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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 Earnest Beasley. 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 Earnest Beasley enter. As soon as he was over the threshold, he removed his hat.

“Might we sit down?” Earnest 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.

Earnest 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 fifteen hundred 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!”

Earnest Beasley 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 Earnest Beasley.

“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 Earnest Beasley left, he gave Gerhardt a life-affirming hug. Gerhardt hated to be hugged but he tried to hide his distaste. It was the 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 at 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.

“The scarf is 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 me?”

“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

Come We Now to the River Ishcabob

Come We Now to the River Ishcabob ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I was ill but I recovered. When I awoke, I was in a place I had never been before and found myself purchasing a house. A large house it was, many-windowed, a hundred yards or so up the hill from a river. The river, with its protruding rocks and swift current, provided a scenic background to the setting.

I didn’t remember choosing the house out of other houses but, here I was, turning over a fat envelope full of cash to the owner and seller of the house, a woman named Mrs. Goldoni. She had platinum blond hair like a Hollywood starlet and a thin, lipless mouth. Her face was shriveled like a Mayan mummy and, due to an arthritic condition (she said), she didn’t always walk upright, but parallel to the floor like an insect, which is to say a cockroach or cricket. I’m not sure how many legs she had, but I’d say at least six.

As soon as the house was transferred over to me, I thought Mrs. Goldoni, the bug woman, would clear out and leave me to it, but she seemed reluctant to leave. Her husband was dead, she said, and her many children scattered to the four winds.

“I don’t have any place else to go,” she said pitifully.

“Why did you sell your house then?” I asked.

I agreed to keep her on as housekeeper, at least until one of her innumerable daughters could arrange to take her in. I pictured her children and I wondered what form they had taken, if they were insects like their mother or something else entirely. I was probably better off not knowing.

The day after I moved in, I was in one of the upstairs rooms putting things away, when I stopped what I was doing and looked out the window at the river. I heard Mrs. Goldoni’s rapid, tapping little footsteps come up behind me and I turned and spoke to her.

“What is the name of that river?” I asked.

“What river, sir?”

“There’s only one river out there, Mrs. Goldoni!”

“It’s the River Ishcabob, sir.”

Ishcabob? I haven’t ever seen it on a map. Does it ever flood?”

“Oh, no, sir!” she said. “I’ve never heard of it flooding. Why ever would it flood?”

“Where I come from, rivers sometimes flood and cause a lot of trouble and damage.”

“Well, rivers may flood, but I’ve never known the River Ishcabob to flood.”

While I was watching the river, I saw a person, a man, floating along on the current. I could distinctly see his face and head and his struggling, flailing arms. In a few seconds there was  another man and then another one.

“Oh, I my Lord!” I said. “Somebody has fallen into the river and is being swept away on the current! Not just one but three! I saw three different men! They were naked and they were struggling to keep their heads above the water. We should try to get them some help for them before they drown!”

“Oh, bless my soul, sir!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “It’s nothing to be alarmed about. It happens all the time.”

“What does?”

“People in the river. Those are the Transgressors.”

“The what?”

“You have to understand. Some poor souls are brought to the river.”

“What do you mean, brought to the river?”

“Is that the telephone phone ringing?” she asked.

“We don’t have a phone,” I said.

Mrs. Goldoni dropped to her tiny feet and skittered out of the room. I was left with the distinct impression she was evading my question.

“What kind of arthritis makes you grow extra legs and walk like a bug?” I asked, but of course she was gone and didn’t hear me.

While I was eating lunch, I noticed a small crowd of people standing in the doorway looking at me.

“Who are those people?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni, who was serving.

“Oh, they’re always here,” she said. “They won’t bother you.”

“Now, look here!” I said. “My privacy is important to me. I don’t want lots of strange people hanging around.”

“You usually have to be here a lot longer before you see them.”

“Who are they?”

“Don’t worry yourself about them, sir. After a while you’ll forget they’re here.”

“I still want to know who they are and why they’re here!”

“They’re always here,” she said. “We just don’t always see them!”

“Tell them to leave!”

After lunch I took a walk down the hill. It was the first time I had seen the river up close. I stood for a while close to the edge and looked down at its churning, blue-green depths. It was beautiful and mesmerizing but also frightening in a way because I had the feeling it (the river) had a will of its own and would suck me under if it could. I didn’t relish the thought of drowning—which I certainly would do if I ever fell in—or of being in uncontrollable water over my head. I suppose I had always had a fear of water. I would stay as far back from the river as I could.

While I was walking back up the hill, I noticed movement over to my left and turned and looked in that direction. What I saw was a clown dressed in a billowing red suit with a tremendous ruffled collar and enormous shoes. I was going to say something to the clown or at least wish him a good morning, but he was juggling a series of balls so fast while walking that they (the balls) were only a blur. He was the best juggler I had ever seen.

When I got back home, Mrs. Goldoni met me at the door. She was entertaining her good friend in the kitchen, Baby Estelle. Baby Estelle was not a baby but was instead a tiny, doll-like woman with flaming red hair and a twinkling smile. She curtsied and smiled demurely.

“Would you like to see me dance?” Baby Estelle asked.

“Um, I guess so,” I said.

She stood up and in the space between the table and the kitchen sink twisted and turned, jumped and dived, sashayed and pirouetted with absolute abandon. In five minutes she was out of breath and so completed her performance with an elaborate bow to the floor.

Mrs. Goldoni applauded enthusiastically. “Isn’t she a wonderful dancer?” she said. “I just don’t know how she does it!”

“I haven’t ever seen anything like that before,” I said.

“I was trained at the Sore Bone Academy,” Baby Estelle said.

“Isn’t that in Paris, France?” I asked.

“Of course not, silly!” Baby Estelle said. “It’s right here!”

“Right where?”

“Right under your nose,  Mr. Smarty Pants.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I didn’t care to pursue it any further.

“And that’s not all!” Mrs. Goldoni gushed. “Baby Estelle’s husband is a clown!”

“I think I just saw him!” I said.

Where?” Baby Estelle asked.

“I walked down to the river and as I was walking back up the hill I saw a clown dressed in red off in the distance. I was going to speak to him, but he was juggling balls and he didn’t even know I was there.”

“That’s him!” Baby Estelle said. “The very one! That’s the clown in question! That’s Mr. Winklebottom!”

“Mr. Winklebottom is so handsome!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “So distinguished!”

“You must come and see us perform some night!” Baby Estelle said.

“I look forward to it.” I said.

Baby Estelle curtsied again and danced her way out the door.

“Baby Estelle is such a doll!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “I just love her to pieces!”

“I’m going to take a little nap,” I said. “Call me when dinner is ready.”

A couple of nights later I was sleeping soundly when Mrs. Goldoni knocked on my door and woke me up.

Sir!” she called. “Sir! Wake up! I thought you would want to know!”

“Know what?” I asked. “There’s not a fire, is there?”

“No, sir, there’s no fire. Your wife is giving birth!”

I jumped out of the bed and opened the door. I didn’t mind her seeing me only partially dressed after such an absurd statement.

“What did you say?”

“I said your wife is giving birth!”

“Very funny!” I said. “You know I don’t have a wife.”

“Come with me!”

I followed her into a part of the house I hadn’t seen before, down some stairs and into a dark corridor to a doorway. Standing around the doorway were several women I didn’t recognize. As Mrs. Goldoni and I approached the doorway, the women stood aside to let me enter.

The room was dark with only a couple of candles burning. There was a large, high bed, and in the middle of the bed was a human-sized female doll. The doll’s face was turned toward the candle. She had painted circles on each cheek. Her eyes were large and expressive and her eyelashes long and curved like spider’s legs.

“What is all this?” I asked. I still wasn’t happy about being woke up at such an hour.

“Why, don’t you recognize her, sir!” Mrs. Goldoni asked. “It’s your wife, Curlicue. She’s about to give birth.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t have a wife? And even if I had a wife, I wouldn’t have a doll for a wife!”

“You don’t have to worry, sir. She’s in a good hands. All will be well.”

“I’ll wake up in a minute and discover I’m having a nightmare.”

“Why don’t you go back to bed, sir? I’ll call you as soon as the baby is safely delivered.”

“Call me for when breakfast is ready and, other than that, don’t call me at all!”

“Just as you wish, sir, but what shall we do about the baby?”

“Give it to Baby Estelle and Mr. Winklebottom! I’m sure they can make it part of their act!”

“Yes, sir, but I think you’ll change your mind when see you the little darling little thing!”

Despite my instructions to the contrary, Mrs. Goldoni came to my bedroom again at eight o’clock to tell me the news that Curlicue had been safely delivered of a baby at four o’clock in the morning.

“A baby what?” I asked.

“You’re going to want to see it, sir!”

I wasn’t dressed yet, but I pulled on my robe and followed Mrs. Goldoni again, down the same stairs and the same dark corridor to the same doorway to the same room where I had seen Curlicue lying in the middle of the big bed the night before.

Curlicue looked no different. She had the same half smile on her lips and the same dreamy, expressionless eyes of a doll.

“Very funny!” I said. “I don’t see a baby at all.”

With a pleased smiled, Mrs. Goldoni pulled out from under the covers a fully formed dodo bird. She held it up so I could get a good look at it. It gave out with a couple of pitiful peeps and flapped its flightless wings. I heard people behind me gasp in wonder.

“That can’t be a dodo bird!” I said. “They lived on the island of Madagascar and they’ve been extinct for hundreds of years!”

“It’s your very own son. Wouldn’t you like to hold him?”

Not waiting for an answer, Mrs. Goldoni thrust the dodo bird into my arms and I had no other choice but to hold him. He looked into my eyes and made little cooing sounds.

“Oh, he knows his daddy!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Isn’t he the smartest boy? And already just as cute as a bug!”

While I was still holding the dodo bird, Mrs. Goldoni leaned over the bed and put her ear to Curlicue’s mouth.

“She’s wants to name him Sheridan and she wants to know if the name meets with your approval, sir.”

“I can’t think of a better name for a dodo bird,” I said. “Now, can I get some breakfast, please?”

By the time I was finished with breakfast, I was already thinking of the dodo bird as Sheridan, as a unique individual. Of course, I wasn’t his father—and I didn’t want anybody to entertain the notion that I was—but I felt a certain amount of pride and proprietary interest in him. I recognized the significance of having the rarest of rare birds in my possession: a bird that had been extinct for hundreds of years, a bird that no living person had ever laid eyes on, and it was in my very own house!

It occurred to me that nobody was going to believe that I had a real, living, extinct-no-longer dodo bird in my possession. People would think I was a dangerous lunatic if I tried to tell them. I had to have photographic proof! I wasn’t in possession of a workable camera at the moment, but I was a mile or so from the good-sized town of New Garland and was sure there would be a store there where I could buy one, no matter the cost.

I changed clothes and put on my walking shoes and told Mrs. Goldoni I was going to be gone for a while and not to await luncheon on my account. Then I set out walking. Still within sight of the house, I was passing the River Ishcabob over to my left, intent on the long walk ahead of me, when I saw a sight in the middle of the river that stopped me in my tracks.

On one of the large rocks protruding from the water, Sheridan the dodo bird was perched at a perilous angle, struggling to keep from sliding into the raging water. How did he get out of the house and down to the river? Wasn’t anybody watching him? I couldn’t let him be swept away on the current!

I couldn’t swim a stroke but, without concern for my own safety, I started trying to make my way from one rock to another over to the rock where Sheridan was sitting. He looked at me pitifully and squawked and I knew he recognized and remembered me. He would come to me if only he wasn’t paralyzed by fear.

I was within five feet of Sheridan when he gave a couple of surprising hops away from me, until he was all the way across the river to the other side. He was safe, but I couldn’t say the same for myself.

It became impossible for me to hang onto my rock any longer and I found myself in the river, being carried away on the current like an insignificant piece of flotsam. I flailed my arms and legs, but I knew it was no use. As I was swept away, I clearly saw Mrs. Goldoni standing on the bank of the river looking at me, along with Baby Estelle and the juggling Mr. Winklebottom. Sitting in a wheelchair in front of Mrs. Goldoni was Curlicue the human-sized doll, her alarming eyes with their spidery lashes turned in my direction. None of them did anything to help me.

The current carried me away and away. I had the sensation of drowning over and over until I could drown no more. All went dark and I was lost.

But I would wake again.

When next I came to myself, I was in a large cage and hundreds people, it seemed, were looking at me. I knew, somehow, that hundreds more were lined up outside waiting to look at me. To express my indignation, I squawked at a large woman in a disgusting hat and flapped my flightless wings. When I didn’t get the response I hoped for, I turned around backwards and tucked my head under my barely adequate wing and hid my face the best I could.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Dickie Manly

Dickie Manly ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Arlene Upjohn sat on the high porch of the old house she shared with her mother, swinging herself gently in the old-fashioned porch swing that belonged to her grandparents. She held a woman’s magazine on her knees and, turning the pages, looked at the pictures and the advertising without much interest. When someone passed on the street in front of the house, she watched them warily to see if it was anybody she knew.

In a little while a young man approached on foot. When Arlene saw him, she felt a little flush of pleasure and interest. One didn’t often see his kind on this street. He wore dark glasses and a dark suit and carried a briefcase.

Arlene watched him without letting him know she was watching him. Surprising her, he approached the porch and, looking up, spoke to her.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “I’m a little lost. I’m looking for the Presbyterian church.”

“The what church?”

“Presbyterian.”

“It’s not on this street,” she said. “Keep going for a couple more blocks and then turn to the right when you come to Fulton Street. That’s where the church is.”

“I’m not too far off then.”

“Are you a minister?” she asked.

“Do I look like a minister? I’m a salesman.”

“What do you sell at a church?”

“Books.”

“Books for people to sing songs out of?”

“Something like that.”

She went back to her magazine, thinking the young man would walk on, but he continued to look up at her.

“My name’s Dickie Manly,” he said.

“Well, isn’t that fine!”

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t think my name could possibly be of any concern to you.”

“Why don’t you come down off that porch and let me get a better look at you?”

“I’ll stay where I am, thank you!”

“Can I come up there and sit beside you? I’ve been on my feet all morning and I’m pretty tired.”

“No! Don’t come up! My mother’s in the house! She’s getting ready to go for her doctor’s appointment and she wants me to go with her.”

“Is she sick?”

“That’s why she’s seeing the doctor.”

“Well, could I trouble you for a glass of water? I’m very thirsty.”

“You can have a drink of water if you promise to leave before my mother sees you.”

“All right. I’ll leave.”

“I’ll go inside now and get your water.”

“Might I come inside with you?”

“No! My mother is very particular! I’ll get the water and bring it out here.”

“When you have the glass of water in your hand, will it be all right if I come up the porch steps and take it from you?”

“No, that won’t do! I’ll set the glass on the top step and after I’ve resumed my seat you can come up the steps and get it.”

“Well, if that’s the best you can do.”

“I’ll be right back in just a minute. If you go away before I come back, it’ll be altogether fine with me.”

“I won’t go away. I’ll wait right here.”

Entering the house, she went into the kitchen, filled a clean glass with cool water and took it back out to the porch. When she saw that Dickie Manly was still there, she set the glass on the top step and stepped back.

With a smile, he climbed the eight steps and picked up the glass of water and drank until it was empty.

“Thank you,” he said, setting the glass back down.

“Now, will you please go before my mother comes down from upstairs and sees you?”

“All right. I’ll go. Might I ask you a question first?”

“What is it?”

“What do people do in this town for fun?”

“Stay at home and mind their own business.”

Hah-hah! You’re really not as hard as you pretend to be! You’re lonely like everybody else. Why don’t you loosen up and have some fun?”

“Look, mister…”

“Dickie.”

“Look, Mr. Dickie, you don’t know anything about me and I’ll thank you to stop pretending you do.”

“You must be thirty years old. I would venture to guess you don’t get asked out on too many dates. You have a lot of lonely evenings at home with mama.”

“How do you know I don’t have a husband and three children?”

“I noticed right away you’re not wearing a wedding ring. That generally means a person isn’t married. I’ve trained myself to notice little details like that.”

“You might do well to mind your own business.”

“For myself, I’m twenty-six. If you’re thirty or thirty-one, I don’t mind a few years’ age difference.”

“I think I hear my mother coming.”

“Will you have dinner with me tonight at my hotel?”

“No! I can’t! You’re a stranger!”

“What’s so bad about that? We’re all strangers until we get to know each other.”

“You’re trying my patience!

“It’s the Edgewater Hotel. Meet me in the lobby at six-thirty and I’ll reserve a table in the restaurant.”

“No! Don’t expect me to be there because I won’t!”

“I’ll bet it’s been a long time since a man asked you out to dinner. Maybe never.”

“I have a boyfriend.”

“No, you don’t!”

“I’ll be spending the evening with my boyfriend, if it’s all the same to you!”

“I know when people are lying.”

“Why would I take the trouble to lie to you?”

“Edgewater Hotel, room three-twenty-six. Dickie Manly’s the name.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Manly.”

“Call me Dickie.”

“I can’t say it’s been a pleasure meeting you because it hasn’t.”

“Until this evening, then.”

“I won’t be there! Plain and simple!”

He bowed from the waist like a viscount and then he was gone.

As Arlene sat and waited in the doctor’s office waiting room for her mother that afternoon, she felt a pang of conscience that she had been so unyielding with Dickie Manly. He was probably a very decent fellow and not at all bad looking. What would be the harm in having dinner with him at his hotel? How many times was she going to be asked out before she was too old to be of interest to anybody?

She was restless all the rest of the day and her mother said she looked “peaked.” She could hardly stand her mother’s incessant chatter about trivialities. She went out into the back yard to be alone, but her mother soon came out, too, wanting polish applied to her fat fingers and toes.

“I want you to drive me to prayer meeting tonight,” her mother said. “We’ll  need to leave at about quarter to seven.”

“Sorry, mother. I have plans. You’ll have to call a cab or get Beulah to come by and pick you up.

Plans? What plans?”

“My friend Edith Farris and I are going to take in the new movie at the Odeon downtown.”

“I thought you said Edith Farris was in New York.”

“She’s back.”

“Well, isn’t that strange?”

“What’s strange about it?”

“She was on a trip to New York and now suddenly she’s back.”

“Well, you know what people are like. They change their minds pretty fast sometimes.”

“Well, all right! If seeing a movie with a high school friend is more important that doing what your mother wants, then go ahead and see the damned movie!”

“I’ll call Beulah and ask her to come by and pick you up.”

“Don’t bother! I think I can take care of it myself!”

Her mother didn’t speak to her or look at her for the rest of the day.

She changed her clothes and at six o’clock sped off in her mother’s old Chrysler that her mother was no longer able to drive. She arrived at the Edgewater Hotel at twenty minutes after six and went into the lobby and sat down in a conspicuous spot where anybody getting off the elevators would be sure and see her.

At fifteen minutes before seven Dickie Manly hadn’t appeared. She began to worry that possibly he forgot that he invited her to dinner. He had seemed so determined, though, so confident. She was certain he wouldn’t give up so easily.

At five minutes after seven she went to the hotel desk and asked the clerk to ring Dickie Manly’s room, number three-twenty-six.

“Mr. Manly checked out, ma’am,” the clerk said cheerfully.

“Checked out?”

“That’s right.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“Not to me, ma’am.”

She didn’t want to go back home so early, with nothing to show for her evening. She thought about going into the restaurant and ordering dinner alone, but she wasn’t hungry and couldn’t eat. She had to ask herself an important question: What do people do when they feel lonely, disappointed and foolish?

She went into the dark hotel cocktail lounge and took a seat at the bar. She ordered a martini and after she drank it down ordered another one. When she was on her fourth martini, a man came and sat down on the stool beside her. He smiled and offered her a cigarette which she readily accepted.

“Could I buy you a drink?” he asked.

She nodded and the drink was placed on the bar in front of her.

“My name is Cleo Hall,” the man said.

“Happy to meet you,” she said, but didn’t offer her own name.

In ten minutes Cleo Hall was nuzzling against her. He put his hand on her shoulder and when she didn’t object he put his other hand on her upper thigh.

“Would you like to go someplace more…intimate?” he breathed his hot alcohol breath into her ear.

She looked at him and nodded solemnly. Standing up from the stool, a little shakily, she waited for him to disentangle his feet and stand beside her. She took his arm then, like an old acquaintance, and together they walked out of the bar—through the hotel lobby—through the slapping revolving door—and out into the cover of night.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Maroon and Yellow

Maroon and Yellow ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Everybody knew Miss Penny. She was the elderly widow who lived in the trim white house on the corner with green window shutters and a pear tree in the front yard. She was frequently seen tending her lawn, walking along the street carrying groceries, or soliciting donations in the neighborhood for a charitable cause or to buy flowers for someone who had died. When she saw any of her neighbors, she always called out to them cheerily and waved and smiled. Everybody loved Miss Penny.

Suffer the little children to come unto me. Miss Penny’s home was something of a haven for the better-behaved, calmer children of the neighborhood. On warm summer evenings, they liked to sit in the glider on Miss Penny’s screened-in porch, sipping Kool-Aid and eating cookies, while she sat in her old-fashioned rocking chair beside her huge fern and listened to them prattle on about school or their families. She smiled and laughed, encouraged them to be themselves, not be sullen and withdrawn. She was like the indulgent grandmother they wished they had. Sometimes she gave them small amounts of money to do little jobs for her, such as sweeping the front walk, putting birdseed out for the birds, or lifting down a box from the top shelf in the closet.

Tippy Kepke lived on the other side of the street, down the block from Miss Penny. She was fourteen years old and lived with her parents and her two manly older brothers. She thought all her teachers in school were bitches or assholes. Her parents were assholes, and she wanted, more than anything, to see her two brothers eat shit and die. She regarded Miss Penny warily and pondered why a woman that old was still allowed to live.

Tippy was unpopular in school, but she knew a way to change all that. She would try out for cheerleader, and if she was lucky enough to be chosen over the other nitwits who tried out, she would be welcomed into the world to which she so fervently aspired: the world of handsome, sleek, well-dressed boys, and pretty girls with perfect hair and skin; the world in which boys would pick her up in their very own cars for Saturday night dates; the world in which she, even she, might be homecoming queen and get her picture in the society column.

She stole a book from the library that told all about cheerleading, with cheerleader routines and yells; pictures of how cheerleaders dressed, how they deported themselves. There were drawings at the back of the book that demonstrated exercises that cheerleaders ought to undertake, because—don’t you know?—a cheerleader needs to be in tiptop physical condition and have winning muscle tone. A cheerleader is a winner and not a whiner. A cheerleader sets an example for the other students in the school, girls and boys alike. A cheerleader excels in all things, at all times. Yes, being a cheerleader is not something to be taken lightly. The cheerleader of today might be the movie star of tomorrow. Anything is possible in the world of the cheerleader.

She began to think of herself as the “cheerleader type.” She tried to do the exercises in the book but she hated any kind of physical exertion and soon became bored and achy. What she was able to do, though, was to pay closer attention to her grooming and appearance. She began washing her hair and face more often and making sure she didn’t have dirt under her fingernails.

The biggest obstacle to not becoming a cheerleader, she believed, was not having the cheerleader outfit with the school colors, maroon and yellow. The outfit consisted of short skirt, long-sleeved blouse, jumper, knee socks, and optional sweater for colder weather. The entire outfit might be purchased at Delaney’s department store for thirty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents: not a lot of money when one considered what it might mean to her future. If she had the outfit, she’d wear it to the tryouts and, surely—if there was a God in heaven—that would give her an edge over the others, even if her cheerleader moves were not all they should be.

She knew it was useless to ask her mother for the money. It would only get her started on one of her boring lectures about how hard money is to earn and to keep after it’s earned. She might steal the money if she knew who she might steal it from.

Then she thought of Miss Penny. She knew that Miss Penny sometimes paid children in the neighborhood money for doing little things for her. She would go to Miss Penny and offer her services for the paltry sum of thirty-nine and ninety-five cents, plus tax. She could work the money out somehow: cleaning house, washing dishes, doing laundry, yard work, or whatever the silly old cow needed.

It was a good plan and she congratulated herself for thinking of it.

The next morning after her mother left for work and her brothers were away doing whatever brothers do, she went to Miss Penny’s front door and knocked timidly. Not getting any answer, she walked all the way around the house a couple of times. Then she tried the back door, found it unlocked, and entered the kitchen without making a sound.

Standing for a moment just inside the door, listening, she heard nothing. Miss Penny must be gone, probably to the store or the beauty parlor, or maybe visiting a neighbor. Maybe she would only be gone for a minute or two. Whatever Tippy was going to do, she had to do it fast before Miss Penny came back and found her. If she could find some money and take it and then leave, that would be perfect. Miss Penny would never know who took it. But where would an old woman keep money in her house? That was the question.

She crept soundlessly through the kitchen and then the dining room into the front room, and there was Miss Penny, asleep on her back on the couch, her chest moving up and down with her breathing. Her right arm was up over her head and her left arm by her side. The television set, to the right of the couch, was on, but with the sound turned so low it could barely be heard.

If Miss Penny woke up at that moment and saw her in her house, she’d scream and jump up and call the police and have a great squawking fit. Tippy couldn’t let that happen. They’d come and take her away in handcuffs and lock her up and she’d never, ever, be cheerleader after a thing like that happened.

She had to act fast. A sound outside scared her. Someone was coming! She felt genuine panic rising inside her, the panic of being found out doing something horrible. She felt faint with confusion and fear. Not knowing what else to do, she ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife from a knife rack on the counter beside the sink. Gripping the knife so hard it hurt her hand, she ran back into the front room where Miss Penny lay.

A sudden solution occurred to her, as though whispered into her ear. Stab the old bitch to death and take the money out of her purse and get out of the house as quickly as she could! Nobody would ever know she did it. She had hardly known Miss Penny and had never been in her house before. The police would think a burglar or a drifter had done it.

With the first thrust of the knife into her flesh, the old woman woke up, gasped for air, tried to sit up. She opened her eyes and when she saw Tippy and knew what was happening to her, she closed them again quickly, as if on a horrible vision. The life went out of her so fast and so easily!

The deed done, Tippy took the knife back into the kitchen, washed it off with hot water—including the handle—and put it back into its rack along with the other knives.

Miss Penny’s purse was easy to find. It sat on top of the dresser in the bedroom, plain as day. Tippy didn’t even have to look for it. She opened the purse, took out the wallet and inside found two twenties, a ten, and two ones. Fifty-two dollars! Enough to buy the cheerleader outfit and have some left over to buy something else. It had all been easier than she thought it would be.

That evening she was especially kind to her family. She smiled at her brothers and helped her mother with dinner and then, when the meal was over, cleared the table and washed the dishes while the rest of the family watched television.

The next morning she slept late, after a night of untroubled sleep. After a light breakfast, she got dressed and walked downtown to Delaney’s. The day was sunny and fresh and much cooler than it had been. There was a hint of autumn in the breeze.

Delaney’s had the cheerleader outfit in stock, in exactly the right size. Tippy’s heart sang! Finally, good things were going to happen for her. Doors would open that had previously been closed. It was the turning point she had been hoping for.

With the bulky Delaney’s bag containing its treasure gripped tightly in her fingers, she went straight home, without any dawdling. She couldn’t wait to take the bag up to her room, lock herself in, take the things out of the bag, admire them one by one and try them on in front of the mirror.

When she got home, she went into the house by the back door, as she usually did. She couldn’t have seen the police cars parked at the curb.

Her mother was standing in the living room. When she heard Tippy entering from the kitchen, she turned and looked in her direction, her face pale and stricken. She took the Delaney’s bag from Tippy’s hands as if not really seeing it and gestured to the two police officers standing a few feet away. Tippy hadn’t seen them at first. She showed by the look on her face that she knew why they were there and what it was going to mean to her future.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Spiritus

Spiritus ~ A Ghost Story by Allen Kopp 

(This is a re-post. It has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)

My name is Igor Dillingham. In 1893 I was twenty-one years of age. I was twenty-one then and I’m twenty-one now. Twenty-one I shall always be. Every time I look at myself in a mirror, I see my twenty-one-year-old self looking back at me. I will never be forty or sixty or eighty, but always the same as I am now, for I am dead and I dwell in the spirit world.  

A lot of years have gone by, I know, although time, the passage of years, means nothing to me. I still dwell in our old house. The house, old as it is, is also big. I forget exactly how many rooms there are in it but, since I am the only one left, all the rooms belong to me. The house, I was told, was built a long time ago by a rich man with many children. All of the original family are gone—I’ve never met any of them—and I have never encountered any of them in the spirit world. They have all moved on, as the saying goes.

Now the house is falling down in places. The paint is all gone, the wood is old, ugly and gray, the roof has holes in it; mice, bats and spiders are my eternal companions. I hear, always, the flutter of wings above my head as birds nest in the attic. Some of the windows are broken out, but it makes no difference to me because I am a spirit and spirits don’t mind the cold wind and rain.       

Sometimes I go out of the house, but the truth is I have no place to go. On occasion, just to prove to myself that I still can, I go outside and travel a mile or two in any direction. In these little forays out into the world, I never see a living person but only wild animals and birds, which is altogether fine with me. Animals, even if they can’t see me, sense that I’m there and are not afraid.

The road that leads down to our house was washed out in a flood forty years ago. Nobody bothered to build the road back. Even if people could get down here, they have no reason to do so. It is a place completely shut off from the world and forgotten. I think isolated is the word. If I saw a living person who wasn’t a spirit, like me, I wouldn’t know what to do. I suppose I’d run and hide and make sure I gave him good enough reason to want to leave.  

In my aloneness, I am sometimes reminded of the people I once knew when I was alive. I had a sister, Sobriety, and a brother, Claxon. Sobriety had an enormous head; she was what’s known as hydrocephalic. She stayed in a crib in an upstairs room most of the time, tended only by a mute servant that mother employed. I used to go into her room to visit her and try her to keep from feeling lonely, but I’m not sure if she ever knew I was even there. Mother sold her to a traveling freak show when she was about twelve years old for fifty dollars. After the freak show people took her away, I never saw her again. I don’t know what ever became of her but I hope one day I will meet her in the spirit world and rejoice to see that she is cured of her affliction.

My brother Claxon was covered with a scaly growth all over his body that made him look like a human frog. He never spoke in words but he made croaking sounds and he knew how to laugh. He was my closest friend; he and I communicated without words in the way of brothers. One day he made the mistake of defying mother in a very bad place—at the top of the stairs. She rushed him and pushed him. He fell all the way to the bottom of the stairs and broke his neck. He died later the same day. She didn’t want anybody to know what she had done, so she buried him in the hog yard out back before anybody had a chance to ask any questions. I nailed together a small cross and put it over the place where I thought he was buried, but the hogs trampled it into the mud.

Claxon wasn’t the first person mother killed, nor would he be the last. When I was six years old, she poisoned the man who was my father, or the man I believed was my father. She claimed he became sick in the night of unknown causes and was dead by the rising of the sun. She collected on his life insurance and become a modestly wealthy woman. That’s when she realized how profitable death could be for her.

She soon married another man with whom she had been communicating through a lonely hearts club. After six months of marriage, she murdered him by dropping a meat grinder on his head and claiming it was an accident. He didn’t have life insurance, but he had over a thousand dollars in a bank account and a small horde of silver coins, all of which became hers as his grieving widow.

About the time mother killed her second husband, she hired an itinerant worker to do small jobs for her. She had him tend the garden, paint the barn and mend the fence before she took him into her bed. He was her plaything for a few weeks, until he became tiresome to her and then she poisoned him—making certain first, however, that he had no relations who might come looking for him later. 

There were others after that. She placed an ad in a newspaper in the city for single gentlemen who might be interested in the pastoral life on a lush farm away from the hustle-bustle of the city. With a small investment of a thousand dollars, they might “buy into” a growing enterprise that had unlimited potential for growth and profit.

I don’t know how many “gentlemen” mother lured away from the city and killed, but I do know our hog yard out behind the barn became quite crowded with rotting corpses, while the wad of cash she kept hidden underneath the floorboards in her bedroom grew ever larger.    

I was the only living witness to mother’s depredations, but she thought I was too stupid to see anything, to know anything. From the time I was eight years old, I began writing everything down: names and ages of the people who ended up in the hog yard, where they came from, physical characteristics (bald, wears glasses, speaks with a stutter, speaks with an accent, missing fingers on right hand), how much money they brought to the “enterprise” and anything else I could see that set each one apart from the others. I also added to the record the details of how she sold Sobriety to a traveling freak show for fifty dollars and how she pushed Claxon down the stairs and broke his neck. I spared none of the distasteful details.

By the time I was a grown man, I had filled an entire notebook with these observations. If mother killed me, as I was certain she would one day, I hoped that my notebook would end up in the proper hands and justice would be served.  

She was gone for three days and didn’t tell me where she was going. When she came back, she had a new husband, a man named Jules DuFray. He was slick, well-dressed, the opposite of a farming man; he wore suits instead of overalls, even all the way out here where nobody ever saw him. I don’t know whatever possessed him to want to marry a pizzle-faced old harridan like my mother, but there you have it. She had always had a way with men. There’s no accounting for tastes, I suppose.

For several days I stayed out of mother’s way, keeping to myself in my room or in the woods. She and her new husband spent most of their time in mother’s bedroom with the door closed. When I passed by in the hallway, I could hear them grunting, breathing,  groaning. When we all sat down to dinner (cooked by a moronic “serving girl” that mother hired with one of her newspaper ads), mother was polite and subdued, almost as if she had been drugged. I knew she was putting on an act for her new husband, while all the time hatching some scheme in her head that would bring her enough money to live like the queen she imagined herself to be.

When I saw the cans of kerosene she had stored under the stairs, I knew that her plans involved burning the house—with me in it, of course—and then collecting on the insurance. She would make it look so convincingly like an accident that she would fool anybody who needed fooling.

I was afraid to go to bed and go to sleep, afraid that I would wake up and the house would be burning and it would be too late for me to get out. I sat in a chair in my room, fully clothed, dozing lightly, clutching my notebook, ready to escape the house at the first sign of smoke or fire.

Finally I could stand it no longer, this waiting for mother to kill me, waiting for the house to go up in flames. One morning I set out on the road for the nearest town, over ten miles away, to deliver my notebook to a man of the law, a person of authority who could set about bringing mother’s killing to an end.

I hitched rides part of the way, so I came to the town of Wadsworth by noontime. I asked an old man sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store where I might find the sheriff. He told me what I needed to know and in a half-hour I was sitting across a desk from an old man wearing a badge. I gave him my notebook and told him my fantastic story, or as much of it as I could get out without crying. He listened to me with unremitting seriousness and told me he would read every word of what I had written and look into my allegations as soon as time permitted. He gave me some water and some jailhouse food and, after I had rested for a while, I began the long walk back home.

Mother was waiting for me. She somehow knew where I had been and who I had been talking to. Without a word, she split my head with an ax and then hit me with a cane until I was dead as I lay on the floor. I felt my spirit leave my body and go up through the ceilings and floors of the house to the attic. It is here I have been ever since.

Mother and her new husband Jules DuFray got away before the sheriff and his men arrived. I don’t know where they went, but my mother, true to her fashion, disappeared as completely as if she had never existed. I’d like to think that she somehow, somewhere, met justice, but I’m more inclined to believe she just transferred her activities to another location.

I stood at the attic window and watched the men exhume the thirty or so bodies from the hog yard. When they were all finished collecting bodies and collecting evidence from the house, they put a heavy padlock on the front door and left. They didn’t know I was still here, and if they had known they wouldn’t have cared. I was as nothing, a tiny puff of air that disappears as soon as you see it.  

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Don’t Wait Up

Don’t Wait Up ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

On a beautiful Friday evening in October, nobody under the age of twenty wanted to stay at home and listen to Jack Benny on the radio. Ruby Leftridge arranged to meet her friend Marcella Rogers on the corner by the cemetery. They were going to walk downtown to see the horror double feature at the Odeon Theatre.

“I don’t want you to go!” Ruby’s mother said. “There’s a crazed killer on the loose killing people! He strangles women!”

“Nobody’s going to strangle me, mother!” Ruby said. “You can’t let your life be ruled by fear. I’ll be fine. I won’t be alone. I’ll be with Marcella the whole time.”

“And what could she do for you?”

“She can scream really loud!”

“You always have to make a joke out of everything, don’t you?”

“Not always, but usually.”

“I don’t want two uniformed officers to wake me up late tonight with the sad news that my daughter has been murdered!”

“You won’t! I’ll be home about eleven. Don’t wait up!”

Ruby had known Marcella Rogers since sixth grade. She was a tall girl who sometimes seemed all knees and elbows. She saw herself as a great beauty. She had a receding chin and an unflattering mane of hair that she barely kept clean. She was twenty years old and worked as a typist in a real estate office full of men. She was always imagining the men in her office were in love with her and would leave their wives if only she gave them a little encouragement.

“Did you hear about the killer on the loose?” Marcella asked.

“Yes,” Ruby said.

“Isn’t it thrilling?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It scares all the old ladies, including my mother.”

“I think it’s tremendously exciting to have a maniac on the loose,” Marcella said.

“I hope they catch him soon,” Ruby said.

“Why? Are you afraid?”

“No. I don’t think it’s my destiny to die at the hands of a strangler.”

“Well, you never know. I wonder if he’s good-looking!”

“Who?”

“The strangler, silly!

“As long as he’s killing people, I don’t think it matters whether he’s good-looking or not. He can be an absolute perfect specimen of manhood and they’ll still fry his carcass in the electric chair. He’ll make a handsome corpse, as if anybody will be paying attention to the way he looks.”

“Oh, Ruby! You have no romance in your soul!”

“Not when it comes to cold, sadistic killers, I don’t.”

“You don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s just misunderstood.”

“We’re all misunderstood but we don’t go around murdering people.”

“Say, I want to tell you about this new man in our office,” Marcella said. “His name is Jake something or other. I haven’t spoken one word to him yet, but I feel a sort of connection with him. I’ll be sitting at my desk working and I’ll look up and he’ll be looking at me from across the room. He can’t seem to take his eyes off me.”

“He’s probably the strangler and he’s planning on making you his next victim,” Ruby said.

“He is so good-looking and he has the most beautiful eyes! I’m hoping he’ll ask me out on a date.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Oh, Ruby! I could never do anything so forward!”

“Send him a love note the way we used to do in junior high school.”

“Now you’re being silly.”

In two more blocks they came to the Odeon, its marquee of a thousand lights that welcomed all comers to step in out of the darkness and escape in a cinematographic dream.

“I wonder if I’ll see anybody here tonight I know,” Marcella said, as they took their place in line.

“You’d better not go off with one of your cute boys and leave me to walk home by myself at eleven o’clock. If you do that, our friendship is over!”

“Oh, honey, I would never do that!

After they bought their tickets, they went inside and stood in line at the refreshment stand to buy popcorn and sodas.

“It’s really crowded tonight!” Marcella said. “Hey, you! I want a large popcorn with extra butter and a large Coke!”

Most of the good seats were taken, so they sat close to the screen to get away from the rowdy high-schoolers who whistled and stamped their feet and threw popcorn.

The lights went down and the audience grew quiet. For the next three hours they would be drawn into the fabulous black-and-white fantasy world so far removed from real life. The first feature cast its spell and when it finished the second feature began after a five-minute interval.

When the show was over and Ruby and Marcella were filing out with the crowd, Marcella said, “There wasn’t a single person here I knew tonight.”

“You knew me,” Ruby said.

“Of course, dear,” Marcella said. “I wasn’t talking about you.”

“Well, after that horror extravaganza, are you ready to go home?”

“Let’s walk slow. The wind is blowing the leaves so beautifully.”

Three blocks past the movie theatre, the streetlights were farther apart; the streets were dark and deserted. They met a dark figure walking toward them, but he walked past without seeming to notice them.

“That might have been the strangler,” Marcella said.

“If it was, he wasn’t interested in us,” Ruby said.

“Don’t horror movies make you a little afraid to go upstairs by yourself with no lights on?” Marcella asked.

“Horror movies are just make-believe.”

“Well, I guess it’s kind of fun to be scared,” Marcella said, “as long as you know it’s not going to hurt you. In ninth grade, we used go into the cemetery at midnight without a flashlight and try not to scream. The first person to scream had to buy the next pack of ciggies.”

“My mother would never let me go out at midnight,” Ruby said.

“Mine, either, but I did anyway. I climbed out the window after she went to bed.”

“If my mother thought I was smoking, she would have killed me.”

“Mine too. Ever hear of Sen-Sen?”

“Yeah, it tastes worse than the cigarettes.”

“You’ve smoked?”

“Once or twice. I’d never take it up as a regular habit.”

“Well, I think it’s fun to smoke,” Marcella said. “It makes you feel sophisticated. Do you have any cigarettes on you?”

“No, do you?”

“No, I smoked my last one at the office this afternoon.”

“When did you take up smoking?”

“Oh, ages ago! I smoked all the way back in high school.”

“I never knew it.”

“Say, did you notice that boy taking the tickets when we went in tonight? He was awfully good-looking. I’ve seen him before. When I handed him my ticket, his hand touched mine and I felt an electric current pass between us.”

“He might be the strangler.”

“Oh, honey! You can’t believe that every man you see is the strangler!”

“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to think to protect ourselves?”

“The strangler is probably far away from here by now, in another state. Maybe ‘he’ is a ‘she’.”

“Did you ever hear of a woman strangling other women?”

“No, but I’ll bet it’s happened before.”

“That would really surprise people!”

“Yeah, what fun!”

They came to the corner by the cemetery.

“Well, I guess it’s time to go home,” Marcella said. “I hope my mother has gone to bed so I don’t have to listen to any more of her nagging.”

“It’s been fun,” Ruby said. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”

“Surest thing you know!”

“Don’t let the strangler get you!”

“Not a chance!”

They parted there, Ruby going in one direction and Marcella in another.

In the three blocks she had to walk to get home, Ruby saw no one. A dog barked at her and a car passed, blinding her with its headlights, but all was quiet except for the wind in the trees.

Her mother had left a light on for her downstairs and gone to bed. She went into the kitchen and made sure the back door was locked and then she went upstairs and went to bed.

She went to sleep right away and slept soundly. She was in a deep sleep when her mother came into her bedroom and woke her up after three o’clock.

“Marcella’s mother is on the phone,” she said. “She wants to talk to you.”

The voice sounded remote and far away when it said, “Marcella didn’t come home last night.”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Eunice Rogers, Marcella’s mother. I thought maybe she decided to spend the night at your house.”

“No, she’s not here. I left her on the corner about eleven o’clock and came home. That was the last I saw of her.”

“Did she say where she was going after you left her?”

“She didn’t say, but I’m sure she meant to go home.”

“I’m worried.”

“Have you called the police?”

“No, I wanted to check with you first.”

“I’m sure she’s all right.”

“I’m not sure. This is so unlike her.”

“If I can do anything to help, let me know.”

“Thank you, dear, and if you hear from Marcella, will you call me?”

“Of course I will!”

Ruby didn’t sleep any more that night. She was sure something terrible had happened. If Marcella had been going someplace else after they parted, she would have mentioned it.

Two grim-faced police officers came in the morning and questioned Ruby in her bathrobe. She told them everything, about the two of them walking to the movies and then walking home, but she knew she wasn’t able to add anything they didn’t already know.

Marcella’s body was found in a ditch alongside the highway a mile or so out of town late the next day. She had been strangled with a two-foot length of rope. Police were investigating but had few leads.

After Marcella, everybody was waiting for the next strangulation. If it could happen to a girl like her, who would be next? People were afraid to go out at night and talked of little else. There were neighborhood watches and vigilantes roaming the streets with guns.

The strangler never struck again and was never apprehended. People speculated about what happened to him. Did he go away to continue his killing in some other location? Did he decide he had killed enough and didn’t need to do it anymore? Was he alive or was he dead? Was he somebody who people saw everyday shopping and paying his bills and going about his business in town? The possibilities were almost limitless.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp