The Postman Always Rings Twice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
James M. Cain was an American author who lived from 1892 to 1977. His 1934 crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is an ironic and steamy (for its time) story of adultery and murder set in a California roadside restaurant. Even though it’s a “genre” novel, it’s ranked number 98 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest books in English of the twentieth century.
Cora Smith is a self-described “cheap trollop from Des Moines.” She goes to California seeking movie stardom, but when the movies don’t quite work out for her, she marries an older man, an unattractive Greek named Nick Papadakis, who she describes as “smelly and greasy.” Even though Nick doesn’t make Cora’s pulse race, he can provide her with some security, a job and a home. He owns his own business, a thriving roadside diner called Twin Oaks. Cora can work out her life slaving away there, cooking and slinging hash.
Along comes a drifter by the name of Frank Chambers. He is narrating the story in his first-person voice. Frank sees right away that Cora is unhappy; the two of them begin a clandestine love affair. Cora tells Nick she is desperate; she wants out of her marriage with Nick, but if she leaves, where will she go? They decide they will kill Nick and make it look like an accident. With Nick dead, the two of them will be free to sell Twin Oaks and take the money and go away together somewhere.
Frank and Cora plot to kill Nick in the bathtub. Frank will hit him in the head while he’s taking a bath; he’ll go under and drown; it will look like an accident, except that when the time comes it doesn’t go off as planned and Nick is injured. Frank and Cora are badly shaken, spooked at how close they came to committing the crime of murder and being found out. They are relieved that Nick will live and happy that he has to spend a week convalescing in the hospital, giving the two of them the chance to sleep together in the same bed while he’s away.
When Nick returns to Twin Oaks from the hospital, he realizes he has had a brush with death and is once again ready to embrace life to the fullest. He wants Cora to have to baby. In the funniest line in the book, Cora says: “I can’t have no greasy Greek child, Frank.” Murder is back on the table.
The second attempt to kill Nick is successful. This time, it’s an elaborately staged auto accident on a mountain road. Nick dies, but Frank is (unexpectedly) severely injured. When a canny prosecutor learns the facts of the case, he sees through Frank and Cora’s story that it was all an accident and knows that they killed the Greek. He makes Frank and Cora turn on each other.
There are a couple more ingenious plot twists but, suffice it to say, things do not go well for Frank and Cora. There is no happy ending in the noir world they inhabit.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is a slice of Americana, a small literary gem from the 1930s. (Never mind that it was naughty enough to be banned in Boston.) The book translated well to the screen in a movie adaption from 1946, with Lana Turner and John Garfield thoroughly believable as murderous lovers.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp
Not a Cough in a Carload ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Berna Taffin worked at Peek-a-Boo Laundry. All day long she put dirty sheets, towels and diapers into one machine to wash, and took them out again and into another machine to dry. Endless stretching, lifting and bending to make the world clean for democracy. The white overalls she wore, like a man’s, were stained and dirty at the end of her nine-hour shift.
She moved through her daily duties like an automaton, without thought and without feeling. To her co-workers, she was sexless and devoid of personality. If spoken to, she answered curtly and briefly. Nobody tried to make her their friend. People avoided being near her.
Did she have a husband? Children? She had to have a family somewhere. People don’t spring from rocks. Possibly she came from outer space. The people at the laundry wondered about her, as people will, and, when the answers were not forthcoming, they forgot about her.
The truth was Berna Taffin did have a home and a family. Her family consisted of an elderly father and mother, Roman and Arletta. They were superannuated and confined to their reclining easy chairs in the long, darkened living room of their sixteen-room house in the oldest part of the city that nobody cared about any more. Children in the neighborhood said the house was haunted. They hooted and moaned and ran past in the dark.
At the end of her shift, Berna put on her long man’s coat and man’s hat and left Peak-a-Boo for the day without a word to anybody. She walked down the street and caught the bus. In fifteen minutes she got off the bus and walked the rest of the way home, often stopping in at the neighborhood market to buy cigarettes and whatever else was needed.
She bought four cartons of cigarettes a couple times a week. The manager of the store was always happy to see her and greeted her with a smile. None of his other customers bought so many cigarettes. If they did, he’d be the Cigarette King.
Besides the cigarettes, she bought four cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup, a bar of Palmolive soap, a four-pack of toilet paper, four cans of sardines, six cans of Vienna sausages, four cans of peaches in heavy syrup, and a large box of vanilla wafers. At the cash register, she stood down while the manager tallied her purchases. He would have made small talk if she had seemed less forbidding.
He put all her purchases into a heavy-duty bag and folded down the top to make it easier for her to carry. As she turned to go, he went around in front of her quickly and opened the door.
“It’s pretty heavy!” he said. “Are you sure you don’t need no help?”
She ignored him and breezed past out the door into the chilly darkness.
She let herself in at the back door with her key. Right away she heard the yammer of the TV and smelled the ever-present cigarette smoke. She took the four cartons of cigarettes out of the bag and took them into the cloud of smoke that was the living room. She put two cartons on the chair-side table by Roman’s chair and the other two cartons on Arletta’s table. They didn’t look away from the TV, didn’t acknowledge Berna’s presence unless she got between their eyes and the TV screen. She knew they knew she was there. Nothing made them as happy as their cigarettes. Cigarettes were their gold.
They each smoked a carton a day, sometimes more. Each time they opened a new pack, they threw the empty pack on the floor. They had lighters for lighting up, but most of the time they chain-smoked, meaning they lit a new cigarette from the old one they were about to finish. When they had a butt to dispose of, they threw it into a large glass bowl for that purpose kept within easy reach. The glass bowl smoked continuously like an inactive volcano.
The TV played around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It was never silent. Whether it was a western, a comedy, a drama, singing and dancing, news, sports, movies, puppet shows for the under-five set, or just talking for the sake of talking, it was all the same. Every show, commercial break, or burst of artificial laughter was the cue to take another one out of the pack and light up.
They watched twenty hours a day. What little sleeping they did, they did in their chairs a few feet in front of the never-silent TV. Walking was difficult for them. They could make it to the toilet and back two or three times a day, but these excursions into another part of the house usually elicited cries of pain and distress.
Berna returned to the kitchen and took her purchases out of the bag. She opened one of the cans of Vienna sausages and emptied it onto a plate. She did the same with a can of the sardines, emptying it onto another plate. She carried the plates into the living room and presented the plate of sardines to Roman and the plate with the Vienna sausages to Arletta. Neither of them required a fork; they always ate with their fingers. After Berna went back into the kitchen, she could hear them smacking as they ate and sucking on their fingers.
One Friday at Peek-a-Boo when Berna was near the end of her shift and getting ready to go home, the boss came out and broke the news to the workers. Peek-a-Boo was going out of business. The land Peek-a-Boo sat on, and indeed the entire block, had been sold to make way for an apartment building.
Berna had worked at Peek-a-Boo for twenty-seven years. Some of the other people had been there longer than that. They wailed and worried about what they would do. Berna left quietly without a word to anyone and caught her bus home.
The next week Berna received her final paycheck from Peek-a-Boo in the mail. She took it to the bank to cash it, and withdrew, in cash, all the money she had in her account, a little in excess of two-hundred thousand dollars. She had worked all those years and never spent as much as she earned.
The bank teller, after trying to talk Berna out of withdrawing all her money, put the money into a canvas bag and handed the bag over the counter, with a warning that carrying that much money on her person, on the street, might be dangerous.
Berna carried the canvas bag under her coat and when she got home she took it upstairs to her bedroom and threw it on the floor of her closet.
She planned on putting Roman and Arletta into an old-folks’ home and taking her money and going away somewhere by herself, maybe to Peru or Iceland.
But when she asked herself the hard questions, she didn’t have any satisfactory answers. What would she do when she got to Peru or Iceland? Look for a job in a laundry? What if there were no jobs in laundries? What then? And how would she manage, alone in a foreign country, if she didn’t know the language? What language did they speak in Peru or Iceland, anyway?
And when it came to Roman and Arletta, wouldn’t she miss them quite a lot if she never saw them again, even though she got awfully sick of them sometimes?
She would defer the questions to a later date. She didn’t have to be in any hurry. She had the money to be independent. She could do whatever she wanted to do, at the time of her own choosing.
But the truth was she didn’t go anywhere or do anything. She installed herself on the sofa in the long, low-ceilinged living room along with Roman and Arletta. She began sleeping on the sofa instead of going upstairs to her bed. The sound of the TV became so incessant, so familiar to her, that she couldn’t do without it. It became as necessary to her as her own heartbeat.
And she didn’t even have to leave the house anymore if she didn’t want to. When the cartons of cigarettes needed to be replenished, or when there was no more toilet paper or not enough Vienna sausages, sardines, Campbell’s vegetable soup or vanilla wafers, she put in a call to the neighborhood market. They delivered whatever was wanted and sent a bill at the first of the month.
Months went by and then years. Berna put Peek-a-Boo out of her mind and stopped thinking, when she woke up in the morning, that it was time to go to work. Those days were over. She had been released from her jail.
Roman was the first to succumb to lung disease. Berna noticed at the end of an episode of I Love Lucy that no smoke was coming from his quarter; he hadn’t lit up for at least a couple of hours. When she got up from the couch and looked closely at his face, she knew he was dead.
She covered him over with a sheet of heavy plastic and sprinkled him with fragrant bath salts. They would go on the same as always. Arletta was unaware that he was dead and Berna thought it best that way.
After three days, Berna realized the cigarette smoke in the room was one-half what it had been. She began smoking herself, for the first time in her life. In a short time she was chain smoking up to a carton or more a day. She began buying the large quantities of cigarettes for herself that used to be for Roman.
She and Arletta kept the room filled with smoke, exactly as it had been when Roman was alive. The TV played on. Bonanza was followed by Hazel; Petticoat Junction by Please Don’t Eat the Daisies; The Beverly Hillbillies by The Naked City; Lassie by Laramie; The Munsters by… On and on without end.
During an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Arletta made a choking sound in her throat and, not surprisingly, she too was dead from lung disease. Berna covered her over with a large sheet of plastic and sprinkled her with fragrant bath salts, after which she went into the kitchen and emptied a can of Vienna sausages onto a plate and carried the plate back into the living room and ate the little sausages with her fingers, making smacking sounds and licking her fingers. Between bites, she lit a cigarette and blew as much smoke out into the room as she could manage in one breath. And the TV played on. The Red Skelton Show was just beginning. If ever she needed a good laugh.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp
Brideshead Revisited ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was one of the most celebrated English novelists of the twentieth century. His (yes, he was a man) 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, is number 80 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest books in English of the twentieth century.
The novel is narrated in the first-person voice of the fictional Captain Charles Ryder. (The subtitle is The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.) The action extends over a period of about twenty years, from the early 1920s to the early 1940s. As a college student at Oxford in the 1920s, Charles meets fellow student Lord Sebastian Flyte. The two of them become inseparable friends and Charles’s life is changed forever. (It’s always convenient to have a wealthy friend when you yourself come from a family of modest means.)
Charles eventually goes to Sebastian’s home with him, a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle, and meets his aristocratic family: two sisters, Julia and Cordelia, and an odd older brother named Brideshead, whom they call “Bridey” for short. Charles sees at once that Sebastian and his sister Julia are very much alike, to the point that she almost seems a “female Sebastian.” (This sets up an interesting dynamic with the three of them, especially later in the book when Charles believes he is in love with Julia.)
Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain, lives at Brideshead Castle, but his father, Lord Marchmain, lives elsewhere with a mistress named Cara. Everybody knows that Lord Marchmain despises his wife, but there will be no divorce because they are Catholic. (The question of religion, being a devout Catholic versus being a non-believer, becomes a prominent theme throughout the novel.)
Sebastian’s family, in effect, becomes Charles’s family. Sebastian becomes more and more estranged from his family and descends into alcoholism, while his family members, especially his two sisters and his mother, come to rely on Charles and confide in him. They all do everything they can to curb Sebastian’s drinking, but he is a dedicated alcoholic and nothing they can do will help. He goes to Morocco or some such exotic locale and lives the life of a bum with a male German friend who has a “wound that won’t heal.”
Charles, meanwhile, drifts away from the Flyte family. He marries a woman he doesn’t much like—she cheats on him, he cheats on her—they have two children, and he becomes an architectural painter. He spends several years in South America, painting and documenting the architectural splendors there, and when he comes back, it’s ten years later and he is he is now twenty-nine years old. He has a reunion with the Flyte family and, because he has an unhappy marriage, believes he wants to marry Julia, Sebastian’s sister, whereas before he didn’t like her very much. The insurmountable obstacle to their happiness is religion: Julia is a devout Catholic and Charles a non-believer. They decide they won’t marry after all.
So, ten years farther along, Charles is thirty-nine years old, alone (no wife), lonely, disillusioned and unhappy. It’s the early 1940s, and World War II is raging. As a captain in the British army, he once again finds himself back at Brideshead Castle. The army has requisitioned it as a base of operations for fighting the Germans. When he sees Brideshead Castle again, in altogether different circumstances from when he was a younger man, the happy and bitter memories of the past come flooding back to him.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp
Don’t Wait Up ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
On a beautiful Friday evening in October, nobody under the age of twenty wanted to stay at home and listen to Jack Benny on the radio. Ruby Leftridge arranged to meet her friend Marcella Rogers on the corner by the cemetery. They were going to walk downtown to see the horror double feature at the Odeon Theatre.
“I don’t want you to go!” Ruby’s mother said. “There’s a crazed killer on the loose killing people! He strangles women!”
“Nobody’s going to strangle me, mother!” Ruby said. “You can’t let your life be ruled by fear. I’ll be fine. I won’t be alone. I’ll be with Marcella the whole time.”
“And what could she do for you?”
“She can scream really loud!”
“You always have to make a joke out of everything, don’t you?”
“Not always, but usually.”
“I don’t want two uniformed officers to wake me up late tonight with the sad news that my daughter has been murdered!”
“You won’t! I’ll be home about eleven. Don’t wait up!”
Ruby had known Marcella Rogers since sixth grade. She was a tall girl who sometimes seemed all knees and elbows. She saw herself as a great beauty. She had a receding chin and an unflattering mane of hair that she barely kept clean. She was twenty years old and worked as a typist in a real estate office full of men. She was always imagining the men in her office were in love with her and would leave their wives if only she gave them a little encouragement.
“Did you hear about the killer on the loose?” Marcella asked.
“Yes,” Ruby said.
“Isn’t it thrilling?”
“It scares all the old ladies, including my mother.”
“I think it’s tremendously exciting to have a maniac on the loose,” Marcella said.
“I hope they catch him soon,” Ruby said.
“Why? Are you afraid?”
“No. I don’t think it’s my destiny to die at the hands of a strangler.”
“Well, you never know. I wonder if he’s good-looking!”
“The strangler, silly!
“As long as he’s killing people, I don’t think it matters whether he’s good-looking or not. He can be an absolute perfect specimen of manhood and they’ll still fry his carcass in the electric chair. He’ll make a handsome corpse, as if anybody will be paying attention to the way he looks.”
“Oh, Ruby! You have no romance in your soul!”
“Not when it comes to cold, sadistic killers, I don’t.”
“You don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s just misunderstood.”
“We’re all misunderstood but we don’t go around murdering people.”
“Say, I want to tell you about this new man in our office,” Marcella said. “His name is Jake something or other. I haven’t spoken one word to him yet, but I feel a sort of connection with him. I’ll be sitting at my desk working and I’ll look up and he’ll be looking at me from across the room. He can’t seem to take his eyes off me.”
“He’s probably the strangler and he’s planning on making you his next victim,” Ruby said.
“He is so good-looking and he has the most beautiful eyes! I’m hoping he’ll ask me out on a date.”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Oh, Ruby! I could never do anything so forward!”
“Send him a love note the way we used to do in junior high school.”
“Now you’re being silly.”
In two more blocks they came to the Odeon, its marquee of a thousand lights that welcomed all comers to step in out of the darkness and escape in a cinematographic dream.
“I wonder if I’ll see anybody here tonight I know,” Marcella said, as they took their place in line.
“You’d better not go off with one of your cute boys and leave me to walk home by myself at eleven o’clock. If you do that, our friendship is over!”
“Oh, honey, I would never do that!
After they bought their tickets, they went inside and stood in line at the refreshment stand to buy popcorn and sodas.
“It’s really crowded tonight!” Marcella said. “Hey, you! I want a large popcorn with extra butter and a large Coke!”
Most of the good seats were taken, so they sat close to the screen to get away from the rowdy high-schoolers who whistled and stamped their feet and threw popcorn.
The lights went down and the audience grew quiet. For the next three hours they would be drawn into the fabulous black-and-white fantasy world so far removed from real life. The first feature cast its spell and when it finished the second feature began after a five-minute interval.
When the show was over and Ruby and Marcella were filing out with the crowd, Marcella said, “There wasn’t a single person here I knew tonight.”
“You knew me,” Ruby said.
“Of course, dear,” Marcella said. “I wasn’t talking about you.”
“Well, after that horror extravaganza, are you ready to go home?”
“Let’s walk slow. The wind is blowing the leaves so beautifully.”
Three blocks past the movie theatre, the streetlights were farther apart; the streets were dark and deserted. They met a dark figure walking toward them, but he walked past without seeming to notice them.
“That might have been the strangler,” Marcella said.
“If it was, he wasn’t interested in us,” Ruby said.
“Don’t horror movies make you a little afraid to go upstairs by yourself with no lights on?” Marcella asked.
“Horror movies are just make-believe.”
“Well, I guess it’s kind of fun to be scared,” Marcella said, “as long as you know it’s not going to hurt you. In ninth grade, we used go into the cemetery at midnight without a flashlight and try not to scream. The first person to scream had to buy the next pack of ciggies.”
“My mother would never let me go out at midnight,” Ruby said.
“Mine, either, but I did anyway. I climbed out the window after she went to bed.”
“If my mother thought I was smoking, she would have killed me.”
“Mine too. Ever hear of Sen-Sen?”
“Yeah, it tastes worse than the cigarettes.”
“Once or twice. I’d never take it up as a regular habit.”
“Well, I think it’s fun to smoke,” Marcella said. “It makes you feel sophisticated. Do you have any cigarettes on you?”
“No, do you?”
“No, I smoked my last one at the office this afternoon.”
“When did you take up smoking?”
“Oh, ages ago! I smoked all the way back in high school.”
“I never knew it.”
“Say, did you notice that boy taking the tickets when we went in tonight? He was awfully good-looking. I’ve seen him before. When I handed him my ticket, his hand touched mine and I felt an electric current pass between us.”
“He might be the strangler.”
“Oh, honey! You can’t believe that every man you see is the strangler!”
“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to think to protect ourselves?”
“The strangler is probably far away from here by now, in another state. Maybe ‘he’ is a ‘she’.”
“Did you ever hear of a woman strangling other women?”
“No, but I’ll bet it’s happened before.”
“That would really surprise people!”
“Yeah, what fun!”
They came to the corner by the cemetery.
“Well, I guess it’s time to go home,” Marcella said. “I hope my mother has gone to bed so I don’t have to listen to any more of her nagging.”
“It’s been fun,” Ruby said. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
“Surest thing you know!”
“Don’t let the strangler get you!”
“Not a chance!”
They parted there, Ruby going in one direction and Marcella in another.
In the three blocks she had to walk to get home, Ruby saw no one. A dog barked at her and a car passed, blinding her with its headlights, but all was quiet except for the wind in the trees.
Her mother had left a light on for her downstairs and gone to bed. She went into the kitchen and made sure the back door was locked and then she went upstairs and went to bed.
She went to sleep right away and slept soundly. She was in a deep sleep when her mother came into her bedroom and woke her up after three o’clock.
“Marcella’s mother is on the phone,” she said. “She wants to talk to you.”
The voice sounded remote and far away when it said, “Marcella didn’t come home last night.”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Eunice Rogers, Marcella’s mother. I thought maybe she decided to spend the night at your house.”
“No, she’s not here. I left her on the corner about eleven o’clock and came home. That was the last I saw of her.”
“Did she say where she was going after you left her?”
“She didn’t say, but I’m sure she meant to go home.”
“Have you called the police?”
“No, I wanted to check with you first.”
“I’m sure she’s all right.”
“I’m not sure. This is so unlike her.”
“If I can do anything to help, let me know.”
“Thank you, dear, and if you hear from Marcella, will you call me?”
“Of course I will!”
Ruby didn’t sleep any more that night. She was sure something terrible had happened. If Marcella had been going someplace else after they parted, she would have mentioned it.
Two grim-faced police officers came in the morning and questioned Ruby in her bathrobe. She told them everything, about the two of them walking to the movies and then walking home, but she knew she wasn’t able to add anything they didn’t already know.
Marcella’s body was found in a ditch alongside the highway a mile or so out of town late the next day. She had been strangled with a two-foot length of rope. Police were investigating but had few leads.
After Marcella, everybody was waiting for the next strangulation. If it could happen to a girl like her, who would be next? People were afraid to go out at night and talked of little else. There were neighborhood watches and vigilantes roaming the streets with guns.
The strangler never struck again and was never apprehended. People speculated about what happened to him. Did he go away to continue his killing in some other location? Did he decide he had killed enough and didn’t need to do it anymore? Was he alive or was he dead? Was he somebody who people saw everyday shopping and paying his bills and going about his business in town? The possibilities were almost limitless.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp