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Billie Diderot of the Lemon-Colored Hair

Billie Diderot of the Lemon-Colored Hair ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post.)

We had just finished supper when we heard a car out front. The kids, sensing excitement, went tearing out the door, knocking aside anything in their path. I went out, too, with mama right behind me.

What we had heard was a new-model Ford car with my brother Tafford driving. After seeing the car and then seeing Tafford, the next thing I saw was that somebody was in the car with him and that somebody was a woman.

“Tafford got himself a wife!” mama said.

“Tafford got himself a new car!” I said.

Lupe, Willoughby, and Wiley were jumping up and down and screaming. As soon as Tafford stopped the car, they were all over him, kissing and hugging him and tugging on his arms.

“You can help me carry in the stuff I got in the back of my car,” he said.

“Oh, what did you bring us?” Lupe cried.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Mama went down the steps off the porch and ran to Tafford and threw her arms around him. “I was afraid you was dead, son!” she said.

Tafford laughed. “Why would I be dead?”

“When we don’t hear from you for so long, I imagine all sorts of things.”

“Well, I’m here now and that’s what matters, ain’t it?”

Mama hung on to Tafford’s arm. “Who’s that woman?” she asked.

“Come on out of the car, Billie, and meet my family!” Tafford said.

She got out of the car and stood beside it, looking confused, trying to smile, tugging at her clothes. She wore a flowered dress and white shoes but the thing you noticed first about her was her hair the color of a lemon. It hung in billowy cascades around her ears to her shoulders. I had never seen hair like it before in my life.

“Mama,” Tafford said, “this is Billie Diderot. She’s going to be staying with us for a few days.”

She took two steps toward mama and held out her hand. Mama wasn’t used to women shaking hands, but she took hold of it anyway.

“Pleased to meetcha,” Billie Diderot said.

“How d’ya do,” mama said without smiling and then to Tafford she said, in a whisper that all of us heard, “She ain’t your wife, is she?”

Tafford threw his head back and laughed. “Hah-hah-hah! That’s a good one, mama! No, she ain’t my wife. We’re just taking a little trip together. And not as man and wife, neither!”

Tafford introduced Billie to me, Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby, shaking hands with all of us, and then Wiley and Willoughby got into Tafford’s car and wallowed around on the seats while Lupe sat behind the wheel and pretended to drive.

“Hey!” Tafford said. “Stop that now, you kids, and help me carry these things in!”

Billie had two suitcases that I carried inside, while Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby carried in the packages from the back of Tafford’s car. As soon as they got them inside, they began tearing them open to see what was in them. When they found cookies and donuts, they began stuffing them into their mouths like hungry animals, even though they just had supper.

“They’re a bunch of barbarians!” Tafford laughed, while Billie stood beside him looking uncomfortable.

As soon as mama came inside, Billie went to her and whispered something in her ear.

“It’s out back,” mama said. “Go through the kitchen and out the back door. You’ll see it.”

“When we have visitors, I’m a little embarrassed we don’t have indoor accommodations,” mama said when Billie was out of the room.

“Don’t think anything about it,” Tafford she. “She ain’t society.”

When Billie came back in, she wanted to wash herself, so mama gave her a washrag and a bar of soap and hustled the rest of us out of the kitchen so she could have a little privacy.

Since Tafford and Billie weren’t “man and wife” and wouldn’t be sleeping in the same bed, mama decided the best place to put Billie was in the attic room. The room hadn’t been cleaned in a while, at least two years, so mama put all of us to work sweeping the floors, putting clean linens on the bed, and removing any junk that had accumulated in the interim. We were all sure we had been ill-used from the unexpected work.

“I don’t want to hear any grumbling,” mama said, “while we got a guest in the house.”

After Billie finished with her “privacy” in the kitchen, mama offered to heat up the leftovers from supper, but Tafford said they had eaten in Pecksville on their way in and wouldn’t need anything else till breakfast.

So we all sat around “visiting” for a couple of hours and by then it was nearly ten o’clock. Tafford said they were tired from the long day, so it was time to say “good night.” Mama showed Billie up the stairs to the attic room while I followed behind carrying her suitcases. I set the suitcases down on the floor at the foot of the bed and went back down to my own room, where Tafford was already asleep.

The next morning Billie was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and she looked better than she had the night before. She wasn’t dressed yet but wore a thing that ladies wore before they got dressed, called a kimono, I guess. She smiled when I came into the room.

“I’ve forgotten your name already,” she said. “I’m just terrible at rememberin’ things!”

“It’s Tyler,” I said.

“Tyler and Tafford! Ain’t that cute!”

“Wasn’t meant to be cute,” mama said.

I was getting the impression Mama didn’t like Billie very much.

“What are the two younger boys’ names, now?”

“Willoughby and Wiley,” I said.

“Two W’s and two T’s. And in the middle of all these boys is one girl.”

“That would be Lupe,” I said.

“As in Lupe Velez?”

“I don’t know. Who’s Lupe Velez?”

“She’s a Mexican movie actress, just the cutest little thing you ever saw. She’s got these big dark eyes and…”

“No,” mama said, “we didn’t name her after no Mexican movie actress. That was a name her papa picked out. I can’t say I ever liked it very much but it was his wish.”

“And now he’s dead?” Billie asked.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“At a young age?”

“Not yet fifty.”

“And left you with five children to take care of?”

“I wouldn’t have had ‘em in the first place if I hadn’t been able to take care of ‘em.”

Tafford came into the room and poured himself a cup of coffee. Billie smiled at him but he didn’t smile back.

“Did you sleep well, son?” mama asked.

“I didn’t wake up a single time. You could have fired a gun over my head.”

He sat down at the table with his cup and lighted his own cigarette.

Mama brought the food to the table and we began eating.

“Aren’t you going to call the kids?” Billie asked.

“They’ve already ate,” mama said. “They get up early in summertime and they don’t want much breakfast.”

“Where are they now?”

“Down to the river, I think.”

“And you think that’s safe?”

“Sure, why not? They’ve learnt to look after themselves.”

“I wonder if I could take a little bath out back after breakfast?” Billie asked. “All I need is a pan of water and a piece of soap and a little privacy.”

“I don’t know why not,” mama said. “As long as the kids ain’t around. Nobody will be spyin’ on you, I’m sure.”

For a while, we were all in the service of Billie’s bath. Mama told me to get the washtub and fill it with water from the pump, while she heated the kettle to add some warm to it. Tafford set up a screen in the yard at the corner of the house so Billie could have complete privacy from prying eyes, wherever they might be.

I didn’t want to be anywhere near the back yard while Billie was taking her bath so I went out front and pulled some weeds out of mama’s flowerbeds and when I was finished with that I sat in Tafford’s car and pretended it was mine and I was driving around the city having a good time keeping one step ahead of the law.

When I went in for supper, Billie was helping mama get the food on the table. She wore pants and a loose man’s shirt that showed how thin and small she was. She had washed her hair with her bath and had tied a red ribbon around it that held it back from her face. She had painted her nails, too, and put on some makeup. I had the idea that she was trying to get Tafford to pay attention to her, but if that was what she was about it wasn’t working because he barely looked her way.

Mama had a time getting the kids to wash their hands and faces and, with that little drama concluded, we all sat down and began eating.

“What did you do with yourself all day long?” Billie asked Tafford, flashing him a pretty smile.

“I’m on vacation,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything.”

Billie, sitting to the left of Lupe, put her arm around her and made over her because she was the only girl in a family of boys.

“How you doin’, darling?” she asked.

“Fine,” Lupe said, licking gravy off her knuckles.

“I bet you’d like to have a new hairstyle, wouldn’t you?”

“What?”

“I’ve been thinking ever since I first saw you that I’d like to cut and style your hair. With your mama’s permission, of course.”

We all looked at mama to see what she’d say.

“I don’t see anything wrong with her hair,” mama said. “It could be a little cleaner, I guess.”

“It needs some body, is what it needs,” Billie said.

“She’ll never know it needs anything until you tell her it does,” Tafford said.

“Well, if she wants to, I don’t object, I guess,” mama said. “If you can get her to sit still long enough.”

“How much will it cost?” Lupe asked.

Billie laughed. “Not a single samolian, baby doll!”

The next day it rained, so Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby hung around in the house or on the porch. They tried to keep themselves entertained, but more often than not they ended up fighting and mama or Tafford had to separate them. Tafford asked them if they’d like to go for a ride in his Ford and Wiley and Willoughby started jumping up and down and screaming.

“I want some ice cream,” Wiley whined.

“Stop at the store and get me some canned salmon and a box of soda crackers,” mama said.

“Bring me some movie magazines,” Billie said. “Whatever they have that’s new.”

“Maybe I won’t do any of that,” Tafford said as he walked out the door.

Lupe didn’t want to go for a ride in Tafford’s Ford in the rain because she was mad at Willoughby for getting her in a headlock and not letting her go until mama made him.

“Now is a good time to have a go at that hair,” Billie said, and Lupe agreed.

She took Lupe into the kitchen and had her stand on a chair and lean over the sink while she washed her hair with shampoo that smelled like flowers. Then she had her sit at the table, draped the damp towel around her shoulders, and took the scissors and started snipping away.

She cut off about half of Lupe’s hair and then she put curling things in what was left. Lupe sure did look silly with those things in her hair. It looked like a bunch of brown butterflies had landed on her head and died.

While they were waiting for Lupe’s hair to dry, Billie painted Lupe’s fingernails and toenails bright red and put lipstick on her lips and a little rouge on her cheeks. The funny thing was that Lupe submitted to all the beauty business and held as still as a statue and didn’t grumble.

When Billie had taken the curling things out of Lupe’s hair and combed the hair out, she looked like a miniature version of Billie, only her hair wasn’t lemon-colored like Billie’s. Billie handed Lupe the mirror so she could take a good look at herself.

“I look like somebody else,” Lupe said.

“Don’t you like it?”

“I’d like it better if it was somebody else.”

“Why, I think you look beautiful,” Billie said. “You look like a blossoming young woman, which is what you should look like at your age. If I had a camera, I’d take your picture and send it to all the movie magazines. I’m sure someone would offer you a contract to star in the motion pictures.”

When Wiley and Willoughby came back, they look one look at Lupe and started having fun with her.

“You look so stupid!” Wiley said.

“You look like a turd!” Willoughby said.

“You still look like a boy! Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that!”

“We ought to take her picture and hang it out in the garden. Don’t need no other scarecrow!”

Lupe chased Wiley and Willoughby from room to room, her fists doubled up, the curls on her head bouncing. When she tried to punch or kick them, they managed to stay out of her reach, laughing the whole time. We all laughed, too, including mama. When Lupe began crying with frustration, we laughed harder. Finally she ran out of the house into the pouring rain and down the road.

“She’ll ruin her coiffure!” Billie said.

When she came back, her hair was all flat again with the curls gone. The makeup had washed away in the rain, too. There wasn’t anything she could do about the paint on her fingernails and toenails, though; she’d have to wait for it to wear off. Mama told us if we made any more fun of her, we’d get slapped.

Tafford and Billie had been with us and week and showed no signs of leaving. When Billie wasn’t in the attic room upstairs, she was taking baths behind the screen in the back yard or sitting at the kitchen table or on the front porch smoking cigarettes and reading magazines. Sometimes she helped mama with the housework or cooking or washing, and for that reason mama had warmed up to her some.

One sleepy, hot day when there wasn’t much to do between meals, Tafford asked me if I’d like to go for ride. There was something he wanted to talk to me about, he said. Sure, I said.

We’d gone out a couple of miles from home. Tafford knew the roads well. He pulled over by some railroad tracks and asked me if I’d like him to show me how to drive.

Since I was about ten years old, I had dreamed of driving and owning my own car and getting away on my own the way Tafford had done. It didn’t need any coaxing to get me behind the wheel of the Ford.

In about five minutes, he explained to me how to drive. He told me what to push and what to pull and how to keep the car on the road without running it into a ditch.

“Just takes a little confidence,” he said. “If you’re scared all the time you going to hit something, then you going to hit something.”

“I can do it,” I said.

Driving was about what I expected. After about ten minutes or so, I drove like I had been doing it my whole life. It wasn’t that hard. All you had to do was watch where you were going, keep control of the car and not let it wobble. Anybody with half a brain could do it.

“I like driving,” I said after I had driven a few miles.

“Better find a place to turn around and go back,” Tafford said. “I ain’t got that much gasoline.”

He took over driving from there and drove to a place overlooking the river where we both got out and leaned against the front of the car and watched the river. It was so peaceful and private I could have stayed there the whole rest of the day.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Billie.”

“Just another silly girl from the city.”

“If you don’t like her, why is she with you?”

He sighed and took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “I work for a businessman in the city,” he said. “I’m what’s known as an operative. That means I do what needs to be done, whenever it needs doing, no matter what it is.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Oh, different things. I collect payments, deal with clients. Sometimes I’m just a driver. I pick people up and take them to their hotel or wherever they need to go. Sometimes I’m only a messenger boy or a go-between.”

“How come you never told us anything about it before?” I asked.

“Well, I like to keep my personal and professional lives separated from each other.”

“All right. What does any of that have to do with Billie?”

“Sometimes the businessman I work for needs a thing done that’s hard to do, but somebody’s got to do it. Do you follow?”

“I guess so.”

“I get paid and when the man in charge tells me what to do, I have to do it and leave any personal feelings out of it. That’s where Billie comes in.”

“What did she do?”

“She didn’t do anything. She saw something she would have been better off not to have seen, that’s all.”

“What?”

“She saw a woman being murdered and she saw the man that did it, too. She was the only other person there. Her testimony in court will send that man to jail for the rest of his life.”

“Oh.”

“It just so happens that the man who did the murder is a powerful man with lots of money and connections. He’s paying the businessman I work for, and the businessman is paying me, to take care of this little problem for him.”

“Wait a minute! Are you saying you have to…”

“That’s right. I should have already done it by now, but I wanted to give the poor kid a few good days before I…”

“Hold on a minute! You brought Billie down to our house to…”

“I’m not going to do it in the house, silly! Not with mama and the kids there!”

“Why don’t you stay at home with us and not go back to the city and send the businessman you work for a telegram and tell him he’ll have to get somebody else to do his dirty work?”

“That wouldn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“It’s part of my job. You have to take the good with the bad. And anyway, I know what they do to people who go back on them. Do you want that to happen to me?”

“No.”

“I have to go through with it. I can’t back out now.”

“Can’t you just give Billie some money to send her away somewhere far away, like California?”

“They’d find her but they’d take care of me, first.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“First of all, I want you to promise me you won’t ever tell mama or any of the kids about any of this. Not ever, not even in fifty years when you’re all old.”

“I won’t tell.”

“I believe you. Second, I might need your help when the time comes getting Billie’s things together out of the room upstairs so I can make mama and the kids believe she had to leave in a hurry without saying goodbye.”

“I guess I can do that.”

“Third, I might need you to help me to dispose of, you know…”

“The body?”

“Yeah. Remember that old abandoned mine way back in the hills that people used to talk about?”

“I guess so.”

“The road is so washed out you can hardly get to it anymore, but I think I know of a way in. I’m going to need some help, though, and that’s where you come in.”

“I’ll do what I can to help you, but I’m not going to jail for you.”

When we got back to the house, I was feeling so blue like I just wanted to cry. At the supper table, I could hardly stand to look at Billie as she laughed with the kids and petted Lupe. I just wanted to yell out at her to warn her to get herself far away and dye her hair and change her name and not ever come back.

For several days I had a stomach ache and fever. I vomited some and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Mama said I had the summer ague. She made me drink plenty of water and eat cabbage and oranges. She wanted to take me to the doctor in town, but I’d just about rather die than do that.

I didn’t speak to Tafford again about what he had told me at the river. When we were alone in my room at night before going to sleep, we didn’t talk at all or we only talked about things we had done that day. I knew what he had to do and that he didn’t have any choice about it if he wanted to go on living. I mostly just wanted him to get it over with and be done with it. When the time came that he needed my help, he’d let me know.

Five days later, after Tafford and Billie had been with us for two weeks and two days, I was sleeping late in the morning. I usually got woke up about daylight with all the noise the kids made, but I guess mama had made them be quiet this morning so I could get some extra sleep.

When I woke up, I looked at the clock and when I saw it was ten minutes after nine I started to get up and that’s when I saw Tafford sitting on the other bed, wearing his clothes, smiling at me.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“All our worries are over,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Everything is taken care of.”

“You mean you…?”

“That’s right. Happy days are here again.”

“But how?”

“It’s better for you not to know. Nobody can make you tell something you don’t know.”

That evening Tafford took us all to the best restaurant in Pecksville for steaks or fried chicken or whatever we wanted. We were all happy, except a little sad that Billie wasn’t there to enjoy the dinner with us.

“She could at least have told us goodbye,” mama said.

“She told me to thank you for your hospitality,” Tafford said. “She said she had a truly wonderful time and that she would carry all of you in her heart for as long as she lives.”

“I hope you can bring her down again for another visit.”

“We’ll see.”

Tafford left again the next day. We wouldn’t see him again for a long time and maybe never.

I often thought about Billie and took comfort in the thought that Tafford hadn’t killed her but had let her go. I thought I spotted her in town a couple of times but was sure afterwards that it couldn’t have been her.

At any time, I could imagine Tafford marrying Billie and the two of them driving down to our place in yet another new Ford with three little Tafford look-alikes with lemon-colored hair hanging around their necks. It was a pleasant enough dream but I had the feeling it was never going to happen.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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The First Grave

The First Grave ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

He was in a high bed at the end of a long room next to a wall. Near the bed was a window that let in some light, but there was nothing to look at out the window except a brick wall. When he turned and looked to his left, he saw other beds and a double doorway leading into a hallway where people were walking back and forth all the time. Sometimes he heard voices coming from the hallway, but he was never able to make out what they were saying.

One of the other beds in the room had been occupied until recently, but the person in the bed died and was quietly removed to the morgue in the middle of the night. He hoped all the other beds would remain empty because he liked the feeling of being alone and having the room to himself and not having to hear people talking.

Someone approached the bed and he closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep. He or she stood beside the bed quietly, breathing. His curiosity compelled him to open his eyes and he saw the face of a large, middle-aged nurse in a uniform and cap studying his chart.

“What’s the matter with me?” he asked.

“You’re a patient in the hospital,” she said.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“Just lie still.”

“I want to go home.”

“Just lie still. Your doctor will be in shortly to have a look.”

Not one doctor, but two, came in and smiled grimly at him and then examined him. They studied his chart, listened to his heart, looked in his mouth, in his eyes, fingered his abdomen. They made small noncommittal sounds in their throat that might have meant either there’s nothing wrong with him or he’s going to die right away, and then they were gone.

He slept for a while because there was nothing else to do, but he was tired of sleeping—sleeping and waking and going to sleep again. He couldn’t remember how long he had been a patient in the hospital, but he was tired of it and he wanted to go home.

“This is not a prison,” a voice whispered in his ear. “You can leave whenever you choose.”

He had heard the voice before but had been inclined to ignore it. Now when he thought of the endless day of tedium and futility stretching out before him, he wasn’t sure if he could bear it. And then, after today, there would be tomorrow and then the day after that. No, he wasn’t a prisoner. He was an American citizen and he had the free will to do as he pleased. He would get himself home without any help from anybody.

Standing up from the bed, a little shaky at first, he took a few steps forward and then a few steps back. He stretched his arms above his head to make sure they still worked, went to the door of the room and looked up and down the hallway. He saw no one, so he went to the closet beside his bed and took out his clothes, shirt, pants, jacket, hat, underwear and shoes. With heart pounding, he slipped out of the gown-like thing they had him in that he hated like poison and slipped into his own clothes, quickly before a nurse came into the room.

The hallway for the moment was deserted. He went to the right and then to the left until he came to some stairs. He went down, one flight and then two, without seeing anybody, and when he opened a door on a landing he was surprised to find himself out of doors. It was easier than he thought it would be.

There was a tree and grass; birds were singing and the cool breeze in his face was better than any medicine. He walked around to the front of the building, expecting at any moment to meet someone who would ask him what he was doing and where exactly he was going, but he met no one. He walked half-a-block away from the hospital, where he found a taxi cab waiting at the curb, which he took the short distance to the train station.

He went inside the enormous train station, looked around until he found the place to buy his ticket and, once he had the ticket in his hand, sat on a hard bench to wait for his train. He had only three-quarters of an hour to wait.

In his rumpled old suit and his bowler hat pulled low over his eyes, he was a nondescript old man like so many others. Nothing about him would ever attract anybody’s attention. He muttered to himself from time to time, but what he said was not of any importance, like a tiny child speaking nonsense words. He watched other people, from afar, with a certain amount of interest.

When he saw a man and woman and several children, he thought of his own children, who were no longer children but all grown up. His older daughter was forty-one years old and already a widow with two children of her own. (We must perpetuate the line.) His younger daughter was in school to become a teacher of music. Of his three sons, the two oldest were married and had small children of their own. The youngest son vowed he would never marry.

Looking back on his life, he supposed it had been a good one. He had seen just about everything there was to see and done everything worth doing. He’d been a successful businessman and property owner. He owned a brick building downtown that yielded monthly rental income and a large house with a garage containing two cars that only he drove.

His train was announced, all too soon, and he hurried to the platform, even though he still had plenty of time. He took a seat next to a window and waited impatiently for the train to start moving.

It went slow at first and then picked up speed. The passing scenery was endlessly fascinating: the sprawling city itself with its buildings, cars and pedestrians, and then the suburbs with its neat houses and perfect lawns. Past the city limits were hills and trees and then farm and pastureland, with the occasional river crossing and scenic small town. He dozed after a while and the two-hour trip was over before he knew it.

The little town he lived in was as familiar to him as his own hands. Of course, there would be no one to meet him at the station because he didn’t tell them he was coming, but he didn’t mind. He would be able to say later that he made the whole trip on his own without any help from anybody.

He walked the four blocks from the station, mostly uphill, to his house, and when he got home he was bone-tired but happy. He seemed to be seeing his home for the first in many months, even though he had been away less than two weeks.

When he went through his own front door, the dog yipped and ran to him to be petted. His wife, Lonzie, came in from the kitchen drying her hands, frowning as usual.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“If I remember correctly,” he said, “this is where I live.”

“Well, how did you get here?”

“Magic.”

“Are you home to stay?”

“Until I leave again.”

“If we had known you were coming home today, one of the boys could have come up on the train to bring you back.”

“I wanted to do it on my own.”

“Well, what did the doctor say? Are you going to live?”

“I’m in fine shape. I have the body of a twenty-one-year-old man.”

“Oh, I never can believe a word you say.”

“Here’s one thing you can believe: I’m done with doctors and hospitals.”

“Why, whatever do you mean?”

“I mean I want to be let alone.”

“Do you want me to fix you something to eat?”

“Not now. I’m going upstairs to lie down.”

He went up to his room, closed the door, took off his clothes and got into bed. He had never been more tired, but it was a good kind of tired, like at the end of a happy day. He went to sleep, hearing the familiar, comforting sounds of his own home. The dog barked at the mailman. The boy across the street yelled to another boy. A delivery truck chugged up the hill in second gear in front of the house. Lonzie clomped up the stairs in her hard-soled shoes and then down again.

He had a couple of good days in which he could take care of his own personal needs and go downstairs for meals, but after that there were no more good days. He went to bed and didn’t get up again. Lonzie called in Dr. Cutrere and when he came he brought with him a private nurse named Opal Stag who stayed around the clock. Lonzie installed her in one of the upstairs bedrooms and the two of them became fast friends.

Five days after getting himself home from the hospital, he died peacefully in his own bed, in his own home, with only Lonzie and Opal Stag in the room with him. As he was dying, his family members gathered downstairs to await the moment of death. They talked in low voices, ate the food neighbors sent over, and at times were barely able to keep from laughing. When word finally came that he was gone, they felt relieved to be able to go back home and decide what they were going to wear to the funeral.

More than two hundred people attended the funeral. After an hour-long service at the Methodist Church, the funeral procession wended its way through town, out six miles to the spacious country cemetery where he and Lonzie, only six months earlier, had purchased a tract of land containing twenty-four graves. The huge, red-granite marker bearing the family name, Dannenberg, was already in place and could be seen from a long way off.

The first grave, of course, was his. In a few weeks, after the ground settled, his own, separate, stone would be installed, bearing his name and the dates of his birth and death. In the natural order of things, when her turn came, Lonzie would go into the second grave. Then would come the third and the fourth graves (who would occupy them?) and so on through the years until all the graves were filled. It was only a question of waiting, of course, and wondering who would be next.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Biederhof

Mrs. Biederhof ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

In 1945, my friend Maggie Biederhof didn’t mind going around with a married man as long as his marriage was in the trash heap anyway. It was all pretty innocent with Burt, although to the casual observer it might not seem that way. He came over in the evening, she’d fix him a sandwich or a salad, and they’d have a few drinks and a few laughs and maybe play some gin rummy, but mostly they talked. He talked about his wife, whose name was Mildred, his job as a real estate agent (things weren’t going so great at the time), and his two daughters, Veda and Kay.

The way Burt talked about Veda, she sounded like the real debutante type. She was pretty and she knew it and, already, at the age of sixteen, was a real snob. Veda saw her father as a failure because he wasn’t rich and she knew he’d never be rich and could never give her the things she thought she deserved, like a limousine and servants. She wanted to be a rich girl but the sad truth was her family had to struggle to live from day to day, from week to week. With the real estate market in the shape it was in, Burt barely brought in enough money to make a living for four people. His wife, brave struggling soul that she was, baked pies and cakes in her own little kitchen and sold them to the neighbors for a dollar here and a dollar there. She made enough extra money to buy Veda an occasional new dress and to pay for Kay to have piano lessons with an old woman down the street. Kay didn’t really care for the piano—she’d rather be playing baseball with the boys in the neighborhood—but Mildred wanted both her daughters to have some culture, which was something she’d missed out on entirely.

Mrs. Biederhof was fond of Burt. She liked entertaining him in her home and liked spending time with him. He was a few years younger than she was, but what did that matter? When he moved out on his wife, she told him he could move in with her. She knew the neighbors would talk, but they had talked before and she didn’t care. Because of his daughters, though, because of Veda and Kay, he didn’t think it was a good idea for him to live in the same house with a woman he wasn’t married to, even if it was all perfectly innocent. That was one of the things Mrs. Biederhof liked about Burt. He was a good man and she hadn’t known many of those in her life. She hoped to marry him after his divorce with Mildred went through, although neither one of them ever talked about it.

She knew Burt’s wife, Mildred, or at least knew of her. She recognized her when she saw her. She was a straitlaced, noble thing, long-suffering, a martyr for the cause. Just what the cause was, nobody quite knew. She was pretty enough but didn’t seem to care so much about herself. She lived for the two daughters, Veda and Kay. She wanted them to have all she things she missed out in when she was growing up in Kansas City. Her mother scrubbed floors and her father, well, he was a drunk and spent most of his time in jail and was of no use to anybody, himself included. Mildred left Kansas City as fast as she could and moved West, where she took a job as a salesgirl and met Burt. He was modestly good-looking, moderately ambitious, and she saw right away he would make a decent husband. They’d never be rich, but there are a lot of people like that. They married six months after they met and a year after they were married, the little bundle known as Veda arrived.

Right away Veda was the spoiled child. Mildred doted on her. Burt was only human, though, meaning he was a little jealous of Veda. Mildred lavished so much love and attention on Veda that there wasn’t much left over for him. All day long, from sun-up to sleepy-bye time, there was nothing but Veda, Veda, Veda. Burt knew a little about child psychology and he knew that Veda was one day going to be an uncontrollable monster. When the second child, Kay, came along, he thought it would be a good thing for Veda to have a little competition and for Mildred to have another person besides Veda to think about.

Mildred spoiled Kay, too, but nothing like Veda. With two children to take care of and still baking her cakes and pies to bring in some money, she was busy all the time, but Veda was still uppermost in her thoughts. Mildred would never admit it, of course, but she preferred Veda over Kay. Kay just wasn’t as pretty and feminine as Veda. When she started to grow up and be something other than a baby, she showed a tomboyish side that Mildred didn’t care for. She liked rough-and-tumble games, the kind of games that boys played, and she didn’t care much for dolls and frilly dresses. It’s not that Mildred neglected Kay, but Veda was always the apple of her eye.

Mrs. Biederhof happened to meet Veda on a Saturday morning in spring, and not under very happy circumstances. She had been out with some friends the night before celebrating somebody’s birthday and she was nursing a hangover. It was about eleven in the morning and she hadn’t found the will to get all the way out of bed yet. When she heard someone knocking, she thought it might be Burt, but when she went to the door and opened it she saw a pretty, dark-haired, girl standing there with a petulant smirk on her face. She had never seen the girl before but she knew who it was before she even opened her mouth.

“Yes?” Mrs. Biederhof said. “Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want any.”

Veda didn’t speak for a  minute. She seemed to be taking in the sight of slightly overweight, middle-aged, bleach-blond Maggie Biederhof, slightly the worse for wear and in her none-too-clean dressing gown.

“I just wanted to see what you look like up close,” Veda said.

“Who the hell are you?”

“Not that it could possibly mean anything to you, but I’m Veda Pierce, Burt Pierce’s daughter.”

“Oh, yes. I’ve heard all about you, Veda. Would you like to come in?”

“It won’t be necessary. I just wanted to inform you that my mother and I know all about you.”

“I’m so happy for you,” Mrs. Biederhof said, putting her hand on the door to close it.

“You’ve been seeing my father, I believe, for quite a long time.”

“I don’t think it’s any secret that Burt and I have become friends. We’re both adults.”

“Yes, but he’s still married to my mother.”

“Only because the divorce hasn’t gone through, yet.”

“Don’t think for one minute that he’s ever going to marry you.”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Veda. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have something on the stove.”

“He would never marry a cheap, common woman like you.”

“Excuse me?”

“How many times have you been married, Mrs. Biederhof?”

“Now, wait a minute!”

“Oh, yes. We know all about you. My mother is a lady and I’m sure that’s something you would know nothing about.”

“Now, look here, you! I’ll give you about five seconds to get away from my door. I keep a gun in the house and I don’t mind using it.”

“I also have a gun,” Veda said. “It’s right here in my bag. Would you like to see it?”

“So, you came here to threaten me? You want to kill me?”

“No, I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m just telling you I don’t mind killing you if it comes to that. Some people can kill and others can’t. I’m one who can.”

“Well, thank you for that insight into your character, Veda, but I don’t know how it could possibly interest me.”

“You’ve had your cheap, tawdry, little love affair with my father and I think it’s time for you to drop out of the picture and leave him alone.”

Mrs. Biederhof laughed in spite of herself. “You make it sound as if I’ve been pursuing him the whole time. He comes over here of his accord. We laugh and talk and have a good time. We have become very dear companions.”

“If all he needs is a drinking companion and cheap sex,” Veda said, “I’m sure he could do much better than you.”

“Now I wish you had come in,” Mrs. Biederhof said, “so I could have the pleasure of throwing you out!”

She slammed the door in Veda’s face, locked it, and, for good measure, closed the curtains and blinds. She was so angry she wanted to kill someone and the someone she wanted to kill was Veda. The nerve of that little tootsie, she thought, coming here and talking to me that way. I’d like to wipe up the floor with her pretty little debutante face.

By the time Burt came over that evening after work, she had calmed down and decided not to tell him about Veda’s little visit. Somebody had to be the grownup and it would be her if it had to be. She cooked him a steak and after they ate she turned on some music and they just sat on the couch and smoked and talked. He put his head in her lap and before long he went to sleep. Poor dear, she thought, he’s exhausted from his miserable life at home. We could be so happy together if it wasn’t for Mildred and that little witch Veda!

A few days later there was some good news about Mildred. She opened a restaurant and it was certain to be a big success, pulling in the customers day and night. Not only that, but she had a new boyfriend, a man named Monte Beragon. He was plenty good-looking and from a rich family, Burt said. He didn’t do much of anything except go yachting, swimming, riding and to dances at the country club. A real society boy. He seemed better suited to Veda than to Mildred, but Mrs. Biederhof pretended to be happy for Mildred.

She was thinking, of course, of Mildred marrying Monte Beragon and leaving Burt entirely free to marry her.

It wasn’t long, though, before disaster struck and life took one of its ugly little turns. Mildred was spending the weekend with Monte Beragon at his beach house, and Veda and Kay were staying with Burt in his new bachelor apartment. He was going to take them to the lake for an overnight camping trip, but Kay complained of a sore throat and pains all through her body. As the day progressed, she became more and more sick. Not being used to taking care of kids on his own, Burt panicked and, not knowing what else to do, took her to Mrs. Biederhof’s house.

Right away Mrs. Biederhof saw that Kay was plenty sick and put her to bed in her spare bedroom. She wanted to get her to the hospital, but Burt said the hospital would only scare her and make her worse, so he called a doctor friend of his. The doctor came over with a private nurse and began ministering to the sick child.

When Burt saw how sick Kay was, he put in an emergency call to Mildred at Monte Beragon’s beach house and arranged to meet her and take her to Mrs. Biederhof’s. Mildred ran to Kay’s side, but the doctor made her stay back. Veda was also there with Mildred. When Mrs. Biederhof looked at Veda, she didn’t look back. Nobody would ever know that just a week earlier they had been on the verge of a gun battle at Mrs. Biederhof’s front door.

Kay died within a couple of hours. The doctor said it was meningitis and it was contagious. Mildred, Veda and Burt were all terribly broken up about it. Mrs. Biederhof remained in the background, offering help where it was needed, feeling utterly helpless. When it came time for the funeral, she thought she should go, but Burt told her it wasn’t a good idea. She sent an arrangement of snapdragons instead.

To heal her broken heart, Mildred threw herself into her business. Her restaurant had done well so she opened a second one and was considering a third. Now that she and Burt were successfully un-married, she married Monte Beragon in a small church ceremony with three hundred guests (mostly Monte’s friends and family) in attendance. Burt bought a new suit and went to the wedding alone.

The marriage was written up in all the society columns, Monte being a bonafide member of the social register. It was his fifth marriage and Mildred’s second. After a week-long honeymoon in Acapulco, they took up residence in Monte’s family’s estate, which was badly in need of renovation. Monte let Mildred take charge of all the repairs and remodeling, seeing as she would be paying all the bills.

Veda, of course, lived with Mildred and Monte and she was flying high. Finally she had all she had ever dreamed of: A beautiful, palatial home; servants to satisfy her every whim; plenty of money to spend on clothes and trips; endless country club dances, weekend parties, swimming and riding. Mildred bought her an expensive convertible and wondered how long it would be before she smashed it up.

All principal parties were happy and satisfied for a few months, but then the inevitable happened. Veda fell in love with her stepfather, Monte Beragon, or thought she did. She always wanted the thing she couldn’t have and would do anything to get it. Monte played along, flattered as he was by the adoration of a pretty young girl half his age. He didn’t see—or didn’t want to see—how serious Veda was and how dangerous she could be if didn’t get the thing she wanted. Mildred also refused to see it until she was confronted firsthand with the proof: she walked in on Monte and Veda when they were naked together in bed. (This scene was relayed to Mrs. Biederhof by way of Burt by way of Mildred.)

“I’m glad you know,” Veda said, getting out of the bed and putting on a dressing gown. “Finally the truth comes out!”

“Veda, how could you!” Mildred said. “He’s your stepfather!”

“I think that makes him even more desirable, don’t you?”

“Veda, you’re a very sick person and I don’t know what ever made you the way you are!”

“Well, we could stand here all day and all night and analyze the situation, but the truth is that Monte and I love each other. He wants you to divorce him so he can marry me!”

“What’s this?” Monte said, pulling on his pants. “I never at any time said I’d marry you, Veda!”

“What?”

“Your mother is a perfect wife for me. She’s a fount of ready cash and she always looks the other way and doesn’t ask any questions.”

“I can’t look the other way this time, Monte!” Mildred said. “If a divorce is what you want, I’ll accommodate you!”

“What do you mean you don’t want to marry me?” Veda shrieked.

“Very simple,” Monte said. “I’d rather be dead than married to a spoiled, selfish little brat like you! You’re a dime a dozen, kid!”

Monte continued to get dressed. He put on his shirt and put his necktie around his neck before tying it, trying to avoid Mildred’s gaze. Feeling faint, Mildred sat down on the edge of the bed and put her head forward.

Unnoticed by either Mildred or Monte, Veda went to the dresser and opened the drawer and took out a small object. When Mildred saw the object was a gun, she stood up from the bed and was about to speak when Veda pointed the gun at Monte and fired, once in the chest and two times in the abdomen. He pitched forward and before he fell to the floor, he spoke one word: “Mildred.”

“Veda!” Mildred screamed.

Veda looked coolly from Monte to Mildred and back to Monte and when she seemed to suddenly be aware that she was holding a gun, she threw it on the floor.

“You’ve killed him!” Mildred said.

“I don’t think I meant to kill him, mother!” Veda said.

Mildred went to the phone and picked up the receiver.

“Mother, what are you going to do?” Veda said.

“I’m calling the police.”

“Oh, no! You can’t do that!”

“You’ve killed a man! You can’t just walk away and pretend it didn’t happen!”

“Mother, we need to talk about this first. You don’t have to tell them I killed Monte. Tell them the gun just went off. Or tell them you killed him. Accidentally, I mean.”

“Veda, you have to be an adult for once and take responsibility for your actions.”

“They’ll put me in jail!”

“We’ll get the best lawyer we can find.”

“Oh, no, no, no, I can’t let you call the police. You’ve got to give me all the cash you have in the house and let me get away. I’ll go to Mexico and you’ll never see me again. I promise!”

“I can’t get you out of this, Veda.”

The police came and took Veda away and later that night she made a complete confession. There would be no sensational trial. Her lawyer promised to try to get her off with a manslaughter charge. If she was lucky, she’d spend ten years behind bars.

The murder was all over the front pages: Society Girl Kills Stepfather. The public ate it up: Sex, money, infidelity, a love triangle involving an older man and a younger woman, and the fact that she was his stepdaughter made it even spicier.

Mildred went into hiding to keep reporters from hounding her, making herself available only to the police. Veda was in the county jail and would be transferred to women’s state prison after sentencing. She called Mildred every chance she got and berated her and blamed her for Monte’s death. “You’re the one that should be in jail!” she said. “Not me!”

Mrs. Biederhof didn’t hear from Burt for five days and when he came over again, looking tired and grim, he told her that he was going back to Mildred. He still loved her and believed she loved him and, with both Kay and Veda gone, he was all she had left in the world. The two of them would spend every dime they had to get Veda’s sentence reduced.

Mrs. Biederhof had been in California for twenty-five years. She was sure she had had enough sunshine to last her a lifetime. She had a sister living back East and planned to go stay with her for a while, maybe for the rest of her life. She sold her house, put her furniture in storage, packed her bags and got on the train for the long trip that would take her to the other end of the continent. She didn’t even bother to tell Burt goodbye. In time she would forget him, as she had all the others.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp   

Buses Boarding in Blue Letters

Buses Boarding in Blue Letters ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post.)

The bus station was smoky, noisy, crowded. All the seats were taken. Ada Bloodsaw held her mother, Mrs. Bloodsaw, by the hand, looking for a place to sit down. On the far side of the room against the wall, a man and a woman were just vacating chairs. Ada pulled Mrs. Bloodsaw by the arm, quickly, to get to the chairs before somebody else got them.

Ada backed Mrs. Bloodsaw up to the empty chair and then, taking both her hands, gave her a little push to get her to sit. Mrs. Bloodsaw sat obediently, grappling for her little suitcase. “What is this place?” she asked. “Are we here to see the doctor?”

“We’re in the bus station!” Ada shouted, sitting down beside her.

“Are we going on a trip?”

You’re going on a trip. I’m staying home.”

“What if I don’t want to go?”

“Now, mother, we’ve been all through this. You don’t want to disappoint Warren and Minnie, do you? They’re expecting you.”

“Call them and tell them I won’t be there.”

“Sit right there and don’t get up. I’ll go and buy your ticket.”

There was a long line at the ticket counter. Ada stood in the line for about fifteen minutes. It was taking so long that Mrs. Bloodsaw hoped that Ada would give up and drop out of the line and they could go back home, but this, of course, is not what happened. Ada came back with the ticket in her hand and sat down in the chair beside Mrs. Bloodsaw.

“I don’t know why there are so many people here today,” Ada complained. “Maybe you should have gone on the train instead.”

“I don’t want to go,” Mrs. Bloodsaw said meekly.

“Now, here’s your ticket,” Ada said. “Keep track of it. Don’t let it out of your sight. Give it to the driver when you get on the bus.”

“I think I’m going to be sick. I think I’m having a heart attack. Maybe a stroke.”

“Remember now, your suitcase is on the floor by your feet. Don’t let it out of your sight. If you have to go to the toilet, take it with you. People steal things in bus stations.”

“Why do they do that?”

“Listen for the voice on the loudspeaker. When your bus is announced, you get up and go through that door over there where it says Buses Boarding in blue letters. Can you remember that?”

“Buses boarding in blue letters.”

“Yes! Listen for the voice on the loudspeaker!”

“I heard you!”

“Good! Well, then, I guess that’s everything. I know you’re going to have a  wonderful time!”

As always, Mrs. Bloodsaw was relieved by Ada’s departure. She didn’t like being bossed, made to feel incompetent. One can only take so much bullying from other people, even if they are one’s own family.

Left on her own, Mrs. Bloodsaw enjoyed watching people. They were always so different from oneself, so unexpected. There was a fat man over there, surely one of the fattest men in the history of fat men. He made his way through the throng with tiny steps like an elephant. The black coat he wore was like a tent. He sat down on a bench and wiped his face with a handkerchief. Even from across the room, anybody could see he was out of breath and not well. It must have been a tremendous effort just to carry that gargantuan body around.

A pair of nuns came in. Their long black dresses swept the floor. They were looking for a place to sit but at the moment were out of luck. They had hard, sour faces; they appeared to be arguing. They found a spot on a bench that was hardly big enough for one person and sat down together in the compact space, appearing from a distance to be a creature with two frightening heads. One of them lit a cigarette, baring ugly yellow teeth, and they passed the cigarette back and forth until they finished with it and threw it on the floor.

The voice on the loudspeaker rumbled unexpectedly, causing Mrs. Bloodsaw to jump and emit a tiny scream. She wasn’t able to understand a word that was said. It might as well have been Chinese or Hungarian.

The terrible voice on the loudspeaker was displaced by another jarring sound. A small girl screamed and her mother jerked her by the arm, knocking her off her feet, where she dangled in a horizontal position just inches from the floor. The mother pulled her upright and clapped her soundly on the side of the head. The screaming turned to gasping shrieks.

The screaming girl and her mother were absorbed into the crowd and in their place was a pair of midgets, a man and a woman. They were the size of eight-year-old children, dressed in adult clothes. The wife’s face was pleasant but freakish and mask-like because of the disproportionate size of her head. The man wore a dark suit and a fedora and smoked a cigar, like a little boy playing grownup businessman. When a man carrying suitcases nearly collided with the midgets, the lady midget nearly lost her balance, but the man midget laughed and grabbed onto her to keep her from falling. How sweet they were and how precious. They were as good as any show. Mrs. Bloodsaw could have watched them all day and all night.

Again the voice came on the loudspeaker, scaring Mrs. Bloodsaw out of her wits. She leaned forward and tilted her head to one side to give herself a better chance of hearing the voice, but again she was not able to make out a single word. Now she was getting worried. How was she supposed to know when they announced her bus?

She looked around for somebody who might help her and when she saw not a single person who might be the least bit sympathetic, the tears came unbidden to her eyes. She was lost and in trouble.

She was about to get up when a fat woman and a young girl approached her. The fat woman wore a maroon-colored turban that made her look foreign and exotic and the girl had protuberant eyes like a frog. The woman sat on Mrs. Bloodsaw’s right and the girl with the frog eyes sat on her left.

“Anything wrong, honey?” the fat woman in the turban asked.

“I don’t know what’s happened to the bus I was supposed to take,” Mrs. Bloodsaw said pitifully. “It might have already left.”

“You got a ticket?”

The woman looked at the writing on the ticket and then at the clock. “You got about three minutes before your bus leaves,” she said.

“Three minutes! That’s not much time!”

“Do you know where to go?”

“My daughter said something about ‘buses boarding in blue letters’ but I didn’t know what she was meant.”

“Do you want me to show you where to go?”

Would you, honey?”

“Of course, I will! Better hurry, though! You ain’t got much time.”

She helped Mrs. Bloodsaw to her feet. They had taken only a couple of steps when Mrs. Bloodsaw remembered her suitcase. “It’s got my money in it and my Bible and all my valuables,” she said. “People steal things in bus stations.”

“Don’t worry, honey,” the fat woman said. “Greta’s got it.”

“Who’s Greta?”

“My daughter. She’s right behind us.’

On the way to the buses, Mrs. Bloodsaw remembered she would never be able to ride on the bus without first paying a call at the ladies’ room. She looked in the fat woman’s face and gestured toward the door.

“All right,” the fat woman said, “but you’ll have to make it quick. Me and Greta’ll wait right here for you. Right outside the door.”

Mrs. Bloodsaw did what she went to do, washed her hands thoroughly in plenty of hot water to kill any germs, and when she went outside the door of the ladies’ room, where the fat woman and her daughter were supposed to be waiting, they were gone.

“I’ve been robbed!” she said, after she had a few seconds to absorb what had happened. “That awful, foreign, fat woman took my suitcase! Oh, what am I going to do now? It had all my money in it and my clothes and my Bible and everything.”

Several people looked at her and then looked away. Nobody was inclined to help her, though. They all had troubles of their own.

Oh, oh, oh!” she said.

When she approached the man who swept the floor and emptied the trashcans and told him what had happened, he told her she needed to report it to the office.

“I don’t know where the office is,” she said tearfully, but the man had moved on with his broom and didn’t hear her.

She walked around among the crowds of people for ten or fifteen minutes and, realizing she was doing no good and not knowing what else to do, she found the door to the street and went outside.

It was the middle of the afternoon. The sunlight blinded her. She looked one way and then the other, shading her eyes with her handkerchief. Both ways looked the same. She began walking to the right for no other reason than it seemed more promising than the left.

It was a street of old brick buildings. She saw nothing she recognized; it might as well have been a foreign country or the planet Mars. Some of the buildings were empty with papers covering the windows. What kind of a place was she in? Why did the bus station have to be in a slum?

A man in a filthy coat stepped out of an alleyway, startling her, and asked her for a dollar.

“No!” she snapped. “I don’t have a dollar. I’ve been robbed of all my money!”

She started crying again but kept walking, afraid to stay in one place too long. In the next block she came to an old hotel with a smudged plate-glass window. The old-fashioned lobby with its sofas, chairs and potted palms looked inviting in a way, so she went inside.

“I’m looking for someone,” she said to the desk clerk. “A fat woman in a turban and a girl of about twelve or so. The girl’s name is Greta, I believe.”

The clerk laughed. “That would be Lucille Allgood and Greta Goode. They took you at the bus station, didn’t they?”

“What?”

“They’re a couple of crooks. They make you think they’re trying to help you and then they steal your property.

“Do you know where I can find them?”

“Maybe, but it’s gonna cost you.”

“They took all my money!”

“You don’t have any reward money to pay for the return of your property?”

“No!”

“You don’t have a watch or a bracelet or a diamond brooch or anything like that?”

“I don’t wear jewelry.”

“I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to help you, then.”

“Why not?”

“You can’t get something for nothing, I’m afraid. Not here.”

“If I could just talk to them and explain I’m old and all alone. I’m on my way to visit my nephew in another state and…”

“I don’t think it’d do any good. Not if you ain’t got any money.”

“Are they staying here? In this hotel?”

“Now, lady, just think about it. I can’t divulge information about our guests, don’t you see? It’s a question of ethics.”

“If you’d just…”

“Sorry I can’t be of help to you, miss. You have a good afternoon, now.”

She went back outside then and kept walking, not back toward the bus station but in the other direction. A couple of blocks past the hotel, she heard a wailing siren and turned and saw an ambulance coming very fast toward her. She waved her handkerchief at the ambulance, believing it would stop for her to see what was wrong, but it kept going as if she wasn’t even there. She heard someone laugh then and, turning, saw the man in the dirty coat who had earlier asked her for a dollar.

“Did you see a big fat woman in a turban and a young girl?” she asked the man. “They stole my suitcase.”

“Don’t speak no English,” he said.

“I’ll bet you speak English when you want to!”

“Maybe I see them. Maybe not.”

“I’m in no mood to play games,” she said and kept walking.

“No, wait a minute, lady! I take you. I take you any place you want to go. Only five dollar.”

“I don’t have any money,” she said. “It was all stolen.”

“Take you any place you want to go.”

“I can’t pay you.”

“Big fat woman with thing on her head. I think I know where you find her.”

“Just tell me where.”

“No. I take you. Only five dollar.”

Mrs. Bloodsaw looked around. “How can you take me anywhere?” she asked. “Where’s your car? Don’t you have a car?”

“Hell no! Ain’t got no car!”

“I’m not going to stand here all day talking nonsense with you. Just leave me alone!”

She began walking faster to get away from the man, but she was having pains in her chest and her legs felt weak.

“It has just been an awful day!” she sobbed.

She turned around and started walking back the way she had come, toward the bus station. She knew the man in the dirty coat was following closely behind her, but she planned on ignoring him, swat him away like a fly if she had to.

“I told you to leave me alone!” she said. “I don’t have any money! Don’t you understand that?”

The man, laughing, began walking closely beside her, taking hold of her arm, obviously enjoying himself.

“You nice lady,” he said. “I wish you was my mother.”

She stumbled and he steadied her, kept her from falling.

“I have to get my suitcase back,” she said. “It has all my money in it. If you get my suitcase back, I’ll give you a reward.”

“How much?”

“Ten dollars.”

“I think I know where fat woman is with suitcase.”

“Can you take me there?”

“Sure. Take you any place you want to go.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder, not minding the smell so much. “You’re the first person all day who has shown me any kindness.”

“I take you to fat woman with suitcase.”

“If I could only just sit down for a while,” she said. “Rest my feet.”

“I know good place,” he said. “For rest. Not too much farther. Just a little bit more. Almost there. Fat woman with suitcase there.”

“You’re so kind,” she said. “If only we had met sooner.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Listen to What I am About to Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!” the boys shouted.

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

Yes!

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

The boys laughed appreciatively.

“And it must be presentable.”

What does that mean?” somebody asked.

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

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

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

Hah-hah-hah!

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

“No!”

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

No!”

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

Yes!

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

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

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

A collective groan went up.

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

“How high?” somebody asked.

“Thirty feet.”

“What if we can’t do it?”

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

No, sir!

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

Yes, sir!

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

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

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

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

“What was?”

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

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

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

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

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

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

“Do you think I’d let you drown?”

“I don’t know, sir. Would you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand that, sir!”

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

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

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

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

“What name?”

“What?”

“What’s your name?”

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

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

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

“I see. Give him my regards.”

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

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

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

“How did what go?”

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

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

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Third Day of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s that?” her mother said.

“It’s Vesper.”

“Is anything wrong?”

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

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

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

“Yes, I got it.”

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

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

“It was a beautiful coat.”

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

“It doesn’t matter. How’s Stan?”

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

“Are you getting a divorce?”

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

“Any news of Weston?”

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

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

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

“All right, mother. Goodbye.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Another Mile from Home

Another Mile from Home ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

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

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

“Sing to me, honey,” mama said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How you gonna do that, son?”

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

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

“We are a bunch of ruffians.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Advance her singin’ how?”

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

“Do you really think she has a chance?”

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

“Yeah, she’s good,” he said.

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

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

“We wouldn’t take it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a lot of comfort.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“We can’t wake mama,” Chickie said.

“Is she breathing?”

“I don’t think so.”

“We’d better get a doctor,” I said.

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

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

“What should we do?” I asked.

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

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

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

“I think he’s right,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp