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Jesse the Bad

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Jesse the Bad ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

When Alvin Goldsmith married Alma Mound and the babies started coming, he knew life for him would always be a struggle. After the first year of marriage, they brought Earl into the world. The second year there was Peggy and ten months later, Jesse. When Jesse was barely walking, a girl came along that they named Storm. After the fourth baby in five years, Alvin said there would be no more. One more would upset the balance.

Alvin had never been blessed with intellect. After he graduated from high school, he never touched another book in his life. At eighteen, he went to work in a shoe factory operating a leather press and stayed for thirteen years. When the factory shut its doors, he painted houses, worked in a lead mine, drove a school bus, worked as a janitor in a church, clerked in a hardware store, did cleanup work in a cemetery, and even for a while worked as a trash collector.

The growing-up years of his quartet of children passed in a kind of blur to Alvin. They were starting to kindergarten and then, before he knew it, he was putting on his one blue suit that he wore to weddings and funerals and going to their high school graduations. Peggy and Storm were both out of the house and married by the time they were nineteen and started having babies of their own. Earl, never much interested in the girls, moved to Alaska with a couple of his friends and got a job there. He sent greeting cards to Alvin and Alma on Christmas and birthdays, but he would never come back home, he said, not even for a visit. He was happy in Alaska and didn’t want to be reminded of his growing-up years.

Jesse, the third child and the younger of the two boys, was always troubled. As a child, he had temper tantrums in which he held his breath and pounded his fists into the wall. If anybody ever crossed him, he picked up the nearest object and threw it. He broke windows, dishes and mirrors, not to mention all of his toys. He played cruel tricks on his sisters, putting a dead skunk in their closet or taking their clothes and books out into the back yard and setting fire to them. He called his mother vile names and painted obscenities on the wall of his room in his own blood.

His high school years were nothing less than tumultuous. He cheated on tests, stole money, engaged in fistfights, threatened to kill a teacher for correcting him in class, slashed the tires on a school bus. At night, he went out drinking, sometimes not getting home in time to go to school the next morning. He shoplifted cigarettes and small food items. He had been barred from every drug store in town because he roamed their aisles and pilfered drugs.

Finally, he graduated from high school. He had the lowest scholastic record in his class and the highest number of days missed, but still he made it through. The entire family attended his graduation and were happy for him. The next day he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He spent four months in the state mental hospital, after which he was said to be cured of whatever had been wrong with him and sent home.

He got a job as an apprentice meat cutter at minimum wage. In the evenings, he would come home wearing his white apron covered with blood, in which he seemed to take pride. Sometimes he brandished a meat cleaver in his mother’s or his father’s face, but they could ignore this as long as he was going to work every day and staying at home in the evenings and watching television and napping in the recliner.

He began dating a checker named Maureen in the supermarket where he worked and, in a few weeks, they announced they were to be married. Maureen was going to have a baby, but she hoped nobody would notice until after the wedding. They rented a small house a few blocks from the supermarket where they both worked and, seven months after they were married, Maureen gave birth to a son, Matthew.

In the year after Matthew’s birth, Jesse began going around with other women, sometimes women he picked up on the street. He stole money from Maureen’s purse and began staying out all night, sometimes being gone for two or three days at a time. When Maureen confronted him over the loss of the rent money, he hit her in the head with a bottle and tried to strangle her. As he held her down on the floor, she slashed him across the face with a piece of glass and got away. After that, she filed for divorce, quit her job and took Matthew and went back to her childhood home to live with her widowed mother.

Alvin was now in his sixties and, after forty-five years, he had to give up working. He had a heart murmur, a fatty liver, arthritis, asthma, and deteriorating disks in his spine. Every movement for him was painful. He and Alma, sitting at the kitchen table, figured they could get by on what little money they had, since they only had themselves to take care of and didn’t need anything in the way of luxuries.

Just when Alvin was looking forward to a serene old age, parenthood was once again thrust upon him. Jesse had lost his job, his home and his wife and had no place to lay his head. Alvin and Alma had to give him one more chance. They allowed him to move into his old room, but only if he could be the kind of responsible adult they expected him to be. If he engaged in any more of his destructive behavior, he would have to find another place to stay.

Jesse found a job as counter man in an auto parts store. He went to work every day and straight home afterwards and didn’t go out again at night. After a month of this good behavior he was stretched to the limit of his endurance and reverted to his old ways. He stole Alvin’s pain medication and took grocery money from his mother’s purse. He stayed out all night and slept all day, forfeiting his new job. He was dirty and sloppy and his mother had to pick up after him the same way she did when he was a child. When she tried to speak to him, he called her a meddling old bitch and threatened to kill her.

When he broke a glass in the kitchen and sliced Alma’s arm with it, Alvin told him he had to get out before the end of the day. His mother and father could no longer be responsible for him and he was going to have to make his own way in the world.

He got his things together, but before he left he had a few choice words to impart. They had always been against him, he said; they had hurt him and held him back by not loving him enough. They hadn’t seen the last of him, though. He’d be back and when they saw him coming they’d better say their prayers.

The next day they changed the locks on the doors and Alvin bought two handguns, one for him and one for Alma. They took lessons on gun safety and made sure they kept plenty of ammunition in the house.

Two weeks after Jesse left, Alma was alone in the house when she heard a car stop out front. When she looked out the window, she saw Jesse getting out of the car with a shotgun. She heard him try to open the door and, when he found that his old key wouldn’t work, he began shouting and swearing.

“Go on now, son!” she called to him. “We don’t want any more trouble with you!”

“Let me in!” he yelled.

“No! If you don’t go away and leave us alone, I’ll call the sheriff! I swear I will!”

He banged and kicked at the door and when she still didn’t open it, he broke the glass out with the butt of his shotgun and reached through and undid the lock.

When he came through the door, she was ready for him. She believed that when he saw her pointing a gun at him, he would desist, but still he advanced on her, pointing his gun at her middle. She would never forget the look of hatred on his face.

She believed in that moment without a doubt that he would kill her and then kill Alvin when he came into the house. Without thinking about what she was doing, almost by reflex, she blasted him in the heart. One bullet was all it took. He fell dead at her feet.

She called the police and told them calmly what happened. Ten minutes later, Alvin came home. The story was in the newspapers and on television: Rural Woman Kills Mentally Ill Son in Self-Defense. No Charges Filed.

More than two hundred people attended the funeral. Everybody heard about the killing and wanted to see the participants firsthand. No matter how many people expressed condolences and sincere regrets, Alma believed they were all thinking the same thing: How could a mother kill her own son? This is not what mothers do. She must be some kind of a monster.

After a couple of weeks, when the police had stopped asking questions and curiosity-seekers stopped driving by the house, Alvin wanted to put the whole painful episode behind him, but Alma couldn’t let it go. She believed in retrospect that she might have handled the situation in a different way.

“Maybe he didn’t really mean to shoot me,” she said. “Maybe he was just trying to scare me. I might have killed him for no reason.”

“If you hadn’t done what you did,” Alvin said, “you and I would both be dead and he’d be in prison. It was a clear-cut case of self-defense. You heard the sheriff say it.”

“I can’t stop thinking about the terrible life he lived.”

“His life would have gone on being terrible if you hadn’t ended it when you did. Who better to end it than you?”

“How can I live with this for the rest of my days?”

“You don’t have any other choice.”

“There’s nothing I can ever do to make it up to him now.”

She didn’t think she could bear to go on living, knowing what she had done. She stopped going out of the house, stopped attending church services. She didn’t want anybody to see her. Some days she stayed all day in her room with the blinds closed, refusing to get dressed, refusing to eat. Alvin tried to get her to see a doctor, but she believed you only go to the doctor when there is something wrong with the body. She was sure there wasn’t a pill in existence that was going to help her.

One night she got out of bed at three in the morning, put on some rubber boots, a hat and a jacket without thinking where she was going or what she might be doing. Without turning on any lights, she took a flashlight out of the drawer in the kitchen and went out the back door.

Walking steadily but slowly she reached the river in a half-hour or so. She thought she’d be afraid but she wasn’t. The sound of the swirling water was comforting. She switched off the flashlight and threw it on the ground and stepped close enough to the river so that the toes of her boots were in the water. How easy it would be to walk into the river, let it close over her head and take away all her sins. All it would take was a moment of courage and it would all be over so fast.

She was up to her ankles in the water, then her knees, her waist and then up to her shoulders. The next step might be the step from which there was no turning back. Something at that moment caused her to look up into the trees and past the trees at the shining stars. There she saw Jesse’s face looking down at her from heaven and she heard him whisper the words: I’m all right now, mother. I forgive you.  

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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Ring the Night Bell

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Ring the Night Bell ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in the online publication Short-Story.Me under a different title.)

I knew Mrs. Beaufort on sight. She was a faded, middle-aged woman who had probably been pretty in her day, except that her day was past. I was surprised when she called me on the telephone and asked me to come out to her house. Strictly business, she said. I knew there would be money involved—quite a lot of money, I hoped—so I told her I’d be there at the time she indicated. I had experienced several reversals—failures, if you know what I mean—so I had been praying for just the kind of opportunity I hoped this would be: one that would pay me a maximum amount of money with a minimum amount of involvement and risk.

I had been doing some investigative work for years that allowed me to remain on the sidelines of the criminal underworld. I could go either way—I could tip off the police or I could perjure myself in court; I could provide a hiding place for somebody on the lam or help a murderer get across the border if there was enough in it for me. I had done some work for Mrs. Beaufort’s husband. Work he called “under the table” because it was work he didn’t want anybody to know about. That’s how Mrs. Beaufort knew about me and my reputation.

I had a feeling it would not be a good idea for people to see my car parked at Mrs. Beaufort’s house, so I took the bus out there and when I got off the bus I walked about four blocks to her place. It was raining but I was prepared for it; I was wearing a raincoat and a hat and carrying an umbrella. I looked as nondescript as I could.

The Beauforts lived in the biggest, fanciest house I had ever seen. It was like a house out of a dream, the kind of house that rich people in movies live in. There must have been thirty or forty rooms. When I rang the bell, I expected a butler to open the door, but Mrs. Beaufort opened it herself. She smiled at me and waved me in with the gracious air of a hostess. She took my coat and hat and ushered me into the most beautiful sitting room I had ever seen and pointed to a white sofa where she wanted me to sit. When I was comfortable, she offered me a glass of champagne. I had tasted champagne once or twice before in my life. She gave me the impression she had it every day of her life.

While sipping champagne—she made sure my glass stayed nearly full—we talked idly of this and that: the weather and the stock market, music and movies. I found her a smart and witty woman—a good companion on a rainy night when all you want is somebody to talk to. Pretty soon we were swapping stories of our childhoods and telling each other things we ordinarily would never tell anybody. She had been a tomboy who hated music lessons and briefly, in her youth, entertained the notion of becoming a nun. I told her the sad tale of my disadvantaged youth and how I had run away from home and lied about my age to get a job as a longshoreman. What I told her was mostly true but I wasn’t above adding a few embellishments.

After I had been sitting on the white sofa for an hour or so and the big grandfather clock chimed, reminding me of the passage of time, I suddenly remembered I was there for a reason other than reminiscing about my past. I asked Mrs. Beaufort what it was she had wanted to see me about.

She became serious and sat down beside me. She said she liked me and trusted me. She told me her husband had spoken well of me on several occasions and had found me reliable and amenable. I thanked her for the compliment and set my glass on the side table.

She and her husband had been married nearly twenty-five years, she said. They had had two daughters, one of whom died in an automobile accident at the age of seventeen. They owned six food processing plants and were about to open two more. Business had never been better. Money was pouring in every second of the day.

“That’s fine,” I said, “but what does it have to do with me?”

Her husband, she continued, had told her he wanted a divorce. He had started seeing a younger woman and had found that, even at his advanced age (he was fifty-two) he was still capable of feeling emotion.

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” Mrs. Beaufort asked, looking me steadily in the eye. “Feeling emotion? It sounds like an impressionable schoolgirl.”

“It takes all kinds,” I said.

“I don’t want to divorce my husband,” Mrs. Beaufort said. “A divorce would be ruinous to my business that I’ve built up over all these years and also ruinous to my family. I have to consider my only surviving daughter and her future happiness. I don’t want her to have the stigma of divorced parents hanging over her head.”

“Yes, I can see that,” I said.

“Since you are a reliable and a discreet man and you have a reputation for getting a job done, I was hoping you would be able to put me onto someone who could put my husband out of the way.”

“What do you mean ‘put out of the way’?”

“I mean exactly what you think I mean, Mr. Tyler.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, suddenly on my feet. “That’s way out of my line. I may be willing to bend the law one way or another to suit the situation but I don’t go in for that sort of thing. Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life in prison?”

“Of course not, Mr. Tyler. Nobody wants that. If a thing were to be done properly, there would be no fear of going to prison.”

“I really think I ought to be going,” I said. “It’s been, uh, interesting, but when you start talking about something as serious as—“

Mrs. Beaufort laughed. “You should hear yourself,” she said. “You sound like a silly naïf.”

“Like a what?”

“Here, have another glass of champagne and we’ll talk over my proposition.”

Mrs. Beaufort was willing to pay upwards of fifty thousand dollars to have her husband and his mistress killed. Ideally, she wanted it to look like a murder-suicide. The jealous older man discovers his paramour has been maintaining an open-door policy where old boyfriends are concerned. He flies into a rage and shoots said paramour in the head while she is sleeping and then turns the gun on himself—as simple as that. There would be no one to blame because both parties involved would be dead; no one snooping around asking questions.

If I could connect Mrs. Beaufort with someone who would do the job, she would pay me ten thousand dollars; forty thousand would go to the trigger man. If, on the other hand, I decided I was capable of doing the job myself, the entire fifty thousand would be mine. She hoped I would do the job myself, because, well, it just seemed better not to involve another party if we didn’t have to.

I told her I would think over the proposition. Fifty thousand was certainly an attractive sum and would give me the chance to get away and start afresh in a new locale, but I had to admit I didn’t relish the idea of killing two innocent people in cold blood.

Not innocent,” she said. “And think of it as just another job, a job for which you will be handsomely rewarded.”

After a couple more glasses of champagne, I said that, yes, of course, I would be happy to do the job myself. I didn’t see how I could turn down fifty thousand dollars.

“Oh, I’m so glad!” she said, clasping her hands together like a schoolgirl. She poured her own glass full and proposed a toast. “To the success of our little venture,” she said. We clicked glasses and laughed.

When I left Mrs. Beaufort’s house that night, we were both happy and giddy. She was about to be relieved of a philandering husband who was all too willing to wreck her business and her life—also her daughter’s life—and I was about to make the biggest score of my life. I saw dollar signs before my eyes.

She told me to do nothing until I heard from her; she would know when the time was right to proceed. I waited almost two weeks and was starting to think the deal was off when she called me up late one night and woke me out of a sound sleep. She asked me if I could meet her the next evening at the Embassy Club at eight o’clock. I told her I’d be there at whatever time she said and then I rang off and went back to sleep.

The reason we were meeting at the Embassy Club, I discovered that next night, was because that’s where Mrs. Beaufort’s husband’s paramour (or mistress, whatever you want to call her) worked as a singer. Her name was Adele Kluge. Mrs. Beaufort wanted me to get a good look at her.

At the Embassy Club we were all smiles. We sat at a cozy little booth and made small talk and drank martinis like they were going out of style. We had dinner and then the floorshow began. The small orchestra came out and warmed up with a couple of mellow numbers and then the lights went down and the featured singer came out onto the little stage and waited for her musical intro.

When the lights came up enough for me to get a good look at Adele Kluge, I had to admit that Mr. Beaufort had good taste in dames. She was smart and elegant-looking, not cheap or flashy. She was maybe thirty-eight or forty years old, a mature woman and not a flighty young girl. She had chestnut-colored hair and looked stunning in a tasteful black-and-white gown. Her voice was polished and mellow and the orchestra was good too.

During Adele’s act Mrs. Beaufort was ill at ease; she wouldn’t look directly at Adele. She stared hard at the table or looked off to the side where the waiters came and went. When Adele was finished and left the stage to politely enthusiastic applause, Mrs. Beaufort was her old smiling self again.

“She’s good,” I said. I couldn’t resist.

“Do you think you’ll know her when you see her again?” Mrs. Beaufort asked me.

“Of course,” I said.

When we left the Embassy Club, Mrs. Beaufort asked me to drive her home. I pulled into her driveway and stopped at the front door, expecting her to get out, but she put her hand on the door handle and looked over at me and smiled sweetly.

“Would you mind coming in?” she asked. “I don’t feel like being alone.”

As we went up the steps in the dark to her front door, she held on to my arm a little more than was necessary. I could tell right away that she was putting on the helpless female act. I was determined to maintain my professional demeanor. She was just a person I was doing some work for; I wasn’t interested in more than that.

Once we were cozily inside with all the lights on, Mrs. Beaufort made some coffee and showed me a picture of her daughter that had been taken two years earlier. Stephanie was a pretty girl in an ordinary way. She had dark hair and a pleasing face with a hint of sadness around the eyes that told me she was something more than just a rich man’s spoiled daughter. I could tell that all Mrs. Beaufort’s hopes were riding on Stephanie.

After that, our conversation took a more serious tone. Mrs. Beaufort had decided that a week from Friday, the twenty-first, was when she wanted the murders to take place. That was only a week and a half away. Friday night was Mr. Beaufort’s night for recreation away from business. He would play poker with his poker club until midnight or so, and then he would go to Adele Kluge’s apartment on the eighteenth floor of the Marquand apartment building.

This was the way Mrs. Beaufort had it planned: I was to go to Adele Kluge’s apartment at around eleven-thirty and shoot her in the head while she slept in her bed. Then I would wait in the dark until Mr. Beaufort arrived and when he did I would kill him before he discovered Adele’s body. The best part of the plan, according to Mrs. Beaufort, was that I would kill them both with Mr. Beaufort’s own gun, which would be certain to be covered with his own fingerprints because it was his favorite gun and he was known to carry it with him on business trips for protection. When I asked Mrs. Beaufort how I was to acquire this gun, she went into another room and came back carrying a leather holster with the gun in it. I unfastened the holster to get a look at the gun; she warned me against touching it with my bare hands.

I was starting to get a sick feeling about killing Mr. Beaufort and Adele Kluge. When Mrs. Beaufort and I had talked about it earlier, it didn’t seem real to me, but now, since we had settled on a date, it was too real for comfort and I was thinking that I was probably too squeamish to pull that kind of a job—fifty thousand dollars notwithstanding. I kept my I-don’t-think-I-can-do-it thoughts to myself, though, and after a while I was comforted by the thought of the money I was going to get.

I didn’t know how I was going to break into Adele Kluge’s apartment without being seen or heard, but Mrs. Beaufort told me not to worry; she had a key to Adele’s door. When I looked at her with wonder and asked her how she came to have a key, she just laughed and told me it was one of her secrets that she didn’t care to divulge.

I told Mrs. Beaufort I was going to need some money in advance for a job that difficult and she didn’t give me any argument. She said she would have twenty-five thousand dollars in cash delivered to me before the twenty-first, and she would pay me the rest of the money after the job was done. She didn’t say how she would have the money delivered, but she seemed to have thought of everything so I let it go at that.

That night I spent a nearly sleepless night. I kept seeing Adele Kluge on that stage singing her songs; I hated to be the one to bring down the final curtain on her act.

True to her word, Mrs. Beaufort had twenty-five thousand dollars delivered to me on Thursday the twentieth in a neatly wrapped parcel. I knew the delivery boy didn’t have any idea what was in the package. I took it from him and ran into the bedroom and closed the door, even though I was alone, and pulled down the curtain and ripped the package open. I had never seen that much green before. It was the most beautiful salad I had ever laid my eyes on. And it was only half of what I was going to get.

The next day I was calmer than I thought I would be. I slept away half the morning and when I got up I walked to a café down the street and had eggs and ham. When I left the café, I knew I would be restless if I went back home, so I went to an early matinee and sat in the balcony and completely lost myself in the picture.

After that I went to a quiet little bar and had a couple of beers. The beers made me sleepy, so I went home and went to sleep on the couch. When I woke up, it was after dark and raining again and I had the jitters. I felt the way an actor must feel before he goes on the stage for the first time. I hoped I could keep from getting rattled and remember what I was supposed to do.

About ten o’clock I started getting ready. I dressed all in black, including black sneakers. I put the gun in the holster in my pants pocket and the key to Adele’s apartment in my other pocket. I rolled my gloves together with my ski mask and put them in the pocket of my raincoat. I put on my hat and looked all around my apartment—I don’t know what I was looking for—and turned off the lights and went out the door.

I walked down the street a couple of blocks to a cab stand where I got a cab and took it to the neighborhood of the Marquand apartments. I knew better than to have the driver let me out right in front of the building, so I got off at a drugstore a couple of streets over. I cut through a connecting alley and approached the Marquand building from the rear.

I went into the lobby breezily as if I belonged there. As I walked past the sleepy night watchman sitting behind a desk, he gave me a glance but I was careful not to look directly at him. I went to the elevator and up to the eighteenth floor.

At this point I told myself I could still cancel the operation if things didn’t look good; for example, if somebody was standing waiting for the elevator and got a good look at my face. I saw no one, though, and as I padded down the carpeted hallway looking for apartment 1806, I didn’t hear a sound.

When I found the door to Adele’s apartment, I stood there for a moment breathing deeply, trying to slow down the beating of my heart. I slipped on the gloves, took off my hat and pulled the ski mask over my face, put my hat back on, and pulled the gun out of its holster. Before I put the key into the lock to open the door, I glanced at my watch—it was exactly eleven-thirty.

The door opened effortlessly and I stepped out of the half-light of the hallway into the darkness of Adele’s apartment. I closed the door silently and returned the key to my pocket before I lost track of it and dropped it. I waited a couple of minutes for my eyes to adjust before I proceeded down the hallway to the right.

I came to a door that was partway closed—obviously the bedroom where Adele lay sleeping—and pushed the door opened with my left hand, holding on to the gun in my right hand.

There was just enough light in the room for me to be able to see the bed and Adele lying in it. She lay on her back with her arms outstretched; it was so quiet in the room I could hear the sound of her breathing, almost like a dainty little snore. I approached the bed from the left. She was lying toward the right side, with her head canted slightly toward the wall. I leaned over the side of the bed and put the gun within two inches of her head and pulled the trigger; she was dead instantly as the bullet entered her brain. I knew from the expression on her face that she felt nothing and knew nothing. That knowledge would comfort me in the days to come.

As I looked around the room for a place to hide, I told myself I was halfway home and this would soon be over. I was afraid that a neighbor might have heard the gunshot and would come running or, worse, call the police, but nothing happened; everything was as quiet as before.

On the other side of the room opposite the bed I saw a door that was obviously a closet. I crossed the room and opened the door and stepped inside and pulled the door closed, but still opened enough that I could see out into the bedroom. I felt oddly secure inside the closet, as if this was all in the past and I was only remembering it.

I waited inside the closet for maybe a half-hour, with only the sound of my own breathing, when I heard the door to the apartment open and close softly. I knew it was Mr. Beaufort and he was exactly at the time I expected. When he came into the bedroom, he didn’t turn on a light—another lucky break for me—and I could tell he was trying to keep from waking Adele.

He went into the bathroom and closed the door and turned on the bathroom light. I could hear the toilet flush and water running in the sink. In a minute he came out of the bathroom and stood beside the bed looking down at Adele. I thought he must know that something was amiss with her, but he turned his back to the bed and began unbuttoning his shirt. He removed his shirt first and then his shoes and pants and then he moved to the bureau and opened the drawer and took out a pair of pajamas. He was partway bent over from the waist when I moved up behind him like a disembodied spirit and shot him in the right temple. I knew he was dead right away, probably before he hit the floor.

With Mr. Beaufort dead at my feet and Adele Kluge dead in the bed, I let out my breath, not realizing until that moment that I had been holding it in. I took off my hat just long enough to take the ski mask off, put my hat back on, rolled up the ski mask and put it in my pocket. I bent over Mr. Beaufort’s body and pressed the gun into his right hand, molding his fingers around it.

“It’s nothing personal,” I whispered into his right ear.

I took a quick look around the room to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and then I moved through the dark apartment back to the door. I listened at the door for a moment and, hearing nothing, opened it and moved out into the hallway. As I closed the door, I made sure it locked.

Walking back up the hallway to the elevator, I took off the gloves and stuffed them into the pocket of my coat and ran my fingers through my hair. If I met anybody, I didn’t want to look disheveled. I didn’t want anybody to be taking a second look at me for any reason.

When I got off the elevator in the lobby, the night watchman was asleep in his chair and didn’t see me. I went out the door, took a deep breath of the night air, and began walking down the street. I had the sensation of being alive and that there was nothing better. I walked for several blocks through the deserted streets. I just wanted to keep moving. I didn’t feel like being still.

When I came to a phone booth at an intersection, I called Mrs. Beaufort, as we had planned. She answered the phone on the first ring.

“Hello,” she said in her quiet voice.

“The day is done,” I said.

She said nothing. All I heard was the click as she hung up the phone.

I was feeling hungry—I felt like I hadn’t eaten in days—so I stopped at a greasy-spoon diner and wolfed down a couple of hamburgers. After I left the diner, I walked and walked through unfamiliar streets until about two-thirty in the morning. When I spotted a cab, I flagged it down and went back to my apartment.

The next day I was asleep when the morning editions of the newspapers came out, but there was plenty of coverage in the afternoon editions. Millionaire businessman Everett Beaufort was found slain, along with a female companion, in a luxury apartment belonging to the female companion. There was no sign of forced entry, no sign of a struggle. Nothing was stolen from the apartment. Police were investigating the crime but so far had no leads and no suspects. One police detective at the scene, when interviewed, said it appeared the male victim had shot the female victim in the head and then killed himself. It was too early in the investigation, however, to know for sure exactly what happened.

About six in the evening when I was dressing to go out, there was a knock at my door. It was the same delivery boy as before with a parcel identical to the one he had delivered two days earlier. It was the other half of my fifty thousand dollars. I was happy to be able to mark the account “paid in full” and to be finished with Mrs. Beaufort forever.

Mrs. Beaufort wasn’t finished with me, though. She called me every day for two weeks, sometimes two or three times a day. She had taken to calling me in the middle of the night. She was distraught and said she couldn’t live with what she had done. She was going to go to the police and tell them everything. She was gong to commit suicide.

I tried to be patient with her, but I had to admit my patience was running thin. I tried to give her the old pep talk. I told her to think of her daughter’s future happiness. I told her the news reports of the incident looked good, very much in our favor, and she had nothing to worry about. And, anyway, I said, we shouldn’t be talking about this on the phone. We shouldn’t even be talking at all. We didn’t want the police to connect the two of us in any way. It was safer for both of us if we just went our separate ways.

One Sunday evening when I was planning on staying at home and going to bed early, she called me and told me she had to see me, she had to talk to me. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she had been drinking heavily. I drove out to her place and parked on the street a couple of blocks over and walked the rest of the way.

She was in a terrible state when I got there, crying and very drunk. I told her she was staying at home too much alone; she needed to get out and have some fun. She had most of the money in the world and she could do whatever she wanted, go anyplace, buy anything. She had every reason to be happy.

She said she was going to the police the next day; she planned on telling them everything. It was the only way out. They would come and pick me up unless I left town; she wanted to warn me.

I slipped a bottle of pills out of my pocket that I had brought with me. I hadn’t been sure if I was going to use them, but I brought them with me anyway. It was a powerful sedative; there was a warning on the bottle not to take them while drinking alcohol.

I gave her the bottle of pills and told her they would make her feel better, much better than alcohol. They would help her to sleep and make her forget all her troubles. She was grateful; she took two or three of the pills at first and washed them down with her vodka martini.

I stayed with her for several more hours. She talked and swilled liquor; I remained sober and listened. Occasionally she took a couple more of the pills, as if she didn’t know what she was doing or had forgotten how many she had already taken. By four in the morning she had taken almost all the pills and was unconscious. I figured that with the pills and the alcohol she would be dead by the time the sun was up.

The next day the story was all over the papers. The bereaved widow of Everett Beaufort had been found unconscious by her maid at around eight o’clock in the morning. By the time a doctor was summoned, Mrs. Beaufort was dead. All indications were that she had committed suicide. A daughter, Stephanie Beaufort, age nineteen, was the only surviving member of the Beaufort family.

I had my fifty thousand dollars and could take it easy for a while. I planned on going out West—possibly to San Francisco—and starting my own private detective agency, but I decided for the time being I would stay put. Stephanie Beaufort interested me. She was one of the richest girls in the country and was all alone. I watched the newspapers for any news of her. I had even spotted her a few times. She looked better in person than she did in her pictures. One day soon I planned on approaching her on the street and introducing myself. She would be hostile at first, thinking I was a reporter, but I would tell her I knew her parents; I would extend my condolences and offer my services. She was sure to warm up to me in time.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

We Don’t Ask Much of You

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We Don’t Ask Much of You ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Dinner was spaghetti and meatballs. Gil ate a plateful, barely tasting the stuff, and passed on angel food cake for dessert. Thinking he was finished, he wiped his mouth and stood up, remembering, as always, to push in his chair.

“Your father and I wanted to have a talk with you this evening,” mother said.

“Can’t it wait? I’m going out.”

“No, I’m afraid it can’t.”

If there was anything Gil hated, it was “serious” conversations with his parents. It usually meant his mother had an ax to grind. Had he failed to straighten up sufficiently in the bathroom after taking a shower? Was two o’clock in the morning too late for him to be coming home?

Father wasn’t hearing anything she said. His attention was focused on the television, where an adenoidal female reporter was blatting about the latest political scandal in Washington.

“Harvey, would you please turn that thing off for a while?” mother yelled into father’s ear.

He looked at her, her words slowly registering, and picked up the clicker and turned the set off.

“What’s the matter with you?” he said. “They were just getting to the interesting part.”

“It’s all shit,” she said. “Everything they say is shit for shit brains like you to lap up. If it was up to me, television would cease to exist!”

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” Gil asked.

“Let’s go into the living room,” she said. “I’ll clean up the dishes later.”

Gil went into the living room, followed first by mother and then by father, and sat on the edge of the chair so he could make a quick getaway.

“Let’s make this quick,” he said. “I have people waiting for me.”

“They can wait,” mother said. “This is much more important.”

“Well, let’s have it.”

“When you graduated from high school, we told you you could stay here as long as you wanted, until you found your way in life.”

“Yes?”

“High school was five years ago. You’re twenty-three now.”

“So, you want me to move out. Is that it? I can move out, if that’s what you want.”

“You tried college and you flunked out.”

“I didn’t flunk out. I quit.”

“You’ve tried several different jobs and none of them suited you.”

“I have a job. I’m paying my share.”

“You’re a messenger boy. Do you think that’s a suitable job for a twenty-three-year old man?”

“I’m not a messenger boy. I’m a courier.”

“Do you think you’re living up to your potential?”

“Maybe I don’t have any potential.”

“Do you plan on still being a messenger boy when you’re fifty?”

“No, I don’t plan on anything, mother. When I’m fifty, I’ll worry about it then.”

“With that attitude, you’ll never get anywhere in life.”

“Yeah, I guess I’m pretty worthless. Can I go now?”

We’re not entirely without hope, though,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“You remember our friends the Byersons.”

“How could I forget?”

“And their lovely daughter Bethany.”

“Yeah, what about her?”

Will you please get to the point?” father said.

“Well, it seems that Bethany Byerson is in a bit of a dilemma.”

“What does that have to do with my job as a courier?”

Father groaned and shifted his bulk on the couch.

“She’s a year younger than you are,” mother said. “She had an affair with a married man. She thought the man was going to marry her but he didn’t. He ran out on her.”

“She shouldn’t have been so stupid.”

“The trouble is now she’s going to have a baby.”

“I’m sure it happens all the time. Why are we even talking about it?”

“You know how the Byersons are. Very active in the church. While some girls would go out and get an abortion, Bethany Byerson would never do such a thing.”

Gil sighed and looked at his watch. “If you want me to take her to a country club dance, the answer is no. I haven’t been to one of those dances since I was nineteen.”

Mother laughed and looked at father. “We spent all evening with the Byersons last night. They think very highly of you.”

“In spite of your low opinion?”

“They see you as a clean, decent, intelligent American boy.”

Gil looked at father and father looked away.

“All right, out with it!” Gil said. “What have you got on your mind?”

“Well, the Byersons believe, and your father and I agree, that you’d be a good match for Bethany.”

What?

“I know it’s probably going to take you some time to get used to the idea, but I want you to keep an open mind.”

“Do you know what people called Beth Byerson in high school? The snitch witch. She’s got a pointed nose and a pointed chin and long black hair and she looks like a witch. She was always reporting somebody for smoking or skipping class. She was so self-righteous! I could never stand the sight of her.”

“Well, maybe she’s changed since high school. People do.”

“No! I’m not dating Bethany Byerson!”

“Well, I’m afraid it’s moved rather past the dating stage.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Byersons thought you’d make an excellent husband for poor Bethany.”

Gil laughed at the absurdity of it. “Are you out of your mind? I hardly know her!”

“It doesn’t have to stay that way, does it? I wrote her phone number on a little slip of paper and put it on your dresser. We all want you to call her. Take her out to a nice restaurant for dinner and see a show. I’ll pay for it. That would be an excellent start. And remember, time is of the essence.”

“I’m not going to call her, mother.”

“It’s your chance to do a real nice thing for another person.”

“Tell him the rest,” father said. “He should expect something in return, shouldn’t he?”

“Oh, yes,” mother said. “You marry Bethany, make a respectable woman of her, and Vernon Byerson will take you into the bank with him.”

“Take me into the what?

“That’s right! Vernon Byerson will give you a job in his bank if you marry his daughter!”

“There’s more,” father said.

“Oh, yes,” mother said. “The house! Vernon and Gerry own some six rental houses. I’ve seen them and they’re quite nice. They will allow you and Bethany to live in one of their houses rent-free for a year and at the end of the year you have the option to buy! Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”

“Is there a garage with exposed rafters?” Gil asked.

“Why, I don’t know. Why with rafters?”

“Because that’s where I’ll be hanging myself.”

“Oh, Gil! Don’t be so melodramatic!”

“And what about the baby? Didn’t you say there’s a baby involved?”

“Well, of course, everybody will believe you’re the father.”

“That’s what they’ll be led to believe.”

“Well, yes, appearances are important to people like the Byersons.”

“It sounds like a real sweet deal,” father said. “A chance to move up in the world. Have some security. Join the country club. Show the world you’re better than a messenger boy.”

“Yes,” mother said. “I think you could go your whole life and never get a better offer than this.”

“So I get a wife, a job, a house and a baby all in one package?”

“How many young men do you know who have ever had such a wonderful offer?”

“I have to admit, mother, I don’t know of anybody.”

“So you’ll at least think about it, then? Give Bethany a call?”

“It suddenly occurs to me,” Gil said. “Why are you so interested in helping the Byersons find a husband for their pregnant daughter? You must be getting something out of it, other than getting rid of me.”

“Go ahead and tell him,” father said.

“Well, if things go according to plan,” mother said with a girlish giggle, “Vernon Byerson will absorb our mortgage.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we’ll own the house outright and won’t have any more mortgage payments.”

“So, Vernon Byerson is buying a husband for his creepy daughter and you’re selling me, your son, to pay off your mortgage.”

“It sounds so sordid when you put it that way!”

Isn’t it sordid?”

“Well, I know you’re a smart boy and you won’t let a chance like this get away. Give it a couple of days and I’m sure you’ll see how much sense the whole thing makes.”

“Is that all, then? Are we finished?”

“Yes, you can go now,” mother said, “but don’t stay out so late. You need your rest. You’re not a teenager anymore!”

Gil drove downtown after his mother dismissed him, met his friends and spent the next six hours playing pool and drinking. After he left his friends, he drove around by himself for hours until a police car began tailing him. He went home at three o’clock, slept for a few hours and woke up with the sun shining in his face.

He wasn’t used to drinking and felt sick at first but after he vomited he felt all right again, only a little tired from not enough sleep. He took a long shower and after he was dressed he packed his two old suitcases with the possessions from his room he especially wanted to keep. The rest of the stuff he would leave behind as a reminder that he once occupied the room.

When he was taking the suitcases out the door, his mother appeared from the back of the house wearing her long bathrobe, hair askew.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“So, you’re running out on us?”

“If that’s the way you want to look at it.”

“In all the years you’ve lived here, we…”

“Yeah, I know, mother. You can tell it to the wall after I’m gone.”

“Once you leave, you’re never coming back.”

“Fair enough.”

“You’re dead to me. Don’t forget that. I no longer have a son.”

With one final look at the old house he had lived in his whole life, he drove out of town and began driving in a westerly direction, because, to Americans, west is the direction of promise. He had two hundred in cash, two thousand in the bank, and a six-year-old car that would take him as far as he wanted to go. More importantly, though, he had youth, health, and a stout heart.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

June the Tenth

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June the Tenth ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Mother was sitting at the kitchen table making her deviled eggs, nails red against the white of the eggs. Lex walked past her on his way to the sink to get a drink of water but she didn’t look up. He drank half a glass full and turned to face her.

“I don’t want to go on the picnic,” he said.

She laid down her knife and took a drag on her menthol cigarette. “Why not?”

“I’ve got a stomach ache.”

“What you need is a good bowel movement.”

“No, I don’t,” he said. “What I need is to stay home from the picnic.”

“By yourself?”

“I don’t mind.”

“I do mind,” she said.

“But why?” he whined, hating whining but not being able to help himself.

“Don’t you want to see your great-grandma turn ninety?”

“She can turn ninety without me.”

“No, you can’t stay home. I want you at the picnic with the rest of us like a normal person.”

“What difference does it make if I’m there or not?”

“Because it’s a family gathering and you’re a part of the family. If you’re not with us, everybody will wonder where you are.”

“Can’t you just tell them I’m sick?”

“Now, Lex,” she said, pointing the knife at him, “this discussion is at an end. You are thirteen years old and that’s old enough to understand the importance of attending family gatherings, especially since some in the family are getting older and won’t be around forever.”

“Oh, I hate family gatherings.”

“Now, I don’t want to hear any more complaining. Go get your swim trunks and wrap them in that big towel with the fish on it and brush your teeth and get ready to go in about fifteen minutes. As soon as I can finish these stupid eggs.”

“I don’t need to take my swim trunks,” he said. “I’m not going in swimming.”

“Why not?”

“I said I have a stomach ache. You’re not supposed to go in swimming with a stomach ache. You can drown.”

“That’s silly,” she said. Nobody’s going to drown. And, anyway, your cousins will be disappointed if you don’t go in swimming with them.”

“No, they won’t. They don’t care about me.”

“Why are you being so negative today?”

“Because I’m sick and I don’t want to go on any stupid picnic.”

“It’ll be fun. You’ll enjoy it.”

“No, I won’t.”

“When you get with your cousins, you’ll feel much better and you’ll want to race them to see who gets to the pool first.”

“Nobody does that, mother.”

Mother sat on the front seat next to father, the Tupperware container of deviled eggs on her lap. While driving, father smoked one Chesterfield after another, searching for the ballgame on the radio and not being able to find it.

“What in the hell did they do with it?” he said, turning red in the face.

“I wanted you to wear the blue plaid shirt today,” mother said. “I laid it out on the bed for you.”

“What difference does it make what I wear?”

“I just want you to look nice, is all.”

“For your family? Why would I want to look nice for them? I’d rather have Chinese water torture than to spend any time at all with your family!”

“It won’t kill you to be nice.”

“It might. And why does everything have to be ‘nice’ all the time? I think it might be ‘nice’ for you to try to expand your vocabulary a little.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said. “You don’t need to worry yourself about my vocabulary.”

Lex sat in the back seat with Birdie and tried not to look at her. She was already wearing her swimsuit. It was yellow with big pads in front to hold up her nonexistent breasts. She looked like a stick-thin child in a lady’s swimsuit.

“You look so silly,” Lex said.

“Not any sillier than you do, you big baby!” Birdie said.

“Mother, did you know she’s wearing lipstick?”

“Hey!” father said, turning around to look at Birdie. “You’re fifteen years old! Who do you think you are? Jane Russell?”

“I thought a little bit of lipstick wouldn’t hurt,” mother said. “She’s so pale.”

“Well, she can stay pale! She’s not wearing any makeup until she’s considerably older.”

“It’ll come right off in the pool, anyway,” Birdie said.

“When people see you in that hideous bathing suit and with lipstick,” Lex said, “they’ll laugh themselves silly. Who do you think you are? Jane Russell?”

“Oh, shut up!” Birdie said. “You make me sick!”

There was one traffic jam that slowed them down for about ten minutes, but when they got to the park they found the place easily enough where mother’s family was gathered. Father parked the car and turned off the engine.

“Let’s see if we can all get along today without any complaining or negative emotions,” mother said.

“That would be nice!” father said.

Father, mother, Lex and Birdie all got out of the car and greeted the family with kisses, handshakes, and clichéd greetings. Mother handed the deviled eggs to aunt Vivian, who always took charge of the food. Somebody gave father a beer and he sat on a camp stool ten feet away from everybody else and lit a cigarette.

“Did you have trouble getting here?” mother’s sister, Peggy, asked her.

“No,” mother said. “Why would we?”

“Everybody was here before you were.”

“How’s my favorite grandma?” mother screamed, brushing past Peggy.

Grandma Pearl was the guest of honor. It was her ninetieth birthday and she was the center of attention. She had her hair done the day before and had slept sitting up all night to keep from mashing down her cotton-candy curls. She was dressed in a new lavender pantsuit and slippers to match.

“I’d never believe she’s ninety years old,” uncle Mervyn said. “She don’t look a day over eighty-nine!”

Everybody laughed except grandma. She didn’t understand the joke at all and wasn’t sure she hadn’t been insulted.

“Pooh to you!” she said.

“He was just kidding you, grandma,” aunt Vivian said.

“We need to get this nonsense wrapped up and get back indoors,” grandma said. “It’s going to rain.”

“But there’s not a cloud in the sky, honey!”

“Well, the rain is coming, just over there, and I don’t want to get caught in it. It’s going to be a bad one.”

“Just relax and try to enjoy yourself and don’t worry about a thing.”

“I want some hot coffee!”

“We didn’t bring any coffee, honey. It’s too hot for coffee. How about some iced tea or some lemonade?”

“No, I want coffee!”

“One of us is going to have to go find some coffee and bring it to her,” aunt Vivian said.

“No!” aunt Linda said. “She’ll be as tyrannical as you allow her to be. Just give her some iced tea and tell her it’s coffee.”

“You all are going to try to kill me afterwards,” grandma said. “I know you are.”

“Sounds like grandma’s havin’ a good time,” uncle Lyle said.

The uncles focused their attention on Lex. He knew it was coming and dreaded it.

“How has the world been a-treatin’ you?” uncle Herm asked.

“All right,” Lex said.

“What are you a-gonna be when you grow up?”

“I don’t know. A circus clown, I guess.”

“Have you got a girlfriend?” uncle Mervyn asked.

“No.”

“Why not? You’re comin’ up to that age.”

“I stay away from them and they stay away from me.”

“Aw, you’ll change your mind, boy, after a couple years of puba-tery!Haw-haw-haw!

“What grade are you in now?” uncle Lyle asked.

“Eighth.”

“What sports are you going out for?”

“None.”

None? Why the hell not?”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“All the boys in our family are good at sports. Just look at your cousin Virgil there! He’s on the track team and the basketball team. I think he’s even going to try out for the swim team.”

Lex looked over at Virgil to be polite. Virgil smirked back at him in a superior way. Virgil’s younger brother Vernon whispered something in Virgil’s ear and they both laughed.

“I think you should seriously consider going out for some sport,” uncle Lyle said. “It just don’t seem normal otherwise.”

“Other things are more important to him,” mother said.

“Like what?”

“Raising his grade-point average so he can get into a good college.”

“Oh, one of those! A college man who can look down on all the rest of us!”

Everybody laughed and Lex wished he had been able to vomit before he left home.

After the uncles were finished with Lex, they turned their attention to Birdie.

“How’s little Birdie girl?” uncle Herm asked.

“Fine.”

“When you gettin’ married?”

“After she finishes high school and college,” mother said.

“You got a boyfriend?” uncle Mervyn asked.

“Oh, no!” Birdie said. She giggled and blushed and her breast cups moved in the wind, showing there was nothing in them.

“Now that’s no way to be!” uncle Lyle said. “I’ll bet you’re a real heartbreaker!”

“There is one boy I kind of like, but he goes to Catholic school and he doesn’t even know I exist.”

“Uh-oh! A Catholic! You have to watch out for them Catholics!”

“I don’t see anything wrong with being a Catholic,” Birdie said, and the uncles laughed uproariously.

Grim-faced, Birdie stood up and went to join the girl cousins—Carline, Sharonda, Bertine and Maude—who were giggling and passing around a cigarette in a circle.

When it was time to eat, aunt Vivian and aunt Peggy sat on either side of grandma and after they filled up her plate with food, they began feeding her little bird bites. When they fed her too fast, she choked and turned red in the face.

“I can feed myself, damnit!” grandma said. “I’m not a helpless baby!”

“We don’t want you to spill anything on your beautiful new outfit,” aunt Peggy said.

“Oh, screw you!”

Father ate in silence, wincing when any of the uncles clapped him on the back or spoke to him.

“How’s work going, Theodore?” uncle Lyle asked him.

“Fine,” father said.

“How’s the fishin’ been for you this spring?”

“I never fish.”

“Read any good books lately?”

“Not that I care to discuss.”

He finished eating and pushed his plate away, lit a Chesterfield and stared off into the distance.

The girl cousins didn’t eat much because they were excited about going into the pool and believed they might die in the water if they overate. After a few bites, they each got up from the table, one at a time, and got into the back of uncle Herm’s roomy van and changed into their swimsuits, giggling all the time. When they were all changed, they stood around awkwardly, feeling exposed, not knowing what to do with themselves, their bone-white arms and legs on view for all to see. The boy cousins—Virgil, Vernon, Monte and Dickie—gaped at them and snickered. Vernon made howling sounds like a wolf baying at the moon, while pimply faced Dickie made pig snorts. Lex took one glance at them and looked away, finding the sight of them more than he could bear.

All the cousins were ready to go to the pool, but aunt Vivian wouldn’t let anybody go until after grandma’s cake had been cut. She brought the cake forward from the trunk of her car where she had been keeping it to keep the bugs off and set it on the table in front of grandma. There were nine candles, one for every decade of grandma’s life, but aunt Vivian was afraid to light them because the wind had suddenly become gusty and she was afraid that grandma might catch her hair on fire.

Uncle Herm went and got his camera. The four granddaughters stood beside grandma’s chair, two on each side, with grandma looking down at the blue-and-white cake with a look on her face that could only be described as one of horror.

After the picture was taken, aunt Vivian sliced the cake, putting the pieces on paper plates with a plastic fork on each plate. Vernon picked up a piece in his hand and stuffed it all into his mouth at once, causing the other boy cousins to do the same.

The girl cousins declined any cake. They had eaten too much already and were afraid of looking fat in their swimsuits. Aunt Vivian gave them all the go-ahead and they were all off to the pool.

Lex sat at the table, eating his cake methodically, watching the trees blowing, wishing he was at home by himself.

“Aren’t you going swimming with the other kids?” aunt Linda asked, giving him her fish-eyed stare.

“I didn’t bring my swim trunks,” he said.

“Oh, yes, you did!” mother said. “They’re in the car. Don’t you remember?”

“You’d better hurry up and catch up with the other kids,” aunt Linda said. “Kids love the pool.”

“Not all do,” Lex said, but aunt Linda didn’t hear him because a car was passing by and she was looking to see if the people in it were noticing her.

The wind picked up and the paper plates and napkins left on the table began to scatter. Mother and the aunts had to scramble to keep everything from blowing away. The uncles sat and laughed at them and drank their beer and smoked their cigarettes.

“It started out such a beautiful day and now it’s going to rain and spoil grandma’s birthday party,” mother said.

“I don’t mind!” grandma said. “You can take me back home any time!”

Dark clouds rolled in, blotting out the sun, with faraway flashes of lightning. The rain started light like fairy kisses but gradually grew in intensity.

“Not a good time for the kids to be in the pool,” aunt Vivian said.

Watching the sky, Lex smiled. He loved a good thunderstorm, the present one especially, because it reinforced his belief that the picnic was a bad idea in the first place. He was glad the day was spoiled. Even grandma was glad and the whole thing had been for her.

When the rain became a drenching downpour and the lightning became closer with every strike, aunt Vivian, with the help of uncle Herm, got grandma into the back of the van. She screamed with every lightning strike and pretended to be so scared, but Lex knew her and he knew she was enjoying every minute of it. She’d have something to tell her friends—her dramatic escape from a terrifying storm.

With grandma safely in the van, everybody else got into their cars to wait it out. With any luck, they said, it would only be five minutes or so.

“Do you think they’re safe in the pool?” mother asked.

“They’ll be all right,” father said.

“Lex, go get your sister and tell her we want to leave,” mother said.

“No! Do you think I want to get struck by lightning?”

Three lightning strikes in quick succession caused mother to yelp and duck.

“I’m going to get Birdie at the pool!” she said. “Lex, you come with me!”

She took Lex by the hand and they ran toward the pool. In a matter of seconds, they were drenched through to their skin. The rain now was an opaque curtain.

When they were close enough to the pool to see it, they saw people running toward them. Out of the crowd emerged Birdie. When she saw mother, she ran to her, sobbing and gasping.

“What’s the matter?” mother asked. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, mother, it’s awful!” Birdie said.

“What is it? Are you hurt?”

“Sharonda was struck by the lightning. I think she’s dead.”

Mother and Lex got Birdie back to the car. When father saw them coming, he jumped out and opened the door. Mother pushed Birdie into the back seat and got in behind her.

“Tell me what happened,” mother said, trying to wipe the water out of Birdie’s face.

“When the storm started,” Birdie said, “the lifeguards told everybody to get out of the pool, but a few stayed. They thought it was a lot of fun. Sharonda was one that stayed. There were about six others. She had just come up out of the water and was standing at the edge. I didn’t see the lightning that hit her but I saw the flash. After she was hit, she fell into the water. The lifeguard blew his whistle really loud to get everybody’s attention. A couple of boys got Sharonda out of the water and they started working over her, trying to resuscitate her, but I knew she wasn’t breathing. Somebody called an ambulance, but it hadn’t come yet. That’s when I left.

“Do Lyle and Linda know?”

“I don’t think so. Nobody has told them yet.”

“I have to go tell them what’s happened.”

The ambulance came and loaded Sharonda into the back with hundreds of people standing in the rain watching. Uncle Lyle and aunt Linda followed behind in their own car to the hospital, where Sharonda, their only child, was pronounced dead.

On the way home, the rain continued unabated. Father drove with the headlights on, leaning forward, his face only a few inches from the windshield.

“This has been some storm!” he said.

“On today of all days,” mother said. “Wouldn’t you just know it? On grandma’s birthday!”

“I knew somebody was going to die today,” Lex said. “Grandma knew it too.”

“Now we’ll have a funeral to go to,” mother said. “I hope you can still wear your blue suit.”

“No more family picnics for me,” father said.

Birdie sat on the seat beside Lex, sobbing quietly. It was going to take her a while to get over seeing Sharonda die. Lex would have felt sorry for her if she hadn’t looked so silly in her yellow lady’s swimsuit.

He turned away and put his fingertips on the window, the water only a scant fraction of an inch away—he could almost feel it. As the car moved slowly and cautiously through the deluge, it gave one the impression of traveling underwater in a tiny submarine. When the rain finally stopped, it was going to be a terrible disappointment.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp 

Madge Beaumont of the Lemon-Colored Hair

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Madge Beaumont of the Lemon-Colored Hair ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

We had just finished supper when we heard a car out front. The kids, sensing excitement, went tearing out the door, knocking aside anything in their path. I went out, too, with mama right behind me.

What we had heard was a new-model Ford car with my brother Tafford driving. After seeing the car and then seeing Tafford, the next thing I saw was that somebody was in the car with him and that somebody was a woman.

“Tafford got himself a wife!” mama said.

“Tafford got himself a new car!” I said.

Lupe, Willoughby, and Wiley were jumping up and down and screaming. As soon as Tafford stopped the car, they were all over him, kissing and hugging him and tugging on his arms.

“You can help me carry in the stuff I got in the back of my car,” he said.

“Oh, what did you bring us?” Lupe cried.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Mama went down the steps off the porch and ran to Tafford and threw her arms around him. “I was afraid you was dead, son!” she said.

Tafford laughed. “Why would I be dead?”

“When we don’t hear from you for so long, I imagine all sorts of things.”

“Well, I’m here now and that’s what matters, ain’t it?”

Mama hung on to Tafford’s arm. “Who’s that woman?” she asked.

“Come on out of the car, Madge, and meet my family!” Tafford said.

She got out of the car and stood beside it, looking confused, trying to smile, tugging at her clothes. She wore a flowered dress and white shoes but the thing you noticed first about her was her hair the color of a lemon. It hung in billowy cascades around her ears to her shoulders. I had never seen hair like it before in my life.

“Mama,” Tafford said, “this is Madge Beaumont. She’s going to be staying with us for a few days.”

She took two steps toward mama and held out her hand. Mama wasn’t used to women shaking hands, but she took hold of it anyway.

“Pleased to meetcha,” Madge Beaumont said.

“How d’ya do,” mama said without smiling and then to Tafford she said, in a whisper that all of us heard, “She ain’t your wife, is she?”

Tafford threw his head back and laughed. “Hah-hah-hah! That’s a good one, mama! No, she ain’t my wife. We’re just taking a little trip together. And not as man and wife, neither!”

Tafford introduced Madge to me, Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby, shaking hands with all of us, and then Wiley and Willoughby got into Tafford’s car and wallowed around on the seats while Lupe sat behind the wheel and pretended to drive.

“Hey!” Tafford said. “Stop that now, you kids, and help me carry these things in!”

Madge had two suitcases that I carried inside, while Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby carried in the packages from the back of Tafford’s car. As soon as they got them inside, they began tearing them open to see what was in them. When they found cookies and donuts, they began stuffing them into their mouths like hungry animals, even though they just had supper.

“They’re a bunch of barbarians!” Tafford laughed, while Madge stood beside him looking uncomfortable.

As soon as mama came inside, Madge went to her and whispered something in her ear.

“It’s out back,” mama said. “Go through the kitchen and out the back door. You’ll see it.”

“When we have visitors, I’m a little embarrassed we don’t have indoor accommodations,” mama said when Madge was out of the room.

“Don’t think anything about it,” Tafford she. “She ain’t society.”

When Madge came back in, she wanted to wash herself, so mama gave her a washrag and a bar of soap and hustled the rest of us out of the kitchen so she could have a little privacy.

Since Tafford and Madge weren’t “man and wife” and wouldn’t be sleeping in the same bed, mama decided the best place to put Madge was in the attic room. The room hadn’t been cleaned in a while, at least two years, so mama put all of us to work sweeping the floors, putting clean linens on the bed, and removing any junk that had accumulated in the interim. We were all sure we had been ill-used from the unexpected work.

“I don’t want to hear any grumbling,” mama said, “while we got a guest in the house.”

After Madge finished with her “privacy” in the kitchen, mama offered to heat up the leftovers from supper, but Tafford said they had eaten in Pecksville on their way in and wouldn’t need anything else till breakfast.

So we all sat around “visiting” for a couple of hours and by then it was nearly ten o’clock. Tafford said they were tired from the long day, so it was time to say “good night.” Mama showed Madge up the stairs to the attic room while I followed behind carrying her suitcases. I set the suitcases down on the floor at the foot of the bed and went back down to my own room, where Tafford was already asleep.

The next morning Madge was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette and she looked better than she had the night before. She wasn’t dressed yet but wore a thing that ladies wore before they got dressed, called a kimono, I guess. She smiled when I came into the room.

“I’ve forgotten your name already,” she said. “I’m just terrible at rememberin’ things!”

“It’s Tyler,” I said.

“Tyler and Tafford! Ain’t that cute!”

“Wasn’t meant to be cute,” mama said.

I was getting the impression Mama didn’t like Madge very much.

“What are the two younger boys’ names, now?”

“Willoughby and Wiley,” I said.

“Two W’s and two T’s. And in the middle of all these boys is one girl.”

“That would be Lupe,” I said.

“As in Lupe Velez?”

“I don’t know. Who’s Lupe Velez?”

“She’s a Mexican movie actress, just the cutest little thing you ever saw. She’s got these big dark eyes and…”

“No,” mama said, “we didn’t name her after no Mexican movie actress. That was a name her papa picked out. I can’t say I ever liked it very much but it was his wish.”

“And now he’s dead?” Madge asked.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“At a young age?”

“Not yet fifty.”

“And left you with five children to take care of?”

“I wouldn’t have had ‘em in the first place if I hadn’t been able to take care of ‘em.”

Tafford came into the room and poured himself a cup of coffee. Madge smiled at him but he didn’t smile back.

“Did you sleep well, son?” mama asked.

“I didn’t wake up a single time. You could have fired a gun over my head.”

He sat down at the table with his cup and lighted his own cigarette.

Mama brought the food to the table and we began eating.

“Aren’t you going to call the kids?” Madge asked.

“They’ve already eat,” mama said. “They get up early in summertime and they don’t want much breakfast.”

“Where are they now?”

“Down to the river, I think.”

“And you think that’s safe?”

“Sure, why not? They’ve learnt to look after themselves.”

“I wonder if I could take a little bath out back after breakfast?” Madge asked. “All I need is a pan of water and a piece of soap and a little privacy.”

“I don’t know why not,” mama said. “As long as the kids ain’t around. Nobody will be spyin’ on you, I’m sure.”

For a while, we were all in the service of Madge’s bath. Mama told me to get the washtub and fill it with water from the pump, while she heated the kettle to add some warm to it. Tafford set up a screen at the corner of the house so Madge could have complete privacy from prying eyes, wherever they might be.

I didn’t want to be anywhere near the back yard while Madge was taking her bath so I went out front and pulled some weeds out of mama’s flowerbeds and when I was finished with that I sat in Tafford’s car and pretended it was mine and I was driving around the city having a good time keeping one step ahead of the law.

When I went in for supper, Madge was helping mama get the food on the table. She wore pants and a loose man’s shirt that showed how thin and small she was. She had washed her hair with her bath and had tied a red ribbon around it that held it back from her face. She had painted her nails, too, and put on some makeup. I had the idea that she was trying to get Tafford to pay attention to her, but if that was what she was about it wasn’t working because he barely looked her way.

Mama had a time getting the kids to wash their hands and faces and, with that little drama concluded, we all sat down and began eating.

“What did you do with yourself all day long?” Madge asked Tafford, flashing him a pretty smile.

“I’m on vacation,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything.”

Madge, sitting to the left of Lupe, put her arm around her and made over her because she was the only girl in a family of boys.

“How you doin’, darling?” she asked.

“Fine,” Lupe said, licking gravy off her knuckles.

“I bet you’d like to have a new hairstyle, wouldn’t you?”

“What?”

“I’ve been thinking ever since I first saw you that I’d like to cut and style your hair. With your mama’s permission, of course.”

We all looked at mama to see what she’d say.

“I don’t see anything wrong with her hair,” mama said. “It could be a little cleaner, I guess.”

“It needs some body, is what it needs,” Madge said.

“She’ll never know it needs anything until you tell her it does,” Tafford said.

“Well, if she wants to, I don’t object, I guess,” mama said. “If you can get her to sit still long enough.”

“How much will it cost?” Lupe asked.

Madge laughed. “Not a single samolian, baby doll!”

The next day it rained, so Lupe, Wiley and Willoughby hung around in the house or on the porch. They tried to keep themselves entertained, but more often than not they ended up fighting and mama or Tafford had to separate them. Tafford asked them if they’d like to go for a ride in his Ford and Wiley and Willoughby started jumping up and down and screaming.

“I want some ice cream,” Wiley whined.

“Stop at the store and get me some canned salmon and a box of crackers,” mama said.

“Bring me some movie magazines,” Madge said. “Whatever they have that’s new.”

“Maybe I won’t do any of that,” Tafford said as he walked out the door.

Lupe didn’t want to go for a ride in Tafford’s Ford in the rain because she was mad at Willoughby for getting her in a headlock and not letting her go until mama made him.

“Now is a good time to have a go at that hair,” Madge said and Lupe agreed.

She took Lupe into the kitchen and had her stand on a chair and lean over the sink while she washed her hair with shampoo that smelled like flowers. Then she had her sit at the table, draped the damp towel around her shoulders, and took the scissors and started snipping away.

She cut off about half of Lupe’s hair and then she put curling things in what was left. Lupe sure did look silly with those things in her hair. It looked like a bunch of brown butterflies had landed on her head and died.

While they were waiting for Lupe’s hair to dry, Madge painted Lupe’s fingernails and toenails bright red and put lipstick on her lips and a little rouge on her cheeks. The funny thing was that Lupe submitted to all the beauty business and held as still as a statue and didn’t grumble.

When Madge had taken the curling things out of Lupe’s hair and combed the hair out, she looked like a miniature version of Madge, only her hair wasn’t lemon-colored like Madge’s. Madge handed Lupe the mirror so she could take a good look at herself.

“I look like somebody else,” Lupe said.

“Don’t you like it?”

“I’d like it better if it was somebody else.”

“Why, I think you look beautiful,” Madge said. “You look like a blossoming young woman, which is what you should look like at your age. If I had a camera, I’d take your picture and send it to all the movie magazines. I’m sure someone would offer you a contract to star in motion pictures.”

When Wiley and Willoughby came back, they look one look at Lupe and started having fun with her.

“You look so stupid!” Wiley said.

“You look like a turd!” Willoughby said.

“You still look like a boy! Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that!”

“We ought to take her picture and hang it out in the garden. Don’t need no other scarecrow!”

Lupe chased Wiley and Willoughby from room to room, her fists doubled up, the curls on her head bouncing. When she tried to punch or kick them, they managed to stay out of her reach, laughing the whole time. We all laughed, too, including mama. When Lupe began crying with frustration, we laughed harder. Finally she ran out of the house into the pouring rain and down the road.

“She’ll ruin her coiffure!” Madge said.

When she came back, her hair was all flat again with the curls gone. The makeup had washed away in the rain, too. There wasn’t anything she could do about the paint on her fingernails and toenails, though; she’d have to wait for it to wear off. Mama told us if we made any more fun of her, we’d get slapped.

Tafford and Madge had been with us and week and showed no signs of leaving. When Madge wasn’t in the attic room upstairs, she was taking baths behind the screen in the back yard or sitting at the kitchen table or on the front porch smoking cigarettes and reading magazines. Sometimes she helped mama with the housework or cooking or washing, and for that reason mama had warmed up to her some.

One sleepy, hot day when there wasn’t much to do between meals, Tafford asked me if I’d like to go for ride. There was something he wanted to talk to me about, he said. Sure, I said.

We’d gone out a couple of miles from home. Tafford knew the roads well. He pulled over by some railroad tracks and asked me if I’d like him to show me how to drive.

Since I was about ten years old, I had dreamed of driving and owning my own car and getting away on my own the way Tafford had done. It didn’t need any coaxing to get me behind the wheel of the Ford.

In about five minutes, he explained to me how to drive. He told me what to push and what to pull and how to keep the car on the road without running it into a ditch.

“Just takes a little confidence,” he said. “If you’re scared all the time you going to hit something, then you going to hit something.”

“I can do it,” I said.

Driving was about what I expected. After about ten minutes or so, I drove like I had been doing it my whole life. It wasn’t that hard. All you had to do was watch where you were going, keep control of the car and not let it wobble. Anybody with half a brain could do it.

“I like driving,” I said after I had driven a few miles.

“Better find a place to turn around and go back,” Tafford said. “I ain’t got that much gasoline.”

He took over driving from there and drove to a place overlooking the river where we both got out and leaned against the front of the car and watched the river. It was so peaceful and private I could have stayed there the whole rest of the day.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Madge.”

“Just another silly girl from the city.”

“If you don’t like her, why is she with you?”

He sighed and took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “I work for a businessman in the city,” he said. “I’m what’s known as an operative. That means I do what needs to be done, whenever it needs doing, no matter what it is.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Oh, different things. I collect payments, deal with clients. Sometimes I’m just a driver. I pick people up and take them to their hotel or wherever they need to go. Sometimes I’m only a messenger boy or a go-between.”

“How come you never told us anything about it before?” I asked.

“Well, I like to keep my personal and professional lives separated from each other.”

“All right. What does any of that have to do with Madge?”

“Sometimes the businessman I work for needs a thing done that’s hard to do, but somebody’s got to do it. Do you follow?”

“I guess so.”

“I get paid and when the man in charge tells me what to do, I have to do it and leave any personal feelings out of it. That’s where Madge comes in.”

“What did she do?”

“She didn’t do anything. She saw something she would have been better off not to have seen, that’s all.”

“What?”

“She saw a woman being murdered and she saw the man that did it, too. She was the only other person there. Her testimony in court will send that man to jail for the rest of his life.”

“Oh.”

“It just so happens that the man who did the murder is a powerful man with lots of money and connections. He’s paying the businessman I work for, and the businessman is paying me, to take care of this little problem for him.”

“Wait a minute! Are you saying you have to…”

“That’s right. I should have already done it by now, but I wanted to give the poor kid a few good days before I…”

“Wait a minute! You brought Madge down to our house to…”

“I’m not going to do it in the house, silly! Not with mama and the kids there!”

“Why don’t you stay at home with us and not go back to the city and send the businessman you work for a telegram and tell him he’ll have to get somebody else to do his dirty work?”

“That wouldn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“It’s part of my job. You have to take the good with the bad. And anyway, I know what they do to people who go back on them. Do you want that to happen to me?”

“No.”

“I have to go through with it. I can’t back out now.”

“Can’t you just give Madge some money to send her away somewhere far away, like California?”

“They’d find her but they’d take care of me, first.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“First of all, I want you to promise me you won’t ever tell mama or any of the kids about any of this. Not ever, not even in fifty years when you’re all old.”

“I won’t tell.”

“I believe you. Second, I might need your help when the time comes getting Madge’s things together out of the room upstairs so I can make mama and the kids believe she had to leave in a hurry without saying goodbye.”

“I guess I can do that.”

“Third, I might need you to help me to dispose of, you know…”

“The body?”

“Yeah. Remember that old abandoned mine way back in the hills that people used to talk about?”

“I guess so.”

“The road is so washed out you can hardly get to it anymore, but I think I know of a way. I’m going to need some help, though, and that’s where you come in.”

“I’ll do what I can but I’m not going to jail for you.”

When we got back to the house, I was feeling so sad like I just wanted to cry. At the supper table, I could hardly stand to look at Madge as she laughed with the kids and petted Lupe. I just wanted to yell out at her to warn her to get herself far away and dye her hair and change her name and not ever come back.

For several days I had a stomach ache and fever. I vomited some and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Mama said I had the summer ague. She made me drink plenty of water and eat cabbage and oranges. She wanted to take me to the doctor in town, but I’d just about rather die than do that.

I didn’t speak to Tafford again about what he had told me at the river. When we were alone in my room at night before going to sleep, we didn’t talk at all or we only talked about things we had done that day. I knew what he had to do and that he didn’t have any choice about it if he wanted to go on living. I mostly just wanted him to get it over with and be done with it. When the time came that he needed my help, he’d let me know.

Five days later, after Tafford and Madge had been with us for two weeks and two days, I was sleeping late in the morning. I usually got woke up about daylight with all the noise the kids made, but I guess mama had made them be quiet this morning so I could get some extra sleep.

When I woke up, I looked at the clock and when I saw it was ten minutes after nine I started to get up and that’s when I saw Tafford sitting on the other bed, wearing his clothes, smiling at me.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“All our worries are over,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Everything is taken care of.”

“You mean you…?”

“That’s right. Happy days are here again.”

That evening Tafford took us all to the best restaurant in Pecksville for steaks or fried chicken or whatever we wanted. We were all happy, except a little sad that Madge wasn’t there to enjoy the dinner with us.

“She could at least have told us goodbye,” mama said.

“She told me to thank you for your hospitality,” Tafford said. “She said she had a truly wonderful time and that she would carry all of you in her heart for as long as she lives.”

“Maybe you can bring her down again for another visit.”

“We’ll see.”

Tafford left again the next day. We wouldn’t see him again for a long time and maybe never.

I often thought about Madge and took comfort in the belief that Tafford hadn’t killed her but had let her go. I thought I spotted her in town a couple of times but was sure afterwards that it couldn’t have been her.

At any time I could imagine Tafford marrying Madge and the two of them driving down to our place in a new Ford with three little monkeys with lemon-colored hair hanging around their necks.  

Copyright © 2018 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 

It was spring and company was coming for dinner. Joyce prepared all the food herself. She thought it important to show her domestic side on this particular occasion since the company was Stan Witter, a friend of her brother’s and a most eligible bachelor.

Joyce was twenty-three and unmarried. All her old friends from high school were already married and had drifted away. She was the only one left behind. She had set a goal for herself to be married by twenty-five and have a home of her own. It was a goal that didn’t seem impossible of fulfillment, especially if things went well with Stan.

Stan was twenty-four, what Joyce considered the perfect age. He lived in a twelve-room, two-story brick house in town that came to him after his grandmother died, and he lived there alone. He must naturally want a wife to live in the house with him. Joyce supposed he was rich by most standards without having to work for what he had, but she didn’t care so much about money and wasn’t interested in him for that.

She knew him slightly in high school. He was a grade ahead of her, so she hardly ever had a chance to speak to him. He always stood out from the crowd, though. He was coolly handsome, with his dark hair, pale skin and green eyes. He didn’t bother himself with all the silly goings-on in high school, such as dating and girlfriends. He was quiet and shy, and any time Joyce saw him he was usually alone, reading a book or looking at the sky or seemingly thinking about things that other people never bothered to think about.

She had managed to mostly put Stan Witter out of her mind until he and her brother, Curt, became best friends and Curt began mentioning Stan in conversation at the dinner table. They went to a football game together and a swim meet and then there were overnight trips to the lake or the city. Stan liked museums and plays and concerts. She didn’t understand why he would like Curt and would want to spend time with him—they were so different—but she figured there must be a side to Curt that she had never seen. Maybe Curt could come to like those things too.

Joyce left the hot kitchen—the ham was still in the oven and everything else was ready. All she had to do with change her clothes and comb her hair and put on a little makeup. She sat down in front of the mirror and regarded her reflection with hopelessness.

The thing about her that she believed held her back was her eyes. They didn’t work in concert. The left eye was all right, but the right eye moved about uncontrollably in its socket. Those who knew her hardly noticed the aberrant movement of the eyes, but to anybody else she looked slightly crazed or demonic. A boy at church said she was evil. She knew, or felt, that people were always looking at her and for that reason kept her eyes downcast.

When Stan arrived for dinner at the appointed hour and Joyce saw he was wearing a jacket and tie, she was glad she had taken the extra effort with her own appearance.

“Why so dressed up, cowboy?” Curt asked. “We’re strictly informal here!”

Mother greeted Stan effusively, taking his hand in both of hers. “I’m so glad that you and my son have become good friends,” she said. “I haven’t always approved of some of his friends in the past.”

“Mother!” Curt said. “I’m sure Stan doesn’t want to hear that! I know I don’t!”

Joyce passed around a tray containing little glasses of wine and after the wine had been drunk, it was time for dinner. Stan and Curt took their places at the table in the dining room and Joyce and mother brought the food in from the kitchen.

“This certainly looks wonderful!” Stan said.

“I hope you like ham,” Joyce said, speaking for the first time since he arrived.

“Of course I like ham.”

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

“Whose fault is that but your own?” mother said.

After everybody had their plates filled, mother insisted on a little of word of grace: “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord.”

“A-men!” Curt said.

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

“Of course not,” Stan 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?” Stan asked. “Outside of town, I mean.”

“It’s quiet,” Curt said.

“It gets a little lonely sometime,” mother said, “especially since my husband died two years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Stan said.

“On that cheerful note,” Curt said, “pass me some more of those sweet potatoes.”

During a lull in the conversation, Joyce cleared her throat and said, “When Curt mentioned that you were coming for dinner, I remembered that I had known you in high school.”

“That’s right!” Stan said. “I remember now.”

“All these years have passed.”

“Not so many. Seems like yesterday.”

“You graduated a year before I did, I believe.”

“Yeah, I guess I did.”

When Joyce saw that Stan was looking at her, she looked down and began rearranging the rolls on the plate. “Would anybody like anything else?” she asked.

“How about some dessert?” Curt said.

She went into the kitchen to get the cherry pie and when she came back, mother said, “We wouldn’t have had this lovely dinner if it hadn’t been for Joyce. She did the whole thing on her own.”

“She did?” Stan said, smiling. “Well, everything is just perfect. It couldn’t have been better.”

Joyce flushed with pleasure at the compliment and in the next moment she was afraid that Stan would notice her eyes and run screaming from the house.

After dinner, Joyce and mother began clearing the table, while Curt took Stan down to the barn to show him the horse he had bought. He paid less for it than it was worth, he said, and hoped to sell it at a profit.

“I think it went well, don’t you?” mother said while they were washing the dishes.

“I guess so,” Joyce said.

“I think he likes you.”

“Who does?”

“Stan.”

“What makes you think that?”

“The way he looked at you.”

“He looked at you the same way.”

“I think the next step is he’ll call you and ask you out on a date and if that goes well, we’ll have him out to dinner again, maybe a barbecue. Then the two of you can go on a picnic somewhere. Picnics are a good chance for young lovers to get better acquainted.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, mother.”

She couldn’t help feeling hopeful, though. Having him to dinner was a good way to remind him, without being too obvious about it, that the two of them had been in high school together. Mother was right, though. The next move, if there was one, was up to him.

Mother was putting the clean dishes away and Joyce was stowing the leftovers in the refrigerator when the phone rang. It was the man calling about the horse that Curt hoped to sell.

Joyce volunteered to run down to the barn to get him. It would give her another chance to spend a minute or two in Stan’s presence before he went home.

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 five hundred yards farther on.

As she approached the barn and was for the moment blinded by the sun, she didn’t see either Curt or Stan. She crossed the threshold of the barn and, in the dimness, saw the whiteness of Stan’s shirt.

He had removed his jacket. His pants were down around his ankles. He was leaning into Curt pushed up against the wall and the two of them were kissing passionately. Curt was alternately clutching Stan’s shoulders and the back of his head and unbuttoning his shirt.

In one instant it all became clear. It had really been clear all along but she refused to see it. There had been so many signs: Curt’s indifference toward girls, his obvious adulation of Stan, the trips together, Curt’s overnight stays at Stan’s house in town.

She wanted to get away before they saw her. She turned and began running back toward the house.

In the back yard was a sycamore tree with a huge horizontal limb about five feet off the ground. She had been dodging the limb her whole life. Not seeing anything—only wanting to get away—she struck her forehead on the limb, knocking her out cold.

The next thing she knew she was lying on her back in the mud and mother was kneeling beside her, delivering little slaps to her cheeks.

“What happened, dear?” mother asked. “Are you all right?”

“I must have hit my head,” Joyce said.

“Can you get up off the ground?”

Mother helped her into the house to a chair in the kitchen.

“You have a big welt on your forehead, dear. It’s going to swell something terrible, I know. I’m going to call the doctor.”

“No, I’m all right,” Joyce said.

“Do you feel dizzy or anything?”

“My head hurts.”

“Well, let me at least wash the wound. That’s all I can do now. I think you do need to see the doctor, though.”

“No, I’m all right,” Joyce said. “I’m going to lie down for a little while until the pain in my head stops.”

“Do you want me to help you into your room?”

“No.”

“Isn’t there anything I can do?”

“You can leave me alone for once and stop your fussing! I said I’m all right!”

She stayed in her room for two hours and when she came out, mother was anxiously waiting to know how she was.

“I feel like I’ve been hit in the head with a sledgehammer,” she said.

“Stan was sorry he missed you,” mother said. “He wanted me to tell you how much he enjoyed your dinner. He said your cherry pie was the best he ever ate.”

“I don’t care what Stan thinks.”

“What?”

“Where’s Curt?”

“He left with Stan. They were going to see a movie in town. They’re spending the night together at Stan’s house.”

“Of course,” Joyce said. “How could I have been so stupid?”

Mother wasn’t hearing what Joyce was saying, though. She was looking closely at her face. She took her by the arm and led her into the kitchen where the light was stronger.

“Look at me,” mother said.

“Why?”

“Just look at me.”

She sat Joyce down in the chair and took her by the chin and tilted her head first one way and then the other.

“I never thought it possible!” mother said.

“What?”

She gave Joyce the hand mirror and told her to take a good look at herself.

“Ugh!” Joyce said. “I’ve always wanted a lump right in the middle of my forehead. I wonder how long it’ll take to go away.”

“Not that,” mother said. “Look at your eyes.”

“What about my eyes?”

For the first time since she was eight years old, her right eye and her left eye worked in concert. She stood up and took a few steps, looking at her eyes in the mirror. She danced from the table to the refrigerator and over to the sink.

“My eyes are normal!” she said. “As normal as yours! As normal as Curt’s! As normal as anybody’s!”

“It’s a miracle,” mother said. “It was the blow to the head that did it.”

“I’d call and tell somebody if there was somebody to call.”

“The next time Stan comes for dinner,” mother said, “you won’t be self-conscious about looking him in the face.”

She continued to look at herself in the mirror. She wanted to surround herself with mirrors. Even the mention of Stan’s name wasn’t able to detract from the happiness she felt.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Do You Take This Clown?

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Do You Take This Clown image 1

Do You Take This Clown? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(In the spirit of silliness, I’m re-posting this short story I wrote that appeared in the Australian literary journal, Skive, in the April Fool’s Issue of 2013.)

Mercy Buckets felt pains in her midsection. She had the feeling that there was something inside her that wanted and needed to come out. She checked herself in to Clown General Hospital, believing she was dying. After a clown doctor had done a perfunctory examination, he knew right away what was wrong with her. She was about to have a clown baby and, being the naïve goose that she was, she hadn’t even known it.

Almost at once she went into clown labor. When they were wheeling her in to the delivery room, she didn’t know what was happening and became distraught.

“Help!” she screamed. “Somebody help me! They’ve taken my clothes! They’re holding me prisoner and they’re going to do awful things to me! Somebody call the clown authorities before it’s too late!” Her round red nose quivered with emotion.

Nobody called anybody, of course. A clown nurse clonked her on the head with a frying pan and after that she was quite manageable. She wasn’t able to help in the birth of her child, being unconscious as she was, but Dr. Stitches managed just fine, with the help of several clown nurses, and delivered her of a perfect baby boy.

When she woke up, she was in a bed in a little room all to herself where everything was so white and shiny she thought for a moment she might be in heaven. She heard sounds from behind the closed door but they seemed remote and far away and comforting in a way. She felt funny as if all her bodily parts had been stretched and then allowed to snap back into place. She still didn’t know what had happened to her.

In a little while a smiling clown nurse came into her room to check on her. “Are we feeling better now?” she asked. She had an upturned nose that resembled a sweet potato and a huge head with great waves of flame-red hair.

“Who are you?” Mercy Buckets asked.

“I’m Nurse Precious,” she said. “I’m here to take care of you.”

“But where am I?”

“You are on the third floor of Clown General Hospital.”

“Have I been in an accident or something?”

Nurse Precious laughed. “We do have a wry sense of humor, don’t we?”

“I want to go home.”

“Of course we do, but we’re not ready yet. If you and your baby get along well, you should be able to leave by Tuesday.”

“Me and my what?”

Nurse Precious looked at Mercy and wrinkled her brow. “You don’t remember why you came to hospital?”

“I don’t remember anything.”

Nurse Precious looked at Mercy’s medical chart she was carrying but hadn’t bothered to look at yet. “Oh, I see,” she said. “They had to put you out, over, and under during the birth. You haven’t even seen your baby yet.”

“If you don’t tell me what you’re talking about right now,” Mercy said, “I’m going to walk out of here and take a jitney home even though I am wearing a bed sheet with nothing underneath.”

As if on cue, the door opened with a suck of air and Nurse Nimbus came into the room with what looked like a bundle of dirty laundry in her arms. “Here we are!” she said cheerily. She laid the bundle on the bed beside Mercy Buckets and pulled back a flap to reveal the face of a small animal.

“Ugh!” Mercy said. “That is the ugliest thing I ever saw.”

“You be sure and think of a good name for him now,” Nurse Precious said.

The two nurses linked arms and twirled around in a little jig as if that were part of the ritual that Mercy was unable to understand.

“But what is this thing?” Mercy asked. “It doesn’t even look like a clown. It looks like an ape. It’s all covered with hair.”

“Why, it’s your baby, dear,” Nurse Nimbus said. “What else would it be?”

“Are you telling me that thing came out of my body?”

“Well, the stork didn’t deliver it, if that’s what you mean,” Nurse Precious said, laughing uproariously.

“Take it away!”

“Oh, you have to feed it, dear. The little fellow is hungry.”

“And just what do you have in mind that I feed it?”

Nurse Precious and Nurse Nimbus exchanged a significant look and then Nurse Nimbus discreetly exited while Nurse Precious showed Mercy what was to be done.

Later in the day, after the baby had been fed and taken away again, Mercy was dozing when Dr. Stitches dropped by her little room to see how she was doing. He was wearing a long white doctor’s gown and a rubber chicken on each shoulder like epaulettes. On his old head was a powdered wig like George Washington, only pink.

“Well, well, well,” he said. “That was quite a harrowing scene we had in the delivery room this morning, wasn’t it?”

“Who the hell are you?” Mercy asked, irritated at being awakened.

“I’m only the fellow who saved your life and the life of your baby,” he said.

“I want to go home. My clown mother and clown father must be worried about me.”

“All in due time, my dear.”

“And when I leave, I’m not taking that thing with me.”

“What thing are we talking about, dear?”

“The little animal that they say came out of my body.”

“I take it you are referring to your son?”

“I go. It stays.”

Dr. Stitches made a note on his clipboard and looked at Mercy over the tops of his Ben Franklin glasses. “You wish to give the baby up for adoption?” he asked.

“I don’t care what you do with it. We’re not even the same species.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Mother exhibits marked ambivalence toward baby,” he read as he wrote.

“My clown mother and clown father are going to die when they find out about this. They don’t know I was ever even with a man. Hell, I don’t even know it myself!”

“So, you have no knowledge or recollection of the act that brought your baby into being?”

“I don’t know anything except that I want to go home and forget that any of this ever happened.”

“You’ve had a shock,” Dr. Stitches said, patting her on the shoulder. “You just rest now and don’t worry about a thing.”

He left and in a few moments Nurse Precious came in and gave Mercy another clonk on the head to calm her down.

When she awoke she was confused. She had been dreaming that a giant chicken was holding her down, trying to put its beak into her mouth. She sputtered and picked some imaginary feathers from between her teeth. She realized then that someone was standing beside her bed and that someone was her own clown mother, Clarabelle Patootie, and her clown father, Petey Patootie. They had both been clown headliners in the biggest show in clowndom but were now retired from the show business.

“My dear!” her mother said, realizing at once that Mercy was awake. “Your clown father and I have been frantic with clown worry.”

“It’s not what you think!” Mercy said, trying to sit up. “I swear I don’t know where that thing came from!”

“Now, now, now,” her mother said. “We’re not judging you. We’ve just had a long talk with Dr. Stitches. He told us the whole story.”

“I’d like to hear that story myself,” Mercy said.

“It’s going to take some time to sort this all out.”

“Have you seen that thing?”

“Yes, we saw him. Our grandson. He’s a fine little fellow.”

“Yes, but he’s some kind of a gorilla or something. I never saw anything like it before in my life!

“You just rest now, dear. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal. We’ll talk it all out later.”

Petey Patootie never had much to say. He always let his clown wife do the talking. He patted Mercy on the hand and looked into her eyes. “You hang in there, old girl,” he said. “We’ll be here if you need us.”

She dozed off again and didn’t know when her clown mother and clown father left. The next time she opened her eyes, she saw a huge clown face looming over her. As she screamed and sat up in the bed, the clown face withdrew to a safe distance.

“Who the hell are you!” she said. “Why are you standing over me like a spook?”

“It’s Mr. Ticklefeather,” a voice said. “I was leaning close to see if you were asleep or only faking it.”

It took her a moment to see the clown from whence the voice came. “You act like a crazy person,” she said. “You scared me nearly half to death.”

“Well, I am sorry, I’m sure,” Mr. Ticklefeather said, putting his hand over his mouth.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came as soon as I heard.”

“Heard what?”

“You know. About the b-a-b-y.”

“Why would that concern you?”

“Well, I’m assuming I’m the f-a-t-h-e-r since we went out together that one time.”

“Stop that spelling! We went rowing on the lake. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t result in a baby of any species.”

“Don’t you remember when we kissed?”

“That doesn’t do it, either.”

“You finished a hot dog that I started and we drank out of the same cup.”

“Mr. Ticklefeather,” she said. “Don’t you know anything about the birds and the bees? You are not the father!”

“Who is?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know!”

“Oh, my!” Mr. Ticklefeather said.

“No, no, no! It’s not like that, Mr. Ticklefeather! I don’t know who the father is because there is no father!”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ll save that one for another time.”

Mr. Ticklefeather had only a moment to look perplexed because the door opened and Nurse Precious came into the room bearing the bundle of dirty laundry again.

“Time for the little chappie to feed again,” she said in her sing-song, setting the bundle beside Mercy on the bed as Nurse Nimbus had done earlier and pulling back the face flap.

“Oh, no!” Mercy said. “How many times a day does this happen?”

“It never ends,” Nurse Precious said.

“I want a bottle! Bring me a bottle of whatever it is they drink! I’m not doing that other thing again!”

“I’ll leave,” Mr. Ticklefeather said.

“No!” Mercy said. “I want you to see this odd little baby, even though you are not the father.”

“It’s better if you feed it the old-fashioned way,” Nurse Precious said.

“It won’t matter with this one because I’m not going to keep it anyway,” Mercy said.

Nurse Precious produced a bottle from the folds of her uniform and handed it to Mercy. As Mercy held the baby in the crook of her arm and held the nipple of the bottle to its snout, Mr. Ticklefeather leaned in to get a better look.

“He looks a little like me, doesn’t he?” he said.

“He doesn’t look a thing like you,” Mercy said. “You have nothing to do with him at all!”

“He looks like a Percy to me,” Mr. Ticklefeather said. “I’ve always liked the name Percy. How about if we name him Percy? Percy Ticklefeather. I like the way that sounds.”

“You can name him Boll Weevil, for all I care,” Mercy said.

“I know this is going to sound funny to you,” Mr. Ticklefeather said. “I know I’m not really his father, but I wish I was. Since he doesn’t have a father, or at least doesn’t have one that we know about, I’d like to take him and raise him as if I really were his father.”

“I don’t care what you do with him.”

“Since you are the mother and, to the world at least, I’m the presumed father, how would it be if we get married and bring the little fellow up properly, in a home with a mother and a father?”

Mercy looked at him with disbelief. “Why would I want to marry you?” she asked. “I don’t love you. I hardly even know you, even though we went rowing on the lake that one time.”

“We can get married and figure out together who the father really is and what really happened and when it happened. All will be revealed in time.”

“No,” Mercy said. “I suppose I should thank you for the offer, but I won’t ever marry you or anybody else. Not if having peculiar babies is the result.”

The baby drank the entire contents of the bottle, belched and went to sleep. By and by, Nurse Precious came back to collect the baby to take him back to the nursery.

“I’m going to take him,” Mr. Ticklefeather said to Nurse Precious. “Mercy Buckets wants nothing to do with him.”

“Are you his father?” Nurse Precious asked.

“In the absence of the truth,” Mr. Ticklefeather said, “let us say, yes, I am his father.”

“Very well,” Nurse Precious said, slinging the baby onto her shoulder. “Come with me. You’ll have to sign some papers saying you assume full responsibility for his upbringing.”

Mr. Ticklefeather beamed with satisfaction and pride. He followed Nurse Precious and the baby out of the room without another word to Mercy Buckets.

Mercy got out of the bed and walked slowly to the window. She opened the blind and, looking out at the sky, saw the full yellow moon beaming down on the tired old world, exactly the way it had done the night she and Mr. Ticklefeather went rowing on the lake. She had to wipe a tear from her eye. Already she was feeling lonely and a little sorry for herself.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp