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The Percy Costellos

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The Percy Costellos ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story is a continuation of “At the Mannequin Factory,” posted on September 4, and “The Celestial City,” posted on Sept. 16.)

She was without illusion. She was ugly. She would never be anything but ugly. Ugly was not without its compensations, though. People didn’t ask her for directions or to lift things down for them at the grocery story; they looked through her as if she wasn’t there. She had heard about women (mostly from watching the eye, which she didn’t bother with much, anymore) having terrible problems with boyfriends and husbands, or just men in general. And, then, of course, there were the children that resulted from the relationships with these men; the children were a whole different set of problems that one might avoid by being ugly. She didn’t choose to be ugly; it was just the way things happened. If she had been given a choice, would she have chosen to be beautiful with all its attendant problems? No, she would have chosen not to be born at all.

Shakespeare might have had any of a dozen women at the mannequin factory—and not just mannequin women, either, but real ones. He was, if not exactly good-looking, at least passable, with a good smile, abundant hair, clean fingernails and a flat stomach. Why he would pay any attention at all to Elma the Ugly was beyond her ken.

She was sitting at her desk when he came in and placed a chocolate bar with nuts in front of her. Her first instinct was to say she didn’t want it, but when she saw the way he was smiling at her she couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“What’s this for?” she asked.

“You don’t like chocolate?” he asked.

“Why me?”

“Because we’re friends.”

“No, we’re not.”

Her voice didn’t have quite the edge that it had before. She was softening toward him.

“Have lunch with me today,” he said.

“I never eat lunch.”

“I have something I want to discuss with you.”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Mr. Hilyer is out of town at a mannequin convention.”

“So?”

“Nobody will know if you step out for lunch today.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I’ll come by about a quarter to twelve. We’ll go to a spaghetti place I know.”

“I don’t like spaghetti.”

 “I’ll see you at a quarter to twelve.”

She spent ten minutes in the ladies’ fluffing up her hair and painting her lips with a lipstick she had taken to carrying around with her. At a quarter to twelve, her heart was pounding and she felt nauseated.

He showed up exactly on time and she was waiting for him.

The spaghetti restaurant was a ten-minute walk from the mannequin factory. He walked leisurely, as if he had all day. She worried about how much time she was going to be away from the mannequin factory but said nothing.

Over a plate of spaghetti, he leaned forward and said, “You look different now. Better.”

“There is no reason for you to make personal remarks about the way I look,” she said.

“You saw the Celestial City,” he said. “That’s why you look different.”

“I will admit that I took the stupid pill you gave me because I was feeling very bad.”

“And you were looking for an escape.”

“I thought I was going to die and I wouldn’t have cared much if I had.”

“You saw the Celestial City.”

“I saw something. I don’t know what it was. I won’t ever do it again.”

“It made you feel better, though, didn’t it?”

“I don’t know why I don’t call the police and report you for the drug dealer that you are.”

“That’s not what I am.”

“I have to get back to the mannequin factory. I shouldn’t even be here.”

“Nobody will know you’re gone.”

“Thanks for the lunch,” she said. “Let’s not do it again.”

“I have something important I want to discuss with you,” he said.

“No matter what you have to say, I don’t want to hear it.”

“I want you to meet me after work on Friday.”

“How do I know you won’t murder me?”

He surprised her by laughing. “If I wanted to murder you,” he said, “I could have already done it. Remember, I know where you live.”

“Let’s just forget the whole thing,” she said. “Forget you’ve ever seen me. Forget you know where I live.”

“It’s about your parents.”

“You don’t know anything about them. They keep to themselves and so do I.”

“I don’t want to say more now than what I’ve already said. Meet me on Friday at five o’clock.”

“I won’t,” she said.

“Yes, you will.”

He was waiting for her at the door as she exited the mannequin factory on Friday. She sighed when she saw him but went with him to his Cadillac.

He drove out of the city into the country and stopped at an old cemetery, the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost.

“Is this where you’re going to kill me?” she said.

“If I was going to kill you, this would probably be the place to do it,” he said.

They got out of the car and he led her past a myriad of grave monuments, down a hill and then up another hill to a recent grave that didn’t have a headstone. The dirt was still mounded up and there were some remnants of old flowers.

“I need to get home,” she said. “I have things to do.”

“I’ll bet you’d never guess whose grave this is,” he said.

“No, and I don’t care.”

“It’s my mother. She died almost four months ago.”

“All right. Now that we’ve seen it, can we go?”

“Not just yet. She made me promise before she died that I’d find you and tell you the truth.”

“The truth about what?”

“Let’s find someplace to sit down.”

“I’d rather stand. That way I’m closer to leaving.

“Suit yourself. Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Do I have a choice, now that you’ve dragged me out here?”

“Your father is Percy Costello and your mother is Estelle Costello? Is that right?”

“How do you know their names?”

“When my mother was young, she was a baby snatcher and she was never caught.”

“She was a what?”

“Just let me explain. She made her living as a baby snatcher. She was never married to my father and she needed money to raise me.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“Percy and Estelle Costello are not your real parents.”

“Are you crazy? What are you talking about?”

“When you were nine months old, my mother kidnapped you from your real parents and sold you to Percy and Estelle for a thousand dollars.”

“That’s not true.”

“The police looked for you but after about three years they figured you were dead and gave up. Your real parents were dead by then, anyway, killed in a plane crash, so there was no reason to keep up the search.”

“I don’t know what your game is, but I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”

“My mother told me all about it from the time I was old enough to understand. She never stopped feeling guilty over it. She used to sit at night and cry about it. She had newspaper clippings about your disappearance as a baby and how the police never had any leads.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Your real name is Paulette Merriman. Your father was a policeman and your mother a high school teacher. You were an only child. You lived in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

“I was never in Nebraska.”

“Percy and Estelle wanted you to help around the house because they had trouble walking and doing things for themselves. They promised my mother they would never mistreat you and would give you a good home, like a puppy or a kitten. She told them she’d keep an eye on them to make sure they kept up their end of the bargain. If there was any reason for her to think you were being neglected or mistreated, she threatened to go to the police and tell them the whole story.”

“I think you have me confused with somebody else. I never knew anybody named Paulette Merriman. That’s not my name.”

“When I was in high school, we lived about three blocks from you and we both went to the same school. I used to see you at school every day. You were so shy you wouldn’t even look at me.”

“I don’t remember.”

“My mother used to park on the street and watch you go in and out of your house. She would ask me almost every day if I saw you at school. She would want to know what you were wearing and if you seemed clean and happy.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That you were like a little mouse afraid of being eaten by the cat.”

“I don’t believe any of this.”

“There was an English teacher with a fake nose. Her name was Miss Jilson.  I’ll bet you remember her, don’t you?”

“That doesn’t mean you went to the same school.”

“A boy a grade ahead of us got drunk and passed out on the highway at midnight and was hit by a car and killed. Everybody talked about it for weeks.”

“Ellis Persons,” she said. “That was his name.”

“Now do you think I’m lying?”

“Just because you know about Ellis Persons isn’t proof that what you’re saying is true.”

“Just think about what I’ve told you. I think it’ll all start to make sense after a while.”

“You’re a liar. Take me home now.”

“Ask Percy and Estelle if they’re your real parents. Ask to see your birth certificate. Ask them where you were born and when.”

“They’d only pretend they don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d never get the truth out of them.”

“Didn’t you always having the feeling there was something missing in the way Percy and Estelle behaved toward you? They didn’t mistreat you, but not mistreating you was the only good thing you could say about them.”

“How do you know so much about it? I want to go home now.”

On the way back to town, despite her objections, he stopped at a road house. They went inside and sat at a back booth, had chili and ribs. The place was quiet. She had her first beer out of a bottle and then a second.

She didn’t say anything for a long time and then she said, “All these years I’ve cleaned up after them, taken them their snacks, breathed their cigarette smoke, helped them to bed and to the toilet, and I’m not even related to them.”

“So, do you believe me now?”

“If it’s true—and I’m going to have to see some proof—I’m going to kill them.”

“No, you’re not. You’d go to prison.”

“Not if I do it right.”

“I have eighteen thousand dollars. That’s enough for you to go far away and live decently until you can find a job.”

“I don’t want money from you.”

“It’s not from me. It’s from the person who kidnapped you and ruined your life. I told her I’d see that you got it. She thought it would square her in heaven.”

He didn’t take her home until eleven o’clock, and when he pulled up in front of her house he shut off the engine.

“I want you to see my people,” Elma said.

“Percy and Estelle?”

“No. I mean my real people upstairs in my room.”

Momma and Poppa were sitting in front of the eye, puffing away in a fog of cigarette smoke. When Elma came into the house with a person they didn’t know and had never seen before, they didn’t even look up.

“Get me some cheese crackers!” Momma said.

“About out of smokes here!” Poppa said.

“Good evening, sir!” Shakespeare said. “How are you, ma’am?”

“They don’t hear you,” Elma said. “They’re in a trance. That’s what the eye does to them. And the Marlboros.”

“This is no way for a person to live,” Shakespeare said.

After Elma got Momma and Poppa the things they wanted, she took Shakespeare up the winding stairs to the rooms above and, once they were inside, she locked the door.

Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for the mannequins was equal to Elma’s own. He admired all the figures in her collection, their clothes and especially the way their faces made you feel that everything was going to be all right.

“I paint their faces, you know,” he said. “They speak to me in my dreams.”

Frankie, in the bed in the silk pajamas, was her favorite, she said. She pulled back the covers and picked Frankie up and set him on his feet beside the bed.

“I have another pair,” she said. “I want you to put them on and take Frankie’s place tonight.”

She took a pair of yellow-and-red silk pajamas out of the dresser drawer and handed them to Shakespeare. As he undressed, she turned away and prepared herself for bed.

So now she lay in bed, with Shakespeare beside her in Frankie’s favorite silk pajamas. She turned off the light and lay back and pulled the covers up to her chin. She didn’t need the Celestial City or anything else as long as he was there beside her, living and breathing.

(To be continued.)

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Celestial City

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The Celestial City ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story is a continuation of “At the Mannequin Factory,” that I posted on September 4.)

Elma awoke, more than ever conscious that Frankie, in the bed beside her in silk pajamas, wasn’t a real person, but a mannequin with movable arms and legs. She groaned and sat up and covered Frankie with the blanket so she wouldn’t have to look at him. It was Monday morning and a squinty-eyed look at the clock revealed that it was already later than she thought.

On this morning she took more pains with her appearance than usual. She stood under a spray of scalding water and washed her hair; after it was dry, she brushed it vigorously in an attempt to give it some body. She had found an ancient tube of lipstick and this she dabbed to her lips, sparingly, to give her face a little color. When she was dressed, she tied a red-and-blue scarf around her shoulders, looking at herself in the smoky dresser mirror to determine if any of these little blandishments had made a difference.

At the mannequin factory, she didn’t say a word to anybody. She went to her desk and began doing the work that had been left to her by people she never saw and who treated her, not badly, but like a piece of the furniture.

In the middle of the morning, she was aware of somebody standing in the doorway looking at her. She turned toward the wall and blew her nose loudly into a wad of used tissue. When she turned back around, the person was still standing there, making clucking sounds with his tongue to get her attention. She looked up and when she saw it was Shakespeare, her heart gave a little lurch in spite of itself.

“Are you looking for someone?” she asked.

“Only you,” he said.

She bit her lip and said, “Humph!”

“You’re looking radiant today,” he said.

She knew how hideously ugly she was; she believed that anybody who suggested otherwise was making fun of her.

“Do you want me to tell Mr. Hilyer you’re here to see him?” she asked.

“I’m not,” Shakespeare said. “I’m here to see you.”

“How many times do I have to tell you?” she said. “I’m not interested in your little games.”

“You don’t mean that,” he said. “Your heart cries out.”

She stood up and walked to the door of Mr. Hilyer’s office and put her hand on the knob and started to open the door. It was the cue for Shakespeare to leave.

“I’ll see you later,” he said, waggling his fingers at her and disappearing around the corner.

She sat back down at her desk and Mr. Hilyer came out of his office. He was unused to hearing her speak at all, so he asked, “Who were you talking to?”

“Nobody,” she said. “Nobody here.”

At lunchtime she went down to the lunchroom to get a little carton of milk to have with her roll and apple. Shakespeare was sitting at one of the tables and when he saw her he jumped up and came toward her. She got her milk as fast as she could and turned her back to him, but he followed along behind her.

“Stay and talk for a little while,” he said. “Have a cigarette.”

“No!” she said. “Some of us have work to do!”

“Don’t you want to ask me anything?” he asked.

“Only why you’re bothering me!”

“So you want me to leave you alone, then?”

“Yes!”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” He laughed and was gone.

When she left work at the end of the day, Shakespeare was waiting for her at the door, as if it was something he did every day.

She groaned and said, “I don’t want to see you!”

“I have a car today,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

“I don’t want it!”

Nevertheless, she let herself be led to his car, an old black Cadillac, and got in on the passenger side when he unlocked the door.

“At least it isn’t raining today,” he said as he got in and started the car. The car made a vroom-vroom sound and he said, “This is a classic. They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“You can let me out anywhere,” she said. “I’m used to walking.”

“You don’t want to have a drink with me?” he asked.

“No! I don’t drink!”

He turned and looked at her with a smile and she turned her face away.

“You don’t much like the way you look, do you?” he said.

“What business is it of yours?”

“I can help you if you’ll let me.”

“Let me out at the next corner.”

“All your life you’ve been told you’re ugly and they’ve got you believing it.”

“That’s enough. Let me out!”

“No, I don’t want to,” he said.

“Why do you persist in bothering me?” she asked. “Just look at me!”

“You know I spray paint mannequins at the mannequin factory?”

“I’m so happy for you!”

“No, you’re not. You’re very unhappy.”

“You know nothing about me.”

“I know more than you think I know.”

“If you don’t stop bothering me, I’m going to tell Mr. Hilyer.”

“What do you think he’d do? Is he your boyfriend or something?”

“You can let me out anywhere,” she said. “I’ve had enough of this and I’m going to walk the rest of the way.”

“Did you take the pill I gave you on Friday?”

“Pill?”

“Don’t you remember? In the bar after work I gave you a pill and told you to take it when you got home.”

“I remember saying I was going to flush it down the toilet.”

“Did you take it?”

“I flushed it down the toilet.”

“I wanted you to take it.”

“Why?”

“Because it will make you happy and beautiful, at least for a little while.”

“I was going to call the police and tell them you’re distributing illegal drugs, but I couldn’t remember your name and I didn’t think you were worth it, anyway.”

When he pulled up in front of her house, she realized she hadn’t told him where she lived. “How did you know?” she asked.

“I’m a good guesser.”

She opened the door and started to get out.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have something I want to give you.”

“I don’t want anything you have,” she said.

He took a pill out of a little bottle and put it in the palm of her hand. “Don’t flush this one down the toilet,” he said.

“What is it?”

“It wouldn’t help you to know the name.”

“You’re not going to make a dope fiend out of me, if that’s what your little game is.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“What will it do to me?”

“It won’t hurt you, I promise.”

“What will it do to me?”

“You’ll see the Celestial City.”

“Does that mean I die?”

“There is no death in the Celestial City.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but the main thing is I don’t give a shit.”

“You will,” he said. “Give it time.”

For the rest of the week she didn’t see Shakespeare at the mannequin factory. She was both relieved and alarmed.

By the time the work week was over, she was sick. She had caught a cold and ached in every part of her body. When she tried to eat a little breakfast on Saturday morning, she threw up on the kitchen floor. After she cleaned up the mess, she locked herself in her room and went back to bed.

As she lay there, she remembered the pill that Shakespeare had given her. Without thinking too much about it, she arose from the bed, took it out of its hiding place in the dresser drawer, and swallowed it.

She lay back down on the bed, composing herself for death, legs straight out and hands over her abdomen. She knew she was taking a terrible chance by swallowing a pill that a person like Shakespeare had given her, but she was past caring. If she died, she would never have to see Momma and Poppa again or the mannequin factory, which had lately become more and more odious to her.

She felt nothing for a few minutes, but then the room began to move, not in a vertiginous but in a joyful, musical way. The people around her, the mannequins she had rescued from destruction at the mannequin factory, began to move around her in time to a beautiful melody. They were fluid in their motions, even the mustachioed outdoorsman and the little boy at play. She felt herself—saw herself—being lifted up from the bed, suspended in the air, surrounded by the mannequins in a circle of light and love. And just above her head, where the ceiling had been, the Celestial City opened up in a burst of brilliant light and untold beauty. A man stepped forward from the light, perhaps a mannequin and perhaps not; she wanted to go to him but was for the moment unable to move her arms and legs. Slowly the man dissolved into nothingness and she fell back on the bed in blackness and utter despair.

(To be continued.)

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

At the Mannequin Factory

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At the Mannequin Factory ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Poppa’s face was dry and lined, like old leather. The red pouches under his eyes made his eyes look half-closed, even when they were open all the way. His mouth was a thin, lipless line in which a Marlboro cigarette was inserted. For sixty of his seventy years, he had smoked Marlboros, an untold and uncalculated number of them.

He reclined in his chair that had molded itself to the shape of his body—or his body had molded itself to the shape of the chair. The room was dark and low, the perpetual cloud of smoke hanging like a pall between Poppa and the ceiling. A small lamp with a little cluster of red flowers painted on the lampshade, the only color in the room, sat on a table between his chair and Momma’s.

Poppa and Momma both puffed on their cigarettes. For them, puffing on a cigarette was part of the act of breathing. A breath wasn’t a breath without a puff to complement it. And while they puffed away they both kept their eyes on the screen a few feet in front of them. The screen was the eye on the world, the only eye, to which they had given their fealty. It didn’t matter what was on—a boxing match, a train wreck, news of the world, cowboys and Indians, romance, dancing, drama, music or laughter—it was all the same: they regarded everything the eye brought to them with the same fish-eyed blankness.

The door opened and Elma entered. Momma and Poppa didn’t look up but instead kept looking at the eye. Elma took off her coat and hat and stood in the middle of the room; she looked expectantly at Momma and Poppa, though the eyes through which she saw them were only slits.

“Beer, beer, beer!” Papa said.

“Popcorn, popcorn!” Momma said. “Peanuts, Peanuts!”

Elma went into the kitchen to get the things they wanted and took them back into the living room. When she set the bottle of beer on the table next to Poppa’s arm, he didn’t look up, but his arm reached out, seemingly of its own accord, and brought the bottle to his lips. He took a long drink and smacked his lips and set the bottle back down.

Elma had mixed the peanuts and popcorn together in one bowl, the way Momma liked them. Momma grabbed the bowl and began eating hungrily, never looking away from the eye. Elma opened a new carton of Marlboros and stacked the packs on the table, five on Poppa’s side and five on Momma’s, and when these things were done she went up the winding stairs to her own people.

The room seemed crowded now with twelve of them. They sat or stood about in different poses. Elma had dressed, wigged and hatted them according to her own whims. There was the society lady with the fox fur, the businessman with a pencil-line mustache, the small boy standing beside the dresser in play togs, ready to catch a ball, the lady with one leg canted out, hands on hips. They all had beautiful, painted-on, perfectly proportioned faces, luminous eyes and pearl-like teeth.

Some had movable arms and legs so they might be posed sitting or reclining. Elma liked these best because they seemed more real. To amuse herself, she would sometimes dress a man in a lady’s dress—including a hat with a veil—or a lady in a man’s work clothes or overalls. She also tried different wigs and hats to get a different look or feel. In this way she amused herself for hours and kept from being lonely.

There was one man in particular she liked to whom she had given the name Frankie. His arms and legs moved and his head swiveled from side to side. His skin was soft and pliable and warm to the touch. Elma dressed him in silk pajamas and put him beside her in the bed and covered him up. On cold nights, with the light off, she would have almost sworn there was a living, breathing man in the bed beside her. It gave her a feeling of well-being unlike anything else.

For twelve of her thirty-nine years, Elma had worked in the office of a mannequin factory. All day long she sat at a desk and typed letters or did small errands for the two bosses. They liked her because she always did what she was told to do without complaint, worked for very little money, never missed work, and didn’t mind working an hour or two over when the work was piling up. She was the very rare woman who had little to say and didn’t believe that her opinions were of any importance. If they could have ordered a dozen more like Elma, they would have.

Anytime a mannequin couldn’t be used or was defective in any way, Elma asked if she might have it to keep for her own. Nobody at the mannequin factory ever asked her why she wanted the mannequins or what she did with them, but they were always willing to comply. These mannequins that Elma rescued from the trash heap she added to her collection. When she carried one of the mannequins home, people stopped to look at her, but nobody ever suggested that she was doing something she shouldn’t do or that she should be stopped. Poppa and Momma, of course, never noticed what she did and never went up the winding stairs to her rooms.

One day Elma noticed a man looking at her at the mannequin factory. She discovered his name was Alexander A. Alexander but he went by the name of Shakespeare. She thought at first that he was looking at her because he was new and didn’t know anybody yet, but a week later he was still looking at her, although she didn’t know any reason why he should.

She was delivering a typed report to one of the bosses when she met Shakespeare face to face in an otherwise deserted hallway. Instead of veering away from her and keeping on his side, he stepped in front of her and stopped her in her tracks. He put his hand familiarly on the underside of her wrist and smiled.

“I believe I know you,” he said.

All she could do was shake her head and step around him and walk on. When she got back to her desk, she was breathless and a little confused. No man had ever paid any attention to her before and when she looked at herself in the mirror she knew why. By the kindest and most generous assessment, she was hideously ugly. Her nose was crooked, her hair mouse-brown, her eyes small and ferret-like, her teeth misshapen and brown. She could never remember a time in her life when she had cared much about the way she looked or about the effect that she might have on other people. If Shakespeare spoke to her again, she would ignore him or register a complaint.

On a blustery day in fall when she was walking home in the near-dark, she realized Shakespeare had fallen into step beside her. She hadn’t seen where he came from; he was just there.

“Leave me alone!” she said. “You don’t have any business bothering me!”

She looked at him and when she saw the hurt in his eyes, she knew she had been more unkind than she needed to be.

At home it was always the same. Momma and Poppa never looked at her or spoke to her. They just sat puffing and looking at the eye. She brought their food, which some days was only pretzels, candy, popcorn or beer. When she fixed them a sandwich or a bowl of soup, they hardly ever ate it and she ended up throwing it out.

In the evening after she saw they only wanted to be left alone with their cigarettes and with the eye, she retreated to her rooms and to the people there with whom she felt comfort and peace. She began to ask herself: What kind of life is this I’m living and do I plan on doing these same things every day of my life until I die? The answer, if there was one, did not make itself known.

For the first time in her life, her sleep was disturbed by nightmares, and during the day at the mannequin factory she began to be nervous and tense. She took much longer to do her work than usual and any time one of the bosses sent her on an errand, she usually managed to find a private place, in the ladies’ room or elsewhere, to stand quietly and stare at the wall for a half-hour or so in a trance-like state before returning to her desk.

She didn’t see Shakespeare for several days and wondered what had happened to him. Maybe he wasn’t suited to his job, spray-painting mannequins, and had already been fired. She was more than willing to put him out of her mind.

The next time she saw Shakespeare, it was not at the mannequin factory but on the sidewalk down the street. When she saw him coming toward her in a crowd, she looked away but, again, he stopped her in her tracks and put his hand on her arm.

“I believe we knew each other once,” he said.

She stepped around him and kept going, eyes to the ground.

“Have you ever thought about trying a little makeup?” he said in a loud voice.

“Mind your own business!” she snapped.

Then one day Elma found herself on a tiny elevator with Shakespeare, going up to the fourth floor. For a couple of minutes, at least, she was stuck with him in close quarters and couldn’t walk away.

“We knew each other in school,” he said.

She looked at him with distaste. “I don’t remember,” she said.

“It was a long time ago.”

“I never saw you before,” she insisted.

On a rainy Friday as she was leaving work, Shakespeare was going out the door at the same time she was.

“Would you like to talk?” he asked.

“No!” she said.

He walked along beside her and there was nothing she could do but keep walking with her eyes down and pretend he wasn’t there. When they came to an establishment where liquor was sold, he looked at her and inclined his head to indicate they should enter. Without knowing why, she let herself be led inside.

They sat side by side at a bar. She had never been inside a barroom before and only wanted to leave. When a beer in a glass was set in front of her, she looked at it and didn’t seem to know what she was supposed to do.

“It’s a small world,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

“I don’t know why you’re bothering me,” she said, “but I want it to stop.”

“Do you think whenever a person speaks to you, they’re bothering you?”

“I want to be left alone,” she said. “I have to be getting home.”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have something I want to give you.”

“I don’t want it.”

He gave her a tiny pill that he took out of a little brown envelope in his pocket. She looked at the pill in her palm and started to give it back. “What is it?” she asked.

“It’s something that will make you feel better. About the world and about life. Take it and see if it doesn’t.”

“You’re a dope dealer?” she asked.

He laughed, showing his long teeth. “All things are relative,” he said.

“I don’t know what that means,” she said. “I have to be getting home.”

“Put it in your pocket and take it with you. Tomorrow is Saturday and you don’t have to go to work. Take the pill in the morning when you’re alone and see if you don’t have a wonderful day.”

“I won’t take it,” she said. “I’ll flush it down the toilet.”

He laughed again. “Suit yourself!”

When she walked into the house, she was more than usually disgusted by the sight of Momma and Poppa sitting in their chairs staring at the eye and puffing on their cigarettes. She wanted to leave again but the thought of the bleak, wet, lonely streets leading nowhere stopped her. Without acknowledging to Poppa and Momma even that she was home, she went up the winding stairs to her rooms and to the only people in the world who knew and loved her.

(Continued in “The Celestial City”: https://literaryfictions.com/2016/09/16/the-celestial-city/

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Never Touch the Ground

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Never Touch the Ground

Never Touch the Ground ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was a hazy day in mid-August. Wesley John Garbutt was downtown buying a pair of shoes. That’s the way it was these days. When he needed something, his father gave him the money and he went by himself to get it.

He found a pair he liked and when he tried them on they didn’t pinch so he bought them and was just leaving the store when he saw a woman walking along the sidewalk a half-block away with her back to him. She had auburn hair and was wearing a business suit, the kind you might see Barbara Stanwyck wearing in one of her black-and-white movies. He was going to yell to her to get her to turn around, but he wasn’t sure it was who he thought it was and didn’t want to draw attention to himself if he was wrong. Instead he walked very fast after her, dodging people left and right, and in a minute came around to her left side.

“Mother?” he said.

“Wes?” she said. She turned to look at him. She was wearing dark glasses so he couldn’t see her eyes. She smiled but didn’t seem glad or surprised.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, genuinely surprised to see her.

“I was going to call you and your father in a day or two.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“I thought it best not to.”

“What?”

“It was a spur-of-the-moment trip. I didn’t even know we were coming until the day before. I was going to call you while I was here and see if I might see you.”

He shifted his package awkwardly from one arm to the other.

“What have you got there?” she asked.

“Shoes.”

“Doesn’t your father go with you to buy shoes?”

“He doesn’t need to. I can do it on my own.”

“Oh, that’s right. You’re almost grown now. I can see.”

“Are you on your way to an appointment?” he asked.

“I just came from one. I went to see the doctor.”

“Are you sick?”

“Just a checkup.”

“Don’t they have doctors out there where you live?”

“Of course they do. I just thought I’d see the one I used to go to when I lived here.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?”

“All these exhaust fumes are giving me a headache,” she said. “Have you had lunch yet?”

“No.”

“There’s a little restaurant down in the next block. Let’s go have some lunch.”

They sat at a booth beside a window. She lit a cigarette and smiled. “How have you and your father been getting along?” she asked.

“All right, I guess.”

“Don’t you know for sure?”

“He’s been in a bad mood with me most of the summer.”

“Why?”

“He signed me up for swimming lessons and I refused to go.”

“You refused to go?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you want to learn to swim?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“I just didn’t. I hate the thought of all those naked strangers.”

She laughed. “It would probably be good for you,” she said. “Help you to emerge from your shell like a little baby bird.”

“Would you want to take swimming lessons?” he asked.

“No, it’s a thing I would never choose to do. I want to drink water and wash in it, but I don’t like the idea of being fully immersed in it.”

“That’s my point exactly. Don’t you think I ought to be able to say whether or not I take swimming lessons?”

“Well, fifteen-year-olds usually do what their parents tell them to do.”

“Not always. Not when it comes to swimming lessons.”

“He probably thought it would be a good way for you to get out of the house and not spend so much time on your own.”

“I like being alone. I love it when he’s gone and I have the house all to myself.”

“So he’s been yelling at you a lot?”

“Not really. More the silent treatment. I very subtly threatened suicide when he said I had to take the swimming lessons whether I wanted to or not.”

She looked at him and frowned and blew out a big stream of smoke over his head. “You wouldn’t really do that, would you?”

“The important thing is to make him think I might.”

“You really shouldn’t threaten suicide, you know. It makes people think you’re crazy. There’s insanity on your father’s side, you know.”

“As long as it worked, that’s what matters.”

The waiter brought their food. She picked at a spinach salad while he devoured a fillet of sole.

“I’m just curious,” she said. “How did you make him think you would do it?”

“Do what?”

“Kill yourself.”

He laughed and wiped his mouth. “I asked him if he knew about the new thirty-story office building that just opened. He said he drives by it sometimes. I told him that anybody can go up to the observation deck on the top floor, even a stupid ninth-grader like me. I didn’t say I would or that I ever had. Just that I could if I ever felt like it.”

“I see,” she said. “You didn’t actually say anything about jumping off. You just implied that it was something that might have crossed your mind from time to time.”

“That’s right.”

“Very clever.”

“I thought so.”

“So you think dying in a horrible way is preferable to swimming lessons?”

“Don’t you?”

“No, I don’t think it’s what I would choose.” She pushed her salad away and ordered a cocktail.

“I always could talk to you,” he said. “I can’t talk to him.”

“He’s your father. I know it’s not easy, but the two of you need to try to get along.”

“Yeah, he’s all I have now, since you ran out on me.”

“Your father and I both agreed that it was better for you…”

“How’s Ben, anyway?”

“Who?”

“Your new husband.”

“His name is Richard.”

“Oh, yeah. How is he?”

“He’s all right.”

“How are his two daughters? Still alive, I suppose?”

“Yes, they’re still alive.”

“If either one of them dies, you be sure and let me know since it’s because of them I can’t come and live with you.”

“Do you wish them dead?”

“Not until this minute.”

“Don’t have bad thoughts about them. If you ever got a chance to know them, I think you’d like them.”

“I doubt it. I think I should probably go on hating them on principle, don’t you?”

“You’ll do whatever you want no matter what I say.”

“About your trip to the doctor,” he said. “I’ll bet you’re going to have a baby, aren’t you?”

She laughed and reached for her cigarettes. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Well, that’s what happens with newlyweds, isn’t it?”

“Maybe when they’re young. I’m over forty and Richard is almost fifty.”

“Well, I won’t be surprised to hear that I have a new little half-brother.”

“Never on this earth,” she said.

“If it’s not that, then why did you see the doctor?”

“I told you. It was a checkup.”

“You must have had a reason to want a checkup.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

She turned her head away and looked out at the street. “Nothing for you to worry about, I said.”

“You think I need to be protected like a little kid? I’m not supposed to know the truth when something’s wrong?”

“It’s just that I don’t want you to worry.”

“What is it, mother?”

“I’ve been having headaches and dizzy spells. Sometimes I just black out for no reason. We were afraid it might happen when I was driving the car or something, so we thought I should have the doctor…”

“Who is ‘we’?”

“Richard and I. We thought I should consult a doctor about it.”

“What did the doctor say?”

“He took some blood, wants to do some tests. You know how doctors are. It’s nothing, I’m sure.”

“Will you let me know what you find out?”

“Of course I will.”

“I want to come and live with you so I can take care of you,” he said.

She smiled and patted his hand like a benevolent mother superior. “We’ve been all through that,” she said. “Maybe you think it sounds cruel when I say we don’t have room for you, but it’s the truth. We only have two bedrooms. Richard’s two daughters share the same room and they’re constantly fighting. You wouldn’t believe how jealous they are of each other and how competitive. I’m sure they would gladly kill each other if they thought they could get away with it.”

“Sounds awful.”

“Yes, it is pretty awful sometimes.”

“Then why don’t you come home and forget Richard and his two horrible daughters?”

“It doesn’t work that way, dear. Your father and I are divorced. I can’t just drop my second husband and go running back to my first one whenever the whim takes me.”

“I’ll bet it happens all the time.”

“Not to me.”

“Oh, all right,” he said, willing to drop the subject because he knew it was an argument he would never win.

“In a year or two we’ll talk about having you come to live with us.”

“Why don’t you wait until I’m thirty-five?”

“Sarcasm is unbecoming in a child your age,” she said.

“Is Richard planning on getting rid of one of the daughters?”

“No, but we might get a bigger house.”

“When?”

“Well, we’ll see. Nothing definite yet.”

“So, in the meantime, for the next year or two, I have to stay here and live with him?”

“Life is hard for all of us sometimes.”

The waiter came and he ordered a piece of lemon meringue pie for dessert and his mother another cocktail. “Aren’t you looking forward to starting the tenth grade?” she asked cheerfully.

“No!” he said. “I hate school.”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “Since when?”

“Since always.”

“You didn’t hate school when you were little. Your third-grade teacher said you were a joy to have in her classroom. You made good grades and you always had a smile on your face.”

“And after that, everything turned to shit,” he said.

“What turned to shit?”

“Everything.”

“Would you like to see a counselor? I think we could arrange it.”

“No, thanks! I’m not crazy!”

“Nobody said you’re crazy.”

“I’ve been thinking about how you used to take me to school on the first day and meet the teacher and she would show me where I was going to sit while you stood there and watched. Some of the kids cried but I never did. I remember one little boy asking his mother through his tears if he had to stay there all day, like it was a punishment or something.”

“You were always so well-behaved. I never had any trouble with you.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t have any others.”

“Well, now I have two stepdaughters.”

“Ugh!” he said. “I’d put rat poison in their food.”

“I somehow don’t think you’d get away with it.”

“I didn’t mean I’d poison them. I meant you could poison them.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

After they left the restaurant, they stood on the sidewalk in the bright sunlight. She blinked and looked up and down the street as though trying to remember where she had left her car.

“Do you need anything?” she asked. “Do you have plenty of clothes for school?”

“No, I don’t need anything,” he said. “I have plenty of clothes.”

“Do you need a warm winter coat?”

“Mother, it’s summer! Nobody even thinks about a winter coat in August.”

“Winter will be here before you know it.”

“No, I don’t need a winter coat.”

“How about a nice new suit?”

“I have two suits and I hardly ever wear them. If I need a suit, he’ll give me the money and I’ll go buy it on my own the way I did with the shoes.”

“I used to always take you shopping when you needed anything,” she said.

“And then you left.”

“I’d like to buy you something while I’m here. There must be something you want that you don’t have.”

“I want a cell phone but the boss says I can’t have one.”

“Costs too much?”

“No, I don’t think it’s that. He thinks I’ll spend too much time talking on it and not do my homework.”

“Would you do that?”

“Of course I wouldn’t.”

“Who would you talk to if you had a cell phone?”

“I don’t know. Somebody else who has a cell phone, I guess.”

“Would you call me on it sometimes?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“All right, then. We’ll buy you a cell phone.”

A half-hour later he emerged from the store with his very own cell phone in a plastic bag. He knew that some people at school would be impressed, but he didn’t care so much about that. If they didn’t like him anyway, a phone wouldn’t make that much difference.

“Call me on it in a few days when you figure out how it works,” his mother said.

“I will.”

She kissed him on the cheek, smelling like cigarettes and Evening in Paris perfume, and then she let go of his arm and quickly walked away.

That evening at the dinner table his father said, “Did you get a good pair of shoes?”

“Yes,” Wesley John said.

“Did you have any money left?”

“No, shoes are expensive.”

He ignored the sour look his father gave him and said, “I met somebody downtown today that you used to know.”

“Who?”

“My mother, your former wife.”

“What is she doing here?”

“She and her new husband just came for a little trip. A few days, that’s all.”

“Where did you see her?”

“I met her on the street after I finished getting my shoes. She was all dressed up and she said she had been to the doctor.”

“Is she sick?”

“A checkup, she said.”

“Did she mention me?”

“No. Why would she?”

“No reason.”

“She wanted to know if there was anything she could buy me and I told her I wanted a cell phone.”

“She bought you a cell phone?”

“Yeah.”

“I already told you you couldn’t have one. Cell phones are too much of a distraction.”

“Mother didn’t think so.”

“She thinks she can get your sympathy by buying you something I already said you couldn’t have.”

“It wasn’t like that. She wanted to buy me some clothes and I said I didn’t need any.”

“You can’t have a cell phone. You’ll have to take it back and get her money refunded.”

“I don’t want to take it back!”

“This is not going to be like the swimming lessons! If you won’t take the phone back, I’ll take it back myself!”

“Never mind! I’ll just throw the stupid thing in the trash! I don’t want it anyway if it’s going to cause so much trouble!”

As much as he hated displays of temperament, he left the table and went to his room and slammed the door and locked it, not intending to emerge until the next morning.

Alone in his room, he began worrying about his mother and about what might really be wrong with her. He remembered a story he saw on TV about a woman with a brain tumor who had dizzy spells and blackouts. He was almost sure that his mother had the same thing. If she did, she’d be dead soon and he would probably never see her again because she lived so far away now that she was remarried.

As he went to sleep that night, he imagined the two of them, himself and his mother, joining hands and jumping off the thirty-story office building together, but not dying in a horrible way. They’d never touch the ground but instead would float off together to a convivial place something like heaven where second husbands and stepdaughters are not allowed.

Copyright ©  2016 by Allen Kopp

Ice Pick

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Ice Pick ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“Go get the ice,” Reggie Stole said, “and be quick about it. We’ll leave as soon as you get back.”

Reggie’s wife, Fur Stole, had been anxious and nervous all day, getting ready to go on the camping trip. She had to see to all the arrangements, prepare all the food, pack the clothes, make sure the tent didn’t have any holes, and the car had enough gas and oil to make the long trip. She had already taken three nerve pills and was planning on taking the fourth one just as soon as she could get a moment alone. She had also been taking nips of whiskey straight from the bottle, finding that whiskey comforted her even more than pills.

Fur’s son and daughter, Biffy Stole and Shultzie Stole, were excited at the prospect of living out in the woods beside a lake for four days. They jumped up and down and screamed, making Fur believe she could easily strangle them without guilt if only it would give her some peace. She corralled them into the back of the station wagon, along with the old blue ice chest, and set out for the ice house two miles away in a neighboring town.

Fur was relieved to see there wasn’t a line at the ice house. “Let’s make this quick,” she said. “You know how daddy hates being kept waiting.”

Biffy and Shultzie went to get the ice chest out of the back of the car while Fur stepped up to the place in the side of the old brick building where you put in coins, and a block of ice, roughly one foot square, comes out.

She put in two quarters, the going price for one block of ice, and waited to hear the rumble of the ice coming down the chute inside, but, alas, there was no rumble and no ice.

“What’s the matter with it?” Biffy asked, standing beside Fur with the ice chest.

“Maybe it’s just moving slow today,” Fur said.

“Maybe they’re out of ice,” Shultzie said.

“There’d be a sign,” Fur said, “so dumbbells like me wouldn’t keep putting quarters in.”

She banged her fist against the place where the money goes in and stamped her feet, but still nothing happened.

“Go around to the office and see if there’s anybody there,” Fur said to Biffy.

An old blue pickup truck pulled into the tiny lot and parked next to Fur’s car. When she saw a man getting out, she thought he was somebody who knew the ice wasn’t working and was there to fix it.

The man, a burly Dutchman with a flattop haircut, ignored Fur as he stepped up to the coin deposit and started to put in his money.

“It’s not working!” Fur said. “I put my money in and nothing happened. I sent my son Biffy around to the office to see if there’s anybody there.”

Still ignoring her, the burly Dutchman dropped in his quarters, and in  a few seconds he had his block of ice. He began to lift it with his fat fingers.

“That’s my ice!” Fur said. “Didn’t you just hear me tell you I put my money in and nothing happened?”

“What?” the burly Dutchman said.

“I said I just put in my money to get a block of ice and none came out, so that’s my block of ice.”

“I don’t think so!” he said. “I just paid for it. I think that makes it mine.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “Before you came along, I put in two quarters to get a block of ice and nothing happened. That means you have the ice I paid for!”

“Where’s the ice I paid for, then?” he asked.

“It didn’t come out.”

Yours didn’t come out,” he said. “Mine did.”

“I’m not going to let you take my ice!” Fur said. “My husband is waiting!”

He held the ice against his stomach and said with a sort of sneer, “It’s a tough world, though, ain’t it, lady?”

He turned to walk away and she, realizing she held the ice pick in her right hand, stabbed him in the back. The ice pick went in several inches to the right of the backbone and stuck there.

The burly Dutchman gave a sort of roar, dropped the ice and whirled around. “You crazy bitch!” he said. “You ought to be locked up!

He was reaching around to try to pull the ice pick out of his back but, of course, couldn’t get his hands on it. When Fur saw the burly Dutchman go to his knees and saw how much blood was pouring out, she pulled Biffy and Shultzie to the car and shoved them in. Running around to the driver’s side, she started the engine and narrowly missed being hit by a beer truck as she pulled back out onto the road.

When she got home, Reggie was waiting on the back porch, smoking a cigarette and picking at his nails. “Thought maybe you had to wait while they made more ice,” he said.

“No ice,” she said.

“What?”

Biffy and Shultzie avoided looking at Reggie because they knew he wasn’t going to be happy.

“I wasn’t able to get any ice,” she said, “but we can get some on the way. We’ll also need to get a new ice pick.”

“What happened to the ice pick?” he asked. “You lost it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We can get another one on the way. Right now we just need to all get into the car and get away as fast as we can!”

“I think you need to take another nerve pill,” Reggie said as he loaded the rest of his fishing tackle into the back of the car.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Cab Fare

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Cab Fare ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“That took longer than it was supposed to,” Celia said. “I don’t know why doctors always have to keep you waiting like that. They think their time is so precious, but your time means nothing!”

“I’m hungry,” Roland said. “Can we stop someplace and get a hamburger?”

“No!” Celia said. “It’s almost six o’clock! I’m late now!”

“Late for what?”

“I already told you! Richard is picking me up!”

“Richard can wait.”

“No, he can’t! We have dinner reservations and then we’re going to the theatre.”

“You mean a movie?”

“No, dumbbell! A movie is a movie. When you say theatre, you mean a play with real people on a stage.”

“Oh.”

“When mother told me I had to take you to the doctor, I didn’t imagine it would take all afternoon! I thought there’d be plenty of time.”

“Well, don’t get your panties all in a twist!” he said and laughed.

She looked across the seat at him. “What did you just say to me?”

“I said don’t get your panties in a twist.”

She let go of the steering wheel and slapped at his shoulder with her right hand. “Where do you hear language like that?”

“I don’t know!” he said. “I hear it all the time!”

“I’m going to tell mother what you said.”

“I don’t care.”

“You know she doesn’t allow you to use that kind of language.”

“I’m not a baby anymore!”

“I know, but you still act like one!”

“I do not!”

“You’re fourteen years old! It’s time you started acting like an adult!”

“Oh, what do you know?”

“I know plenty! When mother became pregnant with you, I was ten years old and I knew it was a mistake for her to have another baby at her age! I knew she’d live to regret it!”

“Oh, it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I didn’t ask to be born.”

“You don’t know how embarrassing it is to be in high school and have a baby brother only in kindergarten! It makes people think your parents are some kind of perverts!”

“Well, they are and so are you!”

“You’d better watch what you say to me while I’m driving the car! I can always pull over to the curb and make you get out and walk home!”

“Oh, you don’t scare me!”

“Oh, now!” she said. “What is this?

Traffic slowed and then came to a halt. Celia began honking the horn because others were honking theirs.

“That won’t do any good!” Roland said.

After about ten minutes with the car moving hardly a half-block, Celia opened her coin purse and took out a handful of nickels, dimes and quarters and handed it to Roland.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

“Find a phone booth and call mother and tell her to come and get you. Even if this traffic breaks up in the next few minutes, I won’t have time to take you all the way home now.”

“She won’t like having to come all the way down here to get me!”

“That’s too bad! She should have thought of that before she insisted I take you to the doctor this afternoon!”

“What if I don’t want to?” he said.

“Suit yourself. You can walk home. It’s only six miles.”

“At least give me some money for cab fare if mother isn’t home.”

“No!”

“I’m not getting out of the car until you give me twenty dollars for a cab.”

“Oh, you big baby!” she said. “When are you ever going to grow up?”

“When you do, I guess,” he said.

She flung a twenty-dollar-bill at him and he got out. Before he closed the door, she said, “I’m going to be sure and tell mother how terrible you acted and how disrespectful you were to me after I went out of my way to take you to the doctor today!”

“Go ahead!” he said. “I don’t care!”

He walked several blocks looking for an available cab or a pay phone and, finding neither, went into a restaurant. He felt grown up as he sat at a small table and ordered from the menu and had the elderly waitress do his bidding.

After he finished eating, he paid the cashier out of the twenty dollars Celia gave him and went back out to the street. It was dark now and he was alone in the city for the first time in his life and not the least bit afraid. If Celia could see him now, she would have no reason to call him a baby.

He walked and walked. The streets were unfamiliar and he had no way of knowing where he was or where he was going, but it didn’t seem to matter. He was in no hurry to get home. He felt some satisfaction in knowing that mother and Celia would not know where he was and would be worried about him.

He turned down a side street and came to a place called Pinky’s Night Spot. With its pink-and-green neon lights and its music spilling out into the street, it seemed inviting somehow. It was a place like he had never seen before except in the movies. He hesitated for a minute and when the door opened as if by magic he went inside.

The place was crowded and smoky. Nobody noticed him or even looked at him. He drifted toward the back where there were pool tables. He watched a pool game for a few minutes and finally one of the players noticed him and stopped playing.

“Play you a game?” the player asked. He was about twenty with black hair and a tiny earring in one ear.

“No, thanks,” Roland said. “I was just on my way home.”

“Got any money?”

“Cab fare.”

“You can double your money if you’re a good player.”

“I don’t know how to play,” Roland said.

“I can teach you. It’s easy.”

“No, thanks. I was just on my way home.”

“My name is Gunner.”

He held out his hand and Roland shook it limply.

“Are you lost?” Gunner asked. “You look kind of lost.”

“No, I’m not lost.”

“You’re younger than you look. When I first spotted you, I would have taken you for twenty or twenty-one and now that I see you up close I see you’re a lot younger than that.”

“I have to be getting home.”

“Could I buy you a drink?”

“No, thanks.”

“I want you to meet my friends. This is Ellis and Janice.”

Janice had very blonde hair, almost white, and small eyes without color. Ellis had a round face and wore horn-rimmed glasses.

“Are you having a good time?” Janice asked. “You look like you need a drink.”

“I just offered to buy him one and he turned it down,” Gunner said.

“That’s no good!” Janice said. “Tell me what you want and I’ll go get it for you.”

“That’s okay,” Roland said. “I was just leaving.”

“Could I give you a lift someplace?” Janice asked. “I have my car outside.”

“No, thanks. I can walk.”

“You’re not very friendly, are you?”

“He’s just a little shy,” Gunner said. “Weren’t you shy when you were his age?”

“How old are you, honey?” she asked.

“Seventeen,” Roland said.

“Too young to have all the social graces yet,” she said.

“Hey, I know where there’s a party!” Ellis said. “Let’s all go to the party!”

Gunner took Roland by the arm and the four of them went outside. They found Janice’s car, an old Chrysler the color of an army tank, and they all got in, Gunner and Ellis in the front and Roland and Janice in the back.

“I thought this was your car,” Roland said.

“It is, but I’m too shit-faced to drive,” Janice said. “Gunner can drive. He’s a good driver.”

“Where to?” Gunner asked, starting the engine.

“It’s always nice to make a new friend,” Janice said. She leaned close to Roland in the back seat and put her arm around his shoulder and nuzzled her nose into his neck.

“I, uh, I should be getting home,” Roland said.

“Before this night is over…” Janice said. “Before this night is over…”

He waited for her to finish but she didn’t. She seemed for the moment to have fallen asleep.

“What’s the matter with her?” he asked Gunner, trying to keep the note of panic out of his voice.

Gunner and Ellis exchanged a look and laughed. Roland felt he had missed something and wished he might go back and redo the last few minutes and maybe he would better understand what was going on. He watched the passing lights, trying to think, and wishing all the time that Janice would wake up and move away from him.

He thought about mother at home. She would be pacing the floor at this moment at his unexplained absence. She might even call the police. She would be mad at Celia for the way she made Roland get out of the car that afternoon and get home on his own. Celia would think twice now before she called him a baby again.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Girl With a Face Like a Pekingnese

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The Girl With a Face Like a Pekingese ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

As the wheelchair bumped over the separations in the sidewalk where weeds were growing, Ouida gave a little grunt of pain or alarm, but Verlean kept pushing forward, ignoring Ouida’s discomfort as well as her own. About halfway to Miss Lyle’s house, Ouida wanted to stop and rest under the shade of a big sycamore, even though Verlean was doing all the work.

“Give me a Lucky, honey,” Ouida said.

Verlean lit the cigarette in her own mouth and drew on it a couple of times to get it going good and then handed it to Ouida.

“I can’t do much of anything else, but I can still smoke,” Ouida said.

Ouida was seventy-eight and her bones were falling apart. She could take a few baby steps when she had to, but mostly she stayed in the wheelchair or the bed, pulling herself with her arms from one to the other when it was called for.

Finally they arrived at Miss Lyle’s house. Verlean’s arms were so tired she thought they would drop off and droplets of sweat had formed on her brow. Miss Lyle had been watching for them and when she heard them coming she went out and helped Verlean pull the wheelchair up the two little steps and into the house.

Miss Lyle’s house was cool and dark and smelled like some unidentified herb. She watched as Verlean settled Ouida’s wheelchair in the corner of the room facing out with her back to the wall. Verlean sat on the old sofa, folded her arms, crossed her ankles, and hoped that she might go to sleep while Ouida and Miss Lyle “visited.”

Miss Lyle was famous for her hospitality and always served “refreshments.” She went to the kitchen and came back with cans of malt liquor for herself and Ouida and a bottle of ice-cold root beer for Verlean. Miss Lyle and Ouida tapped their cans together before they drank.

Ouida and Miss Lyle were the same age and had known each other since grammar school. Miss Lyle had had three husbands, all dead, and she was only four feet, seven inches tall. She made her own clothes and what she didn’t make she bought from the children’s department at the clothing store. When people called her half-pint or shortstop or midget, she pretended not to hear but was deeply offended, anyway.

Buster, hearing that company had arrived, yipped from the kitchen and came bounding into the room. He was an elderly Pekingese, Miss Lyle’s friend and companion. He sniffed at Ouida’s feet and then, deciding she was of no interest, ran to Verlean, kissing her ecstatically as she picked him up and held him on her lap.

“He’s just a little baby!” Miss Lyle said.

“Do you think he’s cute?” Verlean asked.

“Well, of course he’s cute!” Miss Lyle said. “I never saw anything cuter!”

Verlean had hoped that Ouida would answer the question herself because she was thinking of the time that Ouida remarked what an ugly face Buster had and how she, Verlean, had a face just like his.

“He’s the smartest thing in the world,” Miss Lyle said. “He knows what I’m thinking.”

“Do you know what he’s thinking?” Verlean asked.

“Sure I do! He’s thinking how happy he is and how lucky!”

“Why is he so lucky?”

“Because he is loved.”

“He doesn’t know anything,” Ouida said. “That’s what makes him happy.”

“When I die, I’m going to have him buried with me,” Miss Lyle said. “Keep me company.”

“What if you die before he does?”

“Well, we’ll figure that out when the time comes,” Miss Lyle said. “I’ve asked the Lord to let us both die on the same day, though.”

“It’ll be a neat trick if you can pull that one off,” Ouida said.

It was time for Ouida to smoke another Lucky and after Verlean had lighted it for her in her own mouth, she got up and went to the mantel and looked at herself in the cloudy mirror that hung there, trying to see if there was any similarity at all between her face and Buster’s. Her eyes drifted from her own image to the framed picture of Miss Lyle’s son when he was younger.

“Where is Turk now?” Verlean asked.

“Still on the run from the police,” Miss Lyle said.

“Doesn’t he ever call you or stop by and see you?”

“No, he knows the police are keeping an eye on me, expecting him to do that very thing. They been here a dozen times asking me questions. As long as I don’t know anything, I can’t tell them anything.”

“What did Turk do? Did he kill somebody?”

“No. Killing ain’t his style. He was involved in the rackets or something. I don’t know for sure and I don’t want to know.”

“What’s the rackets?” Verlean asked.

“It’s better for you not to know.”

As always, Verlean was charmed by any picture she ever saw of Turk Lyle. There was something about his dark eyes, looking serenely out at her, that stirred something inexplicable in her. If he wasn’t quite as handsome as Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn or Clark Gable, he was much more interesting. He had been places and done things.

“I’m going to marry him,” Verlean said.

“What did you say, honey?” Miss Lyle asked.

“I said I’m going to marry him.”

“Marry who?”

“Turk! I’m going to marry Turk!”

“You’ll have to catch him first.”

“Has Turk ever said anything about me?” Verlean asked.

“Why no, child! Why would he?”

“He’s never even noticed me or anything?”

“I think he’s got other things on his mind, now, honey.”

“When you see him, tell him I said ‘hello’.”

She sat down and drank the rest of her root beer and, while Ouida and Miss Lyle talked about things that didn’t interest her, she thought about Miss Lyle being dead and herself and Turk living together in that very house with its big rooms and antique furniture. She could fix it up so cute if she had the chance! And one day there might be a baby or two, but if there wasn’t she wouldn’t mind. If it was just her and Turk, that would be enough.

Verlean excused herself to use the bathroom and when she came back, she picked up Miss Lyle’s issue of Vogue and began looking at the pictures. She pretended not to be listening to what Ouida and Miss Lyle were saying, but she was taking in every word.

“I wish she could find a husband,” Ouida said, “as long as it’s not Turk.”

“What’s the matter with Turk?” Miss Lyle asked.

“Well, he’s a criminal for one thing.”

“She could do a lot worse, criminal or not.”

“I’m all the family she’s got,” Ouida said. “I worry about what will happen to her when I die. She can’t take care of herself. She’s simple in the head.”

Verlean sighed but Ouida and Miss Lyle didn’t notice. It was as if she wasn’t even there.

“Who wants to marry a girl that’s simple in the head?” Miss Lyle said.

“Nobody!” Ouida said. “And when I die, she’ll end up a ward of the state.”

“They’ll put her on one of them work farms where they’ll make her dig potatoes all day long!” Miss Lyle said.

Ouida looked around to see where Verlean was, if she had come back from the bathroom. “Light me another Lucky, honey!” she said.

When Verlean and Ouida left Miss Lyle’s house to go back home, Verlean pushed the wheelchair silently over the bumpy sidewalks with her head down. She didn’t want Ouida to know that she was hurt by the things she and Miss Lyle had said about her not being right in the head and how she would never be able to find a husband and how she had a face like Buster’s and would end up living at the poor farm. She wasn’t going to let them get her down, though. She had a plan. She would have a husband and, if everything worked out the way she hoped it would, she knew exactly who he would be.

At suppertime, Verlean stirred one teaspoon of poison into Ouida’s soup. She didn’t know what one teaspoon of poison would do, but if nothing happened she would do the same thing tomorrow and the day after that. Over days, the poison should have a cumulative effect. When Ouida became ill and had to be taken to the hospital, the doctors would just think her bad heart and smoker’s lungs and the condition of her bones falling apart had finally got the best of her.

And then there was Miss Lyle. With Ouida gone, Verlean would go to work on Miss Lyle, or maybe try a different approach. Startle her into having an old-age heart attack or push her down the cellar stairs and make it look like an accident. Any number of ways it might be done.

Of course, with his mother out of the way, Turk would stop his wandering ways and return home, where Verlean and Buster would be waiting for him with open arms. And when that happened, Turk would see—the whole world would see—that Verlean wasn’t as soft in the head as everybody thought she was.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp