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Leading Men ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Tennessee Williams was the greatest American playwright of the twentieth century. He was a Southern gentlemen with a charming accent, a homosexual, a gadabout, a world traveler, a party animal, a wit and a genius. He drank to excess and took too many pills. He was as sexually promiscuous as his fame, wealth and position allowed. For about fifteen years, he had one live-in lover, one Frank “Frankie” Merlo, who was ostensibly an “assistant” whose principal duties were “sleeping with Mr. Williams” and doing whatever job needed doing.
Frank Merlo had little going for him other than his good looks and imposing physique. He wasn’t “connected,” wealthy or well educated. He had the idea that he wanted to be a movie actor but was never able to quite pull it off. (His one big chance came in Italy with Italian movie director Luscino Visconti, but his part was ultimately eliminated.) He was about ten years younger than Tennessee Williams (or “Tenn” as is he mostly known throughout this book).
Leading Men, by Christopher Castellani, is a mix of fact and fiction, real-life people and fictional constructs. Among the real-live people in the book are the two main characters, Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo; fellow American writer Truman Capote; Italian actress Anna Magnani; now-forgotten American novelist John Horne Burns; Italian movie director Luscino Visconti.
Anja Blomgren (later changed to Bloom) is a major character in the book, but she is a fictional character. She is only seventeen years old in 1953 when Tenn and Frank befriend her on their summer in Italy. After 1953, she is taken up by a famed Swedish movie director, one Martin Hovland (again a fictional character), and becomes a big movie star, always remaining friends with Tenn and Frank until their deaths. As an old woman, Anja Bloom propels the modern-day story. It seems that Tenn, right before he died in 1983, gives her the only copy of his last play, Call It Joy. This play has never seen the light of day until Anja decides, at the urging of two young, gay men, Sandro and Trevor, both Tennessee Williams aficionados, to stage it.
So, Leading Men moves back and forth from the past to the present. A lot of the past concerns Tenn and Frank in Italy in the summer of 1953 and their friendship with Anja Bloom. It is mostly the story of the stormy and co-dependent relationship between these two very different men. Frank longs to be an “artist” but always remains on the fringes of the artists’ colony. He is a member only because of his relationship with Tenn.
In later years (but also part of the chapters in the book dealing with the past) Frank develops lung cancer. For two people who spent as many years together as Frank and Tenn did, Tenn isn’t nearly as attentive to Frank as he should be after he becomes ill. He always seems to be galivanting off, pursuing his own interests, while Frank remains in the hospital, every day getting worse and closer to death.
Leading Men is only partly effective for me as a reader. The story of the relationship between Frank and Tenn is interesting and compelling, as is the story of the trajectory of Tenn’s life as a great writer, but a large part of the book is taken up with Anja Bloom and her gay friends Sandro and Trevor and their efforts to bring Tenn’s fictional last play, Call It Joy, to the forefront. I would have preferred if the story had focused exclusively on Tenn and Frank and their coterie of real-life friends, instead of on these fictional characters and fictional situations. The second half of the book doesn’t seem worthy of the first half. On the whole, however, Leading Men is worth reading and has enough good stuff in it to make it worth the time and effort.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp
Washed in the Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The funeral was Saturday the twelfth. Vincent spoke to no one for several days, but on Wednesday the sixteenth the telephone rang.
“Hello,” he said sleepily.
“Is that Vincent Spearman?” a deep voice asked.
“Yes,” Vincent said. “Who is this?”
“Vincent, this is Timothy Nesselrode. I’m the pastor at your mother’s church. I wanted to call you and see how you’re getting along since your mother’s funeral and ask if there’s anything I might do for you.”
“I’m fine,” Vincent said. “There’s nothing you can do. I don’t need a thing.”
“It’s hard to lose a loved one, I know.”
“Your mother was a highly regarded member of our congregation. She will be sorely missed.”
“Thanks for calling.”
“Well, Vincent, I’m going to be in your area later this afternoon and I was wondering if I might drop in and have a few words with you.”
“I promise I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”
“Well, I’m pretty busy today.”
“Would tomorrow be better?”
“No, we’d better get it over with today. I might be going out of town.”
“Fine! I’ll be there in about an hour.”
After he hung up the phone, Vincent brushed his teeth and put on his shoes and sat nervously in his mother’s wingback chair waiting for what’s-his-name to get there. He couldn’t think of any reason why this man who preached his mother’s funeral would want to talk to him. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. He would hurry it along as much as possible. Why did people always want to bother him?
Thirty-eight minutes after the phone call, there was a loud knock at the front door. He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and peered out, seeing part of the big face of the reverend Timothy Nesselrode, Doctor of Divinity.
“Vincent?” the reverend Nesselrode shouted. “Is that you?”
Vincent undid the chain, opened the door all the way and allowed the big man to come into the house.
“My goodness!” the reverend Nesselrode said, taking Vincent’s hand in both of his own. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Vincent said.
“May we sit?”
Vincent led the reverend Nesselrode into the living room and watched as he placed himself in the middle of the couch. Vincent himself sat in the chair across the room in front of the window, crossed his legs and aligned the index finger of his right hand alongside his temple.
“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” he asked.
“I want you to know that we offer grief counseling at the church,” the reverend Nesselrode said. “Open to the public and free of charge.”
“Yes, if you want to talk about your feelings of grief in a group setting with people who are experiencing the same kind of loss you are.”
“I don’t think…”
“The group meets twice a month, on alternating Fridays. I believe this coming Friday, the day after tomorrow, is their night to meet. Please feel free to attend if you’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock.”
“Well, I don’t really like groups,” Vincent said, “and I’ve always hated meetings where you sit and listen to somebody talk. That’s not for me.”
“Well, the people in the group are lovely people. I’m sure you’d find it a rewarding experience.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”
The reverend Nesselrode leaned forward and locked his fingers together. “Your mother spoke of you on several occasions,” he said.
“Why would she do that?”
“She was worried about you. You’re about forty, aren’t you?”
“What does my age have to do with it?”
“She was concerned that, after her passing, you’d be all alone.”
“Why is that?”
“You have no other family, I understand?”
“I have some cousins living up in Minnesota. Or maybe it’s Montana. I get those two mixed up.”
“But no family nearby.”
“You see, most men your age have a family of their own, a wife and children.”
“Not all do.”
“You made it all the way through high school?”
“Don’t get me wrong, Vincent. I’m not trying to pry. I just wanted to let you know that we have many lovely single ladies in our congregation who would be happy to get to know you.”
“Why would they be happy to get to know me?”
“It would be so easy for you to meet them. All you have to do is come to our next social mixer. We have one for the middle-aged—widows and divorcees and people like that—and also one for younger adults—people in their twenties and thirties who may have made a poor choice the first time around and are looking for another chance.”
“Another chance to do what?”
“What I’m saying is it’s no good being alone, Vincent.”
“It is for some people.”
“Being alone is good for some people.”
“I’m sure that’s true, Vincent, but I hope you will at least think about what I’m saying. The message to you is this: you are not alone.”
“What are your plans now that your mother is gone and you live in this big house all alone?”
“Yes, what are you planning on doing now?”
“I’ll do what I’ve always done, I guess.”
“Are you able to take care of the housework on your own? The cooking and shopping and laundry?”
“Sure, I’ve done those things all my life.”
“I just want you to know that if you need help we have ladies in the church, volunteers, who will come in a morning or two a week a help out with laundry or household chores.”
“Yes, they’re older women, retired, with plenty of time on their hands. They like to help out bachelors and widowers. People like yourself.”
“Do they get paid by the hour?”
“They don’t get paid at all. They’re Christian ladies. They like to help out where help is needed.”
“Well, not quite like Superman. Superman’s a fictional character. These are real people.”
“So, shall I send someone out for you?”
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t really need any help like that.”
“Well, I’m happy that you are getting along so well,” the reverend Nesselrode said.
“Yeah, thanks for stopping by.”
“We’re having a special prayer meeting on Saturday evening for people like you.”
“People like me?”
“Yes, the theme is going to be ‘succor for the lonely’.”
“Yes, ‘succor for the lonely’. The meeting starts at seven o’clock. We’d be happy to have you join us. Dress is casual.”
“So you’ll come then? To the prayer meeting on Saturday evening?”
“I don’t think so,” Vincent said. “I’m planning on being out of town on Saturday.”
“All right. Well, if you should happen to change your mind, please feel free to come anyway. I think you’ll find it very enjoyable.”
“Okay, but I won’t be there.”
“There are times in life where it’s a good to keep an open mind.”
“I know that.”
“You seem to be opposed to everything I’ve said.”
“Maybe I just don’t like your church. It’s not the idea of religion. It’s just the church.”
“They’re the same.”
“No, they’re not.”
“I find your reluctance difficult to fathom with your mother being the devout church member she was.”
“She only got that way after she got old. She was afraid of dying and going to hell. When she was young, she did some pretty bad things, from what I understand. She liked no-account men. She had some abortions.”
“Well, she was washed in the Blood of the Lamb. The Lord Jesus Christ has forgiven all her transgressions.”
“I hope so.”
“That’s the message: no matter what you’ve done, you have only to ask for forgiveness and forgiveness will be granted.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“Was that all you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Just one more thing. Your house.”
“What about my house?”
“Your house has many rooms.”
“Fifteen,” Vincent said. “I used to go through and count them every day when I was little, as if the number might change.”
“Does a young man living alone really need fifteen rooms?” the reverend Nesselrode asked.
Vincent shrugged and wished the reverend Nesselrode would go away and leave him alone.
“This house would be ideal as a halfway house for young runaways or recovering drug addicts.”
“Halfway house! What’s that?”
“It’s a place for troubled young people to stay for a period of time, a few weeks or longer, while they’re getting their lives in order.”
“I wouldn’t want people like that in my house,” Vincent said.
The reverend Nesselrode laughed. “No, you don’t understand,” he said. “You wouldn’t still live here.”
“Where would I live?”
“We’d acquire the property from you and in return we’d swap you for a smaller house, more suitable to your needs, or a nice apartment in town.”
“So, you want me to give you my house?”
“Well, that’s not quite the way I’d…”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Well, it’s something to for you to think about, anyway.”
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
The reverend Nesselrode stood up from the couch. “Well, I must be running along,” he said. “I have other calls to make. I’m so glad we had this little chat today and I hope I’ve given you something interesting to think about.”
Vincent also stood up. “Thanks for coming,” he said.
“Would you like to pray with me before I go?”
“Well, here’s my card. If you ever want to call me for any reason, day or night, don’t hesitate to do so. And I hope you’ll think about coming to Sunday service or any of our activities during the week. I know it would have made your mother very happy for you to become active in the church.”
Vincent took the card and put it in his pocket. “I think I should tell you that my mother wasn’t what you think,” he said. “You think you knew her but you didn’t.”
“All right! Well, so great seeing you again!”
After the reverend Nesselrode was gone, Vincent triple-locked the door, turned out the lights and went upstairs. He went into his bedroom, locked the door and pulled the curtains closed.
In his dresser drawer he kept a small gun that fit snugly into the palm of his hand. He picked the gun up and looked closely at it as if seeing it for the first time. He hadn’t fired the gun in a long time but he knew it was loaded because it was always loaded.
He stood in front of the mirror and watched himself as he pointed the gun at the side of his head. Then he lowered the gun and inserted the barrel into his mouth. When he saw how silly he looked, he took the gun away and turned from the mirror.
“I don’t want to be a walking cliché,” he said.
Standing halfway between the bed and the dresser, his back to the mirror, he pointed the gun at his chest where his heart was beating and pulled the trigger. The force of the blow knocked him off his feet and the gun clattered to the floor beside him. Still, seconds passed before he felt any pain and when the pain came it was with the release of much blood.
He put his hands to his chest, covering the place where the blood was issuing forth. He was surprised at how much blood his body had in it and how warm it felt. It pumped out of him, soaking his clothes, pooling on the floor around him.
He had the feeling someone was in the room with him but he couldn’t be sure. He lifted his head from the floor and looked over at the bed and at the locked door but saw no one. Through clenched teeth, in gasping breaths, he spoke: “I am. Washed. In the. Blood of the Lamb.”
Finding comfort in the words, he wanted to say them again and then again, but all the breath left his body and the light, whatever there was, went out of him.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp