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A Happy Starfish

A Happy Starfish image 3

A Happy Starfish ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Did I tell you how I hate school? This morning in zoology I had to dissect a starfish. The inside of the starfish is green. That’s disgusting enough, but the thing that got to me is the fishy smell. It’s a smell that lingers in my head and my nose. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat any kind of fish or seafood again for as long as I live without being reminded of the green insides of a starfish.

The world is very cruel. That little starfish was probably just minding its own business on a beach somewhere when somebody picked it up and put it in pickling solution where it instantly died. One minute a happy starfish and the next minute a laboratory specimen to be cut open and have its insides probed. If I was a starfish, I would want to live on a faraway island where there were no people and I could die of old age.

After zoology was American history, but I skipped. I thought I was going to vomit and I didn’t want anybody to see me. I went to the boys’ toilet on the third floor where it was quiet and went into a stall and latched the door. I put my hands on my knees, leaned forward and closed my eyes, trying not to think about that starfish.

In a minute somebody came into the toilet whistling. I hate people who whistle. It spoiled my concentration, so I just spit into the toilet and flushed without vomiting. I opened the stall door and went to the sink and started to wash my hands.

“What do you think you’re doing?” somebody to my left said.

I turned and saw it was Dutch Farquhar. If there’s anybody in school I hate, it’s Dutch. He’s the class president and a snitch. Mr. Perfect. He has somehow taken it upon himself to keep the rest of us in line. Probably someday he’ll be a congressman or a senator or something if somebody doesn’t kill him first.

“Washing my hands” I said curtly.

“That’s not what I meant, smartass! What are you doing out of class?”

“I’m sick.”

“You don’t look sick.”

He took his eyes off himself in the mirror and leaned in close to me, sniffing.

“Get away from me!” I said. “What I have might be contagious.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in American history?”

“It’s none of your business!”

“Are you skipping?”

“Why should you care?”

“As class president, I’m supposed to report anybody skipping class.”

“Go to hell!” I said.

He grabbed me by the collar and pulled me toward him, holding his right arm back like he was going to hit me in the face. “What did you just say to me?” he said.

“I said, ‘go to hell’.”

He roughed me up a little bit but didn’t hit me. He finished by pushing me into the sink. “You stupid little baby!” he spat out viciously.

“You’re a big man, aren’t you,” I said. “Going around telling everybody what to do!”

“I’m going down to Mr. Crawford’s office right now and write up a report stating that you’re loitering in the bathroom when you’re supposed to be in class.”

“I hope you break your leg going down the steps,” I said.

I went to the library to hide out for the rest of the period. I wandered around in the dusty stacks for a while and then went all the way to the back and sat down on the floor in the corner. I opened a book on my knees so if I heard anybody coming I’d pretend to be reading.

I was starting to feel a little less like vomiting. The quiet and the smell of old books made me sleepy, so I leaned my head against the wall and dozed off like a bum sleeping it off in an alley.

“Here he is!” Somebody said in a loud voice.

I jerked awake and saw Dutch Farquhar looking down at me. Behind him was Mr. Crawford, the principal.

“I was sure he’d be here!” Dutch said triumphantly.

“Here, here!” Mr. Crawford said. “What do you think you’re doing? Sleeping on the floor in the library!”

“I was feeling sick,” I said, standing up.

“You haven’t been drinking, have you?”


“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”

“American history class,” Dutch said.

“I was afraid I was going to vomit,” I said. “I didn’t want to do it where everybody could see me.”

Mr. Crawford took hold of my arm above the elbow and squeezed. I was sure he was going to make a bruise and I was sorry there wasn’t anybody else there besides Dutch to see it.

“Skipping class won’t be tolerated in this school,” he said in a low voice close to my ear. I could smell his cologne and it was worse than the starfish. “Do you want a suspension?”

“No,” I said. “I just want my high school years to be over.”

“Do you need me to help you with him?” Dutch asked.

“No, thanks,” Mr. Crawford said. “I can take it from here.”

“Before you tell somebody else to go to hell,” Dutch said to me with his demonic smile, “think about who you’re talking to.”

“That’s fine, Dutch,” Mr. Crawford said. “You may go now.” To me he said, “Proper disciplinary action will be taken at an appropriate time, but, for now, you may go to your next class, and if you even think about skipping class again you’ll be faced with a three-day suspension. Think what that will do to your scholastic record and to your chances of getting into a good college.”

My next class was gym class, which was worse than all the others put together. I went to the locker room and changed out of my “street clothes” into the ridiculous-looking, baggy red shorts, a stretched-out tee shirt and my grass-stained high-top tennis shoes that were too small for me and made my toes hurt.

While we were all standing around waiting for the teacher to arrive so the class could begin, I spotted Dutch Farquhar about twenty feet away, bouncing a basketball. When he saw me and gave me a look of bemused hatred, I held his gaze and mouthed the words go to hell. I know he knew what I was saying.

The physical education teacher was Mr. Bliss, or “coach,” as he liked to be called. He was four feet, eleven inches tall, and he always wore a gray sweat suit and sweatpants with a whistle around his neck.

“All right now, everybody!” he yelled and blew his whistle. “Time for warm-up!”

As bad as the warm-up was, it wasn’t as bad as the game of volleyball or basketball that followed. We stood in rows as Mr. Bliss faced us and directed us in the knee bends, sit-ups, pushups, and jumping jacks.

It was during the jumping jacks that I vomited on the floor, a thick green mass that looked exactly like the insides of the starfish. Everybody stopped jumping and looked at me. I bent forward to vomit again and fainted face down in what I had just deposited on the floor. It was only the second time in my life that I fainted. The first time was when I was eight and had the flu.

When I came to, everybody was standing around in a circle watching me in fascination. I had really spiced up their boring old gym class. Mr. Bliss was kneeling beside me, waving a bottle of smelling salts under my nose.

“He’s coming around,” he said.

“I want to go home,” I said.

“Can you make it to the nurse’s office?”

“She doesn’t like me. I pushed her down the stairs once.”

As I stood up, Mr. Bliss took hold of my arm. “Go get dressed,” he said, “and go see the nurse.”

“I don’t know,” I said, wobbling for effect. “I feel like I’m going to faint again.”

“Dutch!” he barked. “Go with him and help him get dressed!”

Dutch stepped forward, ready once again to fulfill his role as student leader.

“I don’t need any help from him!” I said. “Just give me time!

I went down to the deserted locker room, cleaned the vomit off my face and out of my hair and put my clothes back on. As I was leaving the locker room, I noticed the door to Dutch’s locker was partway open. I approached the locker, pulled the door open all the way and looked inside. There, on the top shelf, was his expensive wrist watch that one of his admirers had given him. I slipped the watch into my pocket and deposited it in a trashcan on my way to the nurse’s office.

I walked into her office and vomited again, all over the floor. Now, I have to tell you, there’s nothing like vomiting to get people’s attention. You can say you’re sick, but vomiting clinches it.

She dropped what she was doing and came running toward me with a kidney-shaped metal pan. She told me to lie back on the cot and she put a wet cloth on my head. When she took my temperature and saw I had a fever, she called my mother and told her to come and get me.

When I got home, I got straight into bed in my clothes. My mother stood in the doorway and harangued me, as usual.

“Why did you choose today of all days to be sick?” she asked.

“I figured it was time,” I said.

“Algebra test today?”

“No, I failed that last week.”

“Well, I have to tell you,” she said, “sometimes when you say you’re sick I don’t believe you, but today you look sick.”

“Thank you,” I said.

When I refused to see the doctor, she got him on the phone and brought the phone to me in bed. I told him about dissecting the starfish and what happened after that at school, and he said it sounded like I had a stomach virus that was going around. He told me to stay at home from school for a few days and rest and not eat any seafood. Those words, I discovered, are among the most beautiful in the English language.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Boardwalk Empire, Season 5 ~ A Capsule Review

Boardwalk Empire poster

Boardwalk Empire, Season Five ~ A Capsule Review by Allen Kopp 

Boardwalk Empire is in its fifth and final season on HBO. Whereas the other seasons were set in the 1920s, season five skips ahead to the 1930s. 1931 finds Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, “one of the most powerful bootleggers in the country,” in Cuba with his business associate and sometime girlfriend Sally Wheet. Anticipating the end of Prohibition (the Volstead Act), Nucky is negotiating to become the distributor for Bacardi rum in the United States. He is looking to transform himself from an illegal businessman to a legal one. He has to be careful, though; other gangsters, principally Charles “Lucky” Luciano, want to rub him out. It’s a cutthroat business and the major players think nothing of bumping each other off in any number of ugly ways.

In the meantime, in Chicago, Al Capone is riding high. We’ve seen Al throughout all four seasons, but now that he is “on top,” he is especially vulgar, loud-mouthed and psychotic. He beats an associate to death with an Empire State Building figure that somebody gave him as a gift for laughing too long at a joke and for calling somebody a jerk. The “feds” are after Al for income tax evasion, but he believes they won’t be able to make it stick, any more than any of the other charges that have been brought against him.

If you are a fan and a follower of the show, you know that Gillian Darmody, mother of the now-dead Jimmy Darmody, was busted at the end of season four for a murder-of-convenience she committed in an earlier season. We find her at the beginning of season five in a mental institution with yowling inmates rather than prison. It seems the jury found her “temporarily insane” when she did her dirty deed. There’s a chance she will someday walk free if she can use her feminine wiles to convince the people in charge that she is cured of her insanity. Don’t count her out just yet.

Nucky’s estranged wife, Margaret, has been working in a brokerage firm in the intervening years. She had a “business relationship” with gangster Arnold Rothstein whereby she gave him stock tips and he gave her a decent apartment to live in with her two children in a building he owned. When Arnold Rothstein dies, his widow tries to extort money from Margaret, believing, wrongly, that she was his mistress. Margaret, not having seen Nucky for years, goes to him for help since her being “Mrs. Nucky Thompson” is the reason Mrs. Rothstein targeted her.

Albert “Chalky” White, Nucky’s former partner in the nightclub business, was in prison but escaped while on a chain gang. He took along another prisoner in the escape but soon had to kill him when they were terrorizing two women, a mother and daughter, and things got out of hand. (His killing the other prisoner actually saved the women’s lives.) Chalky has to stay hidden, of course, since he is a prison escapee, but he makes it back to Nucky, who agrees to help him to hide. He eventually comes face to face again with his former mistress, Daughter Maitland.

Pug-faced, former Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden has been hiding out all these years (he killed two people, including his partner) under an assumed identity in Cicero, Illinois, with a strange Swedish woman who started out as his nanny. (You will remember he fathered a child with one of Nucky’s castoff girlfriends and had another child with the Swedish woman.) While working for the Capone gang, one of the mobsters identifies him as a former “prohee.” An undercover police office, pretending to be part of Capone’s gang, identifies him later from mug shots.

In addition to these recent developments in the lives of the characters we have come to know over four seasons, season five also gives us a glimpse into Nucky Thompson’s past, giving his character more depth. Through flashbacks, we see him first as an adolescent and then as a young man. (The two actors who play Nucky at different times in his life meld perfectly in appearance with the older, middle-aged Nucky.)

Nucky has an unhappy, disadvantaged childhood. His father is brutish and uneducated; his mother seems helpless. He sees his younger sister die because the family is too poor to get adequate medical care for her. He envisions a brighter, better future for himself in which he has plenty of money.

As an adolescent, he begins working for “the commodore,” a shadowy political figure/gangster in Atlantic City. He sweeps sand off the porch of the hotel the commodore owns and eventually is taken into the “business.” As a young adult, he enters the world of local politics and begins to see how he might become wealthy. Prohibition gives him his chance, making him wealthy and powerful.

Boardwalk Empire is bloody and violent and there is sure to be at least one gratuitous sex scene per episode. If you are like me and the sex stuff makes you cringe but the violence doesn’t bother you, well, you should know that there’s lots of other stuff here that makes the show worth watching, including intelligent writing, credible characters, and tons of period details in cars, clothes, interiors and music. Of course it’s not the same without my favorite character, the tragically disfigured Richard Harrow, who died at the end of season 4, but it’s still the best show on television. I may be a little prejudiced, though, since it’s the only show I watch. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Handlebar, Circa 1910

Handlebar, Cica 1910

~ Handlebar, Circa 1910 ~

It was the fashion for a man to be photographed wearing his coat and hat, and, in this case, also his gloves.

Horror at First Sight

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Elsa Lanchester

Horror at First Sight ~ 

Wearing tons of makeup, the incomparable Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) registers horror at first sight of the man (monster) she is going to marry. The experience has given her hair a permanent frizz.


He Comes in On Little Cat Feet

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He Comes in On Little Cat Feet

He Comes in On Little Cat Feet ~

Apparently stricken deaf, Elizabeth (played by the lovely Mae Clarke) doesn’t know the monster is behind her and is about to carry her away. When she can no longer deny that he is in the room with her, she screams and then faints (of course), facilitating the abduction.

Vintage Oddities

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~ Vintage Oddities ~ 

Unexpected and without explanation.

Vintage 1

Vintage 2

Vintage 3

Vintage 4

Vintage 5

Vintage 6

Vintage 7

Vintage 8

Vintage 9

Vintage 10

Vintage 11


The Spoils of Poynton ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Spoils of Poynton cover

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Henry James was an American writer who lived from 1843 to 1916. If he seems more an English writer than American, that’s because he did most of his work while living in England and, late in his life, gave up his American citizenship and became a British subject. He wrote about twenty novels, the most famous of which are The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove, and Portrait of a Lady. He is one of the key figures of nineteenth century literary realism.

The Spoils of Poynton is a short (for Henry James) novel first published in 1897 that touches on the themes of greed, friendship, the nature of love and the strength of familial connections. Mrs. Gereth is a headstrong widow who lives on her estate called Poynton. Poynton is filled with “treasures” (these are the “spoils” of Poynton) that Mrs. Gereth and her late husband collected, including furnishings, tapestries, old china, paintings, object d’arts, etc. According to a silly and unfair English law, all the things in Poynton (including the house and estate) belong (upon the death of Mrs. Gereth’s husband) to her son, Owen. Owen can do as he pleases with his mother. He can put her out of the house of he wants to. He is under no legal obligation to her.

Owen is engaged to be married to one Mona Brigstock, whom Mrs. Gereth, his mother, loathes. Mrs. Gereth can’t stand to see Mona installed in Poynton with all the “things” that she considers her own. She would do almost anything to keep Owen from marrying Mona. This is where Fleda Vetch enters the picture. She is a friend of Mrs. Gereth’s and Mrs. Gereth’s choice for Owen to marry instead of Mona. After Owen and Fleda meet a few times, they admit they have “feelings” for each other. Could it be love?

Mrs. Gereth moves out of Poynton at the prospect of her son’s marriage to Mona and takes up residence in a place called “Ricks.” Ricks is all right in its own way but far inferior to Poynton. To mollify his mother, Owen tells her she may have a few (a dozen or so) of her favorite pieces from Poynton. She surprises everybody by taking literally everything. Owen is outraged and threatens legal action. (Apparently the desire for earthly possessions is more important than the mother-son bond.) Mona tells Owen the marriage is off until the things are returned to Poynton. She wants to marry Owen, it seems, only if Poynton and everything in it are part of the bargain.

Mrs. Gereth’s friend, Fleda Vetch, is faced with a dilemma. She loves Owen and he apparently loves her, but she believes it would be improper for her to take him away from Mona. The only way she will get Owen herself is if Mona chooses to break off with him. Owen believes it his duty to follow through on his marriage to Mona, even though he seems at times to prefer Fleda. Which way will he go? Will Mona tell him she no longer wants to marry him? What will happen to the “spoils” of Poynton?

Somebody once said that Henry James could find more drama in a raised eyebrow than most people could find in an earthquake. The Spoils of Poynton is a simple and engaging story told in Henry James’s inimitable grand literary style. If a thing could be said in five hundred words, he will more than likely use five thousand. Let’s see…how many ways are there to say the same thing?

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp


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