RSS Feed

Napoleon ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Napoleon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the tiny island of Corsica in 1769 to a minor aristocratic family. Corsica is closer to Italy but was a French possession, so Napoleon was born a French citizen and will forever be identified as French, although he didn’t have high regard for France. As he grew into adulthood (he was only five feet, five inches tall), he became interested in all things military. At a young age he became a military man and was found to have an uncanny instinct for military strategy. He rose through the ranks and soon was in command of a mighty military force.

Napoleon filled the leadership vacuum left by the French Revolution and can be said to have ended the Revolution. When France was struggling to find a foothold after years of turmoil, he stepped in and filled the void, declaring himself Emperor. His ego and ambition knew no bounds. His goal was to conquer all of Europe, from Spain in the west to Russia in the east. His military venturing even led him to Egypt and North Africa. He saw himself as a conqueror in the mold of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

He engaged in almost constant war. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in Napoleonic wars, not to mention the vast sums of money spent to finance the war machine. People began to consider him an opportunistic lunatic who would sacrifice anything or anybody on earth to satisfy his ambitious goals. He was a man without sentiment, loyalty or religion. He had nothing to hold him back.

Of course, he was not without his shortcomings. (Every tyrant, dictator or despot has his downfall built in.) He was impatient, impulsive, lacking in subtlety, refinement or social graces, incapable of deliberative thought or action. Though a master military strategist, he was not a politician and knew nothing of tact and diplomacy. He was all about force, taking the enemy by surprise and gaining the upper hand through superior strategy and cunning. When he sold what became known as the “Louisiana Purchase” to the United States (an enormous area that became thirteen states) for fifteen million dollars (about four cents an acre) to continue to finance his war machine, it was seen (in retrospect) as one of his biggest blunders. He might have extended his empire to the North American continent but wasn’t visionary enough to do so.

His disastrous military campaigns in Spain and Russia—with staggering loss of life and destruction of property—signaled his end. People were sick and tired of almost constant warfare and chaos. Even his most ardent admirers were beginning to turn against him. He was forced to abdicate his title of emperor—leading to a restoration of the monarchy—and was exiled to the tiny island of Elba, seven miles off the coast of Italy. He was not to be contained, however; he was still burning with desire and ambition. He was bored and wasn’t given as much money as he thought he needed. He returned to France, where he once again established himself as emperor and marshaled a huge army.

He met in battle the Duke of Wellington, an Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman, at a place called Waterloo in present-day Belgium. After a bloody and horrific battle, he was defeated. This was to be his final battle and his final defeat. The Napoleonic age was at an end.

Napoleon Bonaparte was this time exiled to the tiny island of Saint Helena, located in the South Atlantic. While not exactly a prisoner or under house arrest, he was closely guarded and would not again be allowed to return to France of his own volition. As long as he was alive, he was viewed as a threat, especially since he still had many admirers and adherents all over the world who would have gladly helped him to escape. He was kept on the island for about six years until he died at the age of fifty-one in 1821.

Napoleon by English historian Paul Johnson is a concise (187 pages) overview of Napoleon’s life and times. While it’s a historical biography, it’s also a fascinating story. A small, pale, young man from humble beginnings becomes the leader of the army of a great nation and, after declaring himself Emperor of that nation, sets out to conquer an entire continent. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher ~ A Painting by Johannes Vermeer

Posted on

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662) by Johannes Vermeer

Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer lived from 1632 to 1675 in the town of Delft. He painted modest domestic scenes in his own home, sometimes using the same people and objects. He enjoyed only limited success in his own life and was mostly forgotten after his death. His work was rediscovered in the 19th century, and his reputation has grown to the point where he is considered one of the greatest painters of his time and place. He finished Young Woman with a Water Pitcher around 1662.

I Have Never Known the River Ishcabob to Flood

Posted on

I Have Never Known the River Ishcabob to Flood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I previously posted these three interconnected short stories separately, and now together.) 

***

Part 1

I was in a place where I had never been before. I was buying a house next to a rocky river. The house was four stories tall and there were four houses in a row, all the same shape and height. (Things seem to come in fours here.) Mrs. Goldoni was the woman from whom I was buying the house. She had white-blonde hair like Jean Harlow but that’s where the similarity ended. Her face was very wrinkled and, due to an arthritic condition, she sometimes walked parallel to the floor like an insect. Think of a cockroach or a cricket and there you have the image I’m trying to convey.

I was on the top floor looking out the window at the view. “What’s the name of the river?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni, who was standing on her hind legs fussing with the curtains.

“It’s the River Ishcabob,” she said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it,” I said.

“It’s a popular tourist attraction.”

“Does it ever flood?”

“Oh, no, sir!” she said. “Why would it flood?”

“Where I come from the rivers flood and cause a great deal of damage.”

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Mrs. Goldoni said, “and I’ve never know the River Ishcabob to flood.”

“That’s a relief,” I said. “I don’t like floods, especially if they inconvenience me.”

I had been talking to Mrs. Goldoni over my shoulder and when I turned and looked out the window again, I saw hundreds of workmen swarming over the river and on the rocky beach between the house and the river. Just a few seconds ago, they hadn’t been there. They were moving very fast so I couldn’t see what they were trying to accomplish.

“What are those workmen doing?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni.

“They’ve incurred debt, sir,” she said.

“What kind of debt?” I asked.

“Not the kind that has to do with money.”

“You mean like moral debt?”

She laughed her tinkling laugh. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand yet, sir.”

“Understand what? Am I missing something?”

Mrs. Goldoni chuckled and dropped to her tiny, clicking feet and skittered out of the room.

“What kind of arthritis is it that makes you walk like that?” I asked, but of course she was gone and didn’t hear me.

After lunch, I noticed a little room in my house that I hadn’t seen before. There were two steps going up to it and at the top of the steps were French doors just like my Aunt Susie had between her living room and dining room when I was a little boy. When you see the doors, you can’t keep from opening them.

“What’s in here?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni, who just seemed to appear from nowhere.

“Oh, we don’t go in there!” she said.

“This is my house!” I said “I think I’ll go wherever I want!”

When I opened the French doors, I could see they hadn’t been opened in a long time. Gobs of cobwebs came loose in artful drapes, and little chips of paint and tiny slivers of wood fell on my head.

Mrs. Goldoni was standing at my right shoulder looking anxiously on, and when I turned my head to look at her, I realized there were other people standing all around me.

“Who are they?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni.

“Oh, they’re always here,” she said. “They won’t bother you.”

“This is my house,” I said. “I came here to get away. I don’t want lots of strange people hanging around.”

“You’ll get used to them,” Mrs. Goldoni said, “and you’ll forget they’re even here.”

“Lord in heaven,” I said. “What have I got myself in to?”

I swung the French doors open as far as they would go and stepped inside the little room, which, to my surprise, had pink wallpaper on the walls. A tiny window kept the room from being without light. I took a few cautious steps into the room, with Mrs. Goldoni and the others behind me.

In the little room were hundreds of obviously very old, gold pocket watches suspended from gold chains, displayed on racks.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

I reached out to pick up one of the watches to get a better look and Mrs. Goldoni said, “I wouldn’t touch those if I were you!”

“Why not?” I said. “They’re in my house. Anything in my house belongs to me, doesn’t it?”

“They’re haunted,” she said.

I turned and looked at her, not sure if my ears were working right. “How can a watch be haunted?” I asked.

“If you don’t leave them alone,” she said, “you’ll find out the hard way.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’ll stir up some mean merde if you’re not careful!”

I knew just enough French to know what she was saying. I refrained from handling the watches any further while promising myself I’d find out more about them later.

After I reclosed the French doors and the crowd around me had dispersed, I decided to take a little walk outside and have a look at my immediate environs.

The “beach” between my house and the river wasn’t pretty. It was very rocky. You could walk on it, but only with sturdy shoes. I walked down close to the river and turned and looked at my house.

There they were: four, narrow, four-story houses of identical shape; almost like four pillars. The four houses were so close together, there wasn’t even room to park a car between them, but that didn’t seem to make any difference because nobody here seemed to have cars, anyway.

My house was the third house in the row, if you count from the left. I figured that all the other houses were occupied, but I knew nothing of the people who lived in them. All I knew was the fourth house in the row was a “bed and breakfast” run by an old woman who looked as if she had at some point in her life been smashed flat. I wasn’t quite sure what a bed and breakfast was, but I knew it to be some kind of commercial enterprise. I would have to let the smashed-flat woman know that I didn’t intend to take any kind of merde from anybody.

When I turned back to the river, I saw the workmen moving around furiously. One man who came near to me slowed down long enough for me to make eye contact with him.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to ask questions,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to talk to us.”

“What kind of a place is this?” I asked.

And then I went furniture shopping. There was a piece of furniture I wanted for my new house. I didn’t know what it was or what purpose it served, but I only knew I had to have it. After looking around for a long time in the store, I found one I liked. It looked like an old console TV in a wood cabinet, but nobody had those anymore. A salesman in a suit hovered near me. He spent a lot of time with me while I made my selection.

Finally I found the one I wanted to buy. The salesman said it cost four hundred dollars. I told him I’d take it and I wanted it delivered.

When I went to pay for the piece of furniture, the salesman told me it was four thousand and four hundred dollars.

“I thought you said four hundred,” I said.

“Oh, no, sir!” he said. “Its four thousand and four hundred.”

“That’s too much!” I said. “The thing’s not worth that much money.”

I found another one that I liked better that was nearer to the price I wanted to pay, and when I got home it was waiting there for me in a big box.

The pleasant-faced actor named Kyle Chandler was in a recent movie I had seen. He wasn’t the lead in the movie, but he played the brother of the lead. In the construct of the movie I saw him in, he had a congestive heart condition and died, even though he was only forty-five. We saw him dead in the hospital morgue when his brother, the lead character in the movie, showed up to identify the body.

Anyway, when I got home from buying my piece of furniture that looked like an old-fashioned console TV in a wood cabinet but wasn’t that because nobody had those anymore, Kyle Chandler was there and he was waiting to help me take the thing out of the box. We got the thing out of the box and were struggling with it to get it to the place in the room that was just right for it, when Kyle Chandler grabbed his chest and fell to the floor on his back.

Lying on the floor, his eyes were closed and he seemed to not be breathing. I leaned over and put my ear against his chest. There was no heartbeat. I realized then that all the people who had been standing around me when I opened the little room with the French doors were there again.

“Somebody get a doctor!” I said.

Nobody made a move to do anything, so I began thumping Kyle Chandler on the chest where I thought his heart must be, the way I had seen it done in the movies. I put one hand over his heart and hit the top of my hand with my other fist as hard as I could.

Kyle Chandler sputtered and opened his eyes. He looked at me and smiled. “What happened?” he asked.

“I think you were having a heart episode,” I said, “but you seem all right now.”

He stood up, smiling, not seeming to realize he would be dead if it hadn’t been for me.

At the end of the day I was lying on the floor with my biggest cat on top of me. He was purring and covered almost my entire body. I felt, as always, comforted by his warm and loving presence. We were listening to the fifties station on satellite radio and Little Richard was singing You Keep A-Knocking but You Can’t Come In!

There was a woman sitting behind a desk a few feet away from me, but she didn’t seem to notice me. I found it very easy to pretend she wasn’t there. Mrs. Goldoni was right—I was getting used to those people in my house and wasn’t bothered so much by their presence. I still didn’t know who they were or why they didn’t leave since it was my house, but I felt sure all would be revealed in time.

***

Part 2: Birth of the Dodo

The sky was overcast. No sunshine for days. I was sitting on the couch with my feet propped up, reading an article entitled “How to Take the Rigor Out of Rigor Mortis,” when Mrs. Goldoni came into the room. I heard her insect feet clicking long before she appeared.

I looked up from my magazine and said, “Why are you still here?” There was just a touch of malice in my voice, but nothing I said ever seemed to bother her.

“I’m staying on as housekeeper,” she said. “At least for a little while.”

“Did I say I need a housekeeper?”

“No, sir,” she smiled, “but I’ve lived in this house for many years, and I think it’s only fair that I stay on and help you until you’ve had a chance to get used to the place.”

“I can get used to the place on my own,” I said, “without any help from you or anybody else.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“And while we’re on the subject of ‘this place’,” I said, “yesterday I was downstairs and I noticed some rooms I hadn’t seen before. When I tried to go into them, I discovered to my disappointment that they were locked.”

“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Isn’t this my house?”

“That cannot be disputed, sir.”

“I bought it, paid for it with every cent I had. You signed the papers transferring ownership to me.”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Rooms in my house belong to me, then, don’t they? I should be able to go into them whenever I want.”

“That’s true, sir, but this is not like any other house,” she said.

“In what way is it not like any other house?”

“You’re finding out, sir, as you go along.”

“As I go along,” I said.

“That’s the thing we all have to do. Learn as we go.”

“I tell you I don’t need a housekeeper!”

“I think you do, sir,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you say that I’m the boss and you’re the employee?”

I would expect these words to hurt Mrs. Goldoni’s feelings, but they seemed to have no visible effect on her.

“I’ll leave, sir, whenever you say.”

“What I want you to do,” I said, “is get the keys to the rooms that are locked so I can open the doors and see what’s inside the rooms.”

“That might not be so easy, sir,” she said.

“Why not?”

“As I’ve said before, it’s an old house and a different sort of a house.”

“Different, yes. I turned a corner yesterday and saw a strange woman walking toward me. She was holding her arms out stiffly at her sides and taking skating steps as though she walked on invisible skis. She was wearing a billowing white robe that went from her neck down to her feet. I just caught a glimpse of her face, but she had, I’m sure, the face of Kay Francis.”

Who, sir?”

“Kay Francis, the nineteen-thirties movie star. Long dead and mostly forgotten.”

“I don’t keep up with the movies,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Did the lady speak to you?”

“No, Mrs. Goldoni, she didn’t. I wanted to ask her what she was doing in my house, but she was gone before I had a chance to say anything.”

Mrs. Goldoni laughed. “That’s the way things happen here.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t want people in my house?”

“Is anybody bothering you, sir?”

I thought for a moment. “Well, no,” I said. “Not exactly.”

“If anybody bothers you, sir, you be sure and let me know and I’ll tell them to stop.”

“Yes, but who are they?”

She laughed and straightened the dust bonnet on her head, apparently casting about in her head for the right words. “So many people have lived in the world and have died. You are now in the place where you can see some of them.”

“I can hardly accept that as an answer,” I said with what I hoped was a measure of sternness.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

She gave me a wan little smile and maneuvered her legs about to leave the room.

“How’s the arthritis?” I asked.

“Oh, we manage!” she said cheerily.

“Sometime we’ll have a long talk over a cup of tea,” I said, “and you can explain to me how arthritis turns you into an insect.”

She was gone, though, so I was sure she didn’t hear me. Like a mother, she had the facility of not hearing what she didn’t want to hear, but always hearing what you wish she hadn’t.

Two days later, I was walking along an unexplored corridor on one of the lower floors in my house, when I turned a corner and saw several people, mostly women, crowded around the doorway of a room I had not had the pleasure of visiting.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

Some of them turned and looked at me and, I swear, they dissolved into the air as soon as they saw me. There were still four or five people remaining, though, blocking my way and keeping me from going into the room.

“It’s all right,” I heard Mrs. Goldoni say. “Let him come in.”

The room was small with a bed; four women, including Mrs. Goldoni, were standing around the bed. There was a person in the bed and a sort of tent over the person made of bedsheets. The only parts of the person that weren’t underneath the tent were head and shoulders.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

“This is Lulu, your wife,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’s giving birth.”

As astonished as I was at that statement, I was more astonished at Lulu in the bed. She was a human-sized doll with a painted face and a lacy Jane Austen cap on her head. Her lips were drawn on in the shape of a cupid’s bow and her cheeks were red. Her eyes were small and sparkling, with lashes like spiders’ legs.

“Very funny,” I said. “You know I don’t have a wife.”

“Well, if didn’t have a wife before, you have one now!” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“So, that’s the way marriage happens here?” I asked. “You’re not married and then you are married before you even know it?”

“Well, yes, if sometimes happens that way here.”

A woman standing at the foot of the bed was holding a stopwatch. “The pains are closer together now,” she said anxiously to Mrs. Goldoni.

Mrs. Goldoni said to me, “You can either go back upstairs where you’re comfortable, or you can stay here and witness the birth of the dodo bird.”

“’The birth of the dodo bird’,” I said. “I believe the dodo is extinct.”

“You’re about to find out!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Here comes the head!”

Lulu the doll didn’t make a sound, but the women standing around the bed made encouraging little clucks with their tongues. I stood there watching, not sure what I was about to see. In about two minutes, Mrs. Goldoni pulled from underneath the sheet-tent a fully formed dodo bird. She held it up so I and the others could get a look at it.

“Is that really a dodo bird?” I asked in amazement.

“What do your eyes tell you?” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Wait a minute!” I said. “A dodo is a bird and birds are hatched from eggs.”

“Not always!” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Nobody has seen a dodo bird for hundreds of years,” I said with real and not fabricated wonder.

The dodo bird made pitiful little squeaks with its mouth. Mrs. Goldoni handed it off to one of the women and bent over Lulu with her ear to Lulu’s mouth. I didn’t hear a sound but I knew that Lulu was whispering into Mrs. Goldoni’s ear.

“She wants to know if the baby is all right,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Yes, dear, the baby is a fine male dodo bird, exactly as you expected.”

I looked at Lulu’s face but saw no change in her expression because she was a doll and doll’s expressions remained the same, no matter if a dodo bird has just come out of their bodies.

“She’s wants to name him Sheridan,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

The women clapped their hands and gave little expressions of approval and Mrs. Goldoni turned to me.

“The baby needs to be fed and changed and I think it’s time for the poppa to go back upstairs.”

“I’m not really the father of a dodo bird,” I said. “I think you’re playing a joke on me.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to sort this all out before you’re through,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“Through with what?” I asked, but she took hold of my elbow and ushered me out of the room and closed the door firmly.

I went back upstairs, excited at the prospect of being the father of a dodo bird. Nobody else I knew could claim the distinction. I wanted to take a picture of the dodo, my son Sheridan, because I was sure my friends were not going to believe me. (I was forgetting for the moment, I suppose, that I didn’t have any friends and wasn’t likely to make any new ones.)

I began looking through my things for the camera that I once owned, but had no luck finding it. I needed to buy myself a new one. It’s so seldom that you become a father, especially the father of a male dodo bird named Sheridan, that you must have pictorial documentation so that people may know you’re not going insane or are already there.

Out the windows on the upper floor of my house, I could see the scenic little town of New Garland nestled among the hills. Somebody had told me when I first came to the house that New Garland was a mile-and-a-half away. Since shank’s mare was my only means of getting anywhere, I would walk there tomorrow and find a shop that sells cameras and buy one.

In the morning after breakfast, I went to my room and dressed in outdoorwear, cap, jacket and hiking shoes. When I went back to the kitchen to tell Mrs. Goldoni I was going to be gone for at least a couple of hours, she was sitting at the table with Mrs. Woolwine, the smashed-flat woman who ran the bed and breakfast next door. They liked to have confabs a couple of times a week in which they exchanged gossip and talked about their various ailments.

“How are you, Mrs. Woolwine?” I asked.

“Feeling a little flat these days,” she said.

“How’s business?”

“We’re full up,” she said. “We’re always full up. People love to stay here on their way to some other place.”

“Wonderful!” I said.

“Are you going somewhere?” Mrs. Goldoni asked me.

“Yes, I’m going to walk to New Garland. I’m in the market for a camera. I want to take some pictures of Sheridan so people will believe that I really have a dodo bird in my house.”

“The proud poppa!” Mrs. Woolwine said with her flat smile.

“No, it’s not so much pride as it is amazement. You know and I know and everybody else knows that I can’t be the father of a dodo bird, except in the sense that I would be the father of a kitten that I found on the street and took home to raise into a cat.”

“I wouldn’t talk that way around Lulu if I were you,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’ll think you don’t love her anymore.”

“I don’t love her and never have loved her. She’s a doll. You know she’s a doll, I know it, and I’m sure Lulu knows it. Dolls don’t give birth to anything, but especially they don’t give birth to dodo birds.”

“Sometimes they do,” Mrs. Goldoni said.

“I might eat lunch in town,” I said, “so If I’m not back by lunchtime, go ahead without me.”

“New Garland is a long way to walk,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Watch out for the Followers.”

“The Followers? The Followers of what?”

“The Followers of the Father of All Lies.”

“He’s also called by a lot of other names,” Mrs. Woolwine said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“They want your soul,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “They’ll take it, too, if you let them. You’ll be safe as long as you ignore them and don’t engage with them. They can’t take your soul without touching you, and they can’t touch you unless you allow it.”

“They try to seduce you,” Mrs. Woolwine said.

“It sounds like a story to scare children,” I said with a laugh. “Believe me, I’ll be fine.”

So, I set out in a northerly direction alongside the River Ishcabob toward the town of New Garland. After a half-hour or so of walking, I heard screaming and looked to the source of the screaming out in the middle of the river. It was a woman flailing about in the water, apparently drowning.

“Help me!” she screamed. “Save me! I’m drowning! Oh, I’m drowning!”

I stood on the banks of the River Ishcabob watching the drowning woman. I didn’t for one second consider trying to save her. My shoes were new and I didn’t know how to swim, anyway. I had had a scratchy throat for the last couple of days and I knew that getting myself all wet wouldn’t help it any.

The woman stopped screaming, stopped waving her arms, and went under for the last time.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” I said, hoping that if there were any Followers around they would hear me.

The town of New Garland was old and quaint. There were a few people on the streets, but they moved quickly and didn’t look at me. As I looked at the little shops on the main thoroughfare, I doubted that I would be able to buy a camera in this place.

After I walked a couple of blocks, I saw a place of business with a shining glass window on which was painted the legend Witherspoon’s Photographic Studio, and underneath that, Photographs of the Deceased. I went inside and was greeted by a tall man with a drooping mustache and a high collar.

“What might I do for you today, sir?” he asked with a friendly smile.

“I’m looking to buy a camera,” I said.

“A camera?” he asked. “You want to buy your own camera?”

“Yes. I had a camera before but I can’t seem to find it anymore.”

“They’re very expensive, I’m afraid, sir,” he said.

“What year are we in here?” I asked.

“Would you like to sit for your portrait?” he asked. “It only takes a few minutes.”

“Well, no, I wasn’t wanting a picture of myself. I have plenty of pictures of myself and I keep them hidden away. I have a dodo bird in my house and I want a picture of my dodo bird before it gets away or before something happens to it.”

“Do you have your dodo bird with you?” he asked, looking down at my feet.

“No, no!” I said, running out of patience. “I want to buy a camera so I can take my own picture of my dodo bird.”

“You can’t buy a camera here, I’m afraid, sir.”

“Well, where, then?”

“You could try the town of Gladstone.”

“And where is that?”

“It’s about twenty miles that way,” he said, thrusting his chin toward the street.

“I’m walking,” I said. “I obviously won’t be walking twenty miles to buy myself a camera.”

“Well, sir, since you’re here, would you like to sit for your photograph today?”

He took me into another room and I sat on a small dais that resembled the throne of an emperor. After the man and another man fussed with my hair and clothing, I was aware of a bright flash and then it was all over.

“Call for your picture in a week,” the man said. “You don’t have to pay until then.”

After I left the photography studio, I was hungry and thirsty. I spotted a place across the street with a sign that said Fine Eats, so I crossed over and went inside.

There was nobody else inside Fine Eats, so I sat down at a table next to a window overlooking the street. A very small woman came out from the back and set a glass of water down by my elbow and handed me a menu.

“Fried catfish today’s specialty,” she said. “Served with slaw and fried potatoes.”

I looked at the menu, but I couldn’t keep from looking at the tiny woman over the top of the menu. She had red wooly hair piled high on top of her head. Her ears stuck out very far on each side of her head and her eyes were blank but bright like the eyes of a doll. On the backs of her hands were what appeared to be the kind of spikes you would find on the back of a Gila monster in the Mohave Desert. I couldn’t help but believe that she had an affliction like the one that was causing Mrs. Goldoni to turn into an insect.

I glanced over the menu and said, “The fried catfish will do.”

She brought me a beer in a large glass container to keep me occupied until the fried catfish was ready.

The food was excellent, I had to admit. I couldn’t remember when I had food that tasted so good. I couldn’t, in fact, ever remember eating any food of any kind before, although I had a vague recollection of eating breakfast that morning. Something was happening to me and I didn’t know what it was. I was experiencing many things I had never experienced, including an uncharacteristic loss of memory. Maybe I too was turning into something other than what I started out to be.

The tiny woman waitress didn’t come back, so I paid for my lunch with Roman coins and left Fine Eats and went back out onto the street.

The clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining. The birds were singing. It was a spring day that reminded me of spring days when I was a small child. The thought of the long walk to get back home didn’t tire me. I breathed the pure air deeply into my lungs and set out with my left foot. I would keep my eye open for a present to take to Sheridan. Just what do dodo birds like? I wasn’t sure. I had no knowledge to go on since dodo birds had been extinct for so long. I would make it my business to find out, though.

***

Part 3: In My House are Many Rooms

For several days, rain and thunderstorms kept me inside, but I didn’t mind. I had always liked the rain. The sound of the thunder gently rolling over the hills was pleasing in a way I wouldn’t have been able to explain. I had no obligations to fulfill and so spent my time—for the first time in my life, it seemed—doing exactly as I pleased. I read, napped and, of course, I still had plenty to do putting my house in order.

Sometimes I liked getting out the hammer and nails and hanging a picture on the wall in a certain spot and then sitting for an hour or more looking at the picture, trying to decide what I had liked about it in the first place. Some of the pictures, and some of the books and other articles I took out of boxes, I couldn’t remember from my previous home. My memory continued to play tricks on me. I remembered things that hadn’t happened and forgot things I should be able to remember. I wondered if I should see a doctor, but, if I did, what kind of doctor would it be? Was I losing my mind? Mrs. Goldoni, when I bothered to ask, could offer no explanation. I told you it’s a different kind of house, she’d say.

In the evenings after supper I enjoyed sitting and reading with some music playing quietly in the background. We had no radio or television—Mrs. Goldoni explained we were too far away to get the signal—but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I would close my eyes and when I opened them again Lulu the life-sized doll and Sheridan, my dodo bird son, would be sitting in the room with me. When Sheridan saw I was looking at him, he’d give a playful squawk to let me know he knew I was there, and I was astounded all over again by his existence. I had had pets all my life, cats and dogs, but I never expected to own a real-live dodo bird. As for Lulu, she never made a sound and only moved when I wasn’t looking.

On the day one week after I had sat for my photographic portrait in the town of New Garland, I purposed to go back and get my finished portrait, as the man in the shop had told me it would be ready on that day. The rain had stopped, at least temporarily, so the day seemed auspicious for walking. I put on the same walking shoes and clothes I wore the first time I made the trip and then appeared in the kitchen to tell Mrs. Goldoni not to expect me for lunch as I intended to dine again at Fine Eats.

“I can go with you if you’d like,” she said.

I could barely suppress a smile, thinking about walking out anywhere with an old woman who was becoming an insect, with many legs to prove it. “It’s all right,” I said. “I don’t need a chaperone.”

“You have no experience with the Followers,” she said. “They can be especially nasty when they know you are uninformed. I know how to handle them.”

“Believe me, I’ll be fine. I remember: they can’t hurt me if they can’t touch me and they can’t touch me unless I let them.”

“Be suspicious of all,” she said.

“I can take care of myself.”

I was a half-mile or so from my house, walking toward the town of New Garland, when I saw a disturbing sight. A group of eight or so small children were pelting a man with rocks and clumps of mud. He, the man, was bent over, holding his coat up around his head. I don’t like getting involved in something that isn’t my business, but if I see a person or a thing being mistreated for no apparent reason, I must try to help if I can.

“Here, now!” I said, very loud, causing all the children to stop what they were doing and look at me. “Stop that! What has that poor fellow done for you to stone him?”

A grotesque girl of about eight, shoulders back and head thrust forward, approached me. She was very dirty and dressed in rags. Her matted hair hung about her head like tangled moss. I thought she was going to spit on me or jump at me and rip out my throat.

Here, now!” she said, imitating me. “Why don’t you mind your own damn business?”

The other children laughed and they all turned their attention on me. I saw at once they were Followers. The man they had been pelting looked helplessly at me across a distance of about thirty feet.

When I saw a small boy with a large, deformed head about to throw a rock at me, I held up my finger at him threateningly and said, “I have a gun in my pocket and, while I may not like to shoot children, I won’t hesitate for a second to shoot you if you throw that.”

The children laughed derisively at me, but the boy let the rock fall to the ground without throwing it. I picked a limb off the ground as big as a man’s arm and when I took a few steps toward them with the limb raised in the air, I could see they were afraid of me. They receded and retreated down a hole in the ground. A few seconds after they had all jumped in, the hole disappeared.

The man was sobbing softly. I approached him to see if I might be of help. “Are you hurt?” I asked.

His head was bleeding and the blood was running down the side of his face onto his neck. All I could do was take my handkerchief out of my pocket and hand it to him. Realizing that he might also be a Follower, I made sure my hand didn’t touch his.

“I’m new to this place,” I said. “Every day I see sights that surprise me.”

He managed a weak smile. “I’ve been her a while,” he said. “I don’t remember every being any place else.”

“Do you live around here?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“How can you not know where you live?”

He shrugged his shoulders and I had a chance to look at him closely. He had red hair the color of a new penny, skin as white as alabaster, and a small, pencil-line mustache. His eyes were a clear blue, but they had dark rings around them, as though he had been ill. He seemed all right, but I still wasn’t sure he wasn’t a Follower.

“How did those children come to be throwing rocks at you?” I asked.

“They wanted me to play a game with me and I wouldn’t comply. The object of the game was to get me in a vulnerable position and then to snatch my soul and take it with them back to hell. That’s what they’ve been trained to do.”

“That seems highly implausible,” I said. “Small children?”

“Sometimes they’re worse than the adults.”

“And you’re not a Follower?” I asked.

“Do I look like one to you?”

“I couldn’t say. What’s your name?”

“Farina Alvarez,” he said.

“Well, Farina Alvarez, since you are obviously in a bad way, I’ll help you get to where you’re going.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I’m only trying to keep away from the Followers.”

“I have a house,” I said, “on the banks of the River Ishcabob, which I have been told never floods.”

“I’m so happy for you,” he said, closing his eyes as though experiencing a wave of nausea.

“In my house I have many rooms,” I continued. “So many rooms that I haven’t even seen all of them yet.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I think we could put you up for a while, at least until you find out where you live and where you’re going.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you out any,” he said.

“I have a housekeeper. Her name is Mrs. Goldoni. She has arthritis that’s turning her into an insect.”

“What kind of an insect?”

“I also have a son named Sheridan who is a dodo bird.”

“Aren’t they extinct?”

“Well, not all of them, I guess.”

“I have a wife named Lulu. She’s not my wife in the biblical sense. She’s a doll with a funny, old-fashioned cap on her head. I was in the room when she gave birth to Sheridan.”

“Quite a family you have there,” Farina Alvarez said.

“Well, with all the room we have, I was thinking you could come and stay with us for a few days. I don’t have any friends here and you seem like a decent sort, if we can fully establish that you’re not one of them.”

“I’ve already told you I’m not.”

“Mrs. Goldoni will know as soon as she lays eyes on you.”

“Where is this house on the banks of the River Ishcabob?” Farina Alvarez asked.

“It’s back that way,” I said, pointing with the index finger of my left hand.

“But you were headed this way,” he said, pointing in the opposing direction.

“Yes, I’m on my way to the town of New Garland on an errand. If you want, you can wait here for me and I’ll pick you up on my way back home. I don’t mean that in a literal sense, of course.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “If I wait around here, the Followers are sure to come back and get me.”

“Suit yourself,” I said.

“How long do you think it’ll be before you come back this way?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. Clocks and time don’t seem to have much meaning here. Let’s just say in about three hours.”

“I know what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll find a hiding place in a tree or a cave and in three hours I’ll meet you here on this spot.”

“All right,” I said, “but if you’re not here, I’m not going to wait.”

I walked on to the town of New Garland and went straight to Witherspoon’s Photographic Studio. The same man with the drooping mustache and high collar greeted me at the door.

“Remember me?” I asked.

“Indeed, I do, sir!” he said with a smile. “You’re the one with the dodo bird son.”

“What a memory you have!”

“Not at all, sir. It’s only been one week.”

“Is my photo portrait ready for me to take home?”

“Yes, it is, sir. I have it right here.”

He bent over and produced a little photo album from underneath the counter, which he hastily wrapped in paper, tied up with a string. After he was finished wrapping the album, he put it inside a small drawstring canvas bag and handed it over the counter to me.

“For you to look at later, when you’re at home, sir,” he said.

I paid the man and thanked him and went across the street to Fine Eats. I sat at the same table as before and the same tiny waitress came out from the back. Her hair was higher and more triangular than before, her brilliant, round eyes staring and unblinking. I wasn’t sure how she was seeing me because she always seemed to be looking out the window at the street.

When I tried to get her to look directly at me and she didn’t, it occurred to me that she wasn’t a “she” but an “it.” She was a doll endowed with motion like my Lulu at home. Had the man in the photographic studio with the dropping mustache been a doll, too? Was I a doll? I was pretty sure Mrs. Goldoni wasn’t a doll because she was an insect. Was Sheridan a real dodo bird, or was he, too, a mechanical “thing.” I would be most disappointed to find out that he, above all the others, wasn’t what he appeared to be.

“Today’s special is pickled herring or spaghetti and meatballs served with a red wine and breadsticks,” the waitress intoned in her odd voice that seemed to be coming from another room.

“I’ll have the spaghetti,” I said, having no desire to engage her in further talk.

She brought the wine before the food was ready and I had two full glasses while I waited. As before, there was nobody else in the place. The street also was empty. I heard music coming from some faraway place. When I strained to hear the music better, it stopped and then when I stopped thinking about it, it started up again.

The waitress brought the food and set it down in front of me and I began eating. It was the best spaghetti and meatballs I ever had. The wine was the best I had ever tasted. When I finished eating and was ready to leave, I was a little wobbly on my legs from all the wine. I threw some money on the table and went back out onto the sunny street.

When I came to the spot where I had left Farina Alvarez, he was waiting there for me, sitting on a little hillock beside the road. He smiled and stood up and waved at me.

“No more trouble with Followers?” I asked.

“I think you scared them off for now,” he said.

After we had walked some little ways without speaking, I turned to him and said, “Are you a thing other than what you appear to be?”

“I don’t understand the question,” he said.

“Some of the people here are dolls.”

“I know it,” he said, “but I don’t think I’m one of them. And, another thing about these dolls, they can change their size really fast. One minute they’re full-sized and the next minute they’re small enough to fit into a shoebox.”

“What’s it all about?” I asked.

“I don’t know anything,” he said.

When we got to my house on the banks of the River Ishcabob, it had been raining on us for the last quarter mile or so. I didn’t mind so much because it was a warm rain and I knew I was near home and could dry off and get into clean clothes soon enough, but Farina Alvarez was freezing. His teeth chattered; he held the collar of his thin coat up around his ears. Still, I made him wait outside for a minute while I went into the house and got Mrs. Goldoni. I wanted her to look at him and confirm that he really wasn’t a Follower.

She took a step outside the front door and shaded her eyes with her hand, even though the sun wasn’t shining. Insect eyes are different from human eyes.

“Who do we have here?” she asked.

“His name is Farina Alvarez,” I said. “On my way to New Garland, I happened on a bunch of Followers taunting him and throwing rocks at him. I took pity.”

She made little clicking insect sounds with her mouth and looked him up and down. “Tell me, son,” she said. “What’s the Holy Trinity?”

“Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” Farina Alvarez said.

“He’s all right,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “He’s not a Follower.”

“You can tell just from asking that one little question?” I asked.

“Sure can,” she said. “If you ask a Follower a religious question, it makes them vomit.”

“So, he’s all right, then.”

“I just said he was, didn’t I?”

I smiled at Farina Alvarez and took him by the sleeve and pulled him into the house.

“He’s going to be staying with us for a few days,” I explained to Mrs. Goldoni. “Find a comfortable room for him to stay in.”

“Do you suppose I could get a bath?” Farina Alvarez asked.

Mrs. Goldoni took him by the arm and started to lead him away. “Give him a good room that has a view and that isn’t gloomy and scary,” I said, “and give him some of my clothes to wear. I have more clothes than I know what to do with. Let him take his pick.”

I was weary from my long walk to and from New Garland, so I laid down and had a little nap. In an hour or so, Farina Alvarez emerged, looking scrubbed and wearing some of my clothes. Mrs. Goldoni had fixed him up with a bandage on his head.

“Feeling better?” I asked.

“Except for a headache,” he said.

We sat down to supper and, as we ate, a tremendous thunderstorm shook the house and made the lights go off. Mrs. Goldoni appeared with an antique candelabra and set it in the middle of the table.

“I like I good thunderstorm,” Farina Alvarez said, “as long as I have a roof over my head.”

I could tell we were going to be friends.

After supper the lights came back on. Mrs. Goldoni washed the supper dishes and went to bed. Farina Alvarez retired to his room and I was left all alone. I remembered I hadn’t yet looked at the little photographic album wrapped in paper that I had carried home with me in a drawstring canvas bag from the photographic studio in New Garland.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in the album. The first picture was of me laid out dead in a coffin, my hands crossed over my chest. I’m wearing a dress suit, my hair is neatly parted and I have a tiny pencil-line mustache, but, more astonishingly, Sheridan the dodo bird is sitting on the half-open lid of my coffin looking down into my face. He is obviously dismayed at seeing me dead. His beak is open partway as if he is emitting one of his most pitiful squawks and his eyes look watery.

I turn the page and the second picture is equally surprising. It’s of Mrs. Goldoni, dead in a coffin, a lily in her crossed hands. Her mouth is drawn down at the corners and her hair is arranged in a severe style. I had only ever seen her with Jean Harlow hair, but this dead woman is obviously her.

On the third page is a picture of Farina Alvarez. I had only known him for a few hours, so I didn’t know why his picture would be in my photographic album. If I had learned anything in my new home, though, it was not to ask questions for which there were no answers.

On the other pages of the album were photographs of other dead people I didn’t know, even though a couple of them looked slightly familiar. The others were, I suppose, of people who somehow played a part in my long-ago life that I didn’t remember.

Then I remembered the letters on the window of the photographic studio: Photographs of the Deceased.

I could hear it raining through much of the night. Ordinarily the sound of rain acts as a soporific to me, but I had trouble sleeping. About daylight I got out of bed since I couldn’t sleep, took a long shower, and dressed. When I went into the kitchen, Mrs. Goldoni was cooking breakfast.

“We’re all dead, aren’t we?” I said to her by way of greeting.

She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. “I knew you’d figure it out on your own,” she said. “That’s what we all have to do.”

“Why didn’t you tell me when I first came here?” I asked.

“Because that’s not the way it works. For it to be meaningful, you have to find it yourself.”

“Like an Easter egg hunt?” I asked.

“We’re all put here to learn,” she said. “To find things out. You’re no different from any of the rest of us.”

“We’re in hell, aren’t we?”

“No, it’s not hell,” she said. “And it’s not heaven, either. It’s somewhere in between. It’s what the Catholics used to call Purgatory. We have to learn what we’re sent here to learn before we can advance to the next step.”

“What’s the next step?” I asked.

“Nobody knows.”

“Some people have been here for hundreds of years, if not longer. This is not a physical place. It exists in the spirit world. That’s why things are so different here from what you’re used to.”

“I have to tell you,” I said. “I don’t feel dead.”

“I know,” she said. “I don’t feel dead, either.”

“So, we just wait here and let things happen to us and try to escape from the clutches of the Followers and then, one day, we move on.”

“That’s right.”

“Why are you turning into an insect?”

“I wish I knew. It’s part of the plan of the one who made us all.”

“What will happen when you’re an insect and no longer a person?” I asked.

“I try not to think about it,” she said.

“You want to keep on being a person?”

“Yes. That’s why I say my trouble is arthritis. It’s a little conceit of mine. I don’t think insects get arthritis. If I can convince the world, and myself, that arthritis is the reason I’m turning into an insect, it makes me feel more human.”

I went and got the photo album and showed it to her. She turned the pages to the end, making the clicking sounds with her mouth.

“It’s the same for all of us,” she said.

She turned to her own picture and laid the album flat on the breakfast table.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Have you asked yourself why I’m in your photographic album?” she asked.

“My mother died when I was five years old,” I said. “I don’t remember much about her.”

“I remember everything about you, though,” she said. “I remember the day you were born.”

“So, you’re telling me you’re my mother?”

“Yes.”

“Who is Farina Alvarez?”

“I suppose you’ll find out one day.”

I put the photographic album away and Farina Alvarez emerged from his room and we had breakfast. I wanted to ask him if he knew we were dead; I wanted to show him the photographic album, but I knew I couldn’t. He had to discover these things on his own, just as I had done.

I took Farina Alvarez on a tour of my four-story house. I showed him the room with the haunted watches and the room where Sheridan was born. I took him into the room where Lulu the human-sized doll and Sheridan my dodo bird son spent most of my time, and he seemed genuinely happy to see them. He was as astonished as I was at seeing a real-live dodo bird.

When I saw the people I didn’t know lurking in the hallways or standing in a doorway, he saw them too, and he saw them as they seemed to dissolve in the air. I explained to him that how they were always there but never bothered me. I showed him the River Ishcabob, which I had been told would never flood, and he saw the hundreds of workers on the river who moved so fast they were just a blur. I took him next door to the bed and breakfast and introduced him to the smashed-flat woman, Mrs. Woolwine. She gave us beer and we spent a couple of hours laughing and talking at her kitchen table.

In our long and serious conversations, Farina Alvarez told me he didn’t know how long he had been in this place and he couldn’t remember being in any other. I was gratified in a way to know that his experiences paralleled my own.

It continued to rain almost every day for two weeks and I started feeling sick. For a while I could keep my sickness hidden, but then I started to feel worse and couldn’t get out of bed. My days passed in a blur. I woke and slept and woke. I couldn’t tell the waking from the sleeping. At times I was aware that Mrs. Goldoni, Mrs. Woolwine, Farina Alvarez, and Lulu the doll were standing around my bed, looking anxiously on. Sheridan the dodo perched on the footboard, looking intently at me.

And then, once when I woke up, I was in a different place. I was in a high bed. To my right was a blue wall and to my left a bank of medical instruments. A man stood at the foot of the bed, looking down at something he held in his hands. He didn’t know I was awake so I spoke his name.

He looked at my face and smiled. He had red hair the color of a new penny and a pencil-line mustache and icy blue eyes. I was glad to see somebody there that I knew.

“Farina Alvarez,” I said again.

He came around to side of the bed where he was closer and I could see him better. “What did you say?” he asked.

“I just spoke your name. Are you going to tell me you don’t know who I am?”

“Yes, I know who you are,” he said. “You’re my patient. You’ve been very ill for a while.”

“I know,” I said. “You don’t need to tell me I’m dead because I already know it.”

“I could call you Sleepy Beauty, but since you’re a man, I guess I’ll have to settle for Rip Van Winkle.”

“Where’s Mrs. Goldoni? She needs to know where I am.”

“Is that somebody you know?” he asked.

“She’s my mother. She’s my housekeeper.”

“All right. Just keep yourself calm. We’ll bring you back by degrees.”

He turned to a woman all dressed in white. She stepped forward and took his place beside the bed. I felt a needle jabbed into my arm and then she began fussing with something I couldn’t see that was over my head.

“What is that place?” I asked.

“You’re in a hospital,” the woman in white said. “You’re going to be fine.”

“Where did he go? Where did Farina Alvarez go?”

“If you mean your doctor, he’ll be right back. He went to see another patient for a minute.”

“Tell him I need to see him. I need to tell him something.”

“You can tell me,” the woman in white said.

“I don’t want to be here! I want to go back to where I was! Tell him for me! Will you tell him for me? It’s very important!”

“Would you like to try to sit up?”

“No! I want to go back to where I was! I have people waiting for me. If I don’t come back, they’ll wonder where I am! I have to see my dodo bird and make sure he’s all right.”

“You’re very confused,” the woman in white said, “but that will pass.”

“No!” I said. “I don’t want it to pass. I want to go back to my home on the banks of the River Ishcabob.”

“There is no such place,” she said. “You’ve been dreaming. Imagining things.”

“No,” I said, more weakly this time. “I have a four-story house with many rooms on the banks of the River Ishcabob. I have family there and friends. They’ll be worried about me. I want to go back. I don’t want to be here. I want to be back there, in my home, with my friends and family.”

Farina Alvarez came back into the room and I felt comforted. He took my hand in both of his. He smiled at me and I smiled at him. He had hair the color of a new penny and a pencil-line mustache. His eyes were the bluest I had ever seen. He squeezed my hand and when he did I was borne away on a bank of black fog. I knew then that in just a few seconds I’d be back where I belonged.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Percy Picket Succumbs to Infirmities

Posted on

Percy Picket

Percy Picket Succumbs to Infirmities ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in Abandoned Towers magazine.)

Mr. Percival “Percy” Francis Harrigan Picket, of Harmony Hill, entered into eternal rest on Thursday, the sixth of September, having attained the age of eighty-five years, four months, and sixteen days. He was preceded in death by his parents, Dewey Alonzo Picket and Alameda Hortense Fredericka (Wicket) Picket; and conjoined twin sons, Alfredo Joshua Torrance Picket and Alphonse Jerome Tyrone Picket. He was also preceded in death by his beloved wife of fifty-eight years, Louisa Maria Helena (Belladonna) Picket, with whom he had ten children.

Surviving children are Victor Hugo Pierce Picket (wife, the former Beatrice Carlotta Pogue Hinchcliff); Tammany Hector Guillermo Picket (wife, the former Magdalena Maybeetle Montclair); Lawson Jervis Wicket Picket (wife, the former Clara Beedle Champagne); George Emmett Grayson Picket (wife, the former Grace Gruber Grudnick); Georgiana Victoria Regina Chinn (husband, Chang Win Chinn); Albertina “June Bug” Dunleavy (husband, Dixie Clement Dunleavy); Alice “Tiny” Wigglesworth (husband, Charles Chandler “Chick” Wigglesworth); and Lucille Lucretia Faith-Winterhaven (wife of Montague Sidney Faith-Winterhaven III).

The deceased is also survived by a brother, Raleigh Gunderson Hartselle Picket; a sister, Adelaide Emmaline Picket Moncrief; and grandchildren Arundel, Woo, Lotus, Astoria, Polly Esther, Brigadier, Judson, Lupé, Xerxes, Chandler, Trixie Bell, Enar, Gunnar, Fritzie, Bongo, Hermes, Echo, Pan, Lou Anne, Jade, Opal, Bean, Babby, Rockwell, Belvedere, Zaza, and twins Jag and Dag. Great-grandchildren include Gaston, Pluperfect, Sasqueesha, Cavendish, Bump, Doral, Horatio, Hector, Eff, Bea-Elza, Vamoose, Lothario, Coriander, Barclay, Oona, Splurge, Penny Ante, Dosie Patootie, Nimbus, Torsten, Lala, Biffy, Maybelle, and quadruplets Choi, Chang, Chen and Ah-Choo.

Also surviving are many nieces and nephews, cousins, business associates, and friends, as well as a special companion with whom he enjoyed white-water rafting and five-card stud, Dinwiddie Oglethorpe-St. Clair, of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Throughout his long life, the deceased was known as a caring and philanthropic individual. In spite of his large family and his successful and distinguished career as a mannequin designer, he was always ready to don his white makeup, glittery nose, baggy tuxedo and red wig to transform himself into the beloved clown, Mr. Peevish Quackenbush. As this well-known clown character, he was often seen riding on floats in parades and lending a hand at charitable fund-raising events. He often stated to friends and family in later years that it was as Mr. Peevish Quackenbush that he felt most alive. He was frequently quoted as saying, “Mr. Peevish Quackenbush is more Percy Picket than Percy Picket is.”

And it was in mid-life that he launched his second career, that of a professional circus clown. Leaving behind family, home, and business, he traveled with the Fitch Brothers Circus for fifteen years as one of its star attractions. Mr. Otto Fitch, owner and founder of the Fitch Brothers Circus, has stated unequivocally that it was Mr. Peevish Quackenbush who saved the circus from bankruptcy. “We would have never made it through the hard times without Mr. Peevish Quackenbush bringing in new customers in every town,” Mr. Fitch stated. “He is what kept us on the rails.” A life-size statue of Mr. Peevish Quackenbush can be seen on display at the National Clown Museum and Hall of Fame.

In keeping with the wishes of the deceased, he will be interred in the clown car that he made famous in the clown section of the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost. He will lie in state in full clown regalia at the Seltzer Water Funeral Parlor tomorrow evening only from seven p.m. until closing. Tickets may be purchased at the door. Bring the entire family.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Champion Whiskey Drinker

Posted on

The Champion Whiskey Drinker ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Expanded version with a different title of a short story I posted earlier.) 

Sylvia Wiley sat alone in her darkened house in a cloud of cigarette smoke. It was a summer day, late in July. She was aware of some unusual sounds in the back yard and she didn’t know what it was. Oh, yes, she remembered now. Carl Junior was having some friends over. They were playing a game or something, as children do.

After a half-hour or so she no longer heard the sounds so she went to the back door and opened it to make sure the children weren’t getting themselves into any mischief or hurting each other. After all, she was the mother and she was supposed to keep the offspring in line.

Opening the door revealed a small boy sitting hunched over on her back steps. He had short brown hair and wore a red shirt with white horizontal stripes. When she stepped out the back door, he turned around and looked at her.

“Hello there,” she said. “Do I know you?”

The boy shook his head and looked away.

“Well, since I don’t know you, I might ask you what you’re doing on my back steps.”

“We were playing and they left,” he said.

“Who left?”

“Carl and Lanagan.”

“Well, I know who Carl is, but I don’t know who Lanagan is.”

“He’s just a kid.”

“Where did they go?”

“I don’t know. They played a trick on me. They told me to hide my eyes and when I did they ran off and didn’t come back.”

“That wasn’t very nice, was it? In fact, I’d say it was terribly rude.”

“I guess I don’t mind very much.”

“I bet you don’t like them very much, do you? Carl and Lanagan.”

“How did you know?”

“Why do you play with them?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that many people.”

She flipped her cigarette over the porch railing. “Can’t you just go on home? I mean, instead of waiting for those two little shits to come back?”

“My mother told me to stay here until three o’clock. She’s coming to pick me up then.”

“Can’t you walk home?”

“It’s too far and I’m not sure if I remember the way. I’d get lost and then my mother would be upset with me.”

“You’re new in town, I take it.”

“Yeah.”

“I can drive you home if you’d like.”

“No, that’s all right. That would only confuse my mother.”

“Well, you might as well come in, then. You can’t sit out there in this awful heat until three o’clock.”

She led him into the living room and indicated the couch as a suitable place where he might sit down.

“Would you like me to call your mother for you and tell her she needs to come a little earlier than planned?”

“No, she’s not at home. She had an appointment.”

Realizing the room was depressingly dark for a July afternoon, she opened the blinds.

“Would you like a soda or a drink?” she asked.

“No, but I would like to use the bathroom.”

“Well, make yourself at home. It’s through the dining room and down the hall.”

He was gone for about two minutes and when he came back his shirt was tucked neatly into his pants.

“I don’t know your name,” she said.

“It’s Ricky.”

“Richard?”

“Yeah, but everybody calls me Ricky.”

“Well, now, why do you suppose that is?”

“I don’t know.”

“How old are you, Ricky?”

“Eleven.”

“You’re getting close to that dangerous in-between age.”

“What?”

“You don’t know what the dangerous in-between age is?”

“No.”

“It’s where you’re halfway between childhood and adulthood. You like to think of yourself as an adult but the people who run the world keep telling you you’re still a child.”

“Oh.”

“Well, just relax,” she said. “You might as well enjoy yourself while you can. I’m not a wicked witch even if I may look like one.”

He laughed and leaned all the way back, resting his head on the back of the couch.

“You have a pretty house,” he said.

“Well, I like to think so.”

“It’s big.”

“Yes, it’s big. When Carl Senior buys a house, he buys the biggest and the best that money can buy.”

“Do you have a dog?”

“No, I don’t have a dog. I have two children and that’s enough in the way of pets. Besides Carl Junior, there’s Cecelia. She’s only eight. You probably don’t know her, do you?”

“No.”

“Her character has already been formed. At her young age, you can tell exactly the kind of woman she’ll be, and it’s not a pretty picture.”

“Oh.”

“Well, now that the whole can of worms has been opened, I might as well tell you that I’m not really the mother of Carl Junior and Cecelia. I’m their stepmother.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you find that interesting?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll bet Carl Junior never told you he had a stepmother, did he?”

“No, he didn’t. What happened to his real mother?”

“Well, the rumor is that she died, but I have reason to believe she’s hiding out someplace.”

“Why would she do that?”

“If you knew Carl Senior, Carl Junior and Cecelia, you wouldn’t need to ask that question.”

“I have a dog,” he said.

“Oh, really? What’s his name?”

“Skippy.”

“What kind of a dog is Skippy?”

“I think he’s part collie and part something else.”

“So he’s a big dog.”

He leaned forward and held his hand two feet from the floor. “About this big.”

“Do you let Skippy stay in the house?”

“He can come into the basement as long he leaves his fleas outside.”

“A good policy.”

“Except he doesn’t have any fleas because he wears a flea collar.”

“I’ve always liked animals,” she said. “They’re innocent and pure, whereas people are corrupted and scheming and vile.”

She leaned forward and lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out in a cloud above her head. “I’m a little drunk right now,” she said. “Maybe more than a little. Your mother would probably be shocked to know that I invited you into my house while I’m drunk. Maybe we should just keep that little bit of information between ourselves.”

“I don’t mind!” he said.

“You’re a good sport. I could tell that the moment I laid eyes on you.”

He watched her as she walked over to a side table and poured herself a shot of whiskey.

“I’d love to offer you a drink,” she said, “but since you’re eleven years old, I don’t think it would be appropriate.”

“You drink whiskey?”

“Oh, my, yes!” she said. “I’m the champion whiskey drinker.”

“Does it taste good?”

“No, it tastes like crap, but I don’t drink it for the taste.”

“What do you drink it for?”

“It dulls the feelings and, believe me, as you get older, you’ll find that nobody needs feelings.”

“Oh.”

“I’ll bet your mommy doesn’t drink straight whiskey, does she?”

“I’ve never seen her if she does.”

“What about your daddy? Is he a good father?”

“I guess so.”

“What does he do for a living?”

“He’s a painter.”

“You mean landscapes and portraits and things like that?”

“No, he paints houses and sometimes he goes out into the country and paints barns.”

“Is there a lot of money in painting barns?”

“I don’t know.”

“Of course not. You wouldn’t know. When you’re eleven years old, you don’t think about things like that, do you?”

“No.”

“I’d like to be eleven again. I’d live my life in an entirely different way. I wouldn’t marry for money. I’d go away somewhere and be an artist. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Some women aren’t cut out for the domestic scene. I’m one of them.”

He yawned.

“But that’s enough about me,” she said. “Tell me about yourself. What do you like to do?”

“I don’t know. Watch TV and read my comics, I guess.”

“You’re a reader?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m a reader, too. When I was younger, I’d read a novel a week and I mean the good stuff too. Not cheap junk that passes for fiction nowadays. It’s good that you’re a reader. It teaches you to think and figure things out for yourself. I don’t think Carl Senior has ever read a book in his life. And just try to get Carl Junior or Cecelia to read a book on their own! Impossible!”

“My sister reads books from the library. Books she doesn’t have to read.”

“How old is she?”

“Thirteen.”

“Do you get along well with your sister?”

“Sure, I guess so.”

“Any other brothers or sisters?”

“I have a brother, Frank. He plays tricks on me and makes fun of me. He calls me names.”

“I think I see a recurring pattern here of people playing tricks on you.”

“My mother says I’m a pushover.”

“One day Frank will get exactly what he deserves and you’ll be there to see it. One day he’ll come groveling to you because he wants something from you, and you won’t be inclined to give it to him because he wasn’t nice to you when it mattered.”

“He tries to take my money when I have any.”

“When I married Carl Senior and took on his two kids as my own, I knew I would live to regret it, and I have. Regretted it, I mean. I’m thankful that the first Mrs. Carl Senior had sense enough to stop after two kids. She had her tubes tied after Cecelia was born, you know. Otherwise there might have been half a dozen.”

“I’m not ever having any kids,” he said.

“That’s very wise. I wish more people in the world would adopt that attitude.”

“I’ll just have lots of animals.”

“Live on a farm, maybe?”

“Yeah. Out in the country.”

“Where people like Carl Junior and your brother Frank can’t play tricks on you.”

“Yeah.”

“And since we’re back on the subject of Carl Junior—or at least I am—I have to warn you about him.”

“What about him?”

“You’re a smart, sensitive boy. You don’t need friends like Carl Junior. He’ll never do you anything but harm. You’d be better off to have no friends at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“He will lead you astray, hurt you or cheat you.”

“Why will he do that?”

“Because that’s what he does. People like him. And when you think that he’s only a child and just getting started, it’s frightening. What will he be like when he’s a grown man? I pity anybody who falls under his spell.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course you don’t. You’re too young and innocent, but the more you associate with Carl Junior the more you’ll see it.”

“I don’t know. He seems all right to me.”

“That’s how his kind always gets started. He seems all right at first so you don’t see the terrible thing that’s coming. I know this because Carl Senior is the same way. Carl Junior is a miniature version of Carl Senior.”

“Why do they both have the same name?”

“I don’t know. Carl Senior believed he needed an exact duplicate of himself, I suppose. And that’s exactly what he got.”

“They’re both assholes, aren’t they? Junior and Senior assholes.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” she said. “If I had a criminal nature and wasn’t afraid of going to jail, I’d sneak into his room at night when he’s asleep and strangle him with the drapery cord.”

“Carl Senior?”

“No, I’m talking about Carl Junior. I’d get him out of the way first and then Carl Senior would be next on my list.”

“Strangle him with the drapery cord?”

“No, that would only work once. I’d have to think of a different way.”

“You could poison him.”

“Yes, I’ve thought of that, but it would have to be a poison that can’t be traced. I don’t relish the idea of going to jail.”

“I have an uncle in jail,” he said. “He didn’t kill anybody, though. I think he stole some checks.”

“Now that I’ve told you some of my innermost secrets, I might as well tell you the big one. Can you keep a secret?”

“Sure.”

“Our life here is about to blow up.”

“Like a bomb, you mean?”

“No, I mean figuratively, not literally.”

“Oh.”

“Do you know what an embezzler is?”

“No.”

“It’s a person who reallocates money to himself in an orderly way. Not somebody who robs a bank or holds up a gas station but a person who systematically siphons money in a way that he thinks won’t be noticed. You know, a little bit here and a little bit there.”

“Oh.”

“Do you know what he then does with the money he embezzles?”

“No.”

“He puts it into a secret account in a foreign country. If this goes on long enough, the money can grow to a very sizeable amount.”

“Oh.”

“Then the embezzler absconds with the money he has accumulated to a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States.”

“A what?”

“It means that even if they know where he is they can’t have him brought back.”

“Oh.”

“Carl Senior is one of those embezzlers. He’s been doing it for about six years. I’m the only one who knows. And do you know what else I know?”

“What?”

“He’s going to run off with the money he has embezzled to Antarctica or someplace like that and leave me here to raise his two lovely children, Carl Junior and Cecelia.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because he wants more than anything in the world to be able to live a life of luxury and seclusion and not be bothered with a wife and children.”

“Oh.”

“I’m thinking about calling the place where he works and telling them everything I know. Or, on the other hand, I could just kill the son of a bitch. If it was you, what would you do?”

“I don’t know. Run away from home, I guess.”

“If only Carl Junior could be more like you! What a difference that would make in my life. Only to have somebody to talk to.”

“Well, it’s ten minutes to three now,” he said, looking at the big sunburst clock on the dining room wall. “I think I’ll walk down to the corner and wait there for my mother.”

“Must you go already?”

“She’ll be mad if I keep her waiting.”

“All right. I understand completely.”

She stood up and walked him to the door and opened it for him and offered her hand for him to shake.

“I’m so glad we had a chance to talk,” she said. “Sometimes that’s all a person needs. Just somebody to talk to.”

“Thanks for letting me stay,” he said.

“I hope you’ll come back and visit me again real soon.”

After he was gone, she poured herself another drink and lit another cigarette. She took a gun out of the drawer of the desk and sat down, holding it in her lap, making herself comfortable while she waited.

At the usual time she heard Carl Senior’s car. He parked in front, instead of putting the car away, meaning he intended to go out again after dinner. She heard his key in the lock and then heard the door swing open.

When he walked into the room where she was sitting, she was pointing the gun at him.

“What’s this?” he asked.

His face showed a little bit of surprise but no fear. She knew he didn’t believe she would pull the trigger.

“You think I don’t know?” she said.

“Know wh…?”

Before he could say these two words, she shot him in the abdomen. When he went down, she approached him with the gun and kept shooting until the gun was empty. She saved the last bullet for his head.

“So that’s the way these things go,” she said, standing over him, the gun hanging limply at her side. “No jury will ever convict me. I just rid the world of a species of vermin. In a little while Carl Junior will be home.”

A gurgling sound came from Carl Senior’s throat. He was trying to say something. She leaned closer to hear what it was, but he died before he could get the words out.

She thought she heard the back door open and close. Someone, either Carl Junior or Cecelia, was coming into the house. She ran to the desk and fumbled with the box of bullets to get the gun reloaded while she still had a few seconds alone.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

 

The Mill on the Floss ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

The Mill on the Floss ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

English country life in the nineteenth century: Mr. Tulliver is a miller and landowner. He owns a picturesque little mill on the River Floss. He has a not-very-bright wife named Bessie and a son, Tom, and a daughter, Maggie. The Tullivers are simple country folk who live modestly but comfortably. Tom is four years older than Maggie. They have a happy childhood until tragedy intervenes and the family is faced with financial ruin.

Mr. Tulliver is involved in a lawsuit with the wealthy Mr. Wakem involving water rights on the river where the mill is situated. Mr. Tulliver believes he will win his case, but he doesn’t and the family loses everything. Mr. Tulliver, blinded by his feelings of hatred for Mr. Waken, is unreasonable and refuses to seek a middle ground with the man he sees as the devil incarnate. We see subsequently that Mr. Wakem isn’t as bad as Mr. Tulliver makes him out to be. At the urging of Tom Tulliver, Mr. Wakem buys the mill and agrees and pay Mr. Tulliver wages to continue to run it. It galls Mr. Tulliver to have to work for Mr. Wakem, but he agrees to the arrangement for the sake of his wife and Tom and Maggie. Although the Tullivers can go on living in the same house at the mill, they have lost all their furniture and household possessions but, more importantly, they have lost their standing in the world, a thing that is very important to people of their class.

The years pass. Tom and Maggie are now young adults. Maggie devotes her life to her ill father—the loss of his lawsuit is what made him ill—and her feckless mother. She has adopted a philosopher of selflessness that she has taken from a medieval monk. Her dearest friend in the world is none other than Philip Wakem, son of the dreaded Mr. Wakem. Philip has a deformity, a hump on his back, that makes him something of an outcast in society. Maggie has to keep her friendship with Philip a secret from her father and brother. Mr. Tulliver believes that anybody by the name of Wakem is to be despised.

Tom, now grown to manhood, is ambitious. He becomes obsessed with the idea that he will work to pay back the money his father owes and restore the family to its former social standing. He begins working as a sort of apprentice for one of his uncles; he rises in the business and soon he begins to make money on his own, all of which he turns over to his father to help repay the family debt.

Taking his cue from his father, Tom believes that Mr. Wakem was the cause of the downfall of the family and that anybody by the name of Wakem is poison. He makes Maggie promise that she will have nothing to do with Philip Wakem, although Philip is innocent of any wrongdoing in the case with the Tullivers. Ever obedient to Tom and to the family honor, Maggie agrees to never see Philip again, even though Philip has told Maggie he loves her and she thinks she might love him with a love that is more than pity for his deformity.

The day that Tom, age twenty-three, finally makes enough money to restore the family to its former social standing is a happy occasion until Mr. Tulliver has a chance meeting with Mr. Wakem. They have a violent argument and Mr. Tulliver knocks Mr. Wakem off his horse and physically attacks him. Mr. Wakem is unhurt, but Mr. Tulliver, from the effects of violent feeling, experiences a kind of apoplexy and dies in a few days. With Mr. Tulliver dead, Tom carries on his hatred of the Wakem family. He makes Maggie promise that she will have nothing to do with Philip Wakem or with anybody named Wakem. Meanwhile, Maggie, now age nineteen and a stunning, raven-haired beauty, has a new gentleman admirer, one Stephen Guest, who is ostensibly the beau of her cousin Lucy. Maggie is not the usual Victorian coquette, though. She has experienced too much heartache in the world to be shallow and self-possessed.

Mary Anne Evans, who lived from 1819 to 1880, wrote under the name George Eliot because she believed that women writers were not taken seriously. She wrote seven novels, including Silas Marner, Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and Daniel Deronda. She published Mill on the Floss in 1860.

I started reading Mill on the Floss as a senior in high school and didn’t finish it at the time because I was too preoccupied with other things. I always meant to go back and read it in its entirety and now I have done that very thing. With its long wordy sentences and long paragraphs, it’s a product of its time, meaning it’s not an easy book to read. It’s of moderate length (424 pages), though, and the story of a mid-nineteenth century English family, if not gripping, is compelling and interesting enough to carry us through to the end without too much in the way of pain.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Still Life with Skull ~ A Painting by Paul Cezanne

Posted on

Still Life with Skull (1898) by Paul Cezanne

Still Life with Skull was painted in 1898 by Post-Impressionist French painter Paul Cezanne, who lived from 1839 to 1906. Cezanne’s style of painting is said to have bridged the 19th century to the new style of the 20th century, particularly Cubism.