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French Exit ~ A Capsule Book Review

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French Exit ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Patrick DeWitt is an American novelist (b. 1975), whose previous works include The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor. His latest is French Exit, a comic novel about a feckless New York widow, Francis Price (age 65), who spends her money without regard for how much might be left. When she discovers she has spent too freely and her money is all gone, she and her grown son, Malcom (age 32), are faced with the prospect of having to alter their way of living.

Francis Price has a very old cat named Small Frank. We discover, although we suspected it beforehand, that Francis’s husband, Franklin Price, who died twenty years earlier of a heart attack, lives inside (occupies) the cat. Francis didn’t especially like her husband and doesn’t especially like Small Frank but instead seems only to tolerate him. Small Frank goes everywhere Francis and Malcolm go. As a cat, he is completely self-sufficient. He is immune even to the dangers that city streets might pose to any other cat.

When Francis’s husband died in his bedroom, there was some controversy surrounding his death. Francis discovered Franklin dead and then went on a three-day skiing trip without letting anybody know what had happened. She was, subsequently, suspected of some wrongdoing in his death and spent a short time behind bars. It was, apparently, immediately after Franklin’s death that a cat (who later came to be Small Frank), was seen hanging around Franklin and seemed to be tête-à-tête, or at least mouth-to-mouth, with him.

Being the child of rich parents, laconic Malcolm Price never prepared himself to make a living and get along in the world on his own. As a 32-year-old man, he lives with his mother and is as dependent on her for his support as he was when he was a child. He has a girlfriend named Susan but, as with most things in his life, he can take her or leave her.

With all their money gone, Francis and Malcolm are locked out of their fancy New York apartment and need a place to live. Francis’s good friend, another wealthy socialite named Joan, tells Francis that she and Malcolm can live in her apartment in Paris, which is currently unoccupied. Francis and Malcolm board a passenger ship and set sail across the Atlantic for Paris, just as wealthy people used to do long ago. They take Small Frank with them to get on the boat but are told they will have to leave him behind because they don’t have any “papers” for him. With barely a backward glance, they leave Small Frank standing there alone at the point of embarkation. Not to worry, however. Small Frank manages to make his way to Francis’s stateroom, where he makes himself quite comfortable. Francis and Malcolm even take Small Frank into the dining salon with them, where he sits on a chair at the table. When a fussy waiter ejects Small Frank, he comes right back in when the waiter has his back turned, as cats are wont to do.

Francis and Malcolm live in Paris in much the same way they lived in New York; that is, with little thought of the future and blissfully unaware of the consequences of their own actions. Francis has retained a little of her fortune from the sale of some personal items, but she seems intent on spending the last of her money any foolish way she can. It seems she has a plan in mind for the future, or at least her own future. When Small Frank leaves home and takes up residence on the streets of Paris as a homeless cat, Francis consults a “psychic” named Madeleine she and Malcolm met coming over on the boat to try to locate him. Madeleine is able to contact Small Frank through the use of a séance, even though he isn’t dead but just in a bad way living on the Paris streets.

French Exit is perfectly written, far removed from reality, entertaining, clever, droll, witty, whimsical, offbeat, and unlike anything else. If you’re looking for these qualities in a novel, they are here in abundance.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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Every Word on Every Page

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Every Word on Every Page ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

His name was Mr. Crimm. He was a man in his fifties with the bulk of a gorilla. There was something about him not quite savory; he was missing a finger on his right hand and he had bristly hairs growing out of his nostrils. He looked more like an auto mechanic than a book dealer. He knocked savagely on the door. Mrs. Fairleigh went to let him in, disliking him at once.

“You got some books?” he said, baring his yellow monkey teeth.

“You’re the book expert?” she asked.

“That’s what they tell me,” he said. “You called for somebody to come and take a look at some books?”

She opened the door for him. She took two steps ahead of him and then stopped and turned to look at him. “My late husband was the book collector. He loved books, mostly novels and books on history. The Renaissance and Magellan and that sort of thing.”

“Uh-huh,” Mr. Crimm said, obviously not impressed.

“I don’t know much about them myself. The books, I mean.”

“Are you going to show me the books,” Mr. Crimm said, “or are we going to stand here all day and gab?”

She took him up the stairs, along the hallway to the last door on the left. She opened the door and stepped inside, Mr. Crimm following her.

“This is a bedroom, but all it has in it now is books,” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

Shelves from floor to ceiling were loaded with all manner of books, old books and newer books, every shape, size and color. Where the shelves were overflowing, books on their sides were laying on books standing upright. Books were stacked on the floor in front of the shelves, in corners and in every available space. Cardboard and wooden boxes full of books allowed only a narrow path through the room.

Mr. Crimm made a sound in his throat of disapproval, as if about to discharge a ball of phlegm.

“They’re not very well organized, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “Ever since my husband died, I thought I’d go through them and organize them in some way but I never seemed to find the time.”

Mr. Crimm selected a book at random from the shelf, opened it and turned a few pages. Putting the book back, he did the same thing with another one.

“Not worth much,” he said.

“What?”

“I said nobody wants books like these. They’re not worth anything.”

“You’ve hardly even looked at them.”

“I’ve been in business for a long time. I know what people want and what they don’t want.”

“It seems you’d look at each book individually and establish a price for each one.”

“I ain’t got time for that. That’s not the way I do business.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I don’t think…”

“I give you two hundred dollars for the lot.”

“What?”

“I said I give you two hundred dollars for every book in this room. That’s very generous. I might even buy the shelves if the price is right.”

“They’re worth a lot more than that, I’m sure!” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

“You just said you don’t know nothing about no books,” Mr. Crimm said. “Believe me, this is a lot of junk and it’s not worth anything. A thing is only worth as much as somebody is willing to pay for it. This is a lot of crap, I can tell, and I’m offering you two hundred dollars to take the whole mess off your hands this very day.”

“No, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to call somebody else.”

Mr. Crimm gave an exasperated sigh and leaned his monkey-like paw against the door frame. “You can call any book seller in the city and they’ll all say the same thing. Do you want me to give you a little time to think about it? That’s what people always say.”

“No, I’ve already made up my mind. I’m not going to sell to you.”

“Do you mean to say you got me all the way out here for nothing?” Mr. Crimm asked.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars for your time and effort and that’s the best I can do.”

Mr. Crimm looked at her as if she was a very difficult case. “I give you two hundred fifty dollars,” he said. “That’s the best offer you’ll get anywhere.”

“No, that’s not enough for this many books. There are thousands of books in this room. I’m sure they’re worth more than that.”

“You won’t do no better, believe me.”

“I’m sorry your time had been wasted. I’ll write you a check for fifty dollars and we’ll call it even.”

“Three hundred! That is my last and final offer!”

“No! Don’t you understand English? I’m not going to sell to you!”

“That’s no way to treat a businessman, you know!” Mr. Crimm said. “You get me all the way out here in good faith and then you back out of the deal? I don’t think I’m going to let you treat me in this way! There’s such a thing as ethics in business, you know! Don’t you have no ethics?”

“I’m not going to stand here and argue with you!” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “I want you out of my house this very minute!”

“I think we can work something out.”

“There’s nothing to work out!”

“You have a very bad attitude, you know that?” Mr. Crimm said. “You can’t treat people like dirt and expect them to take it lying down!”

“Is there any way I can make it any clearer? I want you out of my house! Right now!”

“I’m not leaving until we’ve concluded the transaction.”

“The transaction is concluded!”

“I’ll make it four hundred dollars but only if you throw in the shelves. That is a very generous offer and I know I’ll never make a cent of it back.”

“That’s not enough for this many books. Some of these books might be worth four hundred dollars on their own!”

“My driver is outside in the truck. His name is Paolo. I’ll get him to come in and help me and we’ll have this room emptied out in no time at all.”

“I don’t believe you’re an expert on books, at all,” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “I think you’re a junk dealer.”

“You don’t have to insult me on top of everything else!” Mr. Crimm said.

“A person who knows books would take the time to look at each book separately and assess its value. I’m sure some of these books are rare. Some of them alone may be worth thousands of dollars!”

“I’ve already told you what they’re worth, and they ain’t worth diddly squat!”

“You think I’m only a stupid woman. You’re trying to cheat me, but I’m not going to let you do it! I knew the second I saw you that you didn’t know a thing about books.”

“I know as much as anybody else and I know these books ain’t worth shit!”

“Well, they’re my books and I’m going to keep them!”

Mr. Crimm was no longer listening. He had been writing out a check. He tore it from his book and handed it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s your check for four hundred dollars for the books! Did you think I wouldn’t pay you what I said?”

She looked at the check and tried to give it back. “I don’t want it!” she said.

When he wouldn’t take the check from her, she tore it up in little pieces and threw them in his face.

“I see you are a very unstable woman,” he said.

“Get out of my house now or I’ll call the police!”

Ignoring her, Mr. Crimm called his driver, Paolo, on his two-way radio and instructed him to come inside. Paolo was no more than a boy, but in less than two minutes he and Mr. Crimm were hefting boxes over their shoulders, carrying them down the stairs and out the door.

“I’d advise you to stop with that right now!” Mrs. Fairleigh said, but she knew they were ignoring her. She had no other choice but to stand by and watch them.

She was going to call the police but she believed she needed more immediate help than they could offer. She went to her bedroom and got her husband’s loaded gun out of the dresser drawer. Holding the gun to her side, she went outside.

Mr. Crimm was loading boxes into the dark interior of the nearly empty truck and didn’t see Mrs. Fairleigh standing at the curb looking in at him. Paolo was still inside the house.

“Unload those boxes from your truck and set them here on the sidewalk!” Mrs. Fairleigh commanded.

Mr. Crimm was pointedly ignoring her. His face was inscrutable. “I’ll mail you a check for four hundred dollars,” he said, “since you tore the other one up.”

She pointed the gun at him. He didn’t bother to look at her until he heard the gun cock.

He laughed. “You going to shoot me?” he said.

“You think I won’t?”

“You going to shoot me over a load of old books?”

“No, I’m going to shoot you because you’re robbing me.”

“Put the gun down and stop acting like a child,” he said.

She fired the gun one time above his head. The bullet hit the far wall of the truck and made a hole clean through to the outside.

Mr. Crimm threw his arms up in surprise. “You shoot me, you crazy bitch!” he said. “What’s the matter with you? Are you insane?”

“No, I wasn’t trying to shoot you that time, but next time I will.”

“Wait just a minute!” he said. “You don’t have to shoot again! We’ll talk about this thing!”

“There’s nothing to talk about. Unload those boxes and set them here on the sidewalk and then get into your truck and drive away and forget you were ever here.”

“You crazy woman!” he said.

“Unload the boxes! Now!”

“All right! All right! It just ain’t worth it!”

He set the boxes on the sidewalk as he was told and when he was finished he stood looking at Mrs. Fairleigh as he rubbed his hands together. “You going to shoot me now?” he asked.

“Get back up in the truck!” she said.

“What?”

“I said get back up into the truck!”

“Why?”

“You’ll see why.”

He did as he was told. About halfway to the back of the truck, he turned and looked down at her. He put his hands on his hips and smiled. If he had been afraid of her before, his fear had passed.

“I don’t like you,” she said. “I didn’t like you from the moment you first knocked on my door.”

“Let’s just say it’s mutual,” Mr. Crimm said.

She shot him in the thigh of his right leg. He grabbed the leg, looked at her in surprise, screamed and fell back, cursing her in a language she didn’t recognize. Still holding the gun in her right hand, she slammed the doors of the truck, effectively shutting Mr. Crimm off from the light and air and out of her life.

Paolo came out of the house carrying a carton of books under each arm. When she saw him, she smiled.

“I don’t know if you understand English,” she said, “because I haven’t heard you speak a syllable, but I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say.”

He smiled, nodding to show he understood. He set the cartons down alongside the others on the sidewalk, took a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it.

“I don’t know what relation this man is to you,” Mrs. Fairleigh said, “but I hope for your sake he isn’t somebody important to you because I just shot him in the leg. You probably heard the gun fire. Take him to the nearest hospital. Tell them a stray bullet hit him in a violent neighborhood you were passing through. You didn’t see exactly where the bullet came from. If you don’t follow these instructions to the letter, I have another bullet for you, with your name on it, and I have to tell you I’m not a very good shot. If I aim for your leg, I might hit something more vital.”

Paolo shrugged and smiled again and tossed his cigarette into the street. He climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. He started the truck, grinding the gears and, pulling away from the curb, rattled away down the block and disappeared from view.

While Mrs. Fairleigh was still standing on the sidewalk, her next-door neighbor Mrs. Bushmiller came out and stood beside her. She had a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth and her hair was pinned up in bobby pins, making her appear to be wearing a tight-fitting brown cap.

“What was that noise?” Mrs. Bushmiller asked.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

“It sounded like a car backfiring.”

“That’s probably what it was, then, dear.”

“Why are these cartons sitting here on the curb?”

“They’re some books I had delivered. I need help carrying them in the house and up the stairs.”

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Bushmiller said. “I’ll get my sixteen-year-old son, Trippy, to help you. All he does is lay around the house anyway.”

“I’d be glad to pay him.”

“You won’t pay him a cent. What are neighbors for?”

Mrs. Fairleigh stood and waited while Mrs. Bushmiller went to get Trippy. In no more than a minute, he came running out of the house, eager to help a neighbor lady with a lifting job. How kind people are, Mrs. Fairleigh thought, as Trippy leaned over to get a good grip on the first box and she stared intently at the elastic of his underwear.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Martian Chronicles ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Martian Chronicles ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, was first published in 1950 and is set in a future time in the early 21st century, a time that we have now exceeded and passed. It is a collection of interrelated short stories that are almost but not quite a novel. The stories are all set on the planet Mars and are about earth people traveling to Mars, living on Mars and trying to survive on Mars. Mars may be the one planet in our solar system that is most like earth but, as the people in the book discover, living on Mars is not quite the same as living on earth.

In The Martian Chronicles, tens of thousands of people from earth are traveling to Mars because—you guessed it—mankind has defiled and annihilated earth and, for people to go on living, they must find a new planetary home. Mars, as we see it, is an eerie, lonely planet, with dried-up oceans, deserts and canals, and remnants of Martian cities that are thousands of years old.

Earth people on Mars, as you might imagine, are not good for Mars. They set about destroying Mars the same way they destroy earth and there’s nobody to stop them. The once-proud Martian race has all but died by the time the bulk of earth people arrive. There may be a few Martians still living, but they keep themselves hidden in the hills and are rarely seen.

The stories in The Martian Chronicles are divided into three parts. The first part is about the attempts of men from earth to reach Mars and the methods Martians use to keep them away. In the second part, humans from earth set about colonizing Mars, having all but wiped out the Martians with earth diseases, and are preoccupied with making Mars as much like earth as they can. However, as earth is about to be destroyed in a nuclear war, most of the earth colonists on Mars pack up and return home. The third part deals with the aftermath of the destructive war on earth and the few earth people still remaining who will become the new Martians because earth is gone and they have no place to return to.

The Martian Chronicles is intelligent, inventive and engaging, with just a touch of creepiness to enlighten the proceedings, as when an inventor, whose wife and children have died on Mars, makes look-alike robots to replace them, or when the Martians eliminate one of the expeditions from earth by using telepathy to make the men of the expedition think their long-dead relatives are alive and well on Mars. It’s classic sci-fi fantasy as only Ray Bradbury can do it.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Tolkien ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Tolkien ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Thirty-year-old, blue-eyed actor Nicholas Hoult plays English fantasy writer John Ronald Reuel (J. R. R.) Tolkien in the film biography of Tolkien’s life, called, appropriately, Tolkien. J. R. R. Tolkien’s work is probably more popular now than it was during his lifetime due, in large part, to the two popular film trilogies (six movies in all), based on his works The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

J. R. R. Tolkien lived from 1892 to 1973. Both of his parents check out early, so he and his younger brother are left under the guardianship of a priest. He attends a traditional boys’ boarding school, where he, as usually the case with creative people, occupies his own world, in this case the world consisting of sketching fantastic creatures, creating his own language, and dreaming of a fantasy world of his own making. (His early preoccupation with fantasy is fueled mostly by his soon-to-be-dead mother.) While still in school, he develops an infatuation for a young girl named Edith, who is the “paid companion” of a wealthy woman named Mrs. Faulkner. His love affair with Edith doesn’t work out right away and she announces she’s marrying somebody else, but eventually they end up together and marry.

While still at school, Tolkien develops a close relationship with several other boys, who are all unique in their own way. This friendship is very intense and lasts presumably for a lifetime or until death. The theme of friendship (“fellowship”) becomes an important theme in Tolkien’s yet-to-be written fantasy works. Other important themes would be questing for something that is lost and the titanic, never-ending battle between good and evil.

Tolkien experiences The Great War (“The War to End All Wars”) firsthand, on the front line of battle. He survives the war, while so many others do not, marries, has four children, and goes on to become a college professor and a prolific writer. We have to presume he would be surprised by the continuing fascination with his life and work 46 years after his death.

Tolkien covers roughly the first half of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life. The movie ends before he came to write the books that would make him famous. It’s a fairly standard movie biography, well-made, but not as compelling as films based on the lives of other famous Britishers, Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything.) The British accents in Tolkien are sometimes difficult to comprehend, but that’s usually the case with British movies (some English subtitles for American audiences might not be amiss).

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Ground My Bed, The Leaves My Blanket

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The Ground My Bed, the Leaves My Blanket ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The vast cemetery was almost as old as the city itself. It contained untold acres of hills, trees, ponds, statues, winding roads, mausoleums, columbariums (for cremated human remains), crypts, walk-in burial chambers gouged out of the sides of the hills, along with every size, style (a century and a half of changing styles), shape and description of grave marker known to man. It was a sprawling city of the dead but also home (if only a temporary one) to dozens of indigents from the city who lived on the street and had no other place to rest their weary (living) bones except among the unsuspecting dead.

Anybody who ever took up residence in the cemetery, if only for one night, knew it afforded many excellent and discreet hiding places where one might sleep, copulate, perform bodily functions, eat, bathe, think, drink, cry—or do any number of other things—away from the prying eyes of man.

Like every indigent living on the streets of the city (and subsequently in the cemetery), Vicki-Vicki Novak had a story. After graduating from high school, she believed she had everything she needed to find herself a good job, so she left her rancorous mother and her unhappy home and spent six nausea-inducing hours on the bus and moved to the city. Life for her had always been hard, but it wasn’t until she came to the city that she discovered how truly ugly it is.

She would have taken any job she could find but the truth was there were no jobs of any kind to be had. She was turned away repeatedly because she had no experience of any kind. It didn’t matter that she was good at figures, was a stellar reader, and made better-than-average grades in school. She couldn’t get a job as a cafeteria worker because there were already seventy-five girls on the list ahead of her. She applied for a job in a laundry but was told she was too young and too slightly built to carry heavy loads. The sad truth was she didn’t make a good impression on those who might have hired her; she was too diffident and naïve; she knew too little of the world.

She spent her first two weeks in the city in an old hotel but, when she saw how fast her money was being used up, she took what little she had left and moved to a cheap boarding house where she slept in a tiny, box-like room and ate two small meals a day.

Finally even the boarding house was too expensive for her and she ended up living on the streets, where she met a coterie of other down-and-outers just like her. They gave her advice about how to survive and where she might get a bite to eat or a place to flop for the night. More than once she engaged in sexual congress with nefarious men in exchange for a small amount of cash, a package of cigarettes, an orange, or a couple of pills that were guaranteed to make her feel wonderful and forget all her troubles. She abhorred these couplings at first but after a time didn’t mind them so much because she disconnected herself from the proceedings and felt nothing.

Vicki-Vicki was fortunate in one respect because when she first began living on the streets of the city, it was May and the cruel and dreadful winter was past and wouldn’t be coming around again for a while. During a police crackdown on the street people, she sought refuge in the cemetery on the advice of a friend, one Chester Burnside, a man who might at one time have been a woman (one of those aberrations of nature all too abundant in the large city). The number-one piece of cemetery advice that veterans like Chester Burnside had to offer to newcomers like Vicki-Vicki was this: Don’t get caught because if you do you might get your brains knocked out or you might end up in jail. All the veterans had horror stories about people getting their brain matter literally knocked out of their heads onto the ground by leering, sadistic cemetery guards.

On a Friday afternoon in October, Vicki-Vicki was washing up at one of the cemetery’s fountains. She trailed her hands in the water and brought them to her face. The water was fresh and clean. She wished she might take off all her clothes and get down in the water naked and give herself a good scrubbing, but if she dared to do such a thing, somebody was sure to come along and see her, so she just contented herself with rinsing her arms and face.

Towering above the fountain was a seven-foot tall lady angel. Her wings were only marginally chipped and bird-splattered; she looked down with a benevolent and loving expression.

“What are you doing here?” the angel asked, bending her head in Vicki-Vicki’s direction.

“I was washing myself,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You might drown yourself if you have any sense.”

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s October now. Winter’s coming.”

“I know.”

“Do you still plan on still being here when winter comes?”

“I don’t plan anything. I never did.”

“You’d better go back home now, while the days are still warm.”

“I don’t have a home.”

“Everybody has a home.”

“My mother said she’d kill me if she ever saw me again.”

“When did you last eat?”

“I don’t know. Yesterday, sometime, I think.”

“Life is hard, isn’t it?”

“I find it so.”

“You can do better.”

“Tell me how.”

Somebody was coming. They both heard the footsteps moving through the leaves at the same time. The angel went back to being mute and immobile, while Vicki-Vicki ran and hid behind the nearest large tree.

When she peered cautiously around the tree, she was relieved to see it was the old sot Eulah Knickerbocker and not a cemetery guard.

Hey! You!” she said, stepping out into the open.

Eulah Knickerbocker jumped and only kept from screaming by placing her filthy hand over her mouth. “You shouldn’t scare people like that!” she said. “My nerves is shot all to hell!”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“I’m going around telling everybody I see. It’s lucky I found you. There’s going to be a purge tonight.”

“What’s a purge?”

“They’ve took on extra guards. They’re going to go through the cemetery and round up everybody who doesn’t belong. Some of us will end up dead.”

“Just hide,” Vicki-Vicki said. “That’s what I do.”

“No, dear! You won’t be able to hide from them this time. If you’re here, they’ll find you. You’d better get out before dark.”

“Where would I go?”

“How on earth should I know? Go back to the city.”

“I came here to get away from the city!”

“I know! It’s terrible, ain’t it? But if they find you here tonight, it will go very bad for you. They might throw you in jail, and if they do you might never get out again.”

“They don’t scare me,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“Take it from somebody who’s been there, dearie. I’ve been living on the streets for seventeen years. I know how these things go.”

“You haven’t seen that fella they call Diego, have you?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“If I did, I’d try to forget it.”

“He owes me money.”

“You’ll be lucky to get a nickel out of him, even if you do find him.”

“No, he’s been working, clearing brush. If I can catch him before he spends all his pay, I can get my money and have enough for a decent room for the night.”

“Say, you wouldn’t mind me coming along, would you, darling? Two can stay in a room for the same price as one.”

“Not this time, Eulah. I just need to be alone tonight.”

“Well, all right. I figure it don’t hurt to ask.”

“No, it don’t. Have you got anything to eat?”

“No, I haven’t, but if I did I’d share it with you.”

“I know you would, Eulah.”

“Have you seen my twin sister, Beulah?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“She’s the great beauty of the family. Have I ever told you about her?”

“I believe so.”

“She’s coming to get me and take me home with her to live. I don’t know if it’ll be tonight but any day now.”

“I hope it all works out for you, Eulah.”

“It’s bound to, this time.”

She didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was going down and the air was cooler. It would be about the time, she thought, that normal people who live in houses would be sitting down to dinner. She needed to think about where she would spend the night in case she didn’t find Diego and get her money. The idea was to find a snug little place out of the wind that hadn’t already been claimed by somebody else.

She went to the oldest part of the cemetery, the part she liked best and the part where she was mostly likely to see a ghost if there were any about. The trees were sheltering; the gravestones large and close together, making her feel safe. She began piling up dry leaves to make herself a bed in a secure little spot between stones when she heard someone coming. She started to hide but the person, whoever it was, was already upon her.

“Hey, there, little chicken!” a man’s voice said.

Right away she recognized the voice as that of Julius Orange. He was tall and rather handsome but his face and hands were crusted with dirt all the time as if he never washed them and one of his eyes was permanently half-closed.

“I thought you were one of the guards,” she said breathlessly.

“No, but I might have been. Have you heard the news about the raid tonight?”

“Eulah Knickerbocker told me.”

“You’d better get out while you can.”

“No, I’ve decided to stay,” Vicki-Vicki said. “I’m cold and I’m sick and I don’t feel like walking all the way back to the city tonight.”

“It’s your funeral.”

“I don’t think the guards will come all the way over here. They’re afraid of ghosts.”

“You’re cold, aren’t you?”

“I feel like I have ice water in my veins.”

“I can warm you up.”

“You got a bottle?”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. “I was wondering if you’re open for business. I’ve got four dollars.”

“You would spend your four dollars on me?”

“And a lot more.”

“Save your money. Tonight I’m not worth four cents.”

“Are you sure?”

“Say, you haven’t seen Diego around anywhere, have you?” she asked.

“Haven’t seen him for a few days.”

“He owes me money.”

“You can have my four dollars and catch yourself a bus back to town.”

“Thanks, but I’m just going to bed down here for tonight and see how things go.”

“It’s your funeral,” he said, and then he was gone.

It was fully dark now. She kicked at the leaves and shivered in the rising wind. She looked up at the sky anxiously, hoping to forestall any rain, but the sky wasn’t telling any tales. She burrowed into the leaves like an animal and gathered the leaves around her like a warm comforter.

The leaves smelled good, an uncorrupted smell. She was completely hidden from view, she believed, but she could still breathe and could see a speck of the sky up through the trees. This is not so bad, she thought. If only life could be like this always.

She felt the cold rising up from the ground. She shivered and her teeth chattered but soon she felt warmer and went to sleep. She dreamed she was in a big bed in a warm room in a snug house and those who cared for her were within the call of her voice and there was nothing to be afraid of.

She jerked awake to the sound of men’s voices. They were far away but coming closer. There might have been as many as ten of them and they might have been at a drunken party for all the fun they seemed to be having.

She lay still and breathed deeply. There were so many leaves on the ground and she was sure they wouldn’t bother looking through all of them. They would just make a quick sweep and, finding no one, move on. She would laugh later at how close they had been but still missed her.

She was right. They did move on, but one of the men had detached himself from the others and was searching through the leaves between the gravestones. She heard his slow, decisive footsteps and then felt a rush of cold air on her face as he scraped the leaves away that were covering her.

“Come out of there!” a deep voice said.

She gave a little yelp and covered her face with her hands but knew there was no use resisting.

“Leave me alone!” she whimpered. “I didn’t do anything!”

“You’re not supposed to be here!”

“I’m leaving. Please don’t hit me with your stick!”

“Nobody’s going to hit you. Get up and talk to me.”

She stood up. The man, towering over her, shone his flashlight in her face.

“How did you know I was here?” she asked.

“Magic,” he said.

“Please don’t take me to jail.”

“It’s where you belong. Don’t you know you’re trespassing?”

“I’m going, I swear!”

“It’s dangerous for you to be here.”

“I know! I’ll leave right now.”

“People freeze to death out here all the time. Last winter we picked up thirty frozen dead bodies.”

“I was looking for someone, but he’s not here now so I’ll just go.”

“If I turn you over to the others, you’ll go to jail.”

“Please don’t do that!”

“I’ll let you go this time, but only one condition.”

“Anything!”

“Promise me you’ll get out and don’t come back. If I see you again, I’ll remember you and I’ll turn you in. You don’t want to end up in jail, do you?”

“No!”

“Go home. Don’t you have a home?”

“No.”

“Go to a shelter in town, then. There are people there who will help you.”

“I will. I promise.”

He handed her a small paper sack, which she took unquestioningly. Switching off his flashlight, he took off his coat and dropped it on the ground beside her. He gave her one last look and then he was gone.

“Wait a minute!” she said. “I was…”

She could still here his voice after he was gone. If I see you here again, I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.

“Take me with you!” she called out, but he was already gone and couldn’t have heard.

She remembered the paper bag she held in her hand and opened it. Inside were a ham sandwich wrapped in paper and a little carton of milk.

She ate the sandwich and drank the milk as if tasting those things for the first time and when she was finished she vomited, bending over at the waist and leaning against a tree.

When she was finished, she wiped her mouth with her hands and then as she was turning away from the tree she remembered the coat lying on the ground and picked it up and put it on. It was much too big for her, going almost to her knees, and it still held the warmth of the man’s body.

She hugged her arms to her body and, like a princess in a fairy story, was transformed. A beam of bright light opened above her head; the brightness entered her body and settled around her heart. Experiencing a kind of religious ecstasy, she trembled all over and fell to the ground in awe and humility. She knew now what it was like to look upon the face of God.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Outer Dark ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Outer Dark ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The two main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark, brother and sister Culla and Rinthy Holme, are victims of poverty and ignorance. (She has no shoes, while he wears stolen boots.) Rinthy is nineteen. Culla is some older. Rinthy has a baby and Culla is the father. Apparently because he is ashamed of impregnating his own sister, Culla takes the nameless baby, a boy, and leaves him alone in the woods to die. The baby is picked up by a ragtag, itinerant tinker who travels around with his cart. Where the tinker takes the baby or for what reason is never made quite clear, but it can’t be for any good or because he is concerned for the baby’s welfare.

Rinthy and Culla undertake separate journeys, Rinthy to find the baby (her “chap”) and Culla to find Rinthy, or maybe he’s just looking for work. Wherever Rinthy goes in her quest to find her baby, she is mostly met with kindness, with people who feed and shelter her. With Culla it is just the opposite. Death and disaster follow in his wake. The people he encounters are menacing and more than once threaten him in some way. (Does the trio of despicable desperadoes who seem to be trailing him really exist, or have they been called forth by his sin?) Even nature is unforgiving for Culla. When he is crossing a ferry on a river, the cable holding the ferry in place inexplicably breaks and Culla nearly drowns. He survives, but would have possibly been better off to have drowned, considering what happens to him afterwards.

Can we say, then, that Rinthy is a child of light and Culla a child of darkness because of his sin of engaging in incestuous relations with his sister and then trying to destroy the evidence of the relationship? His biggest sin, however, is possibly his lack of awareness of his sin and his failure to seek redemption. (At the end of the book, Rinthy finds herself in a glade and Culla in a swamp.)

Cormac McCarthy, now 85 years old, is one of America’s greatest living writers, the only writer we have comparable to William Faulkner. Outer Dark is a fascinating exploration of sin and retribution (or the absence of retribution). I’ve read it twice, years apart, and found it compelling both times. It’s an example of how good contemporary American literature can be in the hands of an undisputed master.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

November Night

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November Night ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a cold night but people were out celebrating anyway. America was one year into the war. Soldiers were on furlough, showing off their uniforms, flirting and dancing with the girls. Cars lined the streets. People called to each other and waved. Everybody was happy and hopeful. Who would ever think the evening would turn out the way it did?

Inside the club, the tables were close together without much elbow room but nobody seemed to mind. A girl in a white evening gown with a big lipsticked smile and a camera passed among the tables and booths offering to take pictures. Only one dollar, please, payable in advance. Oh, well. What’s a dollar? You only live once.

At Lorraine’s behest, Gerald ordered a bottle of champagne. The waiter brought it to the table in a bucket of ice, just like in the movies. He opened the bottle and filled the glasses, but when he started to pour Linda’s glass she smiled and shook her head. “I’m underage,” she said.

“Are you sure?” the waiter asked.

“Last time I checked!” she said.

The picture girl stopped at the table and was going to take a picture of all three of them but Lorraine stopped her. “Just the two of us!” she said, moving closer to Gerald and gripping his arm and smiling her brightest smile.

Gerald paid the dollar and wrote down his address so the picture could be mailed to him.

“This is so much fun!” Lorraine gushed. “I’ve always wanted to come here!”

Gerald smiled at Linda. “I hope you don’t mind the Coke,” he said.

“Oh, no! It’s perfectly all right.”

“There’ll be plenty of time for champagne later, when you’re older.”

“Sure.”

Gerald and Lorraine stood up and went out to the dance floor. The orchestra finished Moonglow and melded deftly into Imagination. Linda knew that Lorraine, as always, was enjoying having people look at her. Her dress was expensive and lovely, a diaphanous, pale yellow, the perfect complement to her auburn hair and peaches-and-cream complexion. She might have been a movie star a long way from Hollywood.

Linda herself hated the black dress she was wearing. It was the best she owned, but it made her body look lumpy, like an old lady on her way to church. It was the kind of dress that Lorraine would never be seen dead in.

She tugged at her front and smoothed her lank brown hair on both sides of her head. She believed that people were looking at her as she sat there all alone, but the truth was that everybody around her was having a good time and nobody even noticed her. She let out her breath in a long exhalation and relaxed the clenched muscles in her abdomen and legs.

The number ended and Gerald and Lorraine came back to the table, but before she sat down again Lorraine made Gerald admire her ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it, for the third time already that night. Gerald had given it to her as a gift on Thanksgiving night and she couldn’t stop admiring it. “Oh, it’s just the sweetest little thing I’ve ever seen!” she gushed.

Gerald looked tired and pale. He was uncomfortable in crowds and didn’t like dancing, but he was a good sport usually willing to go along with whatever Lorraine wanted. He offered to dance with Linda, but she declined. “I’m afraid I’m a horror on the dance floor,” she said.

The waiter brought another Coke for Linda and it was time to order dinner. Lorraine wanted roast beef and Gerald a steak and Linda fried chicken. When the waiter went away with the order, Lorraine regarded Linda across the table.

“Thank goodness one of us inherited mother’s fashion sense,” she said. “That dress is unbelievably dowdy.”

“I know,” Linda said. “I hate it.”

“Then why did you wear it?”

“It’s the only thing I have that’s appropriate for a place like this.”

“I think she looks very nice,” Gerald said.

“You think everybody looks nice and, compared to you, they do.”

“I’m wearing a new suit.”

“Yes, and it looks just exactly like your old one. It looks like something your father would wear.”

“Most of the men not in uniform are wearing dark suits,” Linda said.

“People are probably looking at Gerald and wondering why he’s not in uniform.”

“You can’t say I didn’t try,” Gerald said.

“Oh, yes, it was a tiny heart murmur, wasn’t it, dear, that kept you out of the service?”

“You know it was.”

“Did you pay the doctor to say you had a heart murmur so you wouldn’t have to go off to the bad old army and leave your poor little Lorraine behind?”

“Yeah, that’s it. You guessed my little secret.”

“I would so have liked to have gone stepping out on the arm of dashing war hero.”

“Why don’t you see if Robert Taylor is available?”

“I would marry Robert Taylor in an instant. All he has to do is ask me.”

“I think he’s already married to Barbara Stanwyck,” Linda said.

“Well, we’ll just have to get rid of little Barbara then, won’t we?”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” Gerald said.

“What’s that?”

“You’re married to me.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m inclined to forget.”

Gerald lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward Lorraine, knowing how much she hated it.

“Put that cigarette out and let’s dance again,” she said.

“I don’t want to dance again just yet. My feet hurt.”

“Must you always be an old fuddy-duddy?”

Seeing that Gerald and Lorraine were about to engage in more bickering, Linda sought to change the subject by saying, “This is my first time ever in a night club. Isn’t it exciting?”

“The first of many for you, I hope,” Gerald said, lifting his glass and taking a big gulp of the champagne.

“Don’t drink too much of that stuff, dear,” Lorraine said. “You have to get us home safely, you know.”

“Aye, aye, captain, sir!”

The waiter brought the dinner and they began eating. The fried chicken was the best Linda had ever tasted. Lorraine picked around the corners of her plate and didn’t seem at all interested in food.

“I’d hoped we could have a little talk tonight,” Lorraine said to Linda. “Just the two of us.”

“What about?”

“It’s about money, I’m afraid, that most hated of topics. Now that mother’s dead and I’m paying all the bills, I’m trying to plan ahead for the future and I see there isn’t as much money as I thought there was. I’m afraid we’re going to have to economize.”

“Can’t you wait for a more appropriate time to talk about this?” Gerald asked.

“I wasn’t addressing you, Gerald!” Lorraine said.

“Economize in what way?” Linda asked.

“Well, you’re not going to like this, but we’re going to have to sell mother’s house.”

“But why? It’s my home. It’s where I’ve always lived.”

“I’ve already told you why. It’s too expensive to maintain with just you living in it. I mean, really, how many high school girls do you know who have a big nine-room house all to themselves.”

“Mother said right before she died that she wanted me to be able to go on living in the house through the end of high school and for as long as I wanted.”

“I know, dear, but, as you know, mother was never very practical.”

“We don’t have to talk about it now,” Gerald said. “We’ll work something out.”

“As I’ve already said, Gerald, none of this concerns you!” Lorraine said.

“But if we sell the house,” Linda said, “where am I going to live?”

“You’re can move in with Gerald and me.”

“But I don’t want to move in with Gerald and you. It’s too far away from school. How will I get back and forth?”

“I’ve already looked into all that. There are buses running every day. It would be a simple matter of a twenty-minute bus ride each way.”

“But I have my own home. I don’t want to live with you and Gerald.”

“Don’t you think that’s a selfish attitude? After all, I’m paying all the bills. I’m your guardian and I have to do what I think is best.”

I’ll get a job and pay all the expenses on the house,” Linda said.

“You’re just a baby!” Lorraine scoffed. “What could you possibly do? Who would hire a high school girl with bad skin and unmanageable hair?”

“I can read and write.”

“So can everybody else. I’m afraid that doesn’t make you employable.”

“I can operate a babysitting service.”

“Yes, for fifty cents an hour. I’m afraid it takes more than that to run a household.”

“I’ll get the money somewhere!”

“Oh, please! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Do you think you’re going to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow?”

Linda began crying. Gerald gave her his handkerchief.

“Now see what you’ve done, Lorraine!” he said. “We came here to have a good time and now you’ve spoiled it for all of us.”

“I’m just trying to be practical. She’s not a child anymore. She needs to face reality and know where she stands in the scheme of things.”

“Maybe you and I need to face reality too,” Gerald said. “Where do we stand in the scheme of things?”

“Oh, you make me sick!” Lorraine said. “You always have to make everything about you, don’t you? I’m going to the ladies’ room.”

She threw down her napkin, stood up and faded into the crowd.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Gerald said.

You didn’t do anything,” Linda said.

“She could have chosen a better time to bring up the subject of money.”

“It just took me by surprise, that’s all. I’m going to have to get used to idea of living somewhere else, I guess.”

“You must have some champagne,” he said, “underage or not. You need to at least taste it.” He took an empty water glass and filled it halfway and pushed it toward her. “If nothing else, you can look back on this night and remember it as the first time you tasted champagne.”

She smiled at Gerald, dried her remaining tears and gratefully drank the champagne.

The orchestra ended one number and began another. Gerald and Linda watched the swirl of dancers, what they could see of them, while they waited for Lorraine to come back.

What sounded like a woman’s scream came from far away, or maybe it wasn’t a scream at all; it could have been the laugh of a hyena. Not everybody heard it, but those who did turned their heads to see where it was coming from. Then there was another questionable scream and then another, closer this time and unmistakable. The musicians stopped played and the dancers stopped dancing. Those sitting stood up to get a better view.

Fire! Fire! Fire!” someone screamed.

There was a lull then, a moment in which everybody stood perfectly still and silent. Then, all at once, people began moving, all at the same time, as if every living being in the place were controlled by some giant, unseen mechanism of pandemonium.

Gerald grabbed Linda’s wrist. “We’ve got to find Lorraine!” he screamed. “Which way to the ladies’ room?”

“I don’t know,” Linda screamed back, into his ear. “We’ve got to find the exit! Wherever Lorraine is, she’ll find her way out!”

With Gerald holding Linda’s hand, they began moving slowly through the crowd. Pushed violently from behind, they managed to stay on their feet. Others weren’t so lucky. Those who fell would never get up again.

“Everybody calm down!” a booming voice commanded. “Just make for the fire exits!”

The lights went out. The far wall, fifty feet away, was illuminated by an eerie orange glow. This was perhaps the most frightening sight of all. People panicked, lost whatever decorum they had, and began pushing blindly forward with no other thought than to save themselves.

Some of the fire exits were obscured behind curtains or fake palm trees while others were locked and wouldn’t open. People pushed helplessly against them to no avail. When they saw one door wouldn’t open, they moved on to the next one.

Gerald held tightly to Linda’s wrist. They could see nothing now except the glow of the flames. They had no other choice but to move forward upon the wave of humanity that bore them. Where was it taking them? Was it to safety or to a blind spot where they would be crushed or burned to death?

Soon a door opened in front of them, miraculously, like a gate into heaven, and they found themselves outside in the freezing air.

They stood there, dazed and gasping for air. A crowd of about twenty other people made their way out at the same time. Most of the women were crying and screaming. The men stood helplessly, rubbing their eyes, stunned into silence. Finally a man came along and told them to move as far away from the building as they could.

Other groups came out in other places, three or twelve or twenty or sometimes more at a time. They were all herded around to the other side of the building, away from the smoke and flames. Gerald ran frantically from group to group, searching for any sign of Lorraine.

The next few hours were like a tableau out of hell, with chaos, confusion and disbelief; sirens, screams, billowing smoke, walls of flame, ambulances coming and going, fire engines roaring, hoses like tentacles going every which way on the street, men trying to battle the flames but repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke.

Firefighters began bringing bodies out and, having no other choice, laying them side by side on the street or on the sidewalk, until a temporary morgue could be set up. Police kept onlookers back until the proper time for identification.

Every time Gerald went away and came back again to the spot where he had left Linda standing on the street corner, she asked him if he had spotted Lorraine yet, but she already knew what the answer was going to be.

Six hours after the fire broke out, Gerald found Lorraine’s body in a row of bodies on the sidewalk. Her face was covered, but he knew it was her by the ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it and by the yellow dress. He started to pick her up but a policeman stopped him.

“She’s my wife,” he said. “I have to take her home.”

“You have to leave her here for now until positive identification can be made,” the policeman said.

He wrote down Gerald’s name and address, along with Lorraine’s name, and put a tag around her wrist with a number on it, indicating that she had been identified by a family member.

The night that seemed without end finally came to an end.

The next morning, newspaper headlines screamed the news: Worst Nightclub Fire in American History. 500 Dead. Many More Injured.

Gerald and Linda both were questioned by police and reporters to get their version of what happened. To Linda it all seemed too unreal, too unlikely, to be true. Her beautiful older sister, whom she had always idolized, was dead and never coming back.

An overflow crowd attended Lorraine’s funeral, many of them curiosity seekers. They wanted to see what a body would look like after it had been through such a hellish ordeal, but the casket was kept closed. Gerald knew it’s what Lorraine would have wanted.

Linda returned to school after two weeks, something of a celebrity. People who never noticed her before now wanted to be her friends.

Gerald remained a good friend to Linda. With Lorraine gone, he was the only family she had left. He became Linda’s guardian and allowed her to stay in her mother’s house, paying all the bills and providing whatever was needed.

Lorraine was lying about the money. More than eight hundred thousand dollars came to Gerald as Lorraine’s husband, more than he ever expected. He quit his job (which he despised anyway), made some wise investments, and planned never to have to work again. He could have married again but decided against it. Lorraine had been more than enough woman for him for one lifetime.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp