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Listen to What I am About to Say

Listen to What I am About to Say ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The first lesson was a lecture in a small room that smelled like wet towels. Nelson Hess hated it already. He sat in the back of the room observing the fifteen or so other boys who, like him, were lucky enough to be going to learn how to swim. They were all forceful, confident types; they swaggered when they walked and their voices were loud and bursting with authority. They couldn’t wait to get their suits on and get into the water.

When Boss walked into the room, the voices stopped. He was a stocky, middle-aged man with a face like a movie hoodlum. He wore a sweatshirt and black shorts and around his neck a whistle. He had more hair on his thick legs than he did on his head.

“Now, beginning swimming is not easy,” Boss barked, the gruff drill sergeant whipping the raw recruits into shape. “Most of you are not in shape for swimming and we’re going to have to get you into shape. I hope none of you are babies or whiners because if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a baby or a whiner. Or a sissy. Sissies are even worse. So if there are any sissies, whiners or babies among you, you are welcome to leave right now!”

The boys attested confidently that they were manly enough for what was coming.

“No babies?” Boss asked, holding up all his fingers. “No whiners? No sissies? No? Well, good, then! Let’s get started. He took a deep breath and smiled sadistically.

“Everybody must have his own suit and his own towel. If you arrive for your lesson without either of these two items, you will not be allowed to participate. You will fall behind and end up failing the class and we don’t like failures. Now, do we have any failures here?”

No!” the boys shouted.

“You will not at any time ask to borrow someone else’s towel if for some reason you do not have your own. That is an unsanitary practice that we do not engage in. Does everybody understand this simple rule?”

Yes!

“Good! Now, your suit may be any color you like. Except pink. I wouldn’t recommend pink.”

The boys laughed appreciatively.

“And it must be presentable.”

What does that mean?” somebody asked.

“Well, you don’t want your manly parts hanging out, now, do you?”

The boys laughed loud and long. Boss was one of them. He was a good guy!

“Now, we all know what horseplay is, don’t we? That’s another thing that will not be tolerated here. You will have fun, of course, but you will walk and not run at all times when you are near the pool and you will never play grab-ass with another swimmer, either in or out of the water.”

Hah-hah-hah!

“Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand what I’m saying?”

“No!”

“Good. Now, whenever you hear my whistle, whether you are in the water or out of it, you will stop what you are doing and listen to what I have to say. The whistle is the signal for you to stop and pay attention. Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand this?”

No!”

“All right, then! Over the next eight weeks, each and every one of you will learn how to swim like a champion. Are we all champions?”

Yes!

“Is there any one of you who doesn’t firmly believe in his heart that he is a champion?”

Nelson Hess took a deep breath and when he exhaled his breath was shaky. He wanted to raise his hand and dismiss himself, say he was having chest pains or had had a sudden premonition of the end of the world, but the time was past for such a move. Everybody would laugh at him and Boss would deliberately embarrass him.

“Now, at the end of your eight weeks,” Boss continued, “you will take a final exam.”

A collective groan went up.

“It’s not the kind of exam you take sitting at a desk with a pencil in your hand, though. It’s an exam that will consist of swimming the length of the pool, from the shallow to the deep, and back again. And that’s not all. Each of you will be required to dive at least once off the high dive.”

“How high?” somebody asked.

“Thirty feet.”

“What if we can’t do it?”

“Then you fail the class. You will have wasted your time and mine and made a complete ass of yourself in the bargain. Is there anybody here who thinks he can’t do it?”

No, sir!

“All right, then. Be here on Friday at two o’clock, suited up and ready to swim. And that doesn’t mean two minutes after two, either. It means two on the dot!”

Yes, sir!

After the others had left in high spirits, Nelson hung back to have a word with Boss.

“I won’t be here on Friday, sir,” he said. “Or any other day.”

Boss looked at him, seeing him for the first time, and frowned. “Why the hell not?” he asked.

“Well, this was all kind of a mistake.”

“What was?”

“My being signed up for a swimming class. I don’t want to learn how to swim.”

“Why did you sign up for a swimming class if you don’t want to learn how to swim?”

“My father signed me up. Without checking with me first.”

“Don’t you think swimming would be a good skill for a young fellow like you to have?”

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid of being in the water over my head. I’m afraid of drowning.”

“Do you think I’d let you drown?”

“I don’t know, sir. Would you?”

“If you have to ask that question, you’re in the wrong place.”

“Not only am I afraid of the water, I’m also afraid of heights. I could never jump thirty feet into the water.”

“That’s what swimming class is about. Helping you overcome your fears. Wouldn’t you like to reconsider?”

“No, sir. I made up my mind the minute I walked into this room.”

“It’s irreversible, you know. You can’t change your mind again. There are other people who want your spot.”

“I understand that, sir!”

“So, when you tell your father that you quit swimming before it even started, don’t make him think he can make a couple of phone calls and pull some strings to get you back in again.”

“That’s perfectly all right, sir. I understand completely. This is absolutely the end of the line for me when it comes to swimming.”

“You won’t get your money back. The tuition is nonrefundable.”

“I understand, sir. That’s perfectly all right.”

“What name?”

“What?”

“What’s your name?”

“Nelson Hess Junior. It’ll be under the H’s.”

Boss opened the class roll and marked out Nelson’s name. “I knew a Nelson Hess in high school,” he said.

“That would be Nelson Hess Senior,” Nelson said. “He’s my father.”

“I see. Give him my regards.”

Boss went out the door and Nelson was left alone in the quiet room. He laughed to himself, as he often did when he found himself alone. He felt weak with relief at having escaped the high dive, but, of course, that was just a small part of it.

At the dinner table that evening, Nelson Junior knew that Nelson Senior would be curious about the first day of swimming. It came about ten minutes into the deli fried chicken and potato salad.

“Well, how did it go today?” Nelson Senior asked.

“How did what go?”

“The swimming lesson, of course! What else?”

“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” Nelson Junior said, “and I’m sure you’re not going to like it.”

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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The Third Day of Winter

The Third Day of Winter ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story was published in KY Story’s Offbeat Christmas Story Anthology and is a re-post.)

They had a little party at work, complete with cake and champagne (Here’s to another successful year!), and then everybody was allowed to leave for the day. It was the day before Christmas and nobody had to be back to work for three days. What a festive mood the downtrodden workers were in! There was dancing on tabletops, furtive kissing in corners, drunken laughter.

As Vesper left the office, it was just beginning to snow so she decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. She had always liked snow, especially at Christmastime, and had seen too little of it in recent years. She stopped on the way home at a little market and bought a dozen oranges and a small box of chocolate-covered cherries. As she was paying for her purchases, the old man behind the counter gave her a sprig of mistletoe.

When she reached her building, she felt agreeably fatigued and slightly frostbitten. As she climbed the stairs to her third-floor apartment, she couldn’t help noticing how quiet the building was. The usual loud voices, TVs, crying babies and yapping dogs were absent. She seemed to be the only tenant who hadn’t gone out of town for the holiday.

She unlocked the door, kicked off her wet shoes and hung up her coat. It was just beginning to get dark outside so she turned on all the lights. She tied a ribbon around her mistletoe and hung it in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room; plugged in the lights on her little artificial Christmas tree that was made to look real but wasn’t fooling anybody with its brown-and-green plasticity. She stood back and admired the comfort, the appeal, of her little home. It was the first home she had ever had that was hers and hers alone without belonging to somebody else.

“I’m really very lucky,” she said to herself as she stood in the middle of the room.

Already she was missing her friend Marlene at work, even though she had just left her a short time earlier. She wanted to call her and tell her about walking home in the snow and about the mistletoe. She knew that Marlene would enjoy hearing those things and would laugh at them in her usual way.

She went to the phone, not to call Marlene—she would be busy now with family—but to call somebody else.

“Hello?” she said when she heard her mother’s voice, sounding very faint and far away.

“Who’s that?” her mother said.

“It’s Vesper.”

“Is anything wrong?”

“No. I just got home from work and I wanted to call you and wish you a merry Christmas.”

“You know I don’t go in for that stuff very much.”

“I know. Did you get the silver pin I sent you?”

“Yes, I got it.”

“I thought it would look good on your black coat.”

“Oh, I don’t have that coat anymore. It was a little too funereal for me.”

“It was a beautiful coat.”

“If I had known you liked it so much, I would have given it to you.”

“It doesn’t matter. How’s Stan?”

“We’ve separated. I haven’t seen him such summer.”

“Are you getting a divorce?”

“Oh, I don’t know. There’s a new man in my life now. His name is Milt. He’s talked about marrying me, but I don’ think I want to get married again. I’ve been down that road too many times.”

“Any news of Weston?”

“Nothing, except that he’s living the bohemian life and wants nothing to do with his family.”

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

“I will, dear. I really have to run now. I’m meeting some people for dinner. I have a terrible headache and don’t really feel like going out, but I said I’d go and I don’t want to break my word.”

“All right, mother. Goodbye.”

As Vesper hung up the phone she was aware of the hurtful omissions in the conversation. Her mother hadn’t bothered to ask her how she was or what plans she had for Christmas, if she had someone to spend it with or if she was going to be alone. Those things wouldn’t occur to her—she simply didn’t bother herself too much with her grown children. She had delivered them safely to adulthood and that’s all that anybody could reasonably expect.

Vesper went into the kitchen to see what she might dig up for dinner, but the prospect of having the usual everyday fare on Christmas Eve and then dozing on the couch in front of the TV until time to go to bed was suddenly dismaying to her. She didn’t have to do what she always did, just because she always did it. She could make Christmas Eve into something special, even if she did have to spend it alone.

She went into the bedroom and changed her clothes quickly before she gave herself the chance to change her mind. She made herself ready to go out again (boots, scarf, gloves, coat) and turned off all the lights except for one small lamp beside the door.

She began walking, not knowing for certain where she was going. The snow had accumulated to three or four inches and was still coming down, the wind blowing it along the sidewalk and causing it to drift along the building fronts. Nothing made it seem more like Christmas.

Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger one, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men looked down into the barrel, but when she passed near them they turned and looked at her. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street every day, ragged and undernourished. The younger man was thin, medium-tall and sturdy-looking. He wasn’t wearing a hat (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint) and he wore an enormous overcoat that went down past his knees, with the collar turned up to partly cover his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, long ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife. These details about him registered on her brain in the few seconds she looked at him and then she looked away.

She came to a brightly lighted drugstore and stopped and looked through the frosty window at the rows of displays and the people moving about as if they were underwater. After a moment of indecision, she went inside, passing a perfume display over which two fat women were talking loudly, and went to a rack of magazines in the back. She picked up a magazine, thumbed through it and put it back.

The wall behind the magazine rack was a mirror. As she reached out her hand to put a magazine back on the rack where she had found it, she saw the reflection of a man in the mirror. He was half-a-foot taller than she was and standing behind her, to her right, as though looking over her shoulder. Thinking herself in the way, she stepped aside to give the man more room and that’s when she realized it was the same young man with the scar on his face who had been standing over the fire in the barrel. She felt embarrassed at the thought that he might speak to her, so she left the drugstore and went back out into the freezing night.

She walked on from the drugstore for a block-and-a-half and when she had to stop at a corner with a clot of other people to wait for the light to turn, she took a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the young man had come out of the drugstore after her. She saw no one, so she knew it was just a coincidence that he had been in the drugstore at the same time she was. He wasn’t following her after all. Why would she have ever thought he was?

A little restaurant with the smell of garlic and twinkling lights in the window attracted her attention. It was a place that ordinarily would have been too expensive for her, but she was tired of walking and went inside.

The lights in the restaurant were very dim, giving the place a dreamlike quality after the snowy street. A smiling waiter seated her at a small table near the front and helped her remove her coat. He handed her a menu and when she seemed to be having trouble making up her mind, he suggested fried calamari and polpette di baccala. She didn’t know what it was but readily acceded to his suggestion anyway. Since it was Christmas, she was glad to be able to order something unusual and exotic that she could tell Marlene about.

When the waiter asked her if she wanted a bottle of wine, she said yes and as soon as he brought it she started drinking copious amounts of it and eating delicious garlicky breadsticks out of a little basket while she waited for her food.

The food was very much to her liking but what she liked most was the wine. She ended up drinking the entire bottle before, during and after the meal.

When all the food on her plate was gone, she felt happy and fortunate, happy to be alive and fortunate to have a good-paying job that would allow her to have an extravagant meal on a special occasion. She thanked the waiter effusively, gave him a more-than-generous tip, and wished him a merry Christmas. He helped her into her coat and opened the door for her as she left.

In the next block she slipped on an icy spot on the sidewalk and fell sideways into a pile of snow, unhurt, but attracting some unwelcome attention. As a small crowd of people gathered around to see if she was all right and to help her to stand up again, she saw coming toward her the man in the long coat with the scar on his face. Someone blocked her view for a few seconds and when the way was clear again he was gone. Was she seeing people who weren’t really there? It must have been a result of drinking all that wine.

It was not late at all for Christmas Eve and, in spite of the snow and cutting wind, she wasn’t ready to go home just yet. She would make a night of it. She would have lots to tell Marlene and her other friends at work how she spent Christmas Eve while they were all with their families. They wouldn’t exactly envy her but would admire her for having a good time on her own without having to depend on somebody else.

Four or five blocks farther on was the Odeon movie theatre. She was delighted to see that the show was just about to begin. She paid her admission and went inside and took a seat in the orchestra among a handful of other people. She dozed during the previews of coming attractions and a featurette about a Christmas tree farm, but when the feature began she was fully awake.

In the feature presentation, a woman named Mildred was released from a mental hospital at Christmastime. She had to become reacquainted with her children because she had been away so long they almost forgot she existed. She tried to resume her role in life as wife, mother and society hostess, but she had terrible nightmares and hallucinations that showed she should never have been released from the mental hospital at all. What was even worse, though, was that her fifteen-year-old daughter, Veronica, was showing signs that she had inherited Mildred’s mental illness. She would put her dress on backwards without even knowing it and stand up during mealtimes and scream there were Martians on the roof. These were the exact same things that Mildred had done that caused her to be sent to the mental hospital in the first place when Veronica was in grammar school.

When the picture was over, Vesper sighed heavily, put on her coat and went back out into the cold. She was feeling tired now and the movie, although she had enjoyed it, made her feel like crying. It had been a lovely evening, though.

It was nearly eleven o’clock. The snow had stopped but it seemed colder now because the wind was blowing. When she thought of the long way she had to walk to get back home, she wished she was already there, relaxing in her pajamas, drinking hot chocolate and listening to Christmas music on the radio.

The streets that had been so crowded before were almost deserted now. Everybody had gone home to celebrate Christmas. A drunk stepped out of the shadows and asked her a dollar but she sidestepped him and kept going without looking back.

Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger one, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men looked down into the barrel, but when she passed near them they turned and looked at her. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street every day, ragged and undernourished. The younger man was thin, medium-tall and sturdy-looking. He wasn’t wearing a hat (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint) and he wore an enormous overcoat that went down past his knees, with the collar turned up to partly cover his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, long ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife.

As she walked past these two men, looking straight ahead, the younger man disengaged himself from the older and began following her. She didn’t hear  a sound—his footsteps in the snow were silent—but she knew, she felt, that he was a few paces behind her.

She came to her building and climbed the stairs to the third floor, opened the door with her key, let herself in, and reclosed the door without locking it.  Without turning on any lights, she went to the window overlooking the front of the building and looked down. Standing there in the snow, looking up at her, was the young man in the long overcoat with the crescent-shaped scar on his cheek.

She wrote on a piece of note paper from beside the phone these words: Come up, apartment 320. She wadded the paper into a little ball and opened the window just wide enough to insert the ball of paper and let it drop to the ground. She stood there in the dark and watched the man approach the paper, pick it up and read it. She took a couple of deep breaths and in a few seconds she heard his footsteps on the stairs, exactly in time to the beating of her own heart.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Another Mile from Home

Another Mile from Home ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this short story earlier with a different title.) 

We were lost again. We had a map but didn’t know how to use it. I had been driving earlier but now Drusus was driving. His wife, Alma, sat between us, and I sat next to the window. Mama and Chickie were in the back.

The seat wasn’t long enough for mama to stretch out all the way so when she needed to lie down she used Chickie’s lap as a pillow. We were all a little worried about mama. She was so thin and now a little stoop-shouldered as if she didn’t have the strength to stand up straight anymore. We had to stop every now and then for her to get out of the car and walk around. She was car sick and sometimes she vomited. I couldn’t help but notice one time that there was some blood coming up.

“Sing to me, honey,” mama said.

“Oh, mama, I don’t want to sing now,” Chickie said. “I’m supposed to be resting my voice anyhow.”

“Are you nervous about the radio contest?” Alma asked.

“A little jittery,” Chickie said. “I’m trying not to think too much about it.”

“I just know you’re going to win with your lovely voice.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Drusus said. “There’s thirty or forty other people think they’re going to win, too.”

“I’ll do my best,” Chickie said. “That’s all I can do.”

The old woman giving Chickie singing lessons had taught her some opera from a piece called Madame Butterfly, but she was best at singing popular tunes like “Pennies from Heaven” and “Ten Cents a Dance.” She could sing anything, though, even church music; that’s the kind of voice she had.

“And I just know that doctor at the clinic is going to make you well again, Mrs. McCreary,” Alma said.

“I’m not sure he’ll even see me,” mama said. “We leave it in the hands of the Lord.”

“We’re praying for you and Chickie both.”

“He’ll see you, mama!” Drusus said. “We’ll make him see you.”

“How you gonna do that, son?”

“I don’t know. We’ll think of something. Rough him up a little bit, if we have to.”

We all laughed but mama groaned. “He’ll think you’re a bunch of ruffians,” she said.

“We are a bunch of ruffians.”

We came to a tiny town with a cutoff to a different highway. Drusus took the cutoff a little too fast. Mama almost fell to the floor and gave a little yelp. Alma fell over against me and pulled herself away as if I was poison to the touch.

“We’re not in no race, honey!” she said to Drusus.

“Well, this is it!” Drusus said. “This is the right way now. I just know it. We are officially not lost anymore. We are found!”

Happy days are here again,” sang Chickie. “The skies above are clear again. So let us sing a song of cheer again. Happy days are here again!”

We passed a sign then that told how far it was to the city. “Only two hundred and thirty-seven more miles,” I said.

“I don’t know if I can last that long,” Chickie said. “Seems like we’ve already gone about a thousand miles.

“We’re doing it all for you,” Drusus said.

“I know,” Chickie said. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“How about you, Wynn?” Drusus asked me. “Do you want to drive for a while?”

“No thanks,” I said. “You’re doing fine.”

I went to sleep with my head against the door and woke up when we had a blowout and Drusus pulled off the highway to change the tire.

We all got out of the car, including mama. She took a few steps and smoked a cigarette and said she was feeling a little better. She wanted to know what state we were in. When I told her I wasn’t sure, she laughed.

We took advantage of the unscheduled stop to have a drink of water and a bite to eat. We still had some bread left over, Vienna sausages, fruit, cookies and other stuff. Mama didn’t want anything to eat but she drank a little water. Alma spread a blanket on the ground for her and Chickie to sit on. Mama sat for a while and then lay down and looked up into the trees.

“This is nice,” she said, “laying on the ground and not having no tires turning underneath me.”

“I think mama’s sicker than she lets on,” I said to Drusus when we were changing the tire.

“The doctor in the city will fix her up,” he said.

“She’s trying to put a good face on it for Chickie’s sake. She doesn’t want to spoil her chance of singing on the radio.”

“Everything will be all right,” he said. “Don’t worry so much.”

Mama went to sleep on the blanket and we had to wake her up to get her back in the car. I took over driving from there, even though I liked it better when Drusus drove and I could just sit and watch the scenery and think.

We were all tired and we knew we were going to have to stop someplace for the night. We hadn’t made very good time, what with our getting lost and mama being sick and all.

At dusk we stopped at an auto court where, according to the sign, the cabins were clean and cheap. I went into the little office in the front and engaged our room and then we drove around to our cabin, number twelve in the back. With the shade trees, the two rows of trim white cabins, and the azalea bushes everywhere, it was a pretty place and plenty inviting.

We tried to get mama to eat some supper, but she just wanted to go to bed. Alma and Chickie helped to get her out of her clothes and into bed while Drusus and I sat on the front step and smoked.

“If Chickie wins the prize money,” Drusus said, “we can pay back Uncle Beezer the money he advanced us for this trip.”

“We can’t expect her to give up the prize money for that,” I said. “If she wins, I hope she’ll use it to advance her singin’.”

“Advance her singin’ how?”

“Go to the city and live there and meet the right people in the music business, agents and promoters and people like that. She could get a real singing career going for herself.”

“Do you really think she has a chance?”

“You’ve heard her sing,” I said. “Isn’t she as good as anybody you’ve ever heard?”

“Yeah, she’s good,” he said.

“If she wins the money, it’s hers. We can’t touch it.”

“Okay, but maybe she’ll offer part of it to help pay for this little trip.”

“We wouldn’t take it,” I said.

After a couple of minutes in which neither of us spoke, Drusus said, “Alma thinks she’s going to have a baby.”

“A baby!” I said. “You’ve only been married a month!”

“The curse of the married man,” he said.

“What do you mean? Don’t you want it?”

“We’re poor,” he said. “We don’t have anything. Even the car I’m driving belongs to somebody else. If we start off married life havin’ babies left and right, we’ll always be poor. Just like mama and papa.”

“There’s things even poor people can do, I guess, to keep from havin’ so many.”

“I’m not ready to be anybody’s daddy yet. I’m still young.”

I laughed at that line of reasoning. “People are gonna have babies, I guess, no matter what.”

“That’s a lot of comfort.”

“You’re not sorry you married Alma, are you?” I asked.

“Well, no. Not exactly. I probably wouldn’t do it again, though, if I had it to do over.”

“I’ll be sure and tell Alma you said that.”

“Don’t tell anybody about this,” he said. “She doesn’t want anybody to know about the baby just yet, because it makes it look like we had a shotgun wedding. I swear the baby wasn’t on the way yet when we got married.”

“You don’t have to convince me of anything,” I said.

“Not a word to mama or Chickie yet. Alma wants to make sure about the baby before she tells anybody.”

“I won’t breathe a word of it,” I said.

The women took the beds, so Drusus and I had to sleep on the floor of the cabin but I didn’t mind. I was just glad to be able to stretch out and rest my weary bones. I laid down near the screen door where I could feel a cool breeze and hear the trees rustling. After being on the dusty road all day, it felt like heaven.

As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear Chickie softly singing to mama her favorite song: “Deep night, stars in the sky above. Moonlight, lighting our place of love. Night winds seem to have gone to rest. Two eyes, brightly with love are gleaming. Come to my arms, my darling, my sweetheart, my own. Vow that you’ll love me always, be mine alone. Deep night, whispering trees above. Kind night, bringing you nearer, dearer and dearer. Deep night, deep in the arms of love...”

I slept all night long without waking up a single time and woke up at seven in the morning to the sound of the birds singing. I stood up from my makeshift bed on the floor to slip into my shirt and pants and that’s when I saw Chickie and Alma sitting quietly at the foot of the bed where mama lay. Alma was smoking a cigarette and I could tell Chickie had been crying, I knew her so well.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“We can’t wake mama,” Chickie said.

“Is she breathing?”

“I don’t think so.”

“We’d better get a doctor,” I said.

Alma looked at me and shook her head and that’s when I knew mama was dead.

I shook Drusus by the shoulder to wake him up. When I told him what had happened, he had to see for himself. He went over to the bed and put his ear to mama’s chest and then he took Alma’s makeup mirror and held it to mama’s nose. He looked at the mirror and threw it down on the bed like a child with a toy that no longer works.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go another mile from home,” Chickie said.

“We’d better call somebody and tell them what happened,” Alma said.

“No!” Drusus said. “We’re not calling nobody! They’ll ask us a lot of nosy questions. They won’t believe the truth about what really happened, that mama was sick a long time and we were on our way to the city to take her to a clinic. They’ll keep us here and make Chickie miss her chance to sing on the radio.”

“I think he’s right,” I said.

“We can’t go off and leave mama here,” Chickie said.

“Of course not,” Drusus said. “We’re taking her with us.”

After Chickie and Alma got mama dressed, Drusus carried her out to the car across his arms. I opened the door for him and he slid mama into the corner of the back seat with her head held in place on two sides so it wouldn’t wobble. He then took a length of rope and tied it around mama’s chest so she would stay upright and not fall over from the movement of the car. Chickie gave mama’s dark glasses to Drusus to put on her and we found a straw hat that belonged to Uncle Beezer in the trunk and put it on her head. With the hat and the glasses and in her regular clothes, she didn’t look like a dead person.

We all got into the car and Drusus started her up. As we were pulling out of the place, the manager stopped us and leaned in at the window and said he was glad to have had us stay in his establishment and he hoped we had a pleasant journey, wherever we were going. He never noticed or suspected anything unusual about mama.

“I’m glad she died in a pretty place like this instead of on the road,” I said.

“She went quick and peaceful,” Drusus said. “That’s about as much as anybody can expect.

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” Alma said.

Drusus turned around in the seat and said to Chickie, “You’ve got to win the radio contest now. Not for fame or fortune, but for mama’s sake.

When we were on the highway again, going at full speed, Chickie began singing mama’s favorite hymn: “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. When through the woods and forest glades I wander I hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze, then sings my soul, my savior God, to Thee, how great Thou art! How great Thou art! Then sings my soul, my savior God, to Thee, how great Thou art! How great Thou art!

“I felt the baby stir in my womb just then,” Alma said.

Drusus groaned. “I could sure use some ham and eggs,” he said, turning and looking at some cows standing alongside the road.

Nobody said anything after that. Nobody needed to. We all felt good, though, even though everything hadn’t worked out as we hoped. We had the feeling, or at least I did, that nothing was going to stop us now. That old car of ours was sure burning up the miles.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Those Dancing Feet

Those Dancing Feet ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Nine-year-old Edith Mullinex couldn’t keep her legs still and when her legs moved her arms moved and then her whole body moved. When this ceaseless movement turned to dancing, she believed herself to be one of the all-time great dancers of the world. She didn’t know anything about the all-time great dancers of the world, but, whoever they were, she was sure she was better than any of them.

She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon and she danced every chance she got between morning and afternoon. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom and after she had eaten her lump of meatloaf and her cold mashed potatoes and her two canned plums in a puddle of mauve-colored juice, she danced her way back to the fourth-grade classroom, where all of her classmates and her teacher, Miss Divine, watched in open-mouthed wonder as she danced her way to her desk at the back of the room. Stop dancing, people would say, but she just ignored them. She knew they would never be able to understand.

“We have a real dancing problem with little Edith,” Miss Divine told Edith’s mother.

“It’s a phase she’s going through,” Edith’s mother said. “She has somehow got it into her head that she’s one of the all-time great dancers of the world.”

“It’s not normal,” Miss Divine said. “I think it calls for psychiatric evaluation.”

Thirteen-year-old Fairfax taunted Edith mercilessly when she was dancing at home, but she ignored him, as she did all the naysayers. When he tripped her while she was dancing on her way to the kitchen to eat dinner, she made the fall part of her dance and in this way annoyed him even further. When friends of Fairfax’s visited to watch a football game with him on TV, she danced all around them and in front of them, obstructing their view, until suddenly they remembered they had leaves to rake or grass to cut and left to go home.

“Boy, Fairfax sure does have a screwy sister!” they said when they were out the door.

Edith was always improvising new dance steps. When the phone rang, she danced her way to answer it and when it was time to go to bed, she danced her way into her bedroom, making closing the door part of the dance. Her mother sent her to the store with a list of things to buy. She danced her way there and she danced her way up and down the aisles of the store until she had everything on the list. People looked at her curiously, sure she was either filming a television special or was an escapee from the mental hospital.

Edith had a cousin named Pansy Mullinex. Like Edith, Pansy was very thin with lank blond hair to her shoulders and stick-like arms and legs. Edith and Pansy were the exact same age, born five days apart, and could have passed for twins. Pansy should have been in the same fourth-grade class as Edith, but she still read at a first-grade level and was in special education.

On the playground at recess, Edith showed Pansy some of her latest dance steps and soon they were dancing together. They worked up a dance routine to the song “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Edith taught Pansy the words. They sang and danced every day at morning recess and, on a good day, attracted an appreciative crowd of forty of fifty. That’s when Edith knew she loved having an audience.

The school talent contest was coming up. The whole school would be watching. First prize was ten dollars. Edith proposed to Pansy that they enter, and, if they won, they could split the ten dollars. There wasn’t much you could do with half of ten dollars, but it was more money than they were used to having at one time.

Edith chose the songs they would dance to, a combination of classics and bouncy contemporary hits that anybody who listened to the radio would know. There was some Roy Orbison (“Oobie Doobie”), Elvis Presley (“Jailhouse Rock”), Connie Francis (“Lipstick on Your Collar”), Bobby Vee (“Rubber Ball”), Tommy Dorsey (“Sunny Side of the Street”), and even some Perez Prado (“Mambo No. 49”) to add a cute Latin flavor at the end. It was a range of music to show their range and versatility.

For what to wear they chose matching black poodle skirts with white trim; white, short-sleeved sweaters with pompom ties; red ribbons in their hair, saddle oxfords and bobby socks.  To add some pizzazz, Edith bought some taps and tiny nails from a shoe repair store on Main Street and turned both pairs of shoes into tap shoes.

They rehearsed every day for two weeks on a sheet of plywood in an old wasp-infested shed behind Pansy’s house and, when it was time for the talent contest, they were both ready. Neither of them had worn makeup before, but Edith confiscated from her mother’s dressing table some face powder, lipstick and rouge to slather on their faces to keep them from looking ghostly in the spotlights.

Edith knew about the other acts and she considered them stupid. There was a girl twirling two hula-hoops, a boy playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his banjo, a boy acting like Curly from the Three Stooges, a girl moving her lips to the Connie Francis song “Who’s Sorry Now,” another boy playing spoons to the tune of “Swanee River” and other assorted acts. She knew that she and Pansy had more class and more pizzazz in their little fingers than all the others put together and were almost certain to win first prize, unless something bad happened, like freezing up in front of an audience of two hundred people and not being able to dance at all. She was sure nothing like that was going to happen.

They didn’t go on until about an hour into the show. While they waited, they stood just behind the curtain watching the contestants go on and come off. The audience applauded after each act—and there were always a few cheers—but Edith knew they were just being polite. People didn’t go to a show to just sit on their hands; they wanted to participate.

Finally, it was Edith and Pansy’s turn. They started out behind a screen with a big light shining on it from behind so that, to the audience, they were only silhouettes. They danced behind the screen and after a few seconds they came out, Edith on the left and Pansy on the right. After that they owned the talent contest. They tapped and jiggled and turned and swooped. They propelled each other into the air and did some ballet steps. Edith twirled Pansy and then Pansy twirled Edith. They joined hands and jitter-bugged, they waltzed and did some tango steps. They were a two-person conga line and then they drew some laughs when they acted like chickens pecking and scratching at the ground. They jumped, jittered and jived, drawing oohs from the audience when they both did the “splits” at the same time. Pansy remembered all the steps Edith taught her and even improvised some of her own.

When the music stopped and Edith and Pansy finished with a flourish in which they both went down on one knee with their arms extended, the crowd went wild. The clapping, cheering and whistling were deafening. They had to do several curtain calls before the show could go on.

There were more acts waiting to go on, but Edith knew it was all but over.

The show finally ended and then all that was left was for the judges to make their decision. The judges were all teachers and as Edith looked out at them from backstage, she saw they had their heads together to arrive at their decision.

The deliberations among the judges took about five minutes. When they were ready, Miss Mish, the music teacher who was also one of the judges, took to the stage to announce the winners.

Miss Mish wheezed into the microphone, “No matter who wins, there’s one thing on which we can all agree. Everybody on this stage tonight is a winner!”

The audience clapped and cheered and Miss Mish held up her hands to get them to shut up. “Our third-place winner,” she said, “is none other than Marvin Hittler and his banjo!”

Cheers and huzzahs for Marvin Hittler.

“Our second-place winner is Leeman LaFarge for his remarkable impression of Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. Come on out, Leeman, and take a bow.”

Leeman came out from backstage and, to anybody familiar with the Three Stooges, he was a perfect pint-sized version of Curly. He gave the audience a few Curley mannerisms and then he pretended to be shy and had to retreat behind the curtain.

Miss Mish clapped and wheezed into the microphone like a donkey. When the laughter and cheering died down, she brayed: “And now the moment for which we have all been waiting! The first-place winner of this year’s school talent contest is…may I have a drumroll, please!…Edith Mullinex and Pansy Mullinex! For their sparkling and innovative dance routine!”

Edith wasn’t surprised. She knew, unless the show was rigged, that she and Pansy would win first prize. She took Pansy’s hand and they both bowed graciously again and again before the audience. After they left the stage, the audience was still applauding, so they gave a curtain call and then another and another. After a few minutes, Miss Mish took to the microphone again and told everybody to shut up and go home. The show was over.

As the crowd dispersed, everybody wanted to congratulate Edith and Pansy, but especially Edith because the whole thing had been her idea. She was the star of the show.

Edith’s mother, who had been sitting in the audience, was going to give Edith and Pansy a ride home, but Edith wanted to walk home by herself. She was too excited to sit still and ride in the car, she said. She needed to dance her way home.

She said her goodbyes and danced her way down the street away from the school. It felt good to be away from the crowd and to breathe in the cool night air. Her head was still in the clouds. She still heard the music and the applause, the cheering, as her name was announced as the first-place winner and the crowd went wild! It was the happiest moment of her life!

As she danced off the sidewalk into an intersection, she wasn’t thinking about watching for oncoming cars, wasn’t thinking about anything other than how good she felt. She didn’t see the red sportscar speeding toward her.

There was a squeal of brakes, a skidding of tires and impact. A woman standing on the sidewalk screamed. Traffic came to a standstill. Somebody called an ambulance. Within minutes, they came and picked Edith up off the street and took her to the emergency room at the hospital. The hospital people were trying to call Edith’s mother, but she wasn’t home yet.

Edith died two hours later in the hospital. She never regained consciousness and never knew what happened. Everybody who knew Edith and who heard the story afterwards said the same thing: She died happy.

School closed at noon the day of the funeral so everybody could attend. Her entire fourth-grade class was there and all the teachers. She was buried in a white casket with a spray of red roses that her classmates had taken up a collection to buy for her. And, on her headstone, beneath her name, was etched one word: DANCER.

After Pansy got over the shock of Edith’s death, she assumed the dancing mantle for herself. She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon. She danced before, during and after school. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom to eat lunch.

The special education teacher, Miss Cornapple, called Pansy’s mother and said, “I’m afraid we have a dancing problem with Pansy.”

“It’s a phase she’s going through,” Pansy’s mother said. “She has somehow got it into her head that she’s one of the all-time great dancers of the world.”

“It’s not normal,” Miss Cornapple said. “I think it calls for psychiatric evaluation.”

“Maybe you just can’t stand to see anybody happy,” Pansy’s mother said.

As Pansy’s dancing skills improved, so did her reading skills. Soon she was allowed to move out of special education and take her place in the fourth-grade class. She danced and danced and danced, and she looked so much like Edith, and acted so much like her, that soon people began calling her Edith instead of Pansy and whenever it happened she never bothered to correct them. Edith was back, or maybe she had never left at all.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Thanksgiving Like the Pilgrims


Thanksgiving Like the Pilgrims ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Veradean held up a picture from a magazine of a family seated around a large table for Thanksgiving dinner—all good-looking, clean and healthy, about to partake of the bountiful meal spread out before them.

“I wish this was my family,” Veradean said.

“Do they look poor to you?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“No.”

“You’re poor. A poor family doesn’t set a table like that.”

“But why are we poor?” Veradean asked. “Why was I born into a poor family?”

“There has to be poor people in the world, I guess.”

“Why?”

“To balance things out. For every twenty or thirty poor people, there is one rich one.”

“Well, that isn’t fair!”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a famous movie actress. I’ll make a million dollars and live in a mansion and I’ll never be poor again.”

“Every young person thinks they’re going to be rich and famous, but then when they grow up they see it’s never going to happen. The sooner you face reality, the better off you’ll be.”

“What are we going to have for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“I don’t know. We’ll think of something. You don’t have to worry about it. You won’t go hungry.”

“But are we going to have turkey and all the other stuff they have in the picture?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“No money.”

“Can’t you get us some money?”

“When you find out a good way, you let me know.”

“I sure wish we had a TV,” Veradean said.

“You say that at least once a day.”

“Everybody I know has a TV.”

“Maybe you should go and live with them.”

“It’s terribly boring sitting here all the time with no TV to watch.”

“Read a book. It doesn’t cost anything.”

“Everything is always about money, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t make the world,” Vicki-Vicki said.

Baby Eddie came into the room laughing, wearing his pajamas backwards. He twirled around so Veradean and Vicki-Vicki could see them from the back.

“You look so stupid!” Veradean said.

Vicki-Vicki groaned. “Go put ‘em on right!” she said.

“No! I like ‘em like this! I’m always gonna wear ‘em like this! I’m gonna start wearin’ all my clothes backwards!”

“That’s because you’re trash,” Veradean said.

“I am not trash! You’re trash!”

“We’re all trash,” Vicki-Vicki said. “That’s why we live in a falling-down dump like this in a rat-infested neighborhood!”

I’m not trash!” Baby Eddie screamed. “You’re trash! You’re trash! You’re trash!”

“The pilgrims were trash,” Veradean said. “They didn’t have any money and look what they did.”

“What did they do?”

“They started their own country.”

“What’s a pilgrim?” Baby Eddie screamed.

“Go to bed, Baby Eddie,” Vicki-Vicki said. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“No! I don’t want to go to bed!”

“Miss Edmonds read us a story about the pilgrims,” Veradean said. “They wore black and prayed all the time. The king got mad at them and kicked them out of the country. They didn’t have any place to go so they came over here from England in a little wooden boat. They just about died on the ocean on the way over and when they got here they landed on a big rock. When they climbed down off the rock and looked around, they saw it was nothing but woods and wild animals. There were no hotels or stores or anything like that. The only other people around were Indians and the Indians were afraid of the pilgrims. They hid from them and shot arrows at them.”

“I know what Indians are!” Baby Eddie shrieked.

“The pilgrims didn’t know how to take care of themselves and a lot of them died right away in the snow. They didn’t have any food because they didn’t know how to grow corn and stuff in the ground. Finally the Indians started to feel sorry for the pilgrims and came out of their hiding places and helped them. They showed them how to grow corn and pumpkins and green beans and stuff and raise turkeys so they’d always have something to eat.”

“That’s bullshit!” Baby Eddie said.

“You’re not supposed to use that word,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“But I like to say it! Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!

“After the first harvest when the pilgrims had all the food they needed, they were so happy they decided to thank God and have a big party. They all sat down at a big table and the Indians served food to them and they all ate so much they had to go lay down. Some of them vomited. That was the first Thanksgiving.”

“The Indians served food to the pilgrims?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“Yes, they did.”

“When did the Indians eat?”

“They sat down and had their Thanksgiving dinner after all the pilgrims were finished eating.”

“I want a hot dog!” Baby Eddie said.

“So, are we going to have turkey and all the stuff the pilgrims had for our Thanksgiving?” Veradean asked.

“Not unless you know some Indians,” Vicki-Vicki said.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Vicki-Vicki saw the ad in the paper: Thanksgiving Day dinner served at the Heavenly Light Mission. Everybody welcome! Come early! Bring the entire family!

When Veradean came home from school Wednesday afternoon, Vicki-Vicki told her, “We’re going to have turkey on Thanksgiving after all and it’s not going to cost us anything.”

“How we gonna do that?” Veradean asked.

“It’s a surprise.”

On Thursday morning Vicki-Vicki awoke early with a sense of purpose. She made Veradean and Baby Eddie get out of bed and take baths and wash their hair. She dressed Veradean in a hand-me-down schoolgirl dress of plaid material with a sash in the back. For Baby Eddie she found an old sailor suit in grandma’s trunk that some little boy had worn long ago.

For herself she had a gray, vintage suit she had been saving for a special occasion, exactly like the one Kim Novak wore in Vertigo. She always believed that she looked at least a little like Kim Novak without the blond hair and dramatic eyebrows.

Trash though they were, they didn’t have to go looking like trash. They would look distinctive, different from anybody else.

It was a mile or so into town, to the Heavenly Light Mission. A cold wind was blowing and the sky threatened rain.

“What’ll we do if it rains before we get there?” Veradean asked.

“Get wet.”

Baby Eddie complained that his shoes hurt, so Vicki-Vicki had to carry him part of the way, with her high heels pinching her toes every step of the way. Veradean tried carrying him some, but he was too much for her.

“It’s like carrying a calf,” she said.

Finally they reached the Heavenly Light Mission. There were already a lot of people and cars, even though the place hadn’t opened its doors yet. They took their place at the end of the long line.

“How long do we have to wait here?” Veradean asked.

“I’m hungry!” Baby Eddie said.

The doors opened at the appointed time and the line began moving, slowly at first and then faster.

“Oh, boy! I smell the turkey!” Veradean said.

While waiting in line, Vicki-Vicki was aware of a group of young men standing off to the side, talking and laughing. She saw after a while that they had noticed her and were looking her way. She made a point of ignoring them, looking down at Baby Eddie and taking his hand.

After a while one of the young men detached himself from the group and approached her.

“You probably don’t remember me,” he said.

“No.”

“Rollo Ruff? People used to call me RR?”

“I don’t think so.”

“High school?”

“Oh,” she said, feeling let down. “That was a long time ago.”

“Not that long,” he said.

“I know so many people.”

“These your kids?”

Veradean and Baby Eddie both looked at Vicki-Vicki to see what she would say.

“No, they’re foundling children,” she said. “I don’t know where they came from.”

“Sister and brother,” Veradean said.

“Yes, my mother is touring the Continent,” Vicki-Vicki said, “and I stayed behind this time to take care of the little ones.”

“Yes, that’s always a problem with the better people,” he said.

“Well, it was so nice seeing you again. Be sure and remember me to your people.”

“Thought I might call you up some time.”

“That would be rather difficult,” Vicki-Vicki said, “since I live in a house where there are no phones.”

“No phones! Hah-hah! You were always so funny!”

“I don’t know what’s funny about it.”

“Tell me where you live and I’ll drop by later this evening and we can get reacquainted.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” she said.

“Well, okay for now. I’ll be seeing you again, though. You can be sure of that.”

“You don’t like him?” Veradean asked after he was gone.

“No, I never saw him before in my life.”

“I think he’s cute. He’s got a quiff.”

“He’s got a what?

“I think a man looks cute with a quiff.”

“Oh, what do you know? You’re in fourth grade.”

“Why didn’t you tell him mama’s in jail?”

“That’s the same as admitting we’re trash,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“We are trash.”

The line lurched forward and they were all the way inside the Heavenly Light Mission. They were handed trays and, as they moved forward in the line, fat women in hairnets and white aprons began thrusting plates of food at them across a counter.

There were rows of tables placed end to end, covered with white table cloths. Balancing her own tray with one hand and helping to keep Baby Eddie from dropping his tray with the other hand, Vicki-Vicki jostled her way through the noisy crowd to the edge and took a seat at the end of a table. Veradean sat on her left and Baby Eddie across from her.

Veradean began stuffing food into her mouth. “This is just like the pilgrims,” she said.

“What’s this stuff?” Baby Eddie asked.

“It’s good,” Vicki-Vicki said. “Eat it.”

Soon Vicki-Vicki noticed a man moving down the table toward them, shaking people’s hands and patting them on the backs. He was dressed all in black like a pilgrim. She knew she was going to have to talk to him.

“So happy to see you here today, sister,” he said, touching Vicki-Vicki on the shoulder and moving around to the end of the table where he stood beside her. “My name is Brother Galvin. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What is your name?”

“My name is Vicki-Vicki Novak,” she said, almost choking.

“Are you the mother of these two children?”

“No.”

“I’m her sister and he’s her brother,” Veradean said.

“My, my!” Brother Galvin said. “I might have guessed as much.”

He flashed them all a grin and patted Baby Eddie on the head.

“All are welcome in the house of the Lord,” he said. “All are welcome. I hope the three of you will honor us with your presence at the service that begins in about half an hour in the building next door.”

“Thank you,” Vicki-Vicki said, and Brother Galvin moved on.

“I’ll bet he’s rich,” Veradean whispered. “Maybe you could marry him and we could come and live with you.”

“He’s at least forty years old.”

“What difference does that make as long as he’s got money?”

After they finished eating, they stood up to let others take their places and went outside.

“Now it’s time for church,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“Do we have to go?” Veradean asked.

“It’s the least we can do.”

The church was part of the same building but reached by going out one door and through another. There were about ten people inside sleepily waiting for the service to begin. An old woman played hymns on a small organ at the front.

In a couple of minutes, Brother Galvin came to the front and looked out at the people assembled. He held up his hands and smiled and the organ music stopped.

“Brothers and sisters!” he said. “Is there anybody here who does not believe that this is a day that the Lord hath made.”

“No!” somebody shouted from the back.

“We are so happy that you have made your way into our little fold on this blessed Thanksgiving Day. I’m here to tell you that the Lord loves you, no matter what you’ve done and no matter how low you might have sunk in this life. That is our message of hope at the Heavenly Light Mission: You are loved, in spite of all your transgressions, as only He can love, and you will be redeemed!”

“Amen!”

“Amen!”

A-men!

Now,” Brother Galvin said, looking directly at Vicki-Vicki, “I’m going to ask each of you to come forward, one by one, on this glorious Thanksgiving Day, and be washed of your sins in the house of the Lord! What better thing could you do on this Thanksgiving Day than be washed in the blood of our blessed savior?”

Baby Eddie quickly went to sleep, while Veradean played with a piece of string. Vicki-Vicki listened and watched the people stand up one at a time and go forward to the front timidly, where Brother Galvin prayed over them and listened to their oaths that they were ready to turn their lives and hearts over to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vicki-Vicki knew her turn was coming and she was going to have to go to the front of the church with everybody watching. It was the kind of display she hated and the thought of it made her feel shy and awkward. What if she fell down in her high heels and everybody laughed? She wasn’t going to let that happen.

When Brother Galvin had his eyes closed in prayer, Vicki-Vicki scooped Baby Eddie up in her arms and, with Veradean following closely behind, made for the door. As soon as they were outside, it began to rain.

“We don’t even have an umbrella!” Veradean said.

“Carry me!” Baby Eddie whined.

They hadn’t walked very far when a red-and-white Chevrolet came along slowly and, honking at them first, pulled off the highway in front of them. The driver’s side door opened and a head popped up.

“Care for a lift?” Rollo Ruff asked.

“Who’s that?” Veradean said.

“Oh, it’s that silly boy, Rollo Ruff, from high school,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“What kind of a name is that?”

Other cars were slowing down and people were gawking, thinking they were witnessing an accident.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Get in before we all get killed!”

Vicki-Vicki got into the passenger seat beside Rollo Ruff and Veradean and Baby Eddie got into the back seat.

“I wouldn’t ordinarily accept a ride from a stranger,” Vicki-Vicki said, “but I have these little ones to think about.”

“I’m not such a stranger,” he said. “We knew each other in high school. Remember?”

“Well, if you say so.”

“You don’t remember me at all?”

“I guess I do. You were just one of so many silly boys.”

“I asked you to a Halloween dance once and you turned me down.”

“I’ll bet I wasn’t very nice about it, either, was I?”

He laughed and looked at her appreciatively. “No, you weren’t. You just about broke my heart.”

“You’re exaggerating!”

“Well, maybe a little.”

She hated now to have him know where she lived, but there was no other choice.

“Turn left on Bryson Road going out of town,” she said. “Go past the mill and the sewage treatment plant and I’ll tell you where to turn.”

“Oh, you live down here!” he said and she heard the disappointment in his voice.

“It’s just temporary,” she said. “We plan on moving soon.”

“I didn’t know we were moving,” Veradean said.

When Rollo Ruff pulled up in front of the house, Vicki-Vicki was glad it was raining so hard that he wouldn’t be able to see the peeling paint and sagging porch.

Vicki-Vicki made Veradean and Baby Eddie both thank Rollo Ruff for giving them all a ride and keeping them from having to walk home in the rain.

“Can I see you a little later?” Rollo Ruff asked.

“What for?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“I can swing by about seven o’clock and we can have a little fun.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

She pointed with her thumb toward the back seat.

“Put them to bed and we can go for a drive.”

“I can’t leave them alone. They’re too young.”

“Well, then,” he said, “put them to bed and you and I can just sit and talk.”

“I don’t think so. I’m tired. My feet ache. We walked all that way.”

“I’m not giving up,” Rollo Ruff said. “When I saw you again today, I wondered why I let you get away in high school.”

“You’re a smooth talker, aren’t you?”

“Not really. I’m usually tongue-tied.”

“Well, good night. It was lovely seeing someone from high school again.”

She opened the door and started to get out.

“I can’t call you because you don’t have a phone,” he said. “If I give you my number, will you call me?”

“Well, I suppose I might consider calling you some time when it’s convenient, if I don’t forget.”

“Do you have a piece of paper?”

“No.”

He took a pen out of his pocket and wrote the number on the back of Vicki-Vicki’s hand.

“Write it down before you wash it off,” he said.

“I will,” she said. “If I don’t forget.”

Rollo Ruff drove off into the night and Vicki-Vicki carried Baby Eddie into the house and put him to bed.

“I hope I don’t catch a cold,” Veradean said.

At ten o’clock, Vicki-Vicki and Veradean were sitting at the kitchen table. Vicki-Vicki leafed through a magazine and Veradean shuffled a deck of cards. The house was silent except for the rain on the roof.

“Do you want to play some two-handed pinochle?” Veradean asked.

“I hate card games,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“That was the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had. It made me feel just like a pilgrim.”

“I’m so happy for you.”

“Are you going to marry that boy?”

“What boy?”

“That Rollo boy.”

“I don’t even know him.”

“I think he really likes you.”

“He’ll get over it.”

“Are you going to call him up sometime?”

“I don’t know. It depends on how bored I get sitting around this dump.”

“If you marry him, will you let me and Baby Eddie come and live with you?”

“I’m not going to marry him.”

“Okay, but if you do.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t want to end up in foster care.”

“You worry like an old woman.”

“I wonder if I’ll ever make it to high school,” Veradean said.

“Don’t be in any hurry to get to high school,” Vicki-Vicki said. “It’s a hell hole.”

“It’s supposed to be a good time.”

“Well, it’s not.”

They heard a car out front and then voices and then a thump followed by another thump. Veradean ran and looked out the front window.

“Mama’s coming up the front walk!” she said.

“What?” Vicki-Vicki said, running into the front room.

The front door opened and mama came into the house, dripping wet.

Veradean ran to mama and put her arms around her big waist. “Mama! Oh, mama! Why didn’t you tell us you were coming home?”

“I didn’t know it myself until last night. They let me out to spend Thanksgiving with my family.”

“I’m so glad you’re here!”

“Are you home for good this time?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Get me a towel. Can’t you see I’m dripping water on the floor?”

Veradean took mama’s little suitcase and mama sat down on the couch, out of breath, and dried her hair with the towel Vicki-Vicki handed her.

“Where’s Baby Eddie?” she asked.

“He was tired out. He went to sleep.”

“I want to see him.”

“Don’t wake him up!” Vicki-Vicki said. “I’ll never get him to go back to sleep.”

“Who do you think are you telling me what to do in my own home?”

“I just meant…”

“I don’t care what you meant.”

“Mama, what did you do to your hair?” Veradean asked. “It’s blond now!”

“You like it?”

“Yes, it looks very glamorous.”

“A gal in prison who murdered her husband fixed it for me. I think it’s a little too short, but I guess it’ll grow out quick enough.

“Oh, it’s elegant!

“Did you kids eat today?”

“Oh, mama! We had the most wonderful Thanksgiving dinner I ever saw. We had turkey and dressing and candied sweet potatoes and corn and pumpkin pie and all the stuff the pilgrims had. The only difference was religious people took the place of the Indians.”

“Where did this take place?”

“At the Heavenly Light Mission in town,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You walked all that way?”

“It’s the only way we could get there.”

“I was going to stop and pick up some chicken on my way home,” mama said. “I’m glad now I didn’t bother, since you already ate.”

“We started walking home in the rain and one of Vicki-Vicki’s boyfriends came along and gave us a ride.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“He was cute, too,” Veradean said.

Mama looked suspiciously at Vicki-Vicki. “You been whoring around while I was gone?”

“Isn’t that what you do? Isn’t that how you get three kids by three different men without ever being married to any one of them?”

“You’d better watch that smart mouth of yours, my girl. I can still slap you silly and don’t think I won’t do it, either!”

“Mama, can I sleep with you tonight?” Veradean said. “I’ve missed you so much!”

“Hell no!” mama said. “I don’t want you breathin’ on me all night. And, anyway, I’ve got a date. I just came home to change clothes. Somebody’s pickin’ me up in about ten  minutes.”

She went into the bedroom and closed the door. In a few minutes she emerged wearing her fancy black dress and left in a hurry without speaking another word.

“Can you sleep with me and Baby Eddie tonight?” Veradean asked. “When mama comes home she’ll be drunk and I don’t want to be around her when she’s like that.”

At two in the morning Vicki-Vicki was still awake. She lay in the bed next to Veradean, listening to the rain and wind buffeting the house. Baby Eddie lay in another smaller bed on the other side of the room. Sometimes he made little mouse sounds in his throat like there was something inside that was trying to come out.

There was a flash of lightning, unusual for the time of year, and sirens out on the highway. The sirens usually meant a car wreck. If Vicki-Vicki could have any wish tonight, it would be for one particular traffic fatality. Just the one and no others.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

I’m Leaving and I Don’t Know When I’ll be Back

I’m Leaving and I Don’t Know When I’ll be Back ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

For the indigent of the city, the vast cemetery was a natural place of refuge. With its hills, valleys, trees, mausoleums and grave markers of every size and description, it offered many quiet places to hide. No matter how many times the trespassers were forced out, they always came back, like fleas on a dog.

Vicki-Vicki left home in May and came to the city. One more fight with her drunken mother would have been a killing affair. They were natural enemies. They openly admitted hating each other. Get away from me before I kill you or you kill me.

With a high school diploma and a willingness to succeed, Vicki-Vicki thought she’d find a job easily enough. She always wanted to leave her home town and go to the city. She pictured having her own little upstairs apartment within the sound of church bells. She’d work hard and make good, hardly ever missing work. She’d love being alone, taking long baths and fixing her own breakfast in her sunny kitchen. Sometimes she’d have a guest over for the evening for a candlelit meal.

There were no jobs, though. She heard the same thing every place she went: We don’t want anybody right now. We only hire girls with experience. You have to know how to type. You have to know how to keep the books. For every job, we’ve got ten applicants.

She turned easily to thievery—shoplifting, snatching purses and coats in public places—and then finally to prostitution. At first she was appalled at the prospect of having sexual relations with men for money, but after fifteen or twenty times she felt nothing, putting herself in a kind of a trance, accepting the money and buying herself a meal or a room for the night and never giving another thought to where the money came from.

She went along in this way through the summer months, but now the summer was waning. While the days were still warm, the nights held a hint of what was to come. Go back home, the voices inside her head told her. You don’t want to be out here when winter comes.

It was October and the sun was warm. She washed her face and hands and as much of the rest of herself as she could at the fountain of the stone angel. She dipped her arms to the elbow, brought her hands to her cheeks and trailed them down to her neck and chest. Some people, she had noticed, never bothered to wash themselves, but she wasn’t one of those. She liked the feel of the clean water against her skin. She wished she had some soap. It had been a long time since she had a real bath. She had a vision of a bathtub full of hot water behind a locked door and she could have wept for longing of those things.

She heard a sound like a sigh and looked up. The immovable eyes of the stone angle eight feet above her head had become movable and were looking at her with disapproval. You shouldn’t be here, the angel was saying. This is a terrible life you’ve chosen for yourself.

The sun, which just a few moments ago was shining brightly, became obscured behind gray clouds. The warm air took on a chill, reminding her of how bad she felt. She had a sore throat that just wouldn’t go away and a knot in her stomach that could only be from not eating. More than anything, she wanted to sleep the night in a warm, clean bed behind a locked door where she could feel safe and be alone.

There was one person who could help her. His name was Diego, or at least that’s what people called him. She was with him two times and he had been supposed to pay for the first time and then for the second time. If he paid her for both times, it would be enough to get something to eat and a room for the night.

Where to find Diego was the question. She knew he had a job and could pay her if he would. That was the trouble with letting people pay you later. They rarely did. It’s always a good policy to get the money first.

She had to find somebody who knew where Diego might be. That could be just about anybody. Everybody knew who he was. He was good-looking and not like anybody else. Nobody knew much about him. He had slicked-back hair and wore an army jacket and army boots. She liked him at first but then less and less the better she got to know him. He only used her and then tossed her aside when he was finished. She thought he’d take her to get a room, but he only took her to an alleyway. Five minutes and it was all over. She wanted something to feel good about and with Diego there was nothing.

She didn’t know what time it was but she thought it must be around six o’clock, the time that people who lived normal lives would be having 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 away from 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. The gravestones were close together, some of them very large, and they made her feel safe. If nothing else offered itself, she could pile up some leaves in the space between stones and burrow under the leaves like a woodland animal and she should be able to sleep the whole night through. Unless it rained, of course.

She saw a figure rise up out of the shadowy space between two close-together trees and she nearly screamed. When she realized it was a woman relieving herself, she wanted to look away but the woman called to her.

“Hey, girlie,” the woman said. “I know you!”

It was the one known as Vera the Mouse. She was a terrible drunk and she was one of those who never washed.

“What are you doing here?” Vera the Mouse asked, pulling up her pants and emerging from between the trees.

“Same as you,” Vicki-Vicki said, managing a tight smile.

“Looking for a place to flop for the night?”

“Yeah.”

“Better not think about staying here!”

“Why not?”

“They’ve hired some extra guards to go through tonight with clubs.”

“Who told you that?”

“Word’s been circulatin’. They’ll either knock your brains out for the rats to eat or they’ll haul your ass off to jail. Personally I’d rather they’d kill me on the spot. One good splat! Just make it quick!”

“Have you seen Diego?”

“Don’t know no Diego,” Vera the Mouse said.

“I thought everybody knew him.”

“Is he the one with the scar on his face?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“I ain’t seen him today. What do you want him for?”

“He owes me money.”

“Did you have in mind to get yourself a room for the night?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Two can stay for the price of one. Would you consider letting me tag along?”

The thought of sleeping in the same room with Vera the Mouse almost made her gag. “I don’t think so, Vera. Not this time.”

“Oh, I get you! If it was me, I’d let you tag along.”

“I can’t do anything until I find Diego and get my money.”

“I wouldn’t count on it if I was you.”

“If you see him, will you tell him I’m looking for him?”

“I suppose I can do that, although I might not like it.”

“And if you’re still around, you can go along with me. I’m not sleeping in the bed with you, though.”

“Think I’m a lez?”

“I get the bed and you get the floor.”

“I can live with that arrangement,” Vera the Mouse said, and when she went away she had a smile on her face.

Vicki-Vicki had a sudden sick spell and thought she was going to faint. She sat down on a low concrete wall and just as she was recovering her equilibrium, she heard someone coming toward her through the leaves. She ducked behind the wall and when she peeked over the top of it she saw the young man she knew as Julian. He was tall and thin and wasn’t bad-looking but his hands and face were crusted with dirt and one of his eyes was half-closed all the time.

“Julian!” she whispered, loud enough that anybody might hear.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

“Over here!”

When he saw it was Vicki-Vicki he smiled and waved, as if they were old friends.

“I thought you might not remember me,” she said. “Where you off to?”

“Trying to find people to warn them about the raid tonight.”

“Yeah, I heard,” she said. “You haven’t seen Diego anywhere, have you?”

“No, I ain’t seen him today but If I do I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”

“He owes me money.”

“Oh. You’d better get out of the cemetery before dark if you know what’s good for you. If I was you, I’d go to the city. Gonna be cold tonight.”

“Yeah, I’m cold already.”

“I’ve got some money,” Julian said. “Four dollars. You open for business?”

“Some other time, Julian. I don’t feel so good now.”

“If you was to find Diego, you’d probably need to look in the city. I think that’s where everybody is tonight.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. I don’t really feel like walking all that way, though.”

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

“No, you keep your money, Julian, but thanks anyway.”

Before he left he gave her small pack of restaurant crackers. They were stale and tasteless but she ate them gratefully.

It was fully dark now and the wind was blowing steadily. The raid wouldn’t be for several hours, maybe not until midnight. She was safe until then. She lay down in the narrow space between rows of identical gravestones and covered herself with leaves. Though completely covered, she could still breathe. The leaves smelled good after all the bad smells she had smelled. She shivered for a while but soon began to feel warm, slipping as easily into sleep as a warm bath.

When she awoke it was to the sound of men’s voices. She didn’t know how long she had slept, but it must have been a long while. The voices were far away but coming closer. They were talking and laughing as if they were having a good time.

As long as she lay very still, they wouldn’t know she was there. They wouldn’t bother to look in all the spaces between the gravestones. They would just make a quick sweep and, finding no one, move on. She would laugh later at how they had missed her.

The voices had moved farther away, but she heard footsteps near her head. One of the men had detached himself from the others and was searching through the leaves between the gravestones. She felt a hand scrape away the leaves over her face and felt a rush of cold air.

“Come out of there!” a loud voice said, causing her to quake.

“Diego?” she said, sitting up.

“You can’t be here!”

“What?”

“I said get up! You’re trespassing! You’re disturbing the dead by being here!”

“I don’t hear them complaining.”

She stood up all the way. The man towered over her. The sound of his voice affected her physically. She looked to see if he had a club, but if he did she didn’t see it.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he asked.

“I was looking for someone.”

“By hiding in the leaves?”

“No, I was feeling a little sick so I stopped to rest a while.”

“Get out! This is no place for you! Go home!”

“I’m leaving,” she said, “and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“Go to one of the shelters in town. There are people there who can help you.”

He handed her a small paper sack, which she took without knowing what was in it.

“If I see you here again,” he said, “I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.”

He took off the jacket he was wearing and dropped it on the ground beside her. Before she realized what had happened, he was gone.

“Take me with you!” she called out to him but he couldn’t have heard her.

In the bag were a ham sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a little bottle of milk. She ate the sandwich in just a few bites—it had an exotic flavor like something she had never tasted before—and drank the milk without stopping.

After drinking the milk, she vomited and gagged but most of the milk stayed down and after she wiped her mouth she felt better. She put on the jacket and, although she felt lost in it, it was wonderful, retaining the warmth and smell of the man’s body. She pulled the collar up around her mouth and nose and could have fainted with the ecstasy she felt.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Thanksgiving Like the Pilgrims

Thanksgiving Like the Pilgrims ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Veradean held up a picture from a magazine of a family seated around a large table for Thanksgiving dinner—all good-looking, clean and healthy, about to partake of the bountiful meal spread out before them.

“I wish this was my family,” Veradean said.

“Do they look poor to you?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“No.”

“You’re poor. A poor family doesn’t set a table like that.”

“But why are we poor?” Veradean asked. “Why was I born into a poor family?”

“There has to be poor people in the world, I guess.”

“Why?”

“To balance things out. For every twenty or thirty poor people, there is one rich one.”

“Well, that isn’t fair!”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a famous movie actress. I’ll make a million dollars and live in a mansion and I’ll never be poor again.”

“Every young person thinks they’re going to be rich and famous, but then when they grow up they see it’s never going to happen. The sooner you face reality, the better off you’ll be.”

“What are we going to have for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“I don’t know. We’ll think of something. You don’t have to worry about it. You won’t go hungry.”

“But are we going to have turkey and all the other stuff they have in the picture?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“No money.”

“Can’t you get us some money?”

“When you find out a good way, you let me know.”

“I sure wish we had a TV,” Veradean said.

“You say that at least once a day.”

“Everybody I know has a TV.”

“Maybe you should go and live with them.”

“It’s terribly boring sitting here all the time with no TV to watch.”

“Read a book. It doesn’t cost anything.”

“Everything is always about money, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t make the world,” Vicki-Vicki said.

Baby Eddie came into the room laughing, wearing his pajamas backwards. He twirled around so Veradean and Vicki-Vicki could see them from the back.

“You look so stupid!” Veradean said.

Vicki-Vicki groaned. “Go put ‘em on right!” she said.

“No! I like ‘em like this! I’m always gonna wear ‘em like this! I’m gonna start wearin’ all my clothes backwards!”

“That’s because you’re trash,” Veradean said.

“I am not trash! You’re trash!”

“We’re all trash,” Vicki-Vicki said. “That’s why we live in a falling-down dump like this in a rat-infested neighborhood!”

I’m not trash!” Baby Eddie screamed. “You’re trash! You’re trash! You’re trash!”

“The pilgrims were trash,” Veradean said. “They didn’t have any money and look what they did.”

“What did they do?”

“They started their own country.”

“What’s a pilgrim?” Baby Eddie screamed.

“Go to bed, Baby Eddie,” Vicki-Vicki said. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“No! I don’t want to go to bed!”

“Miss Edmonds read us a story about the pilgrims,” Veradean said. “They wore black and prayed all the time. The king got mad at them and kicked them out of the country. They didn’t have any place to go so they came over here from England in a little wooden boat. They just about died on the ocean on the way over and when they got here they landed on a big rock. When they climbed down off the rock and looked around, they saw it was nothing but woods and wild animals. There were no hotels or stores or anything like that. The only other people around were Indians and the Indians were afraid of the pilgrims. They hid from them and shot arrows at them.”

“I know what Indians are!” Baby Eddie shrieked.

“The pilgrims didn’t know how to take care of themselves and a lot of them died right away in the snow. They didn’t have any food because they didn’t know how to grow corn and stuff in the ground. Finally the Indians started to feel sorry for the pilgrims and came out of their hiding places and helped them. They showed them how to grow corn and pumpkins and green beans and stuff and raise turkeys so they’d always have something to eat.”

“That’s bullshit!” Baby Eddie said.

“You’re not supposed to use that word,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“But I like to say it! Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!

“After the first harvest when the pilgrims had all the food they needed, they were so happy they decided to thank God and have a big party. They all sat down at a big table and the Indians served food to them and they all ate so much they had to go lay down. Some of them vomited. That was the first Thanksgiving.”

“The Indians served food to the pilgrims?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“Yes, they did.”

“When did the Indians eat?”

“They sat down and had their Thanksgiving dinner after all the pilgrims were finished eating.”

“I want a hot dog!” Baby Eddie said.

“So, are we going to have turkey and all the stuff the pilgrims had for our Thanksgiving?” Veradean asked.

“Not unless you know some Indians,” Vicki-Vicki said.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Vicki-Vicki saw the ad in the paper: Thanksgiving Day dinner served at the Heavenly Light Mission. Everybody welcome! Come early! Bring the entire family!

When Veradean came home from school Wednesday afternoon, Vicki-Vicki told her, “We’re going to have turkey on Thanksgiving after all and it’s not going to cost us anything.”

“How we gonna do that?” Veradean asked.

“It’s a surprise.”

On Thursday morning Vicki-Vicki awoke early with a sense of purpose. She made Veradean and Baby Eddie get out of bed and take baths and wash their hair. She dressed Veradean in a hand-me-down schoolgirl dress of plaid material with a sash in the back. For Baby Eddie she found an old sailor suit in grandma’s trunk that some little boy had worn long ago.

For herself she had a gray, vintage suit she had been saving for a special occasion, exactly like the one Kim Novak wore in Vertigo. She always believed that she looked at least a little like Kim Novak without the blond hair and dramatic eyebrows.

Trash though they were, they didn’t have to go looking like trash. They would look distinctive, different from anybody else.

It was a mile or so into town, to the Heavenly Light Mission. A cold wind was blowing and the sky threatened rain.

“What’ll we do if it rains before we get there?” Veradean asked.

“Get wet.”

Baby Eddie complained that his shoes hurt, so Vicki-Vicki had to carry him part of the way, with her high heels pinching her toes every step of the way. Veradean tried carrying him some, but he was too much for her.

“It’s like carrying a calf,” she said.

Finally they reached the Heavenly Light Mission. There were already a lot of people and cars, even though the place hadn’t opened its doors yet. They took their place at the end of the long line.

“How long do we have to wait here?” Veradean asked.

“I’m hungry!” Baby Eddie said.

The doors opened at the appointed time and the line began moving, slowly at first and then faster.

“Oh, boy! I smell the turkey!” Veradean said.

While waiting in line, Vicki-Vicki was aware of a group of young men standing off to the side, talking and laughing. She saw after a while that they had noticed her and were looking her way. She made a point of ignoring them, looking down at Baby Eddie and taking his hand.

After a while one of the young men detached himself from the group and approached her.

“You probably don’t remember me,” he said.

“No.”

“Rollo Ruff? People used to call me RR?”

“I don’t think so.”

“High school?”

“Oh,” she said, feeling let down. “That was a long time ago.”

“Not that long,” he said.

“I know so many people.”

“These your kids?”

Veradean and Baby Eddie both looked at Vicki-Vicki to see what she would say.

“No, they’re foundling children,” she said. “I don’t know where they came from.”

“Sister and brother,” Veradean said.

“Yes, my mother is touring the Continent,” Vicki-Vicki said, “and I stayed behind this time to take care of the little ones.”

“Yes, that’s always a problem with the better people,” he said.

“Well, it was so nice seeing you again. Be sure and remember me to your people.”

“Thought I might call you up some time.”

“That would be rather difficult,” Vicki-Vicki said, “since I live in a house where there are no phones.”

“No phones! Hah-hah! You were always so funny!”

“I don’t know what’s funny about it.”

“Tell me where you live and I’ll drop by later this evening and we can get reacquainted.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” she said.

“Well, okay for now. I’ll be seeing you again, though. You can be sure of that.”

“You don’t like him?” Veradean asked after he was gone.

“No, I never saw him before in my life.”

“I think he’s cute. He’s got a quiff.”

“He’s got a what?

“I think a man looks cute with a quiff.”

“Oh, what do you know? You’re in fourth grade.”

“Why didn’t you tell him mama’s in jail?”

“That’s the same as admitting we’re trash,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“We are trash.”

The line lurched forward and they were all the way inside the Heavenly Light Mission. They were handed trays and, as they moved forward in the line, fat women in hairnets and white aprons began thrusting plates of food at them across a counter.

There were rows of tables placed end to end, covered with white table cloths. Balancing her own tray with one hand and helping to keep Baby Eddie from dropping his tray with the other hand, Vicki-Vicki jostled her way through the noisy crowd to the edge and took a seat at the end of a table. Veradean sat on her left and Baby Eddie across from her.

Veradean began stuffing food into her mouth. “This is just like the pilgrims,” she said.

“What’s this stuff?” Baby Eddie asked.

“It’s good,” Vicki-Vicki said. “Eat it.”

Soon Vicki-Vicki noticed a man moving down the table toward them, shaking people’s hands and patting them on the backs. He was dressed all in black like a pilgrim. She knew she was going to have to talk to him.

“So happy to see you here today, sister,” he said, touching Vicki-Vicki on the shoulder and moving around to the end of the table where he stood beside her. “My name is Brother Galvin. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What is your name?”

“My name is Vicki-Vicki Novak,” she said, almost choking.

“Are you the mother of these two children?”

“No.”

“I’m her sister and he’s her brother,” Veradean said.

“My, my!” Brother Galvin said. “I might have guessed as much.”

He flashed them all a grin and patted Baby Eddie on the head.

“All are welcome in the house of the Lord,” he said. “All are welcome. I hope the three of you will honor us with your presence at the service that begins in about half an hour in the building next door.”

“Thank you,” Vicki-Vicki said, and Brother Galvin moved on.

“I’ll bet he’s rich,” Veradean whispered. “Maybe you could marry him and we could come and live with you.”

“He’s at least forty years old.”

“What difference does that make as long as he’s got money?”

After they finished eating, they stood up to let others take their places and went outside.

“Now it’s time for church,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“Do we have to go?” Veradean asked.

“It’s the least we can do.”

The church was part of the same building but reached by going out one door and through another. There were about ten people inside sleepily waiting for the service to begin. An old woman played hymns on a small organ at the front.

In a couple of minutes, Brother Galvin came to the front and looked out at the people assembled. He held up his hands and smiled and the organ music stopped.

“Brothers and sisters!” he said. “Is there anybody here who does not believe that this is a day that the Lord hath made.”

“No!” somebody shouted from the back.

“We are so happy that you have made your way into our little fold on this blessed Thanksgiving Day. I’m here to tell you that the Lord loves you, no matter what you’ve done and no matter how low you might have sunk in this life. That is our message of hope at the Heavenly Light Mission: You are loved, in spite of all your transgressions, as only He can love, and you will be redeemed!”

“Amen!”

“Amen!”

A-men!

Now,” Brother Galvin said, looking directly at Vicki-Vicki, “I’m going to ask each of you to come forward, one by one, on this glorious Thanksgiving Day, and be washed of your sins in the house of the Lord! What better thing could you do on this Thanksgiving Day than be washed in the blood of our blessed savior?”

Baby Eddie quickly went to sleep, while Veradean played with a piece of string. Vicki-Vicki listened and watched the people stand up one at a time and go forward to the front timidly, where Brother Galvin prayed over them and listened to their oaths that they were ready to turn their lives and hearts over to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vicki-Vicki knew her turn was coming and she was going to have to go to the front of the church with everybody watching. It was the kind of display she hated and the thought of it made her feel shy and awkward. What if she fell down in her high heels and everybody laughed? She wasn’t going to let that happen.

When Brother Galvin had his eyes closed in prayer, Vicki-Vicki scooped Baby Eddie up in her arms and, with Veradean following closely behind, made for the door. As soon as they were outside, it began to rain.

“We don’t even have an umbrella!” Veradean said.

“Carry me!” Baby Eddie whined.

They hadn’t walked very far when a red-and-white Chevrolet came along slowly and, honking at them first, pulled off the highway in front of them. The driver’s side door opened and a head popped up.

“Care for a lift?” Rollo Ruff asked.

“Who’s that?” Veradean said.

“Oh, it’s that silly boy, Rollo Ruff, from high school,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“What kind of a name is that?”

Other cars were slowing down and people were gawking, thinking they were witnessing an accident.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Get in before we all get killed!”

Vicki-Vicki got into the passenger seat beside Rollo Ruff and Veradean and Baby Eddie got into the back seat.

“I wouldn’t ordinarily accept a ride from a stranger,” Vicki-Vicki said, “but I have these little ones to think about.”

“I’m not such a stranger,” he said. “We knew each other in high school. Remember?”

“Well, if you say so.”

“You don’t remember me at all?”

“I guess I do. You were just one of so many silly boys.”

“I asked you to a Halloween dance once and you turned me down.”

“I’ll bet I wasn’t very nice about it, either, was I?”

He laughed and looked at her appreciatively. “No, you weren’t. You just about broke my heart.”

“You’re exaggerating!”

“Well, maybe a little.”

She hated now to have him know where she lived, but there was no other choice.

“Turn left on Bryson Road going out of town,” she said. “Go past the mill and the sewage treatment plant and I’ll tell you where to turn.”

“Oh, you live down here!” he said and she heard the disappointment in his voice.

“It’s just temporary,” she said. “We plan on moving soon.”

“I didn’t know we were moving,” Veradean said.

When Rollo Ruff pulled up in front of the house, Vicki-Vicki was glad it was raining so hard that he wouldn’t be able to see the peeling paint and sagging porch.

Vicki-Vicki made Veradean and Baby Eddie both thank Rollo Ruff for giving them all a ride and keeping them from having to walk home in the rain.

“Can I see you a little later?” Rollo Ruff asked.

“What for?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“I can swing by about seven o’clock and we can have a little fun.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

She pointed with her thumb toward the back seat.

“Put them to bed and we can go for a drive.”

“I can’t leave them alone. They’re too young.”

“Well, then,” he said, “put them to bed and you and I can just sit and talk.”

“I don’t think so. I’m tired. My feet ache. We walked all that way.”

“I’m not giving up,” Rollo Ruff said. “When I saw you again today, I wondered why I let you get away in high school.”

“You’re a smooth talker, aren’t you?”

“Not really. I’m usually tongue-tied.”

“Well, good night. It was lovely seeing someone from high school again.”

She opened the door and started to get out.

“I can’t call you because you don’t have a phone,” he said. “If I give you my number, will you call me?”

“Well, I suppose I might consider calling you some time when it’s convenient, if I don’t forget.”

“Do you have a piece of paper?”

“No.”

He took a pen out of his pocket and wrote the number on the back of Vicki-Vicki’s hand.

“Write it down before you wash it off,” he said.

“I will,” she said. “If I don’t forget.”

Rollo Ruff drove off into the night and Vicki-Vicki carried Baby Eddie into the house and put him to bed.

“I hope I don’t catch a cold,” Veradean said.

At ten o’clock, Vicki-Vicki and Veradean were sitting at the kitchen table. Vicki-Vicki leafed through a magazine and Veradean shuffled a deck of cards. The house was silent except for the rain on the roof.

“Do you want to play some two-handed pinochle?” Veradean asked.

“I hate card games,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“That was the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had. It made me feel just like a pilgrim.”

“I’m so happy for you.”

“Are you going to marry that boy?”

“What boy?”

“That Rollo boy.”

“I don’t even know him.”

“I think he really likes you.”

“He’ll get over it.”

“Are you going to call him up sometime?”

“I don’t know. It depends on how bored I get sitting around this dump.”

“If you marry him, will you let me and Baby Eddie come and live with you?”

“I’m not going to marry him.”

“Okay, but if you do.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t want to end up in foster care.”

“You worry like an old woman.”

“I wonder if I’ll ever make it to high school,” Veradean said.

“Don’t be in any hurry to get to high school,” Vicki-Vicki said. “It’s a hell hole.”

“It’s supposed to be a good time.”

“Well, it’s not.”

They heard a car out front and then voices and then a thump followed by another thump. Veradean ran and looked out the front window.

“Mama’s coming up the front walk!” she said.

“What?” Vicki-Vicki said, running into the front room.

The front door opened and mama came into the house, dripping wet.

Veradean ran to mama and put her arms around her big waist. “Mama! Oh, mama! Why didn’t you tell us you were coming home?”

“I didn’t know it myself until last night. They let me out to spend Thanksgiving with my family.”

“I’m so glad you’re here!”

“Are you home for good this time?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Get me a towel. Can’t you see I’m dripping water on the floor?”

Veradean took mama’s little suitcase and mama sat down on the couch, out of breath, and dried her hair with the towel Vicki-Vicki handed her.

“Where’s Baby Eddie?” she asked.

“He was tired out. He went to sleep.”

“I want to see him.”

“Don’t wake him up!” Vicki-Vicki said. “I’ll never get him to go back to sleep.”

“Who do you think are you telling me what to do in my own home?”

“I just meant…”

“I don’t care what you meant.”

“Mama, what did you do to your hair?” Veradean asked. “It’s blond now!”

“You like it?”

“Yes, it looks very glamorous.”

“A gal in prison who murdered her husband fixed it for me. I think it’s a little too short, but I guess it’ll grow out quick enough.

“Oh, it’s elegant!

“Did you kids eat today?”

“Oh, mama! We had the most wonderful Thanksgiving dinner I ever saw. We had turkey and dressing and candied sweet potatoes and corn and pumpkin pie and all the stuff the pilgrims had. The only difference was religious people took the place of the Indians.”

“Where did this take place?”

“At the Heavenly Light Mission in town,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You walked all that way?”

“It’s the only way we could get there.”

“I was going to stop and pick up some chicken on my way home,” mama said. “I’m glad now I didn’t bother, since you already ate.”

“We started walking home in the rain and one of Vicki-Vicki’s boyfriends came along and gave us a ride.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“He was cute, too,” Veradean said.

Mama looked suspiciously at Vicki-Vicki. “You been whoring around while I was gone?”

“Isn’t that what you do? Isn’t that how you get three kids by three different men without ever being married to any one of them?”

“You’d better watch that smart mouth of yours, my girl. I can still slap you silly and don’t think I won’t do it, either!”

“Mama, can I sleep with you tonight?” Veradean said. “I’ve missed you so much!”

“Hell no!” mama said. “I don’t want you breathin’ on me all night. And, anyway, I’ve got a date. I just came home to change clothes. Somebody’s pickin’ me up in about ten  minutes.”

She went into the bedroom and closed the door. In a few minutes she emerged wearing her fancy black dress and left in a hurry without speaking another word.

“Can you sleep with me and Baby Eddie tonight?” Veradean asked. “When mama comes home she’ll be drunk and I don’t want to be around her when she’s like that.”

At two in the morning Vicki-Vicki was still awake. She lay in the bed next to Veradean, listening to the rain and wind buffeting the house. Baby Eddie lay in another smaller bed on the other side of the room. Sometimes he made little mouse sounds in his throat like there was something inside that was trying to come out.

There was a flash of lightning, unusual for the time of year, and sirens out on the highway. The sirens usually meant a car wreck. If Vicki-Vicki could have any wish tonight, it would be for one particular traffic fatality. Just the one and no others.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp