Mr. Bridge ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Evan S. Connell was an American writer who lived from 1924 to 2013. His 1969 novel, Mr. Bridge, is a continuation of Mrs. Bridge (published in 1959), and follows the lives of the Bridge family of Kansas City, Missouri, from the 1930s through World War II. Mr. Bridge is technically not a sequel to Mrs. Bridge, because Mr. Bridge is set at an earlier time than Mrs. Bridge, even though it was written ten years later. (You got that?)
Walter Bridge is the father of three children approaching adulthood: Carolyn, Ruth and Douglas. Carolyn is the smart, sensible one who enrolls in college. Ruth is the rebellious one, inclined to flaunt convention. Douglas, the youngest of the three, climbs trees and digs holes; when he sees a movie about airplane pilots, he wants to be a pilot, even though he is only twelve.
Mr. Bridge (the character, not the novel) is a hard-working lawyer. He subscribes to the theory that hard work equals success, and success equals material wealth, happiness and comfort for his wife and children. His wife, India Bridge, is a country club matron, a sheltered woman who has never seen a fortune cookie and who knows little about the world. She lives in an insulated world of privilege and class. She looks to her husband for cues on how to behave, what to think, what to like or dislike, etc. She leaves the running of her household to her black cook-maid-housekeeper, Harriet, so she has lots of time to go shopping and have lunch with her friends. The thing about Harriet is that she has an unsavory boyfriend named Couperin and a penchant for too many martinis.
Living in a world dominated by women and children, Mr. Bridge must, by necessity, be the stalwart male. He is all the things that one might expect for a man of his time (1930s and ‘40s) and place (Midwest United States.) He is politically conservative (Franklin Roosevelt makes him cringe) and he believes that people of minorities are better off left in their own place. Today he would be called a racist. He belongs to a definite, identifiable class, a dying breed even in the 1940s.
Mr. Bridge is a loosely structured, episodic novel that, in the hands of a master writer like Even S. Connell, is a fascinating reading experience from the American realist school of writing. Later novels about life in suburbia were often drenched in sex and secret love affairs. There’s nothing like that in Mr. Bridge. Just solid writing and a set of compelling, believable characters and situations.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp
“An Angel Comforts Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” ~ A Painting by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)
Little More Than Bones ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
On the edge of town an empty house known to the locals as the Archer house (so named because of its original owner) was being torn down. At one time the Archer house was a perfectly fine house but had fallen into disrepair through neglect. Nobody wanted the house, but somebody wanted the lot, which stood at the top of a secluded hill, reached by a winding road.
Workmen first removed the doors and windows, the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. Anything that might be used was salvaged. Most of the wood in the house was rotten and wasn’t of any use, so the workmen threw it into a large dumpster in the front yard. When the dumpster was full, the workmen had it emptied and then began to fill it again.
One of the main features of the Archer house was a large fireplace in the front room. A fireplace, of course, meant a chimney. The chimney was made of a light-colored stone and was largely intact. When the workmen began to dismantle the chimney, they expected to find old birds’ nests and other bird effluvia inside, but what they found instead was a dead body of indeterminate gender.
The workmen stopped what they were doing and called the police, believing they had unwittingly stumbled upon a crime scene.
To know whose body was in the chimney and how it came to be there, we must go back six years to a snowy Sunday in February.
Three miles from the Archer house, a young man named Perrin Borger lived with his mother and father. He had a job working in an office, but he despised his job and was generally unhappy with his life. He knew he should be living on his own away from his parents, but he somehow couldn’t make the move. He lacked motivation and ambition, and he believed he didn’t make enough money for a place of his own.
On this Sunday in February, Perrin Borger and his mother got into a fight—a small fight as fights go, but still a fight—and she threw him out of the house. When he told her he didn’t have any place to go, she told him she didn’t care; he could rot in hell as far as she was concerned. He threw a few things into a suitcase and got out of the house as fast as he could, hating her and not caring if he ever saw her again.
He drove around for a while, not knowing what to do with himself. The heater in his car didn’t work very well and the temperature was hovering around twelve degrees, so he wanted to get inside someplace where he could sit and think. He contemplated calling his mother and apologizing for the fight, but she was in the one in the wrong; she had started the fight and she ought to be the one apologizing to him. It would serve her right if he froze to death. He could see her standing over his casket at Foley brothers’ funeral home, putting on a good show of emotion as if she cared.
Feeling hungry—it was long past lunch time—he stopped at a pancake house and ate, voraciously, a plate of sausages and strawberry pancakes. After he paid for his lunch, he counted out his money to see if he had enough for a hotel room.
Wait a minute! Why should he spend all his money on a hotel room? Didn’t he have friends? He thought immediately of his friend Earl Declan. They had known each other since eighth grade and went all the way through high school together. They had a lot in common and had always been good friends. He knew Earl was renting the old house that people in the know called the Archer house. He figured that Earl would be happy to have a roommate, at least for a little while. They could share expenses; it sounded like a perfect arrangement. Nobody could say he wasn’t one to land on his feet when his mother or somebody else laid him low.
With a full stomach and a definite plan, he felt relieved and almost happy. He drove to Earl’s house and pulled into the leaf-strewn driveway and cut the engine. He leaned over the steering wheel and looked closely at the house but saw no signs of life. Could it be that Earl no longer lived there?
He climbed the steps to the front door and knocked several times until the knocking became pounding. When no answer was forthcoming, he called Earl’s name as loud as he dared without attracting unwanted attention, but still there was no response.
He walked around the house and knocked on the rough wood of the back door until his knuckles were raw, calling Earl’s name with each knock. He peered in the windows but wasn’t able to see much of anything except the leg of a table of a picture on the wall. It was obvious Earl wasn’t home.
On the verge of tears, he went back to his car and slumped down in the seat, trying to cocoon himself in his winter coat the best he could. He would wait until Earl came back from wherever he was. Maybe he only went to a movie or to do some grocery shopping. He would be home soon.
While sitting in his car facing the house, he began to look closely at the chimney. The chimney was big because the fireplace was big. Dropping down the chimney should be fairly easy for a person with narrow hips and shoulders. He would gain entry to the house that way and be waiting inside where it was warm when Earl came home. Earl wouldn’t mind. He’d be glad to see him. They’d have a lot of old times to talk over.
He walked all the way around the house to see how he might gain access to the roof without a ladder. He was able to shimmy onto the lowest point of the roof by the back porch, standing on a garbage can, and from there he climbed easily to the pinnacle where the chimney was.
Perched like a bird, he swung his feet into the dark hole of the chimney and lowered himself a few feet. It was smooth-going at first, but the chimney narrowed unexpectedly and he wasn’t able to go any farther. He couldn’t go down, and when he tried to go back up, he couldn’t do that, either. It was as if the chimney was gripping the lower part of his body. He struggled valiantly and said a prayer but wasn’t able to move. He rested for a few minutes and then tried again, but still wasn’t able to move an inch, up or down.
After struggling for what seemed like hours, he realized it was no use; he was not going to be able to free himself. His only hope was to yell until somebody heard him. When Earl came home, he’d hear him and get some help. The police and fire department would come and they’d lower a rope and extract him from the chimney like a cork from a wine bottle. He’d feel so stupid but also so glad to be free.
At about three in the morning, a drifter who was also a car thief happened along. He heard Perrin screaming inside the chimney, but he didn’t know where it was coming from, and if he had known he wouldn’t have cared. Since he was a thief, he easily opened the door of Perrin’s car and drove away stealthily in the night.
On Thursday after the Sunday that Perrin’s mother threw him out of the house, she began to have an uneasy feeling about him. She had expected him to come home, contrite, on Monday or Tuesday at the latest. She called the office where he worked and was told he wasn’t there. He hadn’t shown up for work all week and hadn’t bothered to call.
She immediately put in a call to the police and filed a missing persons report. A couple of officers came out to interview her, get a picture of Perrin and a physical description, and an account of the argument that prompted him to leave. The police began looking for him and his car.
Two weeks later his car was found in St. Joseph, Missouri, abandoned on a residential street. His suitcase was found inside the car with his pajamas, toothbrush, underwear and a change of clothes in it. There was no sign of violence or physical struggle.
Perrin survived in the chimney for thirty-six hours and then froze to death. No help was forthcoming. Right before he died, he saw his mother’s face and heard her voice; he hoped she wasn’t too mad at him.
She always believed he would someday come home. And, then, six years after he left, she received the unexpected phone call that revealed the truth at last.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp
Standing at the Gate of Heaven ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Harry Hawkins had not lived an exemplary life. He was frequently harsh and impatient with his wife and children, with the result that his wife was afraid of him and his two sons grew up hating him. He despised his wife’s mother and her other family members and was jealous of his wife’s devotion to them. He was intolerant of anybody whose political or religious views were different from his own. He complained and found fault with everything and everybody, nearly every minute of every day. In short, he was a joyless man who led a joyless life.
In the last few years of his life, with his health deteriorating, he was afraid of dying and going to hell. Believing that religion might save him, he joined a splinter religious group and believed everything that representatives of the group (essentially salesmen) told him. He was promised a place in heaven by these godless know-nothings, if only he would do as they told him to do for as long as he lived. Since he lived in a fine house and seemed to have enough money, they persuaded him the best thing was for him to donate, every month, a certain percentage of his income to the church. This he readily agreed to do, surprising his wife, his sons and anybody who knew of his parsimonious nature—he had always been known how to pinch a penny until it cried for mercy.
Every month at the first of the month he sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a sizeable check (enough to support an ordinary family of four) to the church. He believed he was “storing up treasure in heaven.” (What the church did with the money was not known, but the church fathers were known for their penchant for little jaunts to Mexico.)
He attended every church service and was always on call when somebody from the church needed a service he might perform, such as a ride to the doctor or a few dollars for medicine or to pay the light bill. If a special kind of cake was needed for a church dinner, he didn’t mind going to the bakery and buying an elaborate and expensive cake made to order, which he paid for out of his own pocket. He never complained, never balked at anything the church asked him to do. If, however, his wife or one of his sons asked him to do something for them, he was always too tired or was running a fever and needed to be in bed.
For the first time in Harry Hawkins’ life, he was beloved. He wanted to love back, but he didn’t know how. It didn’t matter that he didn’t love, though; he was doing more than enough to get what he wanted.
Harry Hawkins suffered a heart attack and then another and then another. After he was discharged from the hospital and feeling much better, the church fathers paid him a call. He had never let them down. He had proven himself to them time after time. He might always be relied upon. They had decided to go one step farther and make him one of them. There was a special (secret) ordination ceremony in which he re-affirmed his unshakeable belief in the teachings of the church. After the ceremony was over, he believed he had done everything he needed to do. He would certainly be admitted into heaven. Easily.
After a few more months of precarious life, he succumbed to his various afflictions while a patient in the hospital. After a period of darkness (let’s say three days), he found himself standing outside the gate of heaven. He waited patiently with a forbearing smile for someone to come and let him in. From what he could see from where he stood, heaven was everything he expected: golden light, feathery clouds, celestial music.
Finally the gate keeper came out of hiding and peered at him through the golden bars of the gate.
“How may I help you?” the gate keeper said with a hint of impatience.
“Are you going to let me in?” Harry Hawkins asked.
“Are you sure you’re in the right place?”
“Of course, I’m in the right place! Open the gate and let me in!”
“People are sometimes misdirected, you see.”
“Well, I’m not!”
“How do you come to be here?”
“I died and then I came here. End of story. What more do you need to know?”
“Where is your spirit guide? Did he bring you here?”
“I don’t have a spirit guide! I don’t even know what a spirit guide is.”
“You shouldn’t have come here without being directed by your spirit guide.”
“Listen! Who are you anyway?”
“I’m the gate keeper.”
“I want to speak to your superior!”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to talk to me.”
“This is heaven, isn’t it? You have no right to tell me I can’t come in! You’re just a nobody!”
“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but I believe you’ve been misdirected. We’re expecting no new arrivals at this time.”
“If I could reach you through these bars, you ass, I’d push your face in! Open these doors right now and let me in!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”
“You’re not supposed to be here, sir. You’ve been misdirected.”
Harry started stammering and was about to cry. “Now, listen, fella! I know you’re a right guy and I know I’m in the right place. I’ve known for years that I would go to heaven when I died. I was promised a place in heaven.”
“Who promised you?”
“Some very important people in my church, that’s who!”
“Oh, I think I’m beginning to understand! Was this promise somehow based on lucre?”
“What does lucre mean? You need to speak English here!”
“Was money involved? Were you promised a place in heaven depending on how much money you gave to the church?”
“Bingo! You’re not as dumb as you look, Jocko! You are absolutely correct! I gave mucho money to the church over the years! Look it up!”
“I don’t wish to be rude to you, sir, but you’re not supposed to be here. You’ve been misdirected.”
Harry covered his face with his hands and began crying. When he was able to speak again, he said, “So, what am I supposed to do, then? Am I supposed to stand here by this goddamn gate like a crazy person throughout all eternity?”
“No, sir. You don’t have to do that,” the gate keeper said. “Your bus will be along shortly.”
“Bus? You have buses here?”
“Yes, a bus will come along in a little while. All you need to do is get on the bus and it will take you where you belong.”
“Another part of heaven? Is that where the bus will take me?”
“Just get on the bus.”
Harry opened his mouth to ask another question, but the gate keeper was gone.
He wiped away his tears and composed himself, gratified at what the gate keeper had said. A bus would be along to take him where he needed to go. Another part of heaven, no doubt. What else could it be?
In a little while, an enormous bus parted the clouds and came roaring to a stop in front of the gate. With a smile and without a moment’s hesitation, he got on the bus, ready to be kind to everybody.
The other people on the bus were faceless nonentities, but he didn’t care. He didn’t feel like talking to anybody, anyway. He took a seat about halfway back and continued to smile, happy that his problems were over.
From where he sat, though, he could see the face of the driver in the mirror above the driver’s head. The driver, who seemed to be the only person on the bus with a face, was looking at him, watching him, in the mirror. The bus swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and he was thrown a little off-balance. He caught himself on the back of the seat in front of him, and when he again looked at the driver’s face in the mirror he knew he had seen those eyes before: they were the eyes of his own father.
His father was a difficult and unlikeable man, dead for thirty years. It all came back to him, then: how he hated that man when he was growing up; how that man belittled him, called him names, and how he made him feel he was less than nothing.
He wasn’t looking only at his father, though. He was looking at himself, seeing himself, for the first time, as he really was.
“How cruel is life!” he said. “I never wanted to be like him! It wasn’t my fault!”
But the other passengers on the bus paid no attention. They all had problems of their own.
A sudden rain storm came up and the bus trundled on.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp