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Sleep Now, Child

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Sleep Now, Child ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

Ottilie Oglesby, upon awaking and finding herself in an unfamiliar place, took a deep, choking breath as she sat up and looked around in alarm. She began to panic but then calmed herself with the knowledge that there had to be a perfectly logical explanation for where she was and what she was doing there, and in just a moment everything would become clear. A little shakily, she called out Hello! Hello! When nobody answered, she said it again, a little louder this time.

An old woman appeared, as if she had vaporized out of the wall. Ottilie had never seen the woman before, but it didn’t matter because she was happy to see that, at the very least, somebody else was there besides her. Astonishingly, the old woman had a glow emanating from inside her, in the area of her lower chest and upper abdomen. Ottilie stared at it, unable to take her eyes off it.

“What in the world?” she said. “You’re glowing! I’ve never seen a person glow before.”

“You’re glowing, too,” the old woman said.

Ottilie looked down and, indeed, she glowed from inside her own chest as if she had a small light inside her body and she was made of some transparent material.

“What is this?” she said. “Where am I?”

“Do you know what year it is?” the old woman asked.

“It’s 1912, I think.”

“For you it will always be 1912.”

“What do you mean?”

“Time has stopped for you. There is no more time.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You must at least have given some thought in your life to what happens to us after we die.”

“Die? Do you mean…” She was unable to finish the sentence.

“It’s always a shock, especially for the young who had no thought of dying.”

“But I can’t be dead,” Ottilie said. “I have things to do. I promised mother I’d clean out my closet. I have to go to school. I have to take care of my cats. I have a Sunday school picnic on Saturday.”

“The picnic will go on without you. That’s what happens when we die.”

“I don’t believe you. I think I’m just having a bad dream. In a little while I’ll wake up and everything will be fine.”

“No, my dear. This may be a dream, but it’s not the kind of dream you’re used to or one you wake up from.”

“Who are you, anyway?”

“I’m your father’s grandmama. That makes me your great-grandmama.”

“I thought you looked a little familiar. I’ve seen pictures of you.”

“I died long before you were born.”

“What happened to you? How did you die?”

“I have no recollection of my death and it doesn’t matter anyway. I believe I died peacefully in my own bed.”

“Did I die peacefully in my own bed?” Ottilie asked.

“No, you didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you’re here now.”

“I’ve got to go home now. My mother and father will be worried about me. They’ll think I was kidnapped and sold into slavery.”

“They know where you are. They know what happened.”

“How do they know?”

“They were there when it happened.”

“When what happened?”

“When you died.”

How did I die?”

“You were run over by a pie wagon in Philadelphia. How should I know? It doesn’t matter how you died. The only thing that matters is that you died and you’re here now.”

“Can you tell me how to get out of here and go home?”

“Even if I could tell you, you wouldn’t want to do it because you’re here now and here is where you belong.”

Ottilie looked around her at the confining walls that she could see only because of the glow inside her chest, and she began to cry. “Do you mean I can’t go home. Ever? I have to stay here now? Always?”

“You’ll get used to it as all the others have.”

“What others? Just what is this place, anyway? Is it heaven?”

“It might be. We don’t know for sure. It might be the only thing we’ll ever know of heaven.”

“I’m awfully confused,” Ottilie said.

“I’ll bet your father used to take you and your brother and your mother for Sunday drives, didn’t he?”

“He was the first one on our street to own an automobile and he always wanted to show it off for the neighbors.”

“Did he ever take you to the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost outside the city limits and show you the family vault?”

“The family vault? Yes, I remembering seeing it. I thought it was scary and forbidding. It had a big heavy door that wouldn’t open.”

“That’s where you are now.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“It’s where all the deceased members of our family go. First all the others and now you.”

Ottilie began crying again. “Can’t I go back home, just for a little while? I want to see my cats and make sure they’re all right.”

“Your brother is taking care of them now.”

“I didn’t get a chance to tell everybody goodbye.”

“Everybody you knew came to bid you a fond farewell. You weren’t aware of it at the time.”

Ottilie cried some more, even louder than before. “I find my own death very heartbreaking, indeed,” she sobbed.

“Sleep now, child. You’ll meet the others later.”

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

She felt shy when brought before a gallery of strangers. She was not at all surprised, however, to see that they all carried the mysterious and arresting glow inside them, the same glow that great-grandmama had and now she herself had.

Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they entered the spirit world, having gone over a roaring waterfall in a rowboat on a flawless June day. They looked at Ottilie with wide-eyed wonder; each of them gave her a quick, unsmiling bow from the waist and then they were gone.

Great-grandpapa was tall and broad, wearing a dress suit, sporting the elaborate mustache and side whiskers for which he was known. He was the millionaire of the family. He financed the family crypt and selected the spot in the capacious cemetery where it would be built. He was not the first member of the family to be interred in the crypt, however. That honor fell to grandmama.

When confronted with Ottilie, great-grandpapa put his pince-nez to his eye and looked at her as though seeing a bug or an interesting specimen.

“How are you, my dear?” he asked.

“I’m dead, thank you, sir,” she said. “How are you?”

Uncle Evan, great-grandpapa’s son, was handsome in military uniform. He was only twenty-five when he came to the spirit world during the Spanish-American War. He carried himself a little stiffly because he had been shot in the neck and his wound still bothered him. He shook Ottilie’s hand politely, gave her a grim smile, and receded into the background as his military training dictated.

Aunt Katherine was a sad-faced woman carrying her baby. The baby was Augustus, in the spirit world forty years before aunt Katherine. Since being reunited, aunt Katherine and Augustus were inseparable; she wouldn’t let him out of her sight and wouldn’t let anybody else tend to him. She carried him with her night and day, wherever she went, vowing they would never be separated again, since they were now both on the same side of the Great Divide.

A formidable woman was aunt Zel, great-grandpapa’s sister. She had an elaborate coiffure piled high on her head and a stunning array of jewelry on her neck, fingers, ears and wrists. By her side always was her diminutive husband, Little Louie. He weighed a hundred and twenty pounds when he was alive and was eight inches shorter than aunt Zel. He had only his right arm, having lost the left one at the age of eight from the bite of a skunk.

“So happy to make your acquaintance, my dear,” aunt Zel said to Ottilie. “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.”

Little Louie, in aunt Zel’s wake, shook Ottilie’s fingers and gave her an aggrieved smile.

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

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

“If you were a boy instead of a girl, I’d advise you to never get married,” cousin Phillip said to Ottilie.

“I don’t think it would make much difference now, anyway,” Ottilie said.

Cousin Gilbert was sixteen when he entered the spirit world as a result of a crushed larynx sustained in an impromptu game of tackle football with some of his friends. Ottilie immediately saw cousin Gilbert as a kindred spirit. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s and, indeed, extended upwards to his neck, face and head. His smile was infectious and he seemed all the time to be about to burst into laughter. When he touched Ottilie’s hand, she felt a connection she hadn’t felt with any of the others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cemetery was much larger than Ottilie imagined. Gilbert took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a tall, handsome policeman with a handlebar mustache who loved to tell stories about the bravery involved with apprehending desperate criminals; a Civil War soldier who shook hands with Abraham Lincoln and spent ten minutes engaged in conversation with him; a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept away everything in its path”); a governor of the state who once ran for president but fell short; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire (all buried in the same grave); a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his massive vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.

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

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

“This is the fun part,” Gilbert said.

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

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

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

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

“Can I fly, too?” Ottilie asked.

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

“Can I try it?” Ottilie asked.

“You can do anything you want, now,” he said.

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

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

“Of course there are!”

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

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

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

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

She recognized father’s automobile and then she saw who was riding inside: father, mother and her brother Boyd. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it as it turned out of the cemetery and headed toward home.

She held on easily enough until father pulled into the driveway of the old house. She was happy to see that everything looked exactly the same. The first thing she did was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there and seemed healthy and happy, but they were now adult cats. She cried when they meowed and purred and recognized her and begged to be picked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cousin Gilbert and great-grandmama and the others didn’t realize Ottilie had been gone, although in the world of the living it would have been decades.

There were additions to the family crypt, of course, in all the time that was no time. Great-grandmama had a surprise for Ottilie. Mother and father were there with their own glows, which meant they were now all on the same side of the Great Divide between Life and Death, and there would be no more leave-taking for any of them.

After the joyous reunion with mother and father, Ottilie learned another surprise awaited her. All the cats she ever had in her life were only as far away as the length of her arm. She might pet and play with them and snuggle them any time the spirit moved her. Now she really was in heaven, she believed, and she could settle down to a life of eternity. Maybe one day they would all move on to a place that looked more like heaven, with floating clouds, celestial music and occasional glimpses of the saints, but for now they would just have to do with what they had.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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Mein Fuehrer is Sleeping

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Mein Fuehrer is Sleeping ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is an expanded and edited version of a short story I posted three years ago.)

Albrecht Fennerman was, in every literal and figurative sense, a ghoul. He was over a hundred-and-thirty years old and should have been dead long ago, by any reasonable reckoning. If you were to meet him, the first thing you would note about him was that his skin was the color of ivory. Instead of blood coursing through his veins, he had a secret, powerful, life-giving, milkfish fluid invented by the brilliant Dr. Mengele.

Herr Fennerman’s eyes were as yellow agates, his teeth and fingernails honed and at the ready for tearing flesh. Although his body was elongated and his leather-like skin stretched almost to the breaking point over his skeletal frame, he was always elegantly dressed in the finest evening attire made (decades earlier) by the best tailors in Berlin, completed and complemented by top hat, monocle, elegant walking stick and distinguished service cross presented to him by the Fuehrer.

He resided with what remained of his family in his remote castle on an undisclosed mountaintop. He had been, at one time, married to a bloodless witch named Rafaela who was torn to shreds by a rival witch in a violent disagreement. From Herr Fennerman’s unholy union with Rafaela had been born two daughters, Regina and Theodosia.

These daughters were, of course, half-witch and half-ghoul, but neither camp claimed them, so they were always at odds with the world, never fitting in, filled with rancor, bitterness and jealousy. Through their many decades of childhood, they resided with their papa in his castle and looked upon him to protect them from harm and to lock them away in the dungeon belowstairs when such an action was warranted, as when Theodosia got it into her head that she was fervently in love with God and wanted to join a religious order or when Regina wanted to become a tango dancer and brought in an Italian gigolo with patent-leather hair to teach her the steps. (The gigolo unwisely laughed at her clumsiness on the ballroom floor and she ripped his head off and drank his blood in front of dozens of guests.)

In appearance, Regina and Theodosia were quite different. Regina possessed hulking enormity. She kept her face whitened with bone dust and her lips and talon-like fingernails painted a blood-red. She always wore black to accentuate the whiteness of her skin. She was easily frightened, though she herself was frightening to look upon; whenever she felt particularly vulnerable and felt like retreating, she spoke French if she spoke at all and covered her face with a heavy black veil, which gave her the feeling of being in the room but not in the room at the same time. She was, by all accounts, an odd person. When people met her, they were rarely able to forget the singular experience. That which has been seen cannot be unseen.

Her younger sister Theodosia was diminutive but none the less deadly. She walked hunched over, indicating fragility and old age, but this was a ruse to trick anyone foolish enough to challenge her into believing she was weak and vulnerable and could be easily foiled. When an adversary least expected it, she would rise up and strike with deadly force that was all the more effective because it was unexpected.

Regina and Theodosia were both known for their unabashed cruelty and love of spiteful tricks. If an itinerate wanderer happened to stumble on the grounds of the castle, they would lock him in the dungeon and then spend several days torturing him with the mediaeval torture devices at their disposal. They would feed him a pig’s-knuckle sandwich and give him a drink of water and revive him to the point of consciousness and then begin the torture all over again when his only crime was to be where he should not have been.

On a lovely spring day Theodosia blindfolded her lady’s maid and booted her off a cliff for the sole pleasure of seeing her dashed on the rocks below. Afterwards she told her papa the lady’s maid had run off with the baker and every time she said it her sister Regina screamed with laughter. (Afterward the phrase “run off with the baker” became code for “booted off the cliff.”) When a crow deposited a finger bone on the windowsill, Theodosia claimed it belonged to the lady’s maid and believed it was a sign of great things to come, particularly a great love.

Both Theodosia and Regina had been disappointed in love many times. In the game of romance, they didn’t seem to be able to get a decent hand. Men generally fled from them in fright. And then there were the misguided men who were only interested in them for their money. These they dealt with in their own special way, that is, to play with them the way a cat would play with a mouse. They had spells at their disposal and might, depending on the whim of the moment, turn a man into a statue, an ugly woman or a permanent carrier of the plague. Others they just killed outright in one way or another, as we have already seen with Theodosia and her Italian gigolo.

When one of the sisters became interested in a man, the other sister usually set her sights on the same man. When this happened, the two of them became deadly rivals. They would fight each other to the death for the sake of the man they believed they loved; exhaust themselves with fighting until the man in question would escape (if they hadn’t thought to lock him up in the dungeon), and when they came to a cessation in the warfare and looked around them, they’d forget about him and why they loved him in the first place.

One summer Herr Fennerman went away and was gone for months. He was gone so long, in fact, that Theodosia and Regina began to think he had been killed by one of his rivals and might never come back. Then, in the midst of a blinding mountain snowstorm, he pulled up in what appeared to be an absolutely new touring car.

Theodosia and Regina were watching from an upstairs window as Herr Fennerman stepped out of the stunning car and went around to the other side and opened the door for another person, who turned out to be a regal lady. Laughing, Herr Fennerman and the regal lady entered the castle, and Theodosia and Regina turned to each other in bafflement.

Herr Fennerman was showing the regal lady around the castle when Theodosia and Regina went timidly down the stairs.

“Who is this?” Theodosia asked, forcing Herr Fennerman to turn and look at her.

“Ah, my darling girls!” he said, kissing both on the cheek. “I want to you to come and meet someone very special!”

The regal lady he introduced as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna.

Enchanté,” she said, lifting the veil of her plumed hat.

Enchanté,” Regina said with a simper, bending a knee to give a small curtsey.

“How long are you planning on staying with us?” Theodosia asked with a smile that was more a grimace.

At this question, Herr Fennerman and the regal lady looked at each other and laughed.

“This is going to be her home from now on,” Herr Fennerman said. “We were married in Switzerland five days ago. She is to be your new mama.”

“I hope we shall all be great friends,” the regal lady said as if holding court.

“You might call her mama if you wish,” Herr Fennerman said.

“Or just call me Maria,” the regal lady said. “We don’t need to choke ourselves with formality here. Hah!”

With the introductions out of the way, Maria went upstairs to freshen up and rest for a while before dinner, while Theodosia and Regina descended on Herr Fennerman.

“What’s the idea of bringing her here?” Theodosia asked.

Herr Fennerman smiled his wry smile as he placed a cigarette in a holder and lit it. “I didn’t think it necessary to ask your permission,” he said.

“I don’t like her!” Theodosia said.

“Nonsense!” Herr Fennerman said. “You don’t even know her.”

“Oh, dear!” Regina whimpered. “Mon Dieu!”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve marrying her without consulting us first,” Theodosia said.

“I don’t have to consult with you about anything,” Herr Fennerman said. “You are to me as nothing.”

“Well, that’s a fine thing to say, I must say!”

“And I want to warn both of you. If you think you’re going to indulge in any of your nasty tricks to try to get rid of her, I will dispense with you so fast you won’t even see it coming. And please believe me when I tell you I can do it with one wave of my little finger.”

“Oh, you are despicable!”

“Why, thank you, my dear!”

The dinner gong was rung and the four of them seated themselves around the large table in the dining room. Herr Fennerman and Maria laughed and made eyes at each other, as they partook of the pigs’ brains smothered in blood sauce and dinosaur eggs, a rare and enormously expensive delicacy. Regina was feeling vulnerable and so covered her face with her black veil and lifted little bits of food up underneath the veil and fed them into her mouth. Theodosia glared at Herr Fennerman and stabbed with a knife and fork at her food as though she were murdering it.

“I wish you girls could have seen our bridal suite at the hotel in Switzerland,” Herr Fennerman said. “It was quite the loveliest of love nests. There were little cupids everywhere. The bed was heart-shaped with a red canopy over it.”

“It was so sweet!” Maria gushed. “A little slice of heaven!”

“Why didn’t you stay longer?” Theodosia asked archly.

“I told darling Maria about our glorious secret waiting back here at the castle and we couldn’t wait to get back.”

“You told her about the Fuehrer?” Theodosia asked, aghast.

“Why, yes, why wouldn’t I? She’s my wife now, my consort. Every possession I have in the world also belongs to her.”

“I thought it was to be our secret, always!”

“It is our secret!” Herr Fennerman said emphatically. “The only difference now is that the our includes Maria.”

“I was so excited to hear of your plans regarding the Fuehrer,” Maria said, “And I pray that they come to fruition!”

“Who do you pray to, Maria! King Satan? Isn’t he the one you would bow down to?”

“That’s enough, Theodosia!” Herr Fennerman said. “How do you dare to speak to your step-mama in that fashion on her first day home!”

“It’s all right, dearest,” Maria said. “I understand that she is feeling a little jealous now. A little threatened.”

Oh, oh, oh, oh!” Regina said from underneath her veil.

“Let me ask you one question, Maria,” Theodosia said. “Why do you wear that ruff around your neck?”

“I have a painful scar that I try to keep hidden. You can forgive a woman her vanity, I’m sure.”

“I think it’s more than vanity,” Theodosia said. “I think at one time in your glorious past your head was severed from your body.”

“Theodosia, that’s quite enough!” Herr Fennerman. “I’m just on the point of banishing you from the castle!”

“Weren’t you at one time married to a man named Louie?” Theodosia asked.

“Why, yes!” Maria said. “How did you know? Dear Louie died in a rather grisly fashion.”

“Your husband was King Louie the Sixteenth of France, wasn’t he? And you were his infamous and despised Queen, the one they called Marie Antoinette?”

Herr Fennerman stood up and threw his napkin down on the table. He was just on the point of striking Theodosia in the face if his arm had been long enough to reach across the table.

“That will do!” Herr Fennerman shrieked. “One more word out of you and I shall call down all the fires of heaven upon your head!”

Maria took hold of his arm and pulled him back to a sitting position. “It’s all right, dearest!” she said. “Your little daughter has guessed my secret. There is no point in denying the truth now that the secret is out.”

“How did you know?” Herr Fennerman asked Theodosia, all his fire dissipated.

“I recognized her picture from the picture books.”

“It’s not something I want everybody to know,” Maria said, “so I do hope you will respect my right to keep the matter quite private.”

“Tell us how it happened,” Theodosia said with a satisfied smile.

“My husband, the king, had already been executed and his body thrown to the wolves. My children had been taken from me and I didn’t know whether they were alive or dead. I was kept prisoner in a filthy cell, awaiting my fate. Finally the day arrived when I was thrown into the back of a horse cart and taken, before tens of thousands of screaming Parisians, to a public square to be executed. I was so frightened I could hardly stand on my feet, but they made me get out of the cart I was riding in and mount the steps to the guillotine. I don’t remember anything after that until I was waking up, not knowing where I was.”

Oh, oh, oh!” Regina whimpered from underneath her veil. “Quelle horreur!

“There has to be more to it than that,” Theodosia said.

“As much as people hated me,” Maria continued, “there were those few loyal friends who wanted me to live to wreak vengeance on those who had wronged me and my family. Those dear souls collected my body and my head when nobody was looking and took me to the secluded mountain laboratory of a pair of doctors—mad scientists, really—who were known for their unlawful work in restoring the dead to life.”

“And the rest, as they say, is history,” Herr Fennerman said.

“When your dear papa told me of his secret, your secret, here at the castle, I saw it as my chance to vindicate myself, redeem my reputation, and restore myself to the queendom that was so cruelly taken from me.”

“What are you saying?” Theodosia asked.

Herr Fennerman giggled like a schoolboy and covered his mouth with his napkin.

“I don’t follow your line of reasoning,” Theodosia said.

Herr Fennerman reached over and took Maria’s hand in his own. “Maria is to be Queen of the Fourth Reich, the royal consort of the resurrected Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler. Think of the amazement around the world as, not only the Fuehrer is resurrected and returned to his rightful place of power, but at his side will be one of the most infamous women in history, the lovely Marie Antoinette, Queen of the French.”

“Except that now I’ll be Queen of the Germans,” Maria said.

“And eventually Queen of the Entire World if our plans for the Fuehrer come about the way we expect them to!” Herr Fennerman said.

“I can hardly believe what I’m hearing!” Theodosia said.

“Maybe you need a hearing aid,” Herr Fennerman said.

“Do you think I’m going to stand by and do nothing while you make this interloper, this usurper, this whore, the Fuehrer’s Queen?”

“What are you raving about now?” Herr Fennerman asked.

“I thought we agreed that I would be first in line to be the Fuehrer’s Queen and that Regina would be second.”

Qui!” Regina said. “Je devais être le deuxième!

“You aren’t a Queen!” Maria said. “I am a true Queen! You are a nothing! You are half-ghoul and half-witch, which makes you half-nothing!

“Now, now!” Herr Fennerman. “We can’t accomplish anything as long as we are each other’s throats. We must all take a deep breath and calm ourselves and try to be friends.”

“He’s right!” Maria said. “We will not engage in petty quarrels. We are as nothing to the destiny that awaits us!”

Hear, hear!” Herr Fennerman said. “Long live the Fuehrer!”

“He lies in a peaceful slumber within these very walls,” Maria said. “All we have to do is return him to life and he will rise up and become Emperor of all the World!”

Comme c’est excitant!” Regina said.

“Have you decided on a date yet to bring the old boy back to life?” Theodosia asked.

“The glorious day will be October thirty-first, All Hallow’s Eve. It will come as the finale to our annual Ghouls’ Ball.”

“We thought that most appropriate!” Maria said. “It will be the date that will forever be remembered and celebrated!”

Theodosia could stand no more. She picked up a sharp knife used for cutting meat and hurled it at Maria’s head. When the knife missed and clattered harmlessly to the floor, Theodosia catapulted her body across the table and grabbed Maria by the throat with both hands.

“What in the world do you think you’re doing?” Herr Fennerman shouted.

“I will kill her!” Theodosia said.

Theodosia wasn’t able to get a good hold on Maria’s throat. She fell to the floor as one being struck out of the air by an invisible enemy. Maria had done it with only a small movement of her index finger.

“I still remember a little trick or two!” she said with a laugh to show she wasn’t hurt.

“Oh, my dear, my dear!” Herr Fennerman said. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you should be treated in this way on your first day home.”

“Don’t be sorry for me,” Maria said. “Be sorry for this daughter of yours, the one who cannot control herself and who must act out her jealousy and frustration in the ugliest of ways.”

Theodosia stood up from the floor, as though coming out of a daze. When she saw everyone looking at her, she sprang again for Maria, talon-like fingers extended like the claws of a vengeful bird.

Maria stood back, raised both arms over her head, made a motion with her arms and turned Theodosia into a blackbird.

Mon Dieu!” Regina said. “Qu’avez-vous fait?”

Theodosia hopped around among the dishes on the table and looked in amazement at the others.

“How appropriate!” Maria said. “The half-witch is now all crow!

“No less than she deserves!” Herr Fennerman said.

“I’m not sure if I remember how to change her back, though.”

“Not to worry. Let her remain a crow for a while and see how she likes it. Maybe she will learn a lesson in humility.”

“What do we do with her in the meantime?” Maria asked. “We can’t just let her fly around from room to room. She’ll need to be fed.”

“Quite right,” Herr Fennerman said. “We’ll let Regina take care of her until we change her back or until she dies of a crow disease.”

“I don’t want to take care of her!” Regina said, managing a simple declarative sentence in English for once.

“You can make yourself useful for a change. In the cellar is a large birdcage. Go down there and get it and bring it upstairs and keep her in that for the time being.”

“I can’t go to the cellar by myself,” Regina whimpered. “J’ai peur!

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Herr Fennerman raged. “Be a grownup person for once and take care of your sister!”

“I don’t want to, and you can’t make me!”

“Do you want me to turn you into a toad or something even worse? How about a spider? You know that crows eat spiders, don’t you?”

“She would do it for you, darling,” Maria said with a sympathetic smile.

“And feed her some corn or dead bugs or whatever crows eat,” Herr Fennerman said. “We can’t just let her starve inside that cage. She might be useful later.”

“I have nothing to feed a bird!” Regina whimpered. “Que devrais-je faire?

“You’ll think of something, I’m sure,” Herr Fennerman said.

“I think she would enjoy some dead flesh,” Maria said as she sat back down at the table and resumed her interrupted dinner.

The evening of the Ghouls’ Ball on the last day of October arrived with much fanfare and anticipation. Herr Fennerman invited over a hundred of his best friends and confidantes, some of the most ghoulish fiends the world has ever known.

As official hostess, the lovely Marie Antoinette made everyone feel welcome. Herr Fennerman, as host, never left her side. Regina lurked somewhere in the shadows, afraid for anyone to see her. Her constant companion now was a large birdcage with a lonely black bird inside. She guarded the birdcage with her life.

Champagne flowed freely. The guests danced, ate and drank. Talking and laughter were loud and raucous, the air abuzz with excitement. The Fuehrer’s name was on everyone’s lips. It was no less than a miracle, after so many believed him lost to them forever, that he would soon be in the room with them again, that the world would once again belong to him and his devoted followers who always knew in their hearts that National Socialism was not dead but would flourish on every continent, in every country, and every corner of the globe. The mistakes of the past would not be repeated. It was the time of new beginnings.

The dancing ended. The musicians finished playing and put away their instruments. Food and drink were cleared away. Everyone held their breath with anticipation.

At the end of a ballroom was a stage with a black curtain, illuminated by dim lights rising up from the floor. Everybody in the room knew what was going on behind that curtain. The actual Fuehrer himself was being readied to step forth and re-assume the mantle of leadership that had been torn asunder by the enemy.

Everyone stood looking at the curtain. Talking and laughter had subsided. People were attentive to the point of reverence.

The curtain opened. A small man stepped forward, but the stage was very dark, so no one knew yet if it was really the Fuehrer or some other man. He came to the middle of the stage and stopped, an attendant on either side of him. A spotlight came on above his head, illuminating him for all to see.

Everybody in the room gasped. It was a revelation to once again look upon the mustachioed face of the Fuehrer. There were tears of joy. Many held their breath with delight and astonishment.

The Fuehrer looked out over the heads of the assembled, as though seeing something that nobody else could see. He raised his right hand in the Nazi salute and let it fall. When he opened his mouth to speak, everybody was ready for a rousing, roaring speech, given as only he could give it.

But these were the disappointing words that came out of his mouth: “Where is my Bondi?”

There was a slight murmur. People looked around to see if anybody else had understood the words and knew what they meant.

When nobody answered his question, the Fuehrer took a couple of hesitant steps forward, cast his blank eyes left and right and then up and down, and when he didn’t see what he was looking for he turned and exited stage right.

After a few moments of stunned silence, the ghouls and their ladies, the musicians, the servants and waiters, Herr Fennerman, Marie Antoinette, and everybody else in the place, erupted into the most enthusiastic applause and cheers of adulation that might have brought down the house if it hadn’t been so firmly in place.

Lurking in the shadows where she couldn’t be seen—that is, performing her trick of being in the room while at the same time being not in the room—was Regina. She let the veil fall from her face and looked down at the blackbird in the cage and stuck the tip of her finger in between the bars and stroked the bird’s head. The bird looked at her knowingly and spit out a bloody gob of the Fuehrer’s brain matter that had been lodged in its throat.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Motel Beside the Highway

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The Motel Beside the Highway ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

(This is an expanded version of a short story I posted earlier with a different title.)

My name is Charles A. Rilke (rhymes with “silky”). Some people call me Charlie but mostly I’m known as just plain Charles. I had been married for twelve years and had two children. We lived the American dream in a mortgaged-to-the-hilt ranch house in the suburbs. I was a solid citizen, a straight arrow, a model of sobriety, a true believer and a professional man. I figured my life was all plotted out for me until the day I died, without any deviation in any direction. I didn’t expect to find myself in love for the first time at the advanced age of forty-two.

I had a job I didn’t like very much as an editor at a publishing firm. I had been with the company for seven years and had been passed over for promotion in favor of younger, less-experienced people. I hated every minute I spent in the corporate world. I wanted to throw everything down and become a writer. Not practical, you say? You’re probably right.

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

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

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

After he pumped the gas, he cleaned my windshield.

“New here?” I asked.

“Started last week.”

“You like it?”

“Who likes pumping gas?”

“Probably nobody.”

The next time I needed gas and stopped it at Gus Gray’s, Colton was standing beside the pumps as if I was his only customer all day. He gassed up my car and cleaned my windshield and before I left I asked him to check the oil so I can could keep him near me for a little while longer.

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

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

“How is that?” he asked.

“You don’t look like you just crawled out of an oil can.”

He laughed. “Nobody notices.”

“Somebody notices. I notice.”

“People just want their gas. They don’t care about the person pumping it.”

He was around thirty, I figured. He had brown hair, what little I could see of it under his cap. His face was covered with brown-blond stubble, just enough to look appealing instead of scruffy. He was broad-shouldered, trim-waisted, shirt tucked neatly into pants. His clothes were spotless and he wore new-looking work boots. He was a perfectly proportioned male specimen. I saw much in him to be admired.

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

“Are you flirting with me?” he asked.

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

“Slow day?” I asked.

“What?”

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

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

“Then why am I here?” I said.

He smiled and shrugged and I felt like the main thing I needed to do was to keep my mouth shut.

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

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

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

“Yeah, I can see that.”

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

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

“What do you do?”

“I work for Ellis and Peacock downtown.”

“What’s Ellis and Peacock?”

“Publishing house.”

“You’re a publisher?”

“Just an editor and a junior editor, at that.”

“What does an editor do?”

“I make sure copy is ready for publication.”

“What’s ‘copy’?”

“Stuff that other people write.”

“Why don’t you write it yourself?”

“I’m lacking in ambition and enthusiasm.”

“Why don’t you quit, then, and do something else?”

“It’s not that easy. I have a mortgage and two kids.”

“And a wife?”

“Yeah, a wife, too.”

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

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

“Not me,” he said.

“Smart man.”

Over the next three or four months I saw Colton every time I stopped in for gas. We usually exchanged a few words of no importance that I recalled over and over in my mind until the next time I saw him. I wasn’t looking for any hidden meaning; I was only remembering the way he spoke the words and the look in his chestnut eyes as he spoke them.

I began thinking a lot about him as I sat at my desk at work. At night when I turned off the light I saw the cleft in his chin, the tiny chip in his tooth when he smiled, the way his trousers clung to the contours of his ass, his laugh, his hands, the hair on his forearms, the hair that spilled out at the top of his shirt collar. All the things about him I liked.

I wished that I might have a chance to know him better, to talk to him away from the station. Would he think I was a lunatic if I asked him to meet me in a bar or a restaurant somewhere? Would he tell Gus Gray and have me banned from the station? Would they call the police and have me arrested?

Being drawn to a good-looking younger man was not a habit for me; it had never happened before, not even in my younger days. Most people left me cold, didn’t move me one way or another. Hadn’t I decided long ago that feeling nothing was the best way to get through life unscathed? Hadn’t I always gone out of my way to fit in with the herd and not draw attention to myself?

And why would I think Colton would ever give me a thought? I was nothing special. I wasn’t especially young or good-looking or interesting. My car was boring. My hair was thinning on top and already I was starting to pack on weight around my middle. I believed I might be on the verge of making a complete ass of myself, as I did in high school when I thought I was a poet and published a poem in the school newspaper that made everybody laugh and hoot because it was so bad.

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Colton.”

“Don’t know no Colton.”

“He works here.”

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

“What’s the matter with him?”

“I dunno.”

“When’s he coming back?”

“I dunno. I ain’t his keeper.”

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

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

“What’s happened to Colton?” I asked him.

“He called and asked for a few days off. He’s been sick. In the hospital, I believe.”

“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”

“Nope.”

“Is he coming back?”

“I guess so. He didn’t say.”

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

Days passed and I avoided Gus Gay’s. When I needed gas, I drove to another station farther away. If I didn’t see Colton, I reasoned, I would stop thinking about him and eventually forget about him altogether and go back to being the fatherly drudge I had always been, the same as everybody else, with none any the wiser.

After two weeks, I couldn’t hold out any longer. I had to know that he was all right and hadn’t died or anything. The next time I stopped in to fill up at Gus Gray’s, he was standing at the pump. I was so happy to see him I could have jumped out of the car and embraced him.

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

“You’ve been gone,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“They said you were sick.”

“I’m all right.”

“I missed you.”

“I missed you, too, sir,” he said.

“Fill it up.”

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

“If you ever want to talk,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gus fired me,” he said.

“Why?”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Probably, but I don’t care.”

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long will we be gone?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A life without much to show for it,” he said.

“No worse than anybody else’s,” I said.

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

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

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

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

We talked for a while and watched an old black-and-white movie on TV. When the movie was over, he wanted to take a shower. When he came out of the bathroom, he got into bed naked. I got in beside him and held him in my arms and kissed him. As he kissed me back, I realized I had, finally, the thing I had been dreaming about for months. If I died right at that moment, I would die happy.

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

“Does it matter?”

“No, not as long as I’m with you.”

He surprised me by taking my hand and entwining his fingers through mine.

“Do you want to go back?” I asked.

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

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

“I don’t want another job. I’ve had plenty of jobs. I’ve thought about it long and hard and from where I stand it looks like I’m just about finished.”

“What are you saying?” I asked.

“Ever think about just bringing down the curtain? Ending things on your own?”

“I’ve thought about a lot of things.”

“I read a story once about a suicide pact between two men. It seemed like a good idea.”

“Why?”

He thought for a moment and then he said, “If you do it with somebody you care about, it’s not so lonely.”

I showed him the gun I had in my suitcase.

“I have two bullets,” I said.

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

“I see,” he said.

“Is it what you want?” I asked. “Truly?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“You have to be sure. No regrets.”

“I’m sure. I don’t have any regrets. Have you ever fired a gun before?”

“Sure.”

“Make sure the bullet does its job.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Wait until I’m asleep.”

“You won’t feel a thing. And know that I’ll be right behind you.”

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

There was just enough light coming in from the window that I could see him. I watched him all night, listening to him breathe and sigh, and I knew he was the only person in the world I had ever loved in the way that I always knew was possible but had never experienced before.

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

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Still in the motel beside the highway.”

“What time is it?”

“Time to get up and get dressed.”

We were on our way again in a half-hour. We crossed one state line and then another with dizzying rapidity. I planned to keep driving for as long as I could and for as long as my car and my money held out. When it was time to stop driving and do something else, I’d know. Until then, nothing much mattered except my feeling of being free and the happiness I felt when I looked at the person beside me.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Every Word on Every Page

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

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

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

“You’re the book expert?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not worth much,” he said.

“What?”

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

“You’ve hardly even looked at them.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You won’t do no better, believe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I think we can work something out.”

“There’s nothing to work out!”

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

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

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

“The transaction is concluded!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think I won’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You crazy woman!” he said.

“Unload the boxes! Now!”

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

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

“Get back up in the truck!” she said.

“What?”

“I said get back up into the truck!”

“Why?”

“You’ll see why.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It sounded like a car backfiring.”

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

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

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

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

“I’d be glad to pay him.”

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Ground My Bed, The Leaves My Blanket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s October now. Winter’s coming.”

“I know.”

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

“I don’t plan anything. I never did.”

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

“I don’t have a home.”

“Everybody has a home.”

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

“When did you last eat?”

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

“Life is hard, isn’t it?”

“I find it so.”

“You can do better.”

“Tell me how.”

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

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

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

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

“Why? What’s the matter?”

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

“What’s a purge?”

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

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

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

“Where would I go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If I did, I’d try to forget it.”

“He owes me money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know you would, Eulah.”

“Have you seen my twin sister, Beulah?”

“No, I haven’t.”

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

“I believe so.”

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

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

“It’s bound to, this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eulah Knickerbocker told me.”

“You’d better get out while you can.”

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

“It’s your funeral.”

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

“You’re cold, aren’t you?”

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

“I can warm you up.”

“You got a bottle?”

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

“You would spend your four dollars on me?”

“And a lot more.”

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

“Are you sure?”

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

“Haven’t seen him for a few days.”

“He owes me money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not supposed to be here!”

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

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

She stood up. The man, towering over her, shone his flashlight in her face. She couldn’t get a good look at him because of the light in her eyes, but she knew from his voice and his bearing that his face was beautiful beyond believing.

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

“Magic,” he said.

“Please don’t take me to jail.”

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

“I’m going, I swear!”

“It’s dangerous for you to be here.”

“I know! I’ll leave right now.”

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

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

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

“Please don’t do that!”

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

“Anything!”

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

“No!”

“Go home. Don’t you have a home?”

“No.”

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

“I will. I promise.”

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

“Wait a minute!” she said. “I was…”

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

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

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

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

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

She hugged her arms to her body and, like a princess in a fairy story, was transformed. A celestial light appeared above her head and shone down on her. The light entered her brain and settled around her heart. She heard the sweetest music she had ever known, coming from a faraway place. She trembled all over and fell to the ground in a kind of religious ecstasy, having looked at last upon the face of God.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

 

November Night

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November Night ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” the waiter asked.

“Last time I checked!” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no! It’s perfectly all right.”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Linda said. “I hate it.”

“Then why did you wear it?”

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

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

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

“I’m wearing a new suit.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You know it was.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

“You’re married to me.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m inclined to forget.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye, aye, captain, sir!”

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

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

“What about?”

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

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

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

“Economize in what way?” Linda asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can read and write.”

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

“I can operate a babysitting service.”

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

“I’ll get the money somewhere!”

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

Linda began crying. Gerald gave her his handkerchief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You didn’t do anything,” Linda said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire! Fire! Fire!” someone screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Shall We Have a Cigarette On It?

Posted on

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

(This is a re-post.)

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

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

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

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

“I made no such agreement.”

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

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

“That would be a great pity, ma’am.”

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

“Not at all, ma’am.”

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

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

“That’s right,” Jerry said.

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

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

“What were you talking to her for?”

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

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

“No doubt,” Jerry said.

“I suppose Charlotte told you all about herself.”

“As much as I needed to know.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“It was very kind of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet,” Jerry said.

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

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

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

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

“Are you going to marry Charlotte?”

“I’m already married, you see.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother, really!” Charlotte said.

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

“Have you and Charlotte been intimate?”

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

“You sometimes act as if you were!”

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

“All right, then, you tell me!”

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

“Not on my money you won’t!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not in the least.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m in love.”

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

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

“You haven’t got the guts!”

“Try me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve got a ways to go,” he said.

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

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

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

“Did it work?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah!” Jerry said. “Success!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, darling. Whatever you want.”

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m getting hard!”

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

“Too wonderful to be believed!”

“It is rather wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Shall we have a cigarette on it?”

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

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

“And will we be happy?” he asked.

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

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp