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The Sampling Officials ~ A Painting by Rembrandt van Rijn

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The Sampling Officials (1662) by Rembrandt van Rijn

The Sampling Officials (also called The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild) is a 1662 oil painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, a Dutch master who lived from 1603 to 1669. The men in the painting are drapers who were elected to assess the quality of cloth that weavers offered for sale to members of their guild.

Alien: Covenant ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Alien: Covenant ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The year is 2104. A disparate group of characters are traveling on a gigantic spacecraft (called the Covenant) to a new, distant planet to start a colony. (Earth, you see, is dying.) It’s a long journey and a hazardous one because there’s no telling what these travelers might encounter in the vast, uncharted reaches of space. When they are still a long way from where they’re going, they receive a mysterious, seemingly human, transmission fairly close to where they are. They veer off-course for a few weeks to investigate the source of the signal and we, the audience, know it’s a mistake because we’ve seen this plot device before.

Some but not all of the travelers get on a smaller spacecraft and land on the alien planet where the mysterious signal originates, not knowing what they’ll find but hoping it’s something good, like an appealing, habitable place where they can start their colony and not have to go on to their original destination. Among the group is a “simulated human” (they never use the word “robot”) named Walter, the only non-human on the mission.

They find the alien planet earth-like but with no birds or animals. Soon two of their number become mysteriously ill and we witness, once again, the hideous creature come bursting out of their bodies. The thing has been incubating inside them, don’t you know, and when it comes out, it’s fully formed, though miniature-sized, and ready for killing humans. In this instance, it’s rather lizard-like, moves with lightning speed, has an elongated head, multiple limbs, a slobbering mouth, and a tail. If you’ve ever seen any of the Alien movies going back to 1979, you are familiar with this creature and hope you never meet one.

Once on this alien planet, the travelers discover the wreckage of an enormous spacecraft called the Prometheus. If you saw the movie Prometheus in 2012, you may remember what happened at the end of it. Well, this movie picks up the thread from that movie and continues the story in a way, or, as the saying goes, after a fashion. You may remember from Prometheus a “simulated human” named David. Well, it turns out that Walter, the simulated human from the current movie, is identical to David, meaning, I suppose, that they originated from the same source or the same creator. The only difference is that David can “create” and think on his own, while Walter is only compliant with the humans he works with. (You got that?) It seems that David, in the ten years since the Prometheus crashed, has become an amateur zoologist and, more to the point, he doesn’t think much of humans.

Alien: Covenant is pretty standard stuff. Nothing new here. After the initial banal “setup” that takes a half-hour or so and shows us lots of space hardware and contains lots of difficult-to-understand dialogue (and, really, who cares what they’re saying?), we find ourselves in another who-will-die-next situation. And, of course, there’s the usual claptrap about the “origins” or human life. (Will that question ever be answered to our satisfaction?) The most interesting characters by far are the two simulated human “men,” Walter and David (both played by Michael Fassbender), who show us the conflicting sides of good and evil. And, as you might expect, the story is left at the end for yet another installment to come in the ongoing saga.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Funeral Home

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Funeral Home ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Trilby showed them the embalming room and they were duly impressed by the stainless steel table and cabinets full of bottles.

“Don’t touch anything,” Trilby said, “or I’m going to have to kill you.”

“It must be so interesting to live in a funeral home,” Pinky said.

“Yeah, it’s a million laughs.”

“I want to see the caskets,” Jo said. “I’ll pick out the one I want to be buried in.”

“Are you planning on dying soon?” Pinky asked.

“Well, you never know.”

Trilby was hosting a Saturday night sleepover for her two best pals, Jo and Pinky. Her parents were away for the weekend and they had the whole place to themselves. As usual, she had to include her eleven-year-old brother Warren in the tour, in supper, and in everything else they did. Otherwise, he’d give a full report to mother and daddy and he would make it all sound so much worse than it had been.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight after seeing the embalming room,” Jo said.

“Don’t be silly,” Trilby said. “It’s not scary unless they have a body on the table.”

“Why don’t they have one now?”

“Gee, I wasn’t able to arrange it. Maybe next time.”

“Would they let us watch them embalm a body if they had one?” Pinky asked.

“Of course not,” Trilby said. “What do you think this is? A fun house?”

“I watched once,” Warren said. “There was blood everywhere!”

“You did not, you big fat liar!” Trilby said. “Daddy would never allow you near a body.”

“He didn’t know I was watching. I was watching through a peephole.”

“What peephole? There isn’t any peephole.”

“I was dreaming that I was watching him embalm a body through a peephole.”

“That’s not quite the same thing, is it?”

“I’m going to be an embalmer when I grow up, just like daddy,” Warren said. “Then I can see as many dead bodies as I want.”

“You won’t want to see them, then,” Trilby said.

Warren ran on ahead and hid in the dark showroom where the caskets were kept. When Trilby, Jo and Pinky came into the room, he hid behind a casket and jumped out at them before the lights were on.

Jo and Pinky screamed and Pinky wet her pants. Warren laughed and Trilby made him apologize and promise to stop bothering them.

“Why don’t you go on to bed, Warren? We don’t need you here. You’re spoiling the party.”

“I thought we were going to watch a movie.”

“Jo, Pinky, and I are going to watch a movie. You’re going to bed.”

“I’m going to tell mother. She told you to include me in the pajama party.”

“Why do you want to hang with girls?” Jo asked. “Most boys don’t like to do that.”

“He’s really a girl himself,” Trilby said, “only he doesn’t know it yet.

“Shut up!” Warren said. “I am not a girl!”

“All right, you’re not a girl. How about you go on upstairs and be quiet for the rest of the evening?”

“Shut up! I can be here if I want!”

Pinky came back from changing her underpants and they began touring the casket showroom.

“Oh, there are so many of them,” Jo said, “and they’re all so pretty!”

She found a copper-colored one with salmon lining that she especially liked. She started to get in and lie down.

“Take off your shoes first!” Trilby said. “If you get any dirt in there, daddy will be sure to notice it and I’ll get the blame.”

Jo lay back in the casket and giggled. “Close the lid,” she said. “I want to see what it feels like to be dead.”

Pinky closed the lid and Jo squealed. “It’s so cozy and snug in here,” Jo said. “Quite comfortable.”

“I want to try it,” Pinky said.

She found a silvery, steel casket that she liked, kicked off her shoes and got in. “Close the lid!” she said. “This is really nice.”

“I want to do it, too!” Warren said.

“No!” Trilby said. “You haven’t had a bath in a while.”

“I’ll tell mother that you let the others do it and you wouldn’t let me,” he said.

He found a white casket with rose trim a couple of rows over and got in and lay down. He reached up and pulled the lid closed himself.

“You’d feel funny if the lid got stuck,” Trilby said.

After they had all three felt what it was like to be dead and Trilby was trying to corral them back upstairs before something bad happened, Jo noticed the museum piece made of metal against the wall.

“It’s not like the others,” she said.

“It’s over a hundred years old,” Trilby said. “It’s been used before. My dad shows it to all his friends.”

“Do you mean there was somebody once buried in it?” Jo asked, obviously fascinated.

“I guess that’s what they mean when they say it was used before,” Trilby said.

Jo approached the box and pushed up the partly closed lid. “Oh, look!” she said. “Red velvet lining! Did you ever see anything so elegant in all your life?”

She got in and lay down and Pinky closed the lid.

“I don’t think I’d do that if I were you,” Trilby said. “There’s something funny about that box.”

“What’s funny about it?” Pinky asked.

“It has a trick lock or something.”

After a minute, Jo said from inside the box, “All right, you can open the lid now.”

Pinky went to raise the lid but it wouldn’t budge. “It’s stuck,” she said.

Trilby helped her and then Warren helped too. The three of them were pushing up on the lid with all their might, but it wouldn’t move.

“That’s what happens when you do shit you’re not supposed to do,” Trilby said.

“Let me out!” Jo called. “I can’t breathe!”

“She’s panicking!” Pinky said.

“Hold on!” Trilby said in a loud voice. “We’ll have you out in a minute!”

“What are we going to do?” Pinky said. “It won’t open.”

“She’ll die in there,” Warren said.

“Oh, thank you for that!” Trilby said. “You’re such a big help!”

Trilby sent Warren to the garage for the crowbar and while he was gone she and Pinky kept pushing up on the lid.

“Get me out!” Jo said.

They heard her kicking and banging with her fists on the underside of the lid and after a while they heard her crying.

“Just lie still and try to remain calm,” Trilby said. “You’ll use up what little oxygen is in there.”

Warren returned with the crowbar and Trilby looked for a seam where she might insert the edge of it to pry the lid open, but there were no seams.

“Oh, my!” Pinky said. “I think we’d better call the police.”

“No!” Trilby said. “If we do that, my parents will have to know!”

They kept trying to think of a way to get the box open and, after a half hour or so, they no longer heard Jo moving around and whimpering.

“I think she’s dead,” Warren said.

“She is not dead!” Trilby said. “We’ll get her out. We just need to figure out how this thing opens!”

“What is your mother going to say?” Pinky asked.

“She is going to have an absolute fit,” Trilby said. “I’m afraid there won’t be any more sleepovers.”

Not knowing what else to do, Trilby began looking on the sides of the box for a release or a button to push or anything that might open the lid. She covered every inch with her hands and found nothing.

Unnoticed by Trilby and Pinky, Warren got down on the floor underneath the box and there he found a latch which, when released, cause the lid to spring open.

Jo wasn’t dead. Jo was not in the box.

“She’s gone!” Pinky said, not believing her eyes.

“Just stay calm,” Trilby said. “She can’t be gone.”

“She’s hiding,” Pinky said. “She’s playing a trick on us.”

“What did you do?” Trilby demanded of Warren. “Is this one of your tricks?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Warren said. “I got the lid to open, didn’t I?”

After looking all over the room for Jo and not finding her, Trilby and Pinky went back upstairs with Warren trailing.

“She’ll come out whenever she feels like it,” Trilby said, “and have a good laugh on us for being such dopes.”

They watched a movie and had popcorn and hot chocolate. They expected Jo to come out at any moment with a big grin on her face, but she didn’t appear.

Before going to bed, they went back down to the showroom and searched again. The old metal box was just as they had left it. No sign of Jo.

“Do you think she went home?” Pinky asked.

“I’m sure that’s where she is,” Trilby said. “I’m never going to speak to her again for scaring us like this.”

Sunday morning they awoke at eight-thirty. After a breakfast of donuts and scrambled eggs, Trilby forced Warren against his will to call Jo at home. Jo wasn’t there, her mother said. She spent the night at a friend’s house and was expected home any minute.

“She didn’t go home,” Pinky said. “What can it mean?”

“It means I’m going to kill her the next time I see her,” Trilby said.

Again they went back down to the showroom. They walked up and down the rows of caskets, looking for anything amiss. Everything, including the metal casket where they had last seen Jo, was just as they had left it the night before.

They stood looking down into the old casket, as if there they might find some clue. Trilby tried to lift up the velvet lining, but it was sown fast.

Outside they heard the faint sounds of a dog barking and a truck going by out front. When those sounds ceased, they heard something else.

“Did you hear that?” Pinky asked.

“I heard something,” Trilby said, “but I don’t know what it was.”

It was like sobbing coming from far away and then they heard the words: Get me out of here!

“It’s her!” Pinky said.

“It couldn’t be!” Trilby said.

“I know her. I know her voice.”

“It’s probably Warren playing one of his tricks.”

She called Warren down to the showroom and, when he was standing there beside them, they heard it again: Please help me! Get me out of here!

The words were faint but unmistakable.

“We have to try to help her!” Pinky said.

“You get in,” Trilby said, “and I’ll close the lid.”

“What kind of fool do you take me for?”

“My parents will be back this afternoon,” Trilby said. “If we don’t find Jo by then, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

Without further discussion, Pinky got into the old box and Trilby closed the lid but, with her fingers, kept it from going down all the way. After five minutes inside the box, Pinky got out, having discovered nothing inside except an old musty smell.

“You won’t find her that way,” Warren said.

“How do you know?” Trilby asked.

“I saw it happen in a dream.”

“Saw what happen?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“How did the dream turn out?”

“You don’t think I’m going to tell you, do you?”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Rainy Night ~ A Painting by Charles Burchfield

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Rainy Night (1929) by Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield was an American painter and artist who lived from 1893 to 1967. He was known for his watercolors of nature scenes and townscapes. He painted Rainy Night in 1929.

Human Blood

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Human Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

School was out. Arlene Buck walked home by herself through the quiet streets of the town. It was a cloudy, warm day in late October. Leaves and debris swirled along the sidewalk in the wind. Arlene turned her head to the side to keep the wind from whipping her in the face.

When she got home, her mother and sister weren’t there. She didn’t like being the first one home with nobody there. She went into the kitchen and had a chocolate chip cookie and a drink of cold water and then left again. She would walk down to Jesus Saves and when she came back her mother and sister would be there.

Jesus Saves was at the bottom of a hill, where the street dead-ended. It was an easy walk down and a harder walk back up. Anybody in the neighborhood who went out for a walk went down to Jesus Saves and back. There weren’t many other places to walk, unless you wanted to go a lot farther.

Since Jesus Saves was where the street ended, people were always using the parking lot there for turning around because they didn’t know until they got to the bottom of the hill that the street ended there and they couldn’t go any farther. Today it was deserted, though. Nobody turning around and no cars parked on the lot. There would be no service tonight. Nobody getting saved from their sins.

Arlene was superstitious and she believed that when she walked down to Jesus Saves, Jesus wouldn’t save her until she touched the low wall on the far side of the parking lot with her foot. She did this and whirled around to walk back the way she had come, when a dark spot on the asphalt caught her eye, glistening and wet as if somebody had spilled a bucket of paint and gone off and left it. She approached the spot to see what it was. She was studying it when the door of Jesus Saves opened and a man came running out. He approached her and for an instant she thought he was going to grab her.

“Hey, you, there! What do you think you’re doing? Get away from there!” the man said.

She looked from the spot on the asphalt to the man and back at the spot. “What is this?” she asked, realizing at that moment that it was blood. “Did a dog get run over by a car?”

“No, no, no!” he said. “It’s nothing you need worry about!”

It was Reverend Pearl, a fussy little man in black who preached at funerals and saved stray souls from going to hell. He wore glasses on a string around his neck. He had broad hips and was no more than five feet, two inches tall. His mannerisms were more those of a woman than a man.

“I want to know what this is,” she said. “It looks like blood.”

“It’s no concern of yours!” Reverend Pearl said. “You go on home now! You have no business here!”

“I can be wherever I want to be,” she said.

The door of Jesus Saves opened again and two Sisters of the Church came out, lugging buckets of water and mops. They were large, homely women. They both wore loose, sack-like dresses and diapers on their heads.

“Over here!” Reverend Pearl called to the women. “Here’s where the mess is!”

The Sisters of the Church went to work, dipping their mops in the water and then swabbing at the spot. They moved the blood around until they had a sloppy pink mess. The water in the buckets, after they had dipped the mops a couple of times, looked like blood.

“We need something to soak it up,” Reverend Pearl said. “All you’re doing is making it worse. Dump this water out and go inside and get some fresh. Jesus! I never saw so much blood in my life! The police left the mess for us to clean up! How do you like that?”

Arlene stood back a few feet and watched as the Sisters of the Church moved the blood around.  Reverend Pearl forgot about her for the time, but when he saw she was still there he lost his temper.

“Didn’t I tell you to go on home just now?” he said. “There’s nothing here for you to see! Didn’t your mother ever teach you any manners?”

One of the Sisters of the Church stopped mopping and leaned over and whispered into Reverend Pearl’s ear, holding her hand over her mouth.

“Oh!” Reverend Pearl said. “Oh, my! Oh, my! Oh, my!”

“What did that woman say about me?” Arlene asked. “She whispered something in your ear about me, didn’t she?”

Reverend Pearl paid closer attention now to Arlene; he even attempted a smile. “I’m sorry if I snapped at you, little girl,” he said. “It’s just that a very bad thing happened here last night and it’s got my nerves on edge.”

What happened?” asked Arlene.

“Well, it isn’t my place to tell you,” he said. “You run on home now and I’m sure you’ll hear about it soon enough.”

As she began walking up the hill toward home, her heart beat in a funny way and she felt sick like when she had to go to the doctor. She knew something was wrong. Momma didn’t come home last night. Could the blood on the Jesus Saves parking lot having anything to do with that? What had the Sister of the Church whispered in Reverend Pearl’s ear?

She ran most of the way home and when she got there, out of breath, her sister Camille was waiting for her.

“Where have you been?” Camille asked.

“I’m afraid something terrible has happened,” Arlene said.

They waited all evening for momma to come home or at least to call them on the phone. Camille fixed dinner and while they were eating Arlene told her about the blood on the parking lot at Jesus Saves and what Reverend Pearl said and how he acted mad at first and then sympathetic.

“The blood of Jesus cleanses us of our sins,” Camille said.

“It wasn’t that kind of blood,” Arlene said. “Something bad has happened. I just know it.”

“You worry too much,” Camille said. “Everything will be fine.”

“I think we should call the police and tell them momma never came home last night.”

“She’s stayed out all night before. She likes to have a good time.”

“But she always came home the next morning,” Arlene said. “Here it is night again and we haven’t heard a word from her.”

“We’ll wait until nine o’clock,” Camille said, “and if she hasn’t come home by then, we’ll call the police.”

They washed the supper dishes and were watching TV when there was a loud knock on the door. Arlene got up off the couch and went to the front door and, opening it, was not very surprised to see her grandma on her daddy’s side standing there.

“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” Arlene said, standing aside to let grandma come through the door.

“I got some bad news for you,” grandma said, crying and wringing a handkerchief.

Momma had been murdered and her body dumped on the Jesus Saves parking lot. Police believed the murderer was somebody momma knew. Nobody saw or heard anything.

It was worse even than Arlene imagined it. And she had been the one to see all the blood.

Grandma made Arlene and Camille pack bags and go home with her. When they left the house, strangers were outside gawking at the house.

“What do they want?” Arlene asked.

“You all get away from here, now!” grandma said. “There’s nothin’ here for you to see.”

The police came and talked to all of them. All Arlene and Camille would tell them was that momma had had a lot of different boyfriends, had stayed out all night before on dates, and had always come home in the morning.

After the police were finished examining momma’s body, they released it to the Sutcliff Brothers’ Mortuary. Momma was laid out in her best navy blue dress that she always saved for weddings and funerals. Now she was wearing it to her own funeral. She looked fine, as if nothing bad had happened to her. That would erase the terrible image, grandma said, of her being butchered by a savage killer.

Just about everybody momma ever knew came to the funeral home to see her off. Distant relations from other states. People she had grown up with that she hadn’t seen for twenty or thirty years. There were lots of strangers there, too. People who had read about the murder in the newspaper or seen it on TV and wanted to witness a little part of it themselves to be able to say they had been there and seen the grieving next of kin. And now it had the added attraction of being a murder mystery because police still didn’t know who did it or why.

At the funeral home a strange man in a dark suit introduced himself to Arlene and Camille. They were sure they had never seen him before but it so happened that he was there father. He had left when Arlene was three and Camille six and neither of them remembered anything of him. All momma had ever said of him was that he was in prison and to be forgotten.

Now that momma was dead, he wanted Camille and Arlene to come and live with him. He had a new wife and he was ready to be a real father to them, finally. He lived in a small town in a distant state and they would need to leave their school and all their friends and start over in a new place. They believed they had a choice in the matter. They believed they might say no to anything that didn’t suit them.

On the day of the funeral it rained. Momma’s casket was removed not to Jesus Saves but to the Methodist church for the service. The church was full one hour before the service began. People had to be turned away or made to stand out in front of the church in the rain. The front row was reserved for Arlene and Camille, grandma, and the man who said he was their father. To Arlene none of it seemed real.

After the service was over, everybody got into cars and made a slow procession in the rain to the cemetery, where momma was laid to rest alongside her own baby brother who died when he was four years old.

During the graveside service, with all the people standing around momma’s grave, Arlene saw a man standing behind everybody else, looking on. Something about the man caught Arlene’s attention. Instead of looking down at the ground the way everybody else did, he was looking directly at Arlene. She was trying to figure out what was odd about him when he smiled and winked at her. She looked away, but she knew then that he was the man who had killed momma, the same way she knew about the blood on the parking lot at Jesus Saves.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Nighttime in the Rain

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Nighttime in the Rain ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

They converged on a bench in the park. Rufey took a little pack of crackers out of her bag that she got from the vending machine at the bus station and shared them with Peach.

“Where’d you stay last night?” Rufey asked.

“Had to get out of the rain,” Peach said. “I stayed with some friends in the warehouse.”

“I wouldn’t go anywhere near the warehouse,” Rufey said.

“Had to get out of the rain.”

“They set fires in the warehouse. The whole building is going up in flame. Nobody will get out alive.”

“I know.”

“We all have to go sometime, but I don’t want mine to be in a fire.”

“You go quick, I think, if the smoke gets to you before the fire.”

“How about you?” Peach asked. “Where did you stay last night?”

“I got into the Christian shelter,” Rufey said. “Stood in line for a couple of hours, but it was worth it to get out of the rain.”

“You got a bed?”

“Sure.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t like the shelter,” Peach said. “It stinks and there’s a low class of people there.”

Rufey laughed. “Can’t have everything, dearie.”

Peach was an alcoholic and had been a bum for over two years. To get warm or to get in out of the rain, she hung around in the library, in different churches, or in the bus station. In fair weather she sometimes she stood on the street corner and asked pedestrians for money. More often than not, they’d give her at least a quarter and sometimes the sharp edge of their tongue. “Why don’t you get a job,” they’d say, or, “Have you no pride.”

Rufey had been on and off different drugs but had never become what you would call an addict. She had been married three times, to the wrong type of men, and had never been able to make it work. She was a bum mostly through bad luck and faulty judgment. During a gambling streak in her earlier days, she lost everything and was in debt to loan sharks. She went incognito to keep them from breaking her legs, or worse. Her being a woman didn’t matter; they’d give her the same rough treatment they’d give a man.

Rufey and Peach had been friends since they started seeing each other on the streets almost every day. At first they were rivals, but, in a world where true friendship is rare, they soon saw the good sense in forming an alliance. They spoke almost every day, sharing their triumphs and disappointments. When Peach scored a fifth of whiskey, she would gladly share it with Rufey. If either of them ever had enough money to get a room for the night or a good meal, they invited the other along.

One of the things that Peach and Rufey had in common was that they were both waiting for something. A stroke of good luck. A large sum of money from an unexpected source. A duke or a prince who would spot them on the street and propose marriage. Living on the streets was only a temporary setback, a bump in the road, an illness that would pass if one only waited it out. Everything would work out in the end.

They whiled away the afternoon in the park and then evening was upon them again, threatening rain.

“What now?” Rufey asked.

“The worst time to be a bum,” Peach said, “is nighttime in the rain.”

“Maybe we can get a room.”

“Do you have any money?”

“No.

“The last time I noticed, it took money to stay in a hotel.”

As they were leaving the park, they found a wallet on the ground just inside the gate. Peach scooped it up before anybody saw it or claimed it.

“Quick!” Rufey said. “Look inside!”

The wallet contained a hundred and nine dollars. Peach took the money out and tossed the wallet away.

“Now we can have supper and get a room,” Rufey said, her eyes glistening.

They ate their fill in a cafeteria, enjoying dishes they ordinarily didn’t have, such as bread pudding and chicken livers. When they were sated and happy, they went down the street and bought a fifth of whiskey and a bottle of wine and then on to the Hotel Bijou.

The desk clerk made them pay in advance, but they didn’t mind. Peach counted out the bills on the counter and waited for the key.

“Checkout time is noon,” the clerk said.

“We’ll leave one minute before,” Rufey said.

They made themselves comfortable in their room on the fourth floor. They luxuriated on the bed and, listening to the rain, began drinking: Peach whiskey and Rufey wine.

“This is the life,” Peach said.

“Just listen to that rain,” Rufey said.

“I’m going to rest for a while and then I’m going to get up and have a bath,” Peach said.

“I could get used to this kind of life,” Rufey said.

They continued drinking and listening to the rain until they fell asleep.

In a room two floors below them, a drunk by the name of Vin Nickels had just returned to his room after a night out on the town with his pals. He took off his pants, shirt and shoes and got into bed smoking a cigarette. He passed out without thinking to extinguish the cigarette.

At three in the morning the first of the fire trucks arrived, but the hotel was already lost. Rufey and Peach didn’t know a thing. They heard nothing and saw nothing. They died happy, in their sleep, along with forty-one other nameless people. Dispatched to a better place. We saw them come and we saw them go.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

A Handful of Dust ~ A Capsule Book Review

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A Handful of Dust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English writer Evelyn Waugh lived from 1903 to 1966. His novel, A Handful of Dust, was published in 1934. The story is set in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Tony Last and his wife Brenda belong to the upper crust of English society. They have a country estate called Hetton, Tony’s ancestral home. Tony loves Hetton and is content to be there and no other place. Brenda isn’t happy with country life and loves to pop up to London on the train to shop and eat in smart restaurants and go around to the best nightclubs. In short, she is a social butterfly, while Tony is the more sedate, stay-at-home type. We see right away that they are mismatched. They have one child, an eight-year-old son named John Andrew.

Enter John Beaver. Tony and Brenda invite him down to their home for the weekend because that’s what these people do. He’s a rather dull, uninspiring young man, but Tony and Brenda treat him decently; the weekend ends and he goes home. We don’t know until later that he and Brenda have begun an unlikely love affair.

Brenda begins spending more and more time in London. She claims the need for a small “flat” so she can stay nights and not have to go back home to Hetton on the late-night train. She tells Tony she is studying economics but the truth is she’s carrying on with Beaver. Everybody knows it except Tony.

Finally things come to a head when a terrible riding accident claims the life of Tony and Brenda’s young son, John Andrew. Brenda is, of course, in London when it happens. After the dust settles, Brenda tells Tony that she is in love with Beaver, she’s through pretending, and she wants a divorce so she can marry Beaver.

Tony is perfectly willing to give up Brenda. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but he agrees to give her what he considers a fair amount in the divorce settlement. To Brenda, though—and especially to Beaver—it isn’t enough. Beaver will not marry Brenda, he says, until she is amply provided for. The amount Brenda and Beaver are asking for is ruinous to Tony. He refuses to grant them the amount they want and he tells Brenda he will not give her a divorce.

To try to escape his painful memories, Tony agrees to go on an ill-fated “expedition” to South America with a crackpot “explorer,” Dr. Messinger. The purpose of the expedition is not quite clear, except that Tony hopes to find a lost city. As might be expected, the expedition doesn’t go as planned and things turn very bad for Tony. Meanwhile, back in England, Beaver has abandoned Brenda and she is struggling to get by on the little bit of money she has. Tony is in South America, of course, and she can’t get in touch with him to ask for more.

A Handful of Dust is a satire on marriage and societal mores. We see how easily these people fall into infidelity and even encourage infidelity in one who isn’t predisposed to it. Brenda is a selfish bitch who cares more about her lover than she does about her son and husband. The ironic part is that her lover doesn’t care that much for her. She throws it all away for nothing and, through her selfishness and grasping for money, brings her world crashing down. If Tony had never married her, he could have had a happy life.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp