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Tchaikovsky, A Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review

Tchaikovsky ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The great Russian composer Peter (“Petyr”) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and died in 1893. He was a complex man who experienced many setbacks in his life, but one who, despite his fragile psyche, managed to write some of the great symphonic masterpieces of Russian music and of the nineteenth century, including six symphonies, three ballets, several operas, four serenades for orchestra, chamber music, songs, and (still) wildly popular concertos for piano and orchestra and violin and orchestra. His music is, today, still very accessible and popular and is performed and played wherever music is appreciated. Tchaikovsky never falls “out of favor” or becomes “passé,” as some composers do. (Writer-physician Anton Chekhov said during Tchaikovsky’s life that Tolstoy occupied the first place in Russian art while Tchaikovsky occupied the second place and Chekhov himself occupied the ninety-eighth.)

Tchaikovsky was born into a large and loving family (four brothers and one sister), in an isolated region of Russian where his father was a civil servant. His mother was rather cold to her children, but Tchaikovsky idolized her. Her death at age forty from cholera was a terrible blow from which he never fully recovered.

Tchaikovsky was morbidly sensitive with the soul of an artist, tending to be withdrawn and introspective. He was a homosexual who openly engaged in homosexual activity from the time he was a young student. (His turbulent inner life played a large part in the music he composed.) While not hiding his sexuality, or denying it, he always believed that it wasn’t “right.” After he became famous and successful, he lived in fear that he would be “exposed” and his career ruined or irreparably damaged. In his efforts to appear “normal,” he entered into a disastrous marriage with an unstable (possibly insane) woman named Antonina Milyukova. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life. He only lived with Antonina for two or three months, but she spent the rest of his life antagonizing and threatening him. He referred to her as a “demon” and “spawn of hell.” He could only assuage her, temporarily, by giving her money. She was a bitch on wheels.

About the same time as Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonina, another woman entered his life. Her name was Nadezhda von Meck. She was a wealthy widow, whose deceased husband had made a fortune in railroads. She had an almost obsessive admiration for Tchaikovsky and his music. She idealized him as the perfect artist, the perfect musician, the perfect man. She became his patron, which means she partly subsidized (supported) him while he composed. Madame von Meck was as eccentric in her way as Tchaikovsky was in his. The one condition of her financial support was that the two of them never meet in person. They corresponded for fourteen years, thousands of letters, and were both in the same place at the same time on many occasions, but they never met. Many of the letters they wrote to each other still exist.

Unlike many composers, Tchaikovsky achieved astounding success and popularity during his lifetime. His fame spread from his native Russia to Europe and the United States. Despite his never-ending personal struggles, his output of orchestral masterworks is extraordinary.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly in St. Petersburg in 1893 at the age of fifty-three. The official account of his death, and the one that was accepted for a century, was that he drank “unboiled water” and died of cholera during an epidemic. However, more than a hundred years after his death, new information came to light which strongly suggests that he deliberately ingested poison to kill himself.

Tchaikovsky, A Biography, by Anthony Holden, is an informative and engaging chronicle of the life and times of Russia’s greatest composer. It’s a long and exhaustively detailed biography, but never too long or too ponderously wordy. If Tchaikovsky’s music “speaks” to you, as it does to me, reading this book and understanding the life of this great man adds a new dimension to enjoyment of his music.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

The House He Lived In

The House He Lived In ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Sid Bone was small for his age. He was the boy in school with the funny clothes: the pants too big and the sweater too small, the shoe with the flapping sole and the holes in his socks. His classmates never invited him to any of their parties because he wasn’t the party type and, anyway, he had a funny smell.

Sid Bone would never grow to manhood. When he was twelve, his liquor-addled mother gave him sleeping pills to make him unconscious and then she wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and strangled him. She just couldn’t take care of a twelve-year-old boy anymore, she said. It cost too much money to feed him and just having a kid underfoot all the time wore on her nerves. Without him, she’d be able to get her life in order, get off the booze, find a decent man. Then, later on, when everything was jake, she’d have another baby and they’d all be happy. Maybe the new one would be a girl who would take care of her in her old age.

After she sobered up a little, she was sorry for what she had done to Sid Bone. She would never have had the courage to do it if she hadn’t been drunk. She sat in her easy chair and blubbered and wailed for a while. Since there was no one to hear her, she let loose with some anguished screams. After she had cried herself out, she gave a little laugh, peed in her pants because she couldn’t get up, and reached for the bottle again.

After a day and a night spent in the chair, drinking and feeling bad about her terrible life, she made herself get up and go into the bathroom and clean up, wash her face, comb the mats out of her hair and put on some clean clothes. She was going to have to call the police. They would send someone out. She needed to make herself look decent and presentable.

She had the story straight in her head. She worked out all the details. Her boy, Sid Bone, had met with a bad accident. She had been sick, sleeping in the other room; she didn’t hear a sound and she wasn’t even sure what happened. When she found him lying on the bed, unconscious, she tried to revive him, but, of course, it was too late. He must have done himself in because the kids at school laughed at him. There could be no other explanation.

For a while, several days at least, Sid Bone didn’t realize he was dead. He woke up in the morning and sleepily went to school as he always did. He thought it was a little funny that his mother wasn’t in any of her usual places, on her bed or sitting at the kitchen table, but he didn’t mind her not being there; he could manage fine on his own without her.

At school, he sat at his desk all day long, as he always did, doing what he was supposed to do: listen to teacher talk, copy problems off the blackboard, read this or that book, get up for recess or lunch. Then when school ended, he walked home as he always did. The next thing he knew, he was getting out of bed in the morning to start his day all over again. He had no recollection of anything in between.

On the fourth day, Sid Bone knew something was different; something had changed. Somebody new was sitting at the desk he had occupied all year. When he went to the front of the room and tried to ask teacher about it, she didn’t seem to see him but instead looked right through him. He turned around and faced the room at large, thirty-two of his classmates, and screamed Hey! in his loudest voice, but nobody looked up or turned their heads in his direction. It was if he no longer existed.

Not knowing what else to do, he went upstairs to the nurse’s office. Miss Faulk should be able to look at him, touch his head and tell what was wrong. She was better than any doctor.

Miss Faulk wasn’t in her office, though. The only person there was a woman he had never seen before, sitting at Miss Faulk’s desk, writing. When he paused in the doorway, she looked up at him and motioned for him to come into the room. He was a little relieved to know that somebody was seeing him, even if it was somebody he didn’t know.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the woman said, standing up and coming around to the front of the desk. He saw that she was quite short and her face was crisscrossed with tiny lines like a road map.

“You have?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “Do you know me?”

“Well, I know of you. I’m Miss Munsendorfer. I used to be a teacher here a long time ago.”

“In horse-and-buggy days?”

“Not quite that long ago. We had cars then.”

“I was looking for Miss Faulk.”

“She’s not here right now, but I am here.”

“I wanted to see if Miss Faulk could take my temperature or something and see if I might be sick.”

“I think I can tell you you’re not sick.”

“How do you know?”

“You’ll never be sick again.”

“How do you know?”

“You don’t need to come to school anymore, either.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how best to explain it to you, so I’ll just show you.”

She took him by the hand. Before he knew it, they were outside on the playground and then they were walking down the hill away from the school. Then, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were in the church on Windsor Avenue.

“What are we doing here?” Sid Bone asked.

“You’ll see,” Miss Munsendorfer said. “Just be patient.”

The church was full of people, a funeral in progress. There was a closed casket at the front of the church draped in yellow-and-white flowers. All the people in the church looked solemn. Some of them dabbed at their eyes. An old man, a minister, was standing at the pulpit talking about evil in the world and how the only way to accept it is to recognize it as part of God’s plan. The words coming from the minister’s mouth sounded funny as if they were being spoken underwater.

Just when Sid Bone was looking out over the sea of faces in the church, picking out the ones he knew, Miss Munsendorfer touched his hand again and they were outside, moving away from the church and, once again, before he knew what was happening, they were in a different place: they were standing on the street where he lived.

The street was there, of course, but the falling-down house that he lived in with his mother was gone, as if by magic. In its place was bare dirt; even the junk and debris in the yard were gone.

Sid Bone was beginning to catch on. He wasn’t especially surprised the house was gone; he would have been more surprised if it had still been there.

Miss Munsendorfer again took him by the hand and, again, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were standing in the hallway of the women’s penitentiary two hundred miles away.

“What is this place?” Sid Bone said. “I don’t like it here.”

Miss Munsendorfer pointed into one of the cells. When Sid Bone turned his head and looked, he saw his mother in the cell, sitting on the bed. She looked a human wreck: dejected, wretched, forlorn. He turned away before he started to cry.

Miss Munsendorfer again took by the hand, standing in that hallway of the women’s penitentiary, and in a flash they were back in the nurse’s office at school. Miss Faulk still wasn’t there.

Sid Bone found himself overpoweringly sleepy. He lay down on the nurse’s cot they kept in the corner for the suddenly ill and Miss Munsendorfer covered him over with an army blanket, tucking him in the way a mother would, with all but the kiss goodnight.

“Are you an angel?” Sid Bone asked her.

“No, I’m not an angel. I’m only here to help you.”

“Okay.”

“But you don’t need my help any more. You can do the rest on your own.”

She patted him on his shoulder and then she was gone.

When he awoke, he was in a place he had never been before. There were flowers and birds and lots of trees; animals of all kinds, but even the lions and bears wouldn’t hurt you because they were tame and gentle; you could walk right up to them and tug at their fur and they would only look at you. There were also people, some of whom he remembered or thought he remembered, but they left him alone whenever he wanted to be left alone. Most surprising of all, it never rained or got dark until you were ready.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp    

Hollywood Babylon ~ A Capsule Book Review

Hollywood Babylon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The silent screen’s greatest lover, Rudolph Valentino, was married twice, both time to lesbians, and neither marriage was ever consummated.

Movie director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in his Hollywood apartment in 1922. Investigation into his death revealed that he had been living a double life. All his colleagues were suspects in his death but, even with this plethora of potential murderers, the truth was never uncovered. The real murderer took the secret to his/her grave.

Silent screen comedian, jovial Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, must certainly have wished he had never thrown a wild party in a San Francisco hotel room in 1921. The sexual shenanigans at the party led to the death of a trashy “starlet” named Virginia Rappe. Fatty was jailed and charged with first-degree murder in Rappe’s death. He was eventually cleared of the murder charge (after three lengthy trials), but his screen career was finished.

Thelma Todd, twenty-nine-year-old comedic actress (she starred with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx brothers), called the “Ice Cream Blonde,” was found murdered in the garage where she kept her car in 1935. Nobody ever found out what really happened, but Thelma was believed to have had an ongoing feud with gangster Lucky Luciano. Thelma Todd’s murder is one the most baffling unsolved murders in Hollywood history.

Twenty-five-year-old Olive Thomas, called “the most beautiful woman in the world,” was vacationing in Paris in 1920 with her husband Jack Pickford (brother of Mary Pickford) when, after a night of nightclubbing and drinking, she drank mercury from a bottle and died at a Paris hospital several days later. Evidence suggests that her poisoning was unintentional, but the story still persists that she killed herself on purpose.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ramon Navarro was the biggest star in Hollywood. His most famous role was in the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur. In 1968, age 69, he was brutally beaten to death in his Hollywood home by a pair of brothers out to rob him. The brothers were brought to justice but received only light sentences.

In 1932, would-be movie actress Peg Entwistle killed herself by climbing to the top of the famous “Hollywood” sign and jumping off. After her death, she became a symbol for Hollywood disillusionment and broken dreams.

Silent screen superstar Charlie Chaplin was quite a dog with the ladies. (Apparently he wasn’t too particular about which ladies.) In the 1920s, he impregnated sixteen-year-old, would-be actress Lita Grey. He did the right thing and married her, but the marriage was a disaster. It turned out that Lita Grey and her dear mama were planning on taking poor old Charlie for every cent he had.

Screen goddess Lana Turner’s sexy bad-boy boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, was a shadowy underworld figure with an Oscar-sized tool in his pants. (Lana found him exciting.) In 1958, he was abusing Lana with his fists, when Lana’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, intervened with a big knife, stabbing pour Johnny to death in Lana’s Beverly Hills mansion. It was eventually ruled a “justifiable homicide,” but Lana and Cheryl experienced much unfavorable press coverage, not to mention the heartache.

Nearly every Hollywood scandal, from the silent era through the 1960s, is covered, however superficially, in the book Hollywood Babylon. It was banned when first published in 1965 but managed somehow to resurface ten years later. People find Hollywood Babylon objectionable because it makes no pretense of journalistic integrity. A lot of the purported “truth” in it is false, exaggerated, scurrilous, sensationalized and unfair. That’s not to say it doesn’t hold your interest from first page to last, though, as long as you read it with the proper attitude.

Copyright 2021 by Allen Kopp    

Son of Stella

Son of Stella ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

From where I sit at my desk I see Logan out the window cutting the grass. Looking like nobody else, he wears loose-fitting khaki shorts with a belt and a white shirt. With his old-fashioned haircut—sheered close on the sides but longer on the top and combed straight back—he might have stepped out of Gunga Din or The Lives of the Bengal Lancers. I wonder, as I have many times during the summer, if he knows how beautiful he is.

The mower cuts off and he comes into the house through the kitchen. I hear him go upstairs and then I hear the shower running in the bathroom. I image the warm water pouring over his arms and chest and down his muscular legs. When he’s finished, he’ll straighten up in the bathroom and hang his towel neatly over the towel rack and take his clothes down to the basement and put them in the washer and pour in the soap and turn it on.

I finish a letter I’m writing and when I go into the living room he’s lying on the couch in his bathrobe. The robe is open and I can see he has nothing on underneath except white briefs. When he hears me coming, he closes the robe partway.

He looks up at me and smiles. “I’m hungry,” he says. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

“Do you want to go out and get something?” I ask.

“No, I’d rather stay here. It’s our last night.”

“Last night?”

“Before mother comes home.”

“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. She’ll be home tomorrow.”

“I can make some chili,” he says.

“That’s fine with me. Anything. I’m not very hungry.”

“I should probably get dressed before we eat,” he says.

“You don’t have to get dressed on my account,” I say. “You’re fine the way you are.”

He gets up and goes into the kitchen and in a little while I smell the meat cooking for the chili. I lay down on the couch and drift off to sleep for a few minutes.

We don’t have a dinner bell, so when the chili is ready he comes and stands over me and clears his throat. I open my eyes and look up at him.

“Dinner is served,” he says.

I stand up and go into the kitchen and take my place at the kitchen table underneath the cock-a-doodle-doo clock on the wall.

“Where did you learn to cook?” I ask as I taste the chili.

“Living alone. Trying different recipes.”

“This is better chili than my mother ever made.”

“It’s easy. Anybody can do it.”

“Anybody can make chili. The hard part is making it taste good.”

We eat in silence for a few minutes and then he says, “I have some good news.”

“What is it?”

“I was going to wait until mother was here, but I’ll go ahead and tell you.”

“Well, what is it?”

“You know I told you I applied for a teaching job at the University of Louisiana?”

“Yeah.”

“I was hired. They want me to start right away. The fall semester starts in two weeks.”

“Louisiana. It’s hot there. They have hurricanes.”

“I don’t mind that. I’ll be all right.”

“I won’t see you anymore.”

“Sure, you will. You and mother can come and visit.”

I don’t know what else to say, so I shake his hand, congratulate him and we go on eating.

Since he cooked the chili, I wash the dishes and he goes up to his room. In a little while he comes back down, wearing dressy pants and a sporty plaid shirt.

“Going out?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“Have fun.”

I feel a little hurt that he would prefer to go out than stay at home with me on our last night alone, but I know I’m being ridiculous. He’s a grown man and my stepson, and I have nothing to say about where he goes.

I watch an old movie on television with Madge Evans and James Cagney called The Mayor of Hell and when it’s over I take a shower and get into bed and pick up where I left off reading The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene. I read about twenty pages and then I find I have a headache so I put the book down and turn off the light.

In a little while I hear his car in the driveway. I glance at the clock; it’s twenty minutes to twelve. I try to keep from wondering where he’s been for five hours. I lie on my back and take some deep breaths and try to clear my mind of all thought.

I’m barely asleep when a sound in the hallway outside my door wakes me up. I’m annoyed that I’m awake again, when the door to my room opens, light from the hallway spilling in, and I see Logan standing there in his white briefs, hand on the doorknob.

“Anything wrong?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer me, but instead comes around to the other side of the bed, pulls back the covers and gets in beside me.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Getting into bed with you.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it what you’ve wanted all summer?” he asks.

He kisses me and I tug at the white briefs.

I don’t need to go into detail about that night except to say it made me happy and I feel good about it. I have no guilt feelings and no fear of anybody finding out. Let them find out. How little do I care.

When I wake up in the morning, Logan’s asleep in the bed beside me. I get out of bed quietly and go downstairs. I feel hungry, as I usually do in the morning, so I scramble eggs and cook bacon in the cast-iron skillet for both of us. In a little while he comes downstairs in his bathrobe, his hair tousled, and sits down at the table. He smiles and we eat silently.

He seems a little distant and preoccupied.

“Any regrets?” I ask.

“Of course not. You?

“None at all.”

“It was inevitable,” he says. “It was always going to happen, at one time or another.”

“Was I that obvious?” I ask.

“Only to me.”

“Are you going to tell mother about it?” he asks.

“I don’t think so. At least not yet.”

“It’s up to you.”

“You don’t mind if I tell her?”

“No.”

“How things have changed in one generation,” I say, flicking a fly away from the orange marmalade.

When Stella arrives home in the middle of the afternoon, she seems glad to see us, but she says she is sick and she wants to go straight to her room and lie down before dinner. The truth is, she has had too many cocktails on the plane.

Logan goes to the store and buys some steaks for dinner. The smell of them cooking fills the house and brings Stella back downstairs.

“Do I smell meat cooking?” she asks. “I didn’t realize I was hungry.”

While we eat, Logan tells Stella all about his new job in Louisiana that will start in less than two weeks.

“So you’ll be leaving us?” she says.

“In a few days.”

“I know you’ll be happy and successful in Louisiana,” she says, a little boozily, “and you’ll meet a wonderful woman in the swamps you’ll be happy to bring home to your mother as your new bride.”

Logan and I exchange significant looks and I take a big gulp of my iced tea.

On Thursday of the next week, Logan loads all his possessions into his small car to begin his long journey. I fill my eyes with him every chance I get because I know it’ll be a long time before I see him again.

He hugs his mother and then he hugs me and gets behind the wheel of his car and, after another round of fussing from Stella, he’s ready to go. Stella and I stand on the sidewalk in front of the house and watch him until he’s almost out of sight.

“It’s bad luck to look until you no longer see the departing person,” I say.

“Who told you that?” Stella asks.

“I don’t remember.”

I don’t know how long it’ll be before I have him with me again, but I only know I will live for that day. I’ve got it bad and that’s not good.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death ~ A Capsule Book Review

From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Did you know that 99.9% of people in Japan are cremated since a cemetery plot in Tokyo costs the equivalent of $53,000 American dollars? Did you know that there’s a “body farm” in North Carolina where people can choose to have their bodies “composted” after death? Did you know that the American funeral industry came into being with the sole purpose of selling you a casket? Did you know that, beginning in 2017, more Americans are choosing cremation over conventional burial? Did you know that the American funeral industry fears cremation because it’s cheaper (no embalming and no casket) than burial? Did you know that in Bolivia there are people who pray to human skulls, believing the skulls can intervene for them in heaven?

Did you know that cemeteries that require a casket to be buried in a steel or concrete vault do so to make maintaining the grounds easier? Did you know that in Colorado there’s a small town where you might have a “natural” cremation (as opposed to “industrial” cremation) for as little as $500? Did you know that many cemeteries have added a section for “natural” burial where (un-embalmed) bodies are buried in a wicker basket or a cardboard box? Did you know that, in Victorian times, crowded cemeteries in large European cities might have as many as twenty bodies in one grave and that dead bodies were frequently displaced to make way for somebody else? Did you know that these overcrowded cemeteries exuded noxious odors, especially after rainfall?  Did you know that, in a section of Indonesia, there are people who exhume the bodies of their long-dead relatives, talk to them, dress them, and bring them offerings of food?

These and other interesting nuggets of information are revealed in From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by author/mortician Caitlin Doughty. She writes on the grimmest of death-related subjects with humor and insight that only a person who works in the “death industry” could have. It’s an interesting, informative, nonfiction book that will expand your knowledge and make you ponder on your own mortality, unless, of course, you are planning on living forever, which I don’t think is a very pleasant prospect for most of us.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

State Hospital

State Hospital ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

He slept for a long time and when he awoke he didn’t know where he was. He was in a bed with a blanket and sheet folded over his chest, wearing pajamas that belonged to somebody else. When he tried to raise himself, he saw that his wrists were tied to the bed frame with short, leather-like strips that allowed him to move only about six inches in any one direction. He didn’t like being tied down—he saw himself dying in a fire—and called out for somebody to come and help him but no one came.

The room was small and besides the bed there wasn’t much in it; only a metal cabinet near the bed. The walls were covered with green tiles, each one about four inches square. He began counting the green tiles that he could see from the bed; he had counted to thirty-seven when the door opened and a man in a white doctor’s coat entered the little room. He carried a clipboard and wore a striped tie peeking out of the white coat.

“Hello. How are you?” the man in the white coat said. “I’m Dr. Meacham. And what is your name?”

“I bet you already know my name,” the man in the bed said. “I bet you have it written on that clipboard.”

“Maybe I want to hear you say it.”

“All right, I’ll say it. My name is Christopher Spiller.”

“That’s what it says right here on my clipboard.”

“Now I have something I want to hear you say.”

“What is it?”

“Why are my wrists tied to the bed?”

“It’s for your own protection.”

“How do you mean?”

“You’re just waking up from treatment. We secure the wrists of patients who receive a particular kind of treatment.”

“What kind of treatment?”

“Treatment that will eventually make you better.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“If there isn’t, we’ll find out.”

“How long?”

“What?”

“How long will it take to find out there’s nothing wrong with me?”

“That all depends, doesn’t it?”

“Depends on what?”

“Lots of things.”

“The words come out of your mouth, but they don’t really mean anything, do they?”

“Tell me your age. How old are you?”

“I bet you already know that, don’t you?”

“Just answer the question, please.”

“Twenty-three. How old are you?”

“Forty-one.”

“So, you’ve passed through your thirties and now you’re working on your forties. I’ll bet you have a wife, don’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter if I do or not.”

“No, I think it’s interesting.”

“Well, then, the answer is no, I don’t have a wife. I had a wife and we got divorced. No more questions about me, please.”

“Whatever you say. You’re the boss, especially since I’m tied up and can’t move.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“I’m in a bed.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I’m in a bed in a hospital on planet Earth.”

“How long have you been in the hospital?”

“I think I’ve been here about two years if I remember correctly.”

“My notes say you’re been here two months.”

“Yeah, a long time.”

“How do you feel?”

“A hundred years old.”

“You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I’ll feel better when I’m no longer tied to the bed.”

“A nurse will come along soon and take you back to your room.”

“And untie me?”

“Yes, and untie you.”

“Speaking of my room, I don’t like my roommate. I think he might be insane. Can’t I have a room to myself?”

“We don’t have any single rooms. All our rooms are for two.”

“How cozy. At home I always had a room to myself.”

“We all have to make certain adjustments.”

“Do you want to hear the story of how I came to be here?”

“I think we might save that for…”

“I lived with my parents. There are certain advantages to living with your parents, of course, but it also means you don’t have as much privacy as you’d like.”

“It’s usually a good idea, after a certain age, to live apart from your parents,” Dr. Meacham said.

“Especially my parents.”

“Why especially your parents?”

“They’re Christian fundamentalists. They belong to a fundamentalist religious sect. I’ve had a secret that I’ve kept hidden from them since eighth grade. They should have known my secret, but they never picked up on it, because, well, that’s just the way they are. They aren’t even aware of themselves, so how could they be aware of me?”

“Okay, so they found out your secret?”

“Well, my secret is to their way of thinking the worst thing there is. They believe there is no greater sin.”

“I see.”

“Well, my parents were gone for the weekend. They weren’t supposed to be back until Sunday night. I invited a friend over to spend the night with me Saturday night. His name was Raphael. He and I had been seeing each other for a while and things were going well between us. So, the two of—me and Raphael, Raphael and I—were in my bedroom with the door closed. Now, you have to understand, my bedroom—especially with the door closed—is supposed to be private. Don’t you think a closed door would suggest privacy?”

“Yes, I see what you mean.”

“Well, my parents returned unexpectedly on Saturday night, twenty-four hours before they were expected. They could have called to let me know they were coming home early, but that would have spoiled the fun, now, wouldn’t it?”

“You think they did it on purpose?”

“Of course they did! So, Raphael and I were alone in my room. There was no reason to believe we were not alone in the house and, then, the door to my room burst open—pow!—and both of my parents—both of them!—were standing at the foot of the bed looking at us.”

“What did they do?”

“My mother clapped her hands over her mouth and started screaming and speaking in tongues. She said she saw Satan standing over me and that I was going to burn in hell through all eternity. My father just looked at me and vomited on the floor. That’s the effect I always had on him.”

“What did Raphael do?”

“He ran! Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t run?”

“He was embarrassed, of course.”

“Well, they didn’t know what to do with a son as terrible as me. My mother wanted to call the police and have me thrown in jail, but you see, it’s not a crime for two men to be in the same bed at the same time, so she had to come up with a different plan. The next day my father enlisted the aid of his doctor and his lawyer, both Christian fundamentalists like himself, and the four of them—my mother, my father, the doctor and the lawyer—came up with the plan to draw up the papers to have me committed. The idea was not only to cure me and cleanse me, but also to punish me.”

“I see,” Dr. Meacham said.

“So the question is, when are you going to find out there’s nothing wrong with me and let me go home?”

“Back with your parents?”

“No, not there. When I say ‘home,’ I mean some place far away where I can be by myself.”

“Another state? California?”

“Farther away.”

“Another country?”

“Whatever it takes.”

“Well,” Dr. Meacham began slowly, looking down at the clipboard he held, “many questions must be answered before we can think about releasing you. We can’t put a time limit on it. Will it be weeks? Months? We just don’t know. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

“You sound like the Christian fundamentalists.”

“It won’t help you for you to look upon me as your enemy. I want to help you.”

Really help me?”

“Sure.”

“Unlock the door and look the other way as I slip out into the night.”

“Do you think I would be able to do that with a clear conscience?”

“Nobody has to know about it.”

“And what do I tell people when they ask where you are?”

“I don’t care what you tell them because I’ll be gone.”

“Look,” Dr. Meacham said, squinting at his clipboard, “we have an aggressive schedule of treatment scheduled for you for the next six weeks or so. At the end of that time, we’ll re-evaluate your situation.”

“I won’t be here that long.”

Dr. Meacham left and in a little while Nurse Nellie Watson of the continuously trembling head and chin wattles came into the room.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

He held up his wrists and she unfastened the leather straps.

“I could give you a big kiss for that alone,” he said.

“Don’t bother.”

He could have walked down the hallway to his room, but she insisted on pushing him in the wheelchair.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars if you unlock the door for me and look the other way as I disappear like a little puff of smoke.”

“Where would you get fifty dollars?”

“I think I could go as high as seventy-five.”

“Don’t make me have to tie you up,” she said.

His roommate, Victor Hugo, was lying sprawled on his bed, snoring like a buzzsaw. His hospital gown and his bedsheet were down around his ankles.

“See what I have to put with?” he said to Nurse Nellie.

“Things are tough all over,” she said.

She helped him out of the wheelchair and into the bed. She tucked him in like an embittered nanny and turned off the light and left, her crepe souls squeaking on the tile floor.

When he was sure Nurse Nellie wasn’t coming back, he slipped off the bed and crawled underneath. Under his bed was the only place he felt really safe. He would wait under the bed in the dark until somebody else came in: that special someone who might be persuaded to unlock the door and look away as he slipped away into the night.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Pneumonia

Pneumonia ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

In third grade I wore a navy pea coat. Some of the kids in school made fun of me for wearing a kind of coat that nobody else had, but I didn’t care. I liked my pea coat. It made me look like a little navy man.

Any time I think about that pea coat I think about my mother lying sick in a hospital bed.

In November of that year, she slipped on gravel down the street from where she worked and hit her head on the sidewalk. She had a brain concussion and it made her plenty sick. Her doctor thought three or four days (a week at the most) in the hospital would fix her up, but she just kept getting sicker and the three or four days became weeks. (He eventually admitted she wasn’t getting any better and sent her to a hospital in the city, but that’s another story.)

Since I was only nine, I missed my mother while she was in the hospital. I wasn’t a baby and I could manage without her for a few days, but I was afraid she wouldn’t be out of the hospital in time for Christmas. My biggest fear, though, was that she would die in the hospital while I was in school and I’d be left alone with my father. He and I didn’t like each other very much. I don’t know why. It’s just the way it was.

We went to the hospital every evening to see my mother after eating our quick and meagre dinner (a tuna salad sandwich or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup). These visits were disheartening because she wasn’t like herself. She just lay there, hardly moving, and didn’t say much. She was pale, her hair looked terrible, and her eyes were hollow. When I asked her when they were going to let her come home, she just shrugged and didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I wasn’t the only one thinking she might die; she was thinking it herself.

Since it was November and the weather was turning cold, somebody at school was always sick, spreading germs all over the place. It was impossible to be in a closed, heated classroom and not breathe in some nasty germs. A couple of my friends came down with the flu or whatever was catching, and then, before I knew it, I was the sick one.

My mother noticed at the hospital during visiting hours that evening that I didn’t look quite right. She tried to get me to take my pea coat off, but I felt chilled and wanted to leave it on. My throat was raw and my chest hurt. I had developed a cough, which was impossible to hide.

“Aren’t you taking care of your son, Roy?” my mother asked my father.

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” my father said.

“Make sure he takes a hot bath and goes right to bed.”

“He thinks if he can convince you he’s sick, he won’t have to go to school.”

“I’m all right,” I said. “I’m not sick.”

The next morning I felt terrible and my cough was worse. My throat felt like I had been snacking on razor blades. I went to school and I sat in my seat all day long without telling anybody how bad I felt, but I was glad when the bell rang and it was time to go home at the end of the day. When I got home, I put on my pajamas and got into bed. I only wanted to shut everything out.

I hoped I would feel better in the morning, but I only felt worse. I got up at the usual time and went into the kitchen. My father was sitting at the table drinking coffee and smoking his Marlboro cigarettes. He barely looked at me.

“You’d better get a move on,” he said in his absent way, “or you’re going to be late for school.”

“I don’t feel like going to school today,” I said.

“What?”

“I said I’m sick and I don’t feel like going to school today.”

“You don’t look sick to me.”

“My throat really hurts and my chest hurts and I have a lump in my throat.”

“You’ll feel better after you get there.”

I sat down and poured some corn flakes into a bowl and got the milk out of the refrigerator, but I wasn’t able to eat anything.

“I’m running a fever,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

“You’re just being a baby. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“If mother was here, she’d take my temperature and know I’m too sick to go to school.”

“Well, she’s not here, so go brush your teeth and get dressed and get your little ass to school before I kick it up between your shoulder blades for you. I have to get to work. I don’t have time to mess with you.”

The wind and the cold air didn’t help my cough. By the time I got to school, I was wheezing and gasping for breath. I took my seat in the third row, as usual, and hoped I’d drop dead before too long.

I coughed and I coughed and I coughed some more. No matter how much I cleared my throat, that old frog seemed to have taken up permanent residence. Every time I coughed, somebody turned and looked at me with distaste. I couldn’t blame them. They were wondering what I had and if they were likely to catch it from me.

I hadn’t been sitting in my seat for long when Miss Goldschmidt came and stood over me and put her hand on my forehead.

“You don’t feel very well, do you?” she asked.

“I’m all right.”

She motioned for me to stand up and go along with her. She took me out into the hallway and down the stairs to the nurse’s office on the second floor.

“He’s too sick to be in school today,” Miss Goldschmidt said to Miss Bouchard, the school nurse.

Miss Bouchard looked at me and told me to sit in the chair beside her desk.

“Let’s see your throat, honey,” she said.

She took a tongue depressor and a flashlight and looked at my throat so long I thought I was going to choke.

“How long have you had this throat?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Three days, I guess.”

When she took my temperature, she found I had a fever of slightly over a hundred and two.

“I’m going to call your mother and tell her to come and get you.”

“She’s not home. She’s in the hospital.”

“Oh. What about daddy?”

“He’s at work.”

“Well, I guess we’re stuck with you, then, aren’t we?”

There was a cot made up like a bed against the wall. She told me to take off my shoes and get into the cot and cover up like a little baby. She would be in and out of the office all day long and if I felt worse to let her know.

She gave me two aspirin tablets and a cup of water and after I swallowed the tablets I covered up in the warm little bed and coughed my head off for a while but then my cough lessened and I went to sleep. I slept right through lunch and most of the rest of the day. When the bell rang to go home, I was surprised at how much time had gone by.

“Time to go home, little man,” Miss Bouchard said.

I sat up on the cot and put on my shoes and tied them.

“Do you feel like walking home?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“I can get the janitor to take you in the truck if you don’t feel like walking.”

“I can make it okay.”

“And don’t come back to school until you’ve seen a doctor.”

“What?”

“I’ve written a letter for you to give to your daddy. You need to see your doctor. We don’t want you in school if you’re sick. You might be contagious.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Being told I could stay home from school the next day, and maybe the day after that, cheered me considerably. It was the best news I had heard in a long time.

When I got home, he was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. He gave me a sour look and blew smoke out his nostrils like a deranged bull. I put the envelope from Miss Bouchard on the table in front of him.

“What’s this?” he said.

“A letter,” I said.

“From one of my many admirers?”

I wanted to tell him he didn’t have any admirers, but all I said was, “No, it’s from the school nurse.”

He read the letter and crushed out his cigarette angrily.

“So, you’ve been complaining at school about how sick you are?”

“I didn’t say anything. They knew I was sick. Some people pay attention to those things.”

“I don’t have time for this crap!” he said. “You’re a lot more trouble than you’re worth, you know that?”

“Yeah, I know.”

In the morning he took me to see Dr. Froberger. He was an old man with cold hands and I was a little afraid of him, but I liked him well enough. His office girl complimented me on my navy pea coat.

Dr. Froberger set me up on a high table and looked at my throat and into my ears and felt my neck. He took my temperature and listened to my heart and lungs.

“This boy’s got pneumonia,” Dr. Froberger said. “His lungs are filled with fluid.”

“I didn’t think he was that sick,” my father said. “He’s always been quite a pretender.”

“Well, he’s not pretending now! I want him to go to the hospital. We need to start treatment right away, or he’s going to be very seriously ill.”

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” I said.

“It’ll be all right,” Dr. Froberger said. “We’ll take good care of you and you’ll be back to normal in a few days.”

They took me to a different hospital than the one my mother was in. I was worried that she wouldn’t know where I was, but my father said he’d tell her and he’d bring her to see me as soon as she was able.

They took my clothes and put me in a high bed in a room by myself and stuck needles in both arms and gave me oxygen. For a couple of days I felt like I was dreaming or floating through the air, but it didn’t matter to me if I was. Nothing felt real. My father came a couple of times to see how I was doing, but he didn’t stay long; he always had something more important to do.

After I had been in the hospital for a while, a nurse arranged for me to talk to my mother on the phone. She sounded better than she had in a long time. They were giving her a different kind of medicine, she said, and her doctor had decided to send her to a better, smarter doctor at a hospital in the city.

“How long before they’ll let you come home?” I asked.

“I’ll be home before you know it.” she said.

She wasn’t going to die after all.

When the doctor finally released me from the hospital after a week (that’s how long it took for my lungs to clear up), he said I couldn’t go back to school for a while (two weeks or so), which was altogether fine with me. I had to have somebody, a “sitter,” stay with me during the day when my father was at work, so that’s where Barbara Legaspi entered the picture.

Barbara was recommended by Dr. Froberger’s office. She had experience as a nurse’s aide and was used to dealing with sick people. I could tell my father didn’t like her because she was fat and had big arms and a dark mustache, but he hired her because it was the easiest thing for him to do.

I liked Barbara right away. She bought me candy and comic books. She lived with her parents and had never been married and had lots of funny stories about men she had dated. The men she liked didn’t like her or were married, and the men who liked her were unacceptable and undesirable for one reason or another (one had rotten teeth and another one was a midget).

When we got to talking about my father, she told me she had an “instinctive” feeling about him. He was a “negative” individual from whom “nothing good” would ever come.

“How do you know these things?” I asked.

She told me she was psychic and “an old soul” who lived “many times” before. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I thought it sounded good.

I told her how when I became sick with pneumonia and my mother was in the hospital, my father didn’t want to be bothered with me and made me go to school because he thought I wasn’t really sick at all but only pretending.

“He never wanted to be your father,” she said. “People who have children they don’t want make me sick.”

“Me too,” I said.

“He doesn’t treat your mother well, either, does he?”

“No. I don’t know how she stands being married to him.”

“I can take care of him for you if you want me to.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can put a spell on him.”

“You mean, like, kill him?”

“No, that would be a curse. I’m talking about a spell.”

“You can put spells on people?”

“If I can’t, I know somebody who can.”

“What kind of a spell would it be?” I asked, fascinated.

“A kind of spell where he gets what he deserves.”

“That sounds good. I don’t want you to kill him, though, or burn him up in a car crash or anything like that.”

“No, I know what you mean. Moderation is the key.”

“Yeah. Fix it so he has stay in the hospital for about a week.”

“I think it might be arranged.”

My mother came home from the hospital in the city a week before Christmas. She wasn’t over her brain concussion yet, but she was getting better every day. She and Barbara Legaspi had a long talk at the kitchen table. When Barbara left for the last time, she said I was her favorite sick person and she and I would be seeing each other again. She winked at me when mother wasn’t looking and I knew it meant that she and I had a secret together.

My mother gave my father the silent treatment for not taking care of me the way he should have and for not keeping me home from school when I was obviously sick. She cooked his meals at mealtime and then she went out of the kitchen while he sat at the table and ate alone. She slept in the spare bedroom and didn’t speak to him unless she had to.

We had a happy Christmas that year. I was over my pneumonia and had returned to school. My mother was still taking lots of medicine and it seemed to be helping her. She was going to return to her job after New Year’s. She wasn’t a stay-at-home; she liked being around other people, she said.

In the middle of January, my father passed out at work. They came and got him in an ambulance and took him to the hospital. After the doctor examined him, he said he had “smoker’s heart” and was going to have to cut back on his Marlboros and go on a diet.

When my mother and I visited him in the hospital, I stood at the foot of his bed and smiled. He barely looked at me, but I knew he knew I was there. If he had known what I was thinking and why I was smiling, he would have had to light up another Marlboro and blow an angry stream of smoke out his nose.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Bridge ~ A Capsule Book Review

Mrs. Bridge ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Bridge, the superb novel by Evan S. Connell (1924-2013), was first published in 1959. It is a classic of realist fiction, a piece of Americana, an indelible portrait of the kind of Midwestern American woman who lived in the 1940s and who no longer exists. (The companion piece to Mrs. Bridge, titled Mr. Bridge, was published ten years later.)

India Bridge is a Kansas City “country club matron” of the 1940s. She is married to Walter Bridge and they have three children: Ruth, Carolyn (Corky) and Douglas. Walter is an attorney and he is busy, busy, busy all the time to make enough money to “take care of” his family. In fact, he believes that “providing” for them is much more important than spending time with them or showing them he loves them (even though he does love them). He works from morning ‘til night and sometimes when he gets home all he can do is fall into bed to rest up for the next day of work. (Do we detect a heart attack in the making?)

Walter and India Bridge are “well to do” rather than rich. They have enough money for just about anything. They live in a lovely house and have two cars; they belong to the country club and they have plenty of snooty friends. They can afford a tour of Europe, which they are enjoying until the Nazis invade Poland and they have to go back home.

Mrs. Bridge can afford a maid to run the household, do the cleaning, shopping, laundry, cooking, etc. The maid’s name is Harriet and she is both a blessing and a curse to Mrs. Bridge. She is efficient, but in the very fact of her efficiency she places Mrs. Bridge in a dilemma because it leaves her (Mrs. Bridge) with plenty of time to try to find something to do and think about the past when she had to do all the housework herself and her three children were little and needed her.

One of Mrs. Bridge’s endearing qualities is that she is “traditional” and resistant to change. As her three children grow to adulthood, she is frequently baffled and hurt by their behavior. Her son, Douglas, is aloof and secretive. When she finds a naked girly magazine in his dresser drawer, she burns the magazine and gives Douglas an old-fashioned marriage manual from when she herself was young. The older daughter, Ruth, is something of a bohemian and nothing like her mother. She leaves home as soon as she can and goes to New York to work and become a libertine, unashamedly “sleeping” with a number of different men that she doesn’t care about. The younger daughter, Carolyn (Corky), goes off to college and finds an “inappropriate” man that she wants to marry. Mrs. Bridge must accept the fact that Carolyn’s husband’s father is a low-class plumber instead of a doctor or a lawyer. Carolyn soon finds herself with a baby and discovers that that she “can’t stand” the man she’s married to.

Mrs. Bridge is a slice of life, a chronicle of a specific time in twentieth century American life, an engrossing account of  the small moments that make up a life. India Bridge is a conflicted character: a woman with all the material comforts to make her happy but with plenty of reasons not to be happy. By the time you reach the end of the novel, you will have the feeling that India Bridge not only a character in a book but a person you know, or have known, intimately.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

They Have All the Gravediggers They Need

They Have All the Gravediggers They Need ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Somebody was knocking at the door. Who could it be? He was inclined to ignore it, but the knocking continued for longer than it should, so he felt compelled to answer it. It might be something important, but probably wasn’t.

When he opened the door, he saw a man he had never seen before smiling at him. The man was not young, not old; not fat, not thin; not handsome, not ugly; not anything.

“Mr. Arbuckle?” the man asked.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Gerhardt Arbuckle?”

“That’s me. How can I help you?”

“My name is Dexter Peebles. I’m from Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens.”

“Yes?”

“I understand both your parents are interred at Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens in our aboveground mausoleums?”

“That’s right.”

“And your mother just passed over recently?”

“That’s right.”

“Allow me to express my deepest condolences.”

“Thank you.”

“If there’s anything that we of Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens can do to help you in your hour of grief, we are always at your disposal.”

“No, I’m fine. Thanks for stopping by.”

“I wonder if I might have a few moments of your time?”

“What for?”

“I wish to discuss with you some of the services we’re offering at Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens at this time.”

“My parents are already taken care of. There isn’t anything else to be done for them.”

“Yes, I know that. It’s not for them. It’s for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Might I come in for a few minutes?”

“I’m busy right now. I was just about to wash my clothes.”

“I promise it won’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Well, all right. But let’s make it quick.”

Gerhardt Arbuckle stepped aside and let Dexter Peebles enter. As soon as he was over the threshold, he removed his hat.

“Might we sit down?” Dexter asked.

Gerhardt led the way into the living room and they both sat down.

“Now, what is this about?” Gerhardt asked with a hint of impatience.

Dexter opened the small briefcase he was carrying and took out a sheaf of shiny brochures. He held them hesitantly in his hand and cleared his throat.

“Might I inquire if you have made the final arrangements for yourself and other members of your family?”

“Have I done what?” Gerhardt asked.

“Have you secured your final resting place?”

“Do you mean when I die?”

“Yes.”

“Why, no, I haven’t.”

“Excellent! That’s what I want to discuss with you today.”

“You’re going to try to sell me a cemetery plot, aren’t you?”

“No matter what time of life you are in, it’s such a comfort…”

“I think I can save you a lot of hot air by telling you right off the bat that I’m not interested,” Gerhardt said.

“What?”

“I said I’m not interested.”

“May I ask why?”

“I don’t have to tell you why. Just take my word for it.”

“We are currently offered discounted prices.”

“I don’t care.”

“The type of aboveground mausoleum your mother and father lie in normally sell for thirteen thousand dollars apiece. For a limited time, the vaults are being discounted at twelve thousand each. That’s a savings of a thousand dollars per vault.”

“I’m still not interested.”

“Now, I must tell you, the two vaults immediately adjacent to your mother’s vault are available. These two vaults would be ideal for you and your dear wife.”

“My dear wife took off three years ago and I don’t know where she is. She might be dead and I hope she is.”

“So you have no use for two vaults.”

“I have no use for one vault.”

“Well, as you might expect, the vaults are kind of expensive for certain families. The cemetery plots sell for only a thousand apiece. For a limited time only, I can offer you four adjacent plots at the discounted price of thirty-five hundred dollars.”

“I don’t want those either.”

“May I ask why not?”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“Do you have children?”

“No.”

“So you would have no use for four cemetery plots?”

“I would have no use for one cemetery plot.”

“Well, uh, you’re getting along in years, as we all are. You must have given some thought to your final resting place.”

“None at all.”

“Most children want to be interred with or beside their parents.”

“Not me.”

“If I may ask, if you die tomorrow, where will your mortal remains repose?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“You don’t care.”

“That’s right. The city dump will suit me fine.”

“You want your body deposited at the city dump?”

“If I’m dead, I won’t know where I am, will I? The birds can peck at my eyes and the rats eat my flesh and I won’t even know it.”

“Well, I…”

“I told you right at the first I wasn’t interested in hearing your sales pitch. You didn’t believe me, did you?”

“We’re taught in salesman’s training that any sales resistance, no matter how strenuous, can be overcome.”

“You’re finding out that’s not true, aren’t you?”

“I must say your sales resistance is very high.”

“Higher than most?”

“Yes, I think I would say it’s higher than most.”

“You’re not a very effective salesman, then, are you?”

“No, I suppose I’m not.”

“How long have you been selling cemetery plots?”

“Six months.”

“Have you sold any?”

“I’ve sold a few.”

“How many?”

“Two.”

“Two in six months?”

“That’s right.”

“Some people are not cut out to be salesmen.”

“Truer words were never spoken.”

“Do you like selling cemetery plots?”

“I hate it. I’d rather dig graves.”

“Then why don’t you apply for a gravedigger’s job?”

“I’ve inquired about it. They have all the gravediggers they need right now.”

“Try something else altogether. A job that doesn’t have to do with death.”

“Well, the truth is, I don’t have much time to look for a job because I’m out selling cemetery plots all day long.”

“When you get back to Sacred Heart Memorial Gardens, tell them selling cemetery plots is not the right kind of job for you and you’re quitting.”

“They’re going to fire me anyway by the end of the month if I don’t meet my quota and there’s no way that’s going to be possible. I won’t have to quit.”

“Quit before they fire you! Tell them to take their shitty job and stuff it sideways!”

“If only I could!”

“You can! Stand up for yourself! Nobody else will!”

“I’ve thought about killing myself.”

“Don’t do that!”

“I don’t want to kill myself, but it might be my only option.”

“It’s not! It’s not your only option! That’s the wrong way to think!”

Dexter Peebles looked at his watched and slapped both hands on his knees.

“Well, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time already,” he said. “I should be going and let you get back to whatever it was you were doing. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. Most people just slam the door in my face as if I was a piece of filth that had blown up on their doorstep.”

“Wait a minute!” Gerhardt said. “You said you want a different job but you don’t have time to look for one?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, hold on! I have a cousin who owns a package liquor store downtown. He’s looking for somebody to train as a manager. Do you know anything about liquor?”

“No, but I could learn.”

“Do you have anything against liquor? Like religious scruples?”

“Not a thing! Both my parents were alcoholics. Also my brother.”

“Well, all right, then! You have alcohol in your family!”

He wrote the cousin’s name and also the address of the package liquor store on a little slip of paper and gave it to Dexter Peebles.

“Tell him Gerhardt sent you.”

“I certainly will!”

“If I were you, I would go down instead of calling. The last I heard, there’s plenty of competition for a manager’s job in a package liquor store.”

“You bet I will, and I certainly do thank you! I just can’t think you enough!”

“I hope you land the job. You need to stop selling cemetery plots before it kills you.”

“Say a little prayer for me!”

Before Dexter Peebles left, he gave Gerhardt a life-affirming hug. Gerhardt hated to be hugged but he tried to hide his distaste. It was a hug that seemed altogether necessary and appropriate.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Flowers by Night ~ A Capsule Book Review

Flowers by Night ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Set in Japan in the 1820s, Flowers by Night, by Lucy May Lennox, is a fascinating glimpse into an exotic Asian culture of two hundred years ago. Tomonosuke is of the samurai class, but he’s not an especially important samurai. He works as a sort of accountant in the office of the exchequer. He’s in his early thirties and he has a wife named Okyo. They have been married for five years but have no children because they aren’t interested in each other sexually.

Ichi is an “anma,” a blind masseur, only twenty years old. He went blind in childhood as a result of a fever and a rash. His family disowned him when he went blind, so he has no standing in society. He is a “non-person,” but he has learned to be self-reliant and to support himself by giving massages and performing as an amateur musician. He is a member of the Todoza, a guild of blind men. (Most of the Todoza members are moneylenders and for that reason are generally disliked.)

When samurai Tomonosuke meets blind masseur Ichi by chance, he is drawn to him because of his beautiful face and pays him for a massage. After several meetings, their “business” relationship turns sexual. (We are told in the background information for Flowers by Night that sexual relations between men were not only common, especially among the samurai class, but accepted and acceptable, during this period in Japanese history.)

Tomonosuke and his wife Okyo, along with Okyo’s maid, Rin, are relocated to the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), and Ichi tags along to be near his beloved Tomonosuke. (Ichi lived in Edo before and knows his way around.) Tomonosuke and Okyo are adjusting to life in the city when tragedy strikes.

Tomonosuke is falsely accused of embezzlement (set up by a fellow employee) and is jailed. He is waiting to be executed, he believes, when an earthquake, followed by a fire, strikes Edo. (Fires are so common in Edo that they are called “flowers of Edo.”) The jail where Tomonosuke is being held collapses in the earthquake and Tomonosuke is freed, along with the help of Okyo, Rin and Ichi. All four of them flee Edo since Tomonosuke is a wanted man. They travel, under cover, with a band of itinerant musicians. In their travels, they experience much hardship, including brutal winters (many feet of snow) and near starvation.

In the meantime, we learn that Okyo and Rin have been involved in a long-term lesbian relationship. Rin had been sold as a child to a brothel; Okyo rescued her and vowed to always take care of her. So, we have an unusual foursome: Tomonosuke and his blind lover Ichi and Okyo and her young lesbian lover Rin. The four of them together form a strong bond and, in their highly unusual circumstances, vow to always remain together, no matter what. They become a family in an uncaring and inhospitable world. Okyo feels compelled to produce an heir (especially important in an Asian culture at this time) and, since her husband Tomonosuke doesn’t have sexual relations with her, this is not going to be possible. Tomonosuke and Okyo come to believe in time that a wise expedient is to have the Tomonosuke’s blind lover Ichi conceive a child with Okyo. “Will the child be blind also?” Rin innocently asks. “Of course not!” Okyo tells her. “He wasn’t born blind!”

I haven’t ever read anything like Flowers by Night before. It’s a story about courage, about being on the outside and overcoming the odds in a world that is betting against your survival. More than that, it’s about the bonds that people can form with each other to make life a little more bearable. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp