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Your Friend August Wellington

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Your Friend August Wellington ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

He selected several pairs of swimsuits from the men’s-small rack and locked himself in the dressing room. After checking the door three times to make sure nobody could get in, he took everything off except his underpants and, standing before the mirror, began trying them on: first a plaid pair that he immediately rejected because they were too skimpy; then a yellow pair with a black stripe up each side and a slit at the thigh that made him look like something he wasn’t; then a black, baggy pair that hung down almost to his knees and made him look like an old man; then a red pair that wasn’t too baggy or too tight. He turned this way and that, looking at himself from every angle. The red pair would do, even though he hated the way he looked with his chest, arms and legs uncovered. No doubt about it, he was meant to be clothed. He wasn’t sure he would ever let anybody see him in the red swimsuit, but buying it was the first step and then he would see. He couldn’t look any worse than a lot of other people.

Of course, he had already turned down the invitation to the pool party, but he still might change his mind. He could see himself calling at the last minute and graciously accepting, after all, the invitation that he had declined. “I thought I was having abdominal surgery that day but it turns out the doctor says I don’t need the operation after all. Hah-hah-hah!”

When he got home, Aunt Vivian was waiting for him in her Cadillac, smoking a cigarette. She saw him in her rearview mirror and jumped out.

“August, where the hell have you been?” She reeked of perfume and her lipstick was smeared down to her chin.

“I had some shopping to do,” he said.

“I was about to call the police.”

“Why?”

“You didn’t answer the door. I thought something terrible must have happened to you.”

“And how many martinis did you have for lunch today?” he asked.

She stood behind him while he fumbled with the key in the lock and when he opened the door she went inside behind him as if the house belonged to her.

“I want you to come and stay at our house until your daddy gets back from his business trip,” she said.

“I’ve already said I’m not going to do that.”

“When you’re in school, it’s different, but now that school is out you don’t have any business staying in this big house all alone.”

“I like being alone.”

“You get lonely.”

“No, I don’t!”

“You daddy had no business going off and leaving you alone. You’re still a child.”

“No, I’m not!”

“I worry about you.”

“No need.”

“So you’re saying you won’t come and stay at my house?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“I could still put you over my knee and whale the living daylights out of you,” she said.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m bigger than you are.”

She swiped her fingers on the dining room table to see how much dust had collected there and then she went into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator and all the cabinets and looking inside.

“Are you eating properly?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“I’m afraid you’re just eating pizza and junk food.”

“I don’t even like pizza that much.”

“I could bring you some things.”

“No need.”

“You know how to cook?”

“I have a cookbook,” he said. “I can cook when I need to. Do you want me to show you?”

“You have eggs and milk?”

“I have flour, sugar, coffee and tea. What I don’t have I can go buy.”

“All right. I know you had to grow up fast with your mother dying so young the way she did.”

“Please don’t mention that to me again.”

“I hope Dana gets married again, for his sake and for yours.”

“He said something before he left about getting married soon.”

She nodded her head and smiled. “Oh, well, that’s encouraging! Have you met her?”

“I don’t think he has anybody in mind yet.”

“Is he seeing someone?”

“He was seeing a Mrs. Bone with three daughters but I think that romance fell through. I didn’t like her, so that might have had something to do with it.”

“You met her?”

“He took me out to dinner with them one night.”

“Oh, that’s lovely! Did you have a nice time?”

“No. Father isn’t supposed to eat lobster but he ate it anyway and got sick. While he was in the men’s room vomiting, I had a little tête-à-tête with Mrs. Bone. I think I scared her off.”

“Was that your intention?”

“I just told her the way things are.”

“I’m sure that was very naughty of you!”

A few minutes after Aunt Vivian left, there was a knock at the door. It was his friend from school, Colin Mayhew. He was carrying his gym bag.

“Is the paterfamilias still gone?” Colin asked.

“Who wants to know?” August asked.

“I’d like to stay here tonight if you don’t mind.”

“Why?”

“My parents are fighting again. I had to get away from all the yelling.”

“You can stay only if you promise you aren’t carrying any bugs or communicable diseases.”

“Very funny.”

“You can sleep on the couch or in the guest bedroom. You’re not sleeping with me.”

“Thank goodness! I was afraid that was going to be a condition for letting me stay.”

After they consumed a jar of peanuts and two glasses of wine apiece, the talk turned to the pool party.

“I’ve decided to go after all,” August said. “I bought a red swimsuit this morning.”

“You can’t do that,” Colin said. “You already turned down the invitation.”

“Yes, I can.”

“It would be very rude to show up after you’ve said you’re not coming.”

“Why are you always so concerned about what’s rude and what’s not?”

“I’m just telling you what I think.”

“That’s what’s wrong with the world. Too many people expressing their opinions.”

“Pardon me for living.”

“So you think I should call Beulah Buffington and tell her I’d like to come after all?”

“I know her. She’ll probably take your head off.”

“Let her try.”

“I wouldn’t have the nerve.”

“Are you still going?”

“Of course!” Colin said. “My dad’s letting me take the car.”

“You can come by and pick me up and we’ll go together.”

“I don’t think you should do that.”

“Why not?”

“If you told Beulah you’re not coming, that’s the same as not being invited at all. You don’t want to be a gate crasher, do you?”

“I’ll call her first and arrange it.”

Colin picked up the phone, handed it to August and dialed the number. Beulah answered on the first ring.

“Hello?” August said. “Is that you, Beulah?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“This is August.”

“August who?”

“Wellington.”

“Do I know you?”

“From school?”

“Um, I don’t seem to remember you. Can you describe yourself?”

“Look, Beulah, I know why you’re doing this.”

“Doing what?”

”Pretending not to know me.”

“I’m terribly busy,” she said. “I’m going to have to hang up now.”

“I just wanted to ask you a question.”

“What is it?”

“It’s about your pool party.”

“What about it?”

“I was wondering if it would be all right if I change my mind and accept your invitation after all.”

An icy silence on the other end, after which she said, “I don’t want to be mean, August, but I’m afraid you weren’t on the invitation list.”

“You called me just the other day and invited me.”

“I did? Are you sure it was me?”

“Well, yes. I had no reason to believe it was anybody else.”

“This is very odd,” she said. “I’ve never had anybody call and invite themselves to one of my parties. Are you sure this isn’t a joke?”

“No, it’s not a joke. I just thought…”

“What did you say your name is again?”

“It’s okay, Beulah. Just forget it.”

“Well, I suppose it’ll be all right for you to come since you place yourself in such an awkward position, but I have to warn you. We’ve already invited more people than we can handle and we probably won’t have room for all of them. We’re hoping some of them change their minds and don’t show up after all.”

“No, I wouldn’t dream of…”

“I have to go now,” Beulah said. “It was awfully lovely speaking to you.”

August hung up and shook his head at Colin.

“What did she say?” Colin asked.

“She was very obtuse. She pretended she didn’t know me. She said she never called and invited me to the party.”

“Are you sure it was her?”

“She said I could come anyway but there probably wouldn’t be enough room.”

“That’s terrible.”

“No, it isn’t. I don’t care.”

“You don’t want to go?”

“No.”

“I’ll fill you in on everything that happens,” Colin said.

“Do you mean you’re still going?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“I thought you were my friend.”

“I am.”

“We’ve known each other since the beginning of school.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You can still go knowing that I’m not invited?”

“Yes.”

“Loyalty means nothing to you?”

“Look, August, just because you’re a loser doesn’t mean I have to be one, too.”

“So now I’m a loser, am I?”

“I only meant…”

“I don’t care what you meant. I want you to get out of my house.”

“If it means that much to you, I won’t go.”

“No, it’s too late now. I’ve already discovered what a rat you are.”

“Do you want me to talk to Beulah and wangle you an invitation?”

“No! I want you to leave. Right now!”

“I thought it’d be fun to come over here and spend the night with you. I was wrong.”

“Colin, if you don’t get out of my house right now, I’m going to stick a knife all the way through you!”

“Nobody likes you, August, but you’re not able to see it.”

“Do you want me to throw you out?”

“I know your mother killed herself because she was crazy. I think craziness runs in your family.”

August picked up a letter opener and began brandishing it in Colin’s face. “Have you ever seen a person stabbed with one of these things?” he said.

“I hope your father marries a horrible woman!” Colin said. “I hope you end up with a stepmother who makes your life miserable!”

August threw the letter opener, narrowly missing Colin’s head. As he was looking around for something else to throw, Colin grabbed his gym bag and ran for the door. August watched him as he ran across the street and disappeared down the block.

He went upstairs to his room and locked himself in, slowly took off all his clothes and put on the red swimsuit he had bought just that morning. He turned this way and that, looking at himself in the full-length mirror. To himself he looked like a hairless monkey, all joints and angles, his skin as white as paste. He could hear people in his head laughing and making fun of him for trying to get invited to Beulah’s party.

“This will never do,” he said.

He took the scissors and cut the swimsuit into strips, feeling he was relieving himself of a burden. And he left the strips on the floor around his bed to remind himself of just how foolish he had been.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Confidential Agent ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Confidential Agent ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The hero/protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent is referred to only as “D.” That’s how confidential he is. He’s a middle-aged man (think Charles Boyer), a foreigner, travelling in Britain, and he’s not there to see the sights, either. He is a lecturer in the Romance Languages, a scholar and peace-loving man, but things haven’t been going so well for him. His country is at war, he’s been in prison for two years apparently because he was on the wrong side, and his wife was shot and killed by the enemy. He’s in Britain to negotiate a coal deal with the owner of a huge coal-mining conglomerate, a certain Lord Benditch. His side must have the coal to have a chance of winning the war. If the enemy gets the coal, D.’s side is certain to lose. Well, guess what? There’s another “confidential agent” from the other side, known to us as “L.” who also wants the coal. Will “L.” kill “D.” to keep him from getting the coal, or will “D.” kill “L.” to keep him from getting it? It’s a cat-and-mouse game from the beginning. D. is badly beaten (although it doesn’t seem to stop him) and his papers that establish his identity are stolen, and this is just the beginning of the obstacles that are placed in his way.

We realize early that the business about the war or D.’s side needing the coal doesn’t really matter. We learn nothing of the politics of the war or who is fighting whom. This is only a device to propel the plot. Don’t waste any time or expend any brain power trying to figure out the war.

Of course, there always has to be a “femme fatale” in a story like this. In this case she is the daughter (what a coincidence!) of Lord Benditch, the coal magnate, and her name is Rose Cullen (think Lauren Bacall). She seems to know D. and to know the importance of his mission, but where do her loyalties lay? Is she to be trusted? After a while she claims to be in love with D., in spite of their age difference and also in spite of his not being very lovable. Can D. make a go of it with Rose Cullen or he is only deceiving himself? Will they have a future together after the war business is settled, or is she only sucking up to him, seeking his vulnerable side to knife him in the back? In a story like this, you can never be sure.

We are told that Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent in 1939 in a matter of a few short weeks, fueled by Benzedrine (whatever that is), and that he wrote it for money. After it was finished, he was so unhappy with it that he wanted to disavow it and publish it under a pseudonym, but it was published under his own name and it turned out to be well-received by critics and the reading public alike. It’s rather formulaic, a “thriller” (in other words, “light” reading), but it lives up to its subtitle: An Entertainment.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Busy Will You Wait

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Busy Will You Wait ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Dot Crandall kicked off her shoes after one hour behind the desk and put on her fleece-lined mules. “My dogs are barking already,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end of the day.”

“You have to make it,” Zora Costello said. “You ain’t got any choice.”

“One day I’m going to show them who’s got a choice and who hasn’t!”

“Maybe you ought to buy a different kind of shoes if they hurt your feet all the time that way.”

“It’s not my shoes. It’s my feet. They’re not normal”

“Nothing else about you is normal, either.”

Before Dot could take exception to Zora’s remark, there was a chirp-chirp sound, meaning the phone was ringing.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“People are calling here all day long with their problems,” Dot said. “It makes me sick.”

“I know, but that’s the world of business.”

“I don’t think I can stand much more of it.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click. “Okay, I didn’t want to talk to you, anyway!”

“Nobody’s waiting?” Dot asked.

“They just hang up.”

“My, but people are impatient today!”

“I’m glad they hang up,” Zora said. “Then I don’t have to deal with them.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“I’ve got a pain in my side,” Dot said.

“Pregnant, I’ll bet.”

Dot’s laugh was a sudden release of air, as from a gas bag. “Now, that would be a miracle!”

“Call that old man of yours and tell him you’re got a little bundle of joy on the way.”

“Not that one! He’s got alcoholics’ disease and, if that isn’t bad enough, his brain has gone soft from watching too much TV. When he’s asleep he dreams he’s watching Bonanza.”

“Well, that’s what happens to old men, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so, but I’m not ready to take care of an old man yet. I’m still young.”

“You’re not as young as you’d like to think you are.”

“You should talk!”

“I know. We’re both old.”

“And still going to work every day. That’s the sad part.”

“How long do we have to go until we can retire?” Zora asked.

“I don’t think that day will ever come,” Dot said. “We’ll both still be here when we’re ninety-five.”

“You’ll be ninety-five before I will!”

“We’ll die chained to these desks and nobody will even notice.”

“We’re already dead and in hell. That’s the only explanation.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“Fix your face, honey! Here comes that cute postman!”

With the precision of an acrobat, he came through the door, deposited the mail on the desk and went out again, all without looking up.

“I wish I could get him to look at me just once,” Dot said.

“Why?”

“I think he’s cute. Don’t you think he’s cute?”

Zora hooted with laughter. “If he looks at you, he would probably only be noticing the resemblance to his great-grandmother.”

“If I was only twenty years younger, I could go for him in a big way.”

“If you were forty years younger, it would still be a stretch.”

“He looks like a boy I was crazy about when I was fifteen. He was a couple years older than me and he wouldn’t give me a tumble.”

“He probably liked other boys.”

“You never forget your first love.”

“Are you sure he was the first?”

“I wonder what his name is.”

“You were in love with him and you didn’t know his name?”

“No! The postman! I wonder what his name is.”

“You could always ask him,” Zora said.

“I’m too shy. I wouldn’t be able to get the words out.”

“Do you want me to ask him for you? It’s probably Nelson or Kenny or something like that. Or maybe Kenny Nelson.”

“I think he looks like a Freddie.”

“Okay, then, we’ll say his name is Freddie.”

“One day when he comes in here,” Dot said, “I’m going to ask him if it’s raining. You know, engage him in conversation.”

“The janitor is more your type.”

“He’s too much like my husband and, anyway, he’s married.”

“Yeah, all the good ones are taken.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“They hung up?”

“I think it was Freddie the postman calling to see if you would answer.  It sounded like his breathing.”

“If he calls again, tell him I’m waiting for him to make the first move.”

“Tell him yourself! He’s your love interest.”

“The pain in my side is getting worse,” Dot said. “Now I’ve got the same kind of pain in my head. I think I’ll go home sick for the rest of the day.”

“And leave me here to cope all by myself? I don’t think so!”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“Hung up again?”

“Yeah.”

“I think you’re pushing the wrong button, honey. When you try to put them on hold, you’re disconnecting them.”

“Which button am I supposed to push?”

“This one.”

“I’ve been pushing that one.”

“That’s why they all seem to hang up. You’re cutting them off.”

“Well, isn’t that funny? Hah-hah-hah! The joke’s on me! Hah-hah-hah!”

“You’d better not let Mr. Goodapple know you’ve been hanging up on his clients. He wouldn’t like it.”

“You know what Mr. Goodapple can do! I’ll just say there’s something wrong with the phone.”

“The problem isn’t with the phone but with the person using the phone.”

“Yeah, who cares? I’m hungry.”

“Me too. I didn’t eat any breakfast this morning.”

“Maybe we could slip out and get a real sit-down lunch today.”

“We can’t both be gone at the same time. We’ll have to go one at a time or one of us will have to bring back.”

“I’ll go.”

“And leave me alone to answer the phone? I don’t think so!”

“You go, then. Bring me back a bacon and tomato on whole wheat toast, a large Coke and a pack of Luckies.”

Their thoughts were just then interrupted by the smell of Mr. Goodapple’s cologne and the sound of his footsteps in the hallway coming toward them. Dot opened a ledger and began studiously copying figures from it onto a pad. Zora opened her desk drawer and began rearranging the things inside.

“Well, well, well!” the great man boomed. “How are we all doing today?”

“Just fine, Mr. Goodapple!” Zora said.

“Very good, sir!” Dot said.

“Keeping busy, are we?”

“Oh, yes, sir!

“I like to check up on the girls in the front office and make sure things are running smoothly.”

“We’re getting along swimmingly,” Dot said.

“We’ve been so busy this morning!” Zora said. “Hardly time to catch our breath.”

Haw-haw-haw!” he laughed, showing his mule-like teeth. “That’s the way we like it, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes, sir!”

“The busier we are, the more we feel we’re earning our pay.”

“I was saying that very thing a little while ago,” Zora said. “We do love our jobs so.”

“You’ve both been here a long time, haven’t you?”

“Oh, yes, sir! Many, many years in fact.”

“More years than we can count,” Dot said.

“Some people just can’t stand to ever think of retiring, can they?” he said.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my job to go to every day,” Zora said.

“I feel the same way,” Dot said.

Mr. Goodapple smiled in his self-satisfied way. “I like to see dedication in my people,” he said. “And loyalty. Nothing is more important.”

Somebody came up behind Mr. Goodapple and tapped him on the shoulder and he left. Zora and Dot let out their breath with relief.

“That bastard!” Zora said. “Spying on us!”

“He’s got his nerve!”

“He thinks he’s so important and he’s just the white on top of old chicken doodle.”

“The smell of his cologne makes me sick.”

“For two cents I’d tell him what I think of him!”

“The pain in my side just got worse!” Dot said. “I have to get out of here!”

She stood up and shuffled in her mules down the hallway to the ladies’ room. When she came back, she was pale and her intricate hairdo had come undone.

“I was just sick in the bathroom,” she said. “The stress is too much for me.”

“You’d better go home and lie down, then, honey,” Zora said. “I can cover for you.”

“You’re right,” Dot said. “I guess maybe that’s the thing I ought to do.”

After Dot was gone, Zora combed her hair and fixed her face. Then she left the office to get herself a good lunch. She would take as long as she wanted, if not the entire afternoon, and if Mr. Goodapple didn’t like it, well, she’d be glad to tell him what he could do about it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The School on Heart’s Content Road ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The School on Heart’s Content Road ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

I first became a fan of Carolyn Chute when I read her novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine many years ago. Then Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts, Merry Men and Snow Man. Her most recent book (not that she’s published but that that I’ve read) is The School on Heart’s Content Road. She has another book out, Treat Us Like Dogs and We Become Wolves (just out in 2014) that I haven’t yet read but that I intend to read as soon as I’m ready to tackle another 700-page novel. (The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, is 769 pages.)

The thing about Carolyn Chute is that she’s not like other writers. Nothing bores me any faster than stories of yuppie angst and heartbreak (multiple marriages, affairs, fears about growing old, screwed-up kids because their parents are screwed up, blah, blah, blah). Carolyn Chute writes about the other end of the spectrum: people on the fringe, the dispossessed, the poor, illiterate (what’s called in the South white trash but is called something else in Maine where her books are set). These people are fascinating, and in The School on Heart’s Content Road we have a whole assemblage of fascinating characters. Characters who are much more concerned about survival than about their stock portfolios or what wines to have for dinner or what college two-year-old Muffy will apply to when the time comes.

The School on Heart’s Content Road is set, for some reason, in the year 2000. It is not about a school but instead centers around four characters: Michael (known as “Mickey”) Gammon, Jane Miranda Meserve, Richard York (likes to be called “Rex;” his mother calls him “Ricky”) and Guillaume (known as “Gordon”) St. Onge.

Fifteen-year-old Mickey Gammon smells bad (he doesn’t bathe) and he can’t read, even though he goes to school (or seems to). He lives with his half-brother Donnie Locke and Donnie’s family. Donnie works in an unidentified “chain” (like Wal-Mart) store and is understandably unhappy. He and his wife Erika have a sick child, Jesse, who is bound to die with cancer, whether he has treatments or not. They hardly have enough money for pain medicine for the sick child. Also living with them are Mickey and Donnie’s mother, Britta (she has three kids by three different men, none of whom she was ever married to), their younger sister, Elizabeth, and several of Donnie’s kids from a previous marriage (referred to throughout the novel as the “girl gang”). Donnie throws Mickey out of the house. (“You can’t live here anymore,” he says.) Mickey lives for a while in a tree house with Maine winter setting in. He begins spending time with Rex York, a fifty-year-old Vietnam veteran who has a military bearing and a soldierly attitude toward life (he doesn’t eat desserts and maintains his trim body with exercise). Rex is head of the True Maine Militia. This is a “separatist” group that doesn’t trust the government (with good reason) and will use force if necessary to “take back” (with plenty of guns and ammo) the country that they believe was stolen from them by greedy politicians and an even greedier corporate structure that “steals from them and tries to sell back what they have stolen.” They are a fringe group and have been much maligned by the mainstream media, whose job it is to stir up fear in the public imagination against them.

Gordon St. Onge is about ten years younger than Rex York, but they have known each other since they were young. (They consider themselves almost brothers.) Gordon is called (among other things) the “Prophet,” because he is a head of the “Settlement,” a sort of commune/co-op where a bunch of people live and work. Gordon is charismatic and is loved by most of the people who know him and feared by many because he has a lot of (not legal) wives and many children by those wives. It seems that nothing disturbs the public as much as the thought of “polygamy” and a “cult” in which young girls are made to have “relations” with much older men (it isn’t like that in the Settlement). Life seems to be pretty harmonious in the Settlement and the people living there are happy. Still, though, there is the idea that they will overthrow the government in an ugly way if (and when) they have the chance, or possibly even try to secede from the Union. For this reason they are disliked and feared.

Jane Meserve is a six-and-a-half-year-old, half-black girl (her father was a black musician with whom Jane’s mother, Lisa Meserve, had one encounter) who is suddenly left without a mother when Lisa is hauled off to jail on a drug charge. When Jane is wearing her heart-shaped, white-framed glasses that allow her to observe things that others can’t see, she is secret agent Jane, adding a lighter touch to the proceedings. She is a wry observer of everything going on around her, smart and clever beyond her years. She and her mother serve to illustrate how unfair and brutal police are (can be) to poor, powerless people. When her mother goes to jail, apparently forever, Jane is taken in by a Settlement family.

The School on Heart’s Content Road is always engaging reading. The “set piece” of the novel, toward the end, is a long, long (too long) sequence about an open house kind of event at the Settlement where everybody is invited. Hundreds of people show up; there are music, food and drinking. When Gordon speaks, he works the crowd up into a frenzy with his rhetoric about taking back the country and not standing for the government’s lies and double-dealing anymore. There are federal agents everywhere, and word has been circulated that somebody is going to try to kill Gordon. We know something is going to happen but we don’t know what until it happens. It’s not what we expected.

If you are a reader of “serious” fiction (as opposed to a reader of Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann), you will like The School on Heart’s Content Road. If it was a movie, it would play at art houses instead of at your neighborhood multiplex where they have Ant Man and Jurassic World and all the latest rom-coms. Some of us just want more out of life and we’ll do whatever we have to do to get it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Find Out Where the Train is Going

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Find Out Where the Train is Going ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

We’re in a long room that was once used for something else. There are thirty beds in two rows. These are accommodations for guests of the state: check bouncers, bigamists, shoplifters, pickpockets, prostitutes. You could go on and on calling out their misdeeds, but why bother? They are the morally bankrupt repeat offenders who are not beyond being redeemed or reformed. Give them two years, or four or five, and they’ll be out if they’re lucky. Redeemed? Not very likely. The really bad ones, the hardened criminals, the murderers, the ones that would throw acid in your face and enjoy doing it, are in another part.

Juniper Tarrant has only been in residence for a few days. She didn’t do anything. She is innocent. She was left with some hash or something—she wasn’t even sure what it was called—that belonged to her boyfriend, a man named Ed King. He disappeared and she went to jail, no matter how many times she told them it wasn’t her fault. Her one hope is that he comes back and tells them what really happened. Of course, she’s going to stick a knife in his ribs if she ever gets the chance, but that’s something that is going to have to wait.

On her fifth or sixth day (she has lost count already), her lawyer, an elderly man named Arthur Lux, comes to see her. She meets with him in a tiny room with a table and two chairs. A blank-faced guard stands against the wall, a silent observer. As she tells the lawyer again everything that happened, he writes it all down.

“When I woke up,” she says, “he was gone.”

Who was gone?” the lawyer asks. “You have to be specific in your answers.”

“Ed King.”

“Was that his real name?”

“It’s the name he gave me.”

“Did he use any other names?”

“I don’t know. Why would he do that?”

“How long had you known him?”

“I don’t know. A few months.”

“How many months?”

“About six.”

“You didn’t know he was involved in the selling and distribution of drugs?”

“No! And if he was, I wasn’t!”

“Do you have any reason to believe he deliberately framed you?”

“No! Why would he do that?”

“So, the two of you were living in this hotel together. What was it called?”

“The Excelsior. And I wouldn’t say we were living there. We were staying there for a few days.”

“For what purpose?”

“Why does anybody stay in a hotel?”

“Hotel records show the room was registered in your name alone.”

“Ed always took the room in my name.”

“Why is that?”

“He always had the feeling that somebody was following him. Watching him.”

“And you suspected nothing?”

“No. I stayed out of his business.”

“After the Excelsior Hotel, where were you planning on going?”

“I don’t know. If Ed knew what our next move was, he hadn’t told me.”

“So, you traveled around with him from place to place and you didn’t know what kind of activities he was involved in?”

“He told me he was a salesman.”

“What did he tell you he sold?”

“In his day he sold cars, washing machines, life insurance policies and other things, too. He didn’t like to talk about it.”

“And you didn’t question him?”

“Why should I?”

“And you thought he was a perfectly legitimate salesman?”

“I had no reason to believe otherwise.”

Arthur Lux closes his notebook, puts his pen away and places one hand on top of the other. “Would you be able to identify him if you saw him again?” he asks.

“Of course!” she says.

“Were you in love with him?”

“I thought I was but right now I hate him so much I could kill him.”

“Did you give him money?”

She shrugs and pushes her hair back out of her face. “All I had,” she says.

“How much?”

“Five thousand dollars and some change.”

“It looks like he did you a dirty deed.”

“If he would only come back and square me with the police,” she says. “Tell them the truth about what really happened. That’s all I ask. I would never bother him again.”

“Maybe you should be more prudent in your associations in the future,” Arthur Lux says with a sad smile.

“Thanks for the advice. It’s a little late.”

“We’re doing all we can but, in spite of our best efforts, we haven’t been able to locate him.”

“You’ve got to find him!”

“There’s no indication that he even exists.”

“What are you saying? Do you think I made him up?”

“I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that he probably gave you a false name and that he planned on running out on you from the very beginning.”

“I fell for his line. I was such a fool.”

“We’re all fools.”

“Can’t you pull some strings to get me out of here? Some writ of habeas corpus or something? I don’t belong in prison.”

Arthur Lux reaches across the table and pats her arm. “Don’t despair, my dear. Something is bound to turn up.”

Now, every night at nine-ten, just before lights out, a passenger train goes by the prison. For fifteen or twenty seconds the long room with the thirty beds is filled with the clatter and excitement of a train on its way to some undisclosed location. Some of the prisoners cover their heads with their pillows to try to drown it out, while others wait to catch a glimpse of it and, if the light is just right, to catch a glimpse of some of the people riding on it. The train goes by so fast that it is just a blur, but some of the prisoners claim to have seen passengers on the train that they recognized. One woman said she saw her husband who was supposed to be in a mental institution but was obviously out having a good time. Another claimed to see the daughter and son, twins, that she gave up for adoption at the time of their birth twenty-seven years earlier.

Juniper Tarrant falls into the habit of watching the train every night. She is one of those, who, for a few seconds at least, feels a curious sense of release and possibility as the train goes by in the night. As long as trains carry happy people from city to city, the world cannot be all terrible and bad. Some day I’ll be free and I’ll be the one on the train.

After a week or so of watching the train, she sees Ed King, looking out at her from one of the sleek passenger cars that glides through the night like a bullet. She sees his face so clearly she cannot be mistaken: the dark hair with a little gray mixed in, the brown-green eyes, the little scar above the right eyebrow, the commanding chin. He is wearing a gray suit with a light-blue shirt and a red tie. She remembers the tie. It was the one tie of his that he liked the best.

She turns away from the window, lets out a little cry and is sick. Lying on the floor, she has a kind of seizure. The prisoner in the bed next to her calls for help and she is taken to the infirmary. When the doctor examines her, he tells her she is going to be a mother in about seven months time.

She is given a sedative and kept in the infirmary overnight for observation. In the morning she is desperate to talk to Arthur Lux, her lawyer. When she asks to call him, she is denied. (“What do you think this is? A sorority?”) One of the matrons will try to get a message to him if she can. The message is simple: I saw Ed King on the train. Find out where the train is going and there you will find Ed King.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Harper Lee is famous for writing To Kill a Mockingbird but also for something else: she was friend and confidante to Truman Capote and has been portrayed by not one but two Hollywood actresses in movies about Capote and his writing of In Cold Blood. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were childhood companions in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama and remained friends until his death in 1984. While Capote became as famous for his eccentricities (his appearances on The Tonight Show) and his partying lifestyle as he was for the books he wrote, Harper Lee eschewed the limelight and has been, like other writers of her generation, notoriously reclusive. At age 89, she still lives in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama. You get the impression that fame hasn’t changed her very much.

With the phenomenal success of To Kill A Mockingbird and the equally famous movie that followed the publication of the novel, Harper Lee might have “cashed in” on her fame; she might have written other books or a sequel, but she didn’t. In the foreword to the thirtieth anniversary printing of her famous novel, she said simply that she didn’t have anything else she wanted to say. It doesn’t happen very often, especially when there’s money to be made.

Now, oddly enough, all these years later, in the futuristic year of 2015 (it would have seemed so in 1960), a new Harper Lee book has emerged, Go Set a Watchman. The title is from a passage in the Book of Isaiah: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Every man’s island, the book tells us, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.

At first glance, Go Set a Watchman seems to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s set twenty years after the earlier novel, but Harper Lee didn’t intend it as a sequel. It is, we are told, a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was apparently shelved for a different version and hasn’t seen the light of day until now. The publisher, HarperCollins, must have recognized the enormous amount of interest (and the cash potential) in a new book by Harper Lee, even if it is a book written sixty years ago.

The girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is an adult in Go Set a Watchman. When she is twenty-six, on her yearly summer visit to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, she witnesses many changes. Her father, seventy-two-year-old Atticus Finch (the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird) suffers from debilitating arthritis and is not as vigorous as he once was. Calpurnia, the black maid who kept house for him for many years, is too old to work anymore and has been replaced by Alexandra, Atticus’s bossy sister. Calpurnia’s grandson is in trouble for running down in his car (and killing) a drunken white man. Jeremy (known as “Jem”), Jean Louise’s older brother, has succumbed at an early age to the hereditary heart condition that claimed his and Jean Louise’s mother’s life. Henry Clinton, a young attorney and protégé of Atticus Finch (four years older than Jean Louise and a lifelong friend of her brother’s) wants to marry her, but she isn’t sure if he’s the right sort or not. The most significant change, however, is in the social and political landscape of the South. Black people, spurred on by “outside interests,” are demanding their civil rights. The white people who have taken for granted the “status quo” in the South for generations are going to have to adjust to a new order of things. It’s a transitional period in the South, not unlike the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It’s in this atmosphere of change that Go Set a Watchman is set.

Most people will probably agree that Go Set a Watchman is not as compelling or as nearly perfect as To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of a five-star novel, it’s a four- or a three-star novel at best. That’s not to say, however, that it’s not worth the time and effort it takes to read it, especially for those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or seen the movie version and would like to know what becomes of the characters twenty years later.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Swimsuits are Optional

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Swimsuits are Optional ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

August completed the tenth grade and would go on to the eleventh when school took up again. He was looking forward to a summer of doing what he wanted and not so much what he was told to do. He planned to spend the summer alone, mostly indoors, thinking and cultivating his own interests. Exactly what those interests were wasn’t clear to anybody and especially not to him. He would watch old movies on television (he liked Kay Francis and Mary Astor), read some good books, listen to music (all of Beethoven’s symphonies) and, when he felt like getting out, take a book to the park and find a shady spot under a tree and commune with nature until ants starting crawling up his pants leg. Most other people his age, he knew, would be going out on dates, going to swimming parties and getting their drivers’ licenses. He didn’t have his driver’s license; he would get it someday but not just yet. If he was able to drive on his own, his father would probably expect him to get a summer job and buy a car that he would have to pay for out of his own money. No thank you! All that could wait.

On the very first day of summer vacation a girl he hardly knew named Beulah Buffington called him on the phone.

“I don’t think I remember you,” he said. “I can’t place the name.”

“Well, if that doesn’t beat all!” she said. “I see you every day at school.”

“I’m not good with names,” he said. “Describe yourself to me.”

He did remember her but was only playing with her in a way she didn’t appreciate. If he disavowed knowledge of her, he wouldn’t need to be nice to her.

“I’m as tall as most of the boys at school. I have brown hair and a full face. I’m what people call big-boned.”

“A lot of people fit that description.”

“I failed the Constitution test two times. I passed it on the third try.”

“You had a crying fit in American history class and called the teacher a bozo.”

“That’s me,” she said. “I think if I had known I was going to have to describe myself to you, I wouldn’t have bothered calling.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” he laughed. “The thing with girls is that they all kind of blend together for me.”

“I can see this wasn’t a good idea,” she said.

“No, no, that’s all right! What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Next week is Dot Gilmore’s seventeenth and we’re having a pool party at my house to surprise her.”

“I didn’t know you had a pool.”

“There isn’t any reason why you should.”

“Who did you say the party is for?”

“Dot Gilmore.”

“I don’t think I know her.”

“August, you are impossible!”

“Can you describe her for me?”

“She’s one of the most popular girls in school. She was yearbook queen. Her picture is everywhere.”

“Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard the name. What about her?”

“We’re having a pool party for her at my house.”

“I didn’t know you had a pool.”

“When we were discussing who to invite, it seems your name came up. I don’t know why.”

“I don’t know why, either.”

“Would you like to come? It’ll be from three o’clock in the afternoon on Thursday until about dark.”

“I don’t really know how to swim, Betty,” he said.

“It’s Beulah,” she said.

“Oh, yeah!”

“I don’t think any of us knows how to swim. We just splash around in the water. The boys try to drown each other. There’s a diving board but people don’t dive; they just jump off. There’ll be water volleyball, music and lots of food.”

“I don’t know how to play water volleyball.”

“It doesn’t matter. Anybody can play.”

“Would I need to wear a swimsuit?”

“Swimsuits are optional.”

“What does that mean?”

“You can swim naked if you want to, as long there are no grownups present.”

“And what day is that?”

“Thursday next week.”

“What time?”

“Three o’clock.”

“Um, hold on a minute. I need to check my calendar.” He kept her hanging on for a good two minutes and when he went back to the phone he said, “Sorry, I can’t come. I’m having abdominal surgery that day.”

“Oh. Okay. I really didn’t think you’d want to come, but I thought I’d at least try.”

As he was hanging up the phone, his father came into the room, reeking of aftershave.

“Who was that on the phone?”

“Nobody,” August said. “Wrong number.”

“I’m going away for a few days on business. I want you to go stay with Aunt Vivian.”

“I hate staying with Aunt Vivian.”

“I could probably pull some strings and still get you into Camp Bonhomie.”

“I’m not going through that again.”

“What will you do while I’m away?”

“The same things I do when you’re here.”

“I worry about going off and leaving a tenth grader at home by himself.”

“I’m very mature for my age. I like being alone. And I’m in the eleventh grade now.”

“A young boy shouldn’t spend so much time alone.”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

“What would you say if I told you I’ll probably get married again by the end of summer?”

“Not Mrs. Bone, I hope.”

“No, she’s completely out of the picture. I heard she was in Europe. Good riddance.”

“Where do you meet all those women?”

“They’re just…around. You’d never believe how many there are just waiting to fling themselves at a halfway decent fellow.”

“Desperate, huh?”

“Just give them a little encouragement and they’re all over you like flies on honey.”

“I thought your interests lay elsewhere. What about Paul? What about Luke?”

“I think a man ought to have a wife, don’t you?”

“In your case, it probably isn’t a good idea.”

“Don’t you want to be a family again?”

“No!”

“Your mother has been gone for eight years now.”

“I know. I was there. I found her, remember? I’ve been screwed up ever since.”

“We all have our painful childhood memories.”

“Most people don’t come home from school and find their mother swinging from a rafter, though.”

“I know it was awful for you. I’ve been trying to make it up to you all these years.”

“You can make it up to me by not getting married again.”

“You wouldn’t like to have a baby brother or sister?”

“Hell no!”

“I’ve been thinking I might like to have more children before it’s too late for me.”

“Am I not proof enough that you should never go any farther in that direction?”

“Oh, August!” his father laughed. “I don’t know where you come up with that shit! It’s grand that you read a lot of books, but sometimes you can overdo even that.”

“Okay, I’ll make a point of reading less.”

“I want you to get out more. Cultivate some friendships. I know you’re naturally reserved, but you have to at least try. Meet people halfway.”

“Thanks for the advice, father.”

“You’re young. It’s summer. You need to be out having some fun. Don’t stay cooped up in the house all the time by yourself.”

“I was just invited to a pool party.”

“Wonderful! When is it?”

“Next Thursday afternoon.”

“I know you’ll have a really good time.”

“I need to buy a bathing suit and some other things.”

He took two fifty-dollar bills out of his wallet and put them on the table. “If that’s not enough,” he said, “charge the rest.”

“I will.”

“Get whatever food you want. Try to eat some healthy things. Fish and vegetables.”

“I will.”

“Aunt Vivian will drop by often to see how things are going.”

“I hope she gives me some warning.”

“If you need anything, you can call her any time of the day or night.”

“I know. She’ll be all over me like flies on honey.”

“Hah-hah! Get out and get some fresh air.”

“Okay.”

He breathed a sigh of relief when his father finally left and then, without missing a beat, he went to the phone and called his friend Colin Mayhew. Colin was one of the few people in school with whom he had anything in common. They were both repeatedly humiliated in gym class when they were chosen last for basketball.

“How are you, old friend?” he said cheerily into the phone.

“Fine,” Colin said. “Who is this?”

“This is your old friend August Wellington.”

“Oh, yeah. Hi.”

“What’s new and different with you today?”

“My mother is making me move some furniture for the painters.”

“Why don’t you sneak out and come over?”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“My father is gone and I have the whole house to myself.”

“I always love it when my parents go away and leave me alone,” Colin said.

“Yeah.”

“It doesn’t happen very often, though. They still think I’m a child.”

“So, do you feel like coming over or not?”

“I don’t know, August. I’m not much in the mood.”

“Well, get in the mood.”

“Some other time maybe. I’ve got a lot to do today and I’m tired.”

“You’re sixteen years old! How can you be tired?”

“It happens. My blood sugar is low.”

“Somebody called me this morning,” August said. “You’ll never guess who!”

“Beulah Buffington.”

“How do you know?”

“She called me, too. She’s calling everybody. She’s trying to get a big crowd at her swimming party next week.”

“You’re not going, are you?”

“Yeah,” Colin said. “I think I’ll go. It might be fun. If I feel uncomfortable, I can always say I have a funeral to go to and leave. How about you? Are you going?”

“I told her no.”

“That’s kind of rude, isn’t it?”

“I told her I’m having surgery that day.”

“You aren’t really, are you?”

“Get with it, Colin! You know me better than that.”

“When I can’t see your face, I can’t read the cues.”

“Well, do you want to come over and read some cues?”

“Not today, August. My head hurts and I’ve got eczema on my feet.”

“I get the idea. Well, maybe we’ll bump into each other some time this summer.”

“Sure, August. See you around.”

After he hung up the phone, he tried to call Aunt Vivian but her line was busy. It was probably better not to get her started, anyway.

He went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door to see what was there and then closed it again. Then into the dining room, where he pulled back the curtain and lifted the blind and looked out at the house next door. The people were away and the curtains drawn. Everybody has flown the coop. Nobody here but us chickens.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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