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The Percy Costellos

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The Percy Costellos ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story is a continuation of “At the Mannequin Factory,” posted on September 4, and “The Celestial City,” posted on Sept. 16.)

She was without illusion. She was ugly. She would never be anything but ugly. Ugly was not without its compensations, though. People didn’t ask her for directions or to lift things down for them at the grocery story; they looked through her as if she wasn’t there. She had heard about women (mostly from watching the eye, which she didn’t bother with much, anymore) having terrible problems with boyfriends and husbands, or just men in general. And, then, of course, there were the children that resulted from the relationships with these men; the children were a whole different set of problems that one might avoid by being ugly. She didn’t choose to be ugly; it was just the way things happened. If she had been given a choice, would she have chosen to be beautiful with all its attendant problems? No, she would have chosen not to be born at all.

Shakespeare might have had any of a dozen women at the mannequin factory—and not just mannequin women, either, but real ones. He was, if not exactly good-looking, at least passable, with a good smile, abundant hair, clean fingernails and a flat stomach. Why he would pay any attention at all to Elma the Ugly was beyond her ken.

She was sitting at her desk when he came in and placed a chocolate bar with nuts in front of her. Her first instinct was to say she didn’t want it, but when she saw the way he was smiling at her she couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“What’s this for?” she asked.

“You don’t like chocolate?” he asked.

“Why me?”

“Because we’re friends.”

“No, we’re not.”

Her voice didn’t have quite the edge that it had before. She was softening toward him.

“Have lunch with me today,” he said.

“I never eat lunch.”

“I have something I want to discuss with you.”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Mr. Hilyer is out of town at a mannequin convention.”

“So?”

“Nobody will know if you step out for lunch today.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I’ll come by about a quarter to twelve. We’ll go to a spaghetti place I know.”

“I don’t like spaghetti.”

 “I’ll see you at a quarter to twelve.”

She spent ten minutes in the ladies’ fluffing up her hair and painting her lips with a lipstick she had taken to carrying around with her. At a quarter to twelve, her heart was pounding and she felt nauseated.

He showed up exactly on time and she was waiting for him.

The spaghetti restaurant was a ten-minute walk from the mannequin factory. He walked leisurely, as if he had all day. She worried about how much time she was going to be away from the mannequin factory but said nothing.

Over a plate of spaghetti, he leaned forward and said, “You look different now. Better.”

“There is no reason for you to make personal remarks about the way I look,” she said.

“You saw the Celestial City,” he said. “That’s why you look different.”

“I will admit that I took the stupid pill you gave me because I was feeling very bad.”

“And you were looking for an escape.”

“I thought I was going to die and I wouldn’t have cared much if I had.”

“You saw the Celestial City.”

“I saw something. I don’t know what it was. I won’t ever do it again.”

“It made you feel better, though, didn’t it?”

“I don’t know why I don’t call the police and report you for the drug dealer that you are.”

“That’s not what I am.”

“I have to get back to the mannequin factory. I shouldn’t even be here.”

“Nobody will know you’re gone.”

“Thanks for the lunch,” she said. “Let’s not do it again.”

“I have something important I want to discuss with you,” he said.

“No matter what you have to say, I don’t want to hear it.”

“I want you to meet me after work on Friday.”

“How do I know you won’t murder me?”

He surprised her by laughing. “If I wanted to murder you,” he said, “I could have already done it. Remember, I know where you live.”

“Let’s just forget the whole thing,” she said. “Forget you’ve ever seen me. Forget you know where I live.”

“It’s about your parents.”

“You don’t know anything about them. They keep to themselves and so do I.”

“I don’t want to say more now than what I’ve already said. Meet me on Friday at five o’clock.”

“I won’t,” she said.

“Yes, you will.”

He was waiting for her at the door as she exited the mannequin factory on Friday. She sighed when she saw him but went with him to his Cadillac.

He drove out of the city into the country and stopped at an old cemetery, the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost.

“Is this where you’re going to kill me?” she said.

“If I was going to kill you, this would probably be the place to do it,” he said.

They got out of the car and he led her past a myriad of grave monuments, down a hill and then up another hill to a recent grave that didn’t have a headstone. The dirt was still mounded up and there were some remnants of old flowers.

“I need to get home,” she said. “I have things to do.”

“I’ll bet you’d never guess whose grave this is,” he said.

“No, and I don’t care.”

“It’s my mother. She died almost four months ago.”

“All right. Now that we’ve seen it, can we go?”

“Not just yet. She made me promise before she died that I’d find you and tell you the truth.”

“The truth about what?”

“Let’s find someplace to sit down.”

“I’d rather stand. That way I’m closer to leaving.

“Suit yourself. Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Do I have a choice, now that you’ve dragged me out here?”

“Your father is Percy Costello and your mother is Estelle Costello? Is that right?”

“How do you know their names?”

“When my mother was young, she was a baby snatcher and she was never caught.”

“She was a what?”

“Just let me explain. She made her living as a baby snatcher. She was never married to my father and she needed money to raise me.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“Percy and Estelle Costello are not your real parents.”

“Are you crazy? What are you talking about?”

“When you were nine months old, my mother kidnapped you from your real parents and sold you to Percy and Estelle for a thousand dollars.”

“That’s not true.”

“The police looked for you but after about three years they figured you were dead and gave up. Your real parents were dead by then, anyway, killed in a plane crash, so there was no reason to keep up the search.”

“I don’t know what your game is, but I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”

“My mother told me all about it from the time I was old enough to understand. She never stopped feeling guilty over it. She used to sit at night and cry about it. She had newspaper clippings about your disappearance as a baby and how the police never had any leads.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Your real name is Paulette Merriman. Your father was a policeman and your mother a high school teacher. You were an only child. You lived in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

“I was never in Nebraska.”

“Percy and Estelle wanted you to help around the house because they had trouble walking and doing things for themselves. They promised my mother they would never mistreat you and would give you a good home, like a puppy or a kitten. She told them she’d keep an eye on them to make sure they kept up their end of the bargain. If there was any reason for her to think you were being neglected or mistreated, she threatened to go to the police and tell them the whole story.”

“I think you have me confused with somebody else. I never knew anybody named Paulette Merriman. That’s not my name.”

“When I was in high school, we lived about three blocks from you and we both went to the same school. I used to see you at school every day. You were so shy you wouldn’t even look at me.”

“I don’t remember.”

“My mother used to park on the street and watch you go in and out of your house. She would ask me almost every day if I saw you at school. She would want to know what you were wearing and if you seemed clean and happy.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That you were like a little mouse afraid of being eaten by the cat.”

“I don’t believe any of this.”

“There was an English teacher with a fake nose. Her name was Miss Jilson.  I’ll bet you remember her, don’t you?”

“That doesn’t mean you went to the same school.”

“A boy a grade ahead of us got drunk and passed out on the highway at midnight and was hit by a car and killed. Everybody talked about it for weeks.”

“Ellis Persons,” she said. “That was his name.”

“Now do you think I’m lying?”

“Just because you know about Ellis Persons isn’t proof that what you’re saying is true.”

“Just think about what I’ve told you. I think it’ll all start to make sense after a while.”

“You’re a liar. Take me home now.”

“Ask Percy and Estelle if they’re your real parents. Ask to see your birth certificate. Ask them where you were born and when.”

“They’d only pretend they don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d never get the truth out of them.”

“Didn’t you always having the feeling there was something missing in the way Percy and Estelle behaved toward you? They didn’t mistreat you, but not mistreating you was the only good thing you could say about them.”

“How do you know so much about it? I want to go home now.”

On the way back to town, despite her objections, he stopped at a road house. They went inside and sat at a back booth, had chili and ribs. The place was quiet. She had her first beer out of a bottle and then a second.

She didn’t say anything for a long time and then she said, “All these years I’ve cleaned up after them, taken them their snacks, breathed their cigarette smoke, helped them to bed and to the toilet, and I’m not even related to them.”

“So, do you believe me now?”

“If it’s true—and I’m going to have to see some proof—I’m going to kill them.”

“No, you’re not. You’d go to prison.”

“Not if I do it right.”

“I have eighteen thousand dollars. That’s enough for you to go far away and live decently until you can find a job.”

“I don’t want money from you.”

“It’s not from me. It’s from the person who kidnapped you and ruined your life. I told her I’d see that you got it. She thought it would square her in heaven.”

He didn’t take her home until eleven o’clock, and when he pulled up in front of her house he shut off the engine.

“I want you to see my people,” Elma said.

“Percy and Estelle?”

“No. I mean my real people upstairs in my room.”

Momma and Poppa were sitting in front of the eye, puffing away in a fog of cigarette smoke. When Elma came into the house with a person they didn’t know and had never seen before, they didn’t even look up.

“Get me some cheese crackers!” Momma said.

“About out of smokes here!” Poppa said.

“Good evening, sir!” Shakespeare said. “How are you, ma’am?”

“They don’t hear you,” Elma said. “They’re in a trance. That’s what the eye does to them. And the Marlboros.”

“This is no way for a person to live,” Shakespeare said.

After Elma got Momma and Poppa the things they wanted, she took Shakespeare up the winding stairs to the rooms above and, once they were inside, she locked the door.

Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for the mannequins was equal to Elma’s own. He admired all the figures in her collection, their clothes and especially the way their faces made you feel that everything was going to be all right.

“I paint their faces, you know,” he said. “They speak to me in my dreams.”

Frankie, in the bed in the silk pajamas, was her favorite, she said. She pulled back the covers and picked Frankie up and set him on his feet beside the bed.

“I have another pair,” she said. “I want you to put them on and take Frankie’s place tonight.”

She took a pair of yellow-and-red silk pajamas out of the dresser drawer and handed them to Shakespeare. As he undressed, she turned away and prepared herself for bed.

So now she lay in bed, with Shakespeare beside her in Frankie’s favorite silk pajamas. She turned off the light and lay back and pulled the covers up to her chin. She didn’t need the Celestial City or anything else as long as he was there beside her, living and breathing.

(To be continued.)

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Good Soldier ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Good Soldier – A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The English writer with the humorously redundant name, Ford Madox Ford (real name Ford Hermann Hueffer), wrote the famous and highly regarded twentieth century novel, The Good Soldier, around 1915 (that’s when it was first published). The novel’s subtitle, A Tale of Passion, suggests that there is more drama and tragedy in the novel than there is. While there are suicide, infidelity and madness, to be sure, the whole thing is narrated in a humorous fashion in the first-person voice of John Dowell, one of the four major characters. John Dowell is an American millionaire and his wife’s name is Florence. The Dowells are gadding about in Europe, seeking curative waters in Germany, where they make the acquaintance of one Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora. (Edward Ashburnham is the soldier referred to in the title.) While the Ashburnhams appear to be “good people” on the surface, John Dowell and his wife soon discover, as they are drawn into the Ashburnhams’ world, that all is not as it seems.

Edward Ashburnham is good-looking and rich. Since he is of the “idle” class (he doesn’t have to work for a living), his main preoccupation is having affairs with inappropriate women. It doesn’t seem to concern him that the women are already married or underage; no matter the circumstances, he is swept away by passion. His wife, Leonora, who is possibly insane, doesn’t approve of her husband’s many love affairs. She is a Catholic and Catholics don’t believe in divorce, so she will have to stay married to him, no matter how many women he has on the side. She turns out to be a reprehensible shrew and, ironically, is the only character in the novel who ends up happy and satisfied.

Mild-mannered and seemingly innocent John Dowell (the novel’s narrator) seems to have missed something when it comes to his wife, Florence. (They had a sort of arranged marriage in the first place and really don’t like each other very much.) John is surprised to discover that Florence fakes a heart condition so she can stay put to continue her clandestine affair with a repulsive young man named Jimmy. Later on, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to John to learn that Florence has become one of Edward Ashburnham’s female “conquests.” Edward just can’t seem to help himself when it comes to women. Late in the novel he develops an attachment to an innocent (knows absolutely nothing about life) young girl named Nancy Rufford, and it is this attachment that proves his undoing, as his wife schemes in the background to keep him from having what he wants.

The Good Soldier is an unconventional novel in that it is told mostly in flashbacks and moves around from one time period to another. It’s set in the early 1900s over a period of nine years or so. Being a product of its time, there is no sexual content, even though one of its main themes is infidelity. If marital relationships and infidelity are not your cup of tea (they certainly aren’t mine), the novel is diverting enough, short enough, and easy to read enough to make it worthwhile. It’s easy to pick up and easy to put down. If you are making your way through the best-known, best-loved and most famous novels in English of the twentieth century, then you could do a lot worse. You could take a stab at James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which to me is all but unreadable.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Celestial City

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The Celestial City ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story is a continuation of “At the Mannequin Factory,” that I posted on September 4.)

Elma awoke, more than ever conscious that Frankie, in the bed beside her in silk pajamas, wasn’t a real person, but a mannequin with movable arms and legs. She groaned and sat up and covered Frankie with the blanket so she wouldn’t have to look at him. It was Monday morning and a squinty-eyed look at the clock revealed that it was already later than she thought.

On this morning she took more pains with her appearance than usual. She stood under a spray of scalding water and washed her hair; after it was dry, she brushed it vigorously in an attempt to give it some body. She had found an ancient tube of lipstick and this she dabbed to her lips, sparingly, to give her face a little color. When she was dressed, she tied a red-and-blue scarf around her shoulders, looking at herself in the smoky dresser mirror to determine if any of these little blandishments had made a difference.

At the mannequin factory, she didn’t say a word to anybody. She went to her desk and began doing the work that had been left to her by people she never saw and who treated her, not badly, but like a piece of the furniture.

In the middle of the morning, she was aware of somebody standing in the doorway looking at her. She turned toward the wall and blew her nose loudly into a wad of used tissue. When she turned back around, the person was still standing there, making clucking sounds with his tongue to get her attention. She looked up and when she saw it was Shakespeare, her heart gave a little lurch in spite of itself.

“Are you looking for someone?” she asked.

“Only you,” he said.

She bit her lip and said, “Humph!”

“You’re looking radiant today,” he said.

She knew how hideously ugly she was; she believed that anybody who suggested otherwise was making fun of her.

“Do you want me to tell Mr. Hilyer you’re here to see him?” she asked.

“I’m not,” Shakespeare said. “I’m here to see you.”

“How many times do I have to tell you?” she said. “I’m not interested in your little games.”

“You don’t mean that,” he said. “Your heart cries out.”

She stood up and walked to the door of Mr. Hilyer’s office and put her hand on the knob and started to open the door. It was the cue for Shakespeare to leave.

“I’ll see you later,” he said, waggling his fingers at her and disappearing around the corner.

She sat back down at her desk and Mr. Hilyer came out of his office. He was unused to hearing her speak at all, so he asked, “Who were you talking to?”

“Nobody,” she said. “Nobody here.”

At lunchtime she went down to the lunchroom to get a little carton of milk to have with her roll and apple. Shakespeare was sitting at one of the tables and when he saw her he jumped up and came toward her. She got her milk as fast as she could and turned her back to him, but he followed along behind her.

“Stay and talk for a little while,” he said. “Have a cigarette.”

“No!” she said. “Some of us have work to do!”

“Don’t you want to ask me anything?” he asked.

“Only why you’re bothering me!”

“So you want me to leave you alone, then?”

“Yes!”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” He laughed and was gone.

When she left work at the end of the day, Shakespeare was waiting for her at the door, as if it was something he did every day.

She groaned and said, “I don’t want to see you!”

“I have a car today,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

“I don’t want it!”

Nevertheless, she let herself be led to his car, an old black Cadillac, and got in on the passenger side when he unlocked the door.

“At least it isn’t raining today,” he said as he got in and started the car. The car made a vroom-vroom sound and he said, “This is a classic. They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“You can let me out anywhere,” she said. “I’m used to walking.”

“You don’t want to have a drink with me?” he asked.

“No! I don’t drink!”

He turned and looked at her with a smile and she turned her face away.

“You don’t much like the way you look, do you?” he said.

“What business is it of yours?”

“I can help you if you’ll let me.”

“Let me out at the next corner.”

“All your life you’ve been told you’re ugly and they’ve got you believing it.”

“That’s enough. Let me out!”

“No, I don’t want to,” he said.

“Why do you persist in bothering me?” she asked. “Just look at me!”

“You know I spray paint mannequins at the mannequin factory?”

“I’m so happy for you!”

“No, you’re not. You’re very unhappy.”

“You know nothing about me.”

“I know more than you think I know.”

“If you don’t stop bothering me, I’m going to tell Mr. Hilyer.”

“What do you think he’d do? Is he your boyfriend or something?”

“You can let me out anywhere,” she said. “I’ve had enough of this and I’m going to walk the rest of the way.”

“Did you take the pill I gave you on Friday?”

“Pill?”

“Don’t you remember? In the bar after work I gave you a pill and told you to take it when you got home.”

“I remember saying I was going to flush it down the toilet.”

“Did you take it?”

“I flushed it down the toilet.”

“I wanted you to take it.”

“Why?”

“Because it will make you happy and beautiful, at least for a little while.”

“I was going to call the police and tell them you’re distributing illegal drugs, but I couldn’t remember your name and I didn’t think you were worth it, anyway.”

When he pulled up in front of her house, she realized she hadn’t told him where she lived. “How did you know?” she asked.

“I’m a good guesser.”

She opened the door and started to get out.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have something I want to give you.”

“I don’t want anything you have,” she said.

He took a pill out of a little bottle and put it in the palm of her hand. “Don’t flush this one down the toilet,” he said.

“What is it?”

“It wouldn’t help you to know the name.”

“You’re not going to make a dope fiend out of me, if that’s what your little game is.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“What will it do to me?”

“It won’t hurt you, I promise.”

“What will it do to me?”

“You’ll see the Celestial City.”

“Does that mean I die?”

“There is no death in the Celestial City.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but the main thing is I don’t give a shit.”

“You will,” he said. “Give it time.”

For the rest of the week she didn’t see Shakespeare at the mannequin factory. She was both relieved and alarmed.

By the time the work week was over, she was sick. She had caught a cold and ached in every part of her body. When she tried to eat a little breakfast on Saturday morning, she threw up on the kitchen floor. After she cleaned up the mess, she locked herself in her room and went back to bed.

As she lay there, she remembered the pill that Shakespeare had given her. Without thinking too much about it, she arose from the bed, took it out of its hiding place in the dresser drawer, and swallowed it.

She lay back down on the bed, composing herself for death, legs straight out and hands over her abdomen. She knew she was taking a terrible chance by swallowing a pill that a person like Shakespeare had given her, but she was past caring. If she died, she would never have to see Momma and Poppa again or the mannequin factory, which had lately become more and more odious to her.

She felt nothing for a few minutes, but then the room began to move, not in a vertiginous but in a joyful, musical way. The people around her, the mannequins she had rescued from destruction at the mannequin factory, began to move around her in time to a beautiful melody. They were fluid in their motions, even the mustachioed outdoorsman and the little boy at play. She felt herself—saw herself—being lifted up from the bed, suspended in the air, surrounded by the mannequins in a circle of light and love. And just above her head, where the ceiling had been, the Celestial City opened up in a burst of brilliant light and untold beauty. A man stepped forward from the light, perhaps a mannequin and perhaps not; she wanted to go to him but was for the moment unable to move her arms and legs. Slowly the man dissolved into nothingness and she fell back on the bed in blackness and utter despair.

(To be continued.)

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Appointment in Samarra ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

American author John O’Hara lived from 1905 to 1970. His 1934 novel, Appointment in Samarra, is his best-known and most important work. It’s set in 1930 in the small (under 25,000) town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. It chronicles three days in the lives of Julian English, 29, and his lovely wife, Caroline Walker English, 31. Julian owns a Cadillac dealership; Caroline is a society matron and gadabout. They are looked upon as “quality” in the town, meaning they have plenty of money (they both come from a background of prosperity) and have lots of time to drink and socialize with the country club set.

Julian English has everything a person might want and is, of course, good-looking and polished, but he has plenty of problems, not the least of which is that he is an alcoholic, although that word is never used in the novel. While the Depression still hasn’t taken its toll on Gibbsville (it’s 1930, remember), it’s bound to get a whole lot worse and Julian is worried about his Cadillac dealership going bankrupt. Certain things are expected of a man like Julian, and failure isn’t one of them. (If he fails, he’ll have to account to his snooty, physician father.) Also, Julian has a fidelity problem; although he has an attractive wife, he can’t seem to stay away from the other women. (Casual infidelity does seem to be a hallmark of this group of people.)

At a Christmas dance at the country club, a very drunk Julian has a set-to with a “friend” named Harry Reilly and throws a drink in his face, blacking his eye with ice in the drink. Word spreads quickly about the impulsive act, and the sad truth for Julian is that most people are sympathetic to Harry Reilly and consider him (Julian) an ass. This is just the first step in a brief downward spiral for Julian that culminates in a surprising (for those unfamiliar with the ending) act of desperation.

Appointment in Samarra was considered “frank” when it was published in the 1930s, but is, of course, mild by the trashy standards of today and even by the Peyton Place standards of the 1950s. In the 1930s John O’Hara was chronicling his own times, as John Updike did (with much more sexual explicitness) thirty or forty years later with novels like Couples and Rabbit, Run. It’s a fascinating piece of Americana (easy to read at 240 pages) and is still so highly regarded more than eighty years after its publication that it’s on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Don’t Breathe ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Don’t Breathe – A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Three young people, Alex, Roxanne and Money (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto), burglarize people’s houses for a living. When they hear about an eccentric war veteran who has three hundred thousand dollars from a settlement involving his daughter’s traffic death, they think it will be an easy score; he is bound to have the money somewhere in his house, since he is reputed to not trust banks. The fact that he is blind makes it even more of a cinch. How can they go wrong? If they can get that much money from one break-in, they can quit robbing houses and do something less risky. Roxanne can get her young daughter away from her trashy home life.

The blind veteran (Stephen Lang) with the three hundred thousand dollars lives in a nearly abandoned section of Detroit. He is, in fact, the only person there. He lives in an old house with only a vicious, snarling dog for company. When Alex, Roxanne and Money arrive in the middle of the night to break into the blind man’s house, they know about the dog beforehand so they have a doggie treat ready that will put the dog to sleep (not long enough, as they soon discover).

The blind man isn’t the pushover the burglars think he is going to be. The house is fortified like a prison with bars on the windows. They trip the alarm system to get inside and, once inside, they realize they can’t get back out. Though he can’t see them, the blind man is more than capable of defending himself. He knows there is at least one intruder, but he doesn’t know how many. He kills Money right off and is stalking Alex and Roxanne with deadly intent. When they are trying to find a way out, Alex and Roxanne discover a secret in the blind man’s basement they would be better off not knowing. The message here is clear: If you break into people’s houses to rob them, you are probably asking for a deadly dose of something terrible and, if you get it, you probably deserve it.

Don’t Breathe is an effective suspense/horror film with, you can tell, a modest budget and a running time of an hour and twenty-eight minutes. The horror is not supernatural horror involving ghosts and malevolent spirits but earthly horror that comes from what people do to other people. It’s plenty violent and there are some unexpected twists and turns along the way, involving prey that turns out to be more predator. There’s a twist at the end that might lend itself to a sequel, depending on how profitable the original is.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

A Lesson Before Dying ~ A Capsule Book Review

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A Lesson Before Dying — A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A Lesson Before Dying, a novel written by Ernest J. Gaines (born 1933), was first published in 1993. The setting is a poor, black, farming community in Louisiana in the late 1940s. A young black man, named Jefferson, is wrongly convicted of a murder, when his only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because Jefferson is uneducated and poor, he doesn’t stand a chance in the white courts, with a white jury. The white, court-appointed attorney, whose job it is to defend Jefferson, compares him to an animal, saying that he has no more awareness of what is going on than a hog would and should not be executed any more than a hog should be. Jefferson is, of course, found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. (We know at the outset that he is going to die and nothing is going to change that.) All this happens in the first few pages of the novel. The rest of the story is taken up with how the people who know and love him help him to die with dignity and grace. Jefferson, in no sense a hero, becomes almost a Christ-like symbol to his people.

The story is told in the first-person voice of Grant Wiggins, teacher at the plantation school, which is held in a room in the church. Grant Wiggins is a conflicted character. He has been away to the university to learn how to become a teacher and, instead of heading for greener pastures the way most educated, young, black men would do in the South, he returns to the place of his birth to teach the poor children there and to try to make a difference in people’s lives. He lives with an old aunt, Tante Lou, who raised him because his parents went off and left him. Tante Lou is outspoken and holds a grudge against Grant because he has stopped going to church. He believes in God, he says, but he can’t believe in heaven or a lot of the other things the church teaches. He says he hates teaching and he hates the way he lives, but still he stays. He has a girlfriend named Vivian who has a couple of kids and a husband from whom she is trying to get a divorce. Grant talks all the time about going away with Vivian to a better place, but, for complicated reasons, he can’t bring himself to leave.

Jefferson’s godmother, or “nannan” (Tante Lou’s best friend) calls on Grant Wiggins to visit Jefferson in the jail over the course of the time he has left and get him—force him if necessary—to go to the electric chair as a man, with dignity, and not as a “hog.” She and her friend Reverend Ambrose also want Grant to help Jefferson accept Jesus into his life, because they believe he will go to hell if he doesn’t. Grant very reluctantly agrees to try to help Jefferson over the two months or so that Jefferson has left to live, but he isn’t sure that anything he can do will make a difference. It isn’t just for Jefferson’s sake that Grant wants him to die with dignity, but also for Jefferson’s nannan, for Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, the children in the school, and all the people in the “quarter.”

A Lesson Before Dying is not so much about race relations in the South after World War II—although that is an element in the story—as it is about the difference that one unlikely person can make in the world. The ending is touching and completely believable without being maudlin or melodramatic. It is a novel so beautifully written, so succinct and spare in its 256 pages, that it’s a pleasure to read, even for the second time.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

At the Mannequin Factory

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At the Mannequin Factory ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Poppa’s face was dry and lined, like old leather. The red pouches under his eyes made his eyes look half-closed, even when they were open all the way. His mouth was a thin, lipless line in which a Marlboro cigarette was inserted. For sixty of his seventy years, he had smoked Marlboros, an untold and uncalculated number of them.

He reclined in his chair that had molded itself to the shape of his body—or his body had molded itself to the shape of the chair. The room was dark and low, the perpetual cloud of smoke hanging like a pall between Poppa and the ceiling. A small lamp with a little cluster of red flowers painted on the lampshade, the only color in the room, sat on a table between his chair and Momma’s.

Poppa and Momma both puffed on their cigarettes. For them, puffing on a cigarette was part of the act of breathing. A breath wasn’t a breath without a puff to complement it. And while they puffed away they both kept their eyes on the screen a few feet in front of them. The screen was the eye on the world, the only eye, to which they had given their fealty. It didn’t matter what was on—a boxing match, a train wreck, news of the world, cowboys and Indians, romance, dancing, drama, music or laughter—it was all the same: they regarded everything the eye brought to them with the same fish-eyed blankness.

The door opened and Elma entered. Momma and Poppa didn’t look up but instead kept looking at the eye. Elma took off her coat and hat and stood in the middle of the room; she looked expectantly at Momma and Poppa, though the eyes through which she saw them were only slits.

“Beer, beer, beer!” Papa said.

“Popcorn, popcorn!” Momma said. “Peanuts, Peanuts!”

Elma went into the kitchen to get the things they wanted and took them back into the living room. When she set the bottle of beer on the table next to Poppa’s arm, he didn’t look up, but his arm reached out, seemingly of its own accord, and brought the bottle to his lips. He took a long drink and smacked his lips and set the bottle back down.

Elma had mixed the peanuts and popcorn together in one bowl, the way Momma liked them. Momma grabbed the bowl and began eating hungrily, never looking away from the eye. Elma opened a new carton of Marlboros and stacked the packs on the table, five on Poppa’s side and five on Momma’s, and when these things were done she went up the winding stairs to her own people.

The room seemed crowded now with twelve of them. They sat or stood about in different poses. Elma had dressed, wigged and hatted them according to her own whims. There was the society lady with the fox fur, the businessman with a pencil-line mustache, the small boy standing beside the dresser in play togs, ready to catch a ball, the lady with one leg canted out, hands on hips. They all had beautiful, painted-on, perfectly proportioned faces, luminous eyes and pearl-like teeth.

Some had movable arms and legs so they might be posed sitting or reclining. Elma liked these best because they seemed more real. To amuse herself, she would sometimes dress a man in a lady’s dress—including a hat with a veil—or a lady in a man’s work clothes or overalls. She also tried different wigs and hats to get a different look or feel. In this way she amused herself for hours and kept from being lonely.

There was one man in particular she liked to whom she had given the name Frankie. His arms and legs moved and his head swiveled from side to side. His skin was soft and pliable and warm to the touch. Elma dressed him in silk pajamas and put him beside her in the bed and covered him up. On cold nights, with the light off, she would have almost sworn there was a living, breathing man in the bed beside her. It gave her a feeling of well-being unlike anything else.

For twelve of her thirty-nine years, Elma had worked in the office of a mannequin factory. All day long she sat at a desk and typed letters or did small errands for the two bosses. They liked her because she always did what she was told to do without complaint, worked for very little money, never missed work, and didn’t mind working an hour or two over when the work was piling up. She was the very rare woman who had little to say and didn’t believe that her opinions were of any importance. If they could have ordered a dozen more like Elma, they would have.

Anytime a mannequin couldn’t be used or was defective in any way, Elma asked if she might have it to keep for her own. Nobody at the mannequin factory ever asked her why she wanted the mannequins or what she did with them, but they were always willing to comply. These mannequins that Elma rescued from the trash heap she added to her collection. When she carried one of the mannequins home, people stopped to look at her, but nobody ever suggested that she was doing something she shouldn’t do or that she should be stopped. Poppa and Momma, of course, never noticed what she did and never went up the winding stairs to her rooms.

One day Elma noticed a man looking at her at the mannequin factory. She discovered his name was Alexander A. Alexander but he went by the name of Shakespeare. She thought at first that he was looking at her because he was new and didn’t know anybody yet, but a week later he was still looking at her, although she didn’t know any reason why he should.

She was delivering a typed report to one of the bosses when she met Shakespeare face to face in an otherwise deserted hallway. Instead of veering away from her and keeping on his side, he stepped in front of her and stopped her in her tracks. He put his hand familiarly on the underside of her wrist and smiled.

“I believe I know you,” he said.

All she could do was shake her head and step around him and walk on. When she got back to her desk, she was breathless and a little confused. No man had ever paid any attention to her before and when she looked at herself in the mirror she knew why. By the kindest and most generous assessment, she was hideously ugly. Her nose was crooked, her hair mouse-brown, her eyes small and ferret-like, her teeth misshapen and brown. She could never remember a time in her life when she had cared much about the way she looked or about the effect that she might have on other people. If Shakespeare spoke to her again, she would ignore him or register a complaint.

On a blustery day in fall when she was walking home in the near-dark, she realized Shakespeare had fallen into step beside her. She hadn’t seen where he came from; he was just there.

“Leave me alone!” she said. “You don’t have any business bothering me!”

She looked at him and when she saw the hurt in his eyes, she knew she had been more unkind than she needed to be.

At home it was always the same. Momma and Poppa never looked at her or spoke to her. They just sat puffing and looking at the eye. She brought their food, which some days was only pretzels, candy, popcorn or beer. When she fixed them a sandwich or a bowl of soup, they hardly ever ate it and she ended up throwing it out.

In the evening after she saw they only wanted to be left alone with their cigarettes and with the eye, she retreated to her rooms and to the people there with whom she felt comfort and peace. She began to ask herself: What kind of life is this I’m living and do I plan on doing these same things every day of my life until I die? The answer, if there was one, did not make itself known.

For the first time in her life, her sleep was disturbed by nightmares, and during the day at the mannequin factory she began to be nervous and tense. She took much longer to do her work than usual and any time one of the bosses sent her on an errand, she usually managed to find a private place, in the ladies’ room or elsewhere, to stand quietly and stare at the wall for a half-hour or so in a trance-like state before returning to her desk.

She didn’t see Shakespeare for several days and wondered what had happened to him. Maybe he wasn’t suited to his job, spray-painting mannequins, and had already been fired. She was more than willing to put him out of her mind.

The next time she saw Shakespeare, it was not at the mannequin factory but on the sidewalk down the street. When she saw him coming toward her in a crowd, she looked away but, again, he stopped her in her tracks and put his hand on her arm.

“I believe we knew each other once,” he said.

She stepped around him and kept going, eyes to the ground.

“Have you ever thought about trying a little makeup?” he said in a loud voice.

“Mind your own business!” she snapped.

Then one day Elma found herself on a tiny elevator with Shakespeare, going up to the fourth floor. For a couple of minutes, at least, she was stuck with him in close quarters and couldn’t walk away.

“We knew each other in school,” he said.

She looked at him with distaste. “I don’t remember,” she said.

“It was a long time ago.”

“I never saw you before,” she insisted.

On a rainy Friday as she was leaving work, Shakespeare was going out the door at the same time she was.

“Would you like to talk?” he asked.

“No!” she said.

He walked along beside her and there was nothing she could do but keep walking with her eyes down and pretend he wasn’t there. When they came to an establishment where liquor was sold, he looked at her and inclined his head to indicate they should enter. Without knowing why, she let herself be led inside.

They sat side by side at a bar. She had never been inside a barroom before and only wanted to leave. When a beer in a glass was set in front of her, she looked at it and didn’t seem to know what she was supposed to do.

“It’s a small world,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

“I don’t know why you’re bothering me,” she said, “but I want it to stop.”

“Do you think whenever a person speaks to you, they’re bothering you?”

“I want to be left alone,” she said. “I have to be getting home.”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have something I want to give you.”

“I don’t want it.”

He gave her a tiny pill that he took out of a little brown envelope in his pocket. She looked at the pill in her palm and started to give it back. “What is it?” she asked.

“It’s something that will make you feel better. About the world and about life. Take it and see if it doesn’t.”

“You’re a dope dealer?” she asked.

He laughed, showing his long teeth. “All things are relative,” he said.

“I don’t know what that means,” she said. “I have to be getting home.”

“Put it in your pocket and take it with you. Tomorrow is Saturday and you don’t have to go to work. Take the pill in the morning when you’re alone and see if you don’t have a wonderful day.”

“I won’t take it,” she said. “I’ll flush it down the toilet.”

He laughed again. “Suit yourself!”

When she walked into the house, she was more than usually disgusted by the sight of Momma and Poppa sitting in their chairs staring at the eye and puffing on their cigarettes. She wanted to leave again but the thought of the bleak, wet, lonely streets leading nowhere stopped her. Without acknowledging to Poppa and Momma even that she was home, she went up the winding stairs to her rooms and to the only people in the world who knew and loved her.

(Continued in “The Celestial City”: https://literaryfictions.com/2016/09/16/the-celestial-city/

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp