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The Underground Railroad ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Underground Railroad ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and, finally, the winner is once again about American life. It’s set in pre-Civil War America, when Southern plantation owners were allowed by law to own slaves as property, while sympathizers in the North and elsewhere viewed slavery as an abomination and were willing to do all they could to aid black slaves in their quest for freedom. In these dangerous times, the “underground railroad” sprang up, a series of rails, sometimes crude, constructed under the ground, to give slaves a means of escape from their sometimes-cruel owners. The people who built and maintained the underground railroad, the “station masters,” were often white men. They risked their lives every minute they aided slaves in escaping.

The main character of The Underground Railroad is a young slave girl named Cora. At the beginning of the book, she lives on the Randall plantation in Georgia, where vicious cruelty toward the slaves is the order of the day. Running away, is, of course, a terrible offense in the eyes of the plantation owners. Slaves who run away are caught and when they are brought back they are tortured and killed as an example to the other slaves.

A young man named Caesar gives Cora the idea of running away. At first she doesn’t want to risk it or even think about it, but when she gets a terrible beating for coming to the aid of a small boy, she decides she must run or die. Her mother before her, Mabel, ran away when Cora was only about ten and they never heard from her again. Everybody on the Randall plantation holds Mabel up as an example of what is possible. Cora has feelings of resentment toward her mother for abandoning her at such a young age. (We learn at the end of the book the ironic truth of what really happened to Mabel.)

After Cora’s harrowing escape from the Randall plantation, she is living in a black community in South Carolina under the name of Bessie Carpenter. She lives in a dormitory with lots of other runaway slaves, but there are no beatings and the living conditions are much better than on the plantation. A “slave catcher” by the name of Ridgeway is after her, though, especially determined to catch her and return her to the plantation because it is believed that her mother, Mabel, got away from him; he can’t let Cora humiliate him in the same way. In trying to escape from Ridgeway, Cora spends months in a stifling attic space in the home of a sympathizer.

After years of running and living in fear that she will finally be caught, Cora ends up on the Valentine farm in Indiana, home to a hundred or so runaways. She has books to read and sympathetic friends here, and life and is not so cruel and hard. Everybody who lives on the farm knows, though, that they live a fragile existence and that hostile forces are aligned against them. The slave catcher Ridgeway, though temporarily sidelined, is not about to give up the search for Cora as long as he is alive. The two of them will have a final fateful encounter before the story ends.

There have been lots of books and movies about slavery days and about how slaves were beaten and generally mistreated and sold at the whim of their owners. The Underground Railroad is a familiar story, but it’s a story that never ceases to be interesting in the same way that stories of World War II are interesting and compelling. No matter how terrible Cora’s life is as a slave and then as a runaway, she never loses hope that she can have a better life and live free. It’s a story, then, about hope and never giving up.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Now Boarding

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Now Boarding ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

A public place, a crowded bus station, with the unmistakable smells of cigarette smoke and a backed-up toilet, more crowded than Miss Howe believed it would be. She stopped with Mrs. Greenhill just inside the door, looking for a place to go. Over there, a man and a woman just getting up. She took Mrs. Greenhill by the arm and pulled her with as much force as necessary to get to the empty chairs before somebody else got them.

Mrs. Greenhill didn’t seem to know what was happening. Miss Howe turned her around and backed her up to the empty chair and then, taking her by both hands, bade her sit. Once in the chair, Mrs. Greenhill swiveled her head from left to right. “What is this place?” she asked. “Are we here to see the doctor?”

“We’re in the bus station, mother!” Miss Howe said loudly, sitting down in the next chair.

“Are we going on a trip?”

“We’ve been through this at least a dozen times! You’re going to visit Warren and Velma at their home in Lucille.”

“Is someone going with me?”

“No, you’re going by yourself this time. All you have to do is ride on the bus and when you get there Warren and Velma will take you off the bus.”

“I don’t want to go. I think I forget to turn off the stove.”

“No, mother, the stove is fine. I checked it before we left.”

“I don’t feel like riding on a bus. I’m going to be sick.”

“I gave you Dramamine. Don’t you remember? That’s supposed to keep you from getting sick from the ride.”

“Dramamine?”

“You can doze on the bus and in a couple of hours you’ll be there and Warren and Velma will meet you.”

“Two hours?”

“You can take a little nap and be there in no time.”

“I can’t go. I have a previous engagement.”

“I know what you’re doing, mother, and it won’t work. It’s already settled. You’re going to go live with Warren and Velma for a while and we’ll see how it works out. They have a lovely room all ready for you. They live in that big old two-story house but they’ve fixed you up a room on ground floor, at the back, so you won’t have to go up and down stairs. You’ll have your own bathroom right there and everything.”

“What if I don’t want to go?”

“You don’t want to disappoint Warren and Velma, do you? They’re expecting you.”

“You can call and tell them I’ve decided not to come.”

“Now, it’s already settled, mother, and you know it. I don’t intend to have this same argument with you over and over again.”

“Nobody’s arguing except you.”

“You just sit right there in that chair and don’t get up for anything, not even if the place is on fire. I’ll go get your ticket and will be back just as soon as I can.”

“Can you hurry it up a little? I don’t want to miss that train.”

“It’s a bus, mother, and you’re not going to miss it.”

At least a dozen people in line ahead of her. Annoying people with annoying problems. Nothing ever goes smoothly. She looked at her watch and sighed.

She had to wait at least ten minutes and when she got to the window the man annoyed her further by turning his back on her. She would have stared a hole into the back of his head if she could have. Finally he turned around and smiled at her, showing a row of brown teeth.

“Some of us don’t have all day,” she said.

“May I help you?”

“One one-way ticket to Lucille on the two-fifteen bus.”

She wasn’t sure if he heard her because he left the window again and took up even more of her time. In a minute, though, he came back with the ticket.

“See that old lady over there in the blue dress?” she said, turning and pointing all the way to the other side of the enormous room.

He squinted and leaned forward. “What about her?”

“That’s my mother, Mrs. Greenhill. She’s in her eighties.”

“Yes?”

“She doesn’t hear very well and she gets confused.”

“Oh.”

“I have to leave her here. I’m attending a board meeting downtown and I don’t have much time. Her bus for Lucille leaves in half an hour. Could you go over and remind her when it’s time?”

“I guess I could get one of the girls do it,” he said.

“It would certainly be a load off my mind!”

She crossed the crowded room again, being careful to avoid brushing against anyone, even if only a sleeve. She took hold of Mrs. Greenhill’s wrist and placed the ticket in her hand.

“Here it is, mother!” she yelled. “Give it to the driver when you get on the bus.”

“What is it?”

“It’s your bus ticket! Don’t lose it! You’ll need it when you get on the bus!”

“I’m not going on any bus.”

“I just bought your ticket. You don’t want it to go to waste, do you?”

“I don’t care.”

“Your suitcase is right beside your feet. Keep an eye on it because people steal things in bus stations.”

“Nobody would want it.”

“Your money is in it and your identification.”

“My what?”

“We want people to know who you are in case you get lost.”

“I won’t get lost.”

“There’s your ticket in your right hand. Your suitcase is on the floor beside your feet. Don’t let the ticket or the suitcase out of your sight. If you need to go to the toilet, take them with you. Don’t leave them here. Somebody will steal them.”

“I won’t get lost.”

“Well, goodbye, mother. I hope you have a wonderful time.”

“I hope you have a wonderful time, too,” Mrs. Greenhill said, but she didn’t know why she was saying it.

***

Mrs. Greenhill was glad when her daughter left. She never did like having anybody telling her what to do.

What was she supposed to be doing, now? Wait for something and then get on the bus and go somewhere. Getting on the bus was easy enough, but what was it she was waiting for? That daughter of hers always had a way of making things more complicated than they needed to be.

She wanted an ice cream cone and looked around from her sitting position for a place where she might buy one but saw nothing. She had the money to buy one—she knew she did—but there was no ice cream cone to be had. She’d have to get up and go outside to find a place and she wasn’t supposed to do that. She was supposed to wait in her seat until something. Until what? She couldn’t remember.

She forgot for the moment about the ice cream cone. An enormously fat man walked in front of her, moving with the ponderous and deliberate slowness of an elephant. She was sure she had never seen so fat a man. He wore a long coat that might at one time have been used as a parachute. He found a place to sit; the chair upon which he sat nearly disappeared beneath his girth.

The loudspeaker rumbled and crackled announcing arrivals and departures. To Mrs. Greenhill, it might have been in an obscure foreign tongue. She didn’t know how anybody could know what was being said. She looked around for somebody who might help her, but the people near her didn’t see her. She was nothing. She didn’t exist.

A small girl screamed and her mother jerked her by the arm, knocking her off her feet. She didn’t fall all the way to the floor, though, because the mother kept hold of her arm. The girl screeched like an animal, dangling in a horizontal position just inches from the floor. She started crying and the mother pulled her upright and clapped her soundly on the side of the head, which made her cry even louder.

A pair of nuns came into view and Mrs. Greenhill gawped at them in fascination, as at a species of penguin. The nuns’ faces were hard and sour and they seemed to be arguing, but quietly. The skirts of their black gowns swept the filthy floor. They took seats and continued moving their mouths, consumed in their arguing.

More interesting than the nuns were a pair of husband and wife midgets. They were the size of children but dressed in adult clothes. The woman wore a white dress with puff sleeves and carried a handbag over her arm. Her face was sweet but freakish and mask-like because of the disproportionate size of her head. The man was dressed in a suit and hat and smoked a cigarette. He looked like a tiny businessman. The woman nearly lost her balance when someone ran into her. The man laughed at her and took hold of her arm to steady her. Mrs. Greenhill watched until they were out of sight.

Finally she grew restless with the waiting and began wondering if it wasn’t about time for her to get on the bus. She needed to find somebody to ask, but maybe it would be better if she waited for them to come to her. The voice on the loudspeaker came again, but not a word of it was intelligible.

She was on the verge of getting up, when a large woman with a girl of about eleven approached her. The woman sat in the chair to her left and the girl to her right. Mrs. Greenhill looked from one to the other.

“Anything the matter, honey?” the woman asked. “You look a little bewildered.”

Finally a kind word! Mrs. Greenhill could have wept. She handed the woman her ticket. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do,” she said piteously.

The woman looked at the ticket and then looked at the clock. “You got about seven minutes before your bus leaves,” she said.

“Seven minutes!” Mrs. Greenhill said. “That’s not much time!”

“You’ve still got time,” the woman said. “You need to take it slow and easy. Take your time. We don’t want to fall down, now, do we?”

“Can you show me where to go?”

“Of course, I can, honey!” the woman said.

She helped Mrs. Greenhill up and they had taken only a few steps when Mrs. Greenhill remembered her suitcase. She started to go back to get it, but the girl picked it up and carried it for her.

“Now, which way do we go?” Mrs. Greenhill asked.

“The busses board over there, honey,” the woman said.

“Where’s my suitcase?”

“Gina’s got it, honey. She’s right behind us.”

“It’s got my money in it and all my valuables. My medicine, too.”

As they passed the restrooms, Mrs. Greenhill remembered that she needed to make a stop there before she got on the bus. Once in her seat, she wasn’t getting up again.

When the woman realized Mrs. Greenhill’s intention, she said, “You’d better make it quick, honey. They announced your bus a few minutes ago.”

“Won’t be a minute.”

“Me and Gina will wait right here for you,” the woman said. “Right outside the door.”

Mrs. Greenhill hated using a public toilet, but sometimes there was no other way. She did what she had to do as fast as she could and washed her hands thoroughly.

When she exited the toilet, the large woman and the girl were not waiting by the door. They were not among the dozens of strangers walking, talking, sitting or loitering within the radius of a few yards.

Maybe they’ll be right back, Mrs. Greenhill thought. They only stepped away for a minute to buy a newspaper or get a drink of water.

She stood by the door of the ladies’ toilet for ten minutes and when the large woman and the girl didn’t reappear, she knew the worst of it. She had been robbed. Her money, her clothes, her bus ticket, her precious Bible. Everything!

When she approached the man who swept the floor and emptied the trashcans and told him what had happened, he told her she needed to report it to the office.

“Report it to the office,” she repeated.

She wasn’t even sure what he was saying.

Making her way to the door, she went out onto the sidewalk. It was the middle of the afternoon and glaringly hot. She looked one way and then the other. Both ways looked the same. She set off walking in the direction away from the sun.

After she had walked a couple of blocks, a filthy-looking bum approached and asked for a dollar.

“No!” she snapped. “I don’t have a dime!”

She walked with her eyes down after that because she didn’t want anybody speaking to her. She came to a hotel and went into the lobby that, though squalid, was much cooler than the street.

“I’m looking for someone,” she said to the desk clerk. “A fat woman with a face like an owl and a little girl of about eleven or so.”

The clerk smiled. “That sounds like Bertha Gottlieb and her daughter. The daughter may look eleven but she’s really twenty-seven. There’s something wrong with her to make her look that way.”

“Is the girl’s name Gina?”

“That’s the one!”

“Can you tell me where I might find her?”

“She robbed you at the bus station, didn’t she? Took your purse?”

“How do you know?”

“It’s what she does.”

“Where can I find her? I need to get my suitcase back.”

The clerk picked up a phone. “Hello, is this Bertha?” he said. “There’s a lady in the lobby wants to speak to you. Says you took her suitcase at the bus station. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think so. Well, you’d better give it back or the lady is going to call the police. She’s willing to pay a twenty-five-dollar reward, though, for the return of her property.”

When he hung up the phone, he was laughing. “Bertha’s indisposed,” he said. “If you’ll give me the fifty dollars now, I’ll go up and get your suitcase for you and you can be on your way.”

“You said twenty-five.”

“The price of the reward has just gone up.”

“I have no money,” Mrs. Greenhill said. “It was all in my suitcase.”

“Nothing in your pockets?”

“Only a handkerchief.”

“How about a watch or a ring or a bracelet?”

“Nothing.”

“In that case, I’m afraid we can’t help you. Move on, please. We’re awfully busy here.”

She left then, back out into the heat and glare of the sidewalk. A couple of blocks past the hotel, she heard the wailing siren of an ambulance. She waved her handkerchief but it just kept going. She heard someone laugh then and, turning, saw the bum who had asked her for a dollar.

“Did you see a fat woman with a girl who looks about eleven but is really twenty-seven?” she asked. “The fat woman would have been carrying a suitcase. The suitcase belongs to me.”

“I don’t speak no English,” the bum said, but she knew it too was a lie.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Fifties Heaven

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Picture Window

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Picture Window ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

It was just a small wash-off tattoo of a skull and crossbones. Carson put it on Mickey’s upper arm. Mickey looked down at it and laughed. He looked like a baby pirate in diapers. Carson was going to put a shooting star on Mickey’s forehead, but he thought that might be going a little too far.

When Eadie came home and saw the skull and crossbones, she jerked Mickey up and carried him into the bathroom and started scrubbing at the tattoo with a washcloth and soap. She rubbed so hard Mickey started crying, not only because the rubbing hurt but because her anger scared and upset him.

“How dare you do such a thing!” Eadie ranted at Carson. “He’s just a tiny baby!”

“He’s fifteen months,” Carson said.

“How could you mark up the body of a baby like that?”

“It wears off in a few days,” Carson said. “It didn’t hurt him. I showed it to him in the mirror and he liked it.”

“You are just an ignorant little son of a bitch! I should have known better than to put you in charge of my baby. When you get your own baby—which I doubt will ever happen because no girl in her right mind will never have anything to do with you—you can mark him up with cheap tattoos all you want, but in the meantime you keep your filthy paws off my child!”

“You don’t have to get so hateful about it,” Carson said. “I didn’t hurt him and it’s easy to wash off if you know how. Why don’t you let me do it? I can do it without hurting him.”

“Do you think I’d let you touch my baby now?”

“You mean I’m not ever supposed to touch him again?”

“You stay away from him! Do you understand me?”

Mickey was crying. To get him to shut up, Eadie put him to bed, much earlier than he was used to.

“Aren’t you supposed to feed him before you put him to bed?” Carson asked, standing in the doorway to the bedroom.

“I don’t remember asking for your advice,” she said.

“When did you become such a bitch?” he said.

She lost control and slapped him hard in the face. It was so sudden he didn’t have time to put his hands up.

He touched his stinging cheek and said, “All right, but don’t ever ask me for anything else ever again.”

“You have nothing I want,” she said.

Carson didn’t tell anybody what Eadie said to him or that she slapped him. Instead he avoided her, going out of the room whenever she entered. He didn’t look directly at her and wouldn’t tell her when somebody wanted to speak to her on the phone or when the mailman knocked on the door to give her a package. When she baked a cherry pie, he refused to eat any of it.

Three days later Carson was in his room studying for a test when Leslie, Eadie’s husband, knocked on the door and came in.

“Are you busy?” Leslie asked.

“What does it look like?” Carson asked.

Leslie laughed and sat on the bed. “I wanted to have a word with you.”

“What about?”

Leslie took a bill out of his pocket and put it on Carson’s desk. Carson looked at it and saw it was a two-dollar bill.

“What’s that for?” Carson asked.

“My brother and I used to collect them when we were in school. I thought you might like to have it.”

“Okay,” Carson said. “What’s the gag?”

Leslie interlocked his fingers and began studying his thumb nails. “I want to ask a favor.”

“What kind of a favor?”

“I wanted to ask you if you’ve seen anything suspicious around the house lately. Involving Eadie.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Anything out of the ordinary. Phone calls or people dropping by.”

“I don’t care what Eadie does.”

“I’m sure you don’t, but I’m asking you to keep your eyes open.”

“You want me to spy on my sister?”

“If you want to call it that.”

“The other day she got a call that she took in the kitchen,” Carson said. “As soon as she hung up, she said she had to leave. Nobody else was here, so she asked me to watch Mickey for a while.”

“Did she say where she was going?”

“No, but she changed her clothes posthaste and then she left.”

“How long was she gone?”

“I don’t know. About an hour.”

“Did she drive her car?”

“No, somebody picked her up in a red car.”

“One of her girlfriends?”

“I don’t think so. It was a man driving.”

Leslie nodded his head and stood up from the bed. “You have a camera, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Take a picture of the red car and of the man driving it. Don’t let him see you. Try to get the license plate number if you can.”

“That means I’d have to take the picture out the window.”

Leslie went over to the window and looked out. “You have a clear view of the street from here and, best of all, nobody will see you.”

“I don’t know if I want to get involved in a domestic dispute,” Carson said.

“There’s plenty more where that came from,” Leslie said, tapping the two-dollar bill on his way out of the room.  

Carson didn’t have to wait long to get some pictures. On Friday afternoon, as soon as he got home from school, Eadie left in a hurry. Mickey was taking his nap. Carson was the only one at home.

He ran up to his room and aimed his camera out the window. Eadie got into the red car. Picture number one. The red car pulled into the driveway across the street to turn around, affording a clear view of the license plate. Picture number two. As the car backed out onto the street to turn around, Carson got a perfect view of the man driving. Shiny black hair and dark glasses. Picture number three.   

He went downstairs to make sure Mickey was still sleeping and then he went into the kitchen and had a peanut butter sandwich and a root beer. After that he went back up to his room and read from his history book for an hour or so until he heard a car stop out front. He went to the window and aimed the camera.  

Eadie got out of the car. As she started to walk away, the man got out, too, and, meeting Eadie halfway around the car, took her by the arm. They kissed the way people kiss in movies. Carson got it all on film.

When presented with proof of Eadie’s infidelity, Leslie was shocked but not terribly surprised. He packed his suitcases and left the house. His only message to Eadie was that she would hear from his lawyer and that he, Leslie, would seek custody of Mickey.

Leslie was going to give Carson fifty dollars for the pictures that ended his marriage to Eadie. Carson wouldn’t take it. He didn’t want money. He had something far better.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Albert Camus ~ An Unfree World

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Selected Places: An Anthology of Short Stories

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Selected Places: Anthology of Short Stories
From Simone Press

(My short story, “Find Out Where the Train is Going” is in this brand-new short story anthology.)

With short stories by Fariel Shafee, Gillian Rioja, John Mueter, Victoria Whittaker, Matthew McKiernan, Melodie Corrigall, William Doreski, Priscilla Cook, Rob Pope, Billie Louise Jones, Stephen McQuiggan, Katarina Boudreaux, Thomas Larsen, Michael Estabrook, Allen Kopp, Jim Meirose, Ken Leland, Gary Beck, Columbkill Noonan, Paul Lamble.

Available from Amazon for $12.99 at this link:

https://www.amazon.com/Selected-Places-Anthology-Short-Stories/dp/1545003939/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492445198&sr=1-1&keywords=Selected+Places+Anthology

Happy Easter 2017

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