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A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer. -Karl Kraus


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Opulent Decay

By Skippytoad

It was because she didn’t eat her vegetables, Mom told me. The lady who lived in the alley behind the Cannie’s. Her hair smelled like old socks—I know because once I went to talk to her, when I was little. Mom yelled at me to get back here, you idiot, she’s crazy! while putting the milk and cheese and cold cuts into our trunk. She had smiled at me, and sipped on something steaming and brown and smelled like malt. Her teeth were dirty but all there. She had a basket next to her with dirty cloth and old lace sticking out, and needles in a red pincushion shaped like a tomato, and a pipe, the kind my uncle smokes his tobacco in. My mom says she hates the smell, but I like it. Sort of sweet and rich, like barbeque ribs, almost. I wondered if the lady smoked the pipe, or if she had just found it somewhere. What did she do during the day. Her clothes looked old fashioned and homemade, but nice. Had she been a seamstress? Or perhaps she’d had one…

This week I was going to the store alone. I was allowed to go alone now, since my last birthday. As I approached the alley, I glanced down it and was surprised to see a man with her, sort of grizzled, with a beard and mustache and a fuzzy hat with a hole in the side big enough for me to detect from the end of the alley. He was smoking a pipe. They were sitting on orange crates and had built a fire in some kind of metal tub. I wondered that someone didn’t call the fire department, but it was getting colder, and besides, it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Everyone was at work. 

As I crossed the alley, I thought of what Mom had said to me all those years. I got to the other side of the alley and stopped, pressing my back against the cold brick of the Cannie’s building. Should I ask them? The question burned in my mind. Here was my chance to finally learn the truth. The curiosity warred with the years of warnings from my mother about the dangers of talking to strangers, especially dirty bums, and I glanced back towards the alley once before turning around and slowly walking away, running my finger in the sand-papery groove between the bricks.

I took my time inside the store, looking at all the different kinds of milk and each price, pretending to shrewdly consider which one was the best. I glanced down at the shopping list where Mom had written “Darwin Co. 2% milk—max $2.50” underneath “Strauss Farms Sharp Cheddar” and “Bettony Castle Grade AA Extra Large eggs” with their respective prices. I sighed and took the 2% Darwin milk from the refrigerated case and put it in my basket. I walked over to the vegetable aisle, lingering. I passed my hand over them, carrots, broccoli, lettuce, corn, celery, some sort of root; did they really have that much power over us?

Slowly, I reached for a bag of radishes and started to lift it towards my basket. Then I dropped it, changing my mind. Mom hadn’t said we needed any veggies. Quickly, I snatched up a zucchini and put it in my basket, hesitated, and put in one more. I walked away from the aisle, wondering if she would notice. Zucchini weren’t very expensive.

When I got outside, I started down the street. The alley approached and my stomach fluttered. The mantra of “don’t talk to strangers” that had been drilled into my head by teachers, parents, counselors, ran through my head. But when I reached the alley, I turned into it without even pausing.

[to be continued]


The man was still there, putting away the pipe now. I could smell the sweet smoke as I approached. They both looked up from their paper plates and I slowed. Each plate had a whole roasted fish on it that smelled wonderful. The fishing pole was leaning against the back wall of Cannie’s and there was a 5-gallon bucket with two listlessly swimming fish set next to it. The sun shone weakly high in the sky, and the shadow cast by the wall fell halfway across the man, who sat closest to the building. I stopped some distance away from the two and we looked at each other for a moment.

“Hello,” she said. Her voice was a bit rough, but sounded nice enough. Maybe she had a cold; it was the middle of November, after all, and she didn’t have a house to go into. She smiled, and her brown teeth that were all there showed themselves. I smiled back, hesitantly. I took another step forward, clutching the two grocery bags tightly. There were so many things that I wanted to say.


“Is something wrong?” The woman was looking curious, and the man had started eating his fish.

“I…I’m sorry. Um, I was just wondering…” I set the grocery bags on the gravel of the alleyway and reached in, grabbing a zucchini in each hand. “…if these would help.”

The woman smiled kindly and said, “Oh, thank you, dear, but as you can see, we catch our own supper.”


I must have looked quite crestfallen because the old woman continued, “Did your mother ask you to get those for us, dearie?”

I shook my head. “I just… I thought—“ I didn’t want to cry.

“What is it, dear?”

“…Did you get poor and dirty because you didn’t eat your vegetables?” I blurted out. The woman started to laugh and I began turning red; I could feel it. I dropped the zucchini; they fell on the ground and rolled a few inches as I picked up the grocery bags, preparing to run.

“Wait a minute!” the husky voice of the man stopped me in my tracks. “Don’t be afraid.”

Now I really thought of the warnings that my parents had given me, but somehow his voice didn’t sound evil. I looked at him, and he grinned at me. I smiled a small smile, blinking rapidly. His beard, closer up, stuck out in all directions and was brown and red and all sorts of colors in the sunshine. I wondered if it felt more like the hair on Brianne’s dolls that her brother Sammy had cut off (she didn’t play with them any more, anyway), or on the scrub brush Mom used to clean the bathtub. “Now then, what was that? Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know. Only way you’ll find a thing out, isn’t it?”

I nodded slowly. I said again, “Well, my mom says that you didn’t eat your vegetables. And, well, she didn’t really say that that’s why you live in the alley, but I just thought…” 

The old woman chuckled as she picked up a piece of the fish with her pointer finger and thumb and put it into her mouth. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, dearie. But, I suppose you might say vegetables did play a part in our story.”

[to be continued]