-husband of yours?”

“It’s not alimony, mother. It’s child support.”

“How long?”

“Almost three months, I guess.”

“It’s been four!”

“If you know, then why are you asking me?”

“I think you should take that bastard to court and get every penny out of him that you have coming! Have him locked up in jail until he pays what he owes.”

“Being a racecar drive isn’t what it used to be, mother. He only works part-time now.”

“He never was man enough to get a real job!”

“You’ll have to talk to him about that, mother, and leave me out of it.”

“Did you know that pretty young wife of his is going to have a baby? Can you imagine a man like that bringing more children into the world?”

“I don’t care what he does, mother. He can impregnate as many women as he wants and it’s no concern of mine.”

“And what is Ruthie supposed to think? Her own father doesn’t care enough about her to make sure she’s properly taken care of, while he’s out making more babies with women half his age, without a care in the world.”

“I’m sure he cares about her, mother. He’s just…”

“Behind in his alimony payments!”

“It’s not alimony, mother. It’s child support.”

“If he was my husband, I’d shoot the son-of-a-bitch between the legs.”

Laurette laughed and set the iron down. “I’m sure you would, mother, but I don’t think you’d care to go to jail any more than I would. You can’t go around shooting people, between the legs or anyplace else.”

“No jury in the land would convict you!”

“I’m not going to try it and find out.”

“You don’t have any backbone. That’s your problem.”

Laurette counted the shirts she had left. “I’ve been standing here ironing these shirts all day and I have five more to go. Mr. Bartlett sure has a lot of beautiful dress shirts. All different colors and prints.”

“Yes, he’s a successful man, the kind of man you should have married.”

“You don’t even know him!”

“I know of him. I know his cousin.”

“When he comes to pick up his shirts, I’ll tell him I’m a divorcee and I sure would like to marry him because I admire his shirts so much.”

“And why not? You have to go after what you want in life.”

“Is that what you did, mother? You were a housewife your whole life, unhappily married to a man you didn’t love. You had five children and I’m the only one of the five that still speaks to you.”

“I don’t know how you can talk to your own mother that way.”

“Because I dare to speak the truth?”

“I don’t know how you sleep nights.”

The clock chimed four and, as if on cue, Ruthie arrived home from school, breathless and sweaty.

“Did you run all the way home?” Laurette asked.

“No,” Ruthie said. “We were practicing some dance steps outside.”

“Who was?”

“Just some girls I know. I think they’re cousins or something.”

“Do you like dancing?” Oona asked.

“It’s all right,” Ruthie said.

“When I was young, I was quite a good dancer myself. I guess you’re taking after me.”

“I didn’t know you were going to be here today, grandma,” Ruthie said.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“I guess so.”

“Grandma saw the doctor today,” Laurette said. “She had a biopsy and isn’t feeling well. She’s going to spend the night.”

“Does that mean I have to sleep on the couch?” Ruthie asked.

“It’s just one night.”

I can sleep on the couch,” Oona said. “It makes all my bones ache, but I don’t mind. I won’t take your bed.”

“Go ahead and take it!” Ruthie said. “You’ll need to change the sheets, though.”

“How about if you change the sheets?” Laurette said. “Grandma’s a guest.”

“Oh, all right!”

“Just a minute, little girl,” grandma said. “Come over here.”

Ruthie approached reluctantly and Oona took Ruthie’s hands in her own. Ruthie thought she was going to play pattycake, but she just swung Ruthie’s arms back and forth and pursed her lips.

“Did you know you’re going to be having a little brother or sister very soon?” she asked.

“What?”

“I said, did you know there’s going to be a new addition to the family very soon?”

“Mama, is this true?” Ruthie asked.

“Don’t worry,” Laurette said. “It’s not me. It’s your father.”

“Daddy’s going to have a baby?”

“His new wife is.”

“I thought they just got married.”

“They did. Daddy works fast.”

“What do you think about that?” Oona asked. “A baby brother or sister.”

“I don’t think anything,” Ruthie said.

“You’re not the least bit jealous?”

“No. Why should I be? I don’t care what they do.”

“Well, it’s a recipe for disaster if you ask me. You know your father’s a no-good bastard, don’t you?”

“All right, mother!” Laurette said. “That’s enough of that kind of talk! Quit trying to brainwash her.”

“What’s ‘brainwash’?” Ruthie asked.

“It’s nothing. It means it’s time to go change the sheets on the bed. Grandma’s tired and will want to go to bed early.”

After the supper dishes were washed and put away, Oona put on her nightgown and her heavy quilted bathrobe and tied her hair up in her sleep bonnet. After watching her favorite situation comedy on TV, she said good-night and disappeared into Ruthie’s room.

During the nine-o’clock hour, while Laurette and Ruthie were watching a mind-numbing crime drama, Ruthie turned to Laurette and said: “I don’t like grandma very much.”

“Nobody likes her very much,” Laurette said. “She’s not a very likeable person. She never was.”

“How long are we going to have to wait for her to die so we can get her money and her house?”

“Not long, baby doll. Just be patient.”

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Everybody Else Went On Ahead

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Everybody Else Went On Ahead ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

I had known Weston Bicket since the beginning of school. You might say he was my best friend. People mostly didn’t like him because he was different from everybody else and he had a bad leg that made him limp and kept him from playing basketball and other stupid games we were made to play. I sometimes envied him because he wasn’t made to take P.E. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, “P.E.” means “physical education.”) He had an extra study hall while the rest of us were being humiliated in front of the whole class by our lack of athletic ability.

Weston lived in a big house that had seen better days on the edge of town, behind the railroad depot. (The town wasn’t big enough for a “train station,” so we just had a tiny railroad depot that looked unused and haunted.) He had no brothers and sisters; his parents went off and left him on his own a lot. His father ran around with other women (according to the gossip that my own mother was all too willing to spread), and his mother was an unrepentant floozy who spent a lot of time drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in taverns and bowling alleys. (Weston’s parents’ philosophy of parenting seemed to be: “Let the child raise himself. That’s what we did and look at us!”)

Weston didn’t like to talk about his bum leg, but one Friday evening during summer vacation when we were alone at his house, I asked him how it came to be the way it was.

“I was a breached birth,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“I came out feet first.”

“Came out where?”

“You know. You saw the pictures in the biology book.”

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Disgusting!”

“Yes, it’s disgusting. The whole thing is disgusting.”

“So what happened with your leg?”

“I was stuck in there. The doctor pulled too hard on my leg and broke it and dislocated it.”

“Didn’t that hurt?”

“They thought I might never walk, so I guess I’m lucky to be walking at all.”

“You’re lucky in other ways, too. You don’t have to take P.E.”

“Yes, I am blessed.”

About nine o’clock that night a big thunderstorm blew up out of the southwest, which was where most scary storms came from. Weston’s parents were gone for the weekend and he didn’t know when they’d be back. He asked me if I’d spend the night. I never knew before that he was scared of thunder and lightning.  I thought it would be fun to spend the night in his upstairs bedroom with just the two of us, with plenty of cookies and potato chips, but when I called my mother and asked for permission to spend the night, she told me to shag my cowboy ass home posthaste, storm or no storm. She could always spoil a good time without much effort.

We were thirteen and in the eighth grade. While most of us were growing taller and “filling out,” Weston remained tiny. The eighth grade wasn’t kind to Weston. One day he fell on the stairs going from one class to another and broke his ankle. He had to stay at home for two weeks “recuperating,” and when he came back to school he had a heavy cast on his leg and a pair of crutches. “I was lame-o before!” he said proudly. “Now I’m really lame-o!”

Not long after his cast was removed, Weston and two other boys were caught smoking a cigarette in the boys’ restroom and were suspended for three days. Getting suspended from school was about the worst thing that could happen to you. To be readmitted to school, Weston had to have his mother bring him for a closed-door meeting with the principal in his office. Weston said it was the most humiliating experience of his life.

And that wasn’t all. When we got our once-in-a-lifetime smallpox vaccinations, Weston had a “bad reaction.” His arm swelled up to twice its normal size and he became sick and had to see a doctor. The doctor said it was a “very rare” and “most unusual” side-effect of the smallpox vaccine that occurred in about one in a million people. “Did you ever see anybody so damn lucky?” Weston exclaimed.

Because of his size, Weston was often the target of bullies. One Saturday afternoon when Weston and I were on our way downtown, we met the ugly bully Freddy Lucy face to face.

“Well, look who’s here!” Freddy sneered, showing his miserable teeth. “I thought I smelled turds!”

Our plan was just to ignore Freddy; we were going to go around him, but he blocked our way.

“Just where do you two little bitches thing you’re going?” Freddy said.

“None of your business!” Weston said.

“I’ll bet you’re going to the store to buy some emergency feminine napkins, aren’t you?”

“That’s stupid!” Weston said. “We know you already bought them all!”

“Oh, funny!” Freddy said. “You ought to be on TV!”

“We just met a big gorilla up the street,” Weston said. “She was looking for you. I think she was your mother.”

“You know what happens to little bitches with smart mouths!” Freddy said. “They get their teeth knocked out!”

“I dare you to knock my teeth out!” Weston said. “I’ll call the police and they’ll come and pick you up and drop you off at the monkey house at the zoo with the rest of your family, where you belong!”

“If you don’t shut your mouth, you little creep, and show some respect, I’ll shut it for you!”

“I’d rather be a creep than a psycho, Freddy! That’s what you are! You might as well face it. People are afraid of you!”

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Freddy jumped at Weston and got him in a headlock. Weston struggled but couldn’t get loose.

“You’re hurting me!” Weston said.

“That’s the point, shit-face!” Freddy said.

“Leave him alone, Freddy!” I said.

“Oh, do you want some too, you little mama’s boy?”

He let go of Weston and came toward me and raised his dirt-encrusted knuckles in my face as if to hit me. I didn’t flinch.

“We’re not bothering you!” I said. “Just let us pass.”

“And miss all the fun?”

“No fun here,” I said.

“No?” Freddy asked. “I always think it’s fun beating the shit out of little kids.”

“If you want to beat the shit out of somebody, why don’t you beat the shit out of somebody your own size?”

“Well, that’s just no fun at all!”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Freddy,” Weston said. “Just how many years did you spend in third grade?”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Freddy said. “What’s it like to be a cripple?”

“I’m not a cripple,” Weston said.

“You look like a cripple! You walk like a cripple! Yes, I’d definitely say you’re a cripple!”

“You’re a no-good, retarded piece of shit!” Weston shrieked. “Your whole family is shit! You live in a junkyard! You have so many brothers and sisters you don’t know how many there are!”

“You leave my family out of it!” Freddy said.

He hit Weston on the side of the head with his fist. The blow knocked Weston all the way off the sidewalk into the street. I could see right away that his eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. I thought he was dead.

“Look what you did!” I yelled at Freddy.

“Serves him right! For disrespecting my family!”

Freddy ran off up the street, like the coward he was, but I could tell he was scared.

I couldn’t leave Weston lying there in the street. He really was knocked out. I had never seen anybody knocked out before.

He wasn’t faking it, either. He had a brain concussion and a fractured jaw. He was in the hospital for a few days. I had never seen him look so bad. He couldn’t move around much because he was so dizzy.

“What about that asshole Freddy Lucy?” he asked me when I visited him in his hospital room.

“He’s in plenty of trouble,” I said. “I think he might be expelled from school. They might even send him to reform school.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time!” Weston said.

“I told them everything that happened, that we just wanted to pass by on the sidewalk, and Freddy came along and started picking on us.”

“He’ll probably beat the shit out of you for telling on him!

“Let him try! I’m not afraid of him!”

But I was a little afraid of what Freddy would do to me when he got the chance. I thought about some little weapon I might use as a deterrent if he confronted me.

“He’ll end up in the state penitentiary one of these days,” Weston said.

“Surest thing you know!” I said.

“They’ll fry his evil ass in the electric chair, and when they do I’d love to have a front-row seat!”

Weston was out for weeks this time. When he came back to school, they said he was so far behind in his schoolwork he’d have to repeat the eighth grade. We’d no longer have classes together and would no longer be best friends. I hoped, though, that fate would be kinder to him on the next go-round.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp