Single Man in Large House ~ A Short Story

Single Man in Large House image 5
Single Man in Large House
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

They both died in their rooms upstairs, first the mother and then the father, only six months apart. The father was eighty-eight and the mother ninety-one. They left behind their only son, Gunter, age fifty-four. He was a gray, colorless man, a man without attachments or issue. He was a man who, in certain respects, barely existed.

Now that his parents were dead, the fourteen-room house belonged to him and him alone. For the first time in his life, he had absolute freedom. He could stay in bed all day if he wanted to, or eat dinner in front of the television, watching cartoons or old westerns. He could indulge any whim, such as putting on lipstick or wearing his mother’s wig just to see what it looked like.

The top floor of the old house was very hot during the summer. He liked to go up to the small bedroom all the way at the top of the house, spread a blanket on the floor, and sleep naked in front of the open windows. With the lights turned off, it was like sleeping outside. He would listen to the nightbirds and small animals doing whatever they do at night. He could feel the scented breeze wafting through the trees. The best part was when there was a thunderstorm with lighting, wind and rain. He would feel a tingle all over his body, as if he was part of the storm without a single drop of water touching him.

After his mother died, he went on a spending spree. He had always wanted a tuxedo, so he bought one, even though he didn’t need one and had no place to wear it. He would be buried in it, if nothing else.

He bought an expensive couch and matching chair and had the trash collector take away the old couch and chair. He bought all new linens for bath and bed, all new underwear and socks. He bought himself six pairs of silk pajamas in a variety of colors, including pink. He bought wine glasses and an expensive set of china. The list went on and on.

He always hated going to the grocery store and buying food. He never knew what to buy. There were too many choices and he wasn’t good at making decisions. He would end up buying impractical items, such as a three-pound box of candy or four bottles of wine because he thought the labels were pretty. After one trip to the store, he realized he hadn’t really bought anything he could eat for dinner, so he sat down and made out a list and went back to the store and bought only the things he had written down.

One day when he was in the store, surrounded by crowds of people and at least two screaming babies, the idea came to him to hire a woman as cook and housekeeper. He could afford it. It would have to be an older woman, a motherly type. She could vacuum the stairs, wash the clothes, dust the furniture and buy all the food. Then after she had bought the food she could carry it home and cook it. It was a wonderful idea and it put a crazy smile on his face.

The next day he placed an ad in the newspaper: Single man in large house seeks experienced cook, housekeeper for light housekeeping duties. Since he hated talking to people on the phone, he asked interested applicants to respond to a post office box. Within a week, he received sixteen replies.

After carefully reviewing all the applicants, he chose one out of all the others. She was an overweight, forty-five-year-old widow, an Austrian woman named Alma Bergner. She had lots of experience and glowing references, but, above all, she knew how to make genuine apple strudel. She agreed to his terms, he offered her a generous salary, and she started to work the next day.

The first day he gave her a list of items he wanted from the grocery store. When she returned from the store, she put away the groceries, made a delicious stew for dinner and did all the laundry that had been piling up for weeks. She vacuumed the stairs, cleaned the upstairs bathroom, and organized the kitchen pantry. He was so impressed with her quietly effective way of working that he wondered why he had waited as long as he did to hire her. She was unlike his own mother as a pig is from a giraffe.

One night, in the middle of the night, he awoke with the feeling that he wasn’t alone. Startled, he came partly awake and sat up in the bed.

“Who’s there?” he said.

He heard a muffled voice but couldn’t make out any words.

“If there’s anybody there, you’d better identify yourself!”

“It’s me, Vera, your mother,” a raspy voice said, and when he focused his eyes on the space at the foot of his bed, he could indeed see his mother standing there.

“My mother’s dead!” he said.

“Yes, my body is dead,” she said, a little more coherently, “but I’ve never left your side this whole time.”

He reached out to turn on the lamp beside the bed, but the lamp had vanished. It was like a dream he had when he was eight years old.

“Go away and leave me alone!” he said.

He covered up his head, but her voice only became louder.

“Look who’s giving the orders now!” she said. “Mr. Big Shot!”

“I’m so glad you’re dead!” he said. “I thought you’d never die!”

“I want that woman gone!”

“What woman?”

“That foreign woman!”

“Do you mean Alma?”

“Do you know she’s stealing from you?”

“She wouldn’t do that!”

“I saw her take a stick of butter out of the refrigerator and put it in her purse as she was leaving. Another time I saw her steal a stamp from your desk.”

“Why don’t you stop spying on people and stick to the business of being dead?”

“She’s going to poison you when she gets the chance.”

What? Why would she do that?”

“She’s going to get you to marry her and then she’s going to poison you so she can have the house.”

“Please believe me, mother, when I tell you I have absolutely no interest in being married to Alma or anybody else!”

“She’ll trick you.”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“I know what she’s like!”

“All right. I’ll ask her tomorrow if she plans to marry me and then kill me so she can take the house.”

“You don’t think she’d tell you the truth, do you?”

“Not everybody’s a liar like you are, mother! Some people actually have some integrity.”

“I know how much you’re paying her and it’s far more than she deserves! You’re throwing my money away! Before you know it, there won’t be any left!”

“It’s my money now, mother! You have nothing to say about it!”

Just then, Tom, his father, came stumbling into the room. He looked disheveled and confused. He was wearing what looked like a choir robe.

“What’s all the turmoil about?” he said, rubbing his head. “You woke me from my nap.”

Gunter groaned. “Get out of here, both of you!” he screamed. “It’s the middle of the night. You’re both dead and you’re both crazy! Now that I’m finally free of the pair of you, I won’t have you intruding on my life and on my privacy! I won’t have you barging into my bedroom at all hours, interrupting my sleep!”

“You wouldn’t even have this house if it wasn’t for me!” his father said. “You wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for me!”

“He’s right, as much as I hate to admit it!” his mother said. “You wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for us!”

“You’ve both lived your lives and now it’s time for me to live mine!”

“I can cut off your money, you ingrate!” she said.

“How are you going to do that, mother? You’re dead!”

His mother and father both faded into the wall then, and that was the end of the dream, if a dream is what it was.

A few days later Gunter went downtown to see his lawyers. He was gone all morning and when he got home he had a terrible shock waiting for him. Alma was lying unconscious at the foot of the stairs. When he saw she was still breathing, he called an ambulance. They came and took her away and a few hours later she died at the hospital of a broken neck.

Nobody could be really sure what happened because she was alone at the time, but apparently Alma had tripped when she was vacuuming and fell the entire length of the stairs. After a thorough investigation, police ruled it an accident. Gunter wanted to tell them that there might be more to the “accident” than there appeared to be, but he knew that doing so would raise questions for which he had no answers.

Alma had no family living in the United States, so Gunter paid for her funeral and burial. He couldn’t help feeling at least partly responsible for her death.

Three days after Alma’s death, when Gunter got up in the morning, on his bathroom mirror was scrawled this message in lipstick: It was no accident. You’re next.

Now, why would a dead mother threaten to kill her living son? That was the foremost question in his mind. He had no answer, except that his mother and father were awfully strange when they were alive. Not like anybody else. Outside the norm. They wanted him dead, or gone, so they could have the house to themselves to haunt on their own. He, alive as he was, was in their way. He didn’t fit in with their future plans. His whole life, he had felt he wasn’t wanted, that he was an inconvenience. Looking back on his life, he wondered why one of them, his mother or his father, hadn’t killed him at some point in his childhood. It would have been so easy when he was a baby.

A few nights later he received a message in a dream: Look in the attic.

His mother never threw anything away. If there was something she no longer needed, she didn’t discard it the way most people would; she stored it in the attic.

He hadn’t been in the attic for years. When he opened the door, the cobwebs swirled and the mice ran for cover.

There were trunks, boxes, and barrels of stuff he had never seen before; shelves loaded with wrapped parcels. It was like opening the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. He didn’t know where to begin, so he started with the nearest thing at hand, an old-fashioned trunk, what they used to call a portmanteau.

The trunk was full of books and papers on the subject of Satan worship, witchcraft, demonology, spells and incantations, black sabbath. His mother’s name was on all the books. He never had an intimation that she was interested in any such subject.

In the next trunk he found photo albums containing pictures of his mother and father performing Satanic rituals with other people. Some of the pictures were taken in their basement, where they had constructed a kind of altar. The most embarrassing aspect of these photos was that all the people, including his parents, were naked. He didn’t know how anybody could ever get his father to pose naked; it was so unlike him. They were probably in their late fifties or early sixties at the time.

Other pictures included his father fellating a man wearing a devil costume and his mother slavering over a goat. He was embarrassed for them. Such undignified behavior. He supposed it was all part of what they were required to do, but it made him want to vomit.

So, his parents were Satan worshipers. He never suspected, although it made perfect sense. They used to host parties for special people when he was growing up, but his mother always made sure he went to the movies or spent the evening at a friend’s house. There were the weekend trips to some undisclosed location, mysterious phone calls at odd times, heavy packages arriving by messenger. One time his parents took him on a trip with them to Mexico. He was excited about seeing a foreign country, but he saw nothing of it because they left him locked in a hotel room.

As for the altar in the basement, it was still there, or at least part of it was. When he was a child, his mother wouldn’t let him go down to the basement. He never knew why.

He began seeing his mother and his father every night when he was awakened from sleep. They floated over his bed, made a clatter on the stairs, or moaned and rattled chains. They were definitely taunting him.

Now, the question was how he might make his mother and father depart from the house so he could go on living there? It was the only house he had ever known, and he wanted to stay. It was a comfortable, commodious house. It was home. Hadn’t his parents lived in the house long enough? Now it belonged to him.

Again, it came to him in a dream: consult a professional spiritualist who had experience dealing with people who linger on the earth plane after they’re dead. He didn’t have a lot of confidence in spiritualism, but he supposed it couldn’t hurt to try.

Not knowing where else to begin, he read the classified ads in the newspaper. Right away one ad jumped out at him. It was a woman named Beatrice Corn. She was, according to her ad, a licensed, certified, reputable spiritualist, with one-hour consultations starting at $175.

Beatrice Corn agreed to come the next day at ten o’clock. When he told her what he wanted, she said she had seen many cases like it before. It wasn’t always easy to get an entrenched spirit to vacate the premises that they knew so well in life. She preferred the house to be as quiet as possible while performing her consultation. Also, she liked to be paid in cash but would accept a check.

She was an eighty-year-old eccentric dressed in an army uniform from the First World War and a gentleman’s top hat. He showed her the pictures of his parents engaged in Satanic worship and the books with his mother’s name on them about witchcraft, demonology, and spells and incantations. She clucked her tongue and asked to see the rest of the house.

When she went into his mother’s room, she said she felt a very strong psychic presence.

“The mother is definitely present in the house. The father too. There are also at least two other spirits in residence.

“Who are the other two?”

“I’m not sure. A couple your parents met in the afterlife, possibly. They all want you gone. I think their intention is to kill you in a horrible way so they can deliver your soul up to Satan.

“They killed my housekeeper. I don’t have any proof that they killed her, but I know they did. They wrote on my bathroom mirror that I was next.”

“How long did your parents live in this house?” she asked.

“Over sixty years.”

“Then they won’t leave willingly.”

“Is there any way to get them to leave?”

“Burn them out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Burn the house down.”

“I’m obviously not going to do that.”

“I’d advise you to sell your house and get far away from here, for your own good. Otherwise something terrible will happen. You’ve seen what they’re capable of.”

“If I leave, how do I know they won’t come after me?”

“From all you’ve told me, I would say they’re not interested in you. They want the house and they want you out of it. Spirits are always unpredictable. I would advise you to do what your instinct tells you to do.”

He thanked Beatrice Corn for her professionalism and her sensible advice. She gave him her business card and told him to call her any time, day or night. He paid her her fee and she left.

Two days later he put the house up for sale. Within a week, a funeral home agreed to his price of two million dollars. They had two funeral homes in other locations and wanted to open a third one. They were eager to close the deal and take possession of the house as soon as possible.

He made his new home in the Old World. He lived in Paris for a while and then in the Italian countryside. He could live in style wherever he wanted. The world was finally opening up for him.

Copyright © 2023 by Allen Kopp

Seven Eight Nine ~ A Short Story

Seven Eight Nine image 3

Seven Eight Nine
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~  

(This is a re-post.)

Milly Pogue was the guidance counselor. She walked with a limp because she had an artificial leg. She came into fifth-hour study hall where Penny Costello was looking at a magazine and told her she wanted to see her in her office. Without questioning the command (there would be time for that later), Penny stood up and followed Miss Pogue down the hallway to her office. Clunk, clunk, clunk went her artificial leg.

They went into the little windowless office and Miss Pogue closed the door.

“What did you want to see me about?” Penny asked. “I was busy.”

“You were looking at a magazine,” Miss Pogue said. “Sit down.”

Penny sat in the metal chair facing the metal desk and already she looked bored.

“You’re not living up to your potential, Penny,” Miss Pogue said.

“What do you mean?”

“Your math and reading scores are the lowest in your class.”

“I can’t help that! I’ve been sick!”

“You’ve missed too many days of school.”

“When you’re sick, aren’t you supposed to stay at home so you don’t spread your germs around?”

“The school nurse says there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“What does she know? She’s a crackpot. She’s not even a real nurse. She flunked out of nurses’ school.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“My mother heard it in the beauty shop.”

“It’s not true. She’s a fully accredited nurse.”

“Okay. That’s what you wanted to see me about?”

“I met with Mr. Bumpus this morning.”

“Was it good for both of you?”

“He asked me to have a private talk with you.”

“What about?”

“You won’t be passed on to the ninth grade.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’ll be repeating eighth grade next year.”

What?

“In view of your low scholastic ranking, you’ll be required to repeat eighth grade again when the new school term begins.”

“Could you put that in plain English?”

“You flunked eighth grade. You’ll have to do it all over again.”

Bullshit!”

“In these cases, we find it’s better to inform the student privately beforehand. That gives you time to adjust to the idea of repeating a grade. You’ll have time to talk it over with your mother and father before anybody else has to know about it.”

“Are you saying that when school starts up again I’ll still be in eighth grade, while everybody else in my class is in the ninth?”

“It can be a difficult adjustment, I know, but I’ll be here as your guidance counselor to help you in any way I can.”

Penny began to cry as the truth of what she was being told took root in her brain.

“I can’t repeat the eighth grade!” she said.

“What not?”

“It makes me look so stupid! Everybody will laugh at me.”

“No, they won’t!”

“Am I the only one?”

Miss Pogue looked down at her paper. “There’s one other person.”

“Are you going to tell me who it is, or do I have to ask?”

“It’s really none of your business, but if you think it’ll help, I’ll tell you. It’s Hermie Malchick.”

Hermie Malchick! Why, he’s retarded! He can’t even write his own name!”

“I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

“Do you think I’m retarded?”

“No, Penny, I know you’re not retarded.  You have the ability. You just don’t use it.”

“Everybody will laugh at me for being such a loser. Me and the retarded boy are the only two that didn’t pass the eighth grade! That must mean I’m retarded, too!”

“No, Penny. It doesn’t mean you’re retarded. It means you have to try a little harder in the future.”

“I can’t repeat eighth grade! I won’t!”

“Penny, I don’t think you have much choice in the matter.”

“We’ll get a lawyer! They’ll make you pass me on to ninth grade!”

“Can your family afford a lawyer?”

“No, but we’ll get one, anyway!”

“It wouldn’t do you any good.”

“As of this moment, I’m quitting school! I won’t ever be back! Not to this school or any school!”

“You’re too young to quit school, Penny, and you know it. You have to be sixteen, and even then you have to have your parents’ permission.”

“There’s a very good reason I won’t be coming back and it’s not only because I’m flunking eighth grade.”

“What is it?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

Oh, Penny! Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Who’s the boy?”

“You mean the father of the baby? He goes to a different school. He’s a senior.”

“Oh, Penny, that can’t be! You’re just a child yourself.”

“I know, but it sometimes happens.”

“Whoever he is, he could be facing legal issues. You’re a minor.”

“He knows all about that and he doesn’t care. You see, he’s in love with me and I’m in love with him.”

“What could you know about love at your age?”

“I know plenty. I’m not stupid.”

“Have you told your mother and father?”

“Sure. They know all about it.”

“And they approve?”

“They know there’s nothing they can do about it.”

“Oh, Penny! This is tragic. There’s no other word for it.”

“I’ll get over it. In about seven and a half months.”

“You can go on back to study hall now.”

“Hell, no! I’m not going back to study hall! I’m going home! I’m done with this place once and for all! No more school for me! Ever!”

When Penny was leaving Miss Pogue’s office, she almost ran into Hermie Malchick coming out of the boys’ restroom. She and Hermie were a matching pair. Two of a kind. Two cards from the same defective deck. If she had had a knife in her hand, she might have stabbed him in the throat with it.

Before she left school for the last time, she went up to the third floor and emptied the contents of her locker out onto the floor. One last act of defiance.

Walking home, she had to laugh at how readily Miss Pogue believed the lie about the baby. The only person she knew of who was going to have a baby was her own mother. She was an expert at it. She had had seven.

She was all smiles that evening, that school was finally out for the summer and she had three long months of vacation before she had to go back. If she had told her parents that she was never going back, it would not have gone well. There would have been a big scene, and either her mother or her father would have ended up slapping her. They would find out the truth when school took up again and she stayed at home in bed.

Her mother had her baby in the middle of June. It was a boy and they named him Skippy. Her mother had a difficult time with lasting effects. The doctor told her she’d better not think about having any more babies. Seven were enough. Any more would be excessive.

Throughout the summer, Penny began thinking of Skippy as her own child. She fed him, bathed him, got up with him in the night, and took him all over town in his perambulator, while her mother lay in bed and complained.

Old ladies looked at her with Skippy and turned up their noses, as old ladies do. It’s such a shame, they said, that a girl of such a tender age is already a mother. What is the world coming to? If she was my daughter, I’d keep her busy scrubbing the floors and cooking the meals. She wouldn’t have any time for nonsense with boys.

Copyright 2023 by Allen Kopp

I Want to Spend Christmas with You ~ A Short Story

I Want to Spend Christmas with You
I Want to Spend Christmas with You
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

My parents got their divorce the summer I was fifteen and sold the house we lived in. My mother, my little brother, and I moved into a small, four-room flat in an old apartment building downtown. It was on the fifth floor and there were no elevators, so that meant we were constantly walking up and down the stairs.

The flat wasn’t big enough for me to have my own room, so we moved my bed into a little space off the kitchen, which was originally meant to be a pantry. It was tiny and cramped, but the best thing about it was that I had my own window with a good view of buildings and trees far off in the distance. I liked to lay in bed at night and look out at the sky. The best nights were when there was a full moon. When there were thunderstorms, it felt like the lightning was going to come in through the window and zap me into oblivion.  

Now it was Christmas again, or almost. Our first Christmas in the apartment. Our Christmas tree stood in the corner of the front room, aglow with multi-colored lights and loaded down with tinsel and ornaments, stacks of presents beneath its branches. A sprig of holly hung in the doorway into the kitchen. On the front door was a wreath that would probably be stolen before Christmas morning ever arrived.

My little brother Georgie, age six, jumped up and down on the couch and screamed. He was wholly invested in Christmas. It was snowing out, he didn’t have to go back to school until after New Year’s, and he believed that Santa was going to be especially generous with him this year.

“You’d better calm down,” I said. “Santa will pass you by if he gets word that you’ve been bad.”

“I haven’t been bad!” he screeched.

My mother came in from her bedroom, where she had been putting on makeup and fixing her hair. She was afraid I was going to divulge the great secret that Santa doesn’t really exist.

“What did you just say to him?” she asked, looking at me threateningly.

“I didn’t say anything,” I said. “I just told him he’s giving me a headache.”

“Get down from there, Georgie! You know you’re not supposed to use the couch as a trampoline! The couch is for sitting, not for jumping.”

“All this Christmas stuff is making me puke,” I said. “A person can only take so much.”

“Well, it’s too bad you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be excited about Christmas,” she said. “I guess you’ve grown too sophisticated for your family.”

“He’s grown too sophisticated!” screamed Georgie.  

“Shut up!” I said.

“When do we get to open the presents?” Georgie screamed.

“For the eighty-seventh time, we will open the presents on Christmas morning after we’ve had a good breakfast.”

“Why do we have to wait so long?”

“Because I said so, that’s why!” She sat on the other end of the sofa and patted her hair in back.  

“I want to open one now!”

“No! We’ve been all through that a dozen times. You have to wait like everybody else.”

“Tomorrow’s Christmas and we haven’t heard anything from daddy yet,” I said.

“No, and you probably won’t, either. He’s probably laying up in some hotel room, drunk as a skunk.”

 “Drunk as a skunk!” Georgie screamed.

 “I thought he’d send at least send us a present.”

 “You’re old enough to know you can’t count on him for anything.”

“We always had a good Christmas with him,” I said.

“I know, but those days are over. Your daddy is out of the picture now. He was the one that wanted the divorce.”

“I’m going to the movies tonight,” I said. “It’s a Christmas Eve horror double feature.”

“I don’t care what it is,” she said. “You’re not going to the movies on Christmas Eve. You’re going to spend the evening with your family.”

“But I’m meeting someone.”

“Call whoever it is and tell them you can’t make it.”

“Is he going to be here?”

He has a name, you know.”

“Is Regis going to be here?”

“Yes, he’s going to be here in time to eat dinner with us and later we’re all going to church.”

“I don’t feel like going to church.”  

“You feel like going to the movies but you don’t feel like going to church?”

“Church gives me a headache.”

“You’re insane.”

“If I am, I get it from you. Insanity runs in your family.”

“I think Regis is going to ask me to marry him.”

“Why would you want to marry Regis?”

“Why shouldn’t I marry him? He’s the sweetest, kindest man I’ve ever met and he’s got a good job.”

“He sells washing machines in an appliance store.”

“Someday he’ll be manager. There’s really good money in that.”

“What about daddy?”

“What about him?”

“You’re going to marry Regis without telling daddy first?”

“You’re a smart boy, but you just don’t seem to understand. There is no longer any connection between me and your daddy. We are kaput!”

“What does that mean?”

“Your daddy and I are finished with each other. All ties are severed.”

“All ties are severed!” Georgie shrieked.

“If you marry Regis, does that mean we can move out of this crummy apartment?”

“Not right away. Regis will probably move in here with us. His business hasn’t been so good lately. He’s a little strapped for cash at the moment. He expects things to pick up next year, though.”

“If Regis moves in here with us, I’m moving out.”

“Why don’t you like Regis?”

“He belongs to a bowling league.”

“A lot of men belong to bowling leagues.”

“He’s old!”

“He’s forty-three.”

“He wears cologne that smells like bug spray.”

“I’ll get him to stop wearing it after a while.”

“He has hairs sprouting out of his ears. Haven’t you ever noticed that?”

“Of course, I’ve noticed it. His grooming isn’t the best. That’s because he lives alone. All that will change after we’re married.”

“I think you should check with daddy first before you marry Regis. He might want to come back. If you marry Regis, it’ll be too late.”

“Your daddy is not coming back. Ever.”

“You might be surprised.”

“It’s time for you to face reality.”

“I am facing reality and I don’t like it.”

“I think I see Santa way up in the sky over there,” Georgie said, standing at the window.

“You’re hallucinating again,” I said.

“It’s too early for Santa,” mother said. “He won’t come until we’re all asleep. He doesn’t like for people to look at him.”

“I can certainly see why,” I said.

“I hope he remembers everything I wanted,” Georgie said.

Mother went back into the bedroom and in a little while came back out in her red Christmas dress that in my opinion was too tight. She had dowsed herself in perfume. When she saw me lying on the couch staring at the ceiling, she decided I needed something to do.  

“I want you to go down to Friedlander’s market and buy a carton of eggnog for tonight,” she said, digging in her purse for some money. 

“I don’t like eggnog,” I said.

“Well, are you the only one here? Regis says it’s not Christmas without eggnog.”

“Regis says. Regis says. What else does Regis say?”

“Can I go to the store, too?” Georgie asked excitedly.

“No! You stay here and help me wrap Regis’s present.”

“Regis, Regis, Regis,” I said as he went out the door. “He’s certainly a big man around here, isn’t he?”

The snow was falling heavier now. Cars made hissing sounds on the pavement as they passed by. Last-minute shoppers were still keeping the stores busy. With the setting of the sun, Christmas Eve had officially arrived.

The store only had one carton of eggnog left, so I grabbed it and went and stood in the long line to pay. When the cashier smiled at me and wished me a merry Christmas, I gave him a sour look.   

When I got back home, Regis had arrived with presents for all of us. He was throwing Georgie up near the ceiling and then catching him on the way down. Georgie squealed with delight. Mother stood at the stove and beamed her approval.

Regis had brought Georgie a stuffed elephant and some other toys. My present from him, still wrapped in a big box with a red bow, was at my place at the table. Before I sat down, I picked up the box and set it on the floor.

“Aren’t you going to open your present from Regis?” mother asked.

“I’ll open it later. I have a headache now.”

When we were all seated at the table, mother insisted we join hands while Regis said grace. Regis’s hand felt clammy and unclean in mine. When he finally let go, I wiped my hand back and forth along my leg before I touched any food.

While we ate, I could see that mother was wearing a diamond engagement ring. This, of course, would be her Christmas present from Regis. So, it was official, then. He had proposed and she had said yes.

Regis talked about his day at work and laughed while we ate. Mother didn’t say much. Georgie kept looking out the window for signs of Santa. When Regis seemed to have run out of things to say for the moment, mother looked at me and said she had something she wanted to tell me and Georgie.

“What is it?” I asked with a sick feeling.

“Regis has asked me to be his wife and I’ve consented. We’re going to be married on New Year’s Eve.”

“What’s the rush?” I asked.

“I think it’s so romantic to be married on New Year’s Eve,” she gushed. “It will be a new start of a new year for all of us.”

She turned and looked at Regis. There were tears in her eyes. Regis took hold of her hand and pulled her in for a kiss. I knew he was getting ham grease all over her.

“I think I hear Santa’s sleigh outside!” Georgie said.

After we finished eating, mother told me to go put on my dress pants and a white shirt for church. She would help me with my tie before we left for church.

Except there wasn’t going to be any church for me. I grabbed my coat and hat and ran out the front door before she had a chance to see what I was doing.

The snow must have been five or six inches by that time. I still had on my tennis shoes and I could feel the snow soaking through to my socks after a few steps, but I didn’t mind. I needed to talk to daddy.

I knew that Colson’s Drug Store, about four blocks down from where we lived, had a pay phone. I had a pocket full of change especially for that purpose.

Right after the divorce, daddy gave me his private number where I could reach him any time. If I ever needed him, all I had to do was give him a call.

There were a lot of people at Colson’s, mostly at the pharmacy counter. Nobody paid any attention to me as I went all the way to the back, where the pay phone was.

I was sure he would answer. He would probably figure it was me calling on Christmas Eve.

The phone rang ten or twelves times, but finally he answered.

“Hello,” a little groggily.

“Daddy?” I said. “Is that you?”

“Who is this? Is this Evan?

“Yeah, it’s me. Evan.”

“I couldn’t hear you very well at first.”

“Can you hear me better now?”

“Yeah, I hear you fine now.”

“Well, since it’s Christmas Eve, I wanted to call and wish you a merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, Evan!”

“Do you know where we’re living now?”

“No.”

“In an apartment downtown, on the fifth floor of an old building.”

“I’ve been wanting to come and visit you and Georgie, but I wasn’t sure where you were living. How’s Georgie?”

“He’s fine. Waiting for Santa to bring him everything he asked for.”

“Where are you now?”

“I’m in Colson’s Drug Store, near where we live. Do you know where that is?”

“Yeah, I’ve been to Colson’s a few times. Don’t you have a phone in the apartment?”

“We do, but I didn’t want mother to know I was calling you.”

“How is your mother?”

“She’s fine, but she’s the main reason I wanted to talk to you.”

“She’s not sick, is she?”

“No, she’s not sick. She’s getting married on New Year’s Eve.”

Daddy was silent for a moment and then he laughed. “Who is she marrying?”

“His name is Regis. He’s a creep. He smells funny. I don’t like him.”

“Maybe that’s because you don’t know him very well.”

“I want you to come and get me.”

“What?”

“I said I want you to come to Colson’s Drug Store and get me. I want to spend Christmas with you.”

“Wait a minute, Evan! I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m not living in a very nice place. I don’t even have a tree.”

“That’s all right. I don’t need a tree.”

“If your mother doesn’t know where you are, she’ll be worried.”

“I’ll call her from your place.”

I started to cry like a blubbery crybaby. I hadn’t meant to cry, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.

“Is it that bad?” he asked.  

“Mother just isn’t herself. I don’t want to be around her. She acts like Regis is some kind of a god. They make me sick.”

“All right. If it’s that bad, I’ll come and get you.”

“How long? How long will it take?”

“Give me a half-hour or so.”

“Colson’s Drug Store. I’ll be waiting outside for you.”

It was still snowing, harder than ever now, but I didn’t mind waiting in the snow for a half-hour. People coming in and out of Colson’s looked at me and then looked away. Maybe some of them thought I was going to try to rob them. I tried leaning back against the building, crossing my legs and putting my hands in my pockets. I tried to look casual, but I felt conspicuous. 

I wasn’t sure what kind of car daddy would be driving, but I looked at every car. One of them would be him.

The half-hour passed and then an hour and then two hours. I was determined to wait as long as it took. I would wait all night. I would still be waiting on Christmas Morning if I had to. My fingers and toes were numb. I could no longer feel them. I wasn’t sure if they would ever work right again or not. I didn’t much care.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Christmas Guests ~ A Short Story

Before You Know I'm Gone image 1

The Christmas Guests
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

The party crowd was attentive as tiny Chickpea Knuckles, thirty-seven inches tall, stood beside the Christmas tree on her little platform and sang a medley of Christmas standards in her throaty contralto voice: “Rockin’ ‘Round the Christmas Tree,” “Blue Christmas,” “Jingle-Bell Rock,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

At the end of Chickpea’s act, the audience erupted into enthusiastic applause. Mrs. Griselda Pinkwater, sitting on the front row, beamed with satisfaction, almost as if the applause was for her. She had every right to be pleased, for she was the one had who brought Chickpea to the forefront.

Now that the musical part of the program was finished, everybody stood up. Mrs. Pinkwater became surrounded by well-wishers. Sylvia Peat, her enormous breasts trussed up inside her green silk dress, took hold of Mrs. Pinkwater’s wrist in her talon-like hands. She reeked of her expensive perfume. “Lovely Christmas party, my dear!” she gushed.

“Thank you, my dear!”

“Where did you find the adorable midget singer?”

“You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Do you think she’d sing at my New Year’s soiree?”

“You could always ask her. She doesn’t sing for free, though.”

“Is she terribly expensive?”

“With your millions, I don’t think you need worry about the cost.”

Just then Enid Goode approached from the right. She was as tall and as broad as a female warrior. “Where did you find a family of midgets?” she asked. “You clever thing, you!”

“Well, it’s a long story,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “My husband and I had the Knuckles family in our home for Thanksgiving dinner. We found them simply entrancing. When I discovered that the father, Quincy Knuckles, was headed for jail, I took pity on them.”

“Oh, dear! I hope the little man didn’t kill anybody!”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. He busted into a pawn shop.”

“Why did he do that?”

“He saw a banjo in there that he thought belonged to him.”

“A bedroll?”

“No, a banjo.”

“Here comes the Mrs. Carlotta Knuckles, the matriarch of the midget clan,” said Mrs. Pinkwater. “She is so sweet! You will absolutely adore her!”

She snagged hold of Carlotta Knuckles and pulled her into the circle of ladies.

Carlotta was wearing a slinky, gold-colored evening gown that Mrs. Pinkwater had had bought for her. She carried a long cigarette holder, taking occasional puffs on a cigarette that had gone out a long time ago.

“How do you do?” Carlotta said, looking up shyly at the ladies—all in various stages of drunkenness—that surrounded her like a forest of redwood trees.

“Isn’t she just the most precious little thing?” Betty Rowley said.

“What’s it like being a midget?” Shirley Faraday asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “It’s more respectful.”

“What’s wrong with calling them midgets? That’s what they are, isn’t it? How many are in the family?”

“Besides the incarcerated father, there’s mother, daughter and son.”

“How old is the son?” Enid Goode asked.

“He’s twenty-one, I think.”

“Where is he? I’d love to see him.”

“Twenty-one is a little young for you, isn’t it, Enid?” said Betty Rowley.

“I’ve done a lot worse!” Enid said, and all the ladies laughed.

“Well, he’s really still a boy!” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

Just then the boy in question, Bixley Knuckles, walked past, bearing a tray of drinks over his head. Mrs. Pinkwater tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and looked at her.

“You don’t have to serve drinks,” she said. “You’re a guest.”

“I like doing it,” he said. “It gives me a chance to hobnob.”

Shirley Faraday ruffled his hair. “He’s so cute I could just eat up him!” she said.

“Hey!” Bixley said. “Hands off!”

“The ladies like you,” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Of course they do, but that doesn’t mean they can paw me whenever they feel like it!”

Mrs. Pinkwater leaned over and whispered in Bixley’s ear: “All these dames are crazy and they’re all kind of drunk. Don’t take them too seriously.”

“I should say I won’t!” he said and then he was gone.

“I’d like to wrap him up and take him home,” Shirley Faraday said.

“And what would you do with him when you got him there?” Betty Rowley said.

“I don’t know. I’m sure we’d think of something.”

The crowd of ladies dispersed to freshen their drinks or to use the ladies’ room.

“How are you holding up, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Carlotta.

“All right, dear.”

A waiter came by with a tray of canapés, bent over and thrust them toward Carlotta.

“Try one,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re delicious.”

Carlotta took one each hand and began munching on them. “I have something to tell you,” she said, “and I hate to say it.”

“What is it?

“My midget husband, Quincy Knuckles, has escaped from jail.”

“Oh, my goodness! Are you sure? How did it happen?”

“He’s three feet tall. When the guards opened the doors, they were preoccupied and didn’t look down. He escaped right under their noses.”

“Oh, dear!”

“But that’s not the worst of it. When I was in the kitchen a while ago, there was a knock on the back door. I thought it was going to be another liquor delivery, but when I opened the door who do you think was standing there?”

“Let me guess.”

“It was Quincy.”

“Where is he? What did you do with him?”

“I took him upstairs and hid him when nobody was looking.”

“Oh, dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater moaned. “We’re harboring an escaped fugitive!”

“Not only that! He’s cross-dressing!”

“He’s what?”

“He’s dressed as a woman.”

“How is that going to help?”

“The police are looking for a male midget.”

“Keep him hidden and we’ll decide what to do with him when the party is over.”

“He wants to come down and join the party. He’s been in prison since Thanksgiving. He’s lonely.”

“All right, but keep him in the background. If any of my guests begin to suspect he’s more than he seems to be, he’ll have to leave. I won’t have my party ruined.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Carlotta said.

Carlotta introduced her “sister,” Corabelle, from New Orleans, to all the guests. They were charmed as she spoke to them in a soft Southern accent. When one of the male guests, Clifford Clifford, asked Corabelle to dance, she graciously accepted without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

“Where did she learn to dance like that?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to Carlotta as they stood off to the side and watched as Corabelle and Clifford Clifford moved around the floor.

“She’s always been a good dancer,” Carlotta said.

“She moves effortlessly as if she dances every day of her life.”

“What a lovely compliment!” Carlotta said. “I’ll be sure and tell him what you said. He doesn’t very often have a chance to feel good about himself.”

“And where did he get the dress and wig?”

“It’s a long story. He bought them for a lodge function that he attended as a woman. And not one of his lodge brothers recognized him, either!”

“If I didn’t already know he was a man,” Mrs. Pinkwater said, “I’d never suspect.”

“It makes me so proud!” Carlotta said.  

When Corabelle finished dancing with Clifford Clifford, others wanted to dance with her but she declined.

“I’m all fagged out for the moment, gentlemen,” she said. “I have to get myself a refresher.”

“Remember I have the next dance!” Finch Baggett called to her.

“You got it, mister!” she said.

“And I have the one after that!” Trent Trill announced.

Oh, you kid!

“I never expected her to be so popular with the men,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “And they’re all married. Their wives are looking on with dissatisfaction, if they’re not too drunk to notice.”

“It’s the novelty of the thing,” Carlotta said.

“And wouldn’t they be surprised to know that the thing is not what they think it is?”

Oh, you kid!” said Carlotta.

At the buffet table, Bixley spotted Corabelle and they began sparring playfully. When Corabelle got Bixley in a headlock, Mrs. Pinkwater and Carlotta broke them up before they gave away Corabelle’s secret.

“Let’s show them our tumbling moves,” Bixley said. “They’d love it.”

“Can’t,” Corabelle said. “I’m wearing a dress, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“So?” Bixley said.

“Go get me a glass of that champagne, sonny boy,” she said as she sat down to eat the plate of food the maid prepared for her.

The party didn’t begin to break up until after midnight.

“The best party ever!” one guest after the other said as they thanked Mrs. Pinkwater and went out the door.  

“We fooled ‘em,” Quincy said, removing the wig and kicking off the pumps. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Get me another glass of that champagne.”

“Not so carefree, mister!” Carlotta said. “You’re a wanted midget, you know.”

“I can be a woman for as long as I have to be.”

“And what happens when they pull off the wig and lift up the dress and discover you’re really a man?”

“I guess I’ll worry about that when the time comes.” 

“My husband will be home from his business trip in two days,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I suggest the entire midget family stay here until then. I have plenty of room.”

“Oh, we couldn’t impose!” Carlotta said. “Christmas is in three days!”

“You’d be doing me a favor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I hate being alone at night.”

“Your husband wouldn’t want to find us here when he comes home.”

“He won’t mind. He enjoys having company.”

“Well, it’s awfully kind of you, but I don’t know.”

“Quincy can remain your sister Corabelle for as long as you’re here. If the police come snooping around looking for Quincy, just tell them she’s your sister visiting from New Orleans. If he can fool all my party guests, he can fool the police.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Quincy said. “I don’t relish the idea of being thrown back in the can and spending Christmas in jail.”

“I don’t know how we’ll ever repay you for all your kindness to us,” Carlotta said, on the point of tears.  

“Can I sleep in that little bedroom in the attic overlooking the back yard?” Bixley asked. “It makes me feel like the captain of a ship.”

“How do you know about that room?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked.

“I did a little exploring while everybody was busy,” Bixley said. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“I can sleep anywhere,” Chickpea said, “as long as there are no snakes.”

Mr. Pinkwater, when he returned from his business trip on the day before Christmas, was not surprised to find the midgets installed in his home, but he was surprised to discover Quincy Knuckles as a woman.

“This is Miss Corabelle Hamilton, from New Orleans, Louisiana, come to spend Christmas in our home,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Quincy Knuckles is no more.”

Corabelle stood up and offered her hand to Mr. Pinkwater. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” 

“I don’t think that’s the same person at all,” Mr. Pinkwater said to Mrs. Pinkwater when they were alone. “I think they’re playing a trick on us.”

“We’re going to have such a lovely Christmas!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re like the odd children we never had.”

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Thanksgiving Guests ~ A Short Story

Thanksgiving 2021

The Thanksgiving Guests
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
 

She placed an ad in the newspaper: My husband and I have no family and are alone. We are looking for a poor family to spend a bountiful Thanksgiving with us. Please contact Mrs. Griselda Pinkwater at the phone number below. We look forward to hearing from you.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, she expected a flood of calls but received only one, from a woman named Carlotta Knuckles. She said she saw the ad in the newspaper and showed it to her husband. After they talked it over, they decided they would like to apply.

“There’s no applying,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “If you and your family want to come, you are welcome.”

“Oh, thank you!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “I’m sure we qualify as poor, but just how poor, I really couldn’t say. We have more than the air to breathe and the clothes on our backs, but still we’re poor.”

“Well, poor is poor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I’m sure you’re poor enough. And how many of you will there be besides you and your husband?”

“We have two half-grown children, Bixley and Chickpea.”

“Shall we say about one o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, then?”

“Oh, yes!”

Mrs. Pinkwater gave Mrs. Knuckles the address. Mrs. Knuckles wrote it down and the conversation ended.

“What do you think?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to her husband, Mr. Gunter Pinkwater. “We have some takers!”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Pinkwater asked.

“I’ve located a poor family to come and share Thanksgiving dinner with us. Their name is Knuckles.”

“That’s kind of a funny name, isn’t it?” he said.

“All names sound funny when you first hear them.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get them here just so you can rob them?”

“Why would I want to rob them? They’re poor.”

“Poor in spirit or just poor?”

“I think we can rely on a literal interpretation in this instance,” she said.

“What if they plan on coming here and robbing us when it becomes apparent to them that we are not poor?”

“Oh, Gunter!” she said. “I’m too kind and too pure to ever think of anything like that.”

“Well, it’s your funeral,” he said.

“It will be my little social experiment. I’ll write a tract about it for the ladies’ club and it’s sure to get me elected president, or at least vice-president.”

“So that’s your motive,” he said.

On Thanksgiving morning, Mrs. Pinkwater felt her nerves on edge and began drinking large quantities of wine to soothe them. Had she made a mistake in inviting a family of strangers into her home? What if she had nothing in common with them and nothing to say? What if they were dirty and smelled bad? If she felt the need to get rid of them, she would just lock herself in her bedroom and let her husband eject them in his own way. He could always say that she had just come down with a horribly contagious disease and the house was under quarantine. God willing, it wouldn’t be necessary.

At a few minutes before the hour of one o’clock, the doorbell rang and Mrs. Pinkwater went to the door herself, rather than allowing the maid to do it. When she opened the door, she had the surprise of her life. The Knuckleses were not what she expected. They were a family of four tiny midgets.

“Oh, my!” she said.

“Mrs. Pinkwater?” the woman, who would, of course, be Mrs. Carlotta Knuckles, said in her squeaky little voice.

“Why, yes, my dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Please come in!”

She held the door while the Knuckleses came into the house in a single file. The maid stepped forward to take their coats.

“Mrs. Pinkwater,” Carlotta Knuckles said, “I’d like you to meet my husband, Mr. Quincy Knuckles.”

Mr. Knuckles stepped forward after slithering out of his coat and took Mrs. Pinkwater’s hand in his own and kissed it. “Charmed, I’m sure,” he said.

“And these are my children,” Carlotta said, “Bixley and Chickpea.”

Bixley shook Mrs. Pinkwater’s hand. “I’m Bixley,” he said. “I’m the smart one in the family.”

Chickpea put the tip of her index finger to the bottom of her chin and curtseyed. “I’m Chickpea,” she said.

“Why, they’re just so cute!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Are they twins?”

“Bixley is the older of the two,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Yeah, by two years!” Bixley said.

“Well, they’re the same size so I figured they were the same age.”

“Yeah, and not only the kids are the same size, but the parents are the same size, too,” Bixley said. “I’ll let you in on a little secret about midgets. We’re as tall as we’re ever going to be. There aren’t any tall midgets. We’ll all the same size, no matter what age we are.”

“We don’t really like the word ‘midgets’,” Mrs. Knuckles said. “We prefer ‘little people’.”

“I’m a midget,” Bixley said. “It’s good enough for me.”

Mrs. Pinkwater took the midgets into the living room. “Make yourselves at home,” she said.

Mr. Knuckles climbed into the wingback chair, turned around and sat down, his wingtip shoes straight out in front of him. (He looked like a tiny king on an oversized throne.) Mrs. Knuckles and Bixley and Chickpea struggled onto the couch, one leg up with the rest of the body following, as if they were climbing onto a life raft. Mrs. Pinkwater watched them, frowning, and decided it was best to not try to help them.

“I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding your way to our home,” she said in her best hostessy voice.

“Oh, no!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “No trouble at all.”

“How many rooms do you have in this house?” Chickpea asked.

“Well, let’s see,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Counting the two rooms in the attic, we have fifteen rooms.”

Mrs. Knuckles whistled. “I can’t imagine,” he said.

Mr. Pinkwater had been getting dressed upstairs and came into the room wearing his cashmere smoking jacket that he bought in London.

“Oh, there you are, dear!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Come and greet our guests!”

“How do you do,” Mr. Pinkwater said politely.

Mrs. Pinkwater watched him to see if he registered any surprise at a roomful of midgets, but there was none. “How about a drink before dinner?” he asked.

“Scotch and soda,” Mr. Knuckles said.

“I’ll have the same,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“How about a little white wine?” Chickpea asked.

“I’ll have a beer,” Bixley said.

“Do you allow them to have alcoholic beverages, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Mrs. Knuckles.

“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Knuckles said. “They’re not children, you know.”

“What will you have, darling?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked his wife.

“I’ll have some more of that wine that I was having before our guests arrived,” she said.

Mr. Pinkwater went out of the room and in two minutes he returned bearing a tray with the drinks on it, always the perfect host.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” Mrs. Pinkwater said as she sipped her wine. “I hope you brought along some great big appetites!”

“I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” Bixley said.

“It certainly smells wonderful,” Mrs. Knuckles said, draining her drink and holding up her glass so Mr. Pinkwater could get her another. “Could I help in the kitchen in any way? Peel the potatoes or anything?”

“Oh, no, honey!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Everything is under control. The cook and the maid have taken care of everything.”

“You have a cook and a maid?”

“Yes.”

“They have servants,” Mrs. Knuckles said to her husband.

“We could have had a house like this if we had stayed with the circus,” Mr. Knuckles said.

“You were with the circus?” Mr. Pinkwater asked.

“For twelve years. That’s where I met my wife.”

“After the children were born,” Mrs. Knuckles said, “I insisted that we leave the circus once and for all. I didn’t want the little darlings growing up in that kind of environment.”

“Now I’m working as a part-time janitor in an office building,” Mr. Knuckles said, “and people make fun of me, as if a midget could never have any human feelings. In the circus nobody made fun of me. Everybody respected me. I belonged there.”

“He blames me for the way his life turned out,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Who else am I going to blame?” he said.

“I’m going to be a professional wrestler,” Bixley said. “There’s big money in that for a good-looking young midget like me.”

“How many bathrooms do you have?” Chickpea asked.

The maid announced that dinner was ready. They all went into the dining room and Mrs. Pinkwater showed the midgets where she wanted them to sit.

“Do I need to get something for you to sit on?” she asked. “A phone book or a pillow?”

“Oh, no, dear, we’re fine,” Mrs. Knuckles said. “We’re used to sitting in chairs for regular-sized people.”

The midgets took off their shoes and squatted on their haunches on the chairs so that the they were high enough to eat. Awfully uncomfortable, Mrs. Pinkwater thought, but she tried not to think about it.

“Now I’ll say grace,” she said, clearing her throat. “Thank you, Lord, for the food of which we are about to partake; for our heath, home, and country, and on this Thanksgiving Day, thank you especially for the company of friends. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

“Amen,” Mrs. Knuckles said, but she was the only one who bothered.

The midgets were dazzled by the abundance of the Pinkwater table. There were all the traditional dishes—turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, big bowls of carrots and green beans—and in prodigious quantities. It looked like a table setting in a dream of heaven.

“My goodness gracious!” Carlotta Knuckles exclaimed. “Everything is just  supreme-o, Super-duper deluxe! I’ve never seen anything like this outside of the motion picture screen!”

After dinner Chickpea sang My Heart Belongs to Daddy and The Lady is a Tramp in a surprisingly strong, clear voice, while her mother accompanied her on the piano. Then Mr. Knuckles and Bixley moved some of the furniture out of the way and gave a demonstration of tumbling to the delight of Mr. and Mrs. Pinkwater.

“I keep in shape,” Mr. Knuckles said, patting his belly, “for the day when I can return to the circus.”

Mr. Pinkwater was showing Mr. Knuckles his collection of antique firearms in the den when the police arrived and took Mr. Knuckles away in handcuffs.

“How the hell did you know I was here?” Mr. Knuckles said as he was being taken out the door.

“What did he do?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Mrs. Knuckles.

“He busted out a window of a pawn shop with an artificial leg.”

“Why did he do that?”

“He thought he saw a banjo in there that he used to use in his circus act.”

“Did he get the banjo back?”

“No, it turned out to be a different banjo.”

Mrs. Pinkwater patted Mrs. Knuckles on the shoulder. She wanted to pick her up and hug her and kiss her cheek to express her sympathy but knew it wouldn’t look good in front of the police. Instead, she said, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”

“I suppose I need to get to the police station and see if he’s going to be eligible for bail or if they’re going to keep him permanently,” Mrs. Knuckles said.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“Oh, no, dear! I wouldn’t dream of imposing on you in that way.”

At midnight, Mrs. Pinkwater was sitting in front of the mirror in her boudoir brushing her hair when Mr. Pinkwater came into the room.

“It was a wonderful day, wasn’t it?” she said.

“If you say so, dear,” he said.

“I think I’m going to invite them to our Christmas party.”

“Who?”

“The Knuckleses.”

“Quincy Knuckles might still be in jail then.”

“That’s all right. Carlotta can come with the children. We can ask Chickpea to sing some Christmas songs. She has a lovely voice. And, I ask you: who else has a midget singing at their party this season?”

“I’m going to be on a business trip then,” he said.

“I want all the ladies of the club to meet Carlotta Knuckles. They’ll absolutely adore her. If she doesn’t have an evening gown, we’ll get her one. A sparkly thing with tassels.”

“Where do you buy a sparkly evening gown for a midget?” he asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’. It’s more respectful.”

“You’re in love, aren’t you?”

“Tired is what I am,” she said as she crushed out her cigarette and got into bed.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

All the Spirits in the Place ~ A Short Story

The Spirits in the Hotel image 3
All the Spirits in the Place
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

I always liked staying in a good hotel, even one that was falling apart and hadn’t seen a paying guest in fifty years. The Hotel Argyle was on the riverfront, in a cluster of other derelict buildings. It was twenty stories tall and could be seen from a long way off because the hotel name had been painted in huge letters on the side of the building. It stood as a symbol of urban blight. There’s nothing spirits love more than urban blight.

I walked into the lobby of the Argyle and was surprised to see a ghostly apparition at the registration desk. He seemed to be made of purple-and-green smoke. He gestured to the registration book and I knew what to do. It must have been somebody’s idea of a joke because spirits don’t use the names they had when they were alive. I made a little mark on the book. That seemed to satisfy him because he smiled his grotesque smile and gestured for me to take the stairs.

There were many vacancies at the Argyle. I would venture to guess that I could pick almost any room, on any floor, and it would be vacant. I went all the way to the top floor, the twentieth, and found the room I wanted at the end of the hall. It showed no signs of occupancy, so I took it as my own.

I was a tired old spook. I had traveled a long way to get here. I needed a rest, so I was happy for that reason that the hotel was quiet. The other spirits in residence were probably sleeping, since it was the middle of the day and the sun was shining brightly. If there’s anything a spirit hates, it’s bright sunlight.

I stared out the window at the skyline of the city for a while and then, hovering near the ceiling, I went into a trancelike state, which was as near as I ever came to sleeping. As long as I’m not disturbed, I can stay in this state for years at a time, but, of course, when you’re a spirit, a year means nothing. We think in terms of eternity. Time has no meaning.

In this trancelike state, I thought of—dreamed of—many things. I had been in the spirit world now for eighty years. I was only thirty-five when I crossed over. I had two wives when I was alive. I regret that I wasn’t very kind to either of them. I had a drinking problem. Luckily there were no children. I would have been a terrible father.

After my divorce, I had no job and no money, so I went back home to live with my mother. She and I never understood each other. We fought constantly. I should have known better, even if she didn’t. She nagged me about my drinking; she thought I could stop if I only tried. She wanted me to go to church with her the way I did as a child. She thought if I just read my Bible I’d be the kind of man God wanted me to be.

I got a part-time job driving a truck. I was never that keen on driving. I hated it. All my organs were pickled in alcohol. One hot July afternoon, my hundred-proof heart stopped when I was parked on a street downtown. I took off my shoes, put them side by side, laid down on the seat, and died. I knew I was dying and I didn’t care. I thought it was the best thing that could happen to me.

When I found myself in the spirit world, I was surprised there was any kind of existence after death. I thought it was punishment for all the bad things I had done. Everybody else went to heaven, I thought, but not me. That, of course, wasn’t true. The spirit world is teeming with spirits who never made it to heaven.

That night I met two of them. I was going out for a little city night life when I met them in the lobby of the hotel. I remembered them from before, a long time ago, in another incarnation. They went by the names Jocko and Howdy. They recognized me immediately and I them.

“We heard you were here,” Jocko said. “When did you get in?”

“A few days ago. I’ve been resting up in my room on the top floor.”

“We were just going out to do the town,” Howdy said. “Why don’t you join us for old time’s sake?”

“I’ll go if you promise not to scare me too much,” I said.

Hah-hah-hah!”

On our way downtown, Jocko, Howdy and I walked side by side, as if we were living instead of dead.  Howdy made a show of knocking people out of the way but, of course, they didn’t know he was there because he was invisible to them and, also, they were solid and he wasn’t. It’s only fair to mention that we met a few other spirits, but they were mostly in haughty groups and didn’t pay any attention to us. Howdy would get into a brawl with some of them if he could. He was a brawler and a mischief-maker.

On the way downtown, I asked Jocko and Howdy if the Hotel Argyle was a good place for a spook to live.

“It’s dead most of the time,” Jocko said.

“What do you mean?”

“Not much action there, man,” Howdy said.

“It seems perfect to me,” I said. “An abandoned hotel on the riverfront of a major city. Doesn’t it abound with ghosts?”

“Yeah, but ghosts are boring if they’re not doing anything,” Jocko said.

“So, you’re saying the ghosts in the hotel are all retired?”

“Well, something like that.”

“Don’t they like to scare little girls? Make them scream?”

“Yeah, but that’s the point. There aren’t any little girls to scare. What’s the fun of having the ability to scare people if there aren’t any people to scare?”

“You have to find out where the people are and scare them where they live,” I said.

“The people who own the hotel should turn it into a haunted-house attraction for Halloween,” Jocko said. “A lot of people would pay good money to tour a vintage hotel full of real ghosts instead of fake ones.”

“The people who own the hotel are dead,” Howdy said.

“The city owns the hotel,” Jocko said. “They’re just waiting for the right time to bring in the wrecking balls.”

“If they tear it down, they’re going to put a lot of ghosts out of a home,” I said.

“Not so many. Most of the spirits moved on a long time ago. Only losers stay at the Argyle now.”

“I was just beginning to like the atmosphere,” I said. “I had to leave my last home because a vengeful witch started throwing fireballs and burned the place down.”

“You have to watch out for those fireball-throwing witches!” Howdy said.

“The best way to deal with them is to cut off their heads and then burn their bodies,” Jocko said. “You have to be sure to remember to burn their bodies because some of them can go on living without a head.”

“Here, now!” Howdy said. “Let’s stop talking about witches and have some fun!”

Howdy was one of those spirits who engage in mayhem. He caused two cars to collide and then doubled over with laughter. When I asked him how he did it, he said it was a secret he learned during the war.

“What war was that?” I asked, but he didn’t answer me.

We couldn’t go to a bar or a restaurant and sit at a table the way other fellows do, so we walked all over downtown. We went into a movie theatre and watched part of the movie that was playing.

“I don’t like this movie!” Jocko said after a while. He then caused the projection equipment to break down when the movie was halfway through.

“That’s the way it’s done,” he said, laughing hysterically.

We entered a library and did some moaning and then we pulled down some shelves of books. Pretty tame stuff, but spirits have to make their own kind of fun.

Next we went to a dance hall where men buy tickets and use them to dance with weary-looking dames. It was a sorry-looking spectacle. I don’t know which was worse, the men or the women. What fools these mortals be.

We stood apart from the crowd against the wall. Knowing we were watching him, Howdy made as if to cut in on certain dancing couples, but he only brushed up against the ladies. They could feel it, of course, but not see it, so they were confused about what was happening to them. Some of them thought somebody was playing a trick on them. Maybe some of them knew it was spirits, but I doubt if any of them were smart enough to figure that out.

After the dance hall, we went to the oldest and biggest cemetery in the city. There were some really old corpses there—Civil War and before. The place needed some livening up. We built a small fire and joined hands and danced around it. We moaned and sang and chanted. Soon we had a couple of dozen spirits gathered around. They were delighted  we were there. They were happy to join in any kind of foolishness. They danced and sang and were happy.

Howdy, always the smooth operator, found himself a lady spirit. She was wearing a long, flowing white dress and a tiara on her head. She looked like a queen. She made eyes at Howdy, he made eyes at her, and then they joined hands and went off together into the darkness.

“How will we find him when it’s time to go?” I said to Jocko.

“Don’t worry about Howdy. He’ll make short work of her.”

We made merry in the cemetery until the first traces of dawn began to light up the eastern sky. Then the spirits reluctantly began to drift back to wherever they came from. Surprised that the night had passed so quickly, Jocko, Howdy, and I went back to the Argyle. It had been a most enjoyable evening.

We returned often to the cemetery, where we made some good friends. The spirits there were always happy to see us. We brought the good times with us. I had never had so much fun before.

I began spending all my evenings with Jocko and Howdy, resting in my room at the Argyle during the daylight hours. We took in all the attractions that the city had to offer. We spooked people left and right, sometimes causing them to doubt their own sanity. Howdy was a spirit who enjoyed mayhem, such as causing traffic lights to malfunction or streets to flood for no reason. Because we were with him, Jocko and I were more often than not willing to go along with him.

In the winter we had some excitement at the humdrum Argyle. A team of paranormal investigators set up shop in the old ballroom on the tenth floor. They were investigating the existence of life after death. It gave us all a good laugh.

All the spirits in the hotel were excited at the prospect of proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they had lived and that they went right on living after they died.

The psychic investigators (or ghost-hunters as they came to be called) had ultra-sensitive sound-recording equipment that would pick up the sound of a mouse breathing. They all left to go home at night but left their sound-recording equipment running to pick up every infinitesimal (ghostly) sound. In the mornings when they returned, they listened to what had been recorded during the night.

From the first night, all the spirits went to the ballroom with messages for the ghost-hunters. Some of them sang songs or recited poetry. Others laughed, moaned, or gave out with nonsense words of their own devising. Some of the spirits swore or made farting sounds. It was a lot of fun for everybody and a way to express our disdain for the living.

Regardless of what they said about the Argyle, I was beginning to like to and to think of it as home. And then something bad happened, and it wasn’t the wrecking balls, either. A fire started on one of the lower floors and soon spread to every floor. When all the spirits in the place realized what was happening, they all escaped out the windows. We all gathered outside and watched the place burn like a torch and collapse in on itself, all twenty stories. Whatever the cause of the fire, it saved the city a lot of trouble.

Jocko, Howdy and I bucked up the other spirits and urged them not to be downhearted. We had a plan.

We took them all, a procession of two hundred spirits or more (like a parade of the dead), to the cemetery, where we had been made to feel welcome before. All the spirits in the cemetery were delighted we had returned and had brought along lots of new friends. Everybody was welcome. The old cemetery had everything a spirit could want, and more.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

All Hallow’s Eve ~ A Short Story

Halloween 2021 3

All Hallow’s Eve
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

(This is a repost.)

Mother stood over him while he ate his dinner of liver and onions. When she decided he had eaten enough, she told him he could go. He ran up the stairs to his room and put on his Halloween costume. A ghost this year, same as last year. Next year he was going to have to be something different. Wearing the same costume more than two years in a row was terrible.

His false face still had dried spit around the mouth, but it was his own spit so he didn’t care. He put it on and checked the entire effect in the mirror, costume, mask and all. Something was missing. Oh, yes, the old derby hat. It was the one thing that made his costume look just a little bit creepy and scary. Without the hat, the costume was just a cheap little-kid’s getup.

Mother was in the living room when he came down the stairs. “Come here, Buster, and let me take a look at your outfit,” she said.

“It’s a costume,” Buster said.

“Oh, don’t you look cute!”

“I’m supposed to look scary!”

“So, where are you going tonight? What are you plans?”

“I’m going tricking-or-treating, mother, the same as every Halloween.”

“Who are you going with?”

“I don’t know. Some of the kids from my class, I guess.”

“What are their names?”

“You want the names of all the kids in my class?”

“Of course I don’t. You’ll be careful, now, won’t you?”

“Yeah, I’ll be careful.”

“Make sure you’re not alone. Wherever you go, go in a group.”

“I don’t care.”

“What?”

“I said okay, I’ll go in a group.”

“Be home by ten o’clock.”

“Mother! It’s Halloween and tomorrow is Saturday!”

“All right, then. Eleven.”

When he finally got out the door, he broke into a run. The evening air felt good after the stuffy house and smelled good, like leaves and burning candle wax. It wasn’t all the way dark yet, but trick-or-treaters were everywhere, mostly little kids accompanied by their mothers.

He met his friends at the corner by the park. Eric was a skeleton, Stan a hobo, and Squeamy the Lone Ranger. Squeamy’s sister, Oda May, stood apart from the others, smoking a cigarette and looked bored. She carried a rubber-and-fur gorilla mask loosely in her hand like a rag.

“What’s Oda May doing here?” Buster asked.

“My mother wouldn’t let me go out without an adult,” Squeamy said.

“She’s fifteen!”

“I guess that’s enough of an adult.”

“Let’s get going, you losers,” Stan said, “before all the good candy is gone!”

Oda May flipped away her cigarette and put on the gorilla mask and they headed for the neighborhood on the other side of the park where all the best houses were.

It was a lucrative neighborhood. Three-quarters of the houses had their porch lights on. When people took one look at adult-sized Oda May in her gorilla mask, their smiles usually faded.

The treats were good, Hershey bars and popcorn balls instead of stale jelly beans. After three blocks, their bags were starting to get heavy. They sat down on the curb to rest for a while.

“That’s how it’s done,” Oda May said, hefting the bag of candy appreciatively between her legs. “If they’re just a little bit scared of you, they’ll fork over the candy quick enough so they can get rid of you.” She lit a cigarette without taking off the gorilla mask.

“Where to now?” Buster asked.

“I don’t know about you little turds,” Oda May said, “but I’m going to go meet my boyfriend.”

“What about us?” Stan asked.

“You’re on your own. I’ve played nursemaid long enough.”

“It’s all right,” Squeamy said. “We don’t need her.”

“And don’t follow me,” she said, “or somebody’s gonna lose some teeth!”

“Leave the mask on!” Squeamy called after her. “Your boyfriend might like you better that way!”

“What will she do with all that candy?” Buster asked.

“Probably give it to her boyfriend.”

“Who is this boyfriend, anyway?” Eric asked. “Why don’t we get to meet him?”

“He’s a criminal, I think,” Squeamy said. “She doesn’t want me to see him because she’s afraid I’ll tell on her. He’s twenty-three years old. I’ll bet he’s really terrible looking, like a convict.”

“I’d like to see him,” Stan said.

“Hey, I stole some of her cigarettes when she wasn’t looking,” Squeamy said, passing them around and lighting them.

“Boy, I like smoking!” Eric said. “I inhale the smoke deep down into my lungs and let it stay there.”

“Me too,” Stan said. “I’m always going to smoke for as long as I live.”

“My mother told me if she ever caught me smoking a cigarette she’d knock it down my throat,” Squeamy said.

“Doesn’t she smoke?” Eric asked.

“Of course she does. They all smoke.”

“Then why does she care?”

“Because I’m in fifth grade.”

“She’s a hypocrite,” Stan said.

Buster had never smoked before except for a quick puff off his mother’s cigarette when she wasn’t looking. He didn’t like the taste of it, but he wasn’t going to be the only one not to smoke.

Several times, he took the smoke into his mouth and quickly blew it out again. He wanted to have the others see him with smoke coming out his nose like a dragon, but he wasn’t sure how to do it without inhaling.

“Don’t you like smoking, Buster?” Squeamy asked.

“Yeah, I like it all right. I smoke all the time when my mother isn’t looking.”

“Well, finish your cigarettes, ladies,” Eric said. “We’ve still got a lot of territory to cover.”

They went over a couple of blocks to another neighborhood where the treats were bound to be good. They covered several blocks, both sides of the street, in just under an hour.

“My bag is getting really heavy,” Squeamy said. “I think I’d probably better go on home now.”

“Somebody gave me a guitar pick as a treat. Isn’t that weird?”

“Hey, it looks like it’s going to rain! If our bags get wet, they’ll bust through on the bottom and all our candy will spill out!”

“What time is it?”

“I think it’s about a quarter to ten.”

“I think we should call it a night.”

Some older kids, sixteen and seventeen, came up behind them with the intention of stealing their candy, so they began running furiously into the dark to get away from them. Stan knew the neighborhood better than the others, so they all followed him.

He led them around in a circuitous loop over to Main Street, where there were lots of lots of lights, people and cars.

“I think we outran them!” he said.

“Can you imagine the nerve?” Eric said. “We’ve been out all night trick-or-treating for our candy, and somebody thinks they can just come along and take it from us? What is the world coming to?”

Some of the businesses on Main Street were giving out treats. A lady at a bakery gave them day-old pumpkin cookies, which they devoured like hungry wolves.

A man standing in front of a tavern was giving out treats from a large plastic pumpkin. “You kids need to be home in bed,” he said.

“If we come inside, will you give us a beer?” Stan asked.

“Come back in ten years,” the man said.

There was a big crowd at the Regal Theatre, a long line of people waiting to buy tickets to the Halloween double feature: Bride of the Gorilla and The Terror of Tiny Town. Anybody in costume could get in for half-price.

“If we had enough money, we could go,” Stan said.

“Aw, I can’t stay out that late,” Buster said. “My mother would come looking for me.”

They were about to walk past the theatre, but Squeamy spotted Oda May in the ticket line in the gorilla mask and stopped. She wasn’t alone, either.

“She’s with a little kid and he’s a cowboy!” Squeamy said. “Her boyfriend is a child and a cowboy! That’s why she didn’t want us to meet him!”

From where they were standing, they all had a good look at the little cowboy. When he turned around to look at the line behind him, Buster saw his face. “That’s no little kid,” he said. “That’s a midget!”

“A what?”

“Oda May’s boyfriend is a midget and his face is all wrinkled! He must be thirty years old!”

“Oh, boy!” Squeamy said. “I’m really going to tell on her now!”

“I think we should go over and say ‘hi’ to her,” Eric said.

“No!” Squeamy said. “She’ll think we’ve been following her!”

They stood and watched Oda May and the midget cowboy move up in the line. When it was their turn, Oda May moved around behind the midget, put her hands on his waist and lifted him up so he could buy the tickets and then set him down again. Several people in line behind them laughed, but they seemed not to notice.

“Now I’m seen everything!” Squeamy said. “Can you imagine what their children will be like? I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Let’s go,” Stan said. “It’s ten o’clock and it’s starting to rain again.”

They decided to walk home with Stan, since he lived the closest. The interesting thing about Stan was that his father was an undertaker and the family lived above the funeral parlor. It was a subject of endless fascination to Stan’s friends.

“I think I’m going to call it a night,” Stan said when they were at the corner near his house. “Thanks for walking me home.”

“Do you mean you’re not going to ask us in after we’ve come all this way?” Squeamy said.

“Do you have a body in a casket we can look at?” Eric asked.

“Stan’s right,” Buster said. “I should be getting home, too.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Squeamy said. “I don’t think I can wait until I get home.”

“Oh, all right!” Stan said. “You can come in but you have to wipe your feet first.”

Stan’s parents were out for the evening, so they had the place to themselves. Stan took them down to the basement to show them around but made them promise not to touch anything. First he showed them the room where the embalming was done with its white cabinets full of jars and bottles and then a separate room where bodies were dressed and prepared for burial. The most impressive part of the tour was the casket room, where more than fifty caskets were opened up so people could see inside them. Eric, Buster and Squeamy took turns taking off their shoes and getting into a casket to see what it felt like, while Stan closed the lid on each of them for a few seconds and then made them get out.

“My dad wouldn’t like it if he knew we were down here,” he said.

“Let us know when there’s a body so we can come back and see it,” Eric said.

“I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. It’s people you don’t know. You don’t feel anything looking at them.”

“You are so lucky! I’ve never seen a dead body!”

“I need to get home,” Buster said. “It’s getting late.”

Buster walked part of the way home with Squeamy and Eric, but they left him at the corner by the church and he had to walk the last four blocks alone. He held his bag of candy in his arms because it was heavy and soggy and he didn’t want the bottom breaking through. He didn’t see a single other person on his way home. Everybody was finished for the night. Halloween was over for another year.

Mother was sitting on the couch in her bathrobe and slippers watching a Charlie Chan movie on TV. “Did you have a nice time?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was okay.”

“I’m glad you’re home.”

“Why?

“I always worry about you when you’re out by yourself.”

“I wasn’t by myself.”

“There’s an escapee on the loose killing people. I just heard it on TV.”

“We just missed him.”

“Now don’t eat all that candy at once. You’ll make yourself sick. You still have to eat your fruits and vegetables.”

“I know. I want to go to bed now. I’m tired.”

She was saying something else as he went up the stairs, but he didn’t hear what it was.

He weighed himself on the bathroom scale, first without the bag and then with it. He weighed eighty-four pounds without the bag and ninety-five pounds with it. Eleven pounds of candy. One pound for every year of his life.

He undressed and put on his pajamas and set the bag of candy on top of the chest of drawers where he could see it from the bed. He got into bed, took one last look at it, turned off the light. Before he could have counted to ten, he was asleep.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Haunted Cigarette ~ A Short Story

The Haunted Cigarette image 4
The Haunted Cigarette
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~  

Constanza was confused when she woke up. She couldn’t remember anything that happened the day or the night before. She looked over at the clock and seeing that it had stopped and not knowing the time only added to her confusion. She sat up in the bed and pulled a pillow up behind her so that it was between her back and the headboard and smoked a cigarette and then she remembered the reason for her confusion. She had been sick, she had had a high fever, and the doctor gave her some pills to help make her sleep.

She got out of the bed and slipped into her bathrobe and went into the kitchen. She was glad to see that her husband had gone to the store and bought groceries. He was always good to help out with the housework whenever she wasn’t feeling well. There were milk and oranges in the refrigerator and a loaf of bread on the counter and plenty of cigarettes. She made some coffee and sat down at the table and smoked another cigarette and looked out the window at the gray, hazy sky and waited for the coffee to brew.

She drank half a cup of the coffee and took a few bites of a piece of toast, but she had no appetite and she soon went back into the bedroom and lay down again on the bed. She had a terrible headache and a searing pain in her throat and chest. She took another of her pills and pulled a pillow lightly over her face; in a little while she was able to stop thinking about how bad she felt and she fell again into a very deep sleep.

The next time she awoke, the room was dark. She had slept throughout the entire day and it was night again. She got out of bed and turned on the lights and went into the kitchen, expecting her husband to be there, but he was nowhere in the apartment. She looked at the kitchen clock and saw that it had stopped at exactly two-ten, the same time that the clock in the bedroom had stopped. She thought the pills must be playing tricks on her mind.

Her husband would surely be coming home soon. She felt bad that she kept missing him and hadn’t seen him for what seemed like days, but she couldn’t be sure how long it had been because she had been sleeping so much from the pills. He had been coming home and then leaving again, not wanting to disturb her; that much was obvious. His coffee cup was in a different place, he had left a plate in the sink to be washed, and a jacket he always wore had been taken out of the closet and draped over the back of a chair. She was comforted by these little signs of his presence.

She would sit up and stay awake and wait for him to come home and then she would fix him some dinner and they would talk. He would laugh when she told him she had slept the whole day through and had lost all track of time. He would tell her about things that had been happening to him at work and then she would feel better.

Being awake and alert when he came home suddenly seemed very important to her. She turned on the radio for some company, turning the dial until she found a station that was playing some soothing music, and then she picked up a magazine and sat down on the couch and began looking through it. She smoked a cigarette and then another one. She read a story in the magazine to make herself stay alert, but before she finished the story she was overwhelmed again with drowsiness. She lay full-length on the couch and let her magazine fall to the floor. She would just take a little nap. When her husband came in the door, that would wake her up and he need never know she had been asleep again.

When she awoke it was the next morning and voices on the radio startled her; she thought there were strangers in the room with her. She stood up from the couch rather shakily and turned off the radio and then, thinking that her husband must still be asleep, she went into the bedroom, expecting him to be in the bed, but he wasn’t there. She went into the kitchen, hoping to see him sitting at the table looking through the morning paper, but he wasn’t there, either. He had made some coffee, though. Or had he? When she realized the coffee was cold, she thought maybe it was the coffee she had made the day before, but she couldn’t be sure.

She dressed and had a bite of breakfast and then she took another of her pills. She lit a cigarette and tried calling the doctor to tell him how the pills were making her feel and to ask him whether or not she should keep taking them, but there was no answer; she thought maybe it was Sunday and his office was closed.

She made the bed and washed the dishes and cleaned up the apartment a little until she became tired. She was still not over being sick and her stamina was not what it should be. She lay down on the bed in her clothes and soon she went to sleep.

Then it was night again and she was awakened by a clamor on the street in front of the building. There were excited voices and a sound like bells ringing and a roar that she couldn’t identify. She got up and ran to the window to see what was going on, but there was nothing out of the ordinary happening in front of the building. The stoplight at the intersection turned from red to green and back to red again serenely, with no cars in sight. She thought she must surely have been dreaming the sounds.

In this way several days passed. She continued to take the pills. She slept and woke and then slept again. Time had lost its meaning for her; it seemed fragmented instead of continuous. A day might seem like a minute or a minute an hour. Days and nights were jumbled together. Every time she woke, she expected her husband to be nearby, but he was never there. She wasn’t sure why she kept missing him, but she felt certain he had been there and had left again.

At times she was awakened by a popping sound and the sound of screaming and running somewhere in the building, but she could never be sure if these sounds were real or if they were happening only inside her head. When she heard these sounds, her heart beat rapidly and she went to the door and opened it and stepped out into the hallway, but by then the sounds would cease and the hallway would be quiet. At other times she believed she smelled smoke but when she investigated she wasn’t able to find any source of smoke. Sometimes she would wake with a sensation of heat all over her body, but it went away just as soon as she became aware of it.

Most disturbing of all, though, were the sounds coming from the street. Every night at what seemed exactly the same time she heard the bells and the roaring and the loud voices, and every time she went to the window and looked out, all was quiet. She concluded that the only explanation was that she was going insane.

She hadn’t been out of the apartment for days; she couldn’t remember how long it had been since she had dressed and gone out. Maybe being out in the fresh air would make her feel better, she thought. Just the idea of being someplace other than the apartment cheered her up.

She cleaned herself up and put on her clothes and combed her hair and put on some lipstick. After she put on her shoes, she was ready to go. She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway and locked the door behind her and went down the stairs to the street.

The sunlight hurt her eyes and the traffic noise made her head ache. People she saw seemed indistinct, as though they were out of focus. When she was standing on a corner waiting to cross the street, a couple of women jostled her rudely and knocked her off-balance.

Six blocks away was a little park that she and her husband often walked to on hot summer nights. She made her way to the park and, finding it nearly deserted, found a place to sit on a bench facing a small duck pond. Out in the middle of the pond were two lone ducks swimming side by side. She watched the ducks for a while and then she looked disinterestedly at the sky and at the trees off in the distance and at the few people who passed.

Near the bench on which she sat was a trashcan in which somebody had discarded a newspaper. In startling print, the newspaper proclaimed to the world: Eight Die in Apartment Blaze. She might easily have seen it, but she didn’t. It would have explained so much to her.

The fire department was summoned to the Grove Apartments on June the twenty-first at two-ten in the morning. She and seven other people, including three children, perished in the blaze. Her husband made it out of the building alive; that’s why she was never able to find him. The building was destroyed. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

She was the first to die before the fire spread to the rest of the building. Her husband had warned her repeatedly about not smoking in bed. The pills she took made her do things she would not ordinarily have done.

She would continue to exist in the in-between world of darkness and confusion. Every day and every night she would relive bits of what happened the night of the fire—the shouts, the commotion in the street in front of the building, the panicked footsteps, the smoke stealing her breath and, finally, the searing heat and flames enveloping her.

In time, though, she would pay her penance, if penance is what it was, and the night of the fire would be wiped from her memory. She would remember nothing, only that she had died and passed on to a different kind of existence.

Copyright 2022 by Allen Kopp

Haunt ~ A Short Story

Haunt
Haunt
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

A spirit needs a house to haunt. I’ve haunted a church, a theatre, a department store and a graveyard, but there’s nothing like a house. A house is where people have lived. Where things have happened. Where tears have been shed. Where people have been born and people have died. A spirit can feel all of it and more.

After looking at thirty or forty houses, I found one I liked. It was large, with many rooms, three floors, built in the old style. It was abandoned, in an advanced state of neglect, but still plenty sturdy. The cellar was like a dungeon with chains hanging from the beams. Behind the house was an old cemetery. All in all, the house had much to recommend it.

As a spirit, all I needed to do to claim a house as my own was to move in and take possession. If anybody else was haunting it, all I had to do was kick them out.

I soon discovered other spirits in residence. There was a woman who committed suicide every night at midnight, with piercing shrieks, by hanging herself from the upstairs banister. I don’t know why she did it every night since she was already dead, but I suppose she enjoyed the drama. One night, just before midnight, I grabbed her by the throat and threw her out of the house. She didn’t see me, not knowing of the existence of other spirits, and didn’t know what had happened to her. She wandered around on the outside of the house, not knowing how to get back in. Finally she flew up into the trees, and as far as I know she’s still there.

Then I found an eight-year-old female spirit haunting the attic. When she was alive, her cruel mother locked her in the attic with the mice and spiders to punish her. She was deathly afraid of the dark. While locked in the attic and unable to free herself, her mother was stabbed to death in a quarrel with her young lover. The girl never knew what happened to her mother. She starved to death, waiting for her dinner.

The girl in the attic wasn’t as annoying as the woman who hanged herself every night. I didn’t know what to do about her. I didn’t think it was right to just throw her out. I opened the attic door so she could come out if she wanted to, but she stayed where she was. She had been in the attic so long it was all she knew.

The spirit of a very old man haunted the cellar. He owned the house when he was alive. After he died, he didn’t want anybody else living in the house. He rattled chains and moaned at night to try to keep anybody away, living or dead. He didn’t scare anybody except maybe himself. He was the kind of spirit other spirits laughed at.

There were two boys, twins, who haunted the whole house but most especially the upstairs rooms. They had both died there of scarlet fever. They didn’t know yet that they were dead, even though it had been over a hundred years. They were constantly playing tricks, trying to scare each other. I heard them laughing all the time. Anytime they saw me, they ran as if we were playing a game. I wanted to grab one of them in each hand and throw them out of the house.

I was an old spirit; I had been in the spirit world for eighty years or more. I had seen everything and done everything a spirit could do. Now I longed for the quiet, pastoral life, and I didn’t want a lot of other spirits around me. I came to this house hoping to escape the clamor of the spirit world, hoping to be alone.

At night when I tried to rest instead of haunt, I could hear the old spirit in the cellar kicking up a fuss. He knew there were other spirits in the house besides himself and he wanted to scare them away. He thought the louder he became, the scarier he would be. He didn’t scare me, though. He did annoy me, however, and I wanted him gone.

Through most of the night, I could hear the twins laughing and running up and down the stairs. I wondered why they never slept. Then I realized they slept during the daylight hours. That would be the best time to catch them and run them out of the house, but first I’d have to find out where they slept. Even though they were children, they had been in the spirit world longer than I had and they knew all the ways to protect themselves.

Then I started finding dead, rotting bodies all over the house. Some were only skeletons and others still wore part of their human bodies. All were long dead. I knew right away they were from the graveyard behind the house. Many of them still wore remnants of the fine clothes they had been buried in: men in white-tie-and-tails and women in ball gowns or wedding dresses. Oh, what a world!

First there were one or two bodies and then eight or ten and then dozens and then hundreds. Finally they filled the downstairs parlor from floor to ceiling. I was past the point of pretending they weren’t there. Even though I was a spirit myself, I didn’t like dead bodies. They were part of the physical world that I left behind long ago. A rotting body was an affront to me. Hundreds of rotting bodies were an abomination!

After two or three days of observation, I discovered the twins sleeping during the daylight hours in a barely noticeable niche in the wall of their bedroom. I stormed in on them, waking them from a stupor, and was able to grab each of them by the neck. Before they knew what was happening, I clapped their heads together like cymbals. While they were stunned and nearly immobile, I threw them out of the house.

While I was brushing my hands off and congratulating myself on a job well done, I realized somebody was standing on the stairs looking at me. It was the little starveling girl from the attic. Her face was a glowing white and her eyes completely engulfed in black circles. She surprised me by speaking.

“It wasn’t them,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“They weren’t the ones who brought the bodies from the graveyard into the house.”

“Who was it, then?”

She mimed hanging herself, and I knew right away what she meant.

Every night there were more bodies in the downstairs rooms. I could hardly go into any of these rooms without becoming ill. I had seen many vile things during my existence, but now I had seen the worst.

I waited until the middle of the night, three hours past midnight and three hours before sunup. I went quietly downstairs at this unholy hour and, standing on the stairs about halfway down, I saw her come in from outside, dragging her burden of dead bodies, as many as she could manage at one time. It was the hanging woman. I wanted to throttle her. I wanted to finish her off. I wanted to make sure she was gone for good and would never come back.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” I said, although it was obvious.

“It’s you!” she said. “What do I have to do to get you to leave my house?”

“Leave it yourself! It’s my house now! And make sure you clean up this mess before you go!”

She came at me then, teeth bared, but I was able to sidestep her. She hit her head on the banister with a crack that split the wood, but, without missing a beat, she got up and came at me again. Again I sidestepped her.

“You’re wasting your time!” I said. “I’m younger than you, stronger and smarter. You’re just a worn-out old hag of a spook. I think you were in your prime about the time of the Revolutionary War!”

“I’ll show you!” she said.

She hurled an unexpected fireball at me. I hadn’t counted on her being a witch, in addition to everything else.

The fireball was directed at my face and chest, but I was able to get out of the way just in time. It hit the wall behind me and set fire to it.

“You’re going to have to do better than that!” I said.

Next came a barrage of fireballs, more fireballs than I could count. Soon the wall and stairway behind me were a wall of fire. With her out-of-control emotions, she had set fire to the entire house in just a few seconds. All I could do was get out.

“Now look what you’ve done, you horrible old witch!” I said as I ran past her for the front door. “Now it’s nobody’s house!”

I went out to the road and watched the house as it burned all the way down to the foundation. I figured the hanging woman burned up in the house because I didn’t see her come out. Nobody can blame that one on me.

I stayed and haunted the cemetery for a few days, not knowing what else to do. Then I went to the city again and took up residence in a waterfront hotel. I had some friends there that I had known before. It was a good time for me.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Men With Red Hair ~ A Short Story

Men With Red Hair image 1
Men With Red Hair
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

Gerta Fain awoke at nine o’clock with the sunlight streaming through the window and the birds singing their happy song. She rolled out of bed feeling good for a reason that for the moment escaped her and then it came to her: her mother was gone for the day and she had the house to herself. She had always liked being alone and it was going to be a good day. She would roll up her hair, paint her nails and bake an angel food cake. While she was doing these things she could listen to her music on the radio and watch soap operas on television and there would be no one to complain.

She went downstairs to the kitchen and was scouting around in the refrigerator for something to eat for breakfast when she saw a man in the back yard, painting the old garage. Her mother didn’t tell her she had engaged someone to paint the garage; it must have slipped her mind.

From the kitchen window she could see him quite well. He was about thirty-five, slender, dressed in white painter overalls. The best thing about him, though, was that he had red hair that glinted in the sun. She never knew a person with red hair that she didn’t like.

Wearing only her thin pajamas and no shoes, Gerta went out the back door and down the porch steps. “Hey, you!” she said as she approached him. “I saw you out the window of my kitchen! Here I was thinking I was all alone and then I look out the window and see you!”

“Yes, ma’am!” he said. “I’ll be finished up here before you know it!”

“This garage belongs to us. It’s an old rickety thing, isn’t it? There’s hornets’ nests inside there. I’d watch out if I was you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It must have been my mother you talked to, but she didn’t tell me you were coming today. She’s gone today, though. All day. I have the house to myself and I can do whatever I want. I like it when she’s gone.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I sure do like your red hair! As soon as I saw you out the window, I noticed it. I bet you get a lot of compliments on your hair.”

“Not until now.”

“You don’t see that many men with red hair. I had a cousin with red hair, but he was shot and killed.”

“Oh?”

“You’ll be here today and tomorrow?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s only two days. Where will you be after that?”

“I don’t know. Another painting job somewhere else.”

“Do you like being a painter?”

“Better than some things.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before,” Gerta said. “Are you new in town?”

“I’ve only been here seventeen years.”

“If you do a good job on the garage, maybe my mother will have you paint the whole house.”

He looked up the slope of the yard to the house. “It’s a big house,” he said.

“Yeah, we’ve got nine rooms. I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

“Just you and your mother?”

“That’s right. I don’t have a husband. I’ve never been married. I’ll probably get married someday, but for now I like being single. You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?”

“Don’t smoke.”

“Well, I’m not supposed to smoke, either, but I do it anyway when my mother isn’t around. It’s not as if I’m a child or anything, but she doesn’t like smoking and gets awfully mad about it sometimes.”

“Well, I’d like to stand around and talk all day,” he said, “but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover in two days.”

“Oh, don’t mind me! I certainly don’t want to keep you from your work!”

“No, ma’am.”

“Would you like a drink of water? It must be awfully hot working out here in the sun.”

“I usually don’t take a drink until I’m finished working,” he said.

“Don’t you ever take a break?”

“No time to waste. Always in a hurry, I guess.”

“Oh, if it was me, I’d take a lot of breaks!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I don’t have a job,” Gerta said. “I had a job once but it was just temporary. I was a phantom shopper. Do you know what a phantom shopper is?”

“No, ma’am.”

“It’s sort of a department store spy. If they catch you spying, they’ll break both your legs. Another time I worked for a cleaning service, but I had to quit that job because the chemicals we used to clean with made me break out all over. The doctor said I had an allergic reaction. Have you been painting garages long?”

“About seven years. Seems like a lot longer.”

“Are you planning on doing that all the rest of your life?”

“No, when something better comes along, I’ll take it.”

“One of these days I’ll get me a job that lasts,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind doing what you do, but I guess there aren’t many women that do that, are there?”

“I haven’t known of any.”

“I think I’d like a job on TV,” she said. “I’d either like to be an actress on one of those soap operas or a news reporter. I could stand up in front of a map on the television screen and talk to people about what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. If they won’t let me do that, then I’d like to work behind a counter in a department store or as a supermarket checker. I’d be good at that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I was going to go back inside the house, but it feels so good being out here in the sunlight and the air that I think I’ll just stay out here for a while.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She sat down on the ground and put her knees up, forgetting for the moment that she was wearing only thin pajamas with nothing on underneath. She didn’t mind that the ground was a little bit soggy. She put her feet together and her hands on her ankles.

After a couple minutes of silence, she said, “Did I tell you that my mother is gone for the day? I like it when she’s gone. My father died a long time ago. He worked as a foreman in a factory and one day he just fell over dead. I think he was lucky in that respect. He had an easy death. I’d like to have an easy death, wouldn’t you?  Do you mind if I ask you whether or not you have a girlfriend?”

“No, I don’t have a girlfriend,” he said, “but since the two of us don’t know each other at all, don’t you think it’s better not to ask personal questions?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like to know about people, is all. Some people call it friendly and others call it nosy.”

“It’s all right. It’s just that I don’t have any time for talking.”

“I understand and I apologize.”

“No need.”

“You make me tired just by watching you,” Gerta said. “I guess I’m not much for working. My mother says I’m lazy. Well, if I’m lazy, she’s lazy too. She doesn’t do any more work than I do. I do all the housework and most of the laundry and most of the cooking. I like to cook, though, when my mother isn’t standing over me. She calls me an idiot and a dumbbell when I don’t do things the way she likes them. Is your mother dead?”

“No, but she lives far away and I never see her.”

“Families are funny things.”

“Yes, they are.”

“I prefer friends over family, but I don’t have that many friends, either. Sad to say. When I was in high school I had friends but that’s been years ago. The friends I had then have all drifted away. Some of them got married and some moved away. One or two of them are even in jail.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t like to be in jail, would you?”

“No, ma’am.”

“If they were going to lock me up for thirty years for a crime I committed, I think I would just prefer the death penalty, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“They just do the lethal injection thing now. I hear about it all the time on television. It probably doesn’t even hurt. I’m pretty sure it’s a painless death. They used to hang people by the neck or put them in front of a firing squad, but they had to stop doing that. People were complaining.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a little break for a while? Aren’t you tired.”

“No, I’m not tired.”

“You must be hungry. Would you like a sandwich or something? You can come into the kitchen and sit at the table and I’ll fix you a baloney and cheese sandwich.”

“No, thanks. I’m not hungry and I’m not tired.”

“Well, if you want to take a break, let me know.”

“I will.”

“I know I’ve just about talked you to death. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I don’t usually talk so much. You just seem like a sympathetic person that I can talk to.”

“People don’t usually notice me when I’m working.” he said. “They don’t even see me. They’re only interested in the finished job. They never think about the person doing the work.”

“Well, isn’t that just typical? Tomorrow you can meet my mother. And I promise I won’t talk so much.”

“That’s all right, ma’am.”

“You’re a real gentleman. You don’t meet many of those, anymore. I’ll go back inside now and leave you to your work. Before I go, though, I wonder if I could ask you one tiny favor?”

“What is it?”

“I have this old trunk upstairs in my bedroom. The lock is busted; the key won’t turn. There are some important papers in it that I need to get out. I’ve had a feeling ever since I first saw you that you would know how to get it opened, but I hated to ask.”

“Can you bring the trunk out here?”

“No, it’s too heavy.”

“Well, all right. I guess I can take a couple of minutes and go upstairs and take a look.”

Gerta took him into the house, through the kitchen, into the dining room, and down the hallway to the stairs. She held onto the banister as she went up ahead of him, wondering what he must be thinking.

When she came to the door of her bedroom, she paused for a moment for him to catch up. Then she opened the door and took him inside.

She was aware of how messy the room was. She hadn’t even made the bed. He’d think she had the manners of a pig.

The trunk was on the other side of the bed, beneath the window. She had to move some clothes and old blankets out of the way for him to get to it.

He knelt down. After a thorough examination of the lock, he asked her for a hammer and a screwdriver and when she produced them, he inserted the screwdriver into the lock and tapped lightly with the hammer until the lock opened.

She squealed and clapped her hands together with genuine delight. “I knew you could do it!” she said.

“It’s an old lock,” he said. “Needs some oil.”

“I want to give you something,” she said.

“Oh, no! It’s not necessary!”

“I don’t have any money, but I want to give you something!”

She opened the dresser drawer and rummaged around inside until she found a Fourth of July lapel pin that she had since she was eleven. It showed an American flag on a background of exploding shells.

“This isn’t much,” she said, “but it will help you remember that you did a good deed for a stranger and asked nothing in return.”

He stood still while she came very close and attached the pin to the front of his shirt.

“This isn’t necessary,” he said.

After she pinned the lapel pin to his shirt, they continued to stand very close to each other for a few seconds too long. Then he stepped away from her and they both realized at that moment that they weren’t alone in the room.

Gerta’s mother had returned earlier than expected. She stood in the doorway, hand on knob, glaring at Gerta and the painter.

“What’s going on here?” her mother asked. “Who is this man?”

“He’s nobody,” Gerta said. “He’s the man painting the garage.”

“What’s he doing in your bedroom?”

“We were talking and I asked him if he would take a look at the lock on my trunk.”

“Since when was there anything wrong with the lock on your trunk? That was just an excuse to get him up here, wasn’t it?”

“No!”

“I’ll go,” he said.

“That’s right! You go! And if you ever come messing around my daughter again, I’ll have you arrested!”

She stood aside to let him pass. As he was going down the stairs, she called out after him, “And I’m going to have you fired for this! Don’t think I won’t!”

“You have to ruin everything, don’t you?” Gerta said.

“So I was right! You were about to take him to bed!”

“Of course not! I was going to give him something out of my dresser drawer.”

“Give him what?”

“None of your business!”

She tried to go out of the room but her mother grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back and started slapping her. When she put her arms up to fend off the blows, her mother stripped off her pajamas with a wrenching pull and knocked her to the floor.

“Just what I thought!” her mother screamed. “You’re a cheap whore! You’re trash through and through! I can’t leave you alone for just a few hours! You should be locked up!”

“I didn’t do anything!”

She tried to stand up, but her mother kept slapping and kicking her so that after a while she just lay still and didn’t offer any resistance.

When she awoke she was on the floor and it was after two in the morning. Her head hurt terribly and her wrist, she was sure, was broken. She felt too sick and demoralized to stand upright.

Then she thought of him and it all came back. He came to paint the garage. He had the prettiest red hair she ever saw. They started talking, except that she did most of the talking. He listened politely but she knew, deep down, that he wanted her to go away and stop bothering him. She persuaded him to go upstairs with her to take a look at a lock on her trunk. Her mother came back at that moment and found them alone together in the bedroom, but they weren’t doing anything. Nothing at all. It was all so innocent. Her mother, of course, would make it out to be infinitely worse than it was, like two pigs rutting in the mud.

They’d get somebody else to finish the garage. She’d never see him again. She hadn’t even thought to ask him his name. All she knew about him was that he painted garages and had red hair. It wasn’t much to go on.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp