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Gone Girl ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Gone Girl poster

Gone Girl ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Gone Girl might more appropriately be titled Gone 33-Year-Old Woman. It’s a slick mystery filmed in and around Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and directed by David Fincher, who directed The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s a story about a mismatched couple and the disastrous consequences of their terrible marriage. Ben Affleck is Nick Dunne, the feckless husband, and Rosamund Pike is Amy, the not-what-she-seems wife.

Nick Dunne is a small-town, average man. He owns a not-very-successful bar with his twin sister, Margo. His blond wife, Amy, is everything he’s not. She comes from a wealthy family, is sophisticated, cultured, and accomplished, a Harvard graduate and author of a series of children’s books. After the sexual attraction between the two of them wears thin, Nick and Amy discover they can’t stand each other. Nick grows increasingly more hostile toward Amy and she claims to be afraid of him. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick is going to ask Amy for a divorce, but when he comes home he finds she is gone; the house is in disarray, suggesting a struggle. Nick goes to the police and a large-scale search for Amy begins.

The apparent abduction of Amy becomes the subject of intense media scrutiny and a kind of national obsession. Nick Dunne is a little too glib and facile; he doesn’t seem too broken up over the disappearance of his wife. (He admits in private that he is relieved she’s gone.) He is, in fact, found to have been having an adulterous affair with a woman half his age. He becomes the most hated man in America. He has, in a way, been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.

We (the audience) aren’t kept guessing too long. I don’t want to give away too much here, except to say that, as much of a jerk as Nick is, he’s relatively blameless compared to Amy. She is a despicable, manipulative monster, a regular psychopath. In the unsatisfying ending, we are left with the impression that Amy is exactly what Nick deserves. These are not likeable characters and there’s nothing here I care to see. I think I want my money back and the two-and-a-half hours out of my life.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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?”

“No!”

“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

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

Let Me Count the Ways

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Let Me Count the Ways

Let Me Count the Ways ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Nils picked Dorcas up at the hairdresser’s in the rain. She slid across the seat and gave him a wet peck on the cheek.

“Damned rain,” she said. “I spend three hours at the hairdresser’s and it’s all ruined in a few seconds.”

“You look fine,” he said. “You have that plastic thing on your head. Doesn’t that keep it dry?”

“Rain is just such a nuisance!”

“I like the rain,” he said as he accelerated the car into the flow of traffic.

“You would! Anything to be different.”

“I know others who like rain, too.”

“Have you been smoking again?” she asked.

“No,” he lied.

“It seems I smell a cigarette.” She opened the ashtray and looked inside.

“It’s on my clothes,” he said. “I stopped at the drugstore and while I was standing in line to pay there was an old lady next to me puffing on a cigarette.” He lifted his sleeve to his nose and took an extravagant whiff.

“What did you buy at the drugstore?”

“I bought some gum, a candy bar and a birthday card.”

“Who is the card for?”

“My friend Spencer that I grew up with.”

“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to associate with Spencer anymore.”

“I’ve known him since first grade. He may be something of a bum but I like him.”

“I don’t think he’s the kind of person we should have as a friend. He still lives with his mother and he doesn’t seem to be interested in getting married and having children at all.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“He looks at me funny.”

“Funny how?”

“He looks at me like he’s imagining what it would feel like to strangle me.”

“I can’t imagine why he would do that.”

“He gives me the creeps. If you’re not man enough to tell him to leave us alone, I’ll do it.”

“I don’t want to tell him to leave me alone. He’s my friend.”

“Oh, baby doll,” she said. “Please, let’s not argue.”

“I’m not arguing.”

“Just think what it’ll be like after we’re married.” She moved over to him so their hips were touching suggestively. She took his right hand off the wheel and entwined her fingers in his. “We can be together twenty-four hours a day and nobody to keep us apart. Man and wife.”

“I’m not able to visualize it yet,” he said. “I need some time.”

“Aunt Violet told mother she wanted to give us an old orange couch she has in her basement. She thinks she’s doing me a great big favor but, honestly, I don’t want the ugly old thing.”

“Why not? Maybe we could use it someplace.”

“I think I’ll just get mother to tell her tactfully that we just don’t have room for it. I want everything in our home to be brand new.”

“What about that saying ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’?”

“Oh, silly! That’s about something else altogether!” She looked at him disgustedly and moved back over to the door. “Sometimes I just don’t think you’re very bright,” she said.

“I’m sure you’re right.”

By the time they arrived at Dorcas’s mother’s house, it was raining even harder. Nils helped Dorcas into the house, keeping her dry by holding the umbrella over her head. He would have carried her if she had asked him.

“I didn’t think you were ever coming,” Dorcas’s mother complained. “I’ve been waiting dinner for you.”

Dinner was fish and rice with Brussels sprouts. Nils found the fish terribly underdone, almost raw, and could hardly eat it. Dorcas’s mother seemed to have never acquired the knack for cooking. He took a few bites to be polite.

“Good fish!” he said cheerfully, but Dorcas and her mother ignored him.

“I had a pelvic exam this week,” Dorcas said. “The doctor says everything looks fine. I want to start having children as soon as I’m married.”

“You were always so practical,” Dorcas’s mother said admiringly. “So level-headed.”

“Why did you have a pelvic exam?” Nils asked. He believed his position as prospective bridegroom entitled him to ask the question.

“I just told you,” Dorcas said. “I want to start having children right away.”

“Have you talked about this with the man you’re going to marry, darling?” he asked. He looked at Dorcas’s mother to see if his little riposte had made her smile, but she was looking at him with the sour face of disapproval.

Dorcas heaved a weary sigh. “I told you as soon as we got engaged that I wanted to be pregnant by Christmas.”

“Yes, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with me!” he said. (He hated words like pregnant and pelvic exam.)

“I’m not even going to bother with any kind of birth control at first,” Dorcas said. “I was measured for one of those stopper things for later on after we’ve had a few children.”

Nils was embarrassed. “Do you think it’s a good idea to be talking about those things while we’re eating dinner?” he asked.

“I don’t know why not!” Dorcas said. “I can talk about anything in the world with my own mother!”

“It’s all part of being practical!” Dorcas’s mother said.

“How many are you planning on having, anyway?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Dorcas said. “Maybe six. I believe in a large family, the way people used to do a long time ago.”

“Catholics,” Dorcas’s mother said.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“What don’t you know?”

“I don’t think I’m ready to be a parent.”

“Well, of course, not yet! We’re not even married yet! But I can tell you that after we’re married you’ll be a father within a year, God willing.”

“Maybe he should have a pelvic exam, too,” Dorcas’s mother said reasonably. “To make sure he can accommodate. Some men have a low sperm count. He’s never had syphilis, has he?”

Dorcas smiled prettily. “You’ve never had syphilis, have you, sweetheart?” she asked.

“I think I have a case of it now,” he said.

“Oh, you’re horrid!” she said. “You know how I hate gallows humor!”

To change the subject, he said, “Did I tell you I asked Spencer to be best man at our wedding and he accepted!”

“Oh, Nils!” she said. “Why him?”

“Because he’s my oldest and best friend. Isn’t that who you have as your best man?”

“Yes, but him! I think we can find somebody more suitable. How about that fellow you work with?

“Which one?”

“Isn’t his name Carson or something?”

“Carson Whitcomb?”

“Yes, he’s the one. He’s very good looking and he’d look so good in the pictures as a member of the wedding party.”

“I don’t really care that much for him. We work together and that’s all. We’re not friends.”

“Oh, really!” Dorcas said. “You can always find some way to be difficult, can’t you?”

“I think he’s got a point,” Dorcas’s mother said. “He should be able to have the best man he wants.”

“Not if it’s somebody of whom I disapprove!” she said.

“I don’t have that many friends to choose from,” he said.

“If it’s going to be Spencer,” she said, “make sure he dresses properly. Go shopping with him and buy him an appropriate suit. I don’t want him looking like the yokel he is. And make sure he doesn’t wear his cowboy boots! Tell him it’s not going to be a hillbilly wedding.”

“Anything you say, dear,” he said.

“Have you talked to him yet about the two of you moving in here with me?” Dorcas’s mother asked.

“Oh, yes!” Dorcas said, almost choking in her excitement. “Mother and I thought it would be a really splendid idea if we lived here with her for a while after we’re married.”

“What?” he said. “Why would we do that?”

“Well, she’s all alone now and she has this big comfortable house. She can help us and we can help her.”

“I thought we would have a place of our own,” he said.

“That means renting an apartment. You know how I hate the idea of living in an apartment building with the kind of questionable people who live in those places. The very idea of an apartment suggests instability and impermanence.”

“I was going to surprise you by taking out a lease on a beautiful apartment near work,” he said. “One that allows animals.”

“Oh, Nils!” she said. “Without my even seeing it?”

“It was going to be a surprise.”

“You know how I hate surprises!”

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Dorcas’s mother said. “I promise I won’t butt in any more than I have to. You’ll have the entire upstairs to yourselves.”

“Yes, but it won’t be our upstairs. It’ll be your upstairs.”

“Mother is offering to let us live here rent-free for the first years of our marriage,” Dorcas said. “I never dreamed you’d have any objections to such a generous offer! I might have known!”

“Don’t you want just the two of us to be alone?”

“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything so selfish and inconsiderate! It seems I’m seeing you in an entirely different light!”

“You don’t have to decide right now,” Dorcas’s mother said. “Think it over and talk about it when you’re alone.”

When Dorcas’s mother got up from the table and went into the kitchen, Dorcas turned to Nils and said in a whisper, “You hurt her feelings, you dope!”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“She’s getting older and she needs me here to take care of her.”

“You don’t have to get married to do that.”

“And another thing,” Dorcas said. “If we’re living here when she dies, she’ll leave the house to me.”

“She’ll live thirty more years,” he said.

Dorcas’s mother came back from the kitchen bearing a pecan pie that she had bought and not made herself. She was smiling but it was apparent she had had a little private crying spell in the kitchen. “Who wants dessert?” she said cheerily.

I’ll cut the pie,” Dorcas said.

“No pie for me,” Nils said.

“Why not?”

“Pecan pie gives me heartburn.”

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard!” She cut a generous portion and set it firmly down in front of him. “Now, eat it!” she said. “You ate hardly any dinner.”

“I don’t really care for it,” he said, but Dorcas and her mother pretended not to have heard.

“You know, mummy,” Dorcas said as she forked chunks of pie into her mouth, “I was thinking that before we move in we might have some work done on that bathroom upstairs.”

“I think the bathroom is fine as it is,” Dorcas’s mother said.

“Oh, nothing major,” Dorcas said. “Just repaper the walls and give the woodwork a fresh coat of paint.”

“You could do it yourself.”

“I could but I don’t want to.”

“I’d like to do it,” Nils said.

Dorcas and her mother turned and looked at him as if he had just sprouted horns and grown a tail.

“What did you say?” Dorcas asked.

“I said I could do it.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because it’s going to be my bathroom too, isn’t it? I’d like to feel that I’m a part of the preparations.”

“No, offense,” Dorcas said, “but I’d hate to think what it would look like after you’d finished with it. We’ll find something else for you to do.”

“Some men are handy that way,” Dorcas’s mother said.

“Well, this one isn’t!” Dorcas said. “He has absolutely no taste!”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Nils said. “I think I have very good taste.”

“Oh, honestly, darling!” Dorcas said with a dismissive laugh. “All anybody has to do is look at the way you dress to see you have no taste.”

“What’s wrong with the way I dress?”

“You have no sense of color or style. After we’re married all that is going to change because I’m going to pick out your clothes from now on. I don’t want my husband looking like a clown!”

“I don’t think I look like a clown,” he said.

“Well, you do, but nobody has ever had the nerve to say it to your face before. If it hurts your feelings, I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.”

“What other aspects of my life are you going to take over after we’re married?” he asked.

“Why, absolutely everything, darling!” she said. “Isn’t that what wives do? They civilize and domesticate their men. They teach them manners, rid them of their bad habits and bring them down to earth where they belong.”

“That’s what I had to do with my husband,” Dorcas’s mother said.

“My friend Freda said that before she married her husband he ate nothing but pizza and cheeseburgers. Can you imagine how unhealthy that is? When she took him in hand, he lost forty pounds and started taking an interest again in the way he looked. Then my friend Judith said that her husband wanted to be a professional dancer. Well, she disabused him of that notion pretty fast after they were married.”

“I have a cat and a dog,” Nils said to Dorcas’s mother in a way that made it sound like a confession.

“What?”

“I said I have a cat and a dog.”

“Yes, we know you do,” Dorcas said. “That’s one of the little things we need to discuss before we’re married.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Nils said. “I was talking to your mother.”

“Something about a cat and a dog?” Dorcas’s mother said.

“I have a cat and a dog. I’ve had my cat, Chester, for six years and my dog, Skippy, for eight years.”

Dorcas’s mother looked at him as if he had just confessed to murdering a busload of people. “I can’t have animals in my house,” she said.

“She’s allergic,” Dorcas said.

“Well, isn’t that just too bad?”

“You can find a good home for them,” Dorcas said. “There’s still time. And if you don’t, there’s always the pound.”

“Do you know what you’re saying?” he said. “Do you think I could in good conscience put them in a pound?”

“I don’t know why not!” she said. “I’d be happy to do it for you.”

“Would you be happy to stick a knife into my heart? It would amount to the same thing!”

“Oh, you’re being childish and melodramatic! When are you going to grow up?”

“Not until you take complete control of my life, dearest.”

“So we’re agreed then about the two animals? You’ll find homes for them?”

“They have a home.”

“Are you saying you’re not going to agree to get rid of them?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“So they’re more important to you than I am?”

“I would rather die than part with them. You can draw your own conclusions.”

“One day, very soon, while you’re at work, I’ll gather them up and dispose of them. You won’t even have to be bothered with it. How will that be?”

“If you touch either one of them, so help me, I’ll kill you!”

“Did you hear what he just said to me, mother? You’re my witness! What do you think of a man who threatens to kill his fiancée?”

“I think it’s better to be threatened by him before the marriage than after.”

He stood up from the table, wadded his napkin and threw it in the plate. “Let me give you a little advice about cooking fish,” he said to Dorcas’s mother. “Make sure it’s cooked all the way through. I’m not an Eskimo! I don’t eat raw fish!”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Dorcas said. “Sit back down. We’re not finished eating yet.”

“I think you got some of that wonderful pecan pie on your dress,” he said, dumping the remainder of it in her lap.

She jumped up as if the pie were hot coals. “Are you insane?” she said. “What’s gotten into you?”

“You won’t be seeing me again,” he said.

“Why not? What do you mean? You can’t back out of the marriage now! I’ve already sent out the invitations!”

As he was going out the door, he said, “I can’t say it’s been a pleasure knowing you because it hasn’t. You can keep the engagement ring. It’s not real anyway.”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

On This Day

On This Day image 3

On This Day ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Traffic was light. Billie Rose Flint arrived at the cemetery at five minutes after three on a bright October afternoon. She knew the cemetery well and parked the car in the same familiar spot, underneath an old oak tree that at the moment was so suffused with sunstruck color that it was as pretty as any picture in a magazine. She breathed deeply of the pleasant leafy smell and, not even bothering to lock the car, walked up the hill that she knew so well, past the gravestones whose names she knew by heart.

By the time she came to her son’s grave, she was winded and her legs ached; she was, after all, getting old. She spread the blanket on the ground, kicked off her shoes and sat down facing the gravestone. It was a simple red-granite affair, not as showy as some of the others, with the name, Randall Wallace Flint, the date of his birth and the date of his death.

As always when she was in the cemetery and there was no one else around, she began to feel sleepy. She reclined on her back and looked up into the trees. The breeze on her face was fragrant and cooling. A little hump in the ground pressed comfortably into the small of her back as if it had been placed there especially for that purpose.

She dozed and in a moment she was aware of someone standing beside her. She opened her eyes and looked up into his face but the sun kept her from seeing him. He smiled and sat down beside her on the edge of the old quilt.

“How have you been keeping yourself?” he asked.

“Just peachy keen,” she said.

“I had a feeling you’d be here today.”

“It’s a special anniversary,” she said.

“Anniversary of what? You can say it.”

She looked at him and saw he was trying to keep from laughing, as if it was all a joke to him.

“Thirty years ago today,” she said, “you hanged yourself from a rafter in the garage after school.”

“Go on,” he said.

“I found you when I opened the door to pull the car in. You were just hanging there. There was a tipped-over chair. I knew right away it was too late.”

“And then what did you do?”

“I screamed. The woman who lived next door, Doris Ellsworth, was in her backyard and heard me. She came running to see what was wrong. When she saw what had happened, she closed the garage door and took me into the house and called an ambulance.”

“And then what?”

“They came and cut you down. By then, all the neighbors had gathered around to watch. The paramedics carried you out on a stretcher and put you into the back of the ambulance. They were moving very slowly because they knew there was nothing to be done.”

“What did you do then?”

“I drank a glass of scotch and called your father and told him he needed to come home.”

“And did he?”

“He was there in a few minutes. At first he didn’t believe you were really dead. He wanted to see to make sure for himself. They let him see you, with all those people watching, and then he turned to the ambulance driver and very calmly told him to take you to the funeral home. Then he made me get into the car with him and we drove there behind the ambulance and bought you a casket. Your father wrote a check to pay for it.”

“It was some funeral, though, wasn’t it?” he said.

“Yes, it was a big funeral.”

“Everybody from school was there. Standing-room only. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Suddenly everybody likes you when you’re dead.”

“They liked you before you were dead but you didn’t see it.”

“I was going through an adolescent phase. I thought I couldn’t go on.”

“If only there had been some way to help you before it was too late.”

“It doesn’t do any good to think that way. What’s done is done.”

“Was your life really so unbearable?”

“I was a misfit. I was failing algebra. I had acne. I couldn’t take being chosen last for basketball any more. Do you know how much I despise basketball to this day?”

“Those things would have passed. If you had only talked to me about what was bothering you, I could have helped.”

“Maybe not,” he said. “Who knows?”

“Insanity has always run in my family,” she said.

He laughed. “Do you think that’s what was wrong with me?”

“Who can say?”

“If that helps you to understand what I did,” he said, “I guess it’s as logical an explanation as any.”

“Do you think about all the things you missed?”

“Not much,” he said. “ I think more about the things I avoided. Like having to get a job, paying taxes and having a bad marriage.”

“What makes you think you would have had a bad marriage?”

“I don’t know. Aren’t all marriages bad in one way or another?”

“It depends on who you talk to, I guess.”

“You and father had a terrible marriage.”

“I wouldn’t say it was terrible.”

“You fought all the time.”

“Did we? I don’t remember.”

“I call that ‘convenient forgetting’,” he said.

“Anyway, it’s all in the past now and no longer matters.”

“Yes, all in the past.”

“I’m just glad you’re not in torment for what you did,” she said.

“No, not in torment. Not in heaven, either.”

“I won’t ask you what it’s like where you are because I don’t want to know. All I want to know is that you’re not being made to suffer for what you did.”

“Of course I’m not. There isn’t any such thing as hell.”

“Now you’re forty-five,” she said. “Or you would be if you had lived. When I look at you, I see a forty-five-year-old man. You look a little like your father but more like my side of the family.”

“You see what you want to see,” he said.

“The unhappy fifteen-year-old is gone. I can no longer even see his face.”

“Good riddance,” he said. “I never liked him much, anyway.”

“Are you sorry for what you did? I mean, ending your life before it even had a chance to begin?”

“If you say so, mother.”

She heard voices and when she turned her head to see who it was, she saw two very old ladies hovering over a fresh grave nearby. When she turned back to her son, he was gone. The spell was broken. He wouldn’t have wanted anybody else to see him.

She picked up her blanket and walked over to where the old ladies were and greeted them. One of the old ladies had an excess of makeup caked on her face and the other wore a man’s hat and suit, as if they had just come from a costume party.

“Lovely day,” the woman dressed as a man said.

“Fall is my favorite time of the year,” makeup face said.

“A sad day for me,” Billie Rose Flint said. “My son died thirty years ago today.”

“Oh, my!” makeup face said. “How sad! How old was he?”

“Fifteen.”

“Aww.”

She picked up a lily from the flowers that were left on the fresh grave and handed it to Billie Rose Flint. “In remembrance,” she said.

Billie Rose Flint took the flower and, in spite of herself, began crying uncontrollably, trying to cover her face with her handkerchief to keep the old ladies from looking at her. She opened her mouth to speak again but instead hurried off with the flower before she felt compelled to tell them the whole story.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Absalom, Absalom ~ A Capsule Book Review

1936 first edition cover

1936 first edition cover

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the best American novelist of the twentieth century, the supreme literary stylist. His works are deep, cerebral, rich and complex. His style is dense, sometimes fragmented, wordy and difficult to read. He has the longest sentences and the longest paragraphs of any other writer. If you are trying to follow the thread of a sentence, you might have to go back and break it down into its many parts to figure out exactly what is being said. If reading a novel by Faulkner is frustrating and tedious at times (a painful slog), you must also know that it is worth the effort or you wouldn’t be doing it.

When I first started reading Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom, I found the first chapter (told in the voice of Miss Rosa Coldfield in 1909 when she is 64 years old) so difficult that I almost gave up. If you are able to make it through the first chapter, however, the following chapters are easier. Not easy, but not quite as difficult. (There’s no linear structure to the novel.)

Absalom, Absalom is the multilayered family saga of the Sutpen and Coldfield families in the American South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Thomas Sutpen confounds the town of Jefferson, Mississippi—and particularly the Coldfield family—when he comes from nowhere and acquires a huge tract of land, called the Sutpen Hundred (square miles, not acres), and builds an enormous house on the edge of a swamp with the help of his band of wild black men and a French architect, who he more or less treats as a captive.

For years after the house is built, Thomas Sutpen entertains a band of his male friends with wild hunting and drinking parties and wrestling matches, until the day arrives when he decides he wants to acquire respectability in the form of a wife and children. He drives away his male friends and proposes to a town girl named Ellen Coldfield. (Faulkner compares her throughout the novel to a butterfly.)

To the unlikely union between Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield are born Henry and Judith. (Thomas Sutpen also has a half-black daughter named Clytemnestra, or “Clytie,” that he had with a slave woman.) Ellen Coldfield has a sister, Miss Rosa Coldfield, who is twenty-seven years younger than she is (younger than her own children). The first part of the story is being told by the elderly Rosa Coldfield to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was the best friend of Thomas Sutpen. The part that Rosa Coldfield plays in the novel is more of an observer than active participant in what is going on.

When Henry Sutpen is grown (or almost grown), he goes away to college in Oxford, Mississippi. There he meets and becomes good friends with one Charles Bon. Charles is older and more worldly-wise and sophisticated than Henry. (Henry is clearly infatuated with Charles Bon. Faulkner later suggests more than just simple friendship between the two, especially on Henry’s part.) When Henry writes home about Charles Bon, his mother immediately sees Charles as a likely husband for Judith. Charles visits the Sutpen home with Henry on more than one occasion. His interest in Judith seems perfunctory. Will he propose to her or won’t he? We learn later a dark secret about Charles Bon, which I won’t reveal here, and that his association with the Sutpen family is part of an elaborate scheme of revenge. This element of the story drives the narrative for much of the second half of the novel.

The Civil War obtrudes upon the lives of the characters. The three principal male characters (Thomas Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, Charles Bon) all find themselves in battle. (Thomas Sutpen achieves the rank of colonel.) The war, of course, doesn’t turn out the way many Southerners hoped it would or expected it would. (Faulkner points out that the Southern army had the highest mortality rate of any army in history.) The men who survive, defeated not only in war but also in spirit, return home starving and in tatters to discover that everything they loved or cared about has been swept away. It is this defeat that is subtext to everything else.

Absalom, Absalom (the name derives from a character in the Bible) is a dark story, full of revenge, incest (or almost incest), miscegenation, family secrets, hubris, intentions gone awry, class distinction, loss and suffering. There’s no redemption for anybody, no life-affirming conclusion. Nobody writes about these things (or about the South) the way Faulkner does. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

A Conversation Between Two Mothers

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A Conversation Between Two Mothers ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted a slightly different version of this short story in April 2013.)

It was Madge’s turn to host the card party and she still had much to do. She had put her hair up in curlers and was tying a scarf around her head to make herself presentable to go and buy some last-minute items, when there came a knock at the back door. She huffed with impatience, snuffed her cigarette out in the garbage pail, and opened the door to a short, toad-like woman with frazzled red hair.

“Mrs. Simple?” the woman said.

“It’s Semple,” Madge said.

“Well, Simple or Semple or whatever it is, I need to have a word with you.”

“What about?”

“You have a son named Dakin?”

“That’s right.”

“He’s been picking on my Leslie.”

“Picking on your what?”

“On my son Leslie, dodo bird!”

“Oh. And who are you?”

“My name, if it should happen to be of any interest to you, is Mrs. Felton. My son is Leslie Felton.”

Madge sighed and stepped out the back door. “Maybe you’d just better tell me what happened,” she said.

“Leslie was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk, minding his own business. Dakin jumped out from behind a tree and yelled and scared him and caused him to wreck his bike. He cut a big gash in his leg that was pouring blood.”

“I’m sure that’s an exaggeration.”

“And that’s not all. When Leslie was lying on the ground howling in pain, Dakin took his bicycle.”

“Oh, he’s just playing. That’s what boys do.”

“Oh, is that so? Well, if you want to know the truth, I think Dakin is a lunatic! Only a lunatic enjoys inflicting pain on others.”

“Now, hold on a minute!” Madge said. “You don’t have any right to speak to me that way about my child!”

“Then when Leslie finally got his bike back, it had some scratches on it that weren’t there before. Caused by your brat!”

“Wait a minute!” Madge said. “Did you see Dakin do any of this?”

“He did it all right!”

“Did you see him do it?”

“Well, no, I was in the house, tending to my little girl.  She’s got a rash all over her body and we don’t know what’s causing it.”

“If you didn’t see Dakin do it, how do you know he did?”

“Because Leslie said so. If you could have seen how upset he was, it would have broken your heart. If you have a heart.”

“Maybe Dakin didn’t do it. There are lots of boys in the neighborhood.”

“Leslie said he did it and if Leslie says a thing, it’s true! He came into the house crying with the blood dripping down his leg. He was so upset he couldn’t speak. When I held him on my lap and got him to calm down, he told me what happened.”

“So, you’re taking Leslie’s word that Dakin did it?”

“Hell, yes!”

“You can’t always go on what kids say. They have a way of distorting the truth. Sometimes you have to find out what happened on your own.”

“So you’re saying my boy is a liar?”

“Look, Mrs. Whatever-your-name-is, I’m very busy at the moment and I don’t have time to stand here and jaw with you all day, as lovely a prospect as that is. When Dakin comes home, I’ll speak to him and I’ll find out what really happened. If he did what you say he did, he will be made to apologize.”

“And that’s all?”

“You want a written confession in blood?”

“I have a good mind to call the police.”

“They’ll just laugh at you for being so trivial.”

“You tell that little ham-handed troglodyte of yours to stay away from Leslie and Leslie’s bike and anything that belongs to Leslie.”

“You’d better watch who you’re calling names! You’ve got a lot of nerve coming to my door and raising such a fuss over nothing!”

“So now you’re saying it’s nothing? First Leslie is a liar and now it’s nothing!”

“I told you the matter will be taken care of! Now, so help me, if you don’t get off my property right now, I’m going to throw something at you!”

“My, aren’t we hoity-toity, though? You think you’re better than me, don’t you? Well, I’ll tell you something. I have no intention of getting off your property until I’m good and ready.”

Oh!” Madge said. She ran into the kitchen, looking for something to throw. The first thing that came to hand was a bag of grapefruits. She carried the bag out the door and began lobbing grapefruits at the woman, one after the other. The first one hit her in the chest but the rest missed her.

“I see where Dakin gets his craziness from!” the woman said. “Only crazy people throw fruit!”

When Madge had run out of grapefruits, the woman, as deft as a monkey, rushed her and punched her in the chin with her fist. The blow almost knocked her off her feet but she caught herself on the doorframe.

“I’ll give you fifteen seconds to get off my property,” she said. “That’s how long it’ll take me to go to the bedroom closet and get the loaded gun my husband keeps there.”

“Oh, my!” the woman said, taking a few mincing steps and waggling her hips in a demonstration of hoity-toity. “You can see how scared I am, can’t you?”

“You are the most repulsive woman I’ve ever seen!”

“Well, that goes double for me!”

The gun was in the exact spot in the closet where Madge thought it would be, high up where the kids wouldn’t find it. She checked to make sure it was loaded and then before she knew what she was doing she was outside again, pointing the gun at the woman.

When the woman saw the gun, she didn’t leave as Madge hoped she would but bent over from the waist and made a raspberry sound with her tongue and lips. Then she stuck her thumbs in her ears and waggled her fingers.

“Hah-hah-hah!” she said. “Are you supposed to be scaring me with that little pea shooter? I’ve had bigger guns than that pointed at me!”

The first bullet struck the woman in the breastbone, the second knocked her off her feet. She was lying on the ground, struggling to stand up, as Madge fired all the bullets in the gun at her, six in all.

When she was sure the woman was dead, she dragged her body by the ankles into the bushes in the overgrown neighboring yard where the house just happened to be vacant. It would be a while before anybody found her and, when they did, they wouldn’t know what had happened.

She put the gun back in the closet and checked herself in the mirror. No, she didn’t look as if she had just killed somebody. She went out to the garage and backed the car out and zoomed up the street, waving and smiling at some of the neighbors. It was getting late and she had to get to the store before they were out of the best cuts of meat.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

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