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Every Word on Every Page

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Every Word on Every Page ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

His name was Mr. Crimm. He was a man in his fifties with the bulk of a gorilla. There was something about him not quite savory; he was missing a finger on his right hand and he had bristly hairs growing out of his nostrils. He looked more like an auto mechanic than a book dealer. He knocked savagely on the door. Mrs. Fairleigh went to let him in, disliking him at once.

“You got some books?” he said, baring his yellow monkey teeth.

“You’re the book expert?” she asked.

“That’s what they tell me,” he said. “You called for somebody to come and take a look at some books?”

She opened the door for him. She took two steps ahead of him and then stopped and turned to look at him. “My late husband was the book collector. He loved books, mostly novels and books on history. The Renaissance and Magellan and that sort of thing.”

“Uh-huh,” Mr. Crimm said, obviously not impressed.

“I don’t know much about them myself. The books, I mean.”

“Are you going to show me the books,” Mr. Crimm said, “or are we going to stand here all day and gab?”

She took him up the stairs, along the hallway to the last door on the left. She opened the door and stepped inside, Mr. Crimm following her.

“This is a bedroom, but all it has in it now is books,” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

Shelves from floor to ceiling were loaded with all manner of books, old books and newer books, every shape, size and color. Where the shelves were overflowing, books on their sides were laying on books standing upright. Books were stacked on the floor in front of the shelves, in corners and in every available space. Cardboard and wooden boxes full of books allowed only a narrow path through the room.

Mr. Crimm made a sound in his throat of disapproval, as if about to discharge a ball of phlegm.

“They’re not very well organized, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “Ever since my husband died, I thought I’d go through them and organize them in some way but I never seemed to find the time.”

Mr. Crimm selected a book at random from the shelf, opened it and turned a few pages. Putting the book back, he did the same thing with another one.

“Not worth much,” he said.

“What?”

“I said nobody wants books like these. They’re not worth anything.”

“You’ve hardly even looked at them.”

“I’ve been in business for a long time. I know what people want and what they don’t want.”

“It seems you’d look at each book individually and establish a price for each one.”

“I ain’t got time for that. That’s not the way I do business.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I don’t think…”

“I give you two hundred dollars for the lot.”

“What?”

“I said I give you two hundred dollars for every book in this room. That’s very generous. I might even buy the shelves if the price is right.”

“They’re worth a lot more than that, I’m sure!” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

“You just said you don’t know nothing about no books,” Mr. Crimm said. “Believe me, this is a lot of junk and it’s not worth anything. A thing is only worth as much as somebody is willing to pay for it. This is a lot of crap, I can tell, and I’m offering you two hundred dollars to take the whole mess off your hands this very day.”

“No, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to call somebody else.”

Mr. Crimm gave an exasperated sigh and leaned his monkey-like paw against the door frame. “You can call any book seller in the city and they’ll all say the same thing. Do you want me to give you a little time to think about it? That’s what people always say.”

“No, I’ve already made up my mind. I’m not going to sell to you.”

“Do you mean to say you got me all the way out here for nothing?” Mr. Crimm asked.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars for your time and effort and that’s the best I can do.”

Mr. Crimm looked at her as if she was a very difficult case. “I give you two hundred fifty dollars,” he said. “That’s the best offer you’ll get anywhere.”

“No, that’s not enough for this many books. There are thousands of books in this room. I’m sure they’re worth more than that.”

“You won’t do no better, believe me.”

“I’m sorry your time had been wasted. I’ll write you a check for fifty dollars and we’ll call it even.”

“Three hundred! That is my last and final offer!”

“No! Don’t you understand English? I’m not going to sell to you!”

“That’s no way to treat a businessman, you know!” Mr. Crimm said. “You get me all the way out here in good faith and then you back out of the deal? I don’t think I’m going to let you treat me in this way! There’s such a thing as ethics in business, you know! Don’t you have no ethics?”

“I’m not going to stand here and argue with you!” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “I want you out of my house this very minute!”

“I think we can work something out.”

“There’s nothing to work out!”

“You have a very bad attitude, you know that?” Mr. Crimm said. “You can’t treat people like dirt and expect them to take it lying down!”

“Is there any way I can make it any clearer? I want you out of my house! Right now!”

“I’m not leaving until we’ve concluded the transaction.”

“The transaction is concluded!”

“I’ll make it four hundred dollars but only if you throw in the shelves. That is a very generous offer and I know I’ll never make a cent of it back.”

“That’s not enough for this many books. Some of these books might be worth four hundred dollars on their own!”

“My driver is outside in the truck. His name is Paolo. I’ll get him to come in and help me and we’ll have this room emptied out in no time at all.”

“I don’t believe you’re an expert on books, at all,” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “I think you’re a junk dealer.”

“You don’t have to insult me on top of everything else!” Mr. Crimm said.

“A person who knows books would take the time to look at each book separately and assess its value. I’m sure some of these books are rare. Some of them alone may be worth thousands of dollars!”

“I’ve already told you what they’re worth, and they ain’t worth diddly squat!”

“You think I’m only a stupid woman. You’re trying to cheat me, but I’m not going to let you do it! I knew the second I saw you that you didn’t know a thing about books.”

“I know as much as anybody else and I know these books ain’t worth shit!”

“Well, they’re my books and I’m going to keep them!”

Mr. Crimm was no longer listening. He had been writing out a check. He tore it from his book and handed it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s your check for four hundred dollars for the books! Did you think I wouldn’t pay you what I said?”

She looked at the check and tried to give it back. “I don’t want it!” she said.

When he wouldn’t take the check from her, she tore it up in little pieces and threw them in his face.

“I see you are a very unstable woman,” he said.

“Get out of my house now or I’ll call the police!”

Ignoring her, Mr. Crimm called his driver, Paolo, on his two-way radio and instructed him to come inside. Paolo was no more than a boy, but in less than two minutes he and Mr. Crimm were hefting boxes over their shoulders, carrying them down the stairs and out the door.

“I’d advise you to stop with that right now!” Mrs. Fairleigh said, but she knew they were ignoring her. She had no other choice but to stand by and watch them.

She was going to call the police but she believed she needed more immediate help than they could offer. She went to her bedroom and got her husband’s loaded gun out of the dresser drawer. Holding the gun to her side, she went outside.

Mr. Crimm was loading boxes into the dark interior of the nearly empty truck and didn’t see Mrs. Fairleigh standing at the curb looking in at him. Paolo was still inside the house.

“Unload those boxes from your truck and set them here on the sidewalk!” Mrs. Fairleigh commanded.

Mr. Crimm was pointedly ignoring her. His face was inscrutable. “I’ll mail you a check for four hundred dollars,” he said, “since you tore the other one up.”

She pointed the gun at him. He didn’t bother to look at her until he heard the gun cock.

He laughed. “You going to shoot me?” he said.

“You think I won’t?”

“You going to shoot me over a load of old books?”

“No, I’m going to shoot you because you’re robbing me.”

“Put the gun down and stop acting like a child,” he said.

She fired the gun one time above his head. The bullet hit the far wall of the truck and made a hole clean through to the outside.

Mr. Crimm threw his arms up in surprise. “You shoot me, you crazy bitch!” he said. “What’s the matter with you? Are you insane?”

“No, I wasn’t trying to shoot you that time, but next time I will.”

“Wait just a minute!” he said. “You don’t have to shoot again! We’ll talk about this thing!”

“There’s nothing to talk about. Unload those boxes and set them here on the sidewalk and then get into your truck and drive away and forget you were ever here.”

“You crazy woman!” he said.

“Unload the boxes! Now!”

“All right! All right! It just ain’t worth it!”

He set the boxes on the sidewalk as he was told and when he was finished he stood looking at Mrs. Fairleigh as he rubbed his hands together. “You going to shoot me now?” he asked.

“Get back up in the truck!” she said.

“What?”

“I said get back up into the truck!”

“Why?”

“You’ll see why.”

He did as he was told. About halfway to the back of the truck, he turned and looked down at her. He put his hands on his hips and smiled. If he had been afraid of her before, his fear had passed.

“I don’t like you,” she said. “I didn’t like you from the moment you first knocked on my door.”

“Let’s just say it’s mutual,” Mr. Crimm said.

She shot him in the thigh of his right leg. He grabbed the leg, looked at her in surprise, screamed and fell back, cursing her in a language she didn’t recognize. Still holding the gun in her right hand, she slammed the doors of the truck, effectively shutting Mr. Crimm off from the light and air and out of her life.

Paolo came out of the house carrying a carton of books under each arm. When she saw him, she smiled.

“I don’t know if you understand English,” she said, “because I haven’t heard you speak a syllable, but I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say.”

He smiled, nodding to show he understood. He set the cartons down alongside the others on the sidewalk, took a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it.

“I don’t know what relation this man is to you,” Mrs. Fairleigh said, “but I hope for your sake he isn’t somebody important to you because I just shot him in the leg. You probably heard the gun fire. Take him to the nearest hospital. Tell them a stray bullet hit him in a violent neighborhood you were passing through. You didn’t see exactly where the bullet came from. If you don’t follow these instructions to the letter, I have another bullet for you, with your name on it, and I have to tell you I’m not a very good shot. If I aim for your leg, I might hit something more vital.”

Paolo shrugged and smiled again and tossed his cigarette into the street. He climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. He started the truck, grinding the gears and, pulling away from the curb, rattled away down the block and disappeared from view.

While Mrs. Fairleigh was still standing on the sidewalk, her next-door neighbor Mrs. Bushmiller came out and stood beside her. She had a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth and her hair was pinned up in bobby pins, making her appear to be wearing a tight-fitting brown cap.

“What was that noise?” Mrs. Bushmiller asked.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

“It sounded like a car backfiring.”

“That’s probably what it was, then, dear.”

“Why are these cartons sitting here on the curb?”

“They’re some books I had delivered. I need help carrying them in the house and up the stairs.”

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Bushmiller said. “I’ll get my sixteen-year-old son, Trippy, to help you. All he does is lay around the house anyway.”

“I’d be glad to pay him.”

“You won’t pay him a cent. What are neighbors for?”

Mrs. Fairleigh stood and waited while Mrs. Bushmiller went to get Trippy. In no more than a minute, he came running out of the house, eager to help a neighbor lady with a lifting job. How kind people are, Mrs. Fairleigh thought, as Trippy leaned over to get a good grip on the first box and she stared intently at the elastic of his underwear.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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The Ground My Bed, The Leaves My Blanket

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The Ground My Bed, the Leaves My Blanket ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The vast cemetery was almost as old as the city itself. It contained untold acres of hills, trees, ponds, statues, winding roads, mausoleums, columbariums (for cremated human remains), crypts, walk-in burial chambers gouged out of the sides of the hills, along with every size, style (a century and a half of changing styles), shape and description of grave marker known to man. It was a sprawling city of the dead but also home (if only a temporary one) to dozens of indigents from the city who lived on the street and had no other place to rest their weary (living) bones except among the unsuspecting dead.

Anybody who ever took up residence in the cemetery, if only for one night, knew it afforded many excellent and discreet hiding places where one might sleep, copulate, perform bodily functions, eat, bathe, think, drink, cry—or do any number of other things—away from the prying eyes of man.

Like every indigent living on the streets of the city (and subsequently in the cemetery), Vicki-Vicki Novak had a story. After graduating from high school, she believed she had everything she needed to find herself a good job, so she left her rancorous mother and her unhappy home and spent six nausea-inducing hours on the bus and moved to the city. Life for her had always been hard, but it wasn’t until she came to the city that she discovered how truly ugly it is.

She would have taken any job she could find but the truth was there were no jobs of any kind to be had. She was turned away repeatedly because she had no experience of any kind. It didn’t matter that she was good at figures, was a stellar reader, and made better-than-average grades in school. She couldn’t get a job as a cafeteria worker because there were already seventy-five girls on the list ahead of her. She applied for a job in a laundry but was told she was too young and too slightly built to carry heavy loads. The sad truth was she didn’t make a good impression on those who might have hired her; she was too diffident and naïve; she knew too little of the world.

She spent her first two weeks in the city in an old hotel but, when she saw how fast her money was being used up, she took what little she had left and moved to a cheap boarding house where she slept in a tiny, box-like room and ate two small meals a day.

Finally even the boarding house was too expensive for her and she ended up living on the streets, where she met a coterie of other down-and-outers just like her. They gave her advice about how to survive and where she might get a bite to eat or a place to flop for the night. More than once she engaged in sexual congress with nefarious men in exchange for a small amount of cash, a package of cigarettes, an orange, or a couple of pills that were guaranteed to make her feel wonderful and forget all her troubles. She abhorred these couplings at first but after a time didn’t mind them so much because she disconnected herself from the proceedings and felt nothing.

Vicki-Vicki was fortunate in one respect because when she first began living on the streets of the city, it was May and the cruel and dreadful winter was past and wouldn’t be coming around again for a while. During a police crackdown on the street people, she sought refuge in the cemetery on the advice of a friend, one Chester Burnside, a man who might at one time have been a woman (one of those aberrations of nature all too abundant in the large city). The number-one piece of cemetery advice that veterans like Chester Burnside had to offer to newcomers like Vicki-Vicki was this: Don’t get caught because if you do you might get your brains knocked out or you might end up in jail. All the veterans had horror stories about people getting their brain matter literally knocked out of their heads onto the ground by leering, sadistic cemetery guards.

On a Friday afternoon in October, Vicki-Vicki was washing up at one of the cemetery’s fountains. She trailed her hands in the water and brought them to her face. The water was fresh and clean. She wished she might take off all her clothes and get down in the water naked and give herself a good scrubbing, but if she dared to do such a thing, somebody was sure to come along and see her, so she just contented herself with rinsing her arms and face.

Towering above the fountain was a seven-foot tall lady angel. Her wings were only marginally chipped and bird-splattered; she looked down with a benevolent and loving expression.

“What are you doing here?” the angel asked, bending her head in Vicki-Vicki’s direction.

“I was washing myself,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You might drown yourself if you have any sense.”

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s October now. Winter’s coming.”

“I know.”

“Do you still plan on still being here when winter comes?”

“I don’t plan anything. I never did.”

“You’d better go back home now, while the days are still warm.”

“I don’t have a home.”

“Everybody has a home.”

“My mother said she’d kill me if she ever saw me again.”

“When did you last eat?”

“I don’t know. Yesterday, sometime, I think.”

“Life is hard, isn’t it?”

“I find it so.”

“You can do better.”

“Tell me how.”

Somebody was coming. They both heard the footsteps moving through the leaves at the same time. The angel went back to being mute and immobile, while Vicki-Vicki ran and hid behind the nearest large tree.

When she peered cautiously around the tree, she was relieved to see it was the old sot Eulah Knickerbocker and not a cemetery guard.

Hey! You!” she said, stepping out into the open.

Eulah Knickerbocker jumped and only kept from screaming by placing her filthy hand over her mouth. “You shouldn’t scare people like that!” she said. “My nerves is shot all to hell!”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“I’m going around telling everybody I see. It’s lucky I found you. There’s going to be a purge tonight.”

“What’s a purge?”

“They’ve took on extra guards. They’re going to go through the cemetery and round up everybody who doesn’t belong. Some of us will end up dead.”

“Just hide,” Vicki-Vicki said. “That’s what I do.”

“No, dear! You won’t be able to hide from them this time. If you’re here, they’ll find you. You’d better get out before dark.”

“Where would I go?”

“How on earth should I know? Go back to the city.”

“I came here to get away from the city!”

“I know! It’s terrible, ain’t it? But if they find you here tonight, it will go very bad for you. They might throw you in jail, and if they do you might never get out again.”

“They don’t scare me,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“Take it from somebody who’s been there, dearie. I’ve been living on the streets for seventeen years. I know how these things go.”

“You haven’t seen that fella they call Diego, have you?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“If I did, I’d try to forget it.”

“He owes me money.”

“You’ll be lucky to get a nickel out of him, even if you do find him.”

“No, he’s been working, clearing brush. If I can catch him before he spends all his pay, I can get my money and have enough for a decent room for the night.”

“Say, you wouldn’t mind me coming along, would you, darling? Two can stay in a room for the same price as one.”

“Not this time, Eulah. I just need to be alone tonight.”

“Well, all right. I figure it don’t hurt to ask.”

“No, it don’t. Have you got anything to eat?”

“No, I haven’t, but if I did I’d share it with you.”

“I know you would, Eulah.”

“Have you seen my twin sister, Beulah?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“She’s the great beauty of the family. Have I ever told you about her?”

“I believe so.”

“She’s coming to get me and take me home with her to live. I don’t know if it’ll be tonight but any day now.”

“I hope it all works out for you, Eulah.”

“It’s bound to, this time.”

She didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was going down and the air was cooler. It would be about the time, she thought, that normal people who live in houses would be sitting down to dinner. She needed to think about where she would spend the night in case she didn’t find Diego and get her money. The idea was to find a snug little place out of the wind that hadn’t already been claimed by somebody else.

She went to the oldest part of the cemetery, the part she liked best and the part where she was mostly likely to see a ghost if there were any about. The trees were sheltering; the gravestones large and close together, making her feel safe. She began piling up dry leaves to make herself a bed in a secure little spot between stones when she heard someone coming. She started to hide but the person, whoever it was, was already upon her.

“Hey, there, little chicken!” a man’s voice said.

Right away she recognized the voice as that of Julius Orange. He was tall and rather handsome but his face and hands were crusted with dirt all the time as if he never washed them and one of his eyes was permanently half-closed.

“I thought you were one of the guards,” she said breathlessly.

“No, but I might have been. Have you heard the news about the raid tonight?”

“Eulah Knickerbocker told me.”

“You’d better get out while you can.”

“No, I’ve decided to stay,” Vicki-Vicki said. “I’m cold and I’m sick and I don’t feel like walking all the way back to the city tonight.”

“It’s your funeral.”

“I don’t think the guards will come all the way over here. They’re afraid of ghosts.”

“You’re cold, aren’t you?”

“I feel like I have ice water in my veins.”

“I can warm you up.”

“You got a bottle?”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. “I was wondering if you’re open for business. I’ve got four dollars.”

“You would spend your four dollars on me?”

“And a lot more.”

“Save your money. Tonight I’m not worth four cents.”

“Are you sure?”

“Say, you haven’t seen Diego around anywhere, have you?” she asked.

“Haven’t seen him for a few days.”

“He owes me money.”

“You can have my four dollars and catch yourself a bus back to town.”

“Thanks, but I’m just going to bed down here for tonight and see how things go.”

“It’s your funeral,” he said, and then he was gone.

It was fully dark now. She kicked at the leaves and shivered in the rising wind. She looked up at the sky anxiously, hoping to forestall any rain, but the sky wasn’t telling any tales. She burrowed into the leaves like an animal and gathered the leaves around her like a warm comforter.

The leaves smelled good, an uncorrupted smell. She was completely hidden from view, she believed, but she could still breathe and could see a speck of the sky up through the trees. This is not so bad, she thought. If only life could be like this always.

She felt the cold rising up from the ground. She shivered and her teeth chattered but soon she felt warmer and went to sleep. She dreamed she was in a big bed in a warm room in a snug house and those who cared for her were within the call of her voice and there was nothing to be afraid of.

She jerked awake to the sound of men’s voices. They were far away but coming closer. There might have been as many as ten of them and they might have been at a drunken party for all the fun they seemed to be having.

She lay still and breathed deeply. There were so many leaves on the ground and she was sure they wouldn’t bother looking through all of them. They would just make a quick sweep and, finding no one, move on. She would laugh later at how close they had been but still missed her.

She was right. They did move on, but one of the men had detached himself from the others and was searching through the leaves between the gravestones. She heard his slow, decisive footsteps and then felt a rush of cold air on her face as he scraped the leaves away that were covering her.

“Come out of there!” a deep voice said.

She gave a little yelp and covered her face with her hands but knew there was no use resisting.

“Leave me alone!” she whimpered. “I didn’t do anything!”

“You’re not supposed to be here!”

“I’m leaving. Please don’t hit me with your stick!”

“Nobody’s going to hit you. Get up and talk to me.”

She stood up. The man, towering over her, shone his flashlight in her face.

“How did you know I was here?” she asked.

“Magic,” he said.

“Please don’t take me to jail.”

“It’s where you belong. Don’t you know you’re trespassing?”

“I’m going, I swear!”

“It’s dangerous for you to be here.”

“I know! I’ll leave right now.”

“People freeze to death out here all the time. Last winter we picked up thirty frozen dead bodies.”

“I was looking for someone, but he’s not here now so I’ll just go.”

“If I turn you over to the others, you’ll go to jail.”

“Please don’t do that!”

“I’ll let you go this time, but only one condition.”

“Anything!”

“Promise me you’ll get out and don’t come back. If I see you again, I’ll remember you and I’ll turn you in. You don’t want to end up in jail, do you?”

“No!”

“Go home. Don’t you have a home?”

“No.”

“Go to a shelter in town, then. There are people there who will help you.”

“I will. I promise.”

He handed her a small paper sack, which she took unquestioningly. Switching off his flashlight, he took off his coat and dropped it on the ground beside her. He gave her one last look and then he was gone.

“Wait a minute!” she said. “I was…”

She could still here his voice after he was gone. If I see you here again, I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.

“Take me with you!” she called out, but he was already gone and couldn’t have heard.

She remembered the paper bag she held in her hand and opened it. Inside were a ham sandwich wrapped in paper and a little carton of milk.

She ate the sandwich and drank the milk as if tasting those things for the first time and when she was finished she vomited, bending over at the waist and leaning against a tree.

When she was finished, she wiped her mouth with her hands and then as she was turning away from the tree she remembered the coat lying on the ground and picked it up and put it on. It was much too big for her, going almost to her knees, and it still held the warmth of the man’s body.

She hugged her arms to her body and, like a princess in a fairy story, was transformed. A beam of bright light opened above her head; the brightness entered her body and settled around her heart. Experiencing a kind of religious ecstasy, she trembled all over and fell to the ground in awe and humility. She knew now what it was like to look upon the face of God.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Outer Dark ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Outer Dark ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The two main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark, brother and sister Culla and Rinthy Holme, are victims of poverty and ignorance. (She has no shoes, while he wears stolen boots.) Rinthy is nineteen. Culla is some older. Rinthy has a baby and Culla is the father. Apparently because he is ashamed of impregnating his own sister, Culla takes the nameless baby, a boy, and leaves him alone in the woods to die. The baby is picked up by a ragtag, itinerant tinker who travels around with his cart. Where the tinker takes the baby or for what reason is never made quite clear, but it can’t be for any good or because he is concerned for the baby’s welfare.

Rinthy and Culla undertake separate journeys, Rinthy to find the baby (her “chap”) and Culla to find Rinthy, or maybe he’s just looking for work. Wherever Rinthy goes in her quest to find her baby, she is mostly met with kindness, with people who feed and shelter her. With Culla it is just the opposite. Death and disaster follow in his wake. The people he encounters are menacing and more than once threaten him in some way. (Does the trio of despicable desperadoes who seem to be trailing him really exist, or have they been called forth by his sin?) Even nature is unforgiving for Culla. When he is crossing a ferry on a river, the cable holding the ferry in place inexplicably breaks and Culla nearly drowns. He survives, but would have possibly been better off to have drowned, considering what happens to him afterwards.

Can we say, then, that Rinthy is a child of light and Culla a child of darkness because of his sin of engaging in incestuous relations with his sister and then trying to destroy the evidence of the relationship? His biggest sin, however, is possibly his lack of awareness of his sin and his failure to seek redemption. (At the end of the book, Rinthy finds herself in a glade and Culla in a swamp.)

Cormac McCarthy, now 85 years old, is one of America’s greatest living writers, the only writer we have comparable to William Faulkner. Outer Dark is a fascinating exploration of sin and retribution (or the absence of retribution). I’ve read it twice, years apart, and found it compelling both times. It’s an example of how good contemporary American literature can be in the hands of an undisputed master.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

November Night

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November Night ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a cold night but people were out celebrating anyway. America was one year into the war. Soldiers were on furlough, showing off their uniforms, flirting and dancing with the girls. Cars lined the streets. People called to each other and waved. Everybody was happy and hopeful. Who would ever think the evening would turn out the way it did?

Inside the club, the tables were close together without much elbow room but nobody seemed to mind. A girl in a white evening gown with a big lipsticked smile and a camera passed among the tables and booths offering to take pictures. Only one dollar, please, payable in advance. Oh, well. What’s a dollar? You only live once.

At Lorraine’s behest, Gerald ordered a bottle of champagne. The waiter brought it to the table in a bucket of ice, just like in the movies. He opened the bottle and filled the glasses, but when he started to pour Linda’s glass she smiled and shook her head. “I’m underage,” she said.

“Are you sure?” the waiter asked.

“Last time I checked!” she said.

The picture girl stopped at the table and was going to take a picture of all three of them but Lorraine stopped her. “Just the two of us!” she said, moving closer to Gerald and gripping his arm and smiling her brightest smile.

Gerald paid the dollar and wrote down his address so the picture could be mailed to him.

“This is so much fun!” Lorraine gushed. “I’ve always wanted to come here!”

Gerald smiled at Linda. “I hope you don’t mind the Coke,” he said.

“Oh, no! It’s perfectly all right.”

“There’ll be plenty of time for champagne later, when you’re older.”

“Sure.”

Gerald and Lorraine stood up and went out to the dance floor. The orchestra finished Moonglow and melded deftly into Imagination. Linda knew that Lorraine, as always, was enjoying having people look at her. Her dress was expensive and lovely, a diaphanous, pale yellow, the perfect complement to her auburn hair and peaches-and-cream complexion. She might have been a movie star a long way from Hollywood.

Linda herself hated the black dress she was wearing. It was the best she owned, but it made her body look lumpy, like an old lady on her way to church. It was the kind of dress that Lorraine would never be seen dead in.

She tugged at her front and smoothed her lank brown hair on both sides of her head. She believed that people were looking at her as she sat there all alone, but the truth was that everybody around her was having a good time and nobody even noticed her. She let out her breath in a long exhalation and relaxed the clenched muscles in her abdomen and legs.

The number ended and Gerald and Lorraine came back to the table, but before she sat down again Lorraine made Gerald admire her ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it, for the third time already that night. Gerald had given it to her as a gift on Thanksgiving night and she couldn’t stop admiring it. “Oh, it’s just the sweetest little thing I’ve ever seen!” she gushed.

Gerald looked tired and pale. He was uncomfortable in crowds and didn’t like dancing, but he was a good sport usually willing to go along with whatever Lorraine wanted. He offered to dance with Linda, but she declined. “I’m afraid I’m a horror on the dance floor,” she said.

The waiter brought another Coke for Linda and it was time to order dinner. Lorraine wanted roast beef and Gerald a steak and Linda fried chicken. When the waiter went away with the order, Lorraine regarded Linda across the table.

“Thank goodness one of us inherited mother’s fashion sense,” she said. “That dress is unbelievably dowdy.”

“I know,” Linda said. “I hate it.”

“Then why did you wear it?”

“It’s the only thing I have that’s appropriate for a place like this.”

“I think she looks very nice,” Gerald said.

“You think everybody looks nice and, compared to you, they do.”

“I’m wearing a new suit.”

“Yes, and it looks just exactly like your old one. It looks like something your father would wear.”

“Most of the men not in uniform are wearing dark suits,” Linda said.

“People are probably looking at Gerald and wondering why he’s not in uniform.”

“You can’t say I didn’t try,” Gerald said.

“Oh, yes, it was a tiny heart murmur, wasn’t it, dear, that kept you out of the service?”

“You know it was.”

“Did you pay the doctor to say you had a heart murmur so you wouldn’t have to go off to the bad old army and leave your poor little Lorraine behind?”

“Yeah, that’s it. You guessed my little secret.”

“I would so have liked to have gone stepping out on the arm of dashing war hero.”

“Why don’t you see if Robert Taylor is available?”

“I would marry Robert Taylor in an instant. All he has to do is ask me.”

“I think he’s already married to Barbara Stanwyck,” Linda said.

“Well, we’ll just have to get rid of little Barbara then, won’t we?”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” Gerald said.

“What’s that?”

“You’re married to me.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m inclined to forget.”

Gerald lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward Lorraine, knowing how much she hated it.

“Put that cigarette out and let’s dance again,” she said.

“I don’t want to dance again just yet. My feet hurt.”

“Must you always be an old fuddy-duddy?”

Seeing that Gerald and Lorraine were about to engage in more bickering, Linda sought to change the subject by saying, “This is my first time ever in a night club. Isn’t it exciting?”

“The first of many for you, I hope,” Gerald said, lifting his glass and taking a big gulp of the champagne.

“Don’t drink too much of that stuff, dear,” Lorraine said. “You have to get us home safely, you know.”

“Aye, aye, captain, sir!”

The waiter brought the dinner and they began eating. The fried chicken was the best Linda had ever tasted. Lorraine picked around the corners of her plate and didn’t seem at all interested in food.

“I’d hoped we could have a little talk tonight,” Lorraine said to Linda. “Just the two of us.”

“What about?”

“It’s about money, I’m afraid, that most hated of topics. Now that mother’s dead and I’m paying all the bills, I’m trying to plan ahead for the future and I see there isn’t as much money as I thought there was. I’m afraid we’re going to have to economize.”

“Can’t you wait for a more appropriate time to talk about this?” Gerald asked.

“I wasn’t addressing you, Gerald!” Lorraine said.

“Economize in what way?” Linda asked.

“Well, you’re not going to like this, but we’re going to have to sell mother’s house.”

“But why? It’s my home. It’s where I’ve always lived.”

“I’ve already told you why. It’s too expensive to maintain with just you living in it. I mean, really, how many high school girls do you know who have a big nine-room house all to themselves.”

“Mother said right before she died that she wanted me to be able to go on living in the house through the end of high school and for as long as I wanted.”

“I know, dear, but, as you know, mother was never very practical.”

“We don’t have to talk about it now,” Gerald said. “We’ll work something out.”

“As I’ve already said, Gerald, none of this concerns you!” Lorraine said.

“But if we sell the house,” Linda said, “where am I going to live?”

“You’re can move in with Gerald and me.”

“But I don’t want to move in with Gerald and you. It’s too far away from school. How will I get back and forth?”

“I’ve already looked into all that. There are buses running every day. It would be a simple matter of a twenty-minute bus ride each way.”

“But I have my own home. I don’t want to live with you and Gerald.”

“Don’t you think that’s a selfish attitude? After all, I’m paying all the bills. I’m your guardian and I have to do what I think is best.”

I’ll get a job and pay all the expenses on the house,” Linda said.

“You’re just a baby!” Lorraine scoffed. “What could you possibly do? Who would hire a high school girl with bad skin and unmanageable hair?”

“I can read and write.”

“So can everybody else. I’m afraid that doesn’t make you employable.”

“I can operate a babysitting service.”

“Yes, for fifty cents an hour. I’m afraid it takes more than that to run a household.”

“I’ll get the money somewhere!”

“Oh, please! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Do you think you’re going to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow?”

Linda began crying. Gerald gave her his handkerchief.

“Now see what you’ve done, Lorraine!” he said. “We came here to have a good time and now you’ve spoiled it for all of us.”

“I’m just trying to be practical. She’s not a child anymore. She needs to face reality and know where she stands in the scheme of things.”

“Maybe you and I need to face reality too,” Gerald said. “Where do we stand in the scheme of things?”

“Oh, you make me sick!” Lorraine said. “You always have to make everything about you, don’t you? I’m going to the ladies’ room.”

She threw down her napkin, stood up and faded into the crowd.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Gerald said.

You didn’t do anything,” Linda said.

“She could have chosen a better time to bring up the subject of money.”

“It just took me by surprise, that’s all. I’m going to have to get used to idea of living somewhere else, I guess.”

“You must have some champagne,” he said, “underage or not. You need to at least taste it.” He took an empty water glass and filled it halfway and pushed it toward her. “If nothing else, you can look back on this night and remember it as the first time you tasted champagne.”

She smiled at Gerald, dried her remaining tears and gratefully drank the champagne.

The orchestra ended one number and began another. Gerald and Linda watched the swirl of dancers, what they could see of them, while they waited for Lorraine to come back.

What sounded like a woman’s scream came from far away, or maybe it wasn’t a scream at all; it could have been the laugh of a hyena. Not everybody heard it, but those who did turned their heads to see where it was coming from. Then there was another questionable scream and then another, closer this time and unmistakable. The musicians stopped played and the dancers stopped dancing. Those sitting stood up to get a better view.

Fire! Fire! Fire!” someone screamed.

There was a lull then, a moment in which everybody stood perfectly still and silent. Then, all at once, people began moving, all at the same time, as if every living being in the place were controlled by some giant, unseen mechanism of pandemonium.

Gerald grabbed Linda’s wrist. “We’ve got to find Lorraine!” he screamed. “Which way to the ladies’ room?”

“I don’t know,” Linda screamed back, into his ear. “We’ve got to find the exit! Wherever Lorraine is, she’ll find her way out!”

With Gerald holding Linda’s hand, they began moving slowly through the crowd. Pushed violently from behind, they managed to stay on their feet. Others weren’t so lucky. Those who fell would never get up again.

“Everybody calm down!” a booming voice commanded. “Just make for the fire exits!”

The lights went out. The far wall, fifty feet away, was illuminated by an eerie orange glow. This was perhaps the most frightening sight of all. People panicked, lost whatever decorum they had, and began pushing blindly forward with no other thought than to save themselves.

Some of the fire exits were obscured behind curtains or fake palm trees while others were locked and wouldn’t open. People pushed helplessly against them to no avail. When they saw one door wouldn’t open, they moved on to the next one.

Gerald held tightly to Linda’s wrist. They could see nothing now except the glow of the flames. They had no other choice but to move forward upon the wave of humanity that bore them. Where was it taking them? Was it to safety or to a blind spot where they would be crushed or burned to death?

Soon a door opened in front of them, miraculously, like a gate into heaven, and they found themselves outside in the freezing air.

They stood there, dazed and gasping for air. A crowd of about twenty other people made their way out at the same time. Most of the women were crying and screaming. The men stood helplessly, rubbing their eyes, stunned into silence. Finally a man came along and told them to move as far away from the building as they could.

Other groups came out in other places, three or twelve or twenty or sometimes more at a time. They were all herded around to the other side of the building, away from the smoke and flames. Gerald ran frantically from group to group, searching for any sign of Lorraine.

The next few hours were like a tableau out of hell, with chaos, confusion and disbelief; sirens, screams, billowing smoke, walls of flame, ambulances coming and going, fire engines roaring, hoses like tentacles going every which way on the street, men trying to battle the flames but repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke.

Firefighters began bringing bodies out and, having no other choice, laying them side by side on the street or on the sidewalk, until a temporary morgue could be set up. Police kept onlookers back until the proper time for identification.

Every time Gerald went away and came back again to the spot where he had left Linda standing on the street corner, she asked him if he had spotted Lorraine yet, but she already knew what the answer was going to be.

Six hours after the fire broke out, Gerald found Lorraine’s body in a row of bodies on the sidewalk. Her face was covered, but he knew it was her by the ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it and by the yellow dress. He started to pick her up but a policeman stopped him.

“She’s my wife,” he said. “I have to take her home.”

“You have to leave her here for now until positive identification can be made,” the policeman said.

He wrote down Gerald’s name and address, along with Lorraine’s name, and put a tag around her wrist with a number on it, indicating that she had been identified by a family member.

The night that seemed without end finally came to an end.

The next morning, newspaper headlines screamed the news: Worst Nightclub Fire in American History. 500 Dead. Many More Injured.

Gerald and Linda both were questioned by police and reporters to get their version of what happened. To Linda it all seemed too unreal, too unlikely, to be true. Her beautiful older sister, whom she had always idolized, was dead and never coming back.

An overflow crowd attended Lorraine’s funeral, many of them curiosity seekers. They wanted to see what a body would look like after it had been through such a hellish ordeal, but the casket was kept closed. Gerald knew it’s what Lorraine would have wanted.

Linda returned to school after two weeks, something of a celebrity. People who never noticed her before now wanted to be her friends.

Gerald remained a good friend to Linda. With Lorraine gone, he was the only family she had left. He became Linda’s guardian and allowed her to stay in her mother’s house, paying all the bills and providing whatever was needed.

Lorraine was lying about the money. More than eight hundred thousand dollars came to Gerald as Lorraine’s husband, more than he ever expected. He quit his job (which he despised anyway), made some wise investments, and planned never to have to work again. He could have married again but decided against it. Lorraine had been more than enough woman for him for one lifetime.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Shall We Have a Cigarette On It?

Posted on

Shall We Have a Cigarette on It? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post.)

“This is a lovely old house,” Jerry said, sipping his martini. “How many rooms does it have?”

“I never bothered to count them,” Charlotte said. “There are so many.”

“It isn’t any of your business how many rooms my house has,” Charlotte’s mother said. “That’s an impertinent question.”

“Mother, I thought we agreed that you were going to try to be civil this evening,” Charlotte said.

“I made no such agreement.”

“I apologize, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said with his humble smile. “I had no business asking such a question. It’s just that I admire these old houses so much.”

“Yes, and I’ll bet you’d like to see it knocked down and a parking garage or an office building put in its place!”

“That would be a great pity, ma’am.”

“Or maybe you can see yourself living in it. A life of ease and idleness.”

“Not at all, ma’am.”

Charlotte could see that her mother was determined to make Jerry feel uncomfortable. He would handle it with his customary grace, though, of that she was certain.

“Charlotte tells me she met you on a cruise to South America.”

“That’s right,” Jerry said.

“I don’t approve of cruises on which idle young women with too much money and too much time on their hands indulge themselves.”

“Not everybody on the cruise was rich, mother,” Charlotte said, “and they weren’t all young. I was talking to one middle-aged woman who told me that she and her husband saved for five years to be able to afford it.”

“What were you talking to her for?”

“Well, you know. Too much time on our hands.”

“I’ll bet there was lots of drinking and other activities on board that ship that decent people would rather not know about.”

“No doubt,” Jerry said.

“I suppose Charlotte told you all about herself.”

“As much as I needed to know.”

“Did she tell you that she had a nervous breakdown and, in so doing, was a patient in a sanatorium for almost a year?”

“Yes.”

“It was only at the urging or her psychiatrist that I allowed her to go on the cruise at all without a chaperone. He said it was vital for her mental well-being. I never heard such hogwash but I allowed her to go nonetheless.”

“It was very kind of you.”

“I don’t believe in psychiatrists. Most people with mental problems have nothing to do but gain control of themselves and their emotions. When I was young, we weren’t allowed the luxury of nervous breakdowns and special doctors to treat them. We all bucked up and did whatever had to be done!”

“I don’t think Jerry wants to hear all that, mother,” Charlotte said. “We’ve already said all that needs to be said on the subject.”

“I’ll say whatever I want to say and ask whatever questions I want to ask in my own home!”

“No less than you deserve, ma’am,” Jerry said.

“And, under the guidance of her ‘progressive’ psychiatrist, Charlotte changed completely. She became a daughter I no longer recognized.”

“Don’t you think it was change for the better, ma’am?” Jerry asked.

“I do not! When a mother no longer recognizes her daughter, how can that be change for the better?”

“You decide for yourself, Jerry,” Charlotte said. “You saw the picture of what I looked like before.”

“She was fat!” Mrs. Vale said. “Comfortably fat! After her so-called illness, she lost thirty pounds. She changed her hair and eyebrows and began buying expensive clothes which, of course, she expected me to pay for!”

“You seem to forget that I have money of my own,” Charlotte said.

“Everything you have still belongs to me! Don’t you ever forget that! With one stroke of my pen, I could strip you of everything!”

“Yes, but you won’t, though, will you?”

As if on cue, Theda, the maid, appeared in the doorway. “Dinner is ready to be served!” she said, loudly.

“You don’t have to shout, Theda!” Mrs. Vale said. “You’re not announcing train departures.”

“Since there are just the three of us tonight,” Charlotte said, “we’re having dinner in the small dining room.”

“You have more than one dining room?” Jerry asked.

When they were seated at the table that seated fifteen (the small dining room), Theda began serving the dinner, first the soup and then the fish.

“The finest food I ever ate!” Jerry said.

“Don’t think there’s any reason for you to get used to it!” Mrs. Vale said.

“Mother, stop picking on my guest,” Charlotte said. “You needn’t attack him every time he opens his mouth.”

“It’s all right, Charlotte,” Jerry said. “She’s just exercising a mother’s prerogative.”

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s prerogative to be rude.”

“I’m not rude!” Mrs. Vale said. “I’m only being forthright!”

“And an admirable quality it is, too!” Jerry said.

Mrs. Vale gave a tiny smile. Charlotte believed that she was beginning to warm toward him, if ever so slightly.

“And what about you?” Mrs. Vale asked. “Have you had any nervous breakdowns?”

“Not yet,” Jerry said.

“But you will have at some time in the future?”

“He was making a joke, mother,” Charlotte said.

“Well, I want to know something about the men my daughter invites into my home for dinner.”

“What do you want to know about me, Mrs. Vale? You may ask me anything.”

“Are you going to marry Charlotte?”

“I’m already married, you see.”

“So you’re not just after her for her money?”

He laughed and wiped his mouth. “No,” he said.

“Tell me about this wife of yours. If you’re running around with other women, why doesn’t she give you a divorce?”

“Her religious scruples prevent it. And, anyway, we’ve been separated for a long time.”

“So, you’re married to a woman you’re not living with? Not sharing the same bed?”

“Mother, really!” Charlotte said.

“I haven’t laid eyes on her in two years.”

“Have you and Charlotte been intimate?”

“Jerry, you don’t have to answer that question!” Charlotte said. “Mother, that’s not an appropriate line of questioning. I’m not fifteen years old!”

“You sometimes act as if you were!”

“I think what you want to know is if Jerry and I are serious about each other and how we plan to proceed if we are. Isn’t that it?”

“All right, then, you tell me!”

“Jerry and I are very much in love. We won’t be able to marry for some time, but that’s all right with me. We plan on going abroad and living together.”

“Not on my money you won’t!

“Really, mother, are you going to start in on money again?”

“I won’t have my daughter living in sin with a man she’s not married to!”

“I am of age and I may do whatever I wish.”

“I don’t think you have any real desire to be reduced to a pauper at any age.”

“No need to worry, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said. “I have plenty of money for the two of us to live comfortably.”

“I won’t allow my daughter to blacken her name and the memory of her father by cavorting with a married man.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said, “that seems a hopelessly old-fashioned view to take.”

“Who are you to judge me? You don’t know Charlotte the way I do. You don’t know the family history that’s behind her.”

“Maybe it’s time to forget all that and begin anew.”

“Never! Not as long as I’m still living. I’ll call my lawyer tomorrow morning and have my will changed!”

“You go right ahead, mother,” Charlotte said. “I’ve had enough of your bullyragging and intimidation.”

“So, are you saying you don’t care about my twenty million dollars?”

“You can do whatever you want with it. We can meet with your lawyer and make a few suggestions.”

“So, it doesn’t frighten you anymore when I threaten to disinherit you?”

“Not in the least.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m in love.”

“Love! What could you possibly know about love?”

“Mother, if you don’t stop saying such mean things, I’m going to stick a knife through your heart.”

“You haven’t got the guts!”

“Try me!”

Theda brought in three cups of coffee, along with dessert, and withdrew again to the kitchen.

“No dessert for me,” Charlotte said. “I’m watching my figure.”

“What happened to the little girl who used to eat a whole pie at one sitting?” Mrs. Vale asked.

“She’s all grown up, mother. She’s somebody else now.”

“I’ll eat yours if you don’t want it,” Jerry said. “I love banana cream pie.”

“Watch out you don’t get fat,” Charlotte said.

“I’ve got a ways to go,” he said.

Mrs. Vale drank her coffee and called Theda in from the kitchen to give her another cup. When she was halfway through the second cup, her eyes closed, she gave a little shudder and fell forward. Her head banged loudly on the table and she felt onto the floor in a heap. Charlotte and Jerry sat quite still, Charlotte sipping her coffee and Jerry eating the pie.

After a couple of minutes, Theda opened the door to the kitchen a few inches and peeked around the edge of it. “Can I come in?” she asked.

“Yes, please do, Theda,” Charlotte said.

“Did it work?”

“I think so,” Charlotte said. “I don’t see her breathing.”

“One of us should check to make sure,” Jerry said.

Theda put the tips of her fingers to Mrs. Vale’s neck. “I don’t feel no pulse,” she said.

After Jerry and Theda had pulled Mrs. Vale away from the table and laid her on her back on the floor, Theda put her ear to the old woman’s chest. “I don’t hear no heartbeat, neither,” she said. “You’d better listen for yourself, Miss Charlotte.”

Charlotte took off her earring and leaned over until her ear was touching the sunken chest. “She’s quite dead!” she said with a smile.

“Ah!” Jerry said. “Success!”

“Glory be!” Theda said. “It sure enough worked!”

“She really was a vile old woman,” Jerry said. “You didn’t exaggerate to the slightest degree, did you? But wherever did you find such an effective poison?”

“We Boston spinsters have our secrets too, you know,” Charlotte said.

“I won’t shed no tears over her!” Theda said. “She sure was mean to me! There’s never been a day since I worked here that I didn’t want to kill her myself!”

“And, Theda, you must never breathe a word of this to anybody!” Charlotte said. “You do understand that, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am! You don’t ever have to worry about me! I didn’t see nothin! I didn’t hear nothin’ and I don’t know nothin’! Forever and forever, a-men!”

“And I’ll give you enough money so you’ll never have to work hard again. You can go back home and do whatever you want for as long as you live.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate it, ma’am! I’m gonna buy me a dozen pairs of silk stockings and some gardenia perfume. It sure does smell high!”

“You’ll be able to buy anything you want now.”

“And who knows? I might even find me another man to marry.”

“The field will be wide open for you now,” Jerry said.

Charlotte and Jerry went into the library, Charlotte’s favorite room in the house. She went to the French doors that opened onto the terrace and opened them. The room was instantly filled with night smells from the garden.

“Just think!” Jerry said. “Free of that old buzzard at last!”

“Yes, finally, free of all encumbrances,” Charlotte said.

“I was thinking we might live here, at least for a while.”

“I don’t think so,” Charlotte said. “I want to get away, go abroad somewhere. There are too many unhappy memories for me in this house. Wherever I turn, I’ll always see mother there.”

“Of course, darling. Whatever you want.”

“Tomorrow I’ll call everybody and tell them mother’s dead. We’ll plan an elaborate funeral, of course, and I want you to be there by my side.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Jerry said. “I’ve been thinking, though.”

“Yes?”

“Shouldn’t you have your mother cremated? You wouldn’t want anybody suspecting poison at any time in the future. They could have her body disinterred and make a big fuss over trying to find traces of it in her system.”

“I’ve been told by an expert that the poison is absolutely untraceable and no traces of it remain in the body.”

“It seems you’ve covered all the bases,” Jerry said. “Brilliantly planned and executed, if I may say so!”

“And the twenty million dollars?” Charlotte said. “It’s all mine now.”

“I’m getting hard!”

“I won’t have to listen to her threats ever again about cutting me off without a penny.”

“Too wonderful to be believed!”

“It is rather wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Shall we have a cigarette on it?”

He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them together, and handed one to Charlotte. Her eyes glistened with tears as she took it from him.

Standing there, side by side, framed in the doors to the garden, they looked up at the sky. A half-moon was just visible over the treetops, surrounded by a million diamond-like stars.

“And will we be happy?” he asked.

“Oh, Jerry!” she said. “Let’s not ask for the moon! We have the stars!”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

After

Posted on

After ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post.) 

Upon awaking and finding herself in an unfamiliar place, Ottilie Oglesby sat up and looked around in alarm. It was a confining place and she could barely see anything at all because it was so dark. She called out “Hello! Hello!” but nobody answered. “Hello! Hello!” she said again, this time a little more frantic. It was a lonely, very quiet place, in addition to everything else it was.

An old woman appeared, seemingly out of the wall. Ottilie had never seen her before but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the old woman carried a small glow in her chest. Ottilie realized at that moment, to her astonishment, that she also carried a glow radiating from her own middle.

Questions came out of her in a torrent: “Why am I glowing? What is this place? Who are you? Where is my mother?”

“You are a busybody, aren’t you?” the old woman said.

“Can you tell me how to get out of this place, whatever it is, so I can go home?”

“Please! Lower your voice! You’ll wake the others!”

“What others?”

“All your questions will be answered in time!”

“Is this a dream?”

“Not the kind of dream you’re used to.”

“Is this a cave of some sort?”

“Goodness, no!” the old woman said with a laugh

“Have I been kidnapped? I want to go home right now! My mother and father must be looking for me!”

“No, they’re not. They know where you are.”

How do they know? Where are they? Are they here?”

“Why would they be here?”

“Well, where are they?”

“They’re at home. Where do you think?”

“Can you please get word to my mother that I’m all right?”

“She knows you’re all right.”

“Who are you, anyway?”

“I’m here to try to help you, if I can. If you’ll let me.”

“So far you haven’t told me anything!”

“I know it’s difficult for you. It’s difficult for everybody, especially the young. The younger you are, the more difficult it is.”

“Could you please tell me what you’re talking about?”

“It’s very simple, my dear. You’ve done what every living soul does, except that you’ve done it earlier than expected.”

What have I done?”

“You’ve passed from one plane of existence to another.”

“What does ‘plane of existence’ mean?”

“You’re no longer in the physical world. Now you occupy the spiritual.”

“Physical and spiritual,” Ottilie said dreamily. “Do you mean like in church?”

“That’s it!”

“So is this heaven? Am I in heaven?”

“We’re not even sure what heaven is. We’re not even sure if there is a place beyond this one. Heaven is an abstract idea.”

“So, who are you? An angel?”

“Far from it, I’m afraid!”

“Well, who are you, then?”

“I’m someone you might have known if you had been given the chance.”

“What does that mean?”

“I was already here when you were born.”

“Where is here?”

“Didn’t your father and mother ever take you to the big cemetery outside the city and show you the family crypt?”

“I suppose so. What does that have to do with it?”

“Well, that’s where we are now. We’re in the family crypt.”

“Isn’t that where they put dead people?”

“That’s right!”

“Are you saying I’m…”

“I know it’s a shock, young as you are.”

“So, I’m dead,” Ottilie said matter-of-factly, as if saying I’m tired or I’m ready for dinner.

“Well, we don’t use the word dead here. As you see, dying just means going from one place to another.”

“Is it the same with everybody?”

“I suppose so, although I really can’t say for sure. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be, unless you’ve been very wicked.”

“I don’t think I’ve been wicked, have I?”

“It’s not for me to say.”

“I don’t remember dying. I didn’t feel anything.”

“No, you wouldn’t remember.”

“Was I sick?”

“All I know is that it happened fast.”

“Do my mother and father know what happened to me?”

“Of course they know!”

“Will I see them again?”

“Do you want to?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Then you will.”

“Are you telling me I have to stay here forever?”

“It’s where you belong now.”

“Can’t I go back home, just for a little while? I didn’t get a chance to tell everybody goodbye.”

“Everybody who knew you wished you a fond farewell. You just didn’t know about it at the time.”

Ottilie began to cry, despite her resolve not to. “I don’t like it here,” she said. “I want to go back home.”

“It won’t seem so bad after a while, I assure you, after you get used to the way we do things here.”

“I’m worried about my cats. If I’m not there to look after them, they’ll die.”

“No, they won’t. Don’t you think your brother Boyd will take care of them? They’re his cats now.”

“Will they come to me here when they die? My cats, I mean?”

“It doesn’t hurt to hope, does it?”

“I don’t know about all this,” Ottilie sobbed. “I think my poor old heart is going to break in two!”

“We all go through a period of adjustment,” the old woman said. “You’ll be fine after a while, as we all are.”

“I don’t think so! I find my own death very, very sad, indeed!”

“Later you’ll meet the others and then you’ll feel better.”

What others?”

“You didn’t think you and I were the only ones in the family crypt, did you?” the old woman asked.

“I didn’t think at all! I’m not able to think! Whenever I think, I think my head will burst right open!”

“Time now to rest,” the old woman said, and then she was gone as effortlessly as she had arrived.

There was a lapse then, a cessation, as of a heavy curtain being drawn. When this nothingness ended (and who knows how long it lasted because in this place there is no time?) the same old woman was leading Ottilie by the hand to meet the rest of the family.

She felt shy when she saw a group of strangers looking at her. Not surprisingly, they all carried the glow inside them. (Without the glow, she wouldn’t have known they were there.)

Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they entered the spirit world. (They went over a waterfall in a rowboat and drowned on a flawless June day.) They looked at Ottilie with wide-eyed wonder and then ran off as if they had important business to attend to.

Great-grandfather was tall and broad, wearing a dress suit, sporting the elaborate mustache and side whiskers for which he was known. (He had a lot of money when he was alive. It was he who built the family crypt in the first place so he could have all his family together.) He smiled at Ottilie and patted her on the head and then his interest seemed to drift elsewhere.

The old woman who had first met Ottilie was great-grandmother, wife of great-grandfather. She was first in the family crypt and since then had acted as hostess to all the others. She took Ottilie by the hand and twirled her around as at a dance so everybody could get a look at her.

Uncle Evan, great-grandfather’s son, was handsome in his military uniform. (He came to the spirit world in Cuba when a bullet struck him in the neck during the Spanish-American War. He carried himself stiffly because he was a little vain of his wound.) He smiled at Ottilie and shook her hand politely and then receded into the background.

Aunt Katherine was a sad-faced woman carrying her baby, Augustus. He had been in the spirit world for three decades when aunt Katherine arrived. Since being reunited, aunt Katherine held Augustus in her arms and refused to part with him. Now the two of them would be together forever without end.

A formidable woman was Aunt Zel, great-grandfather’s sister. She had an elaborate coiffure piled high and a stunning array of jewelry on neck, fingers, ears and wrists. By her side always was her husband, Little Louie. (People called him Little Louie to distinguish him from his father, Big Louie.) He was eight inches shorter than aunt Zel, with only his right arm. (His left arm had been lost not on the field of battle but from the bite of a skunk.)

Uncle Jordan wore a dress suit with a diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Ottilie on each cheek and then he was gone. He avoided being around the other family members for very long because none of them approved of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent money freely that wasn’t his, and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.

Cousin Phillip’s appendix burst when he was only thirty-two. Immediately after he entered the spirit world, his young wife, Odette, married a man she hardly knew by the name of Milt Clausen. Odette was not in the family crypt and never would be. Cousin Phillip had renounced all women, bitter that his lovely young Odette had not honored his memory by staying a widow.

Cousin Gilbert was sixteen when he entered the spirit world as the result of a crushed larynx that he sustained in an impromptu game of keep-it-away with some of his friends. Ottilie immediately saw cousin Gilbert as a kindred spirit. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s. When he touched her hand, she felt a connection she hadn’t felt with any of the others.

“How do you like being a ghost?” he asked her.

She shook her head and looked down, not knowing what to say.

“It was the same for me when I first came here,” he said. “I didn’t know why God would have me die so young. We learn not to ask why but just to accept things as they are.”

“I don’t like it here,” she said with tears starting again, but she wasn’t sure if cousin Gilbert heard her.

Before moving on, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I can show you around if you like. There’s a lot more than just this.” He held out his arms to take in the whole family crypt.

“If you find you have the time,” she managed to say, “I think that would be quite lovely.”

There were others after cousin Gilbert, but the truth was Odette was getting tired and wasn’t able to remember them all, as they all blended together into a blur.

Then the curtain of darkness fell again and there was profound rest and peace, which is what the afterlife is all about.

When next she saw cousin Gilbert, he showed her, much to her delight, that she could leave the family crypt at will (hers and not somebody else’s). All she had to do was press her body against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it. He tried to explain the laws of physics involved, but she didn’t understand what he was talking about.

The cemetery was much larger than Ottilie imagined. Gilbert took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a tall, handsome policeman with a handlebar mustache who loved to tell stories about apprehending desperate criminals; a Civil War soldier who shook hands with Abraham Lincoln and spent ten minutes engaged in conversation with him; a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept away everything in its path”); a governor of the state who aspired to be president but never was; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire (all buried in the same grave); a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.

“He loves to have somebody to talk to,” cousin Gilbert explained.

On one of their forays outside the crypt, they came upon a funeral on a hillside that resembled, with all the attendees dressed in black, an aggregation of crows.

“This is the fun part,” Gilbert said with a chortle.

He walked among the mourners, pretending to kiss or touch or put his arm around certain of them. He also demonstrated the technique of coming up quickly behind them and making the more sensitive of them turn around to see who—or what—was there.

“They sense I’m there but when they turn around they’re not so sure.”

He made her laugh when he floated over a couple of old ladies in large feathered hats and, assuming a reclining position over them, pretended to pat them on the sides of their heads.

“I, for one, love being a ghost!” he said.

“Can I fly, too?” Ottilie asked.

“We don’t really fly like a duck going south for the winter. What we do is float. We float because we’re lighter than air.”

“Can I try it?” Ottilie asked.

“You can do it if you want,” he said.

He demonstrated his floating technique and they spent the afternoon floating all over the cemetery.

“Maybe there are some good things about being a spirit,” Ottilie said.

“Of course there are!”

“No more head colds, sore throats or stomach cramps. No more trips to the doctor or dentist. No more nightmares or math quizzes. No more being made to play badminton with my little cousins. No more boring church sermons that make everybody cranky, and no more liver and onions or squash ever again!”

Cousin Gilbert laughed, but then Ottilie started thinking about all the good things she had left behind, such as her cats and her beautiful room at home and her mother and father and brother and all her friends, and she started to cry.

“I think it’s time to go back,” cousin Gilbert said.

Ottilie began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with cousin Gilbert or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she was very lucky and saw them.

She recognized father’s automobile of which he was so proud (he was the first on his street to own one), and then she saw who was riding inside: father, mother and her brother Boyd. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it as it turned out of the cemetery and into traffic.

She held on until father pulled the automobile into the driveway of the old house. She was happy to see that everything looked exactly the same. The first thing she did was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there and seemed healthy and happy, halfway on their way to being grown. She cried when she realized they recognized her. She longed to pick them up and nuzzle them against her face and hear their sweet purring.

Her room upstairs was the same. Everything was just as she left it, the books and pencils on her desk, the dolls and stuffed animals on the bed and the chair, the pictures on the wall, the lamp, the rocking chair, the clothes hanging neatly in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.

While mother, father and Boyd were having dinner in the dining room, Ottilie walked around the table, stopping and putting her hands on the back of each chair, experiencing the odd sensation of being in the same room with those closest to her in life and their not knowing it.

It felt good to be home, but she knew things could never be the same again. She could only observe life going on around her and not be a part of it. But still, wasn’t it better than nothing?

Since she dwelt in the spirit world, time, of course, didn’t exist. All time was the same. A minute was the same as an hour, a day the same as a year. In the time that was no time, her brother grew up, got a job in another state and left home. Mother and father grew old and frail. At ninety-one years, father died in his own bed and mother was left alone.

On winter evenings, while mother sat and read or knitted, or sometimes played the piano, Ottilie was nearby.

“I’m here, mother!” she said. “Don’t you see me? I want you to know you’re not alone!”

At times she was certain mother knew she was there but at other times she wasn’t so sure.

In time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furniture moved out. Another family took up residence in the house, with four children, two dogs and no cats.

Ottilie couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers, even if she was just a spirit, so she went back to the family crypt and was glad for it. Great-grandmother was right: it was where she now belonged.

Since time didn’t exist in the spirit world, cousin Gilbert and great-grandmother and the others didn’t realize Ottilie had been gone, although, in the world of the living it would have been decades.

There were additions to the family crypt, of course, in all the time that was no time. Great-grandmother had a surprise for Ottilie: Mother and father were there with their own glows, and the best part of it was that they were all on the same side of the divide between life and death now, and there would be no more leaving-taking for any of them.

After Ottilie greeted mother and father with many tears, profuse outpourings of affection and much joy, they revealed that they had yet another surprise for her: all her cats, every one she had ever owned in her life, were there for her to pet and play with and snuggle any time she felt like it. She had never believed that such happiness existed!

Now that Ottilie had everything she wanted, she could settle down to a life of eternity in the family crypt with her loved ones. Maybe some day they would all move on to heaven, with its floating clouds, celestial music and occasional glimpses of the saints, but for now they would just have to do without those things. 

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp 

State Line

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State Line ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post.)

My name is Charles A. Rilke. Some people call me Charlie but mostly I’m known as just plain Charles. I had been married for twelve years and had two children. We lived the American dream in a mortgaged-to-the-hilt ranch house in the suburbs. I had a job I didn’t like very much as an editor at a publishing firm. I had been with the company for seven years and had been passed over for promotion in favor of younger, less-experienced people. I hated every minute I spent in the corporate world. I wanted to throw everything down and become a writer. Not practical, you say? You’re probably right.

Every morning I got into my aging Pontiac and drove the twelve miles to work. The morning drive could be fraught with drama, depending on the weather, time of year and traffic conditions. A sudden thunder storm, a little bit of rain or unexpected snow flurries? A cardboard box fell off the back of a truck onto the highway? Any ugly and unexpected occurrence on the highway might make me up to an hour late for work. Late again? Don’t worry about it. Just make up the time at the end of the day.

My gas tank was nearly empty, so on Monday morning on my way to work I stopped at Gus Gray’s to fill up. Right away I saw there was a new attendant manning the pumps. He smiled at me as I pulled up and rolled down my window. His name, stitched on the pocket of his shirt, was Trevor.

“Fill it up?” he asked as I rolled down my window.

“Why not?” I said, devil may care.

After he pumped the gas, he cleaned my windshield.

“New here?” I asked.

“I started last week.”

“You like it?”

“Who likes pumping gas?”

“Probably nobody,” I said.

I didn’t think about Trevor again until the next time I needed gas and stopped in at Gus Gray’s. He was standing beside the pumps as if I was the only customer all day. He put the gas in my car and cleaned my windshield and before I left I asked him to check the oil.

As he raised the hood, I got out of the car and stood beside him. I watched him as he bent over under the hood. He checked the oil and said it was okay and closed the hood.

“You’re not like the others,” I said, saying what I was thinking without considering whether it was appropriate or not.

“How’s that?” he said.

“Well, for one thing, you look clean.”

He laughed. “Nobody notices.”

I notice.”

“People just want their gas. They don’t care if the person who pumps it is clean or not.”

He was about thirty or thirty-two. He had brown hair, what little I could see of it under his cap. His face was covered with brown-blond stubble, just enough to look good on him. He was trim-waisted, shirt tucked neatly into his pants. He wore new-looking work boots.

“Gus Gray knows who to put out front to attract the customers.”

“Are you flirting with me?” he asked.

“Of course not!” I said. “What do you think I am?”

The next time I went into Gus Gray’s, it was for an oil change. I hoped Trevor would be there. It was raining, so he was inside at the cash register. I gave him the keys to my car and sat down inside while he went to move my car. When he came back in, he seemed to have forgotten I was there. I got up and bought a soda out of the vending machine.

“Slow day?” I asked.

“What?” he said.

“I said it’s a slow day because of the rain.”

“Oh, yeah. People don’t get out if they don’t have to.”

“Then why am I here?” I said.

He smiled and shrugged and I felt like a babbling fool for trying to be clever.

I sat back down with my soda and, after I had drunk about half of it, he said, “Gus is off today so I have to take care of any customers.”

“It’s always nice when the boss is gone, isn’t it?” I said.

“Yeah. Gus is all right but he runs a tight ship.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“You know what they say, though. It’s a job.”

“I don’t like my job very much, either,” I said.

“What do you do?”

“I work for Ellis and Peacock downtown.”

“What’s Ellis and Peacock?”

“Publishing house.”

“You’re a publisher?”

“I’m an editor.”

“What does an editor do?”

“I make sure copy is ready for publication.”

“What’s ‘copy’?”

“Stuff that other people write.”

“If you don’t like it, why don’t you quit?”

“I have a mortgage and two kids.”

“And a wife?”

“Yeah, a wife, too.”

“Most people have at least one wife running around,” he said.

“How about you?” I asked. “Do you have a wife?”

“No, not me,” he said.

“Smart man.”

Over the next three months or so I saw Trevor every time I stopped in for gas. We usually exchanged a few words of no importance that I remembered days later. He knew me from other customers and recognized me (at least my car) when I drove in, but other than that I had no way of knowing if he had ever given me a thought.

Foolishly (or not), I began thinking a lot about Trevor and even dreaming about him. When I turned off the light at night I saw his beard-stubbled face above his crisp work shirt, his clean fingernails and his one chipped tooth when he smiled. I wanted to know him better. I wanted to speak to him away from the station. Would he think I was a lunatic if I asked him to meet me in a public place somewhere? Would he tell Gus Gray and have me banned from the station? Would they call the police and have me arrested?

Why Trevor, you might ask, out of all the others? Well, I didn’t have an answer for that. I think, from the first moment I saw him, I saw past the shiny surface to what was underneath and recognized him for a fellow lost traveler.

On a Friday morning, looking forward to two days at home doing as I pleased, I stopped in for gas. I had finally decided to ask Trevor to have lunch with me one day or to meet me after work for a drink.

He wasn’t waiting at the pump as usual and he didn’t come bounding out of the station. The weasel they called Johnny Walker Red was there instead. He had long red hair that made him look like Rita Hayworth. I was sickened at the thought of having anybody but Trevor pump my gas.

“Where’s Trevor?” I asked Johnny Walker Red.

“Who?”

“Trevor.”

“Don’t know no Trevor.”

“He works here.”

“Oh, yeah! I forgot his name. I think Gus said he’s sick or something. In the hospital.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“I dunno.”

“When’s he coming back?”

“I dunno. I ain’t his keeper.”

I paid for my gas and went on to work. I felt low and unhappy all day long. I only wanted people to leave me alone. I couldn’t wait to get back home in the evening so I could be alone with my thoughts.

I waited a few days and went back to the station, hoping Trevor would have returned. This time Gus Gray waited on me.

“Where’s Trevor?” I asked him.

“He called and asked for a few days off. I think he’s been in the hospital.”

“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”

“Nope.”

“Is he coming back?”

“I guess so. He didn’t say.”

It was about this time that I started having trouble at work, which involved enforced overtime. We had missed a couple of deadlines recently and the boss was ready to bring out the guillotine, set it up in the lobby, and start using it. We were all going to have to knuckle down and work extra hours every day just to get caught up. It moved me one step closer to quitting but not without punching a few people in the nose first.

The next time I stopped in to fill up at Gus Gray’s, Trevor was standing at the pump. I was so happy to see him I could have jumped out of the car and embraced him.

“May I help you, sir,” he asked, as I rolled down my window.

“You’ve been gone,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“I missed you.”

“I also missed seeing you,” he said.

“Fill it up,” I said.

When he brought me the change from the twenty-dollar bill I used to pay for my gas, he gave me one of Gus Gray’s business cards. He had crossed through the print on the front and written his name and phone number on the back.

“In case you ever want to talk,” he said.

I drove on to work, happier than I had been for long time. The good feeling lasted through the entire day. I was kind to my co-workers and felt calm and relaxed. I took an extra long lunch, by myself, and walked three blocks away from the office and had a good fish dinner at a better place than I usually go.

That evening, while my wife and kids were watching TV, I went to the phone with the card in my hand. Heart pounding, I picked up the receiver and then put it back again. I hadn’t planned on calling him at that moment; it was only a dry run to show myself I could do it if I wanted to.

On top of all the overtime at work, I began having trouble at home. My wife and I began arguing about small things. She had a biting tongue and so did I. A lot of the self-restraint I prided myself on had left me. I hated arguing and bickering but I couldn’t seem to help myself. My parents had had a miserable marriage and I seemed to be following their example.

The fight of all fights came on a Sunday. I had been hoping to have a peaceful day at home, resting up for the upcoming week of hell at work, but my wife and I started arguing at the breakfast table. After several hours of anger and tension, I packed a bag and went to a motel so I could be alone.

After I checked into the motel, I had a nap and then a quiet meal in the motel restaurant. After dinner, I sat down on the bed and called Trevor’s number. He answered on the third ring.

He knew from the first word who I was. I didn’t have to explain myself. He said he was expecting me to call any time.

“Gus fired me,” he said.

“Why?”

“I’m too slow. I spend too long with each customer, while other customers are waiting, and I’m not assertive enough. He wanted me to push products to customers. Spark plugs, fan belts, wiper blades, motor oil, and all that kind of stuff. I told him I’m not a salesman, so he fired me.”

“I’m going away and I want you to go with me,” I said.

“What?”

“I’m going to quit my job in the morning. I hate it and I’m tired of being unhappy. I’ll pick you up wherever you say at nine o’clock, so pack a bag.”

“That’s a little impulsive, isn’t it?” he said.

“Probably, but I don’t care.”

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long will we be gone?”

“I don’t know.”

In the morning I was up at six o’clock. After breakfast, I called my place of employment and instructed the secretary to tell the boss I was quitting. I’d never have to see or speak to that evil son of a bitch again. I’d mail them a letter of resignation later if they had to have it in writing.

I put my stuff in the car and checked out of the motel. I stopped at the bank and withdrew eight hundred dollars in cash from my savings account and arrived at the address Trevor had given me at ten minutes to nine. He was waiting outside with a small suitcase. I asked him how he was, but he didn’t seem to want to talk so that was altogether fine with me. I didn’t feel much like talking in the morning either.

I didn’t know where I was going. I went out through town to the highway and headed west.

At lunchtime I had driven a hundred and twenty miles. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the highway at the edge of a small town. We sat across from each other in a sunny booth.

He told me a little bit about himself. His parents, both dead, had been alcoholics. His mother kicked him out of the house as soon as he graduated from high school. He had had an older brother who died from a drug overdose. He had been married briefly at twenty-one to a girl he hardly knew. The marriage lasted less than a year. For the last ten years or so he had gone from job to job, looking for something, he wasn’t sure what.

“A life of failure and unhappiness,” he said.

“So is everybody else’s,” I said.

I asked him why he had been in the hospital and reluctantly he told me. When he was three years old, he had rheumatic fever and it left him with rheumatic heart disease, from which he would probably die by the age of forty. He made it clear he didn’t want sympathy or pity.

“When it comes, I’ll be ready for it,” he said.

I drove all day in a westerly direction, stopping only at mealtimes and to fill my car up with gas. Neither one of us talked about where we were going or what we’d do when we got there.

At eleven o’clock that night, after driving for fourteen hours, I had to stop. We found a quiet, inviting-looking motel with red-and-green neon signs just off the highway and I engaged a room.

We talked for a while and watched an old black-and-white movie on TV. When the movie was over, he said he wanted to take a shower. When he came out of the bathroom, he got into bed naked. I kissed him and he let me. Finally I had the thing I had dreamed about.

After a long silence, he asked, “What state are we in?”

“Does it matter?” I said.

“Not as long as I’m with you.”

“Do you want to go back?” I asked.

“Nothing to go back for. No family, no home to speak of, no job.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll find another job.”

“I don’t want another job. I’ve had plenty of jobs. I’ve reached the end. Of something.”

“What are you saying?”

“Ever thought about suicide?” he asked.

“I’ve thought about a lot of things.”

“I read a story once about a suicide pact between two men.”

“A suicide pact?”

“Yeah. It seemed like a good idea.”

“Why?”

I knew what he meant. I wanted to see what he’d say.

“Think how lonely it is if you do it by yourself,” he said. “If you do it with somebody you care about, it’s not so lonely.”

I showed him the gun I had in my suitcase.

“I have two bullets,” I said.

He smiled as if he thought I was making a joke and then he knew I wasn’t.

“It’s all right with me,” he said.

“Are you sure it’s what you want?”

“I’ve wanted it for a long time. Make sure the bullet does its job.”

“At point-blank range? How could I miss?”

“Wait until I’m asleep.”

“In the back of the head,” I said. “You won’t feel a thing.”

I sat there in the chair beside the bed with the gun in my right hand. He turned over in the bed away from me and pulled the blanket up under his chin and went to sleep.

There was just enough light coming in from the window that I could see him. I watched him all night, listening to him breathe and sigh, and I knew he was the only person in the world I had ever loved.

He slept through the night and when he woke up a little after daylight he turned and looked at me.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“It’s time to get up and get dressed,” I said.

We were on our way again in a half-hour. We crossed one state line and then another and then another. I would keep driving until I came to the end of the North American continent and when that happened I’d know what came next.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp