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The Door That’s Always Closed

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The Door That’s Always Closed ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

My name is Charles Anson. I moved in with my mother after my father died. At first I hated the idea of living with my mother at the age of thirty-seven, but soon I got used to it and thought of her home as my own. And I have to admit, my life was easier there. She had a cook and a housekeeper, so I no longer had to buy or cook my own food or do any housecleaning, which I was never very good at, anyway.

My mother was in her mid-forties when I was born. She was always older than the mothers of my friends, more like a grandmother. She had developed a bad heart in the years after my father’s death and told me she was happy to have me there with her—I was her only family that counted, she said—even though we argued at times about things I did that she didn’t like: I drank too much and I sometimes didn’t bother to call her when I wasn’t coming home. At those times, I had to remind her that I was no longer fifteen years old. She had to relinquish what she considered her “rights” as a mother and treat me with the respect I deserved as an adult.

She was known for her temper, which my father could tell you about if he was here. I remember when I was little and heard them fighting in the night. It wasn’t unusual to hear yelling, breaking glass or splintering of wood. When my father got enough of my mother goading him, he would end up throwing a vase or something at her head. In the morning when I asked what had happened, my mother would laugh and say my father had a little accident while sleepwalking. I knew it wasn’t the truth but it was a good way to gloss over an ugly situation.

I went to work every day and when I came home my mother was there and dinner was on the table and all was well. After dinner, I would usually step out if I felt like it, even though I knew my mother was jealous if I didn’t spend all my free time with her. In the evenings she watched old movies on TV and was happy to have me sit and watch with her, but it wasn’t my idea of a good time. I can only take so many Depression-era comedies with wisecracking dames and maids masquerading as madcap heiresses.

Most of the time when I came home from a night on the town, sometimes at one or two in the morning, my mother would have the TV and all the lights on, but would have retired to her room. This made her feel safer when she was alone, she said. I would turn everything off, starting with the TV, and make my way to bed, sleep for about four hours, get up and begin my day all over again, as so many of us working stiffs do. My mother had told me I didn’t even need to work, that she had plenty of money for us both to live on, but I couldn’t see myself hanging around all day with just her to talk to and having to ask her for money anytime I wanted to go out and have a few drinks.

On weekends I always tried to spend either Saturday or Sunday with my mother, just the two of us. She liked to go for a drive and I would very often take her to the cemetery where my father was buried and then take her to a good restaurant for lunch. If it was a Sunday, we would try to take in a museum or a concert. If I ever had the idea of going to a movie theatre and seeing a movie, she said she preferred seeing them on TV. When I told her that most people who liked movies wanted to see them at the theatre and not on TV, she only shook her head. The movie screen gave her a headache, she said, and she didn’t like the smell of popcorn.

All in all, my life was agreeable. I didn’t spend most of the money I made, so I was able to invest. The market was doing well, so I did well. I didn’t miss the things I didn’t have that other people had, like a marriage and children. I had learned early in life that not everybody in the world is the same and I found it out more and more as I got older. What’s right for most people is not right for everybody.

My mother went on for years with her bad heart, but she came to a point where she couldn’t go on any longer. She looked pale and drawn all the time and spent most of her time lying down. She stopped fixing herself up and having her hair done up. Some days she didn’t even bother to get dressed.

She went to the hospital for a few days and when she came home she said she was never going back, no matter what. She wanted to be in the privacy of her own home and not have a bunch of strangers around her at the end. I hired a nurse to be with her during the day when I was at work and a different nurse at night. They just did their work quietly and effectively and didn’t bother me. I paid them when the time came and left them to do whatever needed to be done.

I decided to quit my job in early summer. I didn’t need to work, as I said before, and all the time I was away I was worried that the end would come for my mother and I wouldn’t be there when she needed me. I dismissed both nurses and told them I would take over from there.

My mother moved into one of the guest bedrooms—she didn’t want to mess up her own room where all her treasures were—and became entirely bedridden. Her doctor sympathized with her desire to be at home and gave me lots of pills to give to her. He told me I didn’t have to hold back in administering her medicine and nobody would ever know the difference. I knew what he was saying without further explanation.

We kept her heavily sedated and I knew she wasn’t in any pain. Every so often she would open her eyes and look at me and I knew she was happy with the way things had turned out. She died peacefully on a hot afternoon in August. She was breathing and then she wasn’t. I hoped that when my time came, I would die so simply and easily.

When a loved one dies, there are certain things that need to be done. I was supposed to call the doctor and get a death certificate and then call the funeral home and have them come and take her body away. I found I wasn’t able to do those things, though. I could not speak the words to anybody that she was dead. All I did was close the heavy drapes in the room where she lay and close the door to the room and lock it. I placed a beautiful Chinese screen she was fond of in front of the door to make it seem there was no door there at all.

I knew I would eventually have to have her taken away, but for now I just wasn’t able to disturb her at her rest. The bed in which she lay seemed more the place for her than a casket on display in a funeral home and then a grave. Some people would say I was crazy to do what I did, and maybe I was. It was my way of keeping her with me.

I suppose I was lonely and always had been. I realized after my mother was dead that she was the only person in the world who ever kept me from feeling lonely. I had friends, of course, but not close friends, and when I was away from them I didn’t care if I ever saw them again. I was indifferent toward them, as I had been indifferent toward many things and people in my life.

I kept the apartment dark and I started drinking heavily and taking my mother’s medications. If I didn’t know what they were for, it didn’t make any difference. If I took too many and didn’t wake up, it was all the same to me. I was in a state between living and dying.

Then, after a few weeks, I suppose I snapped out of it, at least partway. I looked at myself in the mirror and vomited. After that, I cleaned myself up and went out and had a good meal in a restaurant. The next day I hired some cleaning people to come in and clean the apartment and air everything out from top to bottom. I kept the door to my mother’s room locked, of course.

I began eating regular meals again and gained some weight. I bought some cook books and learned to fix dishes I had never fixed before, like standing rib roast and lemon trout almondine. I bought myself some new clothes and began going out more, but almost always alone. I walked farther than I ever walked before. I went to movies and different restaurants that were new to me and sometimes I went to church and sat in the back and listened and watched the people.

In the evenings I would pass the time reading novels, listening to classical music or watching old movies on TV as my mother had loved to do. I became as knowledgeable in movie lore as she had ever been. I saw the films of Ramon Novarro, Ruth Chatterton, and Kay Francis.

To keep from feeling so alone, I bought a life-sized human female doll. It was supposed to be a substitute companion for lonely men, but that’s not what I wanted it for. I wanted it to resemble my mother. I put makeup on it to make it look older, put one of my mother’s wigs on it and dressed it in my mother’s clothes. I created an illusion. At night in the dark, with just the light from the TV screen, it seemed as if my mother was sitting there. I knew she would have been pleased.

From there I took the next logical step and began dressing in her clothes myself. It made me feel close to her as though I were absorbing her essence into my body. She wasn’t a rotting corpse behind a closed door. She was right there with me and had been all the time.

After I dressed in her clothing a few times, I started experimenting with makeup. I applied it to my own face exactly as she would have applied it to her own. She had a couple of wigs on the top shelf of her closet and I got them down and tried them with different outfits. I would spend the entire day dressed as her. If it made me feel better and less alone, what did it hurt?

As I stood and looked at myself in her full-length mirror, I realized for the first time how much like her I was. My face was the same shape as hers, down to the dimple in my chin, and I had the same coloring. My beard stubble was light and nonexistent for at least a day after I shaved. I was the embodiment of my mother. I saw nothing of my father in me. He had been large with fleshy ears and a nose like a lump of cauliflower. When I was a child, I used to wonder how the two of them ever came to be together.

I spent hours practicing her walk, her laugh, the way she spoke, lit a cigarette or downed her vodka and tonic. I could match her signature so well that nobody would have been able to tell it wasn’t hers. But why was I doing all this? Was it just passing the time and keeping myself from feeling lonely, or was it something else?

One day when I was feeling brave and more than a little bold I decided to try a little experiment. Dressed as my mother—in her clothes, shoes, wig, hat and coat—I went down in the elevator and down the street to the market on the corner and bought a bag of groceries. I expected people to take one look at me and know I was a charlatan. If anybody noticed me at all, though, they didn’t give me a thought. It was exactly the effect I hoped for.

On my way home, a neighbor woman put her hand on my arm and stopped me on the sidewalk.

“I heard you were sick, Mrs. Anson,” she said. “I’m glad to see you looking so well.”

“I’m much better now,” I said. “My son has been taking care of me.”

I began going out more as my mother. People who had known her for years weren’t able to tell the difference. I kept them from looking at me too closely but, even if they had, I don’t think they would have suspected anything. People see what they want to see and are not all that observant.

Take my mother’s lawyer, for example. He had some documents he wanted her to sign. Now, my mother and her lawyer had known each since high school. Making him believe I was her would be the ultimate test. I was sure I could do it, but I was little anxious he would take one look at me and think I was attempting to perpetrate some kind of swindle. I knew I was taking a chance, but I was willing to risk it.

I didn’t need to worry. The lawyer held onto my gloved hand longer than was needed and led me to a chair in front of his desk.

“I’ve never seen you looking so radiant,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said, looking away.

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“Broccoli and blueberries.”

“It has to be more than that.”

“Well, we all have our little secrets.”

“You can’t fool me about your age. I know exactly how old you are because I’m the same age.”

“It’s only a number,” I said. “I stopped counting a long time ago.”

After I signed the papers, he invited me to lunch but I lied and told him I had an appointment to see my doctor. I wasn’t sure I could keep up the illusion through a long, liquor-infused lunch.

When I went out of the apartment now, about half the time it was as my mother. People were attentive and polite to a well-dressed woman alone. I got the best tables in restaurants and some man or other was always more than willing to give me a seat on a crowded subway or bus. People lit my cigarettes, opened doors for me and held elevators. I could always get a smile out of even the most sour-faced old buzzard.

Sometimes, but not often, I thought about my mother lying on the bed in that room behind the screen. I couldn’t visualize her as a rotting corpse. You hear stories about a dead body being closed up in a house and people realizing it’s there only because they can smell it. There had been no odors in my apartment and no complaints from any of the neighbors. I had heard stories about the bodies of saints that aren’t subject to the laws of decay. I could almost believe that my mother was one of those. Wondrous are the workings of heaven and not of nature.

I dreamed often about my mother, a happy dream in which I could hear her voice and see her laughing face. She was always excited about something she had seen or read, a trip she was taking, a play she was going to see or an old friend she had met again by chance. She was the only truly good person I had ever known. Everybody loved her.

When I was myself, Charles, I felt dull and uninteresting. My clothes were ill-fitting, no matter how much I paid for them or with what care I chose them. In dealings with other people, I was a nonentity. I had no desire to see them or be with them.

I went to a lecture on Nebuchadnezzar at the museum, not as my mother but as myself. There I ran into an old acquaintance named Freda Hobart. We had gone around together for a while right after college. It was never what I would have called a romance but more just something I did back then because it’s what everybody else was doing. After the lecture we had a drink and talked over old times. Freda told me she had been married and divorced two times. When I asked her if she thought she was ever going to get it right, she just laughed.

She gave me her phone number and a few days later, when I was feeling low, I called her and we spent the next couple of hours filling each other in on our lives. We went out to dinner the next day and a couple of days after that we went to a piano recital. She told me on our second outing that she had never stopped thinking about me and hoped we would somehow meet again. When I said I was surprised that she had ever given me another thought, she laughed and said my modesty was one of the things she had always loved about me.

We started spending a lot of time together. Since we were both alone, getting married seemed the next logical step. I was no way in love with her, but we were compatible and I didn’t relish the idea of spending the rest of my life with nobody to talk to or eat dinner with. When I asked her if she’d like to get married, she didn’t hesitate before saying yes.

She started making demands on me, though, telling me how “things” were going to be after we were married. When she told me I’d have to give up the apartment, I refused.

“We don’t need ten rooms for just the two of us,” she said.

“I’m not moving,” I said. “This is my mother’s apartment. She expects me to keep it up for her while she’s away.”

“Isn’t your name on the lease?”

“It doesn’t matter if it is or not. I’m not moving.”

“You’re being childish.”

“Women always say that men are being childish when they refuse to do as they’re told.”

We had a terrible argument, during which she demanded that I open the door to the room behind the Chinese screen.

“It hasn’t been opened in years,” I said.

“I want to see what’s in it.”

“Maybe it’s none of your business. Did you ever think of that?”

“It seems that since we’re to be married,” she said, “your business is my business.”

“Not always,” I said.

She cried, said I was “unnatural,” said she was glad she found it out before she made the mistake of marrying me. She threw a Chinese figurine at my head and stormed out the door. The next day when she called—or any day after that—I wouldn’t accept her calls.

It was for the best, I knew. A bad marriage was worse than no marriage at all. I didn’t feel like giving up half of everything I had to her in a divorce settlement. It was never going to happen.

After that, I came to an important decision. I drowned Charles in the bathtub, burned his tuxedo as a symbolic gesture, and vowed to live the rest of my life, however long that might be, as Margaret, mother of Charles. She would be so happy to know she was living again through me. If anybody asked me about Charles, I would say he had gone abroad to pursue his own interests and I didn’t know when he would be coming back.

I knew that one day I would die and there would be nobody to close the door and lock it for me the way I had done for her. That day might come sooner than I expected because of the way I had abused my body. I didn’t like to think about strangers coming into my house and finding me and then finding her and learning our secret.

After eight years, I unlocked the door and opened it. I stood there in the doorway of the darkened room, dust particles swirling around my head, and looked at her lying in the bed. She looked lovely, exactly as she had looked on that day in August when she stopped breathing.

I picked her up in my arms and carried her into the living room and set her on the couch, propping her up with the big pillows she had bought herself. Her head tilted forward a little and I knew she was comfortable. I sat down beside her and put my arm around her.

“I have so much to tell you,” I said.

With a gesture of impatience, she let me know she wanted to save the talk for later. Now she wanted to watch TV. It had been such a long time.

An old black-and-white movie from the 1930s was just beginning. We had seen it before, but it didn’t matter. I was the kind of thing we liked. I took off my shoes, brought my feet up, and nestled my head on her shoulder. The bad times were gone. The good times were back again.

Copyright 2017 by Allen Kopp

London Under ~ A Capsule Book Review

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London Under ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

London Under, written by Peter Ackroyd, tells the story what’s going on underneath the ground of one of the largest, busiest and oldest cities in the world. In two thousand years of continuous occupancy, a lot of history has happened on the site. The Romans first established the city as Londimium in 43 A.D. Its location was desirable because of its proximity to the Thames river, allowing ships access by sea. During medieval times, toilets emptied into the river, making life generally unpleasant, with diseases such as cholera, typhoid, plague, and assorted fevers. Millions of people have been buried under the ground and then forgotten, with nothing to tell succeeding generations of their existence.

London has the oldest subway system in the world, going back 150 years. It’s a system that has developed a mythology and superstition of its own. When excavations began, certain superstitious people believed that a dark world, the world of the devil, was being unleashed on the world. There are many abandoned and unused subway tunnels—mysterious passages and stairways going nowhere—that have become home to thieves and murderers, those who dwell in the darkness; not to mention rats and a whole host of unpleasant creatures that dwell in the darkness. People claim to have seen spirits in the subways, especially at sites where fatal accidents have occurred. During World War II, many Londoners used subway tunnels for shelter during air raids. This led to a kind of psychosis whereby a person does not feel safe aboveground.

Ancient underground rivers vie for space beneath London with a vast sewer system that must accommodate a city of millions. (It must take a certain kind of person to be able to work in the dark world of sewers to service and maintain them.) Also, there are vast myriads of underground fiber optic cables, pipes, conduits, etc., for communications and utilities. An entire subterranean world exists that most people, casual visitors to the city, will never know about.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Lest They Trample Them Under Their Feet

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Lest They Trample Them Under Their Feet ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

His name was Ernest Pesto. He didn’t look the type to deal in books. He was tall, fat, stoop-shouldered, dressed in work clothes. He looked more like a plumber or an auto mechanic.

He knocked on the door and Edith Biggerstaff let him in. She was a small woman with fluttery hands, soft-spoken and unassertive.

“You got books to sell?” Ernest Pesto said.

“They were my husband’s,” Mrs. Biggerstaff said. “He always wanted lots of books. I’m moving to a smaller place, so I thought…”

“I ain’t got all day, you know.”

She led him to the back of the house, to the “den,” where the books were. She opened the door, turned on the light, and gestured. Voila!

From floor to ceiling were shelves of books, all neatly arranged according to author and type of book. In one section were all the classic fiction books, then a section for contemporary fiction, one for poetry, one for biography, history, nonfiction, and so on.

Ernest Pesto gave a noncommittal grunt.

“I never knew much about books,” Mr. Biggerstaff said. “I think some of them are valuable. Some have been signed.”

“Signed?” Ernest Pesto asked.

“By the person who wrote them. For years and years my husband went to book signings and bought a lot of the latest books.”

“I don’t care about no signed books,” Ernest Pesto said. “They’re not worth no money.”

“Oh, I thought…”

“I pay two hundred for the lot.”

“What?”

“I say I pay two hundred dollars for all these here books in this room. Are the bookcases for sale, too?”

“Wait a minute,” Mrs. Biggerstaff said. “I thought you were an expert on books.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” he said.

“How can you look at all these books and, without even taking one off the shelf and opening it, say that all together they’re worth only two hundred dollars?”

“They always have time to quibble about price,” Ernest Pesto said into the air above his head. “I give you two-fifty and that’s as high as I go.”

Mrs. Biggerstaff twisted her hands together. “Well, I’m afraid they’re not for sale at that price. I think they’re worth a lot more than that. There are hundreds of books here. Are you saying you’ll only pay pennies for each book?”

“That’s the price. That’s the best I can do. I’ll tell you, though. You won’t get a better price no place else.”

“I thought you’d look at each book separately and assess its value. I thought it would take time and careful consideration for you to arrive at a price.”

“I haven’t got time for that!”

“I think you’re just a junk dealer and you don’t know anything about books. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for misleading people.”

He sighed and pulled a book off its shelf and opened it. “This is just an old book,” he said. “People don’t pay big prices for crap like this. I’m a businessman. I can’t pay you money for stuff that nobody will ever buy.”

“Forget it then. If that’s all they’re worth, I’d rather donate them to the library.”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars,” he said. “Who do you want me to make check payable to?”

“I’m not selling them for that. I’m sure they’re worth a lot more than that.”

“You said you don’t know nothing about books.”

“I said I don’t know much about books. I know that a roomful of books is worth more than two hundred and fifty dollars.”

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing, miss. You don’t get me all the way out here for nothing. We made a deal and you can’t back out of it now.”

“I didn’t make any such deal!”

He scribbled out a check and tried to hand it to her. When she refused to take it, he slapped it down on the desk.

“I get these books loaded up and be out of your way in no time,” Ernest Pesto said.

He grabbed an armload of books. “I have crates in my truck,” he said. “I’ll load books in crates and then use my dolly to take them out. Won’t be a jiffy.”

“If you take one book out of his house, I’m calling the police,” Mrs. Biggerstaff said.

He stopped with the books in his arms and faced her. “What’s the matter with you?” he said. “You made a deal and I’m not going to let you go back on it!”

“I made no such deal! You’re just trying to take advantage of me. You know as well as I do that all of these books all together are worth a lot more than two hundred and fifty dollars.”

“How you stop me from taking books?” he said. “You have books to sell. I buy books. You made a deal. You call the police, they laugh at you.”

He went out of the house carrying as many books as he could and threw them into the back of his truck. In a minute he was back in the house with two large wooden crates. He took the crates into the den and began loading them.

“I want you to take your check back,” she said, standing behind him. “And I want you to leave my house.”

“You talk crazy,” he said, smiling up at her. “I have all these books out of your way and loaded into my truck before you know it.”

“You don’t seem to understand simple English,” she said.

She tore the check up and threw the pieces at the back of his head.

“Is that any way to behave?” he asked.

“There’s no deal here. I’m not letting you take my husband’s book collection for two hundred and fifty dollars.”

He stood up, towering over her. “You going to stop me?” he said. “You little tiny woman. I’m big strong man. Now, how about if you stand aside and let me get these books loaded up and be on my way?”

“If my son was here, he’d stop you!” she said.

Eugene Pesto looked around the room and laughed. “I don’t see no son,” he said. “But I bet if he was here he’d say you made a deal fair and square and you can’t back out on it now.”

“You’re not taking the books!” she said.

“Looks like I already am.”

She went to the phone to call the police and when a voice answered, she blurted incoherently that a man was in her house, robbing her of her husband’s valuable book collection. When the person on the phone asked for her address, she wasn’t able to give it; she was too rattled. When she realized that Eugene Pesto was in the house again with his dolly, she dropped the phone and ran upstairs to her bedroom.

Books weren’t the only things her husband had left her. He was also the proud owner of several handguns. She kept one of them in the drawer of the nightstand, loaded, ever since she heard about a prowler in the neighborhood.

Holding the loaded gun steadily in her right hand, she went back down the stairs. Eugene Pesto had just taken a load out to his trick and was coming back into the house. When he saw the gun leveled at him, he laughed.

“Oh, come on, now!” he said. “There’s no need for that! I’m a reasonable man. I pay you three hundred dollars for books! Will that make you happy? Isn’t that fair price?”

“I want you to bring in the books that you’ve already stolen and put them back where you found them and get out of my house,” she said, holding the gun in both hands. “I’ve already called the police and they’re on their way.”

“I don’t believe you, lady, and I don’t believe you’d shoot me in a million years!”

On his next load out to his truck, she shot him in the back. He sprawled on the edge of the lawn near the sidewalk. When he tried to get up, she shot him in the head.

“Swine!” she said. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

A neighbor across the street came running when she heard the gunshots. “What was that?” she said. When she saw Eugene Pesto lying on the edge of the lawn covered in blood, all she could do was stand and look at him.

“He was stealing from me,” Mrs. Biggerstaff said to the neighbor. “I warned him but he wouldn’t stop.”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Shakespeare: The Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Shakespeare: The Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Shakespeare: The Biography, written by Peter Ackroyd, is a long (572 pages), minutely detailed account of the life and times and of the most famous dramatist/poet who ever lived. Many of the details of Shakespeare’s life are known—where he lived, mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters—but much about Shakespeare, especially about his writing, is speculative and endlessly debated by scholars and historians. As Peter Ackroyd says, “Wherever we look in Shakespeare’s work, we see the impossibility of assigning purpose or unassailable meaning.”

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the small (2000 people) English town of Stratford-upon-Avon, a hundred miles from London. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glover (maker of gloves), landowner, and local official. The family, if not exactly wealthy, was affluent and had pretensions of nobility. His mother, Mary Shakespeare, was a remote member of the noble Arden family. The Shakespeares were adherents to the “old” faith (Catholic), while the “approved” and accepted religion was the Anglican (Church of England) faith. The Queen, Elizabeth I, had originally taken a middle road on religion, but when her crown was threatened by the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and her followers, she adopted a harsh tone against “recusants,” those who still practiced the old religion.

Shakespeare was educated in the grammar school near his home and never attended college or university. When he was eighteen, he married a woman several years older than he was named Anne Hathaway. She was carrying his child when they were married and she soon gave birth to a daughter, Susannah Shakespeare. Several years later, the couple had twins: a son, Hamnet, and a daughter, Judith. (Hamnet would die at age eleven.) Leaving his wife and three small children behind in his hometown, Shakespeare decamped to London where he could pursue a theatrical career (writing plays and acting on the stage).

The London of Shakespeare’s time was a busy, exciting, place—noisy, crowded, dirty and dangerous. The plague made periodic visitations upon the populace, usually during the summer months, killing thousands of people at a time. (Theatres and public gathering places were routinely shut down during plague epidemics.) Shakespeare thrived in London and soon made a name for himself in the theatre. He acted in many of the plays he wrote and also acted in plays written by other people. He and his acting troupe performed for the sovereign at court, first Queen Elizabeth I and then her successor, King James I. Unlike many great writers, Shakespeare enjoyed tremendous success and renown in his life.

There is much in this book about Shakespeare’s brilliance and his “assimilative” mind. He wasn’t as well educated or as cultured as some of his contemporaries. To write his plays, especially the histories, he always started out with some source material, making it uniquely his own. He also “borrowed” heavily from other writers, which led to jealousy and personal attacks, especially after his plays became so successful. There were other celebrated playwrights during his time, but none so inventive and with so agile a mind and facile a talent. He died on his fifty-third birthday (April 23, 1616) in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. The cause of death is not known today, but there is speculation that he died of typhoid fever. He was buried underneath the floor in the chancel of the old church near where he grew up.

Shakespeare: The Biography is everything you ever wanted to know about Shakespeare and then some. He had many friends, colleagues, relatives, business acquaintances, and rivals, and we meet them all here. There are so many names in this book that’s it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight, but it’s a wonderful, mostly fascinating biography of a great man and an evocation of a time long past.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Late Husband

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Late Husband ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

After midnight Thelma Lucy heard a disturbing sound in the house and went downstairs to investigate. When she saw her husband, Boswell Lucy, sitting in his favorite chair in the living room, she turned on the light and stared in disbelief.

“What are you doing here?” Thelma asked.

“Hello, dear,” Boswell said.

“You’re not supposed to be here!”

“Why not?”

“You’re dead!”

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“I want to know why you’re here!”

“I wanted to see you. It’s been such a long time.”

“You’re not really here. This is what happens when I have too many drinks and then take my pills.”

“Still taking those pills?”

“I need them. I can’t get along without them.”

“You’re an addict.”

“I’m not! And you need to mind your own business. You’re dead!”

“Where were you this evening? I was here earlier and you were out.”

“I had dinner with a friend, if it’s any of your business.”

“It was Dr. Tab Hudson, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe.”

“You’ve been seeing quite a lot of Dr. Hudson lately, haven’t you?”

“Well, what of it? You died and left me a widow. You can’t expect me to sit here all by myself forever and let the world pass me by, can you?”

“Dr. Hudson is not what you think he is, but I see you’ll have to find it out on your own.”

“He’s a fine man.”

“You think he’s wonderful because he reinforces you in all your neuroses and he gives you as many pills as you want without a prescription.”

“I don’t know why I’m even listening to you. You’re a dead man.”

“You’ve put on some weight, haven’t you? And what have you done to your hair?”

“After you died,” she said, “I took on a whole new look. I bought some new clothes and changed my hair. Don’t you like it?”

“Orange hair looks ridiculous on an old woman.”

“Everybody says it makes me look younger. And where do you get off calling me old?”

“Well, aren’t you?”

“I want you to go now,” she said. “It’s late. I’m going to take one of my pills and get into bed.”

“You’re already taken two.”

“How could you know that?”

“I’ve been here the whole time.”

“Spying on me?”

“Looking out for you.”

“I don’t want you looking out for me. I’m doing just fine without you.”

“I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need me.”

“I know this isn’t really happening,” she said. “It’s a bad dream—a nightmare, really—and in the morning when I wake up I won’t remember any of it.”

The next time she saw him was in the supermarket. She picked up a box of donuts and placed them in her cart alongside her candy and ice cream.

“That’s why you’ve put on so much weight,” he said in her ear.

She dropped the donuts into the cart and turned on him. “Why are you doing this to me?” she asked.

“Doing what?”

“It’s bad enough that I’m seeing you in my own home, but now I’m seeing you in public?”

“I’m wherever you are.”

“I want you to stop following me around. This is not amusing!”

In the checkout line she knew he was right behind her. She would have felt him breathing down her neck if he had breathed. On the way to her car, he was walking along beside her.

“I could find a policeman and tell him you’re bothering me,” she said.

“He’d think you were crazy because he wouldn’t see me.”

“Are you saying that only I can see you?”

“That’s the way it works.”

“Why don’t you go haunt somebody else and leave me alone?”

“Why would I want to haunt anybody but you?”

“Why do you want to be here when you can be in heaven? Heaven must be wonderful. You’ll have to tell me all about it sometime, but not now. I’m late for my appointment to get my hair done. I have a date tonight.”

“It’s with him, isn’t it?”

“Goodbye, Boswell. I really hope this is the last time we meet.”

As she drove away, she was relieved that he wasn’t in the car with her.

Over a candlelight dinner that evening, Thelma told Dr. Hudson that her late husband had been following her around.

Dr. Hudson frowned and took her hand across the table. “Poor puss!” he said. “That must be terribly upsetting for you.”

“No, it’s not terribly upsetting. Just a little disconcerting since I don’t know what his motives are.”

“He doesn’t have motives, dearest. He’s dead. It’s all in your head.”

“You’re absolutely right, of course,”

“I’ll give you a stronger medication and we’ll see if that helps.

Always so strong! So commanding! He always knew what to do in any given situation. He was exactly what she needed.

After dinner they sat on the French sofa before the fireplace and listened to the patter of the rain on the windows. Always a gentleman, though, Dr. Hudson didn’t try to take advantage of the situation.

He confided to her in a way he had never confided to anybody before in his life, he said. He told her all about his life, how he had been raised by his grandmother in a small town and how he struggled to get through medical school by posing nude for painters and picking up odd jobs wherever he could. When he segued from his youth to recent financial reverses, his voice trembled and his expressive brown eyes filled with tears. He took her hand in both of his and faced her solemnly as if to make a confession.

“I don’t know how I dare ask it of you,” he said.

“Ask me what?” she asked.

“I was wondering if you might lend me a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

“Of course, darling!” she said.

“I’ll pay you back with interest, of course.”

“Will a hundred and fifty thousand be enough?”

She met him at the bank the next day and arranged the transfer of the money to his account.

They began seeing each other every day. He was attentive and considerate in every way possible. He lit her cigarettes for her, held car doors, and helped her on and off with her coat, like a gentleman of the old school. He took her on little overnight trips to places she never dreamed of going. And, always, always, he provided her with the pills she needed and the occasional pick-me-up shot. She didn’t know what the shots were; she only knew they made her feel wonderful. She trusted him completely.

She believed he was on the point of proposing marriage to her. She was so besotted with him that she would have done anything he asked of her. One night he called her at midnight when she was sleeping.

“I’m so sorry to awaken you, dearest,” he said, “but I have a favor to ask of you.”

“Can’t it wait until morning?” she asked.

“I’m afraid it can’t. I need you to stop by my office and pick up a little package and deliver it to a patient downtown. You know where I keep the spare key hidden.”

“I’m afraid to drive downtown by myself at this hour.”

“Nonsense! You’ll be perfectly safe. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“I don’t know.”

“I have no one to ask but you, darling.”

“Well, all right, if you say so.”

She began delivering packages for him all over the city and then in places outside the city. Soon she was traveling to other states by airplane, always to pick up or deliver a small package. She didn’t mind these trips because she had always liked to travel and it gave her a chance to see new places and stay in beautiful hotels at somebody else’s expense. She felt as if she was living a dream life.

It wasn’t until she went to Mexico City that she thought to question what was in the packages. The first couple of runs went smoothly but on the third trip some men were waiting to pick her up when she landed back in the U.S. They humiliated her by treating her as if she was a common criminal. They went through her baggage and took the package she had gone all that way to pick up. When she professed her innocence, they just ignored her; one of them even made as if to slap her. They took away her clothes, jewelry and money, locked her in a cell and told her she’d better hire herself a good lawyer because she was in plenty of trouble.

“But I didn’t do anything!” she wailed. “He asked me to pick up and deliver packages for him, that’s all! I didn’t know what was in them!”

“You were his mule,” the sheriff’s deputy said.

“His what?”

“It’s a drug term. A mule is a person who carries drugs.”

“So all this about drugs?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I didn’t know! I swear! I would never become involved in drugs. If you will just call Dr. Tab Hudson and ask him to explain, I’m sure he’ll tell you I did nothing wrong.”

After several days, nobody had been able to find Dr. Hudson, although police claimed to be looking for him. He had once made an offhand remark to Thelma about friends in Coast Rica, so she figured that’s where he had gone.

One night after lights-out as she lay on her bunk in her jail cell, she felt somebody near her, just inches away. She thought at first it was Jesus but then she knew it was her deceased husband, Boswell Lucy. He was dressed as a cowboy, complete with spurs and ten-gallon hat.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “I’ve never felt so alone in my life.”

“Nobody can find him, can they?” he said.

“He’s gone and left me holding the bag. He’s a major-league drug dealer and I, his unwitting accomplice.”

“I tried to warn you but you wouldn’t listen.”

“I know, darling, and I wasn’t very nice to you.”

“So, now I’m ‘darling,’ am I?”

“If you hadn’t died, none of this would have happened!”

“I didn’t want to die. I wasn’t consulted beforehand.”

“I see now that Dr. Tab Hudson was just an illusion. You were always the steady one. You took care of me. My life has never been the same since you died.”

“Well, maybe your lawyers can get you off.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go to prison. It seems that just telling people I didn’t know what was going on isn’t going to work.”

“Do you want me to get you out of this?”

“More than anything. I don’t like being in jail.”

“You know what it means?”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t mind?”

“No, as long as I can be with you.”

He had her lie back and then he put his hand over her mouth and pinched her nostrils shut. She slept, slept, slept and felt nothing. After an indeterminate amount of time, she opened her eyes and looked at him and she knew that she was a shade just like him. She linked her arm through his and he led her out of the jail into the night.

In the morning the guard found her dead in her bunk. A doctor examined her, decided she had succumbed to a heart attack in her sleep, and signed the death certificate. Nobody ever claimed her body, so she ended up buried in a nondescript cemetery on the edge of town where the graves were decorated with gaudy artificial flowers. She didn’t mind, though, because it was so much better than being in prison.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Shall We Have a Cigarette on It?

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Shall We Have a Cigarette on It? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“This is a lovely old house,” Jerry said, sipping his martini. “How many rooms does it have?”

“I never bothered to count them,” Charlotte said. “There are too many.”

“It isn’t any of your business how many rooms my house has,” Charlotte’s mother said. “That’s an impertinent question.”

“Mother, I thought we agreed that you were going to try to be civil this evening,” Charlotte said.

“I made no such agreement.”

“I apologize, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said with his humble smile. “I had no business asking such a question. It’s just that I admire these old houses so much.”

“Yes, and I’ll bet you’d like to see it knocked down and a parking garage or an office building put in its place!”

“That would be a great pity, ma’am.”

“Or maybe you can see yourself living in it. A life of ease and idleness.”

“Not at all, ma’am.”

Charlotte could see that her mother was determined to make Jerry feel uncomfortable. He would handle it with his customary grace, though; of that she was certain.

“Charlotte tells me she met you on a cruise to South America.”

“Yes,” Jerry said.

“I don’t approve of cruises on which idle young women with too much money and too much time on their hands indulge themselves.”

“Not everybody on the cruise was rich, mother,” Charlotte said, “and they weren’t all young. I was talking to one middle-aged woman who told me that she and her husband saved for five years to be able to afford it.”

“What were you talking to her for?”

“Well, you know. Too much time on our hands.”

“I’ll bet there was lots of drinking and other activities on board that ship that decent people would rather not know about.”

“No doubt,” Jerry said.

“I suppose Charlotte told you all about herself.”

“As much as I needed to know.”

“Did she tell you that she had a nervous breakdown and, in so doing, was a patient in a sanatorium for almost a year?”

“Yes.”

“It was only at the urging or her psychiatrist that I allowed her to go on the cruise at all without a chaperone. He said it was vital for her mental well-being. I never heard such hogwash but I allowed her to go nonetheless.”

“It was very kind of you.”

“I don’t believe in psychiatrists. Most people with mental problems have nothing to do but gain control of themselves and their emotions. When I was young, we weren’t allowed the luxury of nervous breakdowns and special doctors to treat them. We all bucked up and did whatever had to be done!”

“I don’t think Jerry wants to hear all that, mother,” Charlotte said. “We’ve already said all that needs to be said on the subject.”

“I’ll say whatever I want to say and ask the questions I want to ask in my own home!”

“No less than you deserve, ma’am,” Jerry said.

“And, under the guidance of her ‘progressive’ psychiatrist, Charlotte changed completely. She became a daughter I no longer recognized.”

“Don’t you think it was change for the better, ma’am?”

“I do not! When a mother no longer recognizes her daughter, how can that be change for the better?”

“You decide for yourself, Jerry,” Charlotte said. “You saw the picture of what I looked like before.”

“She was fat!” Mrs. Vale said. “Comfortably fat! After her so-called illness, she lost thirty pounds. She changed her hair and eyebrows and began buying expensive clothes which, of course, she expected me to pay for!”

“You seem to forget that I have money of my own,” Charlotte said.

“Everything you have still belongs to me! Don’t you ever forget that! With one stroke of my pen, I could strip you of everything!”

“Yes, but you won’t, though, will you?”

As if on cue, Cordelia appeared in the doorway. She was as black as ebony and almost as wide as she was tall. “Dinna is suhved,” she said in a loud voice.

“Since there are just the three of us tonight,” Charlotte said, “we’re having dinner in the small dining room.”

“You have more than one dining room?” Jerry asked.

When they were seated at the table that seated fifteen (even though it was the small dining room), Cordelia began serving the dinner, first the soup and then the fish.

“The finest food I ever ate!” Jerry said.

“Don’t think there’s any reason for you to get used to it!” Mrs. Vale said.

“Mother, stop picking on my guest,” Charlotte said. “You needn’t attack him every time he opens his mouth.”

“It’s all right, Charlotte,” Jerry said. “She’s just exercising a mother’s prerogative.”

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s prerogative to be rude.”

“I’m not rude!” Mrs. Vale said. “I’m just direct!”

“And an admirable quality it is, too!” Jerry said.

Mrs. Vale gave a tiny smile. Charlotte believed that she was beginning to warm toward him, if ever so slightly.

“And what about you?” Mrs. Vale asked. “Have you had any nervous breakdowns?”

“Not yet,” Jerry said.

“But you will have at some time in the future?”

“He was making a joke, mother,” Charlotte said.

“Well, I want to know something about the men my daughter invites into our home for dinner.”

“What do you want to know about me, Mrs. Vale? You may ask me anything.”

“Are you going to marry Charlotte?”

“I’m already married, you see.”

“So you’re not just after her for her money?”

He laughed and wiped his mouth. “No,” he said.

“Tell me about this wife of yours. If you’re running around with other women, why doesn’t she give you a divorce?”

“Her religious scruples prevent it. And, anyway, we’ve been separated for a long time.”

“So, you’re married to the woman but not living with her? Not sharing the same bed?”

“Mother, really!” Charlotte said.

“I haven’t laid eyes on her in two years.”

“Have you and Charlotte been intimate?”

“Jerry, you don’t have to answer that question!” Charlotte said. “Mother, that’s not an appropriate line of questioning. I’m not fifteen years old!”

“You sometimes act as if you were!”

“I think what you want to know is if Jerry and I are serious about each other and how we plan to proceed from here. Isn’t that it?”

“All right, then, you tell me!”

“Jerry and I are very much in love. We won’t be able to marry for some time, but that’s all right with me. We plan on going abroad and living together.”

“Not on my money you won’t!”

“Really, mother, are you going to start in on money again?”

“I won’t have my daughter living in sin with a man she’s not married to!”

“I am of age to do whatever I wish.”

“Are you of age for me to cut you off without a penny?”

“No need to worry, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said. “I have plenty of money for the two of us to live comfortably.”

“I won’t allow my daughter to blacken her name and the memory of her father by cavorting with a married man.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs. Vale,” Jerry said, “that seems a hopelessly old-fashioned view to take.”

“Who are you to judge me? You don’t know Charlotte the way I do. You don’t know the family history that’s behind her.”

“Maybe it’s time to forget all that and begin anew.”

“Never! Not as long as I’m still living. I’ll call my lawyer tomorrow morning and have my will changed!”

“You go right ahead, mother,” Charlotte said. “I’ve had enough of your bullyragging and intimidation.”

“So, are you saying you don’t care about my twenty million dollars?”

“You can do whatever you want with it. We can meet with your lawyer and make a few suggestions.”

“So, it doesn’t frighten you anymore when I threaten to disinherit you?”

“Not in the least.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m in love.”

“Love! What could you possibly know about love?”

“Mother, if you don’t stop saying such mean things, I’m going to stick a knife through your heart.”

“You haven’t got the guts!”

“Try me!”

Cordelia brought in three cups of coffee, along with dessert, and withdrew again to the kitchen.

“No dessert for me,” Charlotte said. “I’m watching my figure.”

“What happened to the little girl who used to eat a whole pie at one sitting?” Mrs. Vale asked.

“She’s all grown up, mother. She’s somebody else now.”

“I’ll eat yours if you don’t want it,” Jerry said. “I love banana cream pie.”

“Watch out you don’t get fat,” Charlotte said.

“I’ve got a ways to go,” he said.

Mrs. Vale drank her coffee and called Cordelia in from the kitchen to give her another cup. When she was halfway through the second cup, her eyes closed, she gave a little shudder and fell forward directly onto the banana cream pie. Charlotte and Jerry sat quite still, Charlotte sipping her coffee and Jerry eating the pie.

After a few minutes, Cordelia opened the door to the kitchen a few inches and peeked around the edge of it. “Can I come in?” she asked.

“Yes, please do, Cordelia,” Charlotte said.

“Did it work?”

“I don’t believe she’s breathing,” Charlotte said.

“One of us should check to make sure,” Jerry said.

Cordelia put the tips of her fingers on Mrs. Vale’s neck. “I don’t feel no pulse,” she said.

When they had Mrs. Vale pulled back from the table, Cordelia put her ear to the old woman’s chest. “No heartbeat, neither,” she said. “You’d better listen for yourself, Miss Charlotte.”

Charlotte took off her earring and leaned over until her ear was touching the sunken chest. “She’s dead,” she said.

“Ah!” Jerry said. “Success!”

“Well, ain’t that something!” Cordelia said. “It sure enough worked!”

“And you won’t ever tell anybody about this, will you, Cordelia?” Charlotte asked.

“On my word of honor! I never did like her anyway. She sure was mean to me! I won’t shed no tears for her!”

“I’ll give you enough money so you can go home to your people and you’ll never have to work hard again.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’m gonna buy me a dozen pairs of silk stockings and some gardenia perfume. It sure does smell high!”

“You’ll be able to buy anything you want now.”

“And who knows? I might even find me another man to marry.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Jerry said.

Charlotte and Jerry went into the library, Charlotte’s favorite room in the house. She went to the French doors that opened onto the terrace and opened them. The room was instantly filled with night smells from the garden.

“Just think,” Jerry said. “Free of her at last!”

“Yes, free of all encumbrances,” Charlotte said.

“I was thinking we might live here, for a while at least.”

“I don’t think so,” Charlotte said. “I want to get away. Go abroad.”

“Yes, darling. Whatever you want.”

“Nobody ever called me ‘darling’ before.”

“The poison is absolutely untraceable. Nobody will ever suspect a thing. She was just an old woman who died from a sudden heart attack.”

“Brilliantly planned and executed!”

“And twenty million dollars?”

“It’s all too wonderful!”

“Shall we have a cigarette on it?”

He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them together, and handed one to Charlotte. Her eyes glistened with tears as she took it from him.

Standing there, side by side, framed in the doors to the garden, they looked up at the sky. A half-moon was just visible over the treetops, surrounded by a million stars.

“And will you be happy?” Jerry asked.

“Oh, Jerry,” she said. “Let’s not ask for the moon! We have the stars!”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

 

Dunkirk ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Dunkirk ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

In 1940, in the early days of World War II (before America entered the war), German forces had Allied soldiers (British, French, Canadian, Belgium) pushed to the sea and surrounded in a place called Dunkirk in northern France. Some 338,000 Allied soldiers were expecting destroyers to come and pick them up, but no destroyers were available. In what is known as the “Dunkirk Evacuation,” hundreds of small civilian boats (yachts, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) crossed the channel to France and carried as many soldiers to safety in England as they could. It was a turning point in the war that could very easily have spelled disaster for the British war effort.

The new movie Dunkirk is a stirring recreation of the evacuation at Dunkirk, told from three points of view: from the land (the “mole”), the sea, and the air. We shift back and forth from one to the other. We follow a young British soldier, a young French soldier, a combat pilot (Tom Hardy), the men on the beach waiting to be picked up, and a small yacht piloted by an older British man (Mark Rylance) with two teenage boys. There’s lots of intense action and many harrowing moments, as when the pilot runs out of gas (he glides gracefully to the ground in enemy territory); when a civilian teenage boy on the yacht is hit by a Nazi bullet; and when a young flyer crash lands in the sea and can’t get his hatch open to get out as his plane sinks. All of it has a kind of “you-are-there” feel to it, but the movie has an unconventional structure and there isn’t much in the way of exposition, especially at the beginning, so it’s going to be difficult for people to understand what is going on who don’t know the circumstances beforehand.

World War II provides a seemingly endless supply of material for filmmakers. Dunkirk is a rarity: a serious summer movie not aimed at the youth market that is entertaining and informative. If you’re looking for a summer movie that doesn’t have comic book heroes, intelligent talking apes, space adventure, or raunchy sexual situations, Dunkirk might be the movie for you.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp