Author Archives: allen0997
Where Angels Fear to Tread ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
M. Forster (1879-1970) was one of the best and most readable English writers of the twentieth century. His first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, was published in 1905. It’s a story of a clash of cultures, in this case English and Italian. Stodgy, conventional, keeping-up-appearances, English middle-class morality goes head to head with emotional, hot-blooded Italian effusiveness. The English characters in Where Angels Fear to Tread are all fools who can’t see farther than the ends of their noses. The principal Italian character, Gino, is forgiving, kind and generous. Which would you rather be?
Lilia Herriton is an English widow, thirty-three years old. She lives with and is dominated by her late husband’s narrow-minded family in a small English town. She has a small daughter named Irma, who seems to prefer her grandmother and her aunt over her mother. When Lilia travels to Italy, she is captivated by its romance and beauty. Rebelling against the middle-class English morality to which she has long been captive, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a charming Italian fellow named Gino, ten years younger than she is. He has a handsome face and not much else in the way of prospects. When Lilia, early in her marriage, has a child, a boy, she dies in childbirth. Her first husband’s (the dead husband, if you will recall) family back in England believes they must go to Italy and “rescue” Lilia’s child and bring it back to England to give it a proper (English) upbringing.
Philip and Harriet Herriton, brother and sister of Lilia’s late husband, go to the little town of Monteriano, along with family friend, Caroline Abbott, ostensibly to get Lilia’s baby and bring it back to England. They fail to consider the father’s (Gino’s) feelings in the matter. Harriet is an unpleasant, bossy spinster who believes she can bully and bluff Gino into giving up the baby because it is the “right” thing to do. Philip is also of the same mind as Harriet, but when the trio arrives in Italy, Philip once again falls under Italy’s spell (partly as a result of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor) and is charmed by Gino into believing that he, Gino, is a loving and caring father and the baby is better off remaining where it is.
The Herritons don’t really give a hoot about Gino and Lilia’s baby. They want it only so they can assert their English superiority, keep up appearances, and make a point. They will do anything, including kidnapping, to get what they want. With pig-headed Harriet leading the way, they screw up monumentally, with tragic and unforeseen consequences.
Where Angels Fear to Tread was published when the author was only twenty-six. It is a meticulously written, intelligent English classic, accessible and easy to read, well worth another look. A faithful and memorable movie adaptation of the novel was made in 1991.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp
I’ll Live to be a Hundred if You Don’t Kill Me First ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
He heard her voice downstairs and her heavy tread across the floor as if a cow had been let into the house. He saw, without seeing, her fat feet in their white old-lady shoes climbing the stairs and her sausage-like fingers groping the banister. He closed his eyes to give the impression he was sleeping but he knew it was no good. Before he knew it, before he had time to take a deep breath, she was in his room and upon him.
“Uncle Jeff!” she screamed. “How the hell have you been?”
“I was taking a nap. Don’t you ever knock?”
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. The smell of her perfume almost made him gag.
“You don’t look very sick to me,” she said with a laugh. “I think you need to get out of that bed and stop pretending.”
“I’m a lot sicker now,” he said, “than I was a few minutes ago.”
“No, seriously, honey, how are you? What does the doctor say?”
“He says I’ll live to be a hundred if family doesn’t kill me.”
“Oh, now, you can’t pretend to be a grouchy old bear with me because I know you’re just bluffing. Underneath you’re just a just the kindest, sweetest old man in the world.”
“What can I do for you today, Vera? I know you want something or you wouldn’t have dropped in unannounced.”
“Can’t a gal stop by and see her favorite uncle without having some ulterior motive?”
“In your case, no!”
She grabbed hold of the nearest chair and pulled it close to the bed and sat down and rested her pocketbook on her knees.
“My, it’s warm in here!” she said. “Do you think we could open a window?”
“No, it aggravates my hay fever.”
“I think that’s all in your head, honey.”
“It looks like you’ve put on a lot more weight since I last saw you, Vera. You need to stop eating so much.”
“I don’t eat any more now than I ever did. It’s just my age.”
“What does age have to do with it?”
“A woman my age retains water.”
“It looks more like you retain chocolate cream pie.”
“Hah-hah-hah! You can’t hurt my feelings, no matter how hard you try!”
“You’re going to get so fat you won’t be able to make it through the door. What will you do then?”
“We don’t need to talk about my weight. I know you’re just trying to embarrass me and it won’t work.”
“Go to the top of the stairs and call Esther,” he said, “and tell her to come up here.”
“Oh, we don’t need Esther, uncle Jeff! I wanted to have a little chat, just you and me.”
“I want my nurse here.”
“She’s not a nurse. I doubt if she even has a high school diploma.”
“You either get her up here like I said, or you can get back into your fancy Cadillac and drive off into the sunset.”
“Oh, very well! But I don’t know why we need to have her here.”
“I might need a witness.”
“Witness for what?”
“In case I decide to rise up out of this bed and kill you.”
“Oh, dear, you are such a card! I’m happy to see you still have your sense of humor!”
She stood up and went to the top of the stairs and shrieked down: “Esther, he says he wants you to come up here! Right away, please!”
“With a voice like that,” he said, “you could go out to the cemetery and wake the dead any night.”
“Don’t you think I would if I could?”
“All right, sit your fat ass back down and tell me why you’ve come.”
She smiled bravely. “I will tell you,” she said, “that no matter how much you berate me with that evil tongue of yours, I will not let you get under my skin.”
“That’s very noble of you.”
“I have more important things on my mind.”
“Hah! I doubt it!”
Esther came into the room just then. “Did you need something, Mr. Talmadge?” she asked.
“I just want you to sit with us for a while and take a load off. I want you to be here to show my niece the door when it’s time for her to go.”
Esther sat in the chair across the room, next to the window, held her elbows and looked at the floor. She could be as invisible as she needed to be.
“I can’t very well talk over family matters with a domestic in the room,” Vera said.
“Why not?” uncle Jeff asked.
“It isn’t very nice.”
“So? Esther has heard things before that are not very nice.”
“Well, very well, since it seems I have no other choice.”
“It’s about Ricky.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Ricky has got himself into trouble with some other boys.”
“Ricky is forty. I think he no longer qualifies as a boy.”
“He’s not forty. He’s thirty-nine.”
“Well, what did Ricky and these other boys do?”
“They were all at the river, drinking and whooping it up. You remember what it was like to be young.”
“If you say so.”
“There were four boys and one girl. It seems they all pleasured themselves with the girl one at a time.”
“The girl was willing, Ricky says. She was drunk as a skunk. She took her clothes off and was dancing naked around the campfire. Well, the boys were all drinking and, with the girl dancing naked as she was, they started to get ideas.”
“Is she underage?”
“Oh, no! She’s as old as Ricky.”
“So, she was willing, they were all drunk and whooping it up and they decided to take things a little farther that usual and have a little more fun than they were used to.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“Well, what happened? They didn’t kill her, did they?”
“Oh, no. Nothing like that. When the party was over and they all sobered up a little and went back to town, the girl wasn’t so willing anymore. She went to the police and told them she had been gang-raped. She gave them a list of the boys’ names. She had some bruises on the inside of her legs and some fingernail scratches on her arms.”
“All very sordid, I’m sure.”
“I need your help, uncle Jeff. You’re the only family I have left, the only person in the world I can turn to for help. I need eighteen thousand dollars.”
“I have to retain a good lawyer to defend my Ricky in court. Eighteen thousand is just the beginning.”
“Why can’t he use a public defender? If he’s innocent, that should be good enough.”
“I don’t want to risk it. I want to get somebody who will really fight for him.”
“If you think I’m going to sit down and write you a check for eighteen thousand dollars, you’re crazier than I thought.”
“It’s not as if you don’t owe me.”
“Owe you? How do I owe you?”
“Ricky and I are your only living family. When you die, we’ll be the only ones to weep over your body down at Hartsell Brothers’ Funeral Home.”
“You flatter yourself, Vera.”
“You’re old and soon you’ll die. We know you have money and you’re not going to be able to take any of it with you.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Just what are you planning on doing with all your money when you die?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know!”
“Don’t you think Ricky and I are entitled to at least some of it?”
“I don’t hear you, Vera! I think I’m starting to have another one of my spells.”
“You live in this big twelve-room house all alone. Why does any old man living alone need twelve rooms, I ask you?”
“Some people need lots of space.”
“I think that’s very selfish of you. There’s a lovely new nursing home opening up downtown. I hear the accommodations are lovely. With just one little phone call, you can get your name on the list and you’ll be able to move in as soon as they have an opening. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?”
“And what would I do with this big house with its twelve rooms?”
“Ricky and I would be happy to move in and take care of it for you.”
“Hah! I just bet you would!”
It was time now for tears. She took a wad of Kleenex out of her purse and dabbed pitifully at both eyes. “I’m afraid they’ll send Ricky up for a long time. It isn’t his first offense, you know. Things will go very hard with him this time.”
“Ricky’s been a habitual criminal since he was five years old. I knew it was only a matter of time before he was called to a reckoning.”
“Don’t say that! If you had ever been a mother, you’d know what it’s like to be faced with the prospect of having your only child being locked up for life.”
“Do you want some advice?”
“No, but I know you’ll give it anyway.”
“Find out the name of the girl, the woman, who says Ricky and the other boys violated her.”
“I already know her name. It’s Willie Walls.”
“Something tells me she’s trash.”
“What else would she be?”
“Offer her a thousand dollars to drop the case. That’s probably more money than she’s ever imagined having in her life.”
“A thousand dollars?”
“Tell her she can have a thousand dollars to drop the case or risk going to court and losing and not getting anything.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise, uncle Jeff.”
“If it goes to court, they’ll get her on the witness stand and it’ll be her word against the word of the four boys. She’ll be humiliated. They’ll bring up everything she’s ever done or said in her life. They’ll bring in every person she’s ever known who might have any dirt on her, and there’s probably plenty, if she’s the kind of girl who gets drunk and dances naked in front of a bunch of boys at the river.”
“I guess it’s worth a try.”
“It might keep Ricky out of jail this time.”
“So you won’t give me the eighteen thousand?”
“I already said I won’t. I’ll advance you the thousand dollars to pay the girl, but you’ll have to sign a note promising to pay it back.”
“I think that’s very hard-hearted of you.”
“Was that all you wanted, Vera? I’m getting tired.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you, but I think it’s probably good for you to know. I’m dying. I might only have a short time to live.”
“The doctor says. Who do you think?”
“What’s the matter with you?”
“I have a fatty liver.”
“Not just your liver.”
“I might need an operation.”
“Well, have the operation, then.”
“I’ve been worried sick. Not about myself but about Ricky. I’m afraid I’ll die with him in the mess he’s in. With me gone there’ll be nobody to help him.”
“So, what is it you want me to do?”
“Sign your house over to him so it’ll be his when you die.”
“What? Why would I do that?”
“I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for my child. I could die easy if I knew this fine old house was in his name. And even if he goes to jail, maybe it won’t be for long and when he gets out he’ll have this haven, this refuge, to come back to.”
“I’d laugh if it wasn’t so ridiculous. Do you know how long it’d take Ricky to lose this house in a poker game or sell it for practically nothing to get money to buy drugs?”
“He’s not like that now. He’s grown up a lot. You’d hardly know him. He’s really a very fine young man now.”
“Yes, a fine young man who rapes women at the river.”
“Oh! You can insult me all you want, but I won’t stand by and do nothing while you insult my child!”
“If there was ever a child who needed to be insulted, it’s Ricky.”
“You’ve always been so filled with hatred, uncle Jeff, I don’t know what keeps you from choking on it!”
“Esther, my niece is leaving now. Take her downstairs and show her the door.”
“I don’t need to be ‘shown the door’, you old bastard!”
“Don’t let it hit you in the ass on your way out.”
“All right, I’ll go. I should have known I was wasting my time trying to reason with a senile old fool like you. I want you to know one thing, though. You’re not holding all the cards in the deck.”
“Are you threatening me, Vera? Do you think it’s wise to threaten an old man who holds most of the cards in the deck?”
“I’ve been to see a lawyer about you!”
“About me? How you flatter me!”
“As your only living relative, as your next of kin, I can start a court proceeding to have you declared incompetent. Do you know what that means, uncle Jeff? If the court agrees with me, I gain control of all your assets. I can put you in the nursing home of my choosing or in the state mental institution if that’s the way the wind blows.”
“Oh, my! You’re scaring me now, Vera!”
“Oh, yes, I can put you away, uncle Jeff, and please believe me when I tell you I won’t hesitate for one second! Not for one second! Ever since I was a small child, I knew what a mean, contemptible person you are. When I was as young as ten years old, my poor mother, your sister, used to sit in the front parlor and cry over the way you treated her and, as young as I was, I would pat her on the shoulder and say, ‘There, there, mother, he doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s just been disappointed in the way life has turned out for him and he takes it out on the whole world. I know you love him. We all love uncle Jeff, no matter how mean a son-of-a-bitch he is.’ And she would just smile her sad smile and take my hand and wet it with her tears.”
“All right, Vera. I think you’ve put the fear of God in me. You can go home now.”
She stood up and began gesticulating, growing ever more agitated. “You disapproved of my husband. You always thought you were better than us. And then from the moment Ricky was born you laughed at him and said he looked like a gorilla and wasn’t right in the head. What do you think that does to a child’s self-esteem?”
She gasped for breath and put her hand on the bed post to steady herself. “My greatest fear now,” she said, “is that I’ll die before you and I won’t be there to celebrate when you draw your final breath. I was just telling Ricky a few days ago how I wanted to dance on your grave. How I wanted to…How I want…How I hoped…”
Her mouth gaped open, but the words seemed to have stopped coming of their own accord. She grabbed the middle of her chest with both hands and, with a startled expression on her face, rolled onto the bed onto the floor.
“Esther!” uncle Jeff called.
But she had seen and heard all that had happened and was at the ready. She knelt on the floor and rolled Vera onto her back. Vera’s body shook with tremors; she made gurgling sounds in her throat.
“Is she all right?” uncle Jeff asked from the side of the bed.
“I think we need an ambulance,” Esther said.
“It might all be an act. I know what she’s like.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I don’t want that old heifer dying in my house. Call an ambulance and tell them to come and get her and to send about six strong men. She’s roughly the size of a small elephant.”
When the ambulance arrived eight minutes later, Vera was unconscious. She was colorless and dead-looking, her carefully coiffed hair askew. They strapped her onto a stretcher and administered oxygen.
Half an hour after the ambulance had left, Esther went up to uncle Jeff’s room to make sure he was all right.
“You’re not to let that woman into the house again, you understand?” he said.
Esther smiled. “If she decides she wants to come in, I won’t be able to stop her.”
“Then I’ll buy you a gun and teach you how to use it.”
“Yes, sir. I sure would hate to shoot her, though.”
“I’ll come downstairs for dinner. Set the table in the dining room. I’m not sick anymore. I have a long way to go to one hundred.”
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp