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Visitors’ Day

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Visitors’ Day ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was a Sunday morning in December. Freda and Julian were in the back seat of Daddy Earl’s car. Daddy Earl careened through traffic with ease, no obstacle too much for him to overcome. He had the radio tuned to some cheerful Christmas music because he knew Freda liked it. Julian held onto his teddy bear, although he insisted he didn’t need it, watching the passing scenery with absorption.

“Are you going to take that stupid bear inside with you?” Freda asked.

“Shut up!” Julian said. “I’ll do whatever I want.”

“Will they have her in handcuffs?” Freda asked the back of Daddy Earl’s head.

“I don’t think so,” Daddy Earl said. “Not on visitors’ day.”

The parking lot was full and Daddy Earl had to drive around for a long time before he found a place to park and, once he did, they had to walk a long way to the visitors’ entrance.

“This place gives me the creeps,” Freda said, as they waited to be searched and admitted.

Daddy Earl put his finger to his lips to tell her she should stop talking.

A man in a uniform took Daddy Earl, Julian and Freda into a large visiting room filled with people and showed them where to sit. He left and came back in a couple of minutes with mother.

Mother gave Daddy Earl a peck on the cheek and hugged first Julian and then Freda before sitting down.

“How’s my big boy?” she smiled at Julian.

“Mother, I don’t like for you to be in jail,” Freda said, on the point of tears.

“I know you don’t like it, dear. I don’t like it, either.”

“Why don’t you tell them to let you come home?” Julian asked.

“It doesn’t quite work that way, honey,” mother said. “I wish it did.”

“How are you doing, old girl?” Daddy Earl asked. It was one of the many names he had for her.

“I’m just peachy, darling!” she said.

“How are they treating you?”

“Like a queen.”

“How’s the cuisine?”

“Every meal like dining at the Ritz.”

“Do you need some money?”

“It would only be stolen.”

“Do you need anything?”

“Just one thing. To get out of this place and go home.”

“It feels funny having a criminal for a mother,” Freda said.

“I know, baby,” mother said. “And I apologize for it in every possible way.”

“Why don’t you just promise to stop shoplifting so they’ll let you out.”

“I’ll do that and see if it works.”

“Do you have a court date set?” Daddy Earl asked.

“No. You know what the courts are like.”

“Any chance you’ll be out by Christmas?”

“I don’t think so. No bail for me since it’s my third conviction. I’m a flight risk.”

“What does that mean?” Julian asked.

“Nothing for you to worry about, dear,” mother said.

“Is this place a hospital? Are you going to die here?”

“You don’t have a worry in the world, sweetheart. Mother will be home with you soon. If not before Christmas, then pretty soon after.”

“Are you sick?”

“No, I’m not sick. Everything is going to be fine.”

“I don’t know why you have to stay here if you’re not sick.”

“Shut up, Julian!” Freda said. “You’re only making things worse.”

“How am I making things worse?”

Mother took Julian on her lap, even though he was almost too big for it. “I don’t want you to be unhappy,” she whispered in his ear.

“I’m not,” he said.

“I’m so glad you came to see me today. This is the only good thing that’s happened me to since I’ve been here.” She hugged Julian and he hugged back. “The two of you are going to have a wonderful Christmas, with Santa and a tree and everything.”

“Maybe we don’t want those things while you’re in jail,” Freda said.

“Of course you want those things! And you’ll have them, too. Won’t they, Daddy Earl?”

“Santa already knows they’ll be at my house,” Daddy Earl said. “He’s not going to let us down.”

“I knew we could count on old Santa,” mother said.

“I’ve been thinking,” Daddy Earl said.

“About what?”

“Maybe they’d go easier on you if you were married.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I think we should get married.”

“Last I heard, you had a wife somewhere.”

“A minor technicality,” Daddy Earl said.

Mother laughed. “I hear they have a special place for bigamists over in the men’s prison.”

“What does that mean?” Julian asked.

“I know what it means,” Freda said.

“Never mind what it means,” mother said. “I was just making a joke with Daddy Earl.”

“I have the feeling they’re going to let you out in time for Christmas,” Daddy Earl said.

“Oh, baby, I wouldn’t count on that if I were you!” mother said.

“You’ll be calling me to come and get you, and I’ll get here so fast you won’t believe it!”

Mother began crying, no matter how hard she wanted to avoid it. “We have to be realistic,” she said. “I might be here for a long time. I might never go home again. I did such stupid things. I didn’t know what I was doing and I swear I’m done with all that!”

“Of course you are!” Daddy Earl said. He put his beefy arm across her shoulders. “You have to look on the bright side and keep your spirits up.”

“Yes, I’ll try,” mother said. She wiped her eyes with his monogrammed handkerchief.

A guard was watching them carefully and then he came over and told them it was time for them to leave; the visit was over.

Mother gave Daddy Earl a passionless kiss. When she hugged Julian and Freda, she started crying again, which made all of them cry.

“We’ll come again just as soon as we can,” Daddy Earl said.

“I want all of you to have a good Christmas,” mother said, “and don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I’ll be thinking of all of you.”

“We’ll be thinking of you, too, mother,” Freda said.

On the way to the car, Freda said, “I don’t think we’ll ever see her alive again.”

Julian began wailing, so Daddy Earl picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.

Freda turned to look at the windows of the prison, expecting mother to be there waving at them, but she saw only a gray blankness that told her that nothing good ever came out of there.

On the way home, they stopped and ate a chicken dinner with cherry pie for dessert and then Daddy Earl went to a place where he knew they could get a good, real-live Christmas tree. When they got home, he set the tree up in the living home, strung the lights expertly, and then let Freda and Julian do the rest of the decorating.

In their twin beds in Daddy Earl’s guest room at ten o’clock, they could hear sleet and rain hitting the windows.

“Maybe they’ll call school off tomorrow,” Julian said.

“Did you hear mother say that Daddy Earl already has a wife?” Freda asked.

“What of it?” Julian asked.

“His wife might come back from wherever she is and tell us we have to get out.”

“Why would she do that?” Julian asked.

“She’d be jealous, that’s why.”

“Daddy Earl could always punch her in the nose.”

“Maybe we could sneak mother out of prison and sneak Daddy Earl’s wife in there in her place.”

“How you gonna do that?” Julian asked.

“Didn’t you ever hear of chloroform?”

“No!”

He groaned and rolled over so that his face was inches from the wall. He didn’t want to think about school tomorrow, about mother being in jail, or about anything else. He pictured snow piling up outside, so much snow that school would be called off for the whole week. With that comforting thought, he was able to make himself go to sleep.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

If Mother Goes to the Penitentiary

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If Mother Goes to the Penitentiary ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Daddy Earl drove slowly on the night-time street, looking for an address. When he found the one he wanted, he parked the car under a street lamp and killed the engine.

“This looks like the place,” he said. “You two wait here. This shouldn’t take long.”

“What do you think Daddy Earl does on these calls he makes?” Freda said to Julian after Daddy Earl was gone.

“How should I know?” Julian said. He was lying on his back looking upside down out the window.

“Well, I hope this doesn’t take long. It’s boring just sitting here in the dark and it’s kind of scary.”

“I’m not scared,” Julian said.

“If anybody walking along the street tries to bother us, I’ll honk the horn to attract somebody’s attention.”

“What do you think mother’s doing right now?” Julian asked.

“She’s probably sitting on the bunk in her little jail cell in her plain gray prison dress, thinking about where she stashed those jewels.”

“What jewels?”

“The jewels she stole, silly. I just know she has them hidden away in a safe place and when she gets out of jail she’ll know right where they are and go and get them. Then we’ll have to go away to Mexico or Nicaragua or someplace like that to keep the police from locking her away in jail again.”

“Daddy Earl too?” Julian asked.

“No, I think Daddy Earl will stay here,” Freda said.

“Maybe mother and Daddy Earl will get married.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t think Daddy Earl gives mother much of a thrill. He’s nice and everything, but he’s not very good looking and he’s kind of dumb. He sleeps in his socks.”

“How do you know he sleeps in his socks?”

“Mother told me, silly. It’s to keep his feet warm. He doesn’t have good circulation, so his feet are cold all the time.”

“I sleep in my socks, too,” Julian said. “Sometimes.”

“That’s just because you’re ignorant and you don’t know any better.”

“You’re just as ignorant as I am.”

“Yes, but I’m trying to overcome my ignorance, but you’ll go through your whole life getting more ignorant all the time.”

Julian yawned and then coughed. “Do you see Daddy Earl coming?”

“It’s only been about two minutes,” Freda said. “He wouldn’t be back this soon.”

“Why did they put mother in jail?” Julian asked.

“It was her third conviction, that’s why.”

“What’s ‘conviction’?”

“It means she was caught three times stealing jewelry and stuff. On the third time, they lock you up to try to teach you a lesson.”

“What’s the lesson?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s not to steal anymore.”

“I heard Daddy Earl telling somebody on the phone that mother’s shoplifting is a psychological addiction,” Julian said. “She can’t keep from doing it, even if it means she’ll have to go to jail.”

“Who was Daddy Earl talking to?”

“How should I know?”

“Maybe it was a lawyer.”

“He said she’s going to end up in the penitentiary if she’s not careful.”

“It’s kind of funny to have a criminal for a mother,” Freda said. “I mean funny in an odd way, not in a laughing way.”

“Hah-hah-hah,” Julian said.

“If mother goes to the penitentiary, I think I have a pretty good idea what will happen to us,” Freda said.

“Us?”

“Yeah, you and me, dumbbell! We’re minors. Do you think they’re going to leave us with Daddy Earl?”

“I don’t know.”

“Daddy Earl doesn’t want us for all the time. He’ll only let us stay with him until mother gets out of jail and then all bets are off.”

“All bets are off,” Julian said. “Maybe we can go live in the penitentiary with mother.”

“Do you think they let kids stay there?”

“I don’t know why not.”

“Well, that shows how much you know! You wouldn’t want to live in the penitentiary even if you could.

“Why not?”

“They eat gruel and stale bread every meal. There are rats and cockroaches everywhere and the people roaming around there would slit your throat just for looking at them. If the guards catch you doing something you’re not supposed to do, they lock you up in solitary confinement.”

“What’s solitary confinement?”

“It’s a dark place where they lock you away from everybody else and they only give you a little sip of water and a crust of moldy bread, and that’s all you get for the whole day.”

“Do they have TV in solitary confinement?”

“Of course not, silly! What would be the point in that? You don’t have books or newspapers or music or anything. That makes the punishment worse. Then when they finally let you out, you’re so grateful to be out that you promise you won’t ever act up again.”

“I don’t think I’d like it very much,” Julian said.

“No, if mother goes to the penitentiary, it’s off to foster care for you and me.”

“What’s foster care?”

“It means they put you in a place with strangers where they watch you all the time to make sure you’re not going to turn out to be a criminal, too. They make you scrub floors and wash dishes and go to church.”

“Why do they make you go to church?”

“Why do you think? They want to scare you into thinking you’re going to go to hell if you don’t try to be a good person.”

“I try to be a good person.”

“That’s because you’re only a small child. When you get older, you’ll get into things like gambling and drinking and chasing after women.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

“I’ve read a lot of books beyond my grade level and have watched a lot of TV. You find out about life from reading books and watching TV.”

“Like the Three Stooges?”

“No, I don’t mean like the Three Stooges. I mean real-life drama shows like detective shows and doctor shows and old movies that they show late at night.”

“Oh, I don’t like those.”

“You’ll never get past the Three Stooges phase, I’m afraid.”

The windows were starting to steam up. Freda swiped the sleeve of her coat across the glass.

“I wish he’d come on.” she said. “I want to get home.”

“Why?”

“It’s Saturday night and I’ve got a date.”

“Who with?”

“None of your business, that’s who with.”

“I’m going to tell mother!”

“Yeah, she’s in prison. Do you think she cares if I have a date?”

“She’d tell you you can’t go.”

“I’ll bet you didn’t know I had a boyfriend, did you?”

“Who cares?” Julian said. “What’s his name?”

“His name is Mickey Littlejohn, if it’s any of your business. He’s in the tenth grade, two years older than I am.”

“Is he the one with rotten teeth?”

“No, that’s Harvey Greaves. They’re nothing alike.”

“I don’t know him.”

“Mickey Littlejohn and I are going to run off and get married. We’re that much in love.”

“Mother won’t let you.”

“I don’t know how she can stop me, since she’s in prison.”

“She’ll tell Daddy Earl to stop you.”

“Did you ever notice how Daddy Earl doesn’t ever look right at us? He looks through us like we’re not even there. It’s like he’s thinking about something else all the time.”

“What’s he thinking about?”

“I don’t know. He’s a sphinx.”

“What’s a sphinx?”

“You’re too young to know.”

“I don’t care, anyway.”

Freda took a comb out of her purse and began combing her hair in the dark, imagining she was seeing herself in a mirror. “Mickey’s not going to like it when he comes by to pick me up tonight and I’m not at home because I’m waiting in some old car on some old street with my little brother.”

“Daddy Earl would chase him away.”

“Daddy Earl doesn’t know anything about Mickey and that’s the way I want to keep it.”

“Why?”

“Mickey Littlejohn is the one person in the world who will keep me from having to go to foster care when mother goes to live at the penitentiary.”

“How is he going to do that?”

“If they see I’m married and am living with Mickey in his own home with his parents, they’ll have to leave me alone. They won’t make me go to foster care because I’ll be a married woman living with my husband. It’s the law.”

“Can I come and live with you and Mickey Littlejohn?”

“Of course not, silly! You’ll have to go to foster care. A newly married woman doesn’t take her little brother along to live with her husband.”

“I don’t know why not!”

“It just isn’t done.”

“I’m not going to foster care,” Julian said.

“Oh, yes, you will! You’ll have to do what you’re told to do because you’re a minor. When you’re a minor, you don’t get to make any decisions for yourself.”

“Oh. I’ll go and live with my father, then.”

“You don’t have a father, dope!”

“Does he live in the penitentiary too?”

“Nobody knows where he is. Mother doesn’t know. He was just a brief infatuation for her.”

“I’ll put an ad in the paper and I’ll find him that way,” Julian said.

“He doesn’t want to be found, silly. That’s the way it is when you’re a man and a woman you’re not married to has a baby by you.”

“Don’t we have a grandma or an aunt or somebody that I could go live with?”

“All dead,” Freda said. “It’s foster care for you.”

“I’m not going!”

“When the time comes, they won’t ask you. They’ll pack you off no matter how much you cry and scream.”

“No, they won’t. I’ll buy a gun and kill them.”

Freda sighed deeply and knowingly. “Oh, well,” she said. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Mother’s not in the penitentiary yet and maybe she won’t even have to go.”

“She needs to promise she won’t ever steal any more jewels,” Julian said.

“She should never have become a mother in the first place,” Freda said, “but these things will happen.”

“I think I see Daddy Earl coming now,” Julian said.

“No,” Freda said. “It’s only a tree moving in the wind.”

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Today I Quit My Job at the Factory

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Today I Quit My Job at the Factory ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Devin was a few minutes late. Mrs. Millett, his mother, stood at the door, watching and waiting, worried that he might have been in a wreck. When his old familiar green Ford rolled into the driveway, she smiled with relief, picked up a wooden spoon to stir the spaghetti on the stove, and waited for him to come in.

She felt the little blast of cold air as the door opened and closed. She turned to greet her son, but when she did her smile faded. He wasn’t alone.

Devin smiled as he took off his hat and coat. “Mother,” he said. “This is my friend Marcus. He’s going to be staying with us for a few days.”

Marcus smiled shyly and stepped forward and shook her hand. “I hope it’s no bother,” he said.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” Mrs. Millett said.

With the three of them seated at the table, she avoided looking directly at Marcus. She had developed an instant dislike for him based somehow on the set of his mouth and the unfamiliarly of his eyes but more on the fact of his being an intruder in her home. She smiled, though, because that’s what a mother is supposed to do. Smile and it will soon be over.

“Did you have an interesting day today, dear?” she asked Devin.

“More interesting than most.”

When she looked at him, the most familiar person in the world to her, he looked different somehow, animated in a strange way with a spark in his brown eyes that she hadn’t noticed before. Instead of asking what was the matter, she said, “Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Devin took a deep breath and almost dropped his fork. “I quit the factory today,” he said.

“All right,” she said, “what’s the joke?”

“It’s not a joke.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I quit my job today. Do you need it in some other language?”

“Why on earth would you do that?”

“Don’t you think sixteen years in one hell hole is long enough?”

“I thought you liked your job.”

“I’ve always loathed it!”

“You never told me that!”

“Well, I suppose it was all right in the beginning, but I came to hate it after a while. I want to do something else with the rest of my life.”

“And what would that be?”

“I don’t know yet, but it’ll come to me.”

“You surprise me,” she said.

“I never did that before, did I?”

She looked at Marcus, believing he had to have something to do with it. “Did you quit the factory today, too?” she asked.

“Marcus doesn’t work at the factory, mother,” Devin said.

“Nope,” Marcus said. “I never worked in the factory.”

“What do you do, then? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Marcus doesn’t work,” Devin said.

“Can’t Marcus answer for himself?”

“No, I, uh, never found it necessary to work for a living,” Marcus said.

“Marcus is an artist,” Devin said. “Like I’ve always wanted to be.”

“He paints pictures?” she asked.

“Well, that and other things.”

She wiped her mouth and pushed her plate aside. There would be no more dinner for her.

“Did the two of you just meet?” she asked.

Devin and Marcus looked at each other and laughed. “We’ve known each other for quite a while now,” Devin said. “Why does that make any difference?”

“Well, I was only asking,” she said. “What’s got into you? Why are you laughing?”

“Maybe I’m laughing because I’m happy for a change.”

“I never knew you weren’t happy,” she said, trying to keep the hurt out of her voice.

“I’ve always kept everything to myself, mother. It’s just the way I am.”

“If there was something bothering you, you could have told me.”

“It isn’t like that.”

“Like what?”

“Maybe we’d better not talk about this right now. What’s for dessert?”

“You never mentioned Marcus before and I just wondered where the two of you met and how long you’ve known each other.”

“Don’t worry about it, mother. It’ll all be sorted out in the end.”

“What will be sorted out?”

“Finish your dinner, Marcus,” Devin said, “and I’ll show you my room.”

Devin stacked the dishes beside the sink and he and Marcus went upstairs, closing themselves up in Devin’s room for the rest of the evening.

The next morning she was in the kitchen when Devin came down alone.

“Where’s your friend?” she asked.

“He was a little late waking up,” Devin said. “He’ll be down in a few minutes.”

“Now, I want you to tell me who he really is.”

“His name is Marcus. He’s my friend. What more do you need to know?”

“Yes, but why is he here?”

“He’s my guest.”

“You never had a guest before.”

“Does that mean I can’t have one now?”

“Of course not!”

“This is my house, too, isn’t it? Just as much as yours?”

“If you put it that way, yes, it is.”

“Well, then. What more is there to say?”

She was prevented from asking further questions by the arrival of Marcus from upstairs.

“I’ve starving,” he said, sitting down at the table.

She cooked the breakfast and set it on the table and busied herself while they ate. Devin and Marcus sat at the table and spoke quietly. They seemed to have forgotten she was in the room. It bothered her a little that she didn’t know what they were saying and it gave her the feeling they were plotting against her somehow. Her own son and his newly found friend. In her own home. Things had certainly taken an ugly turn.

“It’s almost eight-thirty,” she said in a loud voice. “You’re going to be late for work, Devin!”

“Did you forget what I told you last night at the dinner table?” Devin asked. “I quit the factory and I won’t be going there in the morning ever again.”

“Yes,” she said. “I heard you say that, but I thought you were making some kind of a joke.”

“Why would I joke about a thing like that?”

“Well, I can hardly believe you would give up your job so easily. I mean, after all the years you were there. You had seniority and security.”

“I know I would never be able to make you understand, mother, but I just couldn’t stay there any longer. It was time for a change.”

“But what will you do now?”

“I told you I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out as I go along.

“Figure what out?”

“I’m going to write a book or something, but I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know as soon as I know.”

“A book about what?”

Devin and Marcus laughed again and she left the room, her eyes filling with tears.

When they were finished eating, they put on their coats and left. “We won’t be here for lunch,” Devin called to her. “Expect us for dinner, though.”

All day her nerves were on edge, wondering what, exactly, was wrong with Devin. He was always such a good boy, so steady and reliable; never did anything erratic or impulsive. After high school graduation, he went to work in the factory and never uttered a word of complaint. She thought she knew him all those years, but now it was painfully clear she didn’t know all there was to know.

She went upstairs to Devin’s room with the intention of tidying up, but everything was perfect. The bed was neatly made, the clothes all hanging in the closet, the shoes aligned side by side. The dresser and chest of drawers were straight and neat, not a sign of dust or clutter anywhere.

Feeling old and unneeded, she sat down on the bed and ran her hands over the beautiful light-green chenille bedspread that Devin had picked out on his own. She thought of the two of them, Devin and Marcus, sleeping in the bed together. What does it mean when two grown men sleep in the same bed? She was aware of what a sheltered life she had led; there were lots of things, so many things, she didn’t know.

She fixed fried chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner, Devin’s favorite. She hoped that when he came home he’d be alone. At a few minutes before six, the time Devin would have arrived home from work if he had gone to work, the two of them came into the house, talking and laughing.

“Hello, mother,” Devin said.

“Good evening, Mrs. Millett,” Marcus said.

“Did you go to the factory after all, Devin?” she asked.

He gave her a sad look and shook his head. “You still don’t believe I quit, do you?”

“Where did you go all day if you didn’t go to the factory?”

“This morning we went to a museum. Then we had lunch in a restaurant and after that we went to a movie. Then we did some shopping.”

“I’m exhausted,” Marcus said, collapsing onto the chair. “This son of yours has a lot more energy than I do!”

“Is that what you plan on doing every day for the rest of your life?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Devin said. “I haven’t thought about it.”

That evening they left again without telling her where they were going or when they’d be back. To keep from having disturbing thoughts, she took a sleeping pill and went to bed early.

She slept until nine o’clock the next morning and when she awoke and went downstairs, Devin and Marcus were in the kitchen, putting away the groceries they had just bought.

“What’s all this?” she asked, pointing to the bags on the table.

“It was Marcus’s idea,” Devin said. “He has some notion that he needs to contribute.”

“I can’t take without giving,” Marcus said.

“Isn’t that just too sweet?” Devin said, laughing.

She wanted to object but could find nothing to object to. Without speaking, she set the water on the stove for tea and set about cooking breakfast.

After two weeks of Marcus in the house, she decided it was time to confront Devin. Marcus was taking a bath and would be out of earshot at least for a few minutes.

 “How much longer is he going to be here?” she asked.

“Who, mother? Who are you talking about?”

“How much longer is Marcus going to be here?”

“I don’t know. We haven’t discussed it.”

“Doesn’t he have home of his own to go to?”

“He does, but now he’s here.”

“I want this to end.”

“You want what to end, mother?”

“I want us back the way we were before he came here.”

“What are you saying, mother? Are you saying you want Marcus to leave?”

“I don’t want to have to force him to leave. There must be a tactful way to handle it.”

“You can’t stand to see me happy, can you?” Devin asked.

He makes you happy? How does he make you happy in a way you weren’t happy before?”

“Taking control of my own life is what has made me happy.”

“I thought we were happy before,” she said.

“Maybe you were.”

“If something was bothering you, you could have talked to me about it. I’m your mother. What exactly is he to you?”

“I know I would never be able to make you understand, mother. People grow up and change. It wasn’t possible for me to always remain an adolescent.”

“I always gave you the space I thought you needed. I kept house for you and cooked your food and kept your clothes clean. I thought you had all you needed and wanted in life. I hoped, of course, you’d find a nice young woman one day and get married and have children, but I accepted a long time ago that you weren’t inclined in that direction.”

“Oh, please, mother! You’re giving me a headache!”

The next morning Devin and Marcus loaded suitcases into the car. Marcus shook Mrs. Millett’s hand, thanked her for her hospitality and went out the door, leaving a hundred-dollar bill on the kitchen counter under the sugar canister.

“Where will you go?” Mrs. Millett asked.

“I don’t know yet,” Devin said. “I’ll let you know when I get there.”

She watched the car until it was out of sight and then she sat down at the table and had breakfast. He’ll be back, she thought, and when he comes back he will be alone. It’s not that easy to leave your life behind and the only home you’ve ever known. He will choose his mother over his friend every time. I’m certain of it. And when he comes back, we’ll make some plans. We’ll fix up his room, buy some new furniture and get a new rug for the floor. And there’ll be some good times. Just you wait and see. I know of at least two lovely young women who would love to meet him. And when it comes to his job at the factory, he can get it back simply by asking for it. As Devin himself said, everything will sort itself out.

Weeks went by and she heard nothing. She thought about Devin all the time and wondered where he was and how he was faring. She blamed herself for his sudden change and for his leaving. She sat and pondered over his picture for hours and wondered where she had gone wrong. Had she been too smothering, too possessive, or had she been too lax in letting him have his own way? She didn’t know what she was. People rarely see themselves as they are.

She thought how alike Devin and Marcus were. How had she failed to see it before? They were the same age, height, coloring and build. They even walked alike and spoke in the same way. After a while they became indistinguishable in her mind. When she thought of her beloved Devin, she thought of Marcus and the thought of Marcus no longer aroused the hatred in her that it once did, because hating Marcus was hating Devin. When she closed her eyes and sometimes when her eyes were open she saw them together, side my side, two parts of the same person. They’re not two. They’re one. Two become one.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

It’s You I Adore

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It’s You I Adore ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Note: I posted this story earlier with a different title and a slightly different ending.)

Geneva watches Booth Holden in his back yard out her upstairs bedroom window. He holds a newspaper in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. After adjusting the crotch of his pants, he sits down in a lawn chair and unfolds the newspaper and takes a drink of the beer; turns the pages of the newspaper impatiently and ends by throwing it on the ground. He puts his head back with his face toward the sky and closes his eyes. He doesn’t know he’s being watched, she thinks. But then he opens his eyes and looks toward her and she jumps away from the window as if from an electric shock.

Booth and his mother have lived next door for three years and Geneva has never even spoken to them in passing. They are people who keep to themselves. Booth goes to work early every morning but Geneva doesn’t know what he does. Some blue-collar job. Maybe a factory worker or an automobile mechanic. When he comes home, he rarely goes out again. Never any visitors that Geneva has seen. On weekends she hardly sees him at all. Not that she’s watching for him. He’s nothing to me, she tells herself, after each of her secret spying sessions.

She goes downstairs where her sour-faced mother, Mrs. Dingle, is sitting at the kitchen table slurping her coffee. Ignoring her, Geneva turns to the want ads in the newspaper and sits down across from her.

“You’ve been watching him again, haven’t you?” Mrs. Dingle says.

Geneva circles an ad in red ink and looks up. “Did you say something?” she asks.

“I said you’ve been watching him again.”

“Watching who?”

“That man next door. What’s-his-name. Mrs. Holden’s son.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I would like some scrambled eggs. I’ve been waiting for you to come down and fix them.”

Geneva stands up, takes two eggs from the refrigerator and carries them to the stove.

“You really don’t need to be looking at those silly want ads,” Mrs. Dingle says.

“I’ll look at them if I want to.”

“How many jobs have you applied for that you didn’t get?”

“I don’t know. Dozens.”

“That’s right. Dozens. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

“It tells me I haven’t found the right one yet.”

“You really don’t need to find another job. Your father left us well-provided for. That’s one thing I can say about him.”

“People don’t work only because they have to. Some people work because they want to.”

Mrs. Dingle laughs and says c’est la vie, but Geneva is sure she doesn’t know what it means.

At other times their conversation is less cordial, as two days later when Geneva is preparing to go for a job interview.

“I don’t think you’re going to get this job, either,” Mrs. Dingle says.

“Why not?” Geneva asks.

“They’re going to take one look at your qualifications and see you don’t know how to do a thing.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, as usual.”

“You look ridiculous. You have too much curl in your hair. It makes you look like a clown.”

“Thank you.”

“Too much makeup for your age. You look like a floozy.”

“Nobody uses words like ‘floozy’ anymore. It reminds us of just how old you are.”

“The old words are the best words for getting things said.”

“Why don’t you just shut up and let me alone for a change?”

“How can you tell your mother to shut up?”

“Easy. Shut up!

“I have this terrible pain in my chest and you’re abandoning me. I might not still be alive when you get back.”

“Then I’ll call your favorite funeral home and let them know where to pick up the body. They’ll be glad for the business.”

“That isn’t funny. You break your mother’s heart.”

“Why don’t you go watch TV? Isn’t there one of your game shows on?”

“You know I don’t care for game shows.”

“Then why do you watch them all the time?”

“Because I have a daughter who can’t stand to be in the same room with me, that’s why.”

“Why don’t you take a nap or something? I’ll bring you a cheeseburger when I come home.”

“Don’t bother. I couldn’t eat a thing.”

The interview doesn’t go well. The interviewer is a man, no more than twenty-four years old. He talks about how youthful and vibrant the company is. Geneva can tell right away he doesn’t consider her a serious contender for the job.

“Why do you want to work here?” he asks, looking bored.

“I don’t,” she says.

“You don’t want to work here?”

“No.”

“Then why are we both wasting our time?”

“I just now decided.”

“I guess we can consider the interview concluded then, can’t we?”

“Yes, and thanks for nothing.”

“Thank you for nothing,” he says.

The next day Mrs. Dingle is sulking in her room and doesn’t ask Geneva how the job interview went. To give herself something to do, Geneva goes into the kitchen and makes two batches of cookies, one chocolate chip and the other oatmeal raisin. While the cookies are cooling on the counter, she has an idea. What man doesn’t like cookies?

She puts on her new yellow-flowered blouse, brushes her teeth and fluffs up her hair, which, thank goodness, still looks decent from the interview the day before. She takes a tin container with a Christmas motif, lines it with wax paper, and puts about three dozen of the cookies in it, half of each kind.

She tries to smile as she rings the doorbell at the house of Holden, but her heart is pounding and she has a terrible taste in her mouth like an exhaust pipe. She is sure that Booth will answer the door because it’s Saturday, but Mrs. Holden comes to the door instead. She’s a short, squat woman with bulging eyes like a frog and hardly any neck to speak of.

“Yes?” she says when she sees Geneva. She takes her cigarette out of her mouth and picks a piece of tobacco off her tongue.

“Mrs. Holden?”

“Yes. Who are you?”

“I’m your next-door neighbor. You must have seen me around.”

“Yeah, I guess so. What do you want?”

“I just wanted to pay a neighborly call and bring you this.” She holds out the tin of cookies.

Mrs. Holden eyes it suspiciously. “What is it?” she asks.

“It’s cookies I made.”

“How much?”

“I’m not selling them. I’ve giving them to you.”

“I don’t eat sweets much, but thank you.” She takes the tin and holds it against her body under her elbow.

Geneva tries to see over Mrs. Holden’ shoulder into the house, but it’s too dark to see a thing.

“Is your son home?” she asks.

“You know him?” Mrs. Holden says.

“No. I can’t say that we’ve been properly introduced.”

“He’s busy right now.”

“Oh, that’s all right.”

“I can get him if you want.”

“Oh, no! Don’t bother. I just thought I’d say hello and introduce myself.”

“I’ll tell him you dropped by.”

“Oh, would you? Thank you!”

Her cheeks burn with embarrassment.

Relations between mother and daughter remain strained. Mrs. Dingle stays in her room watching her small portable TV at the toot of her bed and speaks to Geneva only when necessary. She eats her meals and then returns to her lair and locks the door.

“How long is the silent treatment going to last, mother?” Geneva asks at lunch.

“Why should I speak if I’m only going to be told to shut up in my own home?” Mrs. Dingle says.

On her birthday Geneva fixes herself up in a special way. She takes a bubble bath, washes and sets her hair and, sitting at her dressing table in her underwear, puts on the “full face,” including fake eyelashes. When everything else is done, she puts on the black dress that she wears to weddings and funerals.

She buys a bottle of wine and an expensive cut of steak. She gets out the good china and places candles in the middle of the table.

When Mrs. Dingle comes into the kitchen, her pink-tinged hair askew from her nap, she says, “What’s all this for?”

“Sit down and eat, mother, before the food gets cold,” Geneva says as she pours wine into the glasses.

After a couple of bites, Mrs. Dingle says, “The meat is tough. I can’t eat it.”

“Do you want me to cut it up for you?” Geneva asks.

“Of course not! I’m not a child!”

“Don’t eat it, then, if you don’t want it.”

“Well, I won’t eat it! And I want to know what you’re all gussied up for? You look like the cat that swallowed the canary. Are you wearing false eyelashes?”

“I have a date this evening,” Geneva says.

“Who with? I hope you’re not cavorting with some married man!”

“Why would I be?”

“Because that’s the only kind of man you could ever hope to get. Somebody who has completely given up on life.”

After she washes up the supper dishes, her mother notwithstanding, she is planning on driving downtown to a little getaway called the Melody Lounge, sitting at the bar, having a drink or two and listening to the music. Being asked to dance is not outside the realm of possibility.

“Don’t you know what day this is?” she asks.

“It’s Thursday, isn’t it?” Mrs. Dingle says. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You don’t remember what happened thirty-eight years ago today?”

“If it’s your sly way of telling me it’s your birthday, I already know it.”

“Aren’t you going to wish me many happy returns?”

“No. I don’t think your thirty-eighth birthday is anything to celebrate.”

“Why not?”

“What have you ever done with your life? You still live with your mother in her house. You don’t have a career. You were never able to land a husband.”

Geneva has been drinking wine steadily for two hours. She finishes off one bottle and has opened another. She holds up her glass and says, “Here’s to many more happy years in your c-c-company, mother!”

Mrs. Dingle gives a snort of disgust. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she says.

“Why? I haven’t done anything.”

“You’re a terrible disappointment to your mother!”

“Do you want me to leave?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To be absolved of all responsibility!”

“I don’t feel responsible for you, mother. I’ve stayed with you and helped you all these years because I didn’t want you to be alone. I can go anytime I please.”

“You ungrateful thing! After all I’ve done for you!”

“What have you done for me?”

“I’ve supported you for thirty-eight years!”

“You don’t think I could support myself?”

“No! You live on my money and that’s the way it will always be! Just how do you think you’d manage if I were to say you don’t get another penny of my money?”

“I have money of my own.”

“Bah! And don’t think you’ll get a cent when I die, either. I’ve already spoken to my attorney about changing my will.”

Geneva downs another glass of wine and says, “How about if I murder you before you change your will? I could always poison your food and you’d never know it. Or, how about this: I come into your room in the wee hours of the night and hold a pillow over your face until you’re no longer breathing. An old woman dying in her sleep. Nobody would ever question it.”

Oh!” Mrs. Dingle says, sputtering with indignation.

“You are a horrible, spiteful, vindictive old woman and I wish I never had to lay eyes on you again!”

“God will strike you dead for saying such things!”

“I wish he would! Then I’d never have to look at your ugly old face again!”

Oh!

Mrs. Dingle tries to get up, catches her foot on the leg of the chair and sits back down with a jolt, spilling the wine. “I want you out of my house by nightfall,” she says. “Take everything that belongs to you and get out!”

“It will give me the greatest of pleasure!” Geneva says. Not knowing what else to do, she picks a baked potato off her plate and throws it at Mrs. Dingle. It strikes her in the forehead; she falls off her chair onto the floor and begins wailing.

“She’s trying to kill me!” she screams. “Help me, somebody! My own daughter is going to kill me!”

“Get up, mother,” Geneva says. “You’re not hurt. It was just a squishy old cooked potato and I didn’t throw it that hard.”

Oh! Oh! Oh! I think my leg is broken! I’m having a heart attack!”

Geneva knows she has had too much wine and believes she is about to do something she will regret. Wanting only to get away from Mrs. Dingle, she runs through the house and out the front door. She feels the blood rushing in her ears and has a couple of seconds where she loses consciousness, which happens in moments of extreme anxiety or anger. She runs to the house next door, the Holden house, and pounds on the door.

When Mrs. Holden comes to the door, Geneva rushes past her into the house as though escaping a fire.

“What the…?” Mrs. Holden says.

Geneva runs through the dark house into the kitchen. There, standing beside the sink, is Booth Holden in a bathrobe. He looks at Geneva as if she is a lion about to spring on him. Geneva runs to him, reaches up and encircles his neck with her arms.

“Please marry me!” she says. “Because I do love you! I know I’m drunk and I apologize for that. Today is my birthday. I’m older than I care to admit. My life is terrible. My mother and I hate each other. I just threatened to kill her. She’s lying on the floor in the kitchen screaming in pain. I don’t want to go to jail. Please help me!”

Booth pulls her arms from his neck, takes a step back and says the first words she has ever heard him speak: “Do I know you?”

Mrs. Holden is standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “I’ll call the police,” she says in the same calm voice she would use to say there’s a fly in the kitchen.

“No need,” Booth says. “I can handle this.”

“I always knew you’d be sweet,” Geneva coos.

She takes a lurching step toward him and grabs to hold onto his arm. He steps aside, not letting her touch him. She takes three more steps, loses her balance, and falls to the floor, vomiting effusively near his feet.

“You must think I’m terrible,” she wants to say, but the words are slurred and unintelligible.

Booth goes out of the room and leaves his mother alone with Geneva in the kitchen.

“Where did he go?” Geneva asks. “Do you think I offended him? I so wanted to make a good impression!”

“You need to get on home now and get yourself cleaned up,” Booth’s mother says. “I can’t be responsible for you.”

“Well, it was lovely meeting you anyway,” Geneva says as she lets loose with a torrent of urine that soaks her dress and runs down her legs into her shoes.

Copyright 2016 Allen Kopp

A Clown First and a Doctor Second

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A Clown First and a Doctor Second ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I was born in a hospital. My parents didn’t want me. They told the hospital people to drop me off at the nearest orphanage—or smother me with a pillow, whichever was most convenient. I was a healthy, sturdy, good-looking boy, but unwanted. I didn’t even have a name. With my profusion of white-blond hair and prominent baby nose, somebody on the hospital staff suggested I looked like the schoolroom pictures of George Washington, so my first name became George. A nurse who was eating her lunch was given thirty seconds to come up with a last name for me, so she said Pickles. From that moment on my name became George Pickles.

The question for the hospital people was what should be done with me since I didn’t have a home or a family. The nurses in the baby ward took care of me the same as they took care of the other newborns, but that couldn’t go on forever. I would grow and soon it would become apparent that I was a reject left behind.

The hospital people thought I might make an excellent janitor when I was old enough to use a mop or a broom, or, failing that, my organs might be used for a dying patient who needed a new liver, lung, kidney or heart right away. Of course, if my organs were used in this way, my own life would come to any end. This is undoubtedly one of the hazards of being unwanted.

At the age of three, I remained at the hospital and still nobody had decided what was to be done with me. Some of the doctors and nurses took a real liking to me; I became a sort of mascot. I was good-natured, easy to please, and not temperamental or fussy. Why somebody hadn’t taken me home and adopted me, I cannot imagine.

I could no longer stay in the baby ward for obvious reasons, so some of the doctors cleared out an unused room in the basement for me to stay in. They put me in a sort of baby bed on wheels that I liked because it was high and, out the tiny window over my head, I could see the sky. When I saw a bird fly past, I cooed in excitement. The nurses took turns taking care of me, feeding me and doing what else needed to be done, throughout the day and night. Some of the doctors would stop by just to pick me up and tickle me in the ribs so they could hear me laugh. Even though I didn’t have a real home or a mother and father, I lacked for nothing.

When I became a little older, the baby bed on wheels was swapped out for a regular bed. The nurses dressed me up in clothes from the charity box and fed me food from the hospital kitchen. They fixed up my room the way a little boy’s room would be in a real home, with stuffed animals, building blocks, tiny cars to roll around on the floor, and pictures on the wall of clowns and horses.

At five years old, I began to learn to read. At first one of the doctors would sit with me and patiently teach me the letters of the alphabet, but in no time I was reading on my own with little effort. Soon everybody started bringing me books because books were the things I liked best: colorful books with pictures of animals and simple texts and, later, young adult fiction. A couple years after that I was reading at an eighth or ninth grade level and, from there, I graduated to Mark Twain and the less-tedious classics of American literature.

As I was reading so well, somebody suggested that I should be in school with other children my own age. “It’s no need,” I told them. “I can learn everything I need to know right here on my own and learn it much more efficiently than I would in a public school.” The hospital psychiatrist was asked to give me an intelligence and reading comprehension test, whereupon he decided that my education was in no way lacking and was, in fact, far superior to what I would have received in the real world.

Besides the books people brought me, I had access to all the books in the hospital library, as well as the doctors’ closed-to-the-public medical library. I was reading novels and short stories, books on history, paleontology, archeology, ornithology, clowns, anatomy, physics, sociology…whatever the subject, I was reading it.

You’ll notice that in the preceding paragraph, I stated that one of my interests was clowns. I first became fascinated by clowns from the pictures on the wall in my room in the basement of the hospital. When I evinced an interest in knowing more about them, a particular friend of mine, Dr. Moorehead, brought me a book called The Big Book of Clowns, which contained many fascinating, colorful pictures and stories about real-life and fictional clowns.

After I read Dr. Moorehead’s book from cover to cover, I told him I wanted to be a clown; the next day he brought me a clown suit with clown shoes, clown makeup and a large red clown nose. The next time I saw Dr. Moorehead I was a clown. After that, I wanted to be a clown all the time, but the head nurse, a woman named Vera Ralston, told me it just wasn’t practical in the real world unless I joined a circus and she didn’t think I would ever want to do that.

Wearing my very own clown clothes, nose and makeup, I taught myself such clown tricks as juggling oranges, pie throwing and seltzer-water squirting; also some “physical” tricks like crumpling up when I got hit on top of the head with a rubber chicken, tightrope walking. and sliding on the floor without getting floor burns.

When people asked me why I was so interested in clowndom and in everything having to do with clowns, I told them I didn’t know, but that I believed somehow clowning was my destiny, that it played some role in who and what I was. One boy is interested in dinosaurs, one in racing cars and another in being the best at throwing a ball. My interest was clowns. How can we know where these things come from?

Somebody who felt sorry for me gave me some professional clowning attire with floppy shoes, wig, and a one-piece suit with plenty of padding, ruffled collar and cuffs. In this get-up I entertained at hospital staff parties. Sometimes I would go to the children’s ward and, despite my innate shyness, entertain the small patients there until I was exhausted. They especially liked me because they knew I was a child just like them.

As I got older, I knew I couldn’t be a clown forever. I needed to cultivate some additional interests. Dr. Moorehead, Nurse Ralston, and other people on the hospital staff asked me if I had any interest in becoming a doctor. When I told them I thought I might make as good a doctor as anybody else, they began bringing me books they thought might interest me—books on simple anatomy, the circulatory, respiratory and reproductive systems, and a book just about blood.

I had what’s known as a photographic memory. I could read one page and then put the book down and recite the page verbatim without any trouble at all. I absorbed medical knowledge like a sponge. I began working with some of the doctors as they went on their rounds. (I wasn’t allowed to see patients as a clown, though. I was instructed to wear a white coat so I looked like all the other doctors, which meant no rubber chickens, no red wig and no pies in the face.) In a couple of years I was ready to take my exams to qualify as a fully certified doctor.

Something was still bothering me, though. I wanted to know about my real parents: what they were like, where they lived, and why they didn’t want me when I was born. It’s natural for a person to want to know these things.

When I learned that the name and identify of my parents were in a confidential file in the hospital, I began trying to figure out how I might see this file, which, of course, was supposed to be strictly off limits. Nurse Ralston, Dr. Moorehead, and everybody else told me I was better off not knowing what was in the file. Still, they provided me with information that allowed me to find the file and read it at two in the morning when the hospital was sleeping.

There wasn’t much information in it other than the names of my real parents—Otto and Minnie Gruenwald—and their address, which I knew to be in a dreaded neighborhood downtown, a place people referred to as Skid Row. Telling Nurse Ralston I was going to an afternoon movie, I took a cab to the address and discovered it was a stricken residential hotel, midway along a boulevard of broken dreams.

The handful of people didn’t look at me as I entered the lobby. It occurred to me for the first time that a lot of years had gone by and my parents probably no longer lived there. Living in this place had probably killed them.

A desk clerk sitting behind a grubby pain of glass looked at me disinterestedly and expelled smoke from his nostrils. I told him who I was looking for and the corners of his mouth turned down into a reverse smile.

“What do you want to see them for?” he asked.

“It’s private,” I said.

“Are you a process server?”

“No.”

“Bill collector?”

“No.”

“A police officer sworn to uphold and protect the law?”

“No. I think I might be related to them.”

“You have my sympathy. The elevator don’t work. Take the stairs up to the fourth floor, if you’ve got the wind. They’re in room four thirty-one.”

As I knocked on the door of room four thirty-one, my mouth was dry. I realized I hadn’t thought beforehand what I was going to say.

A tiny woman, a midget, opened the door and looked up at me. Her face was covered with wrinkles and she had a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. Her reddish hair looked burned, bitten off.

“Are you Mrs. Minnie Gruenwald?” I asked.

“Whatever you’re selling I don’t want it!” she said.

“I’m not selling anything. I’d like to have a word with you and your husband if it’s convenient.”

“If this is about his gambling debts,” she said, “you’re out of luck. He died a month ago.”

“He’s dead?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Is it all right if I come in?”

“If you’re selling insurance or cemetery plots, I can tell you right now I don’t want any.”

“I’m not selling anything.”

“You’re not going to knock me in the head and take all my money, are you?”

“No.”

“All right, then,” she said with a sigh, “but make it quick.”

She let me into her tiny suite of three rooms. I looked around quickly, seeing piles of clutter, clothes, papers, and magazines on every surface. She pushed a stack of newspapers off a wooden chair and gestured I might sit down if I was so inclined.

I sat down and I knew she was looking at my clothes and shoes, my haircut. “You don’t belong here,” she said. “I hope you make it out of the neighborhood alive.”

I thought she was making a joke, but when I looked at her and smiled I knew she was in earnest.

“This is an interesting old hotel,” I said, trying to find an opening to what I wanted to say.

“No, it’s not,” she said. “It’s a rat hole. The city is about to condemn it.”

“I’m sorry. I suppose that means you’ll have to move.”

“Cut the palaver and tell me why you’re here.”

“You said your husband died?”

“Yeah, what of it?”

“His name was Otto Gruenwald?”

“It was, unless he had some other name that I didn’t know about.”

“Do you mind telling me how he died?”

“He had alcoholics’ disease, his liver was shot, he had diabetes, emphysema from too many cigarettes and he was insane. Are those good enough reasons to die?”

“Did you and your husband have any children?” I asked, trying to keep from sounding nervous.

“I’m not answering any more of your questions until you tell me who you are and what you want!”

“My name is George Pickles,” I said. “I’m a doctor or soon will be.”

“Did county welfare send you?”

“Nobody sent me.”

“If you don’t tell me what you’re doing here, I’m going to call that little punk at the desk downstairs and have him send up a couple of goons to eject you!”

“You were in the circus?” I asked, pointing at a faded poster on the wall.

“Yeah, what of it?”

“Were you and your husband by any chance clowns?”

“My husband was a clown. People loved midget clowns. He was like me, only a couple of inches shorter. I was a bareback rider and acrobat. I could do all kinds of shit while standing on the back of a moving horse. But why am I telling you all this? It’s none of your business. You still haven’t told me what your business is.”

“Was he always a clown?”

“He was a clown until he broke his back and had to quit. He was a clown, his father was a clown and his grandfather, going all the way back to the beginning of time.”

“So that’s where it comes from!” I said, excitedly.

“Where what comes from?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I was just thinking out loud.”

“I’m going to have to cut this little tête-à-tête short,” she said. “I’m a very busy woman and I’ve got things to do.”

 “Do you mind telling me if you and your husband had any children?” I asked.

“What do you want to know that for? I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“I want to know for my own information. I’m interested in knowing about clown life.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m writing a book.”

“About clowns?”

“Yes.”

“You won’t use my name, will you?”

“Of course not.”

She was silent while she got a cigarette going. “Well, it’s like this,” she said, letting a stream of smoke escape from her mouth. “I did have a baby once, but I had to give it up for adoption.”

“Why?”

“I’ve never talked about this before with anybody.”

“Strictly entre-nous, I promise.”

“The circus was no place for a baby. The life was hard.”

“I’m sure other people managed it.”

“They did, but they weren’t freaks like us. I only saw the baby one time but I knew he wasn’t a freak and that he wouldn’t have any kind of a life with us. My husband was always a heavy drinker and unreliable. No kind of a father. He even went around with other women, if you can believe that. He didn’t want the kid from the very beginning.”

“But you wanted him?”

“I knew I made the right decision for all of us, but especially for the baby.”

“Don’t you ever wonder about him? How he fared in the world?”

“Sure, I wonder about it all the time. I always hoped he was adopted into a nice family and grew up into a happy, successful, good-looking man.”

“If you knew how to find him, would you ever like to meet him?”

“Oh, no! I wouldn’t want him to see the trash he came from! He’s better off not knowing.”

“Maybe he’d like meeting you.”

“No, I want to keep things the way they are, with him not knowing anything about me and his father. And, anyway, I’m going away and I don’t know yet where I’ll end up. I don’t have any family or friends anymore. I might just get on a plane and fly around the world and choose a spot where freaks are welcome.”

“You shouldn’t think of yourself as a freak,” I said, standing up.

“It’s what I am,” she said. “Like it or not.”

After I took my exams and passed them to become a full-fledged doctor, I packed my bags and left the hospital. The people there were my family and, of course, they wanted to know where I was going. I told them I’d be back one day, but first I had something I had to do. I was a clown first and a doctor second.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

From the Shallow to the Deep

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From the Shallow to the Deep ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Note: This is a combination of two short stories I posted earlier.)

The first lesson was a lecture in a small room that smelled like wet towels. Wesley-John Garbutt hated it already. He sat in the back of the room observing the fifteen or so other boys who were lucky enough to be learning how to swim. They were all gung-ho types, staunch little men; some were taking notes because they wanted to remember everything Boss said, get everything just right. They were excited; couldn’t wait to get their suits on and get into the water.

The swimming instructor insisted on being called Boss as if he had no other name. He was a short, swarthy man in his early forties with a face like a movie hoodlum. He wore a gray sweatshirt and black swim trunks with a whistle on a string around his neck. His legs were thick and short, disproportionate, covered with black hair. Wesley-John wanted to laugh because he had more hair on his legs than he did on his head.

“Now, none of you are babies,” Boss barked, the gruff drill sergeant whipping the raw recruits into shape. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a baby. Or a sissy. Sissies are even worse. So, if there are any sissies or babies among you, you’re welcome to leave now.”

There was a murmur in the room as the boys all attested that they were manly enough for what was coming. Wesley-John sighed loudly and wished he was gone.

“Everybody must have his own suit and his own towel,” Boss said. “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.

“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 do you mean by ‘presentable’?” somebody asked.

“Well, you don’t want your balls or your ass hanging out, now, do you?” Boss said.

The boys laughed loud and long. Wesley-John hated Boss for his crudity and hated everybody else for laughing.

“Now, we all know what horseplay is, don’t we?” Boss said. “That’s another thing that will not be tolerated here. You will have fun, of course, but you’ll have to follow instructions and do as you are told at all times or you will be sent home. Whenever you hear me blow my whistle, that means that you are to stop what you are doing, whether in or out of the water, and listen to what I’m about to say. The whistle is the signal for you to stop and listen. 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?”

Wesley-John ached to raise his hand and dismiss himself, that he was sick or was expected somewhere else at that moment, but he was too embarrassed to speak up. They would all laugh at him and he was sure Boss would say something to make it worse.

“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, Wesley-John Garbutt 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 with distaste. “And why not, may I ask?”

“I’m not really a pool person. I don’t care for this whole scene.”

“Then why did you sign up?”

“I didn’t. My father signed me up without consulting me first.”

“You won’t get your money back.”

“I don’t care about that, sir.”

Boss marked Wesley-John’s name off the class roll and left without another word.

That evening at the dinner table, Wesley-John’s father, Boyd Garbutt, asked, “Wasn’t today your first swim lesson?”

“Yes,” Wesley-John said, looking down at his plate.

“How did it go?”

“I quit.”

“You what?

“I said I quit the swimming class. I won’t be going back.”

“After the first lesson?”

“It wasn’t really a lesson. It was just talking.”

“I’m not going to let you quit.”

“I already have.”

“You can’t do that! Do you know how hard it was to get you in that class? They have a waiting list. I had to pull some strings to get your named moved up on the list.”

“They can let some other poor sap take my place,” Wesley-John said.

“Other boys your age would kill for the chance to learn how to swim!”

“I’m not like them, sir.”

“Sometimes I look at you and I wonder what’s wrong with you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me, sir. I just don’t want to learn how to swim.”

“You’re a quitter. Just like your mother.”

“She would never have signed me up to do something she knew I would hate.”

“How do you know you hate it? You’ve never done it!”

“The pool scares me. I see myself dead in it.”

“Nobody is going to let you die!”

“No, sir, they won’t, because I’m not going to do it.”

“When I was fifteen years old,” Boyd Garbutt said, getting red in the face, “do you know what my father would have done to me if I defied him the way you’re defying me now?”

“No, sir.”

“He would have knocked my head off my shoulders!”

“Rather extreme, don’t you think?”

“You’re the weirdest kid I’ve ever seen!”

“You haven’t seen many.”

“When is the next class?”

“Friday, but I won’t be there.”

“You’re going to go if I have to take you myself and stay there the whole time. Do you want the other kids to see what a big baby you are? That you have to have your father there to make sure you do what you’re supposed to do?”

“It couldn’t be any worse than it already is.”

“I think you should leave the table now!” Boyd Garbutt said. “I don’t want to have to look at your face any more today.”

Wesley-John stood up and carried his dishes to the sink. As he was scraping the plate under the faucet, he said, “Do you know that new thirty-story office building on the south side of the park?”

“I drive by it every now and then,” Boyd Garbutt said. “Why?”

“They have an observation deck on the top floor. Open to the public.”

“So?”

“Anybody can go up there, even a kid. Even me.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m not saying anything. Just that it’s a long way down, that’s all.”

After stacking the dishes, Wesley-John went upstairs to his room and locked himself in. He kicked off his shoes and lay on his back on the bed, tired out from the awful day. He would take a nap until about dark and then get up and sit at his desk and read to try to keep from remembering all that had happened.

***

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

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

“Mother?” he said.

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

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

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

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

“I thought it best not to.”

“What?”

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

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

“What have you got there?” she asked.

“Shoes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sick?”

“Just a checkup.”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“All right, I guess.”

“Don’t you know for sure?”

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

“Why?”

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

“You refused to go?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you want to learn to swim?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So he’s been yelling at you a lot?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what?”

“Kill yourself.”

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

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

“That’s right.”

“Very clever.”

“I thought so.”

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

“Don’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s Ben, anyway?”

“Who?”

“Your new husband.”

“His name is Richard.”

“Oh, yeah. How is he?”

“He’s all right.”

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

“Yes, they’re still alive.”

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

“Do you wish them dead?”

“Not until this minute.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never on this earth,” she said.

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

“I told you. It was a checkup.”

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

“It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

“What is it, mother?”

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

“Who is ‘we’?”

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

“What did the doctor say?”

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

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

“Of course I will.”

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

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

“Sounds awful.”

“Yes, it is pretty awful sometimes.”

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

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

“I’m sure it happens all the time.”

“Not to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When?”

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

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

“Life is hard for all of us sometimes.”

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

“No!” he said. “I hate school.”

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

“Since always.”

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

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

“What turned to shit?”

“Everything.”

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

“No, thanks! I’m not crazy!”

“Nobody said you’re crazy.”

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

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

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

“Well, now I have two stepdaughters.”

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

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

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

“Thanks for the advice.”

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

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

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

“Do you need a warm winter coat?”

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

“Winter will be here before you know it.”

“No, I don’t need a winter coat.”

“How about a nice new suit?”

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

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

“And then you left.”

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

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

“Costs too much?”

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

“Would you do that?”

“Of course I wouldn’t.”

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

“Yes,” Wesley-John said.

“Did you have any money left?”

“No, shoes are expensive.”

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

“Who?”

“My mother, your former wife.”

“What is she doing here?”

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

“Where did you see her?”

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

“Is she sick?”

“A checkup, she said.”

“Did she mention me?”

“No. Why would she?”

“No reason.”

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

“She bought you a cell phone?”

“Yeah.”

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

“Mother didn’t think so.”

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

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

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

“I don’t want to take it back!”

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Human Blood

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Human Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

School was out and Betty Fray walked home by herself through the quiet streets of the town. It was a cloudy, too-warm day in late October. The wind, holding the promise of rain later on, blew the leaves frantically along the sidewalk. Betty turned her head to the side to keep the wind from stealing her breath.

When she got home, the house was still and deserted, her mother and sister gone. She went into the kitchen and helped herself to a chocolate chip cookie and a drink of cold water and then left again. She didn’t feel like sitting still and waiting for somebody to come home and ask her what she was doing. She would walk down to Jesus Saves and when she came back her mother and sister would be there.

Jesus Saves was a good turning-around place because it was at the bottom of a hill, where the street dead-ended. People were always using the Jesus Saves parking lot for turning around because they didn’t realize until they go to the bottom of the hill that the street didn’t go any farther.

She saw a girl she knew from school, Jessie Lime, walking on the other side of the street in the opposite direction. She really didn’t like Jessie very much; her teeth were rotten stumps and she was already starting to get fat because she ate candy all the time. She would have to go on a diet and get dentures by eighth grade if she ever expected to have a boyfriend after that.

An old man, whose yard was higher than the street, was raking leaves. He turned and watched Betty suspiciously as she walked by. She wanted to give him the finger or at least stick her tongue out at him, but she did neither. He was trash and it was best to just ignore him.

The parking lot at Jesus Saves was deserted; no cars and no people. The windows were blank and dark. Tonight there would be no prayer meeting or other service. Nobody being cleansed of their sins.

She skirted the parking lot and walked to the far edge where there was a low concrete wall. She hadn’t completed the circuit until she touched the wall with her foot; she did this and whirled around to walk back the way she came when something caught her eye: a dark spot on the faded asphalt, dark and wet as if somebody had spilled a bucket of paint and gone off and left it. Curiosity got the best of her and she approached the spot to see what it was. She was looking down at it when the door of Jesus Saves opened and a man came running out. He clapped his hands to get her attention.

“Here! Here, girl!” he said. “You get away from there!”

She looked from the spot on the asphalt to the man and back at the spot. “What is this?” she asked, realizing at that moment that it was blood. “Did a dog get run over by a car?”

“No, no!” he said. “You get on away from here! There’s nothing here for you!”

It was Reverend Upjohn, a fussy little man in black who preached at funerals and saved stray souls from going to hell. He wore glasses on a string around his neck and, as she looked down at his feet, she couldn’t help noticing sandals with red socks.

“What is it?” she persisted. “It’s blood, isn’t it?”

“It isn’t any of your business what it is!” Reverend Upjohn said. “You get on home now! It’s going to rain and your people are probably wondering where you are!”

The door of Jesus Saves opened again and Reverend Upjohn swiveled his head nervously. Two Sisters of the Church were coming out, lugging buckets of water and mops. One of them held the door for the other one. They were large women and homely, both wearing loose, sack-like dresses and a white covering on their heads as if their hair looked too terrible to be seen.

“Over here!” Reverend Upjohn said to the women. “Let’s get this cleaned up!”

The Sisters of the Church went to work obediently on the spot, swabbing at it with the mops. They moved the blood around until they had a sloppy pink mess.

“We need something to soak it up,” Reverend Upjohn said. “All you’re doing is making it worse.”

They dipped their mops into the buckets of water and then the water looked like blood.

“Dump this water out and go inside and get some fresh,” he said. “Jesus! I never saw so much blood in my life! The police were here, but they left the mess for us to clean up! How do you like that?”

Betty stood back a few feet and watched the Sisters of the Church move the blood around.  When Reverend Upjohn realized she was still there, he turned on her.

“Didn’t I tell you to get on home just now?” he said. “There’s nothing here for you to see! Didn’t your mother ever teach you any manners?”

One of the Sisters of the Church stopped mopping and leaned over and whispered into Reverend Upjohn’s ear, shielding her mouth behind her hand.

“Oh!” Reverend Upjohn said, looking at Betty. He went and put his hand on her shoulder. “You be a good girl now and run on home.”

“What did that woman say about me?” Betty asked. “She whispered something in your ear about me, didn’t she?”

Reverend Upjohn sighed and bent his wrinkled old face toward her. “I can run you home in my car if you want,” he said.

“No, thank you!” Betty said. She felt like telling him and the Sisters of the Church to kiss her ass, but they weren’t worth the effort.

As she began walking up the hill toward home, a troubling thought occurred to her: Momma didn’t come home last night. Could the blood on the Jesus Saves parking lot having anything to do with that? The Sister of the Church seemed to recognize Betty and, recognizing her, whispered something into Reverend Upjohn’s ear. What might she have said?

Momma’s new boyfriend was a man named Shelton Barnett. He was sexy and dangerous, Momma said, and that’s a combination you just can’t beat. Betty had only seen him about three times, but she didn’t like him. He reminded her of a snake. He was dark and narrow-hipped and his upper lip curled back over his teeth. He always wore suits and ties and shiny shoes. Momma wasn’t sure what he did for a living but, whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. To Betty he looked like a gangster from the movies, with his slicked-back hair and two days’ growth of dark stubble on his face. Maybe he and momma parked on the Jesus Saves lot to kiss and talk in the middle of the night before he dropped her off at home, and she said something he didn’t like. Maybe she laughed at him, telling him he wasn’t much of a man, and made him mad and he stuck a knife in her heart and dumped her out on the Jesus Saves lot and took off. Don’t things like that happen between lovers all the time?

She became very nervous as she got closer to home. She knew that something terrible was wrong, or why else would that Sister of the Church whisper something about Betty into Reverend Upjohn’s ear? She wasn’t stupid. She had been able to figure things out on her own since third grade. Shelton Barnett had killed momma and she was as certain of that as she was that the sun was up in the sky. As she thought about the terrible loss she had sustained, it expanded into anger. If Shelton Barnett had killed momma, she would kill Shelton Barnett, even if it took forever. He wasn’t going to get away with it.

Up the hill she almost ran, shaky and out of breath and nauseated. She hoped that when she opened the door momma would be standing there smiling at her, but she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Momma was dead and that was her blood on the ground at Jesus Saves. Nothing had ever been so clear to her before in all her life.

Her older sister Wanda was sitting on the couch and when Betty opened the door, Wanda jumped up.

“Where have you been?” Wanda asked.

“Momma’s dead, isn’t she?” Betty said.

“What?”

“I said momma’s dead, isn’t she?”

“I want to know where you’ve been!”

“You’re not my boss! I went for a walk down to Jesus Saves.”

“Two policemen were just here,” Wanda said.

“To tell us momma’s dead?”

“No, to tell us momma’s being held in custody. I think that’s a fancy way of saying she’s in jail.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You remember that man that momma’s been dating? That Shelton whatever-his-name-is?”

“Shelton Barnett.”

“Yeah, that’s him. Somebody murdered him and dumped his body on the parking lot at Jesus Saves.”

“I was just there. I saw the blood. The people there were acting funny when they saw me. I didn’t know why.”

“They think Momma had something to do with it. They’re holding her until they find out if she did the murder.”

“I don’t think she did it.”

“Maybe she had a good reason.”

“I’d rather have her in jail than dead,” Betty said.

“The policemen asked me if we had a relative to stay with,” Wanda said, “and I lied and told him we did. They won’t let us stay here by ourselves because we’re minors. We have to have an adult living with us until momma comes back.”

Betty’s legs gave way and she fell back on the couch. “What are we having for dinner?” she asked. “I’m starved.”

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp