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1917, World War I, German Ambulance Crew

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Jesse the Bad

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Jesse the Bad ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

When Alvin Goldsmith married Alma Mound and the babies started coming, he knew life for him would always be a struggle. After the first year of marriage, they brought Earl into the world. The second year there was Peggy and ten months later, Jesse. When Jesse was barely walking, a girl came along that they named Storm. After the fourth baby in five years, Alvin said there would be no more. One more would upset the balance.

Alvin had never been blessed with intellect. After he graduated from high school, he never touched another book in his life. At eighteen, he went to work in a shoe factory operating a leather press and stayed for thirteen years. When the factory shut its doors, he painted houses, worked in a lead mine, drove a school bus, worked as a janitor in a church, clerked in a hardware store, did cleanup work in a cemetery, and even for a while worked as a trash collector.

The growing-up years of his quartet of children passed in a kind of blur to Alvin. They were starting to kindergarten and then, before he knew it, he was putting on his one blue suit that he wore to weddings and funerals and going to their high school graduations. Peggy and Storm were both out of the house and married by the time they were nineteen and started having babies of their own. Earl, never much interested in the girls, moved to Alaska with a couple of his friends and got a job there. He sent greeting cards to Alvin and Alma on Christmas and birthdays, but he would never come back home, he said, not even for a visit. He was happy in Alaska and didn’t want to be reminded of his growing-up years.

Jesse, the third child and the younger of the two boys, was always troubled. As a child, he had temper tantrums in which he held his breath and pounded his fists into the wall. If anybody ever crossed him, he picked up the nearest object and threw it. He broke windows, dishes and mirrors, not to mention all of his toys. He played cruel tricks on his sisters, putting a dead skunk in their closet or taking their clothes and books out into the back yard and setting fire to them. He called his mother vile names and painted obscenities on the wall of his room in his own blood.

His high school years were nothing less than tumultuous. He cheated on tests, stole money, engaged in fistfights, threatened to kill a teacher for correcting him in class, slashed the tires on a school bus. At night, he went out drinking, sometimes not getting home in time to go to school the next morning. He shoplifted cigarettes and small food items. He had been barred from every drug store in town because he roamed their aisles and pilfered drugs.

Finally, he graduated from high school. He had the lowest scholastic record in his class and the highest number of days missed, but still he made it through. The entire family attended his graduation and were happy for him. The next day he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. He spent four months in the state mental hospital, after which he was said to be cured of whatever had been wrong with him and sent home.

He got a job as an apprentice meat cutter at minimum wage. In the evenings, he would come home wearing his white apron covered with blood, in which he seemed to take pride. Sometimes he brandished a meat cleaver in his mother’s or his father’s face, but they could ignore this as long as he was going to work every day and staying at home in the evenings and watching television and napping in the recliner.

He began dating a checker named Maureen in the supermarket where he worked and, in a few weeks, they announced they were to be married. Maureen was going to have a baby, but she hoped nobody would notice until after the wedding. They rented a small house a few blocks from the supermarket where they both worked and, seven months after they were married, Maureen gave birth to a son, Matthew.

In the year after Matthew’s birth, Jesse began going around with other women, sometimes women he picked up on the street. He stole money from Maureen’s purse and began staying out all night, sometimes being gone for two or three days at a time. When Maureen confronted him over the loss of the rent money, he hit her in the head with a bottle and tried to strangle her. As he held her down on the floor, she slashed him across the face with a piece of glass and got away. After that, she filed for divorce, quit her job and took Matthew and went back to her childhood home to live with her widowed mother.

Alvin was now in his sixties and, after forty-five years, he had to give up working. He had a heart murmur, a fatty liver, arthritis, asthma, and deteriorating disks in his spine. Every movement for him was painful. He and Alma, sitting at the kitchen table, figured they could get by on what little money they had, since they only had themselves to take care of and didn’t need anything in the way of luxuries.

Just when Alvin was looking forward to a serene old age, parenthood was once again thrust upon him. Jesse had lost his job, his home and his wife and had no place to lay his head. Alvin and Alma had to give him one more chance. They allowed him to move into his old room, but only if he could be the kind of responsible adult they expected him to be. If he engaged in any more of his destructive behavior, he would have to find another place to stay.

Jesse found a job as counter man in an auto parts store. He went to work every day and straight home afterwards and didn’t go out again at night. After a month of this good behavior he was stretched to the limit of his endurance and reverted to his old ways. He stole Alvin’s pain medication and took grocery money from his mother’s purse. He stayed out all night and slept all day, forfeiting his new job. He was dirty and sloppy and his mother had to pick up after him the same way she did when he was a child. When she tried to speak to him, he called her a meddling old bitch and threatened to kill her.

When he broke a glass in the kitchen and sliced Alma’s arm with it, Alvin told him he had to get out before the end of the day. His mother and father could no longer be responsible for him and he was going to have to make his own way in the world.

He got his things together, but before he left he had a few choice words to impart. They had always been against him, he said; they had hurt him and held him back by not loving him enough. They hadn’t seen the last of him, though. He’d be back and when they saw him coming they’d better say their prayers.

The next day they changed the locks on the doors and Alvin bought two handguns, one for him and one for Alma. They took lessons on gun safety and made sure they kept plenty of ammunition in the house.

Two weeks after Jesse left, Alma was alone in the house when she heard a car stop out front. When she looked out the window, she saw Jesse getting out of the car with a shotgun. She heard him try to open the door and, when he found that his old key wouldn’t work, he began shouting and swearing.

“Go on now, son!” she called to him. “We don’t want any more trouble with you!”

“Let me in!” he yelled.

“No! If you don’t go away and leave us alone, I’ll call the sheriff! I swear I will!”

He banged and kicked at the door and when she still didn’t open it, he broke the glass out with the butt of his shotgun and reached through and undid the lock.

When he came through the door, she was ready for him. She believed that when he saw her pointing a gun at him, he would desist, but still he advanced on her, pointing his gun at her middle. She would never forget the look of hatred on his face.

She believed in that moment without a doubt that he would kill her and then kill Alvin when he came into the house. Without thinking about what she was doing, almost by reflex, she blasted him in the heart. One bullet was all it took. He fell dead at her feet.

She called the police and told them calmly what happened. Ten minutes later, Alvin came home. The story was in the newspapers and on television: Rural Woman Kills Mentally Ill Son in Self-Defense. No Charges Filed.

More than two hundred people attended the funeral. Everybody heard about the killing and wanted to see the participants firsthand. No matter how many people expressed condolences and sincere regrets, Alma believed they were all thinking the same thing: How could a mother kill her own son? This is not what mothers do. She must be some kind of a monster.

After a couple of weeks, when the police had stopped asking questions and curiosity-seekers stopped driving by the house, Alvin wanted to put the whole painful episode behind him, but Alma couldn’t let it go. She believed in retrospect that she might have handled the situation in a different way.

“Maybe he didn’t really mean to shoot me,” she said. “Maybe he was just trying to scare me. I might have killed him for no reason.”

“If you hadn’t done what you did,” Alvin said, “you and I would both be dead and he’d be in prison. It was a clear-cut case of self-defense. You heard the sheriff say it.”

“I can’t stop thinking about the terrible life he lived.”

“His life would have gone on being terrible if you hadn’t ended it when you did. Who better to end it than you?”

“How can I live with this for the rest of my days?”

“You don’t have any other choice.”

“There’s nothing I can ever do to make it up to him now.”

She didn’t think she could bear to go on living, knowing what she had done. She stopped going out of the house, stopped attending church services. She didn’t want anybody to see her. Some days she stayed all day in her room with the blinds closed, refusing to get dressed, refusing to eat. Alvin tried to get her to see a doctor, but she believed you only go to the doctor when there is something wrong with the body. She was sure there wasn’t a pill in existence that was going to help her.

One night she got out of bed at three in the morning, put on some rubber boots, a hat and a jacket without thinking where she was going or what she might be doing. Without turning on any lights, she took a flashlight out of the drawer in the kitchen and went out the back door.

Walking steadily but slowly she reached the river in a half-hour or so. She thought she’d be afraid but she wasn’t. The sound of the swirling water was comforting. She switched off the flashlight and threw it on the ground and stepped close enough to the river so that the toes of her boots were in the water. How easy it would be to walk into the river, let it close over her head and take away all her sins. All it would take was a moment of courage and it would all be over so fast.

She was up to her ankles in the water, then her knees, her waist and then up to her shoulders. The next step might be the step from which there was no turning back. Something at that moment caused her to look up into the trees and past the trees at the shining stars. There she saw Jesse’s face looking down at her from heaven and she heard him whisper the words: I’m all right now, mother. I forgive you.  

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

“An Unrestrained Demon”

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Anti-electricity cartoon from 1900. No matter how good an idea comes along, there will always be somebody opposed.

Hereditary ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Hereditary ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The Grahams are a middle-aged couple who live in a big house in the woods. Annie Graham (an overwrought Toni Collette) is a sort of artist who makes dollhouses and miniatures. Her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), doesn’t seem to do much of anything except stand around and be fatherly to the two Graham children: a very odd thirteen-year-old girl (inexplicably) named Charlie and Peter, a dope-smoking high-schooler.

Annie Graham’s strange (“strange” is the operative word here) mother dies. Annie speaks at her mother’s funeral, explaining how “private” her mother was in her “associations.” (We find out later the reason for this.) Annie’s mother had a special bond with the little girl Charlie. At one point Charlie says that her grandmother wanted her to be a boy, which might explain her being given a boy’s name.

Charlie is not the usual thirteen-year-old girl. She is distant and preoccupied, with a face that is mask-like. Also, she has a peanut allergy, which is an important plot point to remember later. When Peter, Charlie’s brother, is invited to a teenage party, his mother makes him take Charlie along, which she will sadly regret later. What happens to Charlie, which I will not give away here, is the most disturbing image in the movie.

Grieving, Annie meets Joan, an older woman who seems sympathetic. (Joan, as we discover later, is not what she seems to be.) Joan is also grieving; her son and grandson have both died in a drowning accident. These two women seem to have a lot in common.

At a later date, Annie meets Joan when she is out shopping. Joan feels so much better, she says, because she has met a spiritual medium who has shown her how to get in touch with her grandson in the spirit world. Annie is skeptical, of course, but eventually drawn in.

When Annie is going through some boxes of her dead mother’s possessions, she finds some pictures that she can’t explain and also a book with some of its passages highlighted that tell how a demonic spirit is looking for the body of a human boy to occupy on earth. These fleeting images help to explain what is going on. If you’re not paying attention during these few seconds, you will miss it because it won’t be explained later.

Hereditary is a better-than-average summer movie. It’s slow-moving at times, especially during the first third, and is probably a little too long at 127 minutes. It takes a long time getting to the payoff, but when it comes (to music that sounds like Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla”), we find that it was well worth the wait.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

1933, RCA Building, New York City

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1936 Showroom Chrysler

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Intruder in the Dust ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Intruder in the Dust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In the small town of Oxford, Mississippi, a white man named Vinson Gowrie is murdered, while a black man named Lucas Beauchamp stands accused and is put in jail. The Gowries (from “Beat Four”) are sure to want revenge. They can get enough of their redneck friends together to storm the jail and remove Lucas Beauchamp and lynch him. The law is conceivably helpless against such a mob.

A sixteen-year-old boy name Charles “Chick” Mallison is convinced of Lucas’s innocence, while everybody else believes he is guilty. When he was twelve years old, out hunting in the woods, Chick fell into the river and was pulled out by Lucas Beauchamp. Lucas took him home with him, gave him dry clothes and half his dinner. Chick tried to pay him for his kindness with some coins he had, but Lucas didn’t take well to being given money by a white child. Chick never forgot Lucas’s kindness, his dignity, and how much he was unlike other black people of his acquaintance.

With little more than a hunch to go on, Chick wants to prove that Lucas is innocent. He gets his friend, Aleck Sander (a black youth his own age), to go along with him to the cemetery where Vincent Gowrie is buried, miles outside of town. But, wait a minute, there’s at least one adult who also believes Lucas is innocent. A seventy-year-old spinster named Miss Habersham grew up with Lucas’s now-deceased wife, so she has a personal interest in the matter. She goes along on the nighttime visit to the cemetery to dig up Vinson Gowrie’s body and take it back to town so it can be examined by an expert to prove that Lucas’s gun didn’t fire the fatal bullet.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? There’s a body in Vincent Gowrie’s grave all right, but it’s not Vincent Gowrie. Now it becomes a murder mystery. While everybody else is waiting around for the Gowries to lynch Lucas Beauchamp, a handful of people (Chick Mallison, his lawyer uncle, Miss Habersham) are willing to miss sleep and put themselves out to prove that something more sinister is going on that a black man murdering a white man in a small Southern town.

Intruder in the Dust was first published in 1948. It is, we are told, William Faulkner’s answer to race relations in the South. It’s written in a stream of consciousness style, making it wordy and at times difficult to read. Some of the sentences are hundreds of words long and some of the paragraphs go on for two pages or more. A thought will obtrude on a thought and then another thought will obtrude on that thought. Faulkner was the supreme literary stylist of American literature. Nobody else even comes close.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp