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The War is Over

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The War is Over ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Most of the people I used to know have gone away; where they have gone I don’t know. I’d like to think that some of them have found the paradise they were looking for. I stay in my little flat, even though the building is all but deserted. I have to walk up and down the six flights every time I go out or come back since the elevators have long ago stopped working. I guess the bright side, if there is one, is I don’t have to pay rent anymore because there’s nobody to collect it and money doesn’t mean anything anyway.

I lie on my bed at night and, though the building is eerily quiet, I hear sounds from far off: screams, gunshots and a wailing that might be human or maybe animal. Sometimes when I go to the window and look off into the distance, I see fires burning. Roving gangs set fires because they can and there’s nobody to stop them and nobody to put the fires out. There isn’t anything about this world that isn’t frightening. That’s why I’ll be glad to be out of it soon.

My little stores of food and water are dwindling. I take only a sip of water now and then when I can’t go without it any longer. And when it comes to food, you can get by on a surprisingly small amount when you have to. I seem to have lost any hunger, which is altogether a good thing. I have dizzy spells and blackouts, which I figure must be from poor nutrition, but it isn’t so bad. I know I’ve lost a lot of weight, but I have no way of knowing how much. Of the many ways in which I might die when my time comes, death by starvation and thirst hold no appeal for me because they are too slow. I can always jump out the window into the courtyard; a quick way, if not very aesthetic.

And then there’s my Cure for All Ills. These little capsules, one per person, were handed out to anybody who wanted them as soon as the war was lost (and lost by all sides). You just put the capsule in the back of your mouth and bite down. Death is supposed to be painless and instantaneous. This is a little trick, I’ve been told, we learned from the Nazis. I’ll take the Cure for All Ills only when the end is upon me and I fully recognize it as the end, after I’ve exhausted all the avenues for living one more hour or one more minute. Though I long for the comfort of death, I believe that I owe it to myself to stay alive as long as I can. Who knows what the next minute—or the minute after that—will bring. It doesn’t hurt to believe that something still might happen.

At night when I can’t sleep and feel sick, I entertain myself with thoughts of taking the Cure for All Ills on my bed and being transported to heaven or to a beautiful place that seems like heaven but might also be hell. I know as soon as I pass over into this place that it is where I have always longed to be. As far as my body is concerned, I can see it, in thirty years or fifty, a pile of corruption and bones among the bedclothes. It will lie undisturbed for centuries until the building crumbles to dust. And then, in three thousand years, or ten thousand, a future race of archaeologists will discover my remains and speculate about how I met my end. I’ll be put on display in a museum as an example of a lost and mysterious race of men about whom nothing is known except that they all seemed to have died about the same time.

Early in the morning there’s a knock at my door that startles me awake. I sit up in bed and don’t make a sound. There’s a second knock and I know that somebody is standing there in the hallway, listening and waiting. I want to know who it is, but I don’t dare open the door. They will kill me for the little bit of food and water I have left. Maybe kill me for nothing other than the pleasure of killing me. That’s the way the world is now. You don’t open the door unless you’re ready to defend what you have.

Whoever is doing the knocking soon leaves. I gasp with relief as I hear the receding footsteps and then the squeak of the door leading to the stairs. After a minute I feel close to tears with disappointment because now I’ll never know who it was or what they would have said to me if I had opened the door. It might have been good news; not very likely but still possible. I’m thinking it might have been my brother or my sister or somebody in my family until I remember that they all died in the war.

For the rest of the day I’m sick. After I take a sip of water, I vomit it up. I think the end can’t be too far away and I’m glad. I check and make sure my Cure for All Ills is safe in its little box in the drawer beside the bed. I’m comforted to know it’s still there, but I might not need it after all.

I sleep and wake and then sleep again. I can’t tell the waking from the sleeping. I think I hear voices and that somebody is standing beside my bed. I have to struggle to get up to make sure the door is still bolted. More than once I think my mother is here, trying to wake me up to give me some bad news, but she is no more real than the music I hear or the people I see off in the distance.

In the evening I feel better. I sit up in bed and eat a little and then I sleep peacefully for the rest of the night without any disturbing dreams.

The next day and the day after that it rains. I collect as much water as I can in pans on my little balcony. There’s nothing better than water coming down when you believe you’re about to die of thirst. I drink my fill of the metallic-tasting rain water and then, wrapped in a blanket, I sit in the window and watch the rain come down, remembering the warm fires at home and the hot food my mother prepared for me every day of my life.

When the rain stops the sun is shining. I realize I haven’t been out of my flat or seen another person in about six weeks, so I venture down the stairs and out into the courtyard. I find a place to sit in the sun and lean back and close my eyes. In a few minutes, a man I knew before the war named Jess Guttmann comes quietly from out of nowhere and sits beside me.

“You still here?” he asks.

“No place to go,” I say. “No family.”

“You look terrible.”

“Thank you,” I say. “So do you.”

“You just going to wait here for the end?” he asks.

“It can’t be too far off, now.”

“They say the cloud is closer than we think.”

“They’ve been saying that for months now.”

“My daughter died last week,” Jess Guttmann says. “She was twelve.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“She’s one of the lucky ones. She’s out of it now.”

“Soon the rest of your family can join her,” I say.

“I have my Cure for All Ills,” he says, “but I’ve just been putting off taking it. I’m not going to be able to put it off much longer, though. It’s October now and winter will be here soon. I’m not going to wait around for that.”

“Same here. I might go tonight. Or tomorrow. Who knows?”

“Do you think the Cure for All Ills works?” he asks.

“I haven’t heard anybody say it doesn’t.”

“We keep hearing rumors about some caves a hundred miles west of here that people are going to to escape the cloud,” he says.

“How many people do you think have heard that rumor? There’s going to be a lot of disappointed people.”

“You never know,” he says. “There might be a chance.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, and when I look at his face I know it isn’t what he wants to hear.

We wish each other luck and shake hands. He disappears around the corner, and I know he’s the last person I will ever see.

Two nights later I’m asleep when the building begins to shake, gently at first and then violently. Pieces of the ceiling begin to rain down on my head. I leap out of bed and fumble for my shoes but I can’t find them in the dark. My one thought is to get out of the building as fast as I can before I’m buried alive. I can’t imagine anything worse.

I grope my way in the dark to the stairs, in my bare feet, and down the six flights. The stairs are bucking and crumbling as I step on them so that I have to hang onto the rail to keep from falling. Finally I come to the door on the ground floor that will take me outside.

I think the building is surely going to come down, so I run as fast as I can to put distance between it and myself. I get maybe thirty yards away when something strikes me from behind. I don’t feel pain, but the breath is knocked out of my body and I fall forward.

There’s a tremendous roar that deafens me and then gradually subsides. Lying facedown on the ground, I have the sensation of being pulled to my feet and then lifted gently upward into the sky. Up, up, upward until I become a part of something that’s there but I don’t know yet what it is. I don’t understand what’s happening to me, but I’m no longer afraid. The one thing I do know is that, at last, my time has come. No more war for me.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Bruno Watches Miriam

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Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (1951) ~ Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Slutty Miriam in her sling-back pumps is at the carnival with not one but two boyfriends. She notices a man, whose name is Bruno Anthony, continually looking at her. She thinks he is admiring her bespectacled beauty, but we know he’s watching her for the opportune moment to kill her. It happens on Magic Isle, the Tunnel of Love destination. Watch out for that cigarette lighter!  

Dance at the Moulin Rouge ~ A Painting by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

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Lautrec ~ Dance at the Moulin Rouge

At the Moulin Rouge, the Dance (1890) by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was a French painter of the Post-Impressionist movement (along with Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin) who lived from 1864 to 1901. He was known almost as much for his deformity as for his paintings. As a child, he broke both legs, the bones failed to grow after that as a result of a genetic defect, and he grew to only four feet, eight inches in height. Dance at the Moulin Rouge was painted in 1890 and is the second of a number of paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec depicting dancing at the Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris.

The Sympathizer ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Sympathizer cover

The Sympathizer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Sympathizer by first-time novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s about the Vietnam War, the Vietnam era and, in particular, one man’s role in the whole mess. (What ever happened to the rule about novels having to be about American life to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize?) It’s 400 (almost) densely packed pages (no quotation marks; the dialogue is blended in here and there wherever it occurs). The Vietnam War and the Vietnam era would not be on my list of favorite subjects for fiction, but, for me, the saving grace of The Sympathizer is that it’s so good and such accessible, interesting reading.

The story of The Sympathizer is being told in the first-person by a narrator whose name we never know. We learn toward the end of the book that he is writing this whole thing as a confession while in solitary confinement as part of his “re-education” (another word for torture) at the hands of the communists. He is the bastard son of an illiterate Vietnamese woman and a French priest. Since he has spent part of his youth in America, he is “Americanized” and knows English well, but, in spite of that, he never feels like an American but always a bastard, the unwanted foreigner. After the fall of Vietnam and his narrow escape, along with many others, to America, he and many of his fellow countrymen want only to return to help liberate their country. What is more important that freedom and independence? The answer is nothing. (Nothing becomes a very important word to him at the end of the book.) Wait a minute, though! There’s something funny about this man. He claims to be on the side of the anticommunists, but the truth is he’s a secret communist agent. Where is he going with that? Is it safe to say he is conflicted? In the interview at the end of the novel, the author of the book, Viet Thanh Nguyen, says he deliberately wants to rattle the reader. I wouldn’t exactly say I was rattled, but only a little mystified.

For me the best parts of the book are the harrowing escape (by the narrator and his friends) from Saigon on the day it falls and the long section in the middle of the book where the narrator travels to the Philippines with an American movie crew to work as consultant on a movie that is being shot about the Vietnam War. (Ostensibly the movie is Apocalypse Now.) He wants to ensure that Vietnamese people are treated fairly in the movie but falls far short of that goal. There are a few lighter moments in The Sympathizer, as when the narrator is “dating” a much older Japanese woman who doesn’t care for him as much as he cares for her and, later, his infatuation with a beautiful Vietnamese girl named Lana (Lan); but there are also some horrible things, such as a couple of murders, a gang rape, people being dismembered by land mines, torture and other terrible things humans do to other humans in the name of some noble cause. This is a book, after all, about war. Did I need to read a book about Vietnam? Probably not, but now that I’ve read it through to the end, I’m glad to be done with it. If anybody ever asks me, I may be the only person in the room to have read it.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp 

Penny Dreadful, Season 3 ~ A Capsule Review

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Penny Dreadful poster

Penny Dreadful, Season 3 ~ A Capsule Review by Allen Kopp

Showtime’s gothic horror series set in Victorian London, Penny Dreadful, draws its inspiration from classic dark literature and horror films: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wolf Man. If you think those themes have been done to death, well, Penny Dreadful puts a new spin on all of them.

Season three has shown the advent of a few new characters, namely Dracula, in the guise of a natural historian named Dr. Alexander Sweet; Dr. Henry Jekyll, a “wog” (half-caste Indian) who was Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s only friend going back to medical school; an “alienist” named Dr. Seward (played by Patti Lupone, forbidding but oddly comforting) who undertakes the job of “analyzing” and counseling Vanessa Ives with her many supernatural problems; a “girl of the streets” named Justine, taken up by Lily and Dorian as their new protégé in evil; and Mr. Renfield, a mousey young man who works as secretary for Dr. Seward and who is in thrall to Dracula. Mr. Renfield finds out all he can about Vanessa and reports back to Dracula. (Vanessa, if you will remember going back to the previous season, is much desired by the forces of darkness.) But, wait a minute, isn’t there something familiar about Dr. Seward? Didn’t Vanessa meet her in another place and another time and in a different persona? Vanessa is sure of it, no matter how much Dr. Seward denies it.

When season three begins, soulful, cleft-chinned Dr. Victor Frankenstein is still pining over Lily, who was Brona before she died of consumption and he “reanimated” her. When his old friend Dr. Henry Jekyll arrives on the scene again, Victor is in a bad way with his obsession over Lily and his addiction to morphine, which he injects into his arm. Dr. Jekyll works with dangerous mental patients in Bedlam hospital. After Victor tells him the story of Lily, he says he can help make Lily what Victor wants her to be, by using the treatment he uses on out-of-control insane people at Bedlam. They can help each other. Victor knows how to resurrect people from the dead and Henry can make them docile and amenable.

Ethan Chandler, the wolf man, has been extradited back to America by a one-armed Scotland Yard man named Bartholomew Rusk. (Ethan, you will remember, butchered several people in England, but didn’t they, as the saying goes, have it coming?) In the wild New Mexico Territory, on a train enroute to the place where justice will be administered, the party is waylaid by a band of men who kidnap Ethan because Ethan’s father sent them. Have they saved him or is there something more sinister afoot? But—wait one damn minute!—besides the party who kidnapped Ethan, two other men are on his trail: a mysterious Indian named Kaetenay and our old friend Sir Malcolm Murray who has been recruited by Kaetenay to, as he says, “save our son.” What does he mean by this?

And then there is our friend, “the creature,” whom we met almost all the way back at the beginning of the series. Dr. Frankenstein “created” him, unhappily it seems, and he has been constantly dogging Dr. Frankenstein to do something to help him. His original intention of wanting a mate seems to have been superseded by other, more pressing, desires. He loves poetry and he seems to only want to be loved, but he will rip your head off if you give him any reason to do so. In season three, we are finding out more about his origins and how he came to be changed from a “normal” man into a monster. There is some connection between him and poor, tormented Vanessa Ives. As season three progresses, we will learn more about this.

A recurring theme in Penny Dreadful is the duality in human nature: every good that exists is counterbalanced by an equal or greater amount of bad; in every angel there’s a demon waiting to get out and in every demon an angel. It’s fantasy TV, not for everybody, of course, but for the thinking person who is fed up with raunchy sit-coms and mind-numbing commercials and drivel that TV serves up every minute of every day. It could have been schlock but it’s not. It’s intelligent and engaging, always a little surprising. (Some of the dialogue is brilliant, as in the exchanges between Dr. Seward and Vanessa.) Every episode is beautiful to look at, whether it’s the deserts of the American Southwest or the dreary, crowded streets of Victorian London. The acting is sincere; the actors never seem to think themselves superior to the material, even if it’s campy or overly familiar. I’m a big fan of Penny Dreadful and I have been since the very beginning. You can have Veep, Girls, and Game of Thrones. I’ll take Penny Dreadful.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Open All Nite

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Open All Nite ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“You’re probably not going to leave your wife for me, are you?” the waitress asked as she came toward him with a pot of coffee.

“I don’t have a wife,” he said, as if anticipating the question.

“That makes it easier, then, doesn’t it?”

“Not for me.”

She started to pour him a cup.

“I don’t want any of that,” he said.

“What?”

“I said I don’t want any coffee.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “Well, now, you really are unique, aren’t you? Ninety-nine men out of a hundred want coffee when they come in here.”

“I’m that very rare one percent who doesn’t,” he said.

“What are you having tonight?” She set the pot down and took a pad out of her apron.

“How about some hot water, a tea bag and some lemon?”

“So, what you want is a cup of tea?”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“Why don’t you want coffee?” she asked.

“It makes me vomit.”

“Well, we can’t have that, can we? That’s very discouraging to the patrons who come in here to eat.”

He looked over each shoulder and back at her. “You don’t have any patrons.”

“Well, that’s because it’s two in the morning and all decent people are at home in bed.”

“Does that mean I’m not decent?” he asked.

“You tell me. Does it?”

“I’m sure I’m just as decent as you are. Maybe more so.”

She brought a little pot of hot water, a cup, a tea bag and two slices of lemon.

“What do you have that’s good to eat?” he asked.

“Well, let me see,” she said. “We’ve got some Hungarian goulash, some chicken fricassee and some salmon croquettes.”

“Bring me a ham and cheese on rye and some cottage cheese.”

“I’m not sure about the cottage cheese, but I’ll check.”

She found some in the back of the refrigerator on the point of turning and, arranging it artfully in a small bowl on a lettuce leaf with a maraschino cherry on top, took it to him.

“You’re not the usual run of truck drivers and traveling men we get in here at night,” she said.

“No?” He looked at her without expression until she had to look away.

“Where you coming from?”

“East,” he said.

“Where you heading?”

“West.”

“It’s always lovely there this time of year, I hear.”

A few minutes later she brought him the ham and cheese on rye on a large plate with a profusion of lettuce. She set the plate down and said, “Will there be anything else, sir?”

He shook his head, his eyes on the sandwich.

When he was finished eating, he motioned to her and she gave him the check.

“Was everything all right, sir?” she asked.

“I was never here,” he said.

“What?”

“You never saw me.” He took a gun out of his pocket and laid it on the counter beside the plate.

“There’s about twenty-one dollars in the cash drawer,” she said. “Take it.”

He smiled for the first time. “I don’t want your twenty-one dollars.”

“What’s the gun for? You don’t need to be flashing that in here.”

“You’re here all alone, aren’t you?”

“The cook’s in the back. He’s deaf and dumb. Never says a word to anybody.”

“So, just you and the cook at almost two-thirty in the morning.”

“That’s right, but business is about to pick up, I’m sure.”

“You’ve never seen me.”

“All right. I got that.”

“I’m not even here.”

“Fine by me.”

“I’ll be back this way and I’ll know if you told anybody you saw me.”

“Nobody here,” she said. “Slow night. Just me and the cook in the back and he never says a word to anybody.”

“It seems we understand each other.”

He stood up, took a bill out of his wallet and slapped it on the counter. “I’ll be seeing you again,” he said, and then he was gone.

Business began to pick up about four-thirty, early risers on their way to their important destinations. She was taking an order from a couple of old people when two police officers came in and sat down at the counter.

“What can I get you this morning?” she asked the officers as she poured their coffee.

“Been here all right?” the younger of the two asked her.

“Since about ten,” she said.

“Have you seen this man?”

He thrust a picture at her; she took it from him and held it close to her face. It was without any doubt the man who had had the ham and cheese on rye and the cottage cheese with the maraschino cherry on top.

“He has beautiful eyes,” she said, handing the picture back. “You just don’t forget those eyes.”

“Have you seen him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Keep the picture and if you see him in here, give us a call.”

“What did he do?”

“Murdered his wife.”

“I’ll bet she had it coming.”

“Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know. Just a thought.”

“You shouldn’t romanticize crime,” he said, lighting a filterless cigarette and blowing a purple cloud into the air above his head.

She waited for them to leave and after they were gone she folded the picture and slipped it into her pocket before anybody else had a chance to see it. She would keep it for private viewing later.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Pussycat and Roses ~ A Painting by Thomas Hart Benton

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Thomas Hart Benton ~ Pussycat and Roses

Pussycat and Roses (1939) by Thomas Hart Benton

American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) painted Pussycat and Roses, a still life incorporating different textures in one painting: a kitten, flowers, a basket, a blanket, a rug, a letter, a table and part of a tree. All these diverse elements form one harmonious whole.  

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