Standing at the Gate of Heaven

Standing at the Gate of Heaven ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Harry Hawkins had not lived an exemplary life. He was frequently harsh and impatient with his wife and children, with the result that his wife was afraid of him and his two sons grew up hating him. He despised his wife’s mother and her other family members and was jealous of his wife’s devotion to them. He was intolerant of anybody whose political or religious views were different from his own. He complained and found fault with everything and everybody, nearly every minute of every day. In short, he was a joyless man who led a joyless life.

In the last few years of his life, with his health deteriorating, he was afraid of dying and going to hell. Believing that religion might save him, he joined a splinter religious group and believed everything that representatives of the group (essentially salesmen) told him. He was promised a place in heaven by these godless know-nothings, if only he would do as they told him to do for as long as he lived. Since he lived in a fine house and seemed to have enough money, they persuaded him the best thing was for him to donate, every month, a certain percentage of his income to the church. This he readily agreed to do, surprising his wife, his sons and anybody who knew of his parsimonious nature—he had always been known how to pinch a penny until it cried for mercy.

Every month at the first of the month he sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a sizeable check (enough to support an ordinary family of four) to the church. He believed he was “storing up treasure in heaven.” (What the church did with the money was not known, but the church fathers were known for their penchant for little jaunts to Mexico.)

He attended every church service and was always on call when somebody from the church needed a service he might perform, such as a ride to the doctor or a few dollars for medicine or to pay the light bill. If a special kind of cake was needed for a church dinner, he didn’t mind going to the bakery and buying an elaborate and expensive cake made to order, which he paid for out of his own pocket. He never complained, never balked at anything the church asked him to do. If, however, his wife or one of his sons asked him to do something for them, he was always too tired or was running a fever and needed to be in bed.

For the first time in Harry Hawkins’ life, he was beloved. He wanted to love back, but he didn’t know how. It didn’t matter that he didn’t love, though; he was doing more than enough to get what he wanted.

Harry Hawkins suffered a heart attack and then another and then another. After he was discharged from the hospital and feeling much better, the church fathers paid him a call. He had never let them down. He had proven himself to them time after time. He might always be relied upon. They had decided to go one step farther and make him one of them. There was a special (secret) ordination ceremony in which he re-affirmed his unshakeable belief in the teachings of the church. After the ceremony was over, he believed he had done everything he needed to do. He would certainly be admitted into heaven. Easily.

After a few more months of precarious life, he succumbed to his various afflictions while a patient in the hospital. After a period of darkness (let’s say three days), he found himself standing outside the gate of heaven. He waited patiently with a forbearing smile for someone to come and let him in. From what he could see from where he stood, heaven was everything he expected: golden light, feathery clouds, celestial music.

Finally the gate keeper came out of hiding and peered at him through the golden bars of the gate.

“How may I help you?” the gate keeper said with a hint of impatience.

“Are you going to let me in?” Harry Hawkins asked.

“Are you sure you’re in the right place?”

“Of course, I’m in the right place! Open the gate and let me in!”

“People are sometimes misdirected, you see.”

“Well, I’m not!”

“How do you come to be here?”

“I died and then I came here. End of story. What more do you need to know?”

“Where is your spirit guide? Did he bring you here?”

“I don’t have a spirit guide! I don’t even know what a spirit guide is.”

“You shouldn’t have come here without being directed by your spirit guide.”

“Listen! Who are you anyway?”

“I’m the gate keeper.”

“I want to speak to your superior!”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to talk to me.”

“This is heaven, isn’t it? You have no right to tell me I can’t come in! You’re just a nobody!”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but I believe you’ve been misdirected. We’re expecting no new arrivals at this time.”

“If I could reach you through these bars, you ass, I’d push your face in! Open these doors right now and let me in!”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not supposed to be here, sir. You’ve been misdirected.”

Harry started stammering and was about to cry. “Now, listen, fella! I know you’re a right guy and I know I’m in the right place. I’ve known for years that I would go to heaven when I died. I was promised a place in heaven.”

“Who promised you?”

“Some very important people in my church, that’s who!”

“Oh, I think I’m beginning to understand! Was this promise somehow based on lucre?”

“What does lucre mean? You need to speak English here!”

“Was money involved? Were you promised a place in heaven depending on how much money you gave to the church?”

Bingo! You’re not as dumb as you look, Jocko! You are absolutely correct! I gave mucho money to the church over the years! Look it up!”

“I don’t wish to be rude to you, sir, but you’re not supposed to be here. You’ve been misdirected.”

Harry covered his face with his hands and began crying. When he was able to speak again, he said, “So, what am I supposed to do, then? Am I supposed to stand here by this goddamn gate like a crazy person throughout all eternity?”

“No, sir. You don’t have to do that,” the gate keeper said. “Your bus will be along shortly.”

“Bus? You have buses here?”

“Yes, a bus will come along in a little while. All you need to do is get on the bus and it will take you where you belong.”

“Another part of heaven? Is that where the bus will take me?”

“Just get on the bus.”

Harry opened his mouth to ask another question, but the gate keeper was gone.

He wiped away his tears and composed himself, gratified at what the gate keeper had said. A bus would be along to take him where he needed to go. Another part of heaven, no doubt. What else could it be?

In a little while, an enormous bus parted the clouds and came roaring to a stop in front of the gate. With a smile and without a moment’s hesitation, he got on the bus, ready to be kind to everybody.

The other people on the bus were faceless nonentities, but he didn’t care. He didn’t feel like talking to anybody, anyway. He took a seat about halfway back and continued to smile, happy that his problems were over.

From where he sat, though, he could see the face of the driver in the mirror above the driver’s head. The driver, who seemed to be the only person on the bus with a face, was looking at him, watching him, in the mirror. The bus swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and he was thrown a little off-balance. He caught himself on the back of the seat in front of him, and when he again looked at the driver’s face in the mirror he knew he had seen those eyes before: they were the eyes of his own father.

His father was a difficult and unlikeable man, dead for thirty years. It all came back to him, then: how he hated that man when he was growing up;  how that man belittled him, called him names, and how he made him feel he was less than nothing.

He wasn’t looking only at his father, though. He was looking at himself, seeing himself, for the first time, as he really was.

“How cruel is life!” he said. “I never wanted to be like him! It wasn’t my fault!”

But the other passengers on the bus paid no attention. They all had problems of their own.

A sudden rain storm came up and the bus trundled on.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

The House He Lived In

The House He Lived In ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Sid Bone was small for his age. He was the boy in school with the funny clothes: the pants too big and the sweater too small, the shoe with the flapping sole and the holes in his socks. His classmates never invited him to any of their parties because he wasn’t the party type and, anyway, he had a funny smell.

Sid Bone would never grow to manhood. When he was twelve, his liquor-addled mother gave him sleeping pills to make him unconscious and then she wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and strangled him. She just couldn’t take care of a twelve-year-old boy anymore, she said. It cost too much money to feed him and just having a kid underfoot all the time wore on her nerves. Without him, she’d be able to get her life in order, get off the booze, find a decent man. Then, later on, when everything was jake, she’d have another baby and they’d all be happy. Maybe the new one would be a girl who would take care of her in her old age.

After she sobered up a little, she was sorry for what she had done to Sid Bone. She would never have had the courage to do it if she hadn’t been drunk. She sat in her easy chair and blubbered and wailed for a while. Since there was no one to hear her, she let loose with some anguished screams. After she had cried herself out, she gave a little laugh, peed in her pants because she couldn’t get up, and reached for the bottle again.

After a day and a night spent in the chair, drinking and feeling bad about her terrible life, she made herself get up and go into the bathroom and clean up, wash her face, comb the mats out of her hair and put on some clean clothes. She was going to have to call the police. They would send someone out. She needed to make herself look decent and presentable.

She had the story straight in her head. She worked out all the details. Her boy, Sid Bone, had met with a bad accident. She had been sick, sleeping in the other room; she didn’t hear a sound and she wasn’t even sure what happened. When she found him lying on the bed, unconscious, she tried to revive him, but, of course, it was too late. He must have done himself in because the kids at school laughed at him. There could be no other explanation.

For a while, several days at least, Sid Bone didn’t realize he was dead. He woke up in the morning and sleepily went to school as he always did. He thought it was a little funny that his mother wasn’t in any of her usual places, on her bed or sitting at the kitchen table, but he didn’t mind her not being there; he could manage fine on his own without her.

At school, he sat at his desk all day long, as he always did, doing what he was supposed to do: listen to teacher talk, copy problems off the blackboard, read this or that book, get up for recess or lunch. Then when school ended, he walked home as he always did. The next thing he knew, he was getting out of bed in the morning to start his day all over again. He had no recollection of anything in between.

On the fourth day, Sid Bone knew something was different; something had changed. Somebody new was sitting at the desk he had occupied all year. When he went to the front of the room and tried to ask teacher about it, she didn’t seem to see him but instead looked right through him. He turned around and faced the room at large, thirty-two of his classmates, and screamed Hey! in his loudest voice, but nobody looked up or turned their heads in his direction. It was if he no longer existed.

Not knowing what else to do, he went upstairs to the nurse’s office. Miss Faulk should be able to look at him, touch his head and tell what was wrong. She was better than any doctor.

Miss Faulk wasn’t in her office, though. The only person there was a woman he had never seen before, sitting at Miss Faulk’s desk, writing. When he paused in the doorway, she looked up at him and motioned for him to come into the room. He was a little relieved to know that somebody was seeing him, even if it was somebody he didn’t know.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the woman said, standing up and coming around to the front of the desk. He saw that she was quite short and her face was crisscrossed with tiny lines like a road map.

“You have?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “Do you know me?”

“Well, I know of you. I’m Miss Munsendorfer. I used to be a teacher here a long time ago.”

“In horse-and-buggy days?”

“Not quite that long ago. We had cars then.”

“I was looking for Miss Faulk.”

“She’s not here right now, but I am here.”

“I wanted to see if Miss Faulk could take my temperature or something and see if I might be sick.”

“I think I can tell you you’re not sick.”

“How do you know?”

“You’ll never be sick again.”

“How do you know?”

“You don’t need to come to school anymore, either.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how best to explain it to you, so I’ll just show you.”

She took him by the hand. Before he knew it, they were outside on the playground and then they were walking down the hill away from the school. Then, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were in the church on Windsor Avenue.

“What are we doing here?” Sid Bone asked.

“You’ll see,” Miss Munsendorfer said. “Just be patient.”

The church was full of people, a funeral in progress. There was a closed casket at the front of the church draped in yellow-and-white flowers. All the people in the church looked solemn. Some of them dabbed at their eyes. An old man, a minister, was standing at the pulpit talking about evil in the world and how the only way to accept it is to recognize it as part of God’s plan. The words coming from the minister’s mouth sounded funny as if they were being spoken underwater.

Just when Sid Bone was looking out over the sea of faces in the church, picking out the ones he knew, Miss Munsendorfer touched his hand again and they were outside, moving away from the church and, once again, before he knew what was happening, they were in a different place: they were standing on the street where he lived.

The street was there, of course, but the falling-down house that he lived in with his mother was gone, as if by magic. In its place was bare dirt; even the junk and debris in the yard were gone.

Sid Bone was beginning to catch on. He wasn’t especially surprised the house was gone; he would have been more surprised if it had still been there.

Miss Munsendorfer again took him by the hand and, again, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were standing in the hallway of the women’s penitentiary two hundred miles away.

“What is this place?” Sid Bone said. “I don’t like it here.”

Miss Munsendorfer pointed into one of the cells. When Sid Bone turned his head and looked, he saw his mother in the cell, sitting on the bed. She looked a human wreck: dejected, wretched, forlorn. He turned away before he started to cry.

Miss Munsendorfer again took by the hand, standing in that hallway of the women’s penitentiary, and in a flash they were back in the nurse’s office at school. Miss Faulk still wasn’t there.

Sid Bone found himself overpoweringly sleepy. He lay down on the nurse’s cot they kept in the corner for the suddenly ill and Miss Munsendorfer covered him over with an army blanket, tucking him in the way a mother would, with all but the kiss goodnight.

“Are you an angel?” Sid Bone asked her.

“No, I’m not an angel. I’m only here to help you.”

“Okay.”

“But you don’t need my help any more. You can do the rest on your own.”

She patted him on his shoulder and then she was gone.

When he awoke, he was in a place he had never been before. There were flowers and birds and lots of trees; animals of all kinds, but even the lions and bears wouldn’t hurt him because they were tame and gentle; he could walk right up to them and tug at their fur and they would only look at him. There were also people, some of whom he remembered or thought he remembered, but they left him alone whenever he wanted to be left alone. Most surprising of all, it never rained or got dark until he was ready.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp    

Son of Stella

Son of Stella ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

From where I sit at my desk I see Logan out the window cutting the grass. Looking like nobody else, he wears loose-fitting khaki shorts with a belt and a white shirt. With his old-fashioned haircut—sheered close on the sides but longer on the top and combed straight back—he might have stepped out of Gunga Din or The Lives of the Bengal Lancers. I wonder, as I have many times during the summer, if he knows how beautiful he is.

The mower cuts off and he comes into the house through the kitchen. I hear him go upstairs and then I hear the shower running in the bathroom. I image the warm water pouring over his arms and chest and down his muscular legs. When he’s finished, he’ll straighten up in the bathroom and hang his towel neatly over the towel rack and take his clothes down to the basement and put them in the washer and pour in the soap and turn it on.

I finish a letter I’m writing and when I go into the living room he’s lying on the couch in his bathrobe. The robe is open and I can see he has nothing on underneath except white briefs. When he hears me coming, he closes the robe partway.

He looks up at me and smiles. “I’m hungry,” he says. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

“Do you want to go out and get something?” I ask.

“No, I’d rather stay here. It’s our last night.”

“Last night?”

“Before mother comes home.”

“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. She’ll be home tomorrow.”

“I can make some chili,” he says.

“That’s fine with me. Anything. I’m not very hungry.”

“I should probably get dressed before we eat,” he says.

“You don’t have to get dressed on my account,” I say. “You’re fine the way you are.”

He gets up and goes into the kitchen and in a little while I smell the meat cooking for the chili. I lay down on the couch and drift off to sleep for a few minutes.

We don’t have a dinner bell, so when the chili is ready he comes and stands over me and clears his throat. I open my eyes and look up at him.

“Dinner is served,” he says.

I stand up and go into the kitchen and take my place at the kitchen table underneath the cock-a-doodle-doo clock on the wall.

“Where did you learn to cook?” I ask as I taste the chili.

“Living alone. Trying different recipes.”

“This is better chili than my mother ever made.”

“It’s easy. Anybody can do it.”

“Anybody can make chili. The hard part is making it taste good.”

We eat in silence for a few minutes and then he says, “I have some good news.”

“What is it?”

“I was going to wait until mother was here, but I’ll go ahead and tell you.”

“Well, what is it?”

“You know I told you I applied for a teaching job at the University of Louisiana?”

“Yeah.”

“I was hired. They want me to start right away. The fall semester starts in two weeks.”

“Louisiana. It’s hot there. They have hurricanes.”

“I don’t mind that. I’ll be all right.”

“I won’t see you anymore.”

“Sure, you will. You and mother can come and visit.”

I don’t know what else to say, so I shake his hand, congratulate him and we go on eating.

Since he cooked the chili, I wash the dishes and he goes up to his room. In a little while he comes back down, wearing dressy pants and a sporty plaid shirt.

“Going out?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“Have fun.”

I feel a little hurt that he would prefer to go out than stay at home with me on our last night alone, but I know I’m being ridiculous. He’s a grown man and my stepson, and I have nothing to say about where he goes.

I watch an old movie on television with Madge Evans and James Cagney called The Mayor of Hell and when it’s over I take a shower and get into bed and pick up where I left off reading The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene. I read about twenty pages and then I find I have a headache so I put the book down and turn off the light.

In a little while I hear his car in the driveway. I glance at the clock; it’s twenty minutes to twelve. I try to keep from wondering where he’s been for five hours. I lie on my back and take some deep breaths and try to clear my mind of all thought.

I’m barely asleep when a sound in the hallway outside my door wakes me up. I’m annoyed that I’m awake again, when the door to my room opens, light from the hallway spilling in, and I see Logan standing there in his white briefs, hand on the doorknob.

“Anything wrong?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer me, but instead comes around to the other side of the bed, pulls back the covers and gets in beside me.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Getting into bed with you.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it what you’ve wanted all summer?” he asks.

He kisses me and I tug at the white briefs.

I don’t need to go into detail about that night except to say it made me happy and I feel good about it. I have no guilt feelings and no fear of anybody finding out. Let them find out. How little do I care.

When I wake up in the morning, Logan’s asleep in the bed beside me. I get out of bed quietly and go downstairs. I feel hungry, as I usually do in the morning, so I scramble eggs and cook bacon in the cast-iron skillet for both of us. In a little while he comes downstairs in his bathrobe, his hair tousled, and sits down at the table. He smiles and we eat silently.

He seems a little distant and preoccupied.

“Any regrets?” I ask.

“Of course not. You?

“None at all.”

“It was inevitable,” he says. “It was always going to happen, at one time or another.”

“Was I that obvious?” I ask.

“Only to me.”

“Are you going to tell mother about it?” he asks.

“I don’t think so. At least not yet.”

“It’s up to you.”

“You don’t mind if I tell her?”

“No.”

“How things have changed in one generation,” I say, flicking a fly away from the orange marmalade.

When Stella arrives home in the middle of the afternoon, she seems glad to see us, but she says she is sick and she wants to go straight to her room and lie down before dinner. The truth is, she has had too many cocktails on the plane.

Logan goes to the store and buys some steaks for dinner. The smell of them cooking fills the house and brings Stella back downstairs.

“Do I smell meat cooking?” she asks. “I didn’t realize I was hungry.”

While we eat, Logan tells Stella all about his new job in Louisiana that will start in less than two weeks.

“So you’ll be leaving us?” she says.

“In a few days.”

“I know you’ll be happy and successful in Louisiana,” she says, a little boozily, “and you’ll meet a wonderful woman in the swamps you’ll be happy to bring home to your mother as your new bride.”

Logan and I exchange significant looks and I take a big gulp of my iced tea.

On Thursday of the next week, Logan loads all his possessions into his small car to begin his long journey. I fill my eyes with him every chance I get because I know it’ll be a long time before I see him again.

He hugs his mother and then he hugs me and gets behind the wheel of his car and, after another round of fussing from Stella, he’s ready to go. Stella and I stand on the sidewalk in front of the house and watch him until he’s almost out of sight.

“It’s bad luck to look until you no longer see the departing person,” I say.

“Who told you that?” Stella asks.

“I don’t remember.”

I don’t know how long it’ll be before I have him with me again, but I only know I will live for that day. I’ve got it bad and that’s not good.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

State Hospital

State Hospital ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

He slept for a long time and when he awoke he didn’t know where he was. He was in a bed with a blanket and sheet folded over his chest, wearing pajamas that belonged to somebody else. When he tried to raise himself, he saw that his wrists were tied to the bed frame with short, leather-like strips that allowed him to move only about six inches in any one direction. He didn’t like being tied down—he saw himself dying in a fire—and called out for somebody to come and help him but no one came.

The room was small and besides the bed there wasn’t much in it; only a metal cabinet near the bed. The walls were covered with green tiles, each one about four inches square. He began counting the green tiles that he could see from the bed; he had counted to thirty-seven when the door opened and a man in a white doctor’s coat entered the little room. He carried a clipboard and wore a striped tie peeking out of the white coat.

“Hello. How are you?” the man in the white coat said. “I’m Dr. Meacham. And what is your name?”

“I bet you already know my name,” the man in the bed said. “I bet you have it written on that clipboard.”

“Maybe I want to hear you say it.”

“All right, I’ll say it. My name is Christopher Spiller.”

“That’s what it says right here on my clipboard.”

“Now I have something I want to hear you say.”

“What is it?”

“Why are my wrists tied to the bed?”

“It’s for your own protection.”

“How do you mean?”

“You’re just waking up from treatment. We secure the wrists of patients who receive a particular kind of treatment.”

“What kind of treatment?”

“Treatment that will eventually make you better.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“If there isn’t, we’ll find out.”

“How long?”

“What?”

“How long will it take to find out there’s nothing wrong with me?”

“That all depends, doesn’t it?”

“Depends on what?”

“Lots of things.”

“The words come out of your mouth, but they don’t really mean anything, do they?”

“Tell me your age. How old are you?”

“I bet you already know that, don’t you?”

“Just answer the question, please.”

“Twenty-three. How old are you?”

“Forty-one.”

“So, you’ve passed through your thirties and now you’re working on your forties. I’ll bet you have a wife, don’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter if I do or not.”

“No, I think it’s interesting.”

“Well, then, the answer is no, I don’t have a wife. I had a wife and we got divorced. No more questions about me, please.”

“Whatever you say. You’re the boss, especially since I’m tied up and can’t move.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“I’m in a bed.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I’m in a bed in a hospital on planet Earth.”

“How long have you been in the hospital?”

“I think I’ve been here about two years if I remember correctly.”

“My notes say you’re been here two months.”

“Yeah, a long time.”

“How do you feel?”

“A hundred years old.”

“You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I’ll feel better when I’m no longer tied to the bed.”

“A nurse will come along soon and take you back to your room.”

“And untie me?”

“Yes, and untie you.”

“Speaking of my room, I don’t like my roommate. I think he might be insane. Can’t I have a room to myself?”

“We don’t have any single rooms. All our rooms are for two.”

“How cozy. At home I always had a room to myself.”

“We all have to make certain adjustments.”

“Do you want to hear the story of how I came to be here?”

“I think we might save that for…”

“I lived with my parents. There are certain advantages to living with your parents, of course, but it also means you don’t have as much privacy as you’d like.”

“It’s usually a good idea, after a certain age, to live apart from your parents,” Dr. Meacham said.

“Especially my parents.”

“Why especially your parents?”

“They’re Christian fundamentalists. They belong to a fundamentalist religious sect. I’ve had a secret that I’ve kept hidden from them since eighth grade. They should have known my secret, but they never picked up on it, because, well, that’s just the way they are. They aren’t even aware of themselves, so how could they be aware of me?”

“Okay, so they found out your secret?”

“Well, my secret is to their way of thinking the worst thing there is. They believe there is no greater sin.”

“I see.”

“Well, my parents were gone for the weekend. They weren’t supposed to be back until Sunday night. I invited a friend over to spend the night with me Saturday night. His name was Raphael. He and I had been seeing each other for a while and things were going well between us. So, the two of—me and Raphael, Raphael and I—were in my bedroom with the door closed. Now, you have to understand, my bedroom—especially with the door closed—is supposed to be private. Don’t you think a closed door would suggest privacy?”

“Yes, I see what you mean.”

“Well, my parents returned unexpectedly on Saturday night, twenty-four hours before they were expected. They could have called to let me know they were coming home early, but that would have spoiled the fun, now, wouldn’t it?”

“You think they did it on purpose?”

“Of course they did! So, Raphael and I were alone in my room. There was no reason to believe we were not alone in the house and, then, the door to my room burst open—pow!—and both of my parents—both of them!—were standing at the foot of the bed looking at us.”

“What did they do?”

“My mother clapped her hands over her mouth and started screaming and speaking in tongues. She said she saw Satan standing over me and that I was going to burn in hell through all eternity. My father just looked at me and vomited on the floor. That’s the effect I always had on him.”

“What did Raphael do?”

“He ran! Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t run?”

“He was embarrassed, of course.”

“Well, they didn’t know what to do with a son as terrible as me. My mother wanted to call the police and have me thrown in jail, but you see, it’s not a crime for two men to be in the same bed at the same time, so she had to come up with a different plan. The next day my father enlisted the aid of his doctor and his lawyer, both Christian fundamentalists like himself, and the four of them—my mother, my father, the doctor and the lawyer—came up with the plan to draw up the papers to have me committed. The idea was not only to cure me and cleanse me, but also to punish me.”

“I see,” Dr. Meacham said.

“So the question is, when are you going to find out there’s nothing wrong with me and let me go home?”

“Back with your parents?”

“No, not there. When I say ‘home,’ I mean some place far away where I can be by myself.”

“Another state? California?”

“Farther away.”

“Another country?”

“Whatever it takes.”

“Well,” Dr. Meacham began slowly, looking down at the clipboard he held, “many questions must be answered before we can think about releasing you. We can’t put a time limit on it. Will it be weeks? Months? We just don’t know. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

“You sound like the Christian fundamentalists.”

“It won’t help you for you to look upon me as your enemy. I want to help you.”

Really help me?”

“Sure.”

“Unlock the door and look the other way as I slip out into the night.”

“Do you think I would be able to do that with a clear conscience?”

“Nobody has to know about it.”

“And what do I tell people when they ask where you are?”

“I don’t care what you tell them because I’ll be gone.”

“Look,” Dr. Meacham said, squinting at his clipboard, “we have an aggressive schedule of treatment scheduled for you for the next six weeks or so. At the end of that time, we’ll re-evaluate your situation.”

“I won’t be here that long.”

Dr. Meacham left and in a little while Nurse Nellie Watson of the continuously trembling head and chin wattles came into the room.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

He held up his wrists and she unfastened the leather straps.

“I could give you a big kiss for that alone,” he said.

“Don’t bother.”

He could have walked down the hallway to his room, but she insisted on pushing him in the wheelchair.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars if you unlock the door for me and look the other way as I disappear like a little puff of smoke.”

“Where would you get fifty dollars?”

“I think I could go as high as seventy-five.”

“Don’t make me have to tie you up,” she said.

His roommate, Victor Hugo, was lying sprawled on his bed, snoring like a buzzsaw. His hospital gown and his bedsheet were down around his ankles.

“See what I have to put with?” he said to Nurse Nellie.

“Things are tough all over,” she said.

She helped him out of the wheelchair and into the bed. She tucked him in like an embittered nanny and turned off the light and left, her crepe souls squeaking on the tile floor.

When he was sure Nurse Nellie wasn’t coming back, he slipped off the bed and crawled underneath. Under his bed was the only place he felt really safe. He would wait under the bed in the dark until somebody else came in: that special someone who might be persuaded to unlock the door and look away as he slipped away into the night.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Pneumonia

Pneumonia ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

In third grade I wore a navy pea coat. Some of the kids in school made fun of me for wearing a kind of coat that nobody else had, but I didn’t care. I liked my pea coat. It made me look like a little navy man.

Any time I think about that pea coat I think about my mother lying sick in a hospital bed.

In November of that year, she slipped on gravel down the street from where she worked and hit her head on the sidewalk. She had a brain concussion and it made her plenty sick. Her doctor thought three or four days (a week at the most) in the hospital would fix her up, but she just kept getting sicker and the three or four days became weeks. (He eventually admitted she wasn’t getting any better and sent her to a hospital in the city, but that’s another story.)

Since I was only nine, I missed my mother while she was in the hospital. I wasn’t a baby and I could manage without her for a few days, but I was afraid she wouldn’t be out of the hospital in time for Christmas. My biggest fear, though, was that she would die in the hospital while I was in school and I’d be left alone with my father. He and I didn’t like each other very much. I don’t know why. It’s just the way it was.

We went to the hospital every evening to see my mother after eating our quick and meagre dinner (a tuna salad sandwich or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup). These visits were disheartening because she wasn’t like herself. She just lay there, hardly moving, and didn’t say much. She was pale, her hair looked terrible, and her eyes were hollow. When I asked her when they were going to let her come home, she just shrugged and didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I wasn’t the only one thinking she might die; she was thinking it herself.

Since it was November and the weather was turning cold, somebody at school was always sick, spreading germs all over the place. It was impossible to be in a closed, heated classroom and not breathe in some nasty germs. A couple of my friends came down with the flu or whatever was catching, and then, before I knew it, I was the sick one.

My mother noticed at the hospital during visiting hours that evening that I didn’t look quite right. She tried to get me to take my pea coat off, but I felt chilled and wanted to leave it on. My throat was raw and my chest hurt. I had developed a cough, which was impossible to hide.

“Aren’t you taking care of your son, Roy?” my mother asked my father.

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” my father said.

“Make sure he takes a hot bath and goes right to bed.”

“He thinks if he can convince you he’s sick, he won’t have to go to school.”

“I’m all right,” I said. “I’m not sick.”

The next morning I felt terrible and my cough was worse. My throat felt like I had been snacking on razor blades. I went to school and I sat in my seat all day long without telling anybody how bad I felt, but I was glad when the bell rang and it was time to go home at the end of the day. When I got home, I put on my pajamas and got into bed. I only wanted to shut everything out.

I hoped I would feel better in the morning, but I only felt worse. I got up at the usual time and went into the kitchen. My father was sitting at the table drinking coffee and smoking his Marlboro cigarettes. He barely looked at me.

“You’d better get a move on,” he said in his absent way, “or you’re going to be late for school.”

“I don’t feel like going to school today,” I said.

“What?”

“I said I’m sick and I don’t feel like going to school today.”

“You don’t look sick to me.”

“My throat really hurts and my chest hurts and I have a lump in my throat.”

“You’ll feel better after you get there.”

I sat down and poured some corn flakes into a bowl and got the milk out of the refrigerator, but I wasn’t able to eat anything.

“I’m running a fever,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

“You’re just being a baby. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“If mother was here, she’d take my temperature and know I’m too sick to go to school.”

“Well, she’s not here, so go brush your teeth and get dressed and get your little ass to school before I kick it up between your shoulder blades for you. I have to get to work. I don’t have time to mess with you.”

The wind and the cold air didn’t help my cough. By the time I got to school, I was wheezing and gasping for breath. I took my seat in the third row, as usual, and hoped I’d drop dead before too long.

I coughed and I coughed and I coughed some more. No matter how much I cleared my throat, that old frog seemed to have taken up permanent residence. Every time I coughed, somebody turned and looked at me with distaste. I couldn’t blame them. They were wondering what I had and if they were likely to catch it from me.

I hadn’t been sitting in my seat for long when Miss Goldschmidt came and stood over me and put her hand on my forehead.

“You don’t feel very well, do you?” she asked.

“I’m all right.”

She motioned for me to stand up and go along with her. She took me out into the hallway and down the stairs to the nurse’s office on the second floor.

“He’s too sick to be in school today,” Miss Goldschmidt said to Miss Bouchard, the school nurse.

Miss Bouchard looked at me and told me to sit in the chair beside her desk.

“Let’s see your throat, honey,” she said.

She took a tongue depressor and a flashlight and looked at my throat so long I thought I was going to choke.

“How long have you had this throat?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Three days, I guess.”

When she took my temperature, she found I had a fever of slightly over a hundred and two.

“I’m going to call your mother and tell her to come and get you.”

“She’s not home. She’s in the hospital.”

“Oh. What about daddy?”

“He’s at work.”

“Well, I guess we’re stuck with you, then, aren’t we?”

There was a cot made up like a bed against the wall. She told me to take off my shoes and get into the cot and cover up like a little baby. She would be in and out of the office all day long and if I felt worse to let her know.

She gave me two aspirin tablets and a cup of water and after I swallowed the tablets I covered up in the warm little bed and coughed my head off for a while but then my cough lessened and I went to sleep. I slept right through lunch and most of the rest of the day. When the bell rang to go home, I was surprised at how much time had gone by.

“Time to go home, little man,” Miss Bouchard said.

I sat up on the cot and put on my shoes and tied them.

“Do you feel like walking home?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“I can get the janitor to take you in the truck if you don’t feel like walking.”

“I can make it okay.”

“And don’t come back to school until you’ve seen a doctor.”

“What?”

“I’ve written a letter for you to give to your daddy. You need to see your doctor. We don’t want you in school if you’re sick. You might be contagious.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Being told I could stay home from school the next day, and maybe the day after that, cheered me considerably. It was the best news I had heard in a long time.

When I got home, he was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. He gave me a sour look and blew smoke out his nostrils like a deranged bull. I put the envelope from Miss Bouchard on the table in front of him.

“What’s this?” he said.

“A letter,” I said.

“From one of my many admirers?”

I wanted to tell him he didn’t have any admirers, but all I said was, “No, it’s from the school nurse.”

He read the letter and crushed out his cigarette angrily.

“So, you’ve been complaining at school about how sick you are?”

“I didn’t say anything. They knew I was sick. Some people pay attention to those things.”

“I don’t have time for this crap!” he said. “You’re a lot more trouble than you’re worth, you know that?”

“Yeah, I know.”

In the morning he took me to see Dr. Froberger. He was an old man with cold hands and I was a little afraid of him, but I liked him well enough. His office girl complimented me on my navy pea coat.

Dr. Froberger set me up on a high table and looked at my throat and into my ears and felt my neck. He took my temperature and listened to my heart and lungs.

“This boy’s got pneumonia,” Dr. Froberger said. “His lungs are filled with fluid.”

“I didn’t think he was that sick,” my father said. “He’s always been quite a pretender.”

“Well, he’s not pretending now! I want him to go to the hospital. We need to start treatment right away, or he’s going to be very seriously ill.”

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” I said.

“It’ll be all right,” Dr. Froberger said. “We’ll take good care of you and you’ll be back to normal in a few days.”

They took me to a different hospital than the one my mother was in. I was worried that she wouldn’t know where I was, but my father said he’d tell her and he’d bring her to see me as soon as she was able.

They took my clothes and put me in a high bed in a room by myself and stuck needles in both arms and gave me oxygen. For a couple of days I felt like I was dreaming or floating through the air, but it didn’t matter to me if I was. Nothing felt real. My father came a couple of times to see how I was doing, but he didn’t stay long; he always had something more important to do.

After I had been in the hospital for a while, a nurse arranged for me to talk to my mother on the phone. She sounded better than she had in a long time. They were giving her a different kind of medicine, she said, and her doctor had decided to send her to a better, smarter doctor at a hospital in the city.

“How long before they’ll let you come home?” I asked.

“I’ll be home before you know it.” she said.

She wasn’t going to die after all.

When the doctor finally released me from the hospital after a week (that’s how long it took for my lungs to clear up), he said I couldn’t go back to school for a while (two weeks or so), which was altogether fine with me. I had to have somebody, a “sitter,” stay with me during the day when my father was at work, so that’s where Barbara Legaspi entered the picture.

Barbara was recommended by Dr. Froberger’s office. She had experience as a nurse’s aide and was used to dealing with sick people. I could tell my father didn’t like her because she was fat and had big arms and a dark mustache, but he hired her because it was the easiest thing for him to do.

I liked Barbara right away. She bought me candy and comic books. She lived with her parents and had never been married and had lots of funny stories about men she had dated. The men she liked didn’t like her or were married, and the men who liked her were unacceptable and undesirable for one reason or another (one had rotten teeth and another one was a midget).

When we got to talking about my father, she told me she had an “instinctive” feeling about him. He was a “negative” individual from whom “nothing good” would ever come.

“How do you know these things?” I asked.

She told me she was psychic and “an old soul” who lived “many times” before. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I thought it sounded good.

I told her how when I became sick with pneumonia and my mother was in the hospital, my father didn’t want to be bothered with me and made me go to school because he thought I wasn’t really sick at all but only pretending.

“He never wanted to be your father,” she said. “People who have children they don’t want make me sick.”

“Me too,” I said.

“He doesn’t treat your mother well, either, does he?”

“No. I don’t know how she stands being married to him.”

“I can take care of him for you if you want me to.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can put a spell on him.”

“You mean, like, kill him?”

“No, that would be a curse. I’m talking about a spell.”

“You can put spells on people?”

“If I can’t, I know somebody who can.”

“What kind of a spell would it be?” I asked, fascinated.

“A kind of spell where he gets what he deserves.”

“That sounds good. I don’t want you to kill him, though, or burn him up in a car crash or anything like that.”

“No, I know what you mean. Moderation is the key.”

“Yeah. Fix it so he has stay in the hospital for about a week.”

“I think it might be arranged.”

My mother came home from the hospital in the city a week before Christmas. She wasn’t over her brain concussion yet, but she was getting better every day. She and Barbara Legaspi had a long talk at the kitchen table. When Barbara left for the last time, she said I was her favorite sick person and she and I would be seeing each other again. She winked at me when mother wasn’t looking and I knew it meant that she and I had a secret together.

My mother gave my father the silent treatment for not taking care of me the way he should have and for not keeping me home from school when I was obviously sick. She cooked his meals at mealtime and then she went out of the kitchen while he sat at the table and ate alone. She slept in the spare bedroom and didn’t speak to him unless she had to.

We had a happy Christmas that year. I was over my pneumonia and had returned to school. My mother was still taking lots of medicine and it seemed to be helping her. She was going to return to her job after New Year’s. She wasn’t a stay-at-home; she liked being around other people, she said.

In the middle of January, my father passed out at work. They came and got him in an ambulance and took him to the hospital. After the doctor examined him, he said he had “smoker’s heart” and was going to have to cut back on his Marlboros and go on a diet.

When my mother and I visited him in the hospital, I stood at the foot of his bed and smiled. He barely looked at me, but I knew he knew I was there. If he had known what I was thinking and why I was smiling, he would have had to light up another Marlboro and blow an angry stream of smoke out his nose.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

They Have All the Gravediggers They Need

They Have All the Gravediggers They Need ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Somebody was knocking at the door. Who could it be? He was inclined to ignore it, but the knocking continued for longer than it should, so he felt compelled to answer it. It might be something important, but probably wasn’t.

When he opened the door, he saw a man he had never seen before smiling at him. The man was not young, not old; not fat, not thin; not handsome, not ugly; not anything.

“Mr. Arbuckle?” the man asked.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Gerhardt Arbuckle?”

“That’s me. How can I help you?”

“My name is Dexter Peebles. I’m from Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens.”

“Yes?”

“I understand both your parents are interred at Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens in our aboveground mausoleums?”

“That’s right.”

“And your mother just passed over recently?”

“That’s right.”

“Allow me to express my deepest condolences.”

“Thank you.”

“If there’s anything that we of Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens can do to help you in your hour of grief, we are always at your disposal.”

“No, I’m fine. Thanks for stopping by.”

“I wonder if I might have a few moments of your time?”

“What for?”

“I wish to discuss with you some of the services we’re offering at Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens at this time.”

“My parents are already taken care of. There isn’t anything else to be done for them.”

“Yes, I know that. It’s not for them. It’s for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Might I come in for a few minutes?”

“I’m busy right now. I was just about to wash my clothes.”

“I promise it won’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Well, all right. But let’s make it quick.”

Gerhardt Arbuckle stepped aside and let Dexter Peebles enter. As soon as he was over the threshold, he removed his hat.

“Might we sit down?” Dexter asked.

Gerhardt led the way into the living room and they both sat down.

“Now, what is this about?” Gerhardt asked with a hint of impatience.

Dexter opened the small briefcase he was carrying and took out a sheaf of shiny brochures. He held them hesitantly in his hand and cleared his throat.

“Might I inquire if you have made the final arrangements for yourself and other members of your family?”

“Have I done what?” Gerhardt asked.

“Have you secured your final resting place?”

“Do you mean when I die?”

“Yes.”

“Why, no, I haven’t.”

“Excellent! That’s what I want to discuss with you today.”

“You’re going to try to sell me a cemetery plot, aren’t you?”

“No matter what time of life you are in, it’s such a comfort…”

“I think I can save you a lot of hot air by telling you right off the bat that I’m not interested,” Gerhardt said.

“What?”

“I said I’m not interested.”

“May I ask why?”

“I don’t have to tell you why. Just take my word for it.”

“We are currently offered discounted prices.”

“I don’t care.”

“The type of aboveground mausoleum your mother and father lie in normally sell for thirteen thousand dollars apiece. For a limited time, the vaults are being discounted at twelve thousand each. That’s a savings of a thousand dollars per vault.”

“I’m still not interested.”

“Now, I must tell you, the two vaults immediately adjacent to your mother’s vault are available. These two vaults would be ideal for you and your dear wife.”

“My dear wife took off three years ago and I don’t know where she is. She might be dead and I hope she is.”

“So you have no use for two vaults.”

“I have no use for one vault.”

“Well, as you might expect, the vaults are kind of expensive for certain families. The cemetery plots sell for only a thousand apiece. For a limited time only, I can offer you four adjacent plots at the discounted price of thirty-five hundred dollars.”

“I don’t want those either.”

“May I ask why not?”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“Do you have children?”

“No.”

“So you would have no use for four cemetery plots?”

“I would have no use for one cemetery plot.”

“Well, uh, you’re getting along in years, as we all are. You must have given some thought to your final resting place.”

“None at all.”

“Most children want to be interred with or beside their parents.”

“Not me.”

“If I may ask, if you die tomorrow, where will your mortal remains repose?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“You don’t care.”

“That’s right. The city dump will suit me fine.”

“You want your body deposited at the city dump?”

“If I’m dead, I won’t know where I am, will I? The birds can peck at my eyes and the rats eat my flesh and I won’t even know it.”

“Well, I…”

“I told you right at the first I wasn’t interested in hearing your sales pitch. You didn’t believe me, did you?”

“We’re taught in salesman’s training that any sales resistance, no matter how strenuous, can be overcome.”

“You’re finding out that’s not true, aren’t you?”

“I must say your sales resistance is very high.”

“Higher than most?”

“Yes, I think I would say it’s higher than most.”

“You’re not a very effective salesman, then, are you?”

“No, I suppose I’m not.”

“How long have you been selling cemetery plots?”

“Six months.”

“Have you sold any?”

“I’ve sold a few.”

“How many?”

“Two.”

“Two in six months?”

“That’s right.”

“Some people are not cut out to be salesmen.”

“Truer words were never spoken.”

“Do you like selling cemetery plots?”

“I hate it. I’d rather dig graves.”

“Then why don’t you apply for a gravedigger’s job?”

“I’ve inquired about it. They have all the gravediggers they need right now.”

“Try something else altogether. A job that doesn’t have to do with death.”

“Well, the truth is, I don’t have much time to look for a job because I’m out selling cemetery plots all day long.”

“When you get back to Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens, tell them selling cemetery plots is not the right kind of job for you and you’re quitting.”

“They’re going to fire me anyway by the end of the month if I don’t meet my quota and there’s no way that’s going to be possible. I won’t have to quit.”

“Quit before they fire you! Tell them to take their shitty job and stuff it sideways!”

“If only I could!”

“You can! Stand up for yourself! Nobody else will!”

“I’ve thought about killing myself.”

“Don’t do that!”

“I don’t want to kill myself, but it might be my only option.”

“It’s not! It’s not your only option! That’s the wrong way to think!”

Dexter Peebles looked at his watched and slapped both hands on his knees.

“Well, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time already,” he said. “I should be going and let you get back to whatever it was you were doing. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. Most people just slam the door in my face as if I was a piece of filth that had blown up on their doorstep.”

“Wait a minute!” Gerhardt said. “You said you want a different job but you don’t have time to look for one?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, hold on! I have a cousin who owns a package liquor store downtown. He’s looking for somebody to train as a manager. Do you know anything about liquor?”

“No, but I could learn.”

“Do you have anything against liquor? Like religious scruples?”

“Not a thing! Both my parents were alcoholics. Also my brother.”

“Well, all right, then! You have alcohol in your family!”

He wrote the cousin’s name and also the address of the package liquor store on a little slip of paper and gave it to Dexter Peebles.

“Tell him Gerhardt sent you.”

“I certainly will!”

“If I were you, I would go down instead of calling. The last I heard, there’s plenty of competition for a manager’s job in a package liquor store.”

“You bet I will, and I certainly do thank you! I just can’t think you enough!”

“I hope you land the job. You need to stop selling cemetery plots before it kills you.”

“Say a little prayer for me!”

Before Dexter Peebles left, he gave Gerhardt a life-affirming hug. Gerhardt hated to be hugged but he tried to hide his distaste. It was a hug that seemed altogether necessary and appropriate.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Leave Charlotte Vale Behind

Leave Charlotte Vale Behind ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

After washing her hair in the kitchen sink, grandma sat down at the kitchen table before her little round mirror from Woolworth’s to “pin it up.” She twisted each strand of wet hair expertly around the index finger of her right hand and when the strand was a perfect coil she secured it with not one, but two, bobby pins crossed like tiny swords, which she opened with her teeth.

When she was finished, her hair was all-over coils arranged in rows like planted crops. From a distance she looked to have been snatched bald-headed and her hair replaced by a brown skull cap.

She would never have gone outside the house with her hair pinned up that way, so, while the hair dried, she tied it up with a colorful scarf and left the two ends of the scarf sticking up over her forehead like the antennae on an insect.

“What do you think?” she asked Evan.

“That scarf is so cute!” he said.

She lit one of her Pall Mall menthol cigarettes and, balancing it on her favorite ashtray, began applying makeup. She started with a thick layer of face powder all over her face, and then she drew on her eyebrows in graceful arcs over each eye.

“That looks so good!” Evan said. “You look like a movie star!”

“Now for some color,” she said.

She put a spot of rouge on each cheek and then spread it out, blending it in, with her fingertips.

Next came the lipstick. She outlined her lips with the audaciously red stuff and then smacked her lips together several times to even it out, after which she blotted with a limp Kleenex that she produced from the pocket of her house coat.

“Not bad if I do say so myself,” she said, turning her head this way and that before the mirror.

“What time is Finis coming for dinner?” Evan asked.

“About six. He’s bringing dessert.”

“Did he say what?”

“It’ll be something good, you can be sure of that.”

Evan liked grandma’s boyfriend Finis. He was over seventy, tall and thin, a real snappy dresser. He always wore a suit, tie and shiny shoes. He told funny stories about when he was married to one Siamese twin (he wanted to marry the other twin but didn’t want to go to jail for bigamy), and when he worked for gangsters (he got out before members of a rival gang had him killed). Some of his stories were hard to believe, but they were always worth listening to.

“Why don’t you marry Finis?” Evan asked. “Then he’ll already be here at dinnertime and he won’t have to come from someplace else.”

“We’ve talked about it,” grandma said, “but we both like our freedom too much. I don’t want to be tied down and neither does he.”

“How long has grandpa been dead?”

“Seventeen years. You weren’t even born yet.”

“Don’t you miss having a husband?”

“Not anymore.”

Grandma started to put away the mirror and cosmetics, but Evan pointed to his own lips.

“Well, all right,” she said. “Come on over here.”

She set him on her left thigh and, with her left arm around his shoulders, applied lipstick to his lower and then his upper lip with her right hand and then had him smack his lips together the way she showed him.

“How’s that?” she asked.

“Perfect!” he said, looking at himself in the mirror. “I want some eyebrow pencil, too, though. My eyebrows have been so uninteresting lately.”

“Just a little bit,” she said. “We don’t want to ever forget that you’re a boy.”

“I won’t forget it,” he said.

In the space between the table and the refrigerator he minced around, pretending to be a girl, making grandma laugh. He didn’t mind cutting up that way with grandma and Finis, but he wouldn’t want just anybody to see him.

“I’m going to get my wig!” he said.

He ran upstairs to his room and dug the wig out of the bottom drawer of the dresser and put it on in front of the dresser mirror. The wig was long and red, rather shopworn and dusty, but it did make him look like a bonafide girl.

He ran back downstairs to the kitchen to show grandma.

“How do I look?” he asked.

“Stunningly beautiful,” grandma said.

“My name is Charlotte Vale,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“I’m only your old grandma.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right! I remember now!”

“I want you to walk to the store and get a few things.”

“Can I go as Charlotte?”

“You can go as Al Capone if you want to. Now, are you listening? Here are the things I want: a quart of milk…”

“A quart of milk. Check.”

“…a pound of butter…”

“A pound of butter. Check.”

“…a loaf of white bread…”

“A loaf of white break. Check.”

“…and two packs of Pall Mall menthol cigarettes.”

“Two packs of Pall Mall menthols. Check.”

“Can you remember all that without a list?”

“Of course, I can,” he said. “I made it all the way through retarded school, remember?”

She gave him the money and he ran out the kitchen door, the long red hair flying.

When he went into the store, nobody looked at him, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if they had. He felt a little funny as a girl, out in public, but it was only because he wasn’t used to it. He liked the feeling he got from being somebody else. He couldn’t keep from smiling.

He went to the back of the store to get the milk, butter and bread. Then he had to stand in line up front to pay and to get the Pall Mall menthols.

When his turn came, the sour-faced cashier looked at him and then looked away without interest.

“Anything else?” she asked, after ringing up the purchases.

“Two packs of Pall Mall menthol cigarettes.”

She reached around on the other side of the cash register and pulled the two packs of cigarettes out of a rack.

“You don’t ever want to start smokin’ them things,” she said. “They’ll kill ya.”

“They’re for my grandma.”

He paid the money and held out his hand for the change. She put the things into a large bag and folded down the top of the bag and handed it to him.

“Have a nice day,” she said without expression.

When he got home, grandma and Finis were sitting at the kitchen table, laughing and smoking. Grandma had combed her hair out and it was sticking up all over her head. Too much curl, she’d say.

“Who is this enchanting child?” Finis said when Charlotte entered the room.

“That’s my young granddaughter, Charlotte Vale,” grandma said, “visiting from out of town.”

Finis stood up and made a show of shaking Hester’s hand. “So happy to make your acquaintance, my dear!” he said.

The song Amapola was playing on the radio. Finis took hold of Charlotte’s hands and danced her vigorously all over the kitchen until they both collapsed into chairs.

Charlotte wanted something a little fancier for dinner than walking-to-the-store clothes, so she went upstairs and put on a dark-green dress that she found in one of grandma’s trunks in the attic. Since it was a dress for a fully grown lady and since Charlotte was only eleven years old, the dress was a little too big and went all the way to the floor. It didn’t matter, though, because it was elegant. Perfect for a cruise to Buenos Aires and a shipboard romance.

Grandma cooked spaghetti and meatballs for dinner; she had a bottle of rosé wine to go with it. She let Charlotte taste the wine and drink almost a whole glass of it, but then she replaced the wine with iced tea. She didn’t want to be responsible, she said, for turning her grandson into an alcoholic.

“Granddaughter,” Finis said.

“Oh, that’s right! I almost forgot!”

“I’m not really a girl,” Evan said. “I just like pretending sometimes.”

“We know,” grandma said.

“A man wears many masks in his lifetime,” Finis said. “Whatever the moment calls for. When I was a young fellow in college, my friends and I used to get all made up as women and go downtown on the bus. We could flirt like nobody’s business! We could have had any number of dates. It was fun and it felt good!”

“I’ll bet you made the prettiest girl,” grandma said.

She set the big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in the middle of the table and let Finis and Evan help themselves. They ate until the bowl was nearly empty.

“Best spaghetti I ever ate,” Finis said.

Before grandma cut the cherry pie that Finis brought for dessert, she brought a letter out of her apron pocket and set it on the table by her plate.

“I had a letter from your mother today, Evan,” grandma said.

“Oh?”

“She’s asking me for money again. She’s out of the hospital, but she’s seeing a new psychiatrist and she says he’s more expensive than the others.”

“I think it’s time for her to stand on her own and stop asking you for money!” Finis said.

“The money’s not all,” grandma said, looking directly across the table at Evan. “There’s something else.”

He knew he wasn’t going to like what she was about to say.

“She has a new boyfriend. They’re going to be married right away because she’s going to have a baby.”

Uh-oh!” Finis said.

“Who is she marrying?” Evan asked. “Is he a mental patient too?”

“She didn’t say, but you’ll be able to find out for yourself soon enough.”

Why?

“She wants you to come home.”

What?

“She wants me to put you on the bus on Saturday morning.”

“I don’t want to go! I want to stay here with you and Finis!”

“I know you do, but…”

“But what?”

“She’s your mother and you’re a minor. Where you live is not up to you; it’s up to your mother.”

“Why can’t she just leave me alone?”

“She wants you to start school when the new school year begins.”

“I won’t go!”

“We can take him down in my car,” Finis said. “He doesn’t have to ride on the bus.”

“It’s more than two hours each way,” grandma said.

“I know. I don’t mind.”

“I won’t go!” Evan said. “I’ll run away!”

“And where will you go?”

“I’ll join the circus!”

“What would you do in the circus? Be a tightrope walker?”

“No, I’ll be a He-She in the freak show.”

“But you’re not a He-She. You’re a perfectly normal boy.”

“I’m not normal! I don’t want to be normal if it means I’m like everybody else! I want to be a He-She!”

“All right, then! Be a He-She! Suit yourself!”

“You don’t have to go today or tomorrow,” Finis said. “You have a few more days. Try to enjoy the time you have left.”

“Finis is right,” grandma said. “Let’s have some cherry pie.”

“I don’t want any pie!” Evan said. “I’m going to bed!”

“But cherry pie is your favorite!”

“No, it isn’t!”

He went upstairs to his room, making sure to slam the door loud enough so that grandma and Finis would hear it in the kitchen.

Although it wasn’t quite seven o’clock, he closed the blinds and put on his pajamas, got into bed and covered up his head. How could that bitch (his mother) marry some jackass and then expect him (Evan) to go back home and live with them while she had a stupid baby? He hoped the baby was a freak with two heads. It would be exactly what the bitch deserved.

When Evan awoke in the morning, he swore he was going to be Charlotte Vale the whole time he had left at grandma’s house. If anybody told him to go change back into Evan, he was going to refuse. Even though he was only eleven, he had some rights. If he was too young to have his way about where he lived, at least he could stand up for himself about something as elemental as being a He-She.

As Charlotte, he rode the bus all over the city, by himself, for hours. He loved the city: the crowds and traffic, the buildings, the noise and excitement. He and grandma had had a good time during his stay, seeing all the latest movies, shopping in the stores and eating at the restaurants. Grandma was from the small town, too, but she had lived in the city for thirty years and couldn’t imagine living anyplace else.

Saturday morning came quicker than Evan hoped it would. He awoke early and took a bath and washed his hair. Then, sitting in his underwear before the dresser mirror, he put on heavy rouge, eyebrow pencil and lipstick. When he was satisfied with the way he looked, he slipped a dress on over his head; not the fancy green dress for the cruise to Buenos Aires, but a more sensible, daytime dress of yellow and blue.

When he went down for breakfast with his packed suitcase, Finis had already arrived and was sitting at the table smoking a cigarillo and drinking tea.

“Hello there, Evan,” Finis said.

“It’s Charlotte. Charlotte Vale.”

“Oh, yes. I forgot for the moment.”

“From now on I’m Charlotte. Evan’s dead. Don’t you think the circus freak show would be happy to have me as a He-She?

“I can’t say,” Finis said. “I think eleven is probably a little young for a He-She.”

“I won’t always be eleven.”

“You’re going home today for the first time in three months, Evan,” grandma said.

“Not Evan. Charlotte.”

“Don’t you think it would be best to go home as Evan and leave Charlotte Vale here? She’ll still be here when you get back.”

“No! You’ve already told me I don’t have any choice about going. If I have to go, I’m going as Charlotte. Evan’s dead, I said.”

“All right. If you say so. Evan’s dead.”

“Won’t mother be surprised when she sees I’ve turned into a He-She?”

“We’ve better get a move on,” Finis said. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Cemetery Christmas

Cemetery Christmas ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Calvin Horne took the wreath out of the back of his car and walked down the hill with it slung over his shoulder like a garden hose to his parents’ grave. It was the day before Christmas and he didn’t want to be in the cemetery; didn’t want to be reminded of death on a joyous holiday. Christmas was about birth, about what’s good in the world.

He hadn’t been especially close to either of his parents. His mother, dead two years, was a difficult and obstinate old woman. The two of them, Calvin and his mother, could hardly be in the same room together without a clash of wills. His father had been dead for twenty years and was only a distant memory.

He trudged down one hill and up another one. It was there, at the top of the next hill, where his parents were buried. His mother had generously offered to buy the plot for him on the other side of her, but he declined the offer. (He wanted simply to vaporize into the air as if he never existed at all.) Now that space was occupied by a stranger that his mother, in all probability, wouldn’t have liked.

His parents had a large and rather ostentatious granite headstone as tall as a man’s head that his mother bought and paid for. In the middle of the stone, at the top, the name Horne was etched in large letters. Below were the names, birth and death dates of Byron and Julia. Under the names were two intertwined hearts with an arrow shot through them and, in fancy script, the ironic words Together Forever. They were together, he was sure, only in the sense that they were both dead.

He took a deep breath, a little winded from his climb up the hill, and pushed the legs of the wreath’s tripod into the soft earth in front of the headstone. Now, if his sister or any other family members came snooping around, they wouldn’t be able to say he hadn’t discharged his duty to his parents at Christmas.

The wreath seemed secure enough to withstand any winter blasts, so he pulled his gloves back on over his frozen fingers and was just about to retrace his steps back to the car, when he heard someone coming.

“I hear voices in the cemetery, don’t you?” a voice said.

He turned and saw a large woman in a fur coat and fur hat coming toward him. “What?” he asked.

“I said I hear voices when I’m in the cemetery. Don’t you?”

He thought she might be making a joke, but he wasn’t sure.

“No, I don’t hear any voices,” he said. “All I hear is quiet.”

“Yes, the quiet of the grave,” the woman said. “Do you need any help?”

“Why, no,” he said. “I was just leaving.”

“What are you doing here today?”

“I came to put a Christmas wreath on my parents’ graves.”

The woman looked down at the headstone and nodded. “They’re dead,” she said.

“Yes, that’s why they’re buried in the cemetery.”

“I’ll bet you were a good son.”

“Well, I can say I at least tried.”

“Do you have other family?”

“A sister and a son.”

“How old’s your son.”

“Twenty-two.”

“What happened to your wife?”

“We got divorced. She’s married to somebody else now.”

“What does she…

“I think that’s enough questions,” he said. “Especially since we don’t know each other.”

“Are you in a hurry to get away?” she asked.

“No more questions, I said.”

“I’ll bet you have a girlfriend waiting for you someplace, don’t you? Or maybe a boyfriend?”

“Let’s just say that’s for me to know and you to find out.”

“Okay. I get the picture. You don’t want to talk to me.”

“Well, it’s cold and it is Christmas.”

“Not today. Today is the day before Christmas. Tomorrow is Christmas.”

“Yeah. Enjoy your walk through the cemetery, or whatever it is you’re doing. I’ve got to be going.”

“Can’t you stay and visit a while?”

“No. I did what I came to do and now I need to go.”

“Haven’t we met before?” she asked. “A long time ago.”

“It isn’t likely.”

“I feel as if I’ve always known you.”

“We’ve never met, I’m sure of it.”

“Do you find me at all attractive?” she asked.

“What kind of a question is that? Of course I don’t!”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“I have to be going.”

He started to move away and she stepped in front of him.

“Could you spare me some change?” she asked.

“No, I can’t spare you any change. I don’t have any change. I might ask why you need change in a cemetery, wearing a fur coat, but the honest truth is I don’t care.”

“That’s not very nice. I thought at first you were a nice man.”

“Well, I’m not!”

“Where is your Christmas spirit?”

“It disappeared as soon as you started talking to me.”

“Don’t you like me?”

“I have no opinion of you one way or the other.”

“My brother, Ogden, will be along to pick me up any minute. He went to buy some cigarettes. When I tell him how you insulted me, he’ll be awfully mad.”

“I didn’t insult you!”

“You did! You said you found me unattractive and you didn’t want to talk to me.”

“If you hadn’t spoken to me first, I would never have said anything to you at all!”

“Well, how are people supposed to get to know one another?”

“They’re not!”

“Can I come home with you?”

“No!”

“I’ll bet you have a beautiful home, don’t you?”

“None of your business!”

“I’ll do anything you want!”

“None of your… I don’t want anything from you except for you to stop annoying me!”

“If you get to know me, I’m sure you’ll like me.”

“Dear Lord, why me?”

She lifted her arms up and put her hands behind his neck, locking her fingers at the back of his head.

“Stop that!” he said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

He took hold of her wrists and forced her to release her grasp.

“You don’t like women at all, do you?” she asked.

“It isn’t any of your business what I like! When I leave here, I’m going straight to the police station and tell them there’s a crazy woman in a bearskin coat accosting people in the cemetery. They’ll send a squad car out here and pick you up.”

“Well, you don’t have to be so unkind about it!”

Down the hill she saw Ogden, her brother, lurking behind a tree. She called to him, he spotted her and began walking up the hill. In less than a minute, he was standing before them.

“Who’s this bozo?” Ogden said with a sneer. With his fat face, fur coat and fur hat, he was the male equivalent of the woman.

“He wanted to leave, but I kept him here,” she said.

“Good work, Bootsie girl!” Ogden said.

“Your names are Bootsie and Ogden?” Calvin asked.

“Yeah, what of it?” Ogden said.

“He insulted me, Oggie!” Bootsie said.

“Oh, he did, did he? How did he insult you?”

“He doesn’t like me. I offered to go home with him and do anything he wants, but he said he’s not interested.”

“Well, that’s not very gentlemanly, is it?”

“Oh, I get it.” Calvin said. “She’s a whore and you’re her pimp.”

Ooh! Some words are so ugly, don’t you think?” Ogden said.

He pulled a small gun out of his jacket and pointed it at Calvin.

“You’re wasting your time robbing me,” Calvin said. “I only have about two dollars.”

“Prove it!” Ogden said. “Give me your wallet!”

Calvin removed his wallet and handed it to Ogden as if it was something he did every day. Ogden opened it; after he had thoroughly examined its interior, he looked back at Calvin with hatred.

“You’ve got two lousy dollars? And no credit cards? What kind of a loser doesn’t have any credit cards?”

“I always pay for everything in cash.”

“You’re a deadbeat, you know that?”

“I told you it wouldn’t do you any good.”

“How about if I drive you to your bank and you withdraw about two thousand dollars from your account and give it to me and Bootsie here as a Christmas present?”

“What makes you think I have two thousand dollars in the bank?” Calvin said.

“Fellows like you always have lots of money in the bank.”

“The bank is closed for the Christmas holiday.”

“Well, isn’t that that just too convenient!”

Bootsie whispered in Ogden’s ear. His bewildered expression faded and he smiled. “I’ll bet you’ve got an expensive watch, haven’t you?”

“I have a Timex. It cost twenty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents and I’ve had it for six years.

“All right, Mr. Smart Aleck! Hand it over!”

Calvin unfastened the watch and gave it to Ogden with a smile.

“All right!” Ogden said. “I have two dollars from you and a cheap watch. If that’s the best you can do, I’m going to have to kill you and if I do nobody will find your frozen body at least for a couple of days, since it’s a holiday and all.”

“No, don’t kill him,” Bootsie said reasonably. “He’s not worth it. Just let him go.”

“And he’ll go straight to the police.”

“We’ll be long gone by the time they get here.”

“He knows what we look like, for Christ’s sake!”

“So what? Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in the penitentiary? I don’t think I do! Only a crazy person would kill a guy over two dollars and a cheap watch.”

“I can’t just let him go without doin’ nothin’ to him,” Ogden said.

“Just kick his ass good.”

“No, I know!” Ogden said. “I’ll make him strip naked and he’ll have to walk home with his best parts on display for all the world to see.”

“You really are sick, you know that?” Bootsie said. “Nobody’s going to strip naked! It’s too damn cold for that shit!”

“Hey! You know what?” Calvin said. “I just saw two police cars turn into the cemetery. They’ll be on top of us in about one minute!”

Ogden and Bootsie turned all the way around in confusion and, seeing nothing, began running down the hill to get away.

A couple of professional criminals!” Calvin said to himself and laughed.

He picked up the gun where Ogden had dropped it beside the trunk of a tree and slipped it into the pocket of his coat. He doubted the gun would even shoot, but it would be an interesting piece of evidence to turn over to the police so they could know he wasn’t just making the whole thing up.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Moving Picture

The Moving Picture ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

People said we didn’t need an opera house, but an opera house we had, and it was smack in the middle of a row of commercial buildings in the downtown district, between a furniture store and the bank. Two or three times a year the opera house opened its doors for a “serious” play or for a semi-famous author who gave a “reading” from a book he had written in an attempt to boost sales of said book. The vast majority of people in the town were happily ignorant of these, and all, cultural events.

I had been in the opera house on a couple of earlier occasions. The first time was to hear a lecture on the Egyptian pyramids and the second time for a political rally given by a candidate for the United States Senate. (He lost.) Now, here I was at the opera house again, for the third time, to witness for myself the miracle, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and twelve, the innovation called the “moving picture.” People in places like New York City would already be familiar with this phenomenon, but out here in the hinterlands of the North American continent, we were still as uninitiated as pygmies in the wilds of Africa.

Standing on the sidewalk, I looked up at the less-than-impressive edifice of the opera house and shivered in the wind. I paid my twenty cents admission to the pompadoured lady behind the window out front and went inside.

The cave-like interior of the opera house smelled like every old attic or damp basement I had ever been in. About half the seats were already taken (a surprising turnout for this town), at fifteen minutes before the moving picture was even supposed to start, so I went down close to the front and took a seat on the aisle.

The first thing I noticed after sitting down was that a tarpaulin or large canvas had been stretched across the stage. It didn’t take a genius to know, I suppose, that the moving picture would be projected onto the canvas, which glowed as if a lamp were burning behind it. (It occurred to me when I saw the glow that the opera house might be on fire and nobody knew it yet.)

In a few minutes, a young man in a frock coat came down the aisle; the audience knew instinctively that he had something to do with the moving picture and stopped talking and shuffling about. The young man took a seat at an upright piano to the right of the stage, struck a few chords of music, and the moving picture began right before our eyes. (The piano music will be continuous throughout the moving picture. The music will reflect and embellish what’s going on in the moving picture.)

The moving picture is called Cleopatra: The Romance of a Woman and a Queen. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the people in this town had never heard of Cleopatra, but I knew she was a Queen of Egypt who lived a long time ago in biblical times. I didn’t find her unsavory life all that compelling, but I could see that there were people who found her interesting enough to make a moving picture about her, and I was sure there would be plenty of other people on the receiving end willing to put forward their twenty cents to see it.

The Cleopatra of the moving picture is as broad and tall as a man, a formidable woman and a force to be reckoned with. She has copious amounts of black hair gathered around her face and hanging down her back to her waist. She wears a loose-fitting gown almost down to her ankles and strapped sandals. The tiniest hint of cleavage shows. Her armpits are shaved; we know this because she gestures a lot with her arms, raising them above her head.

Pharon also gestures a lot with his arms. He is thin and young, dressed in a short tunic that shows his legs. He is in love with Cleopatra, but it won’t matter because he is, not only a fisherman, but also a slave. He can only worship Cleopatra from afar and gather flowers that he hopes to give her. Iras, attendant to Cleopatra, is in love with Pharon and is jealous of his love for the queen.

When Cleopatra discovers that Pharon is in love with her, she decides she will kill him. But—wait a minute—she will give him another chance. She will give him ten days of bliss with her, in her arms, at the end of which he must kill himself. He readily agrees to die at the end of the ten days.

Cleopatra likes Pharon more than she expected to, but, a bargain is a bargain, so at the end of ten days she poisons him. The attendant Iras, loving Pharon as she does, goes to him and revives him by giving him an antidote to Cleopatra’s poison. Iras lies to Pharon and tells him that Cleopatra wanted her (Iras) to save Pharon’s life and he believes her. With Pharon once again among the living, Iras tells him he must leave Alexandria. He is taken to the outskirts of the city and released.

Marc Antony, Roman general, has heard all about Cleopatra and wants to meet her. He has heard rumors that she has been conspiring against Rome. He summons her to come to Tarsus to meet with him. She is late but finally arrives in her stately barge. When Cleopatra steps off her barge and Marc Antony looks into her seductive eyes, he falls instantly in love her. He can’t keep his hands off her. Then he is easily swayed to go back to Alexandria with Cleopatra and live with her in adulterous sin. To hell with Rome and its politics!

Marc Antony and Cleopatra are happy together at Cleopatra’s home in Alexandria, but the happiness can’t last. A messenger arrives to inform Marc Antony that his wife Flavia is dead and Rome is in turmoil. He says he doesn’t care and won’t go, but Cleopatra entreats him to go and take care of matters at home, even though she loves and will miss him terribly.

Cleopatra waits months for Marc Antony to return, but he doesn’t come back for the longest kind of time. Finally she receives word that he has taken another wife, this one named Octavia, and is arming for war. She agrees to send her warships to help him at a place called Actium.

Well, the Battle of Actium doesn’t go well and Marc Antony is defeated and terrifically embarrassed. He returns to Alexandria and here is where the slave Pharon re-emerges. He takes an assassin’s arrow in his chest meant for Marc Antony because he knows how much Cleopatra loves him (Marc Antony). Cleopatra sees the sacrifice that Pharon has made her and decides he is an all right fellow.

Marc Antony can’t live with the humiliation of his defeat at Actium and kills himself by “running” on his own sword. He apparently dies without pain and makes a beautiful corpse.

Cleopatra doesn’t want to go on living without her boyfriend Marc Antony. A sympathetic friend gives her a basket of figs with a tiny, poisonous asp (snake) in it. She picks up the basket of figs, the asp bites her, and she dies with her body draped across the body of Marc Antony.

The piano music ended with a flourish, the canvas across the stage became a piece of canvas again, and everybody in the audience got up and left. I walked home with a feeling of satisfaction, knowing I had seen my first moving picture. Was it something I would tell my grandchildren about, or something I would forget about in one week?

Moving pictures caught fire (not literally but figuratively) in the United States and around the world. In a few years, the opera house was converted into a moving picture theatre. Moving pictures became the most popular form of entertainment in our town, surpassing the dance hall, the tavern, the church and the whorehouse.

In 1920 I got on a train and traveled across the plains and the desert to get to Hollywood, California, the moving picture capital of the world, and I stayed there for the rest of my life. I became employed in the moving picture business, not as an actor, but as a publicist and then a scenario writer, and it all began in the little opera house in my home town on an autumn night in 1912 when I first met Cleopatra.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Frozen Charlotte

Frozen Charlotte ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

(This is a repost from a year ago.)

The snow has stopped falling. The temperature hovers at fifteen degrees. The wind is minimal. The air crackles with electricity. The stars twinkle like diamonds on a bed of blue-black velvet. Atmospherically it is the best Christmas Eve on record.

Roads are snow-packed and have been for weeks. The best way to get from place to place is by horse-drawn sleigh. The automobile is still not in common use, as it is 1897, but those days are coming.

Charlotte Little will be attending the party at the Whites on her own, even though she is only twelve. Vardaman will drive the sleigh. He will watch out for her and see that she returns safely.

It is to be a party for adults as well as children. There will be an orchestra, bountiful food and drink, musical acts, caroling, magic tricks, surprises and a visit from Santa. Those who attend the party will remember it all their lives into old age. They will take memories of the party to their graves.

As the best friend of Amy White, Charlotte will be an honored guest at the party. She doesn’t mind that she has to go alone but finds it rather exciting and grown-up. She has a new dress made for her by a real dressmaker. It is white bombazine with red satin trim. It reminds her of peppermint, of Christmas. She has never had a dress before of which she is so proud.

She is to leave at five o’clock. Allowing for no mishaps with the sleigh, she will arrive at the party at six o’clock. She is dressed and ready to go hours in advance. Mother tries to get her to eat before she goes, but she is too excited; there will be lots of time to eat later.

When she goes down to leave, mother and father are waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Mother has her coat and scarf for her and father her fur hat, gloves and galoshes, but she doesn’t want to put any of them on. She has spent hours getting herself ready for the party and doesn’t want to spoil the effect. The coat will flatten the frills and puffs of her dress and the fur hat will mess up her hair. She doesn’t need the boots at all but will walk in tracks that have already been made. As a kind of concession, she puts the scarf around her shoulders and slips the gloves on her hands.

Vardaman is waiting for her in the sleigh at the front gate, whip in hand. He is so bundled up in his riding accoutrements that only his eyes can be seen. Charlotte gets into the sleigh, piling her warm winter coat and fur hat on top of the lap robes in the corner of the seat. She throws her galoshes on the floor of the sleigh and forgets about them. Who wears galoshes with a fancy Christmas dress?

Vardaman drives slowly at first and then faster. Soon he seems to be flying without leaving the ground. The trees and farmhouses whiz past in an icy blur. Charlotte breathes deeply of the icy air and looks up at the twinkling stars. Already she is having a good time, and she’s not even at the party yet. She spreads her coat over her lap, but that is the only concession she makes to the cold.

She doesn’t speak a word on the way. If she has anything to say, she would have to say it to Vardaman and she rarely speaks to Vardaman unless he speaks first. He is what they call all business.

The trip goes smoothly enough without incident. Vardaman has guided the sleigh expertly and efficiently, as he always does. He pulls up to the side of the house belonging to the Whites and gets out, throwing a blanket over the horse’s back. His back is sore and he is in a hurry to get inside and take off his coat and outer wrappings and warm his feet at the kitchen fire. In his haste, he fails to notice that Charlotte hasn’t moved from the sleigh. She still sits there, not moving, her icy blue eyes staring straight ahead.

Sometime during the trip, Charlotte’s blood freezes in her veins. Her heart stops pumping blood and turns into a useless, frozen muscle in the middle of her upper torso. Her eyes become fixed in their sockets, frozen in place, eyelids opened. How can someone so dead look so alive?

It is the easiest of deaths. She has felt nothing, not even a tingling sensation. From one second to the next, she is here and then she is gone.

The party disperses at eleven o’clock. Those who expected Charlotte to attend are disappointed, but they figure something must have come up unexpectedly at the last minute to keep her home.

Vardaman, sated with food and drink, comes out and is happy to see that Charlotte has taken her place in the sleigh and is ready to go home. He is all too eager to get home to his warm bed. He wakes up the horse and takes the blanket off his back and in thirty seconds the sleigh has taken to the road.

He turns and asks Charlotte if she had a good time at the party. He believes she answers in the affirmative but, of course, no answer is forthcoming.

When they get back home, it is near midnight on Christmas morning. Unknown to anybody, Charlotte has been sitting in the back of the sleigh on a frigid Christmas Eve for seven hours.

He stops the sleigh at the front gate. When Charlotte doesn’t get out as he expects, he turns around in the seat and looks at her, at her blue, staring eyes. Right away he knows something is wrong. He runs to the front door and bangs loudly. Mother and father, both in their night clothes, know that something is wrong and come running out.

When they see that Charlotte is frozen through and through, they take her in and set her by the fire. They try to lay her flat, but she is frozen in a sitting position. They rub her hands and wrists and pat her cheeks. They put more wood on the fire. They believe all they have to do is thaw her out and she will revive and start breathing again. Not knowing what else to do, mother sends for the doctor.

In the morning they send for the undertaker’s men. They come promptly and take Charlotte away. In the afternoon on Christmas Day, mother and father pay a call at the undertaking establishment. They choose embalming for their little girl and, after she is embalmed, they want her dressed in her fancy, red-and-white Christmas dress that she wore to the party. They pick out the finest and most expensive cast-iron coffin with a little window over the deceased’s face. Only the best will do.

Two days before the New Year, a service is held at the Methodist chapel for Charlotte Little. All the same people who were at the White party attend the service, except now they are in black and are no longer smiling. Everybody wants to know how such a thing could happen. How could a little girl go out on a freezing Christmas Eve in only a thin dress and no coat, hat, gloves or galoshes? Some of the ladies look accusingly at mother and then look away quickly when she looks back.

The ground is hard as iron. No new graves can be dug until there is an appreciable thaw. Frozen Charlotte is kept in the frigid sub-basement of the church for the duration. All through the winter, people may come and visit her and pay their respects. They line up and peer into the little window over her face and are subdued into silence by the mystery of death.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp