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I Had a Bone

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I Had a Bone ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

August had to look away as his father moved Mrs. Bone around the dance floor, weaving in and out among the other fools like a couple of mechanical dolls. His father, looking like an undertaker in his conservative blue suit, clutched Mrs. Bone to him as if he thought she might try to get away.

Something about them as a pair was all out of proportion. He was six inches taller than she was, but she was much wider. She wore a dress that exposed far too much of her body for a woman her age; her bare arms were enormous and flabbily white. The heels of her shoes were so high she walked like a tightrope walker.

When they returned from dancing, father pulled Mrs. Bone’s chair out for her and she turned and gave him a sweet smile before she sat down. He could be quite the gentleman when he wanted to be.

“Oh, my, that was fun, wasn’t it!” Mrs. Bone said. “We need to do that more often!” She picked up her martini and gulped it down.

“Not as young as I once was,” father said, breathing heavily and straightening his tie.

Mrs. Bone took a cigarette out of her bag; father lit it for her dutifully. “Would you like to dance with me, August?” she asked.

“I don’t know how,” he said.

“I can show you. It’s easy.”

“No, thank you.”

“You need to learn sometime.”

“I wouldn’t push it if I were you,” father said. “August is not exactly the dancing type.”

“Oh, I see!” Mrs. Bone said, looking confused.

“While you were dancing I was wondering something, Mrs. Bone,” August said.

“Yes?” Mrs. Bone said brightly, obviously pleased that August was interested enough to address her directly and ask a question.

“Where is your husband? Where is Mr. Bone? Did he die?”

“August!” father said. “That’s enough!”

“What did I say?”

“That’s not a question you need to be asking.”

“It’s all right,” Mrs. Bone said. “Of course he’s curious. I’m not a widow, August. Mr. Bone and I were divorced five years ago.”

“Don’t most divorced women go back to the name they had before they were married?”

“Some do, I suppose. I didn’t because I have three children. They naturally kept their father’s name and it would have been confusing for me to have a different name.”

“Oh. Well, where are they now? Your children, I mean.”

“They’re staying with their aunt this evening.”

“That’s enough questions, August!” father said.

“No, it’s all right,” Mrs. Bone said equably. “We’re just getting acquainted.”

“Are they boys or girls?”

“I have three lovely daughters.”

She’s running true to form, August thought. So typical, so conventional, right on down the line. After being in her company for ten minutes, you know everything there is to know about her.

“My youngest, Bitsy, is eight. Then Charlaine is eleven. Evie, my eldest, is fourteen, the same age as you.”

“I’m fifteen,” August said.

“Oh, yes, you recently had a birthday, didn’t you?”

Mrs. Bone was on her fourth martini and, while August didn’t know much about drinking, he knew it was starting to affect her behavior. She had a silly grin on her face; he found himself thinking that if somebody were to slap her across the mouth, really hard, the grin would still be there.

“They’re lovely children,” father said. Only August heard the insincerity in his voice.

“I’m so proud of them,” Mrs. Bone said. “And I can’t wait for you to meet them, August. I’ve told them all about you.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Well, they’ve met your father and they’re naturally curious about you.”

“That’s funny, because I’m not the least bit curious about them.”

Father gave him a warning look and Mrs. Bone laughed merrily. Father was going to reprimand August for his tactlessness, but just then the waiter arrived with their dinner on a big tray.

Before they ate, father ordered a bottle of the “best” champagne. He and Mrs. Bone drank it like water, on top of the martinis they had already had.

While August ate his fried chicken and au gratin potatoes, he stole little glances at Mrs. Bone. She ate her lobster thermidor like a starving lumberjack, butter sauce dripping down her chin. For several minutes she said nothing as she stuffed the food into her mouth.

“Oh, this is such a lovely place!” she gushed. “I’m so glad we came!”

“The food is certainly good,” father said.

After he finished his steak, father and Mrs. Bone danced again. When they returned to the table after their dance, father was pale and sweating.

“I’m going outside to get some fresh air,” he said.

“Do you want me to come with you, honey?” Mrs. Bone asked.

“No, you stay here and keep August company.”

After father left, Mrs. Bone turned to August and smiled. She was drunk and her lipstick was smeared almost up to her nose from her dinner. “So, August,” she said, “tell me about yourself. What do you like to do when you’re not in school?”

“Well, in addition to trying to resurrect the dead, I like deep-sea diving and competitive knife-throwing.”

“Oh, you sly boots!” she said. “I know you’re joshing me! Your father told me all about your over-active imagination.”

“Do you know my mother committed suicide?”

“Yes, I believe your father mentioned that fact.”

“She was emotionally disturbed.”

“That’s so sad.”

“I was in the sixth grade. I found her when I came home from school. She was hanging from a rafter in the garage. It was Halloween so when I first saw her I thought she was a Halloween decoration. I called for an ambulance but of course it was too late. She had been dead for hours.”

“That must have been so difficult for you. Not only losing your mother that way, but for you to be the one to find her.”

“Yes, it was difficult. I’ve been a difficult boy ever since, and when I’m grown up I’ll be a difficult man.”

“I’m so sorry for you.”

“Oh, don’t be. I’m fine.”

“I wonder if I should go check on your father. He was awfully pale.”

“Oh, no, he’s fine, I’m sure. He’ll find somebody out there to have a smoke with and forget about us for ten or fifteen minutes.”

“I think your father needs a woman in his life,” Mrs. Bone said. “A man without a woman is just a boat adrift at sea.”

“Did you know he’s a homosexual?”

“What?”

“Are you not aware that my father is a homosexual?”

“Why, no! He hasn’t mentioned anything like that to me.”

“No, he wouldn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think it’s why my mother killed herself. He preferred man love to her love.”

“This is not just another figment of your imagination, is it?”

“Are you implying I’d make something like that up?”

“I’m not implying anything, but I’d like to find out for myself if it’s true or not.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Would he tell me if I did?”

“Probably not. He’d say he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, if it’s true, it’s a dirty trick to play on me.”

“I don’t think he looks at it that way.”

“I might thank you later for telling me,” Mrs. Bone said, “or I might not.”

When father came back to the table, he was ashen and seemed barely able to stand on his feet. “Too much to drink,” he said. “I’m not feeling well. I need to go home and lie down.”

Mrs. Bone stood up. “Do you need to see a doctor?” she asked.

“No, I’ll be fine as soon as I get home.”

Father paid the check and they went outside to the car. Mrs. Bone offered to drive home, but father said he could make it. He drove to Mrs. Bone’s dark house and parked the car out front and turned off the engine.

“You don’t have to walk me to my door,” Mrs. Bone said.

“I will, anyway. There might be some evildoers hiding in the bushes.”

“What?”

“Nothing. I don’t know what I’m saying.”

August sat in the back seat and waited while father escorted Mrs. Bone to the door. He was only gone for a couple of minutes and when he came back he said nothing.

When they got home, August went into his room and changed into his pajamas and got into bed and started reading. He could hear father retching in the bathroom until he went to sleep.

In the morning August was sitting in the kitchen eating toast and corn flakes when father came down from upstairs wearing only his bathrobe. He set about making himself some coffee.

“Do you feel all right now?” August asked.

“I think so. I got all the liquor purged from my system. If I had thought, I would have known that six martinis topped off with large quantities of champagne would make me sick.”

“Glad you’re feeling better.”

“What did you think of Ida?”

“Who?”

“Mrs. Bone.”

“Her name is Ida Bone?”

“That’s right.”

“Ida Bone. I had a bone.”

“What did you think of her?”

“I didn’t like her.”

“Why not?”

“Her perfume smells like the stuff they use at school to clean vomit up off the floor.”

“That’s not a good enough reason for not liking her.”

“Well, I think she’s a phony. She tries to look younger than she is and she gives me the creeps. She looks like a pig in drag.”

“That’s not very nice.”

“What did you say to her last night in the restaurant while I was away from the table?”

“Nothing. Small talk. She asked me what I like to do in my spare time.”

“You weren’t rude to her?”

“Of course not.”

“When I dropped her off at her house last night she acted funny. She seemed to want to get away from me. She slammed the door in my face and didn’t even say good night.”

“I think you can cross her off the list and go on to the next one.”

“There is no ‘next one’. I think I’m done with trying to find a substitute for your mother.”

“Fine by me,” August said. He looked at his father to see if he was going to say more, but he just sighed and sat down wearily at the table.

“I’m going to be gone until Monday night,” father said.

“Where are you going?”

“To the lake with Tom and Brett. They asked me, so I figured ‘why not’.”

“Brett is the one with the black beard?”

“Yeah.”

“You like him?”

“Yeah, I like him.”

“Do you like him a lot?”

“What are you saying, August?”

“Nothing.”

“Will you be all right here by yourself?”

“Sure, I love having the house to myself.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I have to read a book for English and write a report.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“I’ll manage to work in some fun.”

When father went upstairs to get ready to leave at noon, August felt a sense of accomplishment, of a job well done. He had played the situation with Mrs. Bone like a virtuoso. He was sure now that father would never want to see her again, and he would have bet all his money, if he had any, that Mrs. Bone was finished with father. He turned on the TV and lay down on the couch. A movie that he wanted to see was just starting. He’d watch it through to the end, and, after that, the possibilities for enjoyment were limitless.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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I’ll Live to be a Hundred if You Don’t Kill Me First

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I’ll Live to be a Hundred if You Don’t Kill Me First ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

He heard her voice downstairs and her heavy tread across the floor as if a cow had been let into the house. He saw, without seeing, her fat feet in their white old-lady shoes climbing the stairs and her sausage-like fingers groping the banister. He closed his eyes to give the impression he was sleeping but he knew it was no good. Before he knew it, before he had time to take a deep breath, she was in his room and upon him.

“Uncle Jeff!” she screamed. “How the hell have you been?”

“I was taking a nap. Don’t you ever knock?”

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. The smell of her perfume almost made him gag.

“You don’t look very sick to me,” she said with a laugh. “I think you need to get out of that bed and stop pretending.”

“I’m a lot sicker now,” he said, “than I was a few minutes ago.”

“No, seriously, honey, how are you? What does the doctor say?”

“He says I’ll live to be a hundred if family doesn’t kill me.”

“Oh, now, you can’t pretend to be a grouchy old bear with me because I know you’re just bluffing. Underneath you’re just a just the kindest, sweetest old man in the world.”

“What can I do for you today, Vera? I know you want something or you wouldn’t have dropped in unannounced.”

“Can’t a gal stop by and see her favorite uncle without having some ulterior motive?”

“In your case, no!”

She grabbed hold of the nearest chair and pulled it close to the bed and sat down and rested her pocketbook on her knees.

“My, it’s warm in here!” she said. “Do you think we could open a window?”

“No, it aggravates my hay fever.”

“I think that’s all in your head, honey.”

“It looks like you’ve put on a lot more weight since I last saw you, Vera. You need to stop eating so much.”

“I don’t eat any more now than I ever did. It’s just my age.”

“What does age have to do with it?”

“A woman my age retains water.”

“It looks more like you retain chocolate cream pie.”

Hah-hah-hah! You can’t hurt my feelings, no matter how hard you try!”

“You’re going to get so fat you won’t be able to make it through the door. What will you do then?”

“We don’t need to talk about my weight. I know you’re just trying to embarrass me and it won’t work.”

“Go to the top of the stairs and call Esther,” he said, “and tell her to come up here.”

“Oh, we don’t need Esther, uncle Jeff! I wanted to have a little chat, just you and me.”

“I want my nurse here.”

“She’s not a nurse. I doubt if she even has a high school diploma.”

“You either get her up here like I said, or you can get back into your fancy Cadillac and drive off into the sunset.”

“Oh, very well! But I don’t know why we need to have her here.”

“I might need a witness.”

“Witness for what?”

“In case I decide to rise up out of this bed and kill you.”

“Oh, dear, you are such a card! I’m happy to see you still have your sense of humor!”

She stood up and went to the top of the stairs and shrieked down: “Esther, he says he wants you to come up here! Right away, please!”

“With a voice like that,” he said, “you could go out to the cemetery and wake the dead any night.”

“Don’t you think I would if I could?”

“All right, sit your fat ass back down and tell me why you’ve come.”

She smiled bravely. “I will tell you,” she said, “that no matter how much you berate me with that evil tongue of yours, I will not let you get under my skin.”

“That’s very noble of you.”

“I have more important things on my mind.”

Hah! I doubt it!”

Esther came into he room just then. “Did you need something, Mr. Talmadge?” she asked.

“I just want you to sit with us for a while and take a load off. I want you to be here to show my niece the door when it’s time for her to go.”

“Yes, sir.”

Esther sat in the chair across the room, next to the window, held her elbows and looked at the floor. She could be as invisible as she needed to be.

“I can’t very well talk over family matters with a domestic in the room,” Vera said.

“Why not?” uncle Jeff asked.

“It isn’t very nice.”

“So? Esther has heard things before that are not very nice.”

“Well, very well, since it seems I have no other choice.”

“You don’t.”

“It’s about Ricky.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“Ricky has got himself into trouble with some other boys.”

“Ricky is forty. I think he no longer qualifies as a boy.”

“He’s not forty. He’s thirty-nine.”

“Well, what did Ricky and these other boys do?”

“They were all at the river, drinking and whooping it up. You remember what it was like to be young.”

“If you say so.”

“There were four boys and one girl. It seems they all pleasured themselves with the girl one at a time.”

“Very gentlemanly.”

“The girl was willing, Ricky says. She was drunk as a skunk. She took her clothes off and was dancing naked around the campfire. Well, the boys were all drinking and, with the girl dancing naked as she was, they started to get ideas.”

“Is she underage?”

“Oh, no! She’s as old as Ricky.”

“So, she was willing, they were all drunk and whooping it up and they decided to take things a little farther that usual and have a little more fun than they were used to.”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“Well, what happened? They didn’t kill her, did they?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. When the party was over and they all sobered up a little and went back to town, the girl wasn’t so willing anymore. She went to the police and told them she had been gang-raped. She gave them a list of the boys’ names. She had some bruises on the inside of her legs and some fingernail scratches on her arms.”

“All very sordid, I’m sure.”

“I need your help, uncle Jeff. You’re the only family I have left, the only person in the world I can turn to for help. I need eighteen thousand dollars.”

“What?”

“I have to retain a good lawyer to defend my Ricky in court. Eighteen thousand is just the beginning.”

“Why can’t he use a public defender? If he’s innocent, that should be good enough.”

“I don’t want to risk it. I want to get somebody who will really fight for him.”

“If you think I’m going to sit down and write you a check for eighteen thousand dollars, you’re crazier than I thought.”

“It’s not as if you don’t owe me.”

Owe you? How do I owe you?”

“Ricky and I are your only living family. When you die, we’ll be the only ones to weep over your body down at Hartsell Brothers’ Funeral Home.”

“You flatter yourself, Vera.”

“You’re old and soon you’ll die. We know you have money and you’re not going to be able to take any of it with you.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Just what are you planning on doing with all your money when you die?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know!”

“Don’t you think Ricky and I are entitled to at least some of it?”

“I don’t hear you, Vera! I think I’m starting to have another one of my spells.”

“You live in this big twelve-room house all alone. Why does any old man living alone need twelve rooms, I ask you?”

“Some people need lots of space.”

“I think that’s very selfish of you. There’s a lovely new nursing home opening up downtown. I hear the accommodations are lovely. With just one little phone call, you can get your name on the list and you’ll be able to move in as soon as they have an opening. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?”

“And what would I do with this big house with its twelve rooms?”

“Ricky and I would be happy to move in and take care of it for you.”

“Hah! I just bet you would!”

It was time now for tears. She took a wad of Kleenex out of her purse and dabbed pitifully at both eyes. “I’m afraid they’ll send Ricky up for a long time. It isn’t his first offense, you know. Things will go very hard with him this time.”

“Ricky’s been a habitual criminal since he was five years old. I knew it was only a matter of time before he was called to a reckoning.”

“Don’t say that! If you had ever been a mother, you’d know what it’s like to be faced with the prospect of having your only child being locked up for life.”

“Do you want some advice?”

“No, but I know you’ll give it anyway.”

“Find out the name of the girl, the woman, who says Ricky and the other boys violated her.”

“I already know her name. It’s Willie Walls.”

“Something tells me she’s trash.”

“What else would she be?”

“Offer her a thousand dollars to drop the case. That’s probably more money than she’s ever imagined having in her life.”

“A thousand dollars?”

“Tell her she can have a thousand dollars to drop the case or risk going to court and losing and not getting anything.”

“I’m not sure that’s wise, uncle Jeff.”

“If it goes to court, they’ll get her on the witness stand and it’ll be her word against the word of the four boys. She’ll be humiliated. They’ll bring up everything she’s ever done or said in her life. They’ll bring in every person she’s ever known who might have any dirt on her, and there’s probably plenty, if she’s the kind of girl who gets drunk and dances naked in front of a bunch of boys at the river.”

“I guess it’s worth a try.”

“It might keep Ricky out of jail this time.”

“So you won’t give me the eighteen thousand?”

“I already said I won’t. I’ll advance you the thousand dollars to pay the girl, but you’ll have to sign a note promising to pay it back.”

“I think that’s very hard-hearted of you.”

“Was that all you wanted, Vera? I’m getting tired.”

“I wasn’t going to tell you, but I think it’s probably good for you to know. I’m dying. I might only have a short time to live.”

“Who says?”

“The doctor says. Who do you think?”

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I have a fatty liver.”

“Not just your liver.”

“I might need an operation.”

“Well, have the operation, then.”

“I’ve been worried sick. Not about myself but about Ricky. I’m afraid I’ll die with him in the mess he’s in. With me gone there’ll be nobody to help him.”

“So, what is it you want me to do?”

“Sign your house over to him so it’ll be his when you die.”

What? Why would I do that?”

“I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for my child. I could die easy if I knew this fine old house was in his name. And even if he goes to jail, maybe it won’t be for long and when he gets out he’ll have this haven, this refuge, to come back to.”

“I’d laugh if it wasn’t so ridiculous. Do you know how long it’d take Ricky to lose this house in a poker game or sell it for practically nothing to get money to buy drugs?”

“He’s not like that now. He’s grown up a lot. You’d hardly know him. He’s really a very fine young man now.”

“Yes, a fine young man who rapes women at the river.”

Oh! You can insult me all you want, but I won’t stand by and do nothing while you insult my child!”

“If there was ever a child who needed to be insulted, it’s Ricky.”

“You’ve always been so filled with hatred, uncle Jeff, I don’t know what keeps you from choking on it!”

“Esther, my niece is leaving now. Take her downstairs and show her the door.”

“I don’t need to be ‘shown the door’, you old bastard!”

“Don’t let it hit you in the ass on your way out.”

“All right, I’ll go. I should have known I was wasting my time trying to reason with a senile old fool like you. I want you to know one thing, though. You’re not holding all the cards in the deck.”

“Are you threatening me, Vera? Do you think it’s wise to threaten an old man who holds most of the cards in the deck?”

“I’ve been to see a lawyer about you!”

“About me? How you flatter me!”

“As your only living relative, as your next of kin, I can start a court proceeding to have you declared incompetent. Do you know what that means, uncle Jeff? If the court agrees with me, I gain control of all your assets. I can put you in the nursing home of my choosing or in the state mental institution if that’s the way the wind blows.”

“Oh, my! You’re scaring me now, Vera!”

“Oh, yes, I can put you away, uncle Jeff, and please believe me when I tell you I won’t hesitate for one second! Not for one second! Ever since I was a small child, I knew what a mean, contemptible person you are. When I was as young as ten years old, my poor mother, your sister, used to sit in the front parlor and cry over the way you treated her and, as young as I was, I would pat her on the shoulder and say, ‘There, there, mother, he doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s just been disappointed in the way life has turned out for him and he takes it out on the whole world. I know you love him. We all love uncle Jeff, no matter how mean a son-of-a-bitch he is.’ And she would just smile her sad smile and take my hand and wet it with her tears.”

“All right, Vera. I think you’ve put the fear of God in me. You can go home now.”

She stood up and began gesticulating, growing ever more agitated. “You disapproved of my husband. You always thought you were better than us. And then from the moment Ricky was born you laughed at him and said he looked like a gorilla and wasn’t right in the head. What do you think that does to a child’s self-esteem?”

She gasped for breath and put her hand on the bed post to steady herself. “My greatest fear now,” she said, “is that I’ll die before you and I won’t be there to celebrate when you draw your final breath. I was just telling Ricky a few days ago how I wanted to dance on your grave. How I wanted to…How I want…How I hoped…”

Her mouth gaped open, but the words seemed to have stopped coming of their own accord. She grabbed the middle of her chest with both hands and, with a startled expression on her face, rolled onto the bed onto the floor.

Esther!” uncle Jeff called.

But she had seen and heard all that had happened and was at the ready. She knelt on the floor and rolled Vera onto her back. Vera’s body shook with tremors; she made gurgling sounds in her throat.

“Is she all right?” uncle Jeff asked from the side of the bed.

“I think we need an ambulance,” Esther said.

“It might all be an act. I know what she’s like.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I don’t want that old heifer dying in my house. Call an ambulance and tell them to come and get her and to send about six strong men. She’s roughly the size of a small elephant.”

When the ambulance arrived eight minutes later, Vera was unconscious. She was colorless and dead-looking, her carefully coiffed hair askew. They strapped her onto a stretcher and administered oxygen.

Half an hour after the ambulance had left, Esther went up to uncle Jeff’s room to make sure he was all right.

“You’re not to let that woman into the house again, you understand?” he said.

Esther smiled. “If she decides she wants to come in, I won’t be able to stop her.”

“Then I’ll buy you a gun and teach you how to use it.”

“Yes, sir. I sure would hate to shoot her, though.”

“I’ll come downstairs for dinner. Set the table in the dining room. I’m not sick anymore. I have a long way to go to one hundred.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Ask Satan Anything

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Ask Satan Anything ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The year is 1933 and the time late summer. The sleepy town of Hartwell sits on the edge of the windblown prairie. For three nights out of the year, the town is touched by magic, excitement and mystery. The carnival is in town.

The beautiful lights of the Ferris wheel can be seen a mile away. The merry-go-round never stops—music, lights and dizzying motion, a magic all its own. A clown in pajamas of red polka dots, smile painted on, shoes a foot-and-a-half long, walks among the crowds selling balloons—only five cents apiece. In that tent over there you can have your fortune told by an old gypsy hag with missing teeth and a crystal ball. Feeling lucky tonight? Try your luck at one of the games of skill. After you’ve won all the prizes and amazed everybody with your dexterity and strength, step this way and have a delicious hot dog, a bag of peanuts, a Coca-Cola, or a cardboard wand covered with pink cotton candy. And the smells all mixed in together are wonderful. How can you be here and not feel happy to be alive?

The freak show is a popular attraction. People line up to buy tickets to see the thousand-pound woman, the eight-foot-tall man, the lobster girl, the octopus boy, the pin head, the Siamese twins, the human alligator, the walking skeleton, the cobra woman, the bird girl, the albino midgets, and the two-headed baby floating in a jar of formaldehyde.

This year a new attraction has been added, something new and altogether different. For ten measly cents, you can meet Satan. Live and in person! And, not only that, you can ask him any question your heart desires. Haven’t you always want to talk to Satan, to ask him anything? Now’s your chance!

All the seats are taken. The show is about to begin. And let us say a word or two about the people in the audience. They are of all kinds: young and old, male and female, farmers in overalls and their wives in sack dresses, town ladies with painted faces and feathered hats, business men and their hatchet-faced wives, pimple-faced teenage boys ogling women as old as seventy, secretaries who work in stifling offices during the day and forfend the sexual advances of men old enough to be their grandfathers, mill workers who never learned to read but pretend otherwise, saints and sinners, whores and liars, extortionists and embezzlers, people who would sell their own grandmother to the highest bidder. They all have one thing in common: they all want to meet Satan.

Ellis Crumshaw sits on the aisle about halfway back. He has a child’s face in a man’s body. He is twenty but could pass for fifteen. He used to sleep nights and digest his food without any trouble, but now he is in a lot of trouble. He has asked God to help him but God seems not to be listening. He has nowhere left to turn. Satan might be the answer.

He has been seeing a country girl named Nonnie Lowbridge. She’s thirty if she’s a day and might be thirty-three. She says she’s going to have a baby and that Ellis Crumshaw is the father. He has been with her three times. It’s possible he’s the father but he doesn’t believe he is. He knows from hearing other people talk that she would invite any man into the barn and lift up her skirts for him, whether she knows the man or not.

Nonnie Lowbridge is insisting that Ellis Crumshaw marry her, and fast, before people can see the baby swelling in her stomach. If he doesn’t marry her, she says, she will not only get her brothers to beat the shit out of him, but she will go to the police and tell them he forced himself on her. For that, he will go to the penitentiary for the rest of his life for taking advantage of a poor country girl and leaving her with a bastard baby. The other prisoners will use him for a punching bag when they find out what he did and will probably kill him, not quick but slow.

Ellis doesn’t want to marry Nonnie Lowbridge, but he is certain he doesn’t want to go to prison, either. He has seen I Was a Prisoner from a Chain Gang and The Big House and he knows he’d probably last only a day or two behind bars. He has thought about pushing Nonnie Lowbridge off the bridge into the river, but he is certain somebody would see him and he would end up in prison for murder, which must be a lot worse than being in prison for forcing yourself on a girl and leaving her with a bastard baby. He has thought about killing himself but he doesn’t have the nerve. As the saying goes, he is between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The show, as we said, is about to begin. The people are quiet, waiting. If anybody speaks at all, it is in a low voice and only a word or two. The chairs face a little stage with a heavy curtain. A light at the bottom of the curtain shines upward and is the only illumination; all other lights have been dimmed. What is going on behind the curtain is anybody’s guess.

After a few bars of recorded violin music, the curtain opens. An old man sits on the stage in a rocking chair smoking a cigarette. His hair is sparse and white. He wears a black suit and an old-fashioned string tie. He regards the people in the audience with a smile and a slight nod, continuing to smoke the cigarette. There’s a snigger or two from the audience and somebody coughs. This is not what people have expected.

The old man continues to draw on his cigarette for a minute or two as if he has all night and then he addresses the audience.

“You are all familiar with me,” he says in a strong, clear voice. “I’m standing by your side when you tell a lie or when you call your neighbor a dirty swine or when you cheat on a test in school; when you’re fornicating with a person you’re not married to or when you steal your neighbor’s newspaper; when you see your wife’s fat ass and it makes you think of some other woman, maybe the preacher’s wife or your son’s second-grade teacher; when you wish your chattering mother-in-law would take the gas pipe; when you cause a deliberate dent in your brother’s Ford because you’re jealous that he has a new car and you don’t. I am everywhere. From the moment you open your eyes on this world, I am there to catch you when you fall.”

He pauses and draws the smoke from the cigarette down into his lungs.

“After those brief introductory remarks,” he says. “I will now take questions from the audience.”

His deep-set eyes scan from left to right and back again. He holds the cigarette up near his face and smiles. Anybody paying any attention sees that the cigarette doesn’t burn down the way a cigarette always does but stays the same as if it has just been freshly lighted.

“Any questions?” he asks again, to spur the audience along.

“Where’s your pitchfork?” someone asks.

“It’s in your eye or in your back or wherever I want it to be,” the old man says. “Always at the ready.”

“How old are you?” someone asks.

“I am older than the human race. I was the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to partake of the forbidden fruit. She fell readily and then she took Adam with her, thus resulting in the sorry state of the human race forever after. Be ever mindful of the role Eve plays in the Downfall of Man.

“I was Cain, who killed Able. I was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver. I was the Emperor Nero who partied by the light of burning Christians. I was Napoleon Bonaparte, who tore Europe asunder with his mad ambition and military adventuring. I was every despot since the beginning of man who trod on the backs of the masses. I am everywhere, in every age. If you have been told in your religious training that God is everywhere, you must know that I also am everywhere.”

“I don’t believe you’re really Satan,” someone says. “You just look like a tired old man to me.”

He stands up from the chair, takes two steps to the left, raises his arm and from the end of his finger discharges a red-and-yellow fireball into the air that flashes for an instant and then dissipates, leaving a sulfurous smell. Everybody in the audience jumps, screams, gasps, or does all three.

“Now that I have your attention,” the old man says as he reseats himself, “are there any other questions?”

“What does the future hold for us?” someone asks.

“The future for the human race will be a tableau of chaos and confusion, bloodshed and warfare, anarchy and wholesale death. Any other questions?”

“What did you say when God kicked you out of heaven?”

Goddamn it all to hell.”

“Why doesn’t God just kick the crap out of you once and for all and be done with it? After all, He’s God. He can do whatever he wants.”

The old man laughs. “He won’t do that. Then He wouldn’t have any more sport with me.”

“Could you ask Him to forgive you and take you back into heaven?”

“I am a reprobate. If you look that word up in your dictionary, you will see it means a person who is irredeemable and beyond God’s forgiveness.”

“What makes you so bad?”

“My badness feeds on itself. It grows and grows until one day it will consume the whole world.”

“What happens then?”

“The end. The Apocalypse. The earth will become a fiery hell, an everlasting burning hell.”

“And all the ‘saved’ go to heaven?”

“That’s not my department.”

Ellis Crumshaw can stand it no longer. Everything he has heard and seen convinces him beyond any doubt that this old man is Satan. He stands up and steps to the left out into the aisle and takes a few steps toward the stage.

The old man sees Ellis coming toward him hesitantly and frowns. He has been confronted before by hecklers or someone intent on doing him harm and must be wary.

“Yes, young man?” he says. “What’s the trouble?”

“Please, sir,” Ellis says. “I need your help.”

“Have you murdered somebody?”

“No. I want you to take me back to hell with you.”

Everybody turns in their seats to get a look at Ellis.

“You’re a strapping young fella,” the old man says with a smile. “You have many good days ahead of you. You don’t want to do a foolish thing you can’t undo.”

“No,” Ellis says. “You see, there’s a girl…”

“There’s always a girl, isn’t there?”

“No, there’s this girl. She’s older than me. Quite a bit older. She says she’s going to have a baby and that I’m the father. She says I have to marry her or she’s going to the police and tell them I raped her.”

“And did you rape her?”

“No, I didn’t. Her name is…”

“Don’t tell me her name. I don’t need to know her name. I see her plain as day when I look in your face. I know her. She’s one of ours. She’s going to have a baby all right, but the baby ain’t yours. She needs a husband, all right—and fast—before her maw and paw find out the father of her baby is her own brother. She wants desperately to marry somebody and she wants that somebody to be you because you’re young and good-looking and she wants to train you in her own ways.”

“What should I do?”

“You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to marry her. You don’t even have to see her again if you don’t want to. If she confronts you, tell her you know who the father of her baby is and it ain’t you.”

“Thank you, sir!”

“And stay away from that sort of woman, you hear me? They’ll eat you alive.”

“Yes, sir!”

He sits backs down, embarrassed, wondering where he ever found the courage to approach Satan in front of all those people. He is sure his face is as red as it’s ever going to be.

When the show is over and Ellis is leaving the tent along with the others, someone takes hold of his arm.

“What is it?” he says with a start.

“He wants to see you,” the unknown someone says.

He doesn’t even need to ask who he is.

The old man has taken off his coat and tie. He has a towel around his neck as if he has just done battle with an opponent in the ring. He is sitting on an orange crate, drinking whiskey from a bottle. He smiles when he sees Ellis but doesn’t get up.

“Sit down, boy,” he says, pointing to another orange crate.

Ellis hikes his trousers and sits, feeling nervous to be this close to Satan.

“What’s your name?” the old man asks.

“Ellis Crumshaw.”

“Live around here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I thought it took a lot of nerve for you to do what you did tonight in front of all those people. How did you know I wouldn’t turn you into a pile of ash?”

“I didn’t even think about that.”

The old man laughs and takes a drink from the bottle. “How would you like a traveling job?” he asks.

“Doing what?”

“I need a bodyguard and a valet.”

“What’s a valet?”

“Somebody to brush the dust off my shoes, send my suit out for cleaning, bring me an egg sandwich whenever I want it, find the nearest liquor store.”

“I guess I could do those things,” Ellis says.

“Do you like traveling?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never traveled.”

“Never been anywhere, I’ll bet.”

“No, sir.”

“Wouldn’t you like to get out of this jerkwater town and see the world?”

“I guess so.”

“You’d get room and board and, while the job doesn’t pay much, you’d get a stipend.”

“What’s a stipend?”

“You’d always have a little money to call your own.”

“Oh.”

“So, you want the job or not?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“We pull out early Thursday morning. If you want the job, be here at six-thirty sharp and I don’t mean quarter-to-seven, either.”

“Yes, sir.”

When Ellis gets home, his mother is already in bed. He is so excited about having a traveling job without even looking for one that he can’t sleep. He thinks about the exciting cities he’ll see and things he’ll do and people he’ll meet.

He has all the next day to pack a suitcase and prepare his mother for his departure. He doesn’t mention that he will be working for Satan because he is sure she will get the wrong idea and it will trouble her. He tells her he is going into the show business and will write her a letter whenever he can.

And, so, in this way Ellis Crumshaw becomes attached to a traveling show. He never gives Nonnie Lowbridge another thought but is mindful, always, of the part that Eve plays in the Downfall of Man.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

She Can Bake a Cherry Pie

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She Can Bake a Cherry Pie ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Judith Call was thirty-four and still unmarried. She lived outside town with her widowed mother and her younger brother, Curt. She had believed, since about age thirty, that she would never have a husband and would end up sole custodian of her mother’s dotage, while will-o-the-wisp Curt went about pursuing his own selfish interests, never giving a thought to anybody but himself. And one day Curt would bring home a wife (a pretty one but with the kind of prettiness that doesn’t last) and he’d become a father, and Judith would be the slightly odd maiden aunt who bakes cookies and saves Christmas wrap and quietly passes gas in church.

She had one physical deficiency that might have made her less marriageable than she might otherwise have been. Her eyes didn’t work in concert. She seemed to be looking in two directions at once; that is, here and there. People who knew her best were used to this abnormality and barely noticed it, but people meeting her for the first time pitied her and wondered if she was quite “all there” and if she needed help in getting to where to she was going. Wearing dark glasses covered up her abnormality and made her seem the same as anybody else, but there always came a time when the dark glasses had to come off.

Her mother always spurred her on, telling her eyes don’t make any difference.

“Any man would be lucky to have you,” she was fond of saying. “Any man worth having won’t care about at all about your funny eyes. He’ll see you for the lovely person you are.”

Judith, however, knew how important appearances are to the world in general. For a man to see her inner beauty, he would first have to look into her eyes, and if there was anything wrong there he wouldn’t look any farther.

Doctors told her the situation might one day work itself out on its own, but until then there was nothing medically to be done.

Curt had a friend named Gerald Pierson, handsome, slender and dark-haired. He was steady, decent, polite and always well-groomed. If Judith or her mother could have put all the qualities of a good husband and father (a regular Prince Charming) into a cup and shaken it and poured it out on the table, Gerald Pierson would have come tumbling out.

Finally, after a certain amount of coaxing by his mother, Curt agreed to invite Gerald Pierson to dinner on a Sunday afternoon in early summer. The mother didn’t think it was necessary to inform the son of the real reason for the invitation.

Judith would cook the dinner all on her own and it would be something wonderful. Gerald Pierson, who barely knew anything about Judith except that she was Curt’s sister, would see her in her own home. He would eat the food she had cooked with her own hands and see a side of her he hadn’t known existed. In one afternoon, he would witness all her best qualities and would come to think of her in a way he hadn’t thought of her before: a good wife for him and a loving mother for his children. She could give him the serene and comfortable home that every man wants. She could be the rock upon which he anchors his life.

Outwardly Judith seemed indifferent to the news that Gerald Pierson was coming for dinner, but privately her heart beat a little faster and her blood quickened in her veins. It might just be the thing she had been waiting for. When she logically analyzed the situation, she realized there was a very good chance that she and Gerald might discover they had a lot in common. A spark might be ignited at the dinner table on Sunday, a spark that could turn into a white hot flame. She couldn’t keep from smiling to herself when she saw the possibilities that lay before her.

She didn’t want to seem to be making too much of a fuss, but she planned the menu carefully. She loaded her cart with the largest and most expensive ham in the store, fresh cherries to make a pie, fresh spinach, freshy picked green beans, and anything else she could think of, sparing no expense. It seemed almost like Christmas. As an afterthought, she bought a bottle of before-dinner wine and a different kind of wine to serve during the meal.

Mother went to church Sunday morning and when she came home she was chirrupy and cheerful. She set the dining room table with the best dishes and didn’t have much to say.

Curt slept the morning away from his late Saturday night. He got up at eleven o’clock, took a shower and dressed in a white shirt and gray dress pants instead of the usual jeans.

“Why so fancy?” he asked when he walked into the dining room and saw the table. “Gerald is not royalty. He’s just a regular guy.”

“We don’t very often have a chance to entertain guests,” mother said.

When Gerald arrived in early afternoon, Curt met him at the door. They shook hands and Curt pulled him inside, as if he needed some persuasion.

“What’s with the jacket and tie, cowboy?” Curt said. “You didn’t need to dress up, you know. We’re strictly informal here.”

“I like to put on the dog every now and then,” Gerald said.

He greeted Judith and mother shyly and shook their hands.

“I’m so glad you and Curt are friends,” mother gushed. “I haven’t always approved of some of his chums.”

“Gerald doesn’t want to hear that,” Curt said.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Gerald said politely.

Curt and Gerald sat on the couch and talked about things they knew, while mother and Judith went into the kitchen to put the finishing touches on the meal. Before the dinner was ready, Judith came out of the kitchen bearing a tray with the little glasses of wine. She held the tray out to Gerald and then to Curt.

Fancy-Schmancy,” Curt said. “Where did these glasses come from?”

“They’ve been in the china closet for seventy-five years,” Judith said.

Gerald laughed and looked up her into her funny eyes. She looked back at him with crooked confidence and went back into the kitchen feeling that things were going well.

“Are you going to wear your dark glasses while we’re eating?” mother asked conspiratorially.

“No, I don’t think I will. It’s good for him to know the truth about me, don’t you think?”

Curt and Gerald took their places at the table, and mother and Judith brought the food in from the kitchen.

“This certainly looks wonderful!” Gerald said.

“I hope you like ham,” Judith said.

“Of course I like ham.”

“I’m starved,” Curt said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Well, whose fault is that but your own?” mother said.

Before they ate, mother insisted on saying grace: “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“A-men!” Curt said.

“I hope you don’t mind the prayer,” mother said.

“Of course not,” Gerald said.

“Some people are funny about those things.”

“Not me.”

“He’s a regular all-American guy!” Curt said.

“How do you like living way out here?” Gerald asked. “This far out of town, I mean.”

“It’s great,” Curt said. “The nearest house is so far away you can’t even see it. You can go outside naked and nobody will see you.”

“You don’t go outside naked, do you?” mother said.

“Well, maybe I will sometime. Hah-hah-hah!

During a lull in the conversation, Judith cleared her throat and, determined to look Gerald clearly in the eye, said, “You and I were in high school together.”

“Were we? I don’t remember.”

“We didn’t have any classes together. I was two grades ahead of you, but I remember you. You were very popular.”

“Was I?”

“Always getting your picture in the yearbook.”

“That’s our Gerald!” Curt said. “Big man on campus.”

“That’s not quite the way I remember it,” Gerald said.

“Well, anyway, it was a long time ago,” Judith said, “and it doesn’t matter much now.”

“The big man on campus doesn’t stay that way forever,” Curt said and punched Gerald on the arm.

“This is the best meal I’ve had in a long time!” Gerald said. “I’m so happy you asked me!”

“You’ll have to come again soon,” mother said. “We’d love to have you.”

When they were finished eating, Curt said, “What’s for dessert?”

“It’s a surprise,” mother said.

Judith went into the kitchen and when she came back she was carrying a tray with four servings of cherry pie, each with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

After a couple of bites, Gerald said, “Cherry pie is my favorite and this is the best cherry pie I’ve ever tasted.”

“Judith baked the pie,” mother said. “And in fact she cooked the whole meal on her own. All I did was set the table.”

“It could not have been better,” Gerald said.

After a while Curt and Gerald rose from the table and went out through the kitchen. Curt wanted to take Gerald down to the barn to show him the horse that he was trying to sell at a profit.

“He likes you,” mother said as she and Judith cleared the table.

“Who does?” Judith said.

“Gerald.”

“I think he likes everybody.”

“No, he looks at you in a special way. I’ve seen that look before.”

“You’re imagining things.”

“I don’t think he even noticed that your eyes are funny.”

“How could he not notice?”

“If he noticed, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Now that have his interest, I think you should pursue it.”

“Pursue what?”

“Invite him on a picnic. Just the two of you. Picnics are always a good way for two people to get to know each other better. Make some chicken sandwiches and potato salad. Men like potato salad.”

“I wouldn’t want him to think I’m setting a trap for him.”

“Some men want to be trapped. They just don’t always realize it.”

“You’re being ridiculous, mother.”

The phone rang and mother answered.

“Run down to the barn and get Curt,” she said to Judith. “This is the call he’s been waiting for about the horse.”

“Can’t you just take a message?”

“He particularly wanted to speak to this person.”

“Oh, all right. I don’t want to, but I will.”

She crossed the back yard, trying to keep from stepping in the mud. At the point where the back yard ended, the barn was about three hundred yards down to the right.

She didn’t see Curt and Gerald anywhere so she figured they must still be in the barn. The door was partly opened. She swung it back, took a few steps inside and paused for a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.

She heard a voice, maybe a laugh, but she wasn’t sure if it was Curt or Gerald. She was reminded of the time when they were children and Curt would call her to come into the barn and when she did he’d hide from her and jump out and make her scream.

She was going to call out to Curt but then she saw the white of his shirt over to the left against the wall, behind the stall where the horse was. She squinted her eyes then, not sure of what she was seeing. It was not only Curt but also Gerald, standing together.

Taking a few steps closer but still not close enough that they knew she was there, she knew in one fleeting moment what she was seeing. Curt and Gerald were locked in a tight embrace, kissing passionately. Gerald had his back to the wall and Curt was leaning into him. Gerald’s hands were around Curt’s shoulders. Curt’s trousers were on the ground around his shoes. When she saw Curt’s hands, she knew they were fumbling with—trying to undo—Gerald’s belt.

Judith’s one thought was that she didn’t want to be seen, that she didn’t want Curt and Gerald to know she knew what they were doing. She ran out of the barn, back up the muddy road, to get back into the house before she was discovered.

She came to the back yard and saw the house. A hundred feet more and she would be safe inside. She ran across the yard, not caring that she was treading mud. Almost safe, she forgot the low-hanging limb on the sycamore tree. Almost safe, she hit the limb—whack!—in the middle of the forehead and was knocked on her back.

She lost consciousness for a few seconds, maybe a minute or two, and when she regained herself her mother was kneeling beside her asking if she was all right.

With her mother holding onto her arm, she made her way into the kitchen and sat in a chair at the kitchen table. She sobbed, once and then twice, and mother thought it was from pain, but it was more from what she had seen.

“I’m going to call the doctor,” mother said.

“No, I’m fine,” Judith said. “It was just a stupid accident. I should have known better.”

“I’m going to have that limb cut off.”

“No! Don’t do that! That limb has been there my whole life.”

“Where’s Curt? He can drive you to the hospital.”

“I don’t need to go to the hospital. Curt is down at the barn entertaining his friend. Leave them to it.”

Mother hovered over Judith, daubing at her head with a wet rag. “You’re going to have a goose egg right in the middle of your forehead.”

“Good. That completes the freak look.”

“You might have a concussion.”

“I’m fine. Stop fussing.”

Mother placed her hands on both sides of Judith’s face and tilted her head back.

“Look at me!” mother said. “Can you see me all right?”

“Of course I can see you all right!”

“Oh, my Lord!”

“What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Your eyes!”

She looked closer at Judith’s eyes to make sure of what she was seeing and then she went out of the room and came back with a hand mirror.

“Look at yourself!” she said.

Judith held the mirror up, looking at her eyes from the right and then from the left. “For the first time in more than twenty years,” she said, “my eyes are as straight as anybody else’s.”

“This morning when I was in church I asked the Lord to fix your eyes, and He did! It’s miraculous! God is good!”

“It’s not every day I get knocked unconscious by a blow to the head,” Judith said. “Maybe I ought to try it more often.”

She put the mirror down and went out of the room.

“Where are you going?” mother asked.

“I’m going to bed.”

“But it’s still daylight outside. It’s not even seven o’clock.”

“The day is over for me.”

“What about your dinner guest? He’ll want to say goodbye before he leaves. He’ll want to thank you for the lovely meal.”

“Just give him a message for me.”

“What message?”

“Tell him I won’t be bothering him again.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“Good night, mother.”

She went upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom, pulled the curtains closed and got into bed. Her head throbbed but she wasn’t going to let it keep her from sleeping.

In a few minutes she heard voices and laughter outside in the driveway and she knew it was Curt and Gerald. They would be leaving together in Gerald’s car. Curt probably wouldn’t be returning home until morning. Yes, God is good, as mother said, to let all the pieces fall into place exactly as they should.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

When Woolworth’s Closed Its Doors

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When Woolworth’s Closed Its Doors ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

He sat on a hard-backed chair and wished he was someplace else. His name was Cleland Entwistle and he was nine years old. It was his day to stay with grandma and it was grandma’s day to visit friends. Come rain or come shine, come hell or high water, he had to go along with her whether he wanted to or not.

They were in Lucille Alcorn’s home, in her comfortable living room. Lucille Alcorn herself sat on a settee to the left of the fireless fireplace. Around her were her old friends Jane Peabody, Shirley Singletree, Mildred Entwistle (Cleland’s grandma), and Grace Milford. They were all widows except for Grace Milford, who never married. She was an old maid schoolteacher all her life, until she turned seventy and was forced to retire.

These five women had all known each other for a long time, in some cases fifty years or more. They all loved to talk and they were never without things to talk about. They talked about family, their own and others. They talked about friends, acquaintances and neighbors, and if their talk bordered on the malicious or the exaggerated, they were forever unconcerned. They talked about themselves, their trips to the doctor and the medical procedures they might have experienced; their shopping and their cooking; their problems with cleaning ladies; their hairdressers; their run-ins with the auto mechanic who was always out to cheat them; books they had read or wanted to read; movies they saw or wanted to see; television shows they watched that they found risqué or offensive; the pastor at their church (just a little too sexy for his own good), his fat wife and two ferret-faced daughters.

“I heard the pastor’s younger brother is a homosexual,” Jane Peabody said. “Everybody was talking about it in church on Sunday.”

“That must be a terrible blow for the family,” Grace Milford said.

“Yes. They’ve tried to keep it hidden but you know how those things always come out.”

“Do you think the pastor will be asked to move on because of it?”

“It’s possible. There are some awfully narrow-minded people in the congregation.”

“There are worse things that being a homosexual,” Lucille Alcorn said.

“Name one.”

“Serial killer.”

“You know,” Shirley Singletree said, “I think my hairdresser is a homosexual. There’s just something about him.”

“What’s his name?”

“Julian LaGrange.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of him. He wears silk scarves and he always smells like a whorehouse.”

“That’s the one.”

“They just give me the willies,” Grace Milford said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to mix in with decent people. I mean, they have diseases!”

“Yes, they should all be put out on an island somewhere in the middle of the ocean so they won’t contaminate the rest of us.”

“That’s not very Christian,” grandma said.

What?”

“We’re not supposed to judge people. Leave that to the Lord.”

“How would you feel if your daughter married one of them?”

“I don’t have a daughter.”

“But if you did?”

“I don’t know. I’d guess I should stay out of it if the daughter was old enough to know her own mind.”

“You would stand by and let your daughter go to wrack and ruin?”

“I don’t have a daughter.”

Cleland looked beseechingly at grandma and mouthed the words: I want to go home. She gave him a stern look. He knew what the look meant: Behave yourself and be quiet.

“Did any of you go to Val Acker’s funeral last week?” Jane Peabody asked.

“I wanted to go but that was the day I had the plumbers,” Grace Milford said.

“She was only fifty-six, poor old darling.”

“She was so fat,” Lucille Alcorn said, “she got to where she couldn’t even take one step without help.”

“Isn’t that a shame?”

“They had to special-order a large-sized casket. From another state. While they were waiting on the casket, they had no other choice but to put poor Val on ice.”

“I heard it was the kind of casket they bury elephants in,” Shirley Singletree said.

“I didn’t know they had caskets for elephants.”

“She sure was fat.”

“When I was in high school, I used to baby sit her and her little brother,” grandma said. “She was fat even then, when she was no more than eight or nine years old.”

“I guess some people are just born fat and stay that way their whole lives.”

“Her mother would always pay me fifty cents an hour. If I had a dollar or a dollar-fifty, I’d go down to the Woolworth’s and buy lipstick and face powder and girly stuff. My mother never knew what I was spending my money on. She thought I was saving it for college.”

“When Woolworth’s shut its doors, that’s when the world changed,” Lucille Alcorn said.

“You’re right,” grandma said. “Nothing was ever the same again after that.”

“I remember when the Woolworth’s downtown caught on fire and burned,” Jane Peabody said. “We were heartbroken. There were lots of things Woolworth’s had that other stores didn’t have.”

“It took them a year or so to build it back but when they did it was bigger and better than ever. The new one had a lunch counter and a bulk-candy counter and everything. It had a smell all its own, a smell from heaven. People came from all over for the grand opening.”

“Yes, I remember the grand opening,” Shirley Singletree said. “My cousin and I got dressed up for it. We pretended we were going to a movie premiere.”

“Well, I guess it’s as close as we ever had to a movie premiere in this town.” Lucille Alcorn said.

“When I got a little money,” Grace Milford said, “I didn’t buy cosmetics; I’d buy cigarettes. My friends and I would go to the cemetery and we’d smoke the whole pack. They tasted awful, but we thought we were so grown up. My mother would have strangled me if she had known.”

“When we were fourteen,” Shirley Singletree said. “We bought a pack of rubbers out of a machine. We didn’t even know what they were for, but we wanted to see what they looked like. We unrolled them, wondering which part of the anatomy they were used on. We didn’t know if you wore them on your thumb, or your big toe, or what. They were oily and kind of disgusting. We took a look at them and then threw them away and washed our hands.”

“What’s a pack of rubbers?” Cleland asked. It was the first he had spoken.

All the women turned and looked at him.

“What’s a pack of rubbers?” he asked again.

“It’s nothing at all, honey,” Grace Milford said. “Just something kids buy when they think nobody’s looking.”

“Who is this little man?” Jane Peabody asked.

“You’ve met him before,” grandma said. “I had him with me at the lodge dinner at church last spring.”

“Oh, yes, I remember him. He’s grown quite a bit since then, hasn’t he?”

“Is he Kenny’s boy or Andy’s?” Lucille Alcorn asked.

“Andy’s,” grandma said.

“Now who was it Andy married?”

“Earline Jett.”

Now with everybody looking at him, Cleland began to enjoy being in the spotlight. “I had a little brother,” he said, “but there was something wrong with his heart and he died. He was six weeks old. His name was Marcus. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night, I think about him in the dark inside his grave and I get scared.”

“You need to think about happy things and then you won’t be scared any more. Do you like clowns? Think about clowns.”

“Clowns scare him,” grandma said.

“Andy and Earline Jett are still young,” Shirley Singletree said. “They ought to have more children.”

“Janice can’t have any more. She’s not very well.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Female trouble. You know.”

“Oh, isn’t that shame!”

“What grade are you in, cupcake?” Grace Milford asked.

“Fourth,” Cleland said.

“Did you know I used to teach little boys and girls just your age?”

“No.”

“I taught elementary school for thirty-seven years until I got too old.”

“They told you to get in your car and go home?”

“That’s right.”

He was awfully bored and was ready for some diversion. He kicked off his shoes and laid across the chair and looked up at the ceiling. He was careful not to look at grandma because she’d point her finger and tell him to sit up straight like a normal person.

From upside down, lying on his back across the chair, he spied a picture on the mantel of a gray-haired man in a dark suit.

“Who’s that man?” he asked

“That’s my husband,” Lucille Alcorn said.

“Where is he now? Is he at work?”

“No, he died.”

“What was the matter with him?”

“He got sick and they took him to the hospital and he died.”

“Was he old?”

“Not very old.”

“That’s enough questions, Cleland!” grandma said.

“What did he do before he died?”

“He owned his own business.”

“What kind of business?”

“He owned a clothing store downtown.”

“Clothing? You mean likes suits and hats and underwear and things?”

“That’s right. It was before you were even born.”

“A long time ago?”

“Yes, a long time ago.”

“Cleland, stop talking now!” grandma said.

All the women laughed and Cleland felt embarrassed.

“What did I say?” he said.

“You sit there and don’t say a word and once you start talking, you don’t stop.”

“You got a girlfriend, honey?” Jane Peabody asked.

“No, I don’t want one.”

“You’ll change your mind about that, I’m sure.”

It was time to serve refreshments. Lucille Alcorn went into the kitchen and came back a few minutes later pushing a little cart with a pot of tea on it, a plate of cookies, a bottle of wine and some wine glasses. She poured a cup of tea for everybody and then passed around the plate of cookies.

Cleland drank his tea, slowly at first and then faster. It was slightly bitter with a little tang of lemon and a little sugar, but it tasted good. With his cup in his right hand, he took a cookie in his left hand and bit into it. He was careful not to drop any crumbs on furniture or the carpet.

The cookies were orange and lemon, the best cookies ever. Cleland ate three or four and drank two cups of tea. The refreshments were always the best part of the visits.

When he was finished, he wasn’t shy about announcing that he needed to use the bathroom. All the women stopped what they were doing and looked at him strangely as if he had said pack of rubbers again.

“Up the stairs,” Lucille Alcorn said. “Down the hallway on the left.”

He planned on taking his time because he wasn’t having a good time and he wanted to leave. The longer he stayed away, the less time he’d have to sit there and listen to grandma and the others talk about things that didn’t interest him. And, anyway, he enjoyed being in a strange house and looking at things he hadn’t seen before and walking through strange rooms.

He went up the stairs slowly, planting his feet firmly on the carpet and holding on to the mahogany banister, barely making a sound. Being quiet was part of the fun because he was going to do things he wasn’t supposed to do. Halfway up the stairs, on a landing, was a huge grandfather clock. It was old-looking and mysterious with its ponderous pendulum going back and forth, counting out the endless seconds. He stood looking at the clock for a minute and then moved on.

The bathroom was large, cool and quiet, with an old-lady smell like the stuff they use under their arms. There was an old claw-footed tub like nobody had anymore. The floor was black-and-white squares with a blood-red rug by the tub to catch drips.

He closed the door for privacy and, after he did what he had to do, he spent a long time washing and drying his hands. After he folded the towel neatly and hung it back on the towel bar, he opened the medicine cabinet over the sink and looked at the bottles, jars and little boxes arrayed neatly on the shelves. He saw nothing of interest and reclosed the door.

In the hallway across from the bathroom was a bedroom. He walked in slowly, as though entering an unexplored cave. It was cool and dark, with heavy draperies covering the windows. He walked around the high bed to the other side of the room, where there was a door.

He opened the door slowly, as if a skeleton might jump out at him, and saw it was a closet. Clothes hung in parallel lines, way up over his head. He couldn’t imagine anybody ever having that many clothes. He took a few steps into the murk and stale air of the closet and then he saw something that might have startled him out of a year or two of growth. Someone was standing against the back wall.

It was a man, an older, gray-haired man dressed in a tuxedo. He was smiling, he had a little mustache; his lips were red and his teeth like pearls. His right arm hung at his side and his left arm was extended as though about to take hold of something being handed to him.

“I…I was just…” Cleland began, but then he realized he wasn’t talking to a living person. It was a man that had been stuffed like a cheetah or a gorilla. It was Lucille Alcorn’s dead husband. He was dead, all right, but he wasn’t in any grave the way other dead people are. She had him stuffed and hidden in her closet. It was an exciting thing to stumble upon and he was sure he was the only person in his class at school to have seen a dead stuffed man up close.

He walked closer to the stuffed man, looking at him carefully to make sure he wasn’t going to move unexpectedly. He touched the hand; it felt smooth and cool like a dinner plate. He looked up into the face; it was shiny and there were a few tiny cracks around the mouth. The stuffed man seemed to be working up his facial muscles to speak and, if he spoke, Cleland was anxious to hear what it was he was going to say.

A creak in some other part of the house made him think somebody was coming, so he turned to go back downstairs, when he saw a gray object on the floor next to the right shoe of the stuffed man. He had to get down on his knees and move the cloth of the pants leg slightly out of the way to see it was a large gray rat, stiffly dead. Its eyes were fixed and staring, just like the eyes of the stuffed man, and its little paws were outstretched, as if in the act of running. When Cleland saw how his whiskers had grown quite long and curved downward, he felt sorry for him and believed he deserved better than lying dead on the floor of a closet at the foot of a stuffed man. He picked him up by the tail and looked around for a more fitting place.

On the dresser in Lucille Alcorn’s bedroom was a large wooden box with a carved lid. Grandma had a wooden box something like it, although not as big. It was a jewelry case.

He opened the lid of the jewelry case and saw a surprising array of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, a veritable king’s ransom in jewels. The case was almost full but there was still plenty of room inside for a good-sized rat.

He didn’t want to just put the rat in on top of the jewels and then close the lid; something more was needed. In the top drawer of the dresser was a stack of ladies’ handkerchiefs. He took out two of them and, refolding one lengthwise, placed it on top of the jewels and laid the rat carefully on top of that. Then he used the other handkerchief as a cover for the rat and closed the box.

He went back downstairs, believing he had done a good, kind thing.

Grandma looked at him but didn’t say anything as he re-entered the room. If they had been at home, she would have asked him where he had been and what he had been doing. He couldn’t keep from smiling.

The tea was all gone and now and everybody was drinking the wine. There was one glass still left on the little cart.

“Can I have some wine?” Cleland asked.

“No!” grandma said.

“Just a sip?”

“Can’t he at least taste it?” Lucille Alcorn asked. “He’s been such a good little thing all afternoon, sitting with a bunch of old hens.”

“Well, all right,” grandma said, “you can taste it but you won’t like it.”

With his back to grandma so she couldn’t see what he was doing, he filled the little glass and swallowed it down like water. It was bitter and sour, it burned his throat and almost made him gag, but he told everybody afterwards that he liked it.

Finally it was time for Cleland and grandma to go home. All the women embraced each other as if they were setting out for Asia and wouldn’t see each other again for a long time. Grace Milford bent over and gave Cleland a wet kiss on the cheek. Her breath smelled like the monkey house at the zoo.

Going home, grandma had to walk slow because her knees were worn out and didn’t work so well anymore. Sometimes she put her hand on Cleland’s shoulder to steady herself.

“Did you enjoy yourself this afternoon?” she asked.

“The cookies were good,” Cleland said.

“You ate too many. You probably spoiled your supper.”

“I liked them.”

“We’re having liver and onions for supper.”

“I don’t like liver and onions.”

“What were you doing so long when you went to use the bathroom?”

“I was only gone a minute.”

He was bursting to tell grandma about Lucille Alcorn’s dead husband upstairs in the closet, but he knew it would lead to inevitable questions that he wasn’t in any way prepared to answer. Instead he said, “They have a big house, don’t they? I wish we lived there.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Euthanasia Clinic

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The Euthanasia Clinic ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The bus let me out at the bottom of a hill. I stood in the silence after the bus roared away and looked at the sign by the side of the road. An arrow on the sign pointed upward.

I began the ascent slowly, taking in the country view around me. It was spring and I couldn’t help noticing how blue the sky was, how vibrant the blues and yellows of the wildflowers. The tree-covered hills extended as far as the eye could see; there were birds everywhere, singing and zigzagging in the sky.

When I got to the place where I was going, I was out of breath and sweating. The young girl at the reception desk asked me if I needed assistance and when I said I didn’t she asked my name. She checked it against a list and then smiled and told me I could move on to admissions, down the hall on the left.

Another woman greeted me in admissions. After I told her my name, she asked me if I had any valuables or money. I gave her my watch and wallet containing two worthless dollars. “You can do whatever you want with them,” I said.

In exchange for my worthless valuables, she gave me a pair of loose-fitting pajamas with a matching robe and told me to go into a little room and put them on, putting all the clothes I was wearing into a basket on the table. When I came out, she led me down the hall and up a couple of flights of stairs, apologizing for the elevator being out of order. She took me through a door marked RECEIVING, told me somebody would be with me shortly, and left.

The room was nearly empty except for a couple of chairs and a low cabinet with a TV on top, tuned to the news from the city. I went to the window and looked out to keep from having to look at the TV, when a thin, tired-looking woman came in wearing a white coat like a doctor and I turned around to face her. The name tag on the white coat said her name was Margaret.

“I want to hear this!” she said, going to the TV and turning up the volume.

The pictures were of rioters turning over cars, hurling bricks through windows, setting fire to anything that would burn. Absolute chaos.

“I just came from there,” I said.

“I’m worried about my son,” she said. “He’s still in the city. I’ve tried calling him but the phones are dead.”

“I’m sure he’s safe,” I said.

“He was going to come here so I could administer the end drugs for him.”

“The buses are still running. He’ll probably be here any minute.”

“Any time someone comes in, I look to see if it’s him.”

“Have faith.”

“If I couldn’t administer the end drugs for him, I wanted to at least give him Father Time.”

“What’s Father Time?”

“The do-it-yourself end pill.”

“Why haven’t I ever heard of it?”

“There are only a few left. People in the city were killing each other for them up until a few days ago.”

“Ironic, isn’t it?” I said. “People killing each other for a pill that will kill them. ‘What fools these mortals be’.”

“The world has been off the rails for a long time now,” she said.

“I think we’re getting what we deserve,” I said.

“We?”

“The human race.”

She began crying. She took a handkerchief out of her pocket and covered her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That wasn’t a very appropriate thing to say.”

“It’s all right,” she said, trying to smile. “Most of the time I’m resigned until I think about him being all alone in the city and I’m here.”

“Maybe he’s not alone. Maybe he’s with friends.”

“He isn’t able to get around very well. He has an artificial leg.”

“Oh.”

“The last time we spoke he promised he’d come here to me for the end. He’s all I have left now.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-one, but I still think of him as a child.”

“What’s his name?”

“Christopher.”

“Bearer of Christ,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s right. His father wanted him to have that name.”

“All my family died in the Final War,” I said. “So you can see I have no reason to want to go on.”

“A lot of other people share that sentiment.”

“Yes, I’ll have lots of company when I get to the other side.”

“I think we’d better get on with it,” she said. “Are we ready to proceed?”

More than ready.”

“I’m going to give you a shot to calm you down.”

“I’m already calm.”

“It’s just procedure. We do it for everybody.”

“Okay.”

“Then, after the shot I’ll take you upstairs and you’ll get into bed and get comfortable. Then I’ll hook you up to the machines and after a few minutes all your troubles will go flying out the window.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Only a feeling of euphoria, I promise.”

“Will I see the face of God?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“What about afterwards?”

“Afterwards?”

“My dead body?”

“You don’t need to worry about that.”

“I’m not worried. Just curious.”

“You’d be surprised at how many people ask that question,” she said. “We’re not supposed to say anything that will make you anxious in your final moments. Professional ethics.”

“The body isn’t important anyway,” I said. “When we die, it’s an empty shell that we cast off. What matters is the soul.”

“Each to his own beliefs,” she said.

“You don’t believe in the soul?”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” she said. “I’m here to help you.”

“When I was young, I was afraid of death.”

“You’re still young.”

“Now that I’m faced with it, I feel almost happy.”

“That’s the start of the euphoria.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette on you, would you?” I asked. “Before we get on with it?”

“No smoking in here.”

At that we both had a good laugh. She went to the cabinet and opened one of the drawers and took out a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches and handed them to me.

“If there was ever a time to relax the rules,” I said, “it’s now.”

I lit up and took a big puff and drew the smoke down into my lungs. “I was always afraid of smoking,” I said. “Afraid of what it would do to my body. That seems kind of silly now, doesn’t it?”

“We’re afraid of dying only when we think we never will.”

“It’s been good to talk to you,” I said. “I haven’t had a chance to have a real conversation with anybody for a long time.”

“I’m not much of a conversationalist,” she said. She took my cigarette and took a couple of puffs on it and crushed it out in the trash can. “Are you ready for the shot now?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I was just thinking.”

“Time to stop thinking.”

“No, I don’t mean I was thinking about dying. The buses are still running, at least for today. I was thinking I could go back to the city and get your son and bring him back here.”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask. I’m volunteering.”

“It’s too risky. I don’t think you’d make it back. I wouldn’t put you through that.”

“If I find him and if we aren’t able to get back out here to the clinic, I can take him a little gift from his mother.”

“Father Time?”

“Yes, and there’ll be one for me, too, I hope.”

“No, it’s too dangerous,” she said. “If people knew you were traveling with Father Time, they’d kill you to get it.”

“Nobody will know.”

“No, I don’t want you to…”

“Look, I’m going to die anyway. If not today, then tomorrow or the next day. I figure it doesn’t make any difference if I die here or in the city. This is my last chance to do a good thing. It might square me in heaven.”

“I wouldn’t want to be responsible for…”

“Then it’s settled?”

“Well…”

“I’ll bring Christopher back here if I can, if the buses are still running, but if I can’t he and I will die together. He won’t die alone.”

She started crying again, uncontrollably this time. Sobbing, she went out of the room and closed the door. She returned a few minutes later bearing a small envelope and my clothes I had put in the basket.

“Get dressed,” she said. “Put the envelope in your pocket. Father Time is in it, one for Christopher and one for you.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Here’s a small picture of him to give you an idea of what he looks like. It was taken when he was eighteen, but he hasn’t changed much since then. On the back I’ve written his address in the city.”

“Seems you’ve thought of everything.”

“Bring him back here if you can, but if you can’t you’ll know what to do. Tell him his mother is here, still alive, and thinking of him at the end.”

“Leave it to me.”

She turned away while I threw off the pajamas and got into my clothes. She gave me the pack of cigarettes and the matches, a bottle of water, and a couple of energy bars.

“Do what you can,” she said, patting me on the upper arm. “I’m not expecting any miracles.”

I went down the stairs and out the building without meeting anyone.

I jounced down the hill in half the time it took to go up. A few clouds had gathered in the sky and the air was cooler now, but the sun was still brightly shining.

I figured it was a waste of time to wait for the bus, which might be along but probably wouldn’t, so I began walking in the direction of the city. I wouldn’t think about how far it was but only about each step as I took it. If I laid down in a ditch along the road and died, I would have at least tried.

The world was beautiful, nature was thriving, and man was in his death throes. God’s million-year experiment with the human race was about to end. Soon the world would be given over entirely to other living creatures, as it had been for tens of millions of years before man came onto the scene. Maybe the human race would continue on other planets—there was all kinds of speculation on that subject—but for now, at least, humans on Earth were finished.

We had been told two days ago that everybody would be dead in a week, but when I got the city, I began to think it was happening sooner than expected. I saw few people and those I saw looked and acted like frightened animals. They were confused, looking for food or a place to hide out. It seemed I had nothing to fear from any of them; they didn’t approach me or even look at me.

The city was almost unrecognizable. Large sections of it had been burned and torn asunder in the rioting. Stores and businesses had been not only looted but ripped apart and burned. Bodies in various stages of decay lay everywhere. Cars had been smashed into each other and set on fire. A noxious stench mixed with thick smoked hung over everything and darkened the sun. It was a scene that I might have imagined out of hell.

I was tired from my long walk and found a place out of the way to sit down and rest. I was surprised I was still able to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I took some small sips of the water I had and was glad I had it. Food was a distant memory; I hadn’t eaten in so long I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to eat again.

After I felt at least partially rested, I took the picture of Christopher out of my pocket and studied it so I would recognize him if I saw him and then I turned the picture over and memorized the address on the back. From what I remembered of that part of the city, the address was ten or twelve blocks from where I was. It was going to be another long walk and I had no way of knowing if I would ever make it.

I walked for an hour or more and saw no signs of anything I knew. Buildings I had known or at least seen had been burned or lay in ruins. In places the streets were impassable and I found myself climbing over mountains of bricks and debris. I saw an occasional foot or arm sticking out, but I just looked away and went on. The few people I met moved slowly and dream-like; they seemed to pose no threat but if they challenged me I was more than ready to defend myself to the death.

Finally—quite by accident, it seemed—I found the street I was looking for and once I found the street, I found the number easily enough. It was a four-story brick apartment building. Some of the windows had been broken out and the side of the building was caved in as if it had been rammed by a tank, but the building still stood while many others were only piles of rubble.

The door to the building was blown off its hinges so I went inside as if I belonged there, quickly before somebody saw me and tried to stop me. I found my way down a dark, filthy hallway to a flight of stairs and I began going up them to the fourth floor. I found the door with the number I was looking for, amazed that I had made it this far. I knocked loudly and put my ear to the door.

I heard a faint rustle coming from inside and I knew somebody had heard my knock.

“Is anybody there?” I said.

“Go away,” came the voice from inside. “I have a gun and I don’t mind blowing your fucking head off.”

“Christopher?” I said.

“Who is it?”

“My name doesn’t mean anything to you. I just spoke with your mother.”

“My mother’s dead.”

“No, she’s not. I just saw her.”

“You just want to rob and torture me.”

“No, I don’t. Can you open the door? I have something I want to show you.”

He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and I held up the picture of him his mother had given me with his address written on the back.

“Where did you get that?” he asked.

“I just told you. I saw your mother at the clinic where she works.”

“I don’t believe you. It’s a trick.”

“Why would I want to trick you?”

“Why does anybody do anything?” he said.

“Could you open the door all the way and let me come in?”

“Do you have a gun or a knife?”

“No. No weapons of any kind.”

“I don’t mind killing you if I have to,” he said.

“So you said.”

He unfastened the chain and opened the door and I went inside. He was indeed the same person as the one in the picture. He had a crowbar in his hand instead of a gun. As soon as he take one step, I saw how debilitated he was with his artificial leg.

“I walked from the clinic,” I said. “I’ve been walking for hours to try to find you.”

“Why would you want to find me?”

“Your mother was worried about you. She thought you were coming to the clinic so she could give you the end drugs, but you never showed up.”

“Somebody on the street told me the clinic had been raided and everybody killed.”

“That’s not true. I just came from there.”

He insisted I turn out my pockets so he could see what was in them. When he decided I posed no threat, he put down the crowbar and relaxed.

“Are you a friend of my mother’s?”

“I never met her until today.”

“Why would you want to help us?”

“Why does anybody do anything?”

I sat down heavily in the nearest chair without being asked. I wasn’t able to stand on my feet any longer or take another step. He got me a cup of water and I took the envelope out of my pocket and tore it open and held the two of Father Time in my palm and then laid them side by side on the table where he could see them.

“What is that?” he asked.

“The way out of hell,” I said.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Yellow Bird

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Yellow Bird ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Lonnie awoke to the smell of cooking food. When he got out of bed and went into the kitchen, mother turned from the stove and smiled at him. She was wearing her red silk dress with the white buttons instead of the usual old chenille bathrobe.

“Sit down and have some bacon and eggs,” she said.

“Why are you so dressed up?” he asked.

“Eat your breakfast while it’s hot.”

While he ate, she sat across from him and drank coffee and smoked her cigarettes.

“What are you going to do today?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Read comics and watch some TV, I guess.”

“Don’t you think you should get outside and get some exercise and fresh air?”

“I might ride my bike to the park.”

“Don’t you have anybody to go with?” she said. “Isn’t it more fun with friends?”

“Sure. Is anything wrong? You’re acting funny.”

“We need to have a little talk.”

“What about?”

“Do you remember my friend Tony? You met him once when we were having lunch downtown.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

She looked down at her hand holding the cigarette. “Well, he and I are going away together this morning. He’s coming by to pick me up.”

“Going away? What do you mean, going away? Where are you going?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Will you be back in time for supper?”

“No.”

“Does father know?”

“I wrote him a letter. He’ll read it when he gets home from work.”

He looked at her searchingly, as if her face might reveal something her voice wasn’t saying.

“So, when will you be back? Next week sometime?”

“I don’t think so, honey.”

“Why not?”

“I think it’s time for father and me to go our separate ways. I’m going to file for divorce so I can marry Tony.”

“Can’t I go with you?”

“Father and I discussed it and we decided it would be better for you to go on living here. Father wants you to stay with him.”

“I’d rather be with you, though.”

“Don’t you want to keep going to the same school you’ve gone to since kindergarten?”

“I don’t care if I go to school or not.”

She laughed and flattened her cigarette out in the ashtray. “You don’t mean that,” she said.

“Yes, I do.”

“Now, I need you to be a good boy and not a difficult boy. This is hard enough as it is.”

“But why can’t I go with you, wherever you’re going?”

“See, that’s the thing. Tony and I are going to be unsettled for a while. I don’t know where I’ll be while I’m waiting for my divorce.”

“Can’t you stay here while you’re waiting for your divorce?”

“It doesn’t work that way, honey. One of us has to leave and it has to be me.”

“Is it something I did?”

“Of course not! I don’t ever want you to think that.”

“Is it something father did?”

“No, it isn’t anything father did, either. It’s grownup stuff. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to you if I could. When you’re older, you’ll understand better.”

“But why Tony?”

“Because I love him and I believe he loves me. He’s the man I should have married in the first place.”

“Then why did you marry father?”

“I was young and I didn’t know him very well.”

“So, is that what grownup people normally do?”

In a little while there was a honk out front. Mother went into the bedroom and came out carrying her suitcase and the jacket that went with the red dress.

“I want you to come out on the porch and see me off,” she said, taking Lonnie by the hand.

Tony had parked his shiny blue car at the curb. When he saw mother and Lonnie come out of the house, he got out of his car and smiled and waved. He was wearing a coat and tie like church. He stood beside the car smiling, looking like a picture in a movie magazine.

Mother let go of Lonnie’s hand on the porch and bent over so that her face was close to his. She didn’t have to bend very far because he was almost as tall as she was.

“Everything will be all right,” she said with what she thought was a reassuring smile. “I just need to get away.”

“But for how long?” he asked. He was about to cry but didn’t want to with Tony looking on.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“When will I see you again?”

“I don’t know that, either. I’ll call you just as soon as we get to where we’re going and we can talk on the phone. I’ll know more then.”

He nodded his head and looked away.

She opened her purse and took out some money and put it in his fist. “Here’s a little mad money,” she said. “Buy yourself something special. Something impractical.”

She laughed for no special reason then and gave Lonnie a kiss on the cheek and held him for a few seconds in a squeeze and when she let go of him she ran to Tony like a schoolgirl.

On any other day, Lonnie would love having the house to himself, but with mother leaving unexpectedly it felt lonely and empty. He tried watching TV but wasn’t used to watching during the daytime and wasn’t interested in any of the shows that were on, so he took mother’s advice and rode his bike to the park.

He saw some people he knew but didn’t speak to them; he didn’t want to have to talk to anybody. He went to the most secluded part of the park near the war memorial and sat under a tree. It was so quiet and breezy that he almost went to sleep and ants started crawling on him, so he got up and went back home.

He hoped mother would somehow be there, having changed her mind and forcing Tony to bring her back, but everything was just as he left it. He ate some leftover fried chicken for lunch and wondered how to spend the rest of the day.

When father came home from work at the usual time, he found the letter from mother on the kitchen table. He unfolded the letter and pulled out a chair and sat down and read it.

“Did she tell you about this?” father asked Lonnie.

“A little,” Lonnie said. He shrugged and opened the refrigerator door to see what they would have for supper.

“Did you see what’s-his-name?”

“You mean Tony? Yeah, I saw him.”

“I have grounds for divorce now,” father said. “She ran off with her lover.”

“She said she’d call.”

“I don’t know what to think about a mother who abandons her only child.”

“It’s all right with me,” Lonnie said, “if it’s what she wants.”

“When she calls, tell her I’m going to see a lawyer to start divorce proceedings.”

“I think that’s what she wants, anyway.”

“I hope she rots in hell.”

In August for his fourteenth birthday, Lonnie received a large bird cage with a yellow parakeet inside, delivered by a white truck that pulled up out in front of the house with a screech of brakes. It was a most unusual and unexpected gift. Mother wrote on the card: Thought you could use a pet. Much love, as always.

He didn’t know how to take care of a parakeet so he walked downtown and bought a book on the subject and a couple of different kinds of birdseed that the woman in the store said any bird would like. If he won’t eat none of it, the woman said, bring it back and we’ll try something else.

In the attic was an old birdcage stand with a hook. Lonnie had seen it before but never knew what it was for. He was surprised somebody hadn’t thrown it out long ago, but he was glad now they didn’t. Everything eventually has its purpose if you wait long enough.

He named the bird Toppy. It didn’t mean anything; it just seemed like a good name for a bird. Toppy hopped around inside his cage, sang little musical trills, drank water, ate birdseed and pooped aplenty. He seemed happy enough.

Lonnie hoped every day that mother would come home, but he knew it was an unrealistic hope. In the real world, mothers didn’t return home after running off with another man. It didn’t even happen in the movies.

Everybody thought father would get married again after the divorce, but he liked being single, he said. When marriage-minded ladies called to invite him over for a home-cooked Sunday dinner, he told Lonnie to tell them he was in Moscow or in the hospital for a lung operation.

He got an old woman, a Mrs. Farinelli, to come in two or three days a week and clean the bathroom and the kitchen, wash the clothes, shop, and usually cook a little food. She had a son on death row in prison and another son who was a priest. He paid her money in cash so she wouldn’t have to pay income tax on it. She was neat and quiet and never complained.

Mother called Lonnie a couple of different times when she knew father was still at work. When Lonnie asked where she was, she said they were still moving around, still unsettled. She sounded distant, preoccupied, not the mother he remembered. He believed at last that she didn’t care for him and was trying to phase him out of her life because she had a whole new life now.

Summer ended and Lonnie started ninth grade. He mostly didn’t like school—he never had from the very beginning—but he knew he had to make decent grades and get through to the end; there was no other choice anymore. Only dopes and losers quit high school.

A couple of times, on his way to and from school, he thought he saw mother in passing cars, but he knew later it couldn’t have been her. She would have at least waved to him.

On Christmas and birthdays, he always received cards from her with money in them. He couldn’t send a card to her in return because he didn’t have her address, but he knew that’s the way she wanted it.

As the months and years went by, he stopped thinking so much about her. He stopped thinking long ago that she would return and father would forgive her and everything would be just as it was.

Lonnie and father never had much to say to each other. They had occasional arguments and disagreements but for the most part they stayed out of each other’s way and got along as well as any father and son living alone in a house had a right to.

Toppy lived inside his cage and thrived and seemed happy. Lonnie sometimes felt sorry for him because he lived in such a small space and didn’t have the company of other birds. He thought about opening the window and letting him fly away, but he knew the world would be too much for Toppy and he wouldn’t survive on his own for very long.

Lonnie came to the end of high school and was glad for that that phase of his life to be over. Father dressed up in his one blue suit and came to the graduation ceremony by himself and sat toward the back of the auditorium surrounded by strangers. Lonnie thought several times about mother and wished she could be there to see him get his diploma.

He didn’t care to go on to college, at least not right away; he had had enough of school for a while. He thought vaguely that one day he would get married and have children of his own, but he was in no hurry and didn’t much care one way or another. He didn’t like the idea of having a marriage that would one day end in divorce.

A few weeks after graduation, he got a job in a hardware and paint store. He didn’t like it very much, but he got used to it and after a year or so he got a promotion and a raise in pay. He moved into sales and found it more to his liking than working at a counter and answering questions from customers.

As for mother, Lonnie didn’t hear from her again after the card he received on his nineteenth birthday. He didn’t know where she lived or if she was alive or dead. The best thing he could do, he told himself, was to stop thinking and wondering about her.

The years went by and Lonnie found himself at age twenty-one. He still lived with father in the house he grew up in. He went to work every day, as did father, and the two of them went their separate ways and lived their separate lives.

On a Friday morning in October father collapsed soon after arriving at work. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died two hours later. He had an enlarged heart and had smoked cigarettes, a lot of them, since he was thirteen. He was forty-seven.

The funeral was well-attended, despite a steady downpour. Relations of father’s that Lonnie had never seen before came from out of town, with stories of father when he was a child. The company father worked for sent an impressive arrangement of flowers. Father’s boss and a couple of his coworkers came and introduced themselves to Lonnie, slapped him on the shoulder, expressed their condolences, and told him what a great guy father was.

At the gravesite the rain kept up. Lonnie wore a raincoat and an old man’s hat he found in the closet and used a borrowed umbrella to keep himself dry. The minister droned a few words and the casket began its slow descent into the earth, indicating that the service was concluded it was time for everybody to go home.

As the crowd was dispersing and Lonnie was about to make his getaway, a woman emerged from the crowd and approached him. She was wearing a long coat, dark glasses, and a scarf wound around her head like a refugee. It wasn’t until she came toward him, stopped and smiled that he knew it was mother.

“You’re all grown up now,” she said.

He looked at her, feeling almost nothing. He brought the umbrella down in front of his face to keep her from looking at him, sidestepped, and sprinted for his car as fast as he could before she had a chance to come after him.

At home, he felt a tremendous sense of relief now that the funeral was over and all those people had gone away. He was truly alone now, for the first time in his life, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with himself. The house was his now and there would be some insurance money after the funeral expenses were paid. He was a family of one, a free agent. He might never return to his job at the paint and wallpaper store.

He went into his bedroom and closed the door and took Toppy out his cage and lay on his back on the bed, holding the bird on his chest. Toppy tried his wings a couple of times as if confused at being out of the cage and then settled down and nestled on Lonnie’s sternum contentedly. His little eyes blinked and he looked with what seemed like comprehension right into the eyes of the only human person he had ever known.

“Don’t ever leave me,” Lonnie said. “Please don’t ever leave me.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp