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I Want People to See Us Together


I Want People to See Us Together ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Leigh Abbott was forty-eight years old. He thought he still looked young until he looked in the mirror and saw the gray pallor of his skin, the dark circles around his eyes, and a hairline that receded more with every passing year. Young was not the word for the way he looked. Ghoulish was more like it. Better to stay away from mirrors.

It was now thirty years since high school. He still lived in the same house and thought the same thoughts as he did then. He slept in the same bed and wore the same clothes and shoes. The bathroom was the same and the kitchen. The pictures on the wall in his room were the same, as were the dresser and chest of drawers. The closet door, badly in need of painting, still had the same crack; the carpet, still the same ugly green, had the same unidentifiable stains. When he chose to be honest with himself, he saw that he was in a state of stasis, rather than one of flux.

His father had died, his sister and his brother. He was the last male heir in a line that went back to the stone age. When he died, without issue, the line was finished. He sensed the disapproval of all the male progenitors, including the two that he knew, and it put a smile on his face. He welcomed extinction.

His mother was over eighty, still much the same as when he was a small child. The skin sagged more, the shoulders drooped, the hair silvered, but she was still as indomitable as ever. She would live to be a hundred at least. She might be the first woman in history to not die at all.

Night after night he sat and watched TV with her in the darkened living room. She liked the westerns and the love stories, the game shows and the musical variety. Anything light and wholesome, life-affirming. She didn’t like movies—they were mostly too long for her—or anything with smart-mouthed children, sexual innuendo or off-color jokes. Dancing was all right, as long as it was the wholesome kind, like the dancing cowboys in Oklahoma.

Whenever Leigh suggested watching a program that interested him, something other than the usual fare, she agreed, but when he saw after ten minutes or so that she was bored and unhappy, he turned back to what he knew she would like. He could have gone on to bed or gone into another room and read a book, but she didn’t like watching TV by herself. What’s the use of having a family, she would say, if I have to sit here all by myself in the dark?

She no longer drove, so he had to take her wherever she wanted to go, whether it was to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones or to the beauty parlor to get her hair re-crimped and re-tinted. He usually waited in the car at the beauty parlor, no matter how long it took, no matter how hot or cold the weather. He absolutely refused to wait inside and have all the ladies looking at him and wondering, maybe even laughing at him and tittering behind their hands.

His mother was at the age where a lot of her friends and distant relatives were dying. Trips to funeral homes or to various unfamiliar churches became commonplace. He sat through services honoring people he never saw or heard of before. There affairs were always accompanied by introductions and hand-shaking with people whose hands he would have preferred not to touch.

On Saturday morning, he did the grocery shopping, but his mother always accompanied him to make sure he got the most for his money. Don’t get that one, she’d say. Get this one. It’s twenty-nine cents less. If he wanted to buy a cake with white fluffy icing, she told him the sugar would make him jittery and would only add to his waistline. When you get older, she said, you gain weight easier and you can no longer eat the way you used to.

Of course, mother, he’d say. I know you’re right. I bow to your superior judgment.

On Sunday, there was always church. He preferred to just drive her there and go back and pick her up an hour-and-a-half later, but she wouldn’t allow it. I want you to go with me, she’d say. I don’t want to sit there by myself. Church is for families. I want people to see us together.

So, he’d get up on Sunday morning, dress in either of his outdated suits, put on a dress shirt that was frayed at the collar and a clip-on tie that was thirty years old, and suffer through a long service that meant little to him. He tried to feel elevated or enlightened by what he heard and saw in church, but for him it just wasn’t there.

And then, when the service was concluded, he stood by and wore a tight smile as his mother greeted her old-lady friends. This is my wonderful son, she’d say. He’s the light of my life.

She thought she knew him so well, but there was, by necessity, a part of himself that he kept hidden.

It started in high school. There was a boy named Eliot Ellsworth. He was one year older than Leigh. He was sexually precocious; he talked about improbable experiences that he had with older women. Not only that, but he experimented with drinking and drugs. He carried a switchblade knife in his book bag. He said he would stab to death anybody who insulted him. Leigh was scandalized but entranced. Eliot was so different from anybody else. Leigh felt important, for the first time in his life, when he was with Eliot.

One weekend Eliot’s parents were out of town and Eliot had the house to himself. He called Leigh and asked if he’d like to come over. Leigh couldn’t get there fast enough, telling his mother he was going to an impromptu boy-girl party. She didn’t approve, but she didn’t try to keep him from going.

Eliot was drinking beer and smoking pot. Leigh accepted a beer, but he was reluctant to smoke pot. Eliot seemed like an expert. He showed Leigh how to draw the smoke into his lungs. Leigh choked and Eliot laughed. Leigh hated smoking pot but he pretended to like it because he didn’t want Eliot to stop being his friend.

After two more beers, Leigh’s inhibitions began to melt away. They went into Eliot’s bedroom and closed the door, even though there was nobody else in the house. They smoked another joint and Eliot took his pornography collection out of a drawer and showed it to Leigh. Leigh had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but he wouldn’t have gone home at that moment for anything in the world.

Eliot asked Leigh if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures with another boy. Eliot ended up staying the whole night.

When he got home in the morning, his mother was in tears. He told her an improbable story about having to stay the night with a friend who was sick. She knew he was lying. She barely spoke to him for two weeks and turned her back on him whenever he came into the room.

He met with Eliot in Eliot’s home several more times when Eliot’s parents were away. He thought about Eliot all the time. When the phone rang, his heart skipped a beat. He was grateful above all to Eliot for showing him his true nature. He knew then, for the first time in his life, that when people come into our lives, it’s for a reason.

Then graduation came and Eliot was finished with high school. He landed a job in another state and went away. Leigh never saw him again. Leigh wrote him several letters, hoping they might get together again, but Eliot never wrote back.

There were a few others after Eliot, all of them easily forgotten. None of them meant to Leigh what Eliot had meant. In his mid-twenties, Leigh decided from that moment on that he would live the life of a celibate. There would be only one Eliot in his life.

All the dull years went by and Leigh found himself perilously close to fifty. He still felt, on the inside, like a high school boy. He bought a computer to help relieve the tedium of television and of being alone all the time with his mother. She didn’t approve of computers because it kept Leigh occupied in another room away from her, but she indulged him in his little hobby. He joined, anonymously, an online club for like-minded men. His mother would never know.

He began corresponding with a man in Russia named Sergei. (How Russian can you get?) Sergei told Leigh all about his life in Russia. He was thirty-two years old and had never married. His mother and father were dead. He had learned English as a child in a missionary school. He lived in a house with his two older brothers and one sister. He was lonely and still hoped to find the one person on earth who was right for him. The pictures that he sent of himself showed a smiling, handsome, dark-haired, trim young man in front of a dilapidated house.

Leigh located the one picture of himself that he thought was flattering and sent it to Sergei. As soon as Sergei saw the picture, he said, he felt an instant connection.

Leigh told Sergei the truth about himself, no matter how distasteful. All his family was dead and he had always lived alone with his mother, who would probably never die. He told him his true age and that he only had a high school education. He read books and liked foreign films but he didn’t consider himself very smart. And, yes, he too still hoped to find the one person in life who would make his heart sing.

Sergei wanted to come to America and become a citizen. He was proud to know a man like Leigh, he said; it made him want to make his home in America that much more. Leigh wrote that if he wanted it badly enough, he would make it happen.

They corresponded, via the Internet, for close to a year. Leigh looked forward to Sergei’s messages. If a day passed without a message from Sergei, he felt downhearted and irritable; he had to restrain himself to keep from snapping at his mother whenever she asked him pointless questions.

Then Sergei sent a message saying he had lost his job in the car manufacturing plant where he worked. His brothers told him he couldn’t go on living in the house with them unless he paid his share of the rent and paid for the food he ate. It’s a cruel world, he said. I wish I was dead.

The time was perfect for him to come to America. It was the one thing he had always wanted to do. He believed it was his destiny. There was just one thing standing in his way. He didn’t have enough money for the plane fare to cross the vast ocean; he needed about twenty-two hundred dollars. If Leigh could lend him that much money, Sergei would come to him and they would be together. Of course, he would pay back the money just as soon as he could. He heard that good-paying jobs were easy to come by in America. Much better than Russia.

Leigh had three thousand dollars in the bank, all the money he had in the world. If he sent twenty-two hundred to Sergei, he would have eight hundred left. It would be enough for them to go away together. They would both get jobs.

They’d go out West together somewhere. They’d drive day and night. They would eat in roadside diners and spend the night in small, out-of-the-way motels. They’d have the best time they ever had in their lives. He’d send his mother a postcard to let her know he was fine but never coming back. She’d be hurt at first but would come to accept it. There comes a time when every boy has to leave his mother. My time is long-past due, don’t you think?

He went to the bank and transferred twenty-two hundred dollars to the place in Russia that Sergei had designated. He felt a thrill when the woman at the bank told him the transaction went through successfully.

He went right home right away, his heart singing, and sent Sergei a message telling him the money was on its way. Please let me know when you have the money, he said, and on what day you plan to come. I will pick you up at the airport. Even though I feel we already know each other so well, I can’t wait for the moment when we finally meet in person.

At the supper table Leigh’s mother complained of a pain in her back. She was afraid she had kidney stones. She was going to go to bed right after supper. Leigh was uncharacteristically happy and smiled at everything she said. She didn’t notice anything different about him.

After she went to bed, Leigh began putting things in his battered old suitcase. Just the necessary items; clean socks and underwear, two new toothbrushes and toothpaste. Of course, if Sergei needed anything like that, he’d be more than welcome to use what was Leigh’s. Better not take too much. Travel light or don’t travel at all.

The next day he didn’t hear from Sergei or the day after that. On the third day, he sent Sergei another message asking him if he received the money. By nightfall he was dismayed but not alarmed that Sergei didn’t write back.

On the fifth day after he sent the money, he was concerned that maybe something had happened to Sergei. Maybe he was sick or hurt. Of course, there was nobody to let him know if anything had happened. He needed to be patient but it wasn’t easy. After he sent the money, he expected things to happen quickly. What could be the reason for the delay?

One week after sending the money, Leigh awoke in the morning with the realization that he had been played for a sucker. The whole thing with Sergei had been perpetrated to swindle him out of money. Maybe Sergei didn’t even exist.

He imagined a group of people sitting around a table in Russia, scheming to snare unsuspecting fools in America. This looks like a good one, they’d say. Play on his loneliness and vulnerability. Send him a picture of an attractive man. Get him to share confidences. Make him feel a connection that, of course, doesn’t exist. Go in for the kill. I think we can get at least two thousand out of this one. Damn, if this isn’t a sweet way to make money without having to work for it!

He continued sending messages every day to Sergei. Of course, they were unanswered. Sergei, he knew now, didn’t exist.

For several days, Leigh didn’t have the will to get out of bed in the morning. His life was nothing and it was going to stay that way until he died and they put him in the ground alongside his father. When his mother came in at ten o’clock in the morning to see if he was all right, he told her didn’t feel well and wanted only to rest. He would stay in bed until the time that he felt like getting up. He had nothing to get up for. You need to see the doctor, she said. Do you need me to call him for you? I need only for you to go away and leave me alone, he said.

On his third day in bed, he began vomiting blood. He was dying, he knew, and he didn’t much care. His pictured his mother having a yard sale after he was gone, selling his clothes and shoes and things. Nobody would want anything that he had ever owned. He didn’t even want it himself.

He had a disturbing dream in which he and his father were buried in the same coffin, except that he wasn’t quite dead yet. His father, who had been dead for fifteen years, had worms and maggots crawling out of his eye sockets. Leigh couldn’t get away from him. All he could do was scream and flail his arms and legs. When he woke up, he realized he had been sleeping too much. He was about to sleep himself to death.

He got out of bed and took a shower and after he was dressed in clean clothes he got into his car and drove away without a word to his mother. On his way to wherever he was going, he stopped at a restaurant he had never noticed before and had a chicken dinner.

After he left the restaurant, he drove out of town on a road that he hadn’t been on since he was a child. As he remembered the road, he remembered also a high bluff overlooking a river. It used to be a picnic spot. He had been there a couple of times with his parents when he was in fourth or fifth grade. Now, if only he thought about it hard enough, he could remember how to get there.

He came to a turn-off and a voice in his head told him to take it. He made a left-hand turn and after a while found himself going up a hill. Yes, he recognized the hill. He saw himself in the back seat of his father’s old black Mercury and his mother and father in front, arguing about some little thing, as usual. He remembered the same huge tree beside a ditch with some of its roots exposed and a field with some cows standing behind a wire fence.

He took another turn and, after an ascendant half-mile, he was at the place he remembered. The picnic tables had been removed and the road was partly washed away, but it was the same place. He parked the car and got out.

About fifty yards from where the picnic tables used to be was the bluff. It was a drop of a hundred feet or so, equivalent to the height of a ten-story building. At the bottom of the bluff were rocks and small trees. When the river was at its highest peak, it came right up to the foot of the bluff. A fall or a jump from the bluff would certainly kill a man instantly.

His mind went blank as he stood two feet from the edge of the bluff and looked down, feeling the wind on his face and smelling the river. Here was the resolution of his unhappy life. It could all be over in less than a minute if he only had the courage to step forward.

He was thinking these bitter thoughts when he heard a slight sound to his right and slightly behind him. He turned and saw a man standing there looking at him. His first thought was of Sergei, but he knew, of course, that that was ridiculous.

The man laughed for some unknown reason. “Thinking about jumping?”

Leigh cleared his throat and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. He turned and started toward his car and then he realized the man was offering him a cigarette.

When Leigh declined the cigarette, the man lit one for himself and took a deep draw down into his lungs, reminding Leigh of the way Eliot used to smoke a joint.

“You don’t smoke, do you?” the man asked.

Leigh shook his head.

“What’s your damn name?”

“No name,” Leigh said.

The man laughed again. “You’ve got to have a name.”

“It’s Sergei,” Leigh said.

“What’s your last name?”

“Rachmaninoff. Sergei Rachmaninoff.”

“That’s a funny name.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“You foreign?”

“Aren’t we all?”

“You got a wife waitin’ for you at home?”

“No,” Leigh said. “No wife.”

“Did she die?”

“Never been married.”

The man snorted and flipped his unfinished cigarette over the bluff. “Who needs it?”

He took a knife from inside his jacket and twirled it in his hands. When Leigh saw the knife and how deftly the man handled it, he smiled.

“If you’re planning on robbing me,” Leigh said. “you’d be wasting your time. I don’t have any money. I gave it all away.”

“I hadn’t thought about robbing you,” the man said, “but if you don’t have any money, anyway, what would be the point?”

“There’s no point to that or anything else,” Leigh said.

“You’re unhappy,” the man said.

“How did you guess?” Leigh asked.

“I’m good at spotting these things.”

Leigh looked out over the river and sighed. “Well, it’s been lovely chatting with you,” he said, “but I’m going to leave now.”

The man took a step toward him. “Where are you going?”

“None of your business,” Leigh said.

“Maybe we could go someplace and have a little drink.”

“I told you,” Leigh said. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do anything. I live with my mother and have always lived with my mother.”

“That’s a good one. Will you give me a ride, then?”

“I’m not going where you’re going,” Leigh said.

“How do you know?”

Leigh stepped around the man and walked to his car and got in and started the engine. He was putting the car into gear when the man got in on the passenger side.

“I told you I’m not going where you’re going,” Leigh said.

“You don’t know where I’m going,” the man said.

“I’ll drive you to the police station and drop you off. I’ll tell them you’re an escaped lunatic, out bothering people who want to be left alone, and they should lock you up and make sure you don’t get away again.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” the man said.

“I don’t want to know anything about you.”

“I have a room in a hotel. It’s a nice room and a nice hotel. I’m not a bum, even though I probably look like one to you.”

“I don’t care what you are.”

“Yes, you do. You’re wondering if I’m like you in any pertinent way.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Leigh said. “I don’t wonder about you at all.”

“You can call your mother from my hotel room and tell her you’re having a fine time with me.”

“I wish you would shut up, or I’m going to kick you out of my car.”

“There has to be reason we were both in the same place at the same time. A place where nobody ever goes.”

“I’ll drop you off in town,” Leigh said.

“No, you won’t,” the man said. “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’ll go there together.”

“I can always find a policeman and tell him you’re bothering me,” Leigh said.

“I saw Greta Garbo do that in a movie once,” the man said, lighting another cigarette.

“I don’t want you smoking in my car,” Leigh said.

“I can smoke wherever I want,” the man said.

“My mother will notice the smell.”

“Have you ever thought about getting rid of your mother?  I think she’s your whole problem.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Leigh said.

“Yes, but I’m good at spotting these things,” the man said.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review


Hidden Figures ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Hidden Figures is a story about breaking barriers that is, at least in part, based on fact. It’s 1961 and the “space race” between the United States and Russia is underway. Russia has put a spy satellite into orbit around the earth, giving Americans a feeling of unease, and Russia is the first to put a man (Yuri Gagarin) into space. As Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), the big boss at NASA says, “we (meaning the United States) have come in second in a two-man race.” This state of affairs puts a lot of pressure on the American space program and forces NASA to work its employees mercilessly.

Three black woman named Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are new employees at NASA. Each of them is accomplished in her own way. Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson) has been a math prodigy since she was a small child. It takes a lot of calculating to launch a rocket into space and bring it safely down again. Katherine is more adept at the calculations than most of her male counterparts. She is, of course, underestimated because of her gender and her race. This is 1961, remember, so black people can’t use the same coffee pot as the white people, not to mention toilets and drinking fountains. Al Harrison seems a cold and forbidding boss, but as he sees how capable Katherine is, he develops a grudging admiration for her and becomes, in a way, her mentor. When Katherine wants to attend all-male briefings to better understand what is going on with swiftly implemented changes, she is told there is no protocol for a woman to attend briefings. “There is no protocol to put a man into orbit around the earth, either,” she says.

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar playing a maid in The Help) is mechanically inclined. As a new employee at NASA, she heads up a group of black female employees, but she is stonewalled when she tries to get the pay and title of supervisor. (This slight is probably more about her race than her anything else.) When NASA installs a mainframe computer that takes up an entire room, Dorothy is the only person who seems to know how to get it going.

Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) is only an adjunct to her male counterparts, but she longs to be NASA’s first black female engineer. She lacks a few classes, though, to even qualify. She can pick up the classes she needs at a school near her home, but she’s not allowed to attend because it’s an all-white school and she’s black. Having no intention of being thwarted, she petitions the court to bend the rules a little bit to allow her to get the classes she needs. She finesses a white judge and he rules in her favor.

After being out-classed by the Russians at the beginning of the space race, the American space program finally finds its legs and does some amazing things, including putting a man, Alan Shepard, into space and putting another man, John Glenn, into orbit around the earth. At the end of Hidden Figures, when Katherine Goble is asked if the seemingly impossible goal of putting a man on the moon can be achieved by the end of the 1960s, she says with confidence, “We’re already there.” To her it’s the next barrier to be broken in a long line of them to come.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Perfidia ~ A Capsule Book Review


Perfidia ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Writer James Ellroy is unapologetically politically un-correct. If you are offended by racial slurs and blunt sex talk, he is not the writer you should be reading. He manages to insult almost every ethnic and niche group. He gets away with it, it is assumed, because all his novels are set in the not-too-distant American past, where racial prejudice and racial slurs were much more a part of everyday discourse than they are now. “If you’re looking for political correctness,” Mr. Ellroy says, “go someplace else.”

His big (almost 700 pages) novel Perfidia (a Spanish word meaning betrayal or treachery) is set in Los Angeles in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. With all those Americans dead in Hawaii and with the country now at war, fear and unease—and in some cases, hysteria—are the order of the day. The west coast of California seems the logical place that the frighteningly aggressive “Japs” will attack next. And those mandatory blackouts don’t do anything to ease peoples’ fears, either. (Imagine moving through a big city at night with all the lights turned off.)

The Japanese people in the Los Angeles area are being rounded up, no matter how innocent or blameless they are. Their property is being confiscated and they are being housed in “internment” camps. Americans are so anti-Japanese because of Pearl Harbor that they want to kill or at least defile almost every Asian they see. (Most people can’t tell the Japanese from other Asians). It’s in this atmosphere of fear and distrust that Perfidia is set.

Dr. Hideo Ashida is an Americanized Japanese. He is a brilliant forensic chemist employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. When all the Japanese people on the city payroll are canned just because of their ethnic background, Dr. Ashida manages to hold onto his job because he is so good at solving crimes. (He is, of course, called Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, but he seems impervious to insult.) When he is out in public in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, people call him names, spit on him and, in some cases, threaten him. The police department assigns bodyguards to keep him safe.

Dr. Ashida has what he believes is a “shameful” secret. In the world that he inhabits of hyper-masculine, crime-fighting alpha-males, he is secretly gay. The lone object of his desire is one Bucky Bleichert, a boxer with whom he has been friends since high school. He sets up a hidden movie camera in the shower room to capture footage of Bucky naked. The one femme fatale in Perfidia, one Katherine “Kay” Lake, offers Dr. Ashida a roll in the hay but he, of course, isn’t interested.

On the day before the Pearl Harbor attack, a Japanese family of four, the Watanabes, are brutally murdered in their home. It appears to be a sort of ritualized killing, maybe a suicide, but the police just can’t figure it out. There’s an apparent suicide note written in Japanese that speaks of the “coming apocalypse,” but it’s too ambiguous. On examining the background of the Watanabes, the police discover they are “Fifth Column,” meaning they are part of the non-fighting branch of the Japanese military whose job it is to create disorder on the civilian front. The Los Angeles police are hoping to find a Japanese suspect to pin the Watanabe murders on, to somehow mitigate the internment of the Japanese people. If it turns out that a white person committed the murders, it will be a public relations nightmare.

If you read Perfidia and some of the other novels of James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid, among others) you know that the Los Angeles Police Department of the past was unspeakably corrupt, or at least it is that way in the Ellroy universe. Most of the upper tier of the police department are on the “make” in some way or other. They have no allegiance to anything other than themselves. They take drugs, cheat on their wives, kill without compunction whenever it suits them, cover up evidence, and involve themselves with gangsters and shady characters that will advance their own interests. They don’t account to anybody but themselves. These crime fighters are in some ways worse than the criminals they pursue.

Some real-life people (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, J. Edgar Hoover) appear as minor characters in Perfidia, and James Ellroy paints a very unflattering portrait of them. It’s probably a good thing they’re all dead or they might be initiating some legal action. Bette Davis having a torrid affair with police sergeant Dudley Smith? It somehow doesn’t fit in with the idea we have of Bette Davis. (Bette’s husband, we are told, is a “chains-and-leather queen.”) Joan Crawford seducing a young police officer half her age? Maybe so, but it’s an odious thought. J. Edgar Hoover with pomaded hair and buffed fingernails developing “crushes” on handsome L.A. police officers? I somehow doubt it. It’s all part of the badly damaged world of James Ellroy.

However you look at it, Perfidia is fun to read for its portrayal of a time and place. Very few of us alive now were alive seventy-five years ago at the start of World War II; this is a vivid “re-imagining” of those days. As long as the novel is, the chapters are short, the paragraphs are short, the sentences are short and punchy, and we never get bored. Keep turning those pages and eventually you’ll come to the end and want more.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Blind Shall See and the Lame Shall Walk


The Blind Shall See and the Lame Shall Walk ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Note: This is a continuation of my previous short story, “Domestic Disturbance on Quiet Street.”)

When I was seven or eight, I was still sometimes afraid of the dark. If I left a light on upstairs, my father made me go up and turn it off—I was wasting electricity, of course and costing money—and that meant I had to come back down the stairs by myself in the dark. Sometimes after turning off the light, I saw Boris Karloff coming after me or Baby Jane Hudson and, running downstairs, I almost fell and broke my leg, but after I got downstairs I didn’t let on that I was afraid because I would have been laughed at and called a baby. (What, you’re still afraid of the dark at your age? When are you ever going to grow up?)

I liked being by myself during daylight (as opposed to dark) hours, but in third grade my mother thought I was still too young to stay by myself after school, so I had to go to great-grandma’s house for a couple of hours every day until my parents were home from work. Great-grandma wasn’t as much fun as she might have been if she had been twenty or thirty years younger, but I didn’t mind spending time at her house. She had some interesting people living there.

About a week after the terrible nighttime fight between great-grandma’s renters, Mr. and Mrs. Owsley, I found Joyce Owsley in the back yard sitting underneath the cherry tree. I ran toward her, making her duck, and shimmied up the tree to the first branch. I was showing off a little bit, of course.

“Why weren’t you at school today?” I asked, standing on the limb over her head like Tarzan.

“My temperature was a hundred and two this morning,” she said.

 “You look okay now, though,” I said.

 “I’m very, very sick.”

 “Miss Wessel was looking for you today,” I said.

 “What did she want?”

 “I don’t know. I think she wanted to give you a great big kiss.”

 “Ugh! She needs to save her kisses for the janitor.”

 I laughed and jumped down, just barely missing her foot. She gave a shudder, as though I turned her stomach or something.

“You’re a very odd girl,” I said.

“So are you,” she said.

“Well, for your information, I’m not a girl. I’m a boy.”

“Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed. You all look the same to me.”

She picked up a doll that was on the ground behind her and cradled it in her arms.

“What you got there?” I asked.

“What does it look like?”

It had bald patches on its head and one eye permanently closed.

“I looks like shit,” I said. “What happened to it?”

“It’s not an it. It’s a she. Her name is Isabelle and she’s been in a terrible automobile accident. She was in a coma but now she’s better.”

She held the doll to her imaginary breast to suckle it.

“You’re weird,” I said.

“Not as weird as you are.”

“Hey, that was some fight your parents had the other night!” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“You shouldn’t have been watching. They don’t like to be looked at when they’re fighting.”

“Great-grandma called the sheriff.”

“I know.”

“Where were you when the fighting was going on?”

“I was hiding under the bed with Cherry. Oona was hiding in the closet.”

“Weren’t you scared?”

“No, we were laughing. We’re used to it.”

“Is your daddy still in jail?” I asked.

“I don’t know and I don’t care. I hope they throw away the key.”

“What does that mean? ‘Throw away the key’?

“It means they keep him in jail forever.”

“Aren’t you going to visit him in prison?”


“If they let him out and he comes home and sees your momma’s new boyfriend, won’t that make him mad?”

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

“I saw him yesterday. He came up and knocked on the door and your momma let him in. Great-grandma said he’s been here every day since they took your daddy away in the patrol car.”

“You must mean Patsy. Patsy’s not a man. She’s a woman.”

“Do you mean that man I saw go into your apartment was really a woman?”

“That shows how stupid you are. You don’t know the difference between a man and a woman.”

“He was smoking a cigar!”

“Can’t a woman smoke a cigar?”

“He was wearing a man’s clothes and had a man’s butch haircut.”

“I’m going to tell her you’re referring to her as a man. She’ll come out and slap the shit out of you.”

“You mean he’s here now? Inside your apartment?”

“They’re very close friends. Patsy is momma’s spiritual advisor.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they sit on the couch and hold hands while momma cries and moans about how terrible her life is. Patsy says soothing in her ear.”

“What things? About how pretty she is?”

“No. About how Jesus will never let her down and, as bad as life is on this earth, there’s a better world coming.”

“Patsy’s a preacher?”

“She’s a Penny Cost.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a kind of church. Haven’t you ever heard of the Penny Cost church?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Well, don’t go making fun of people’s religion.”

“I’m not!” I said.

“Momma thinks Patsy is great because she only drinks beer and no hard liquor. Patsy has almost got momma wanting to join the Penny Cost.”

“Are you going to join the Penny Cost?” I asked.

“I might.”

“Your whole family is weird,” I said.

“Not as weird as yours.”

She closed her eyes and continued to nurse Isabelle. I was going to catch a bug and put it on her arm to make her scream, but I didn’t see any bugs close at hand, so I gave up on the idea. Without another word, I turned and went into the house to watch Superman.

On Saturday morning, Joyce Owsley and I were in great-grandma’s front yard, sitting in the big wooden chairs.

“I have to go down to the store for great-grandma,” I said to Joyce. “You want to walk down with me?”

“I’m sick, remember?” she said. “I’m not supposed to walk anywhere.”

“That’s stupid,” I said.

“No, it’s not!”

“You’re just a big baby,” I said. “If you don’t quit missing so much school, they’re going to flunk you.”

“You just need to mind your own damn business,” she said.

We were going on in that way, with our own kind of playful arguing, when Maurice Owsley, Joyce’s daddy, pulled up in front of the house in his green pickup truck. He honked his horn to get Joyce’s attention and she went over to him.

After she stood and talked to him out on the street for a couple of minutes, she went into the house. She was in there for a few minutes and when she came back out she motioned to Mr. Owsley sitting in his truck that everything was okay. Then she came back over to where I was sitting.

“What was that all about?” I asked. “Is he home to stay now?”

“No, he just came by to get his clothes. He wanted me to go in and tell momma that he was coming in.”

“They’re not going to get into another fight, are they?”

“No, momma and Patsy went out the back door. They’ll sit in the back yard until he’s gone.”

“I’d like to see Patsy and your daddy get into a fight. It would be like watching two men fight. I’ll bet Patsy could take him.”

“That’s not going to happen. Patsy’s in it for the Lord. She’d rather die than fight with anybody.”

“Are you sure Patsy is really a woman?” I asked. “She looks too much like a man to be a woman.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? If you don’t believe me, you can ask her. She’ll let you feel her muscle.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“She’s staying here all the time now,” Joyce said. “She and momma sleep in the same bed together, just like husband and wife.”

“Your family is really messed up!” I said.

“Not as much as your family,” she said. “Do you think Elvis Presley is sexy? Yes or no?”

I thought great-grandma would be appalled that Patsy moved in right after Mr. Owsley moved out, but she was strangely tolerant.

“I don’t care what people do as long as they keep it to themselves,” she said. “They’re quiet now and they pay the rent on time. That’s about as much as I can expect from trashy people like that.”

“Did you know Patsy’s a Penny Cost?” I asked.

“Well, we can’t all be perfect,” she said.

“She’s also a woman and not a man.”

“Don’t you think I have eyes in my head?”

The next week Joyce was at school every day. When I saw her on the playground at recess, she ignored me so I ignored her. On Friday after school when I was walking down the hill to great-grandma’s house, I looked up and there she was walking right beside me.

“Just because I’m walking home with you doesn’t mean I like you,” she said.

“I don’t care if you like me or not,” I said. “I don’t like you very much.”

“That suits me fine,” she said.

“Great-grandma likes having Patsy around,” I said.

“She said that?”

“Not exactly, but she thinks Patsy is really quiet and well-behaved after your daddy.”

“Momma and daddy are getting a divorce. I think daddy already has him another wife lined up to marry after the divorce goes through.”

“Are your momma and Patsy going to get married?”

She huffed with exasperation. “Patsy is a woman!” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting. She looks just like a man.”

“Momma says that maybe Patsy is just what she’s always needed. She’s through with men, she says. They’re too aggressive.”

I laughed even though I didn’t know what I was laughing at.

“Did you join the Penny Cost?” I asked.

“Not yet, but momma did. She’s a full-fledge Penny Cost now. She and Patsy go to all the services. They’re having a revival at the Penny Cost church soon. I’m going one night just to see what it’s like. Would you like to go?”

“What’s a revival?”

“It’s where sinners get revived. I think it’ll be a lot of fun. They’re going to have the laying-on of hands and spiritual healings.”

“What’s that?”

“’The blind shall see and the lame shall walk’. Haven’t you ever heard of that?”

“We don’t have that at the Methodist,” I said.

We began to see Patsy around the house every day: bringing in groceries, mowing the lawn, playing catch with Cherry and Oona. One day when I was standing in the front yard by myself she came over to me and smiled and put her fingers on the side of my head.

“Have you been a good boy?” she asked.

I could have come up with a smart reply, but all I said was, “I guess so.”

“Do you mind if I pick you up?” she asked.

“What for?”

“Just to see how heavy you are. Just for a sec.”

She picked me up in her arms and held me so that my face was close was to hers and I could smell her cigar breath. She didn’t have any whiskers or stubble on her cheeks or upper lip, so I knew then that she really was a woman and not a man.

I put my hand on her hard-as-iron bicep. “Are you a weight lifter?” I asked.

“I used to be in my younger days,” she said.

She set me back down on my feet and said, “The Lord is thinking of you and he wants you to think of him.”

“Okay,” I said.

Whenever we saw Beulah Owsley now, she looked different; not so mean anymore. She smiled a lot and looked cleaner. She was taking a bath regularly now, combing her hair and keeping her Goodwill dresses clean. The most important thing for great-grandma was that the crazy yelling had stopped.

As a soon-to-be-divorced woman, Beulah Owsley had to go to work now to support herself and her three daughters. She wanted a job with dignity that didn’t involve domestic work, but jobs were hard to find. She applied for a job in the recorder of deeds office, but they wouldn’t hire her because her typing wasn’t good enough. She couldn’t get a waitressing job because they only wanted young women with large breasts and good-looking legs. She had large hips and thick ankles, but that’s about all.

Finally she got a job at the shoe factory because they were willing to hire middle-aged women with no previous experience. The work was hot and smelly and made her joints ache, but at the end of the week when she had her paycheck in her hand, it all became worthwhile.

After a few paychecks, she had enough money for a down payment on a used Chevrolet. With her good fortune, she began to feel magnanimous and wanted to do good things for people. Patsy told her that was the only way to get into heaven.

Beulah Owsley had always ignored Lonnie Legg, but now she began making overtures to him. Deaf from birth, he didn’t speak because the only way people learn to talk is by hearing other people talk. Poor lonely, isolated Lonnie Legg. He lived alone in great-grandma’s upstairs apartment with no friends and no family.

Lonnie and Beulah now had something in common. They both worked at the shoe factory. I can only imagine the look on Lonnie Legg’s face when Beulah approached him with a big horsey smile and a note pad. I’m sure she made him very uncomfortable because he wasn’t used to being approached by large, frightening women.

She began giving him a ride to work at the shoe factory, a couple days a week at first and then every day. They wrote notes back and forth and sometimes laughed and blushed. She wanted to learn sign language so she could teach it to him, she said. When she found out he could read lips, she began speaking always in a loud, clear voice. Lonnie began to smile more and seemed generally happier. To those who paid attention to such things, his hair and fingernails were cleaner and his clothes looked less slept in.

With Beulah and Lonnie such good pals, I thought Patsy might be jealous, but Joyce said she wasn’t.

“Patsy doesn’t have a jealous bone in her body,” she said.

“Have you checked all her bones?” I asked.

“She thinks it’s God’s work.”

“What is?”

“That momma and Lonnie Legg should be brought together.”

“Do you think they might get married?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t think momma would want to go that far.”

“She can find out all of Lonnie Legg’s secrets and let everybody in on them so people will stop wondering.”

“I don’t think she cares about his secrets,” Joyce said. “She’s only interested in what’s in his heart.”

“What is in his heart?” I asked.

“Only God knows,” she said.

When Patsy and Beulah heard about a famous faith healer named Sister Ina Beasley coming to Penny Cost for the revival, they became excited. They would personally escort Lonnie Legg to the service and see if Sister Ina Beasley could fix his hearing. And wouldn’t it be something if he could hear for the first time in his life? Wouldn’t he be surprised at all the good and bad sounds in the world? He would be surprised just at the sound of his own voice, which at first probably wouldn’t sound like much. He’d have to learn to talk a little bit at a time the way a baby would.

The laying-on-of-hands faith healing revival was on a Wednesday night. I wanted to go, but my mother said I was only being a voyeur. I told her I didn’t know what that meant, and then she reduced it to simpler terms by telling me I couldn’t go because it was a school night and I had to get up early the next day. She was right, of course, but I sure wanted to see the look on Lonnie Legg’s face when he realized, for the first time in his life, that he could hear. I thought he would probably just about float away with the joy of it.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Domestic Disturbance on Quiet Street


Domestic Disturbance on Quiet Street ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Great-grandma was old, already seventy-three when I was born. When I stayed with her after school, I had to be careful not to wear her down too much or make too much noise.

She lived in a big white house on a corner lot with a fenced-in yard that felt cool all through the hottest part of summer because of the enormous shade trees. She had lots of flowers, bushes and trees in the yard, so that it resembled a tiny overgrown jungle. One whole fence at the side of the house was covered with honeysuckle vines; they scented the air but also drew bumblebees, of which I was deathly afraid. There was a cherry tree at the back of the house that I liked to climb when nobody was around; a peony bush that possums liked to hide under; poppies, azalea, bougainvillea, roses, lilac, hibiscus, and lots of other flowers and bushes that I didn’t know the name of.

In the side yard was an old garage that you could drive into from the street that ran alongside the house. It was easy to imagine the man of the house, great-grandma’s husband who died long before I was born, pulling his Model T or Model A Ford into the garage and closing the street doors and exiting on the other side of the garage in a door that opened up into the yard. The garage smelled of old dry wood, had a clean dirt floor, and lots of wasp nests in the rafters. I was as afraid of wasps as I was of bumblebees, so I didn’t usually go into the garage without a good reason.

With all the rooms in great-grandma’s house, she only lived in three of them: living room, bedroom and kitchen. The other rooms were taken up with her renters, or, as she sometimes called them, her “roomers.”

For a long time, since before I was born, a “deaf-and-dumb” man named Lonnie Legg had lived in great-grandma’s upstairs apartment. He seemed mysterious because he was silent, but I don’t think there was much mystery going on with him. He was in his late thirties and worked at the shoe factory in a neighboring town. He didn’t drive a car but always took taxi cabs wherever he went. Great-grandma was so used to him she hardly seemed to notice him. He paid his rent on time, took good care of the property and didn’t cause any trouble. When he wanted a cab, he would tap on her front door and she would go to the phone and call it for him. If it was raining or cold outside, she would let him wait in her front room until his cab came.

When the house was quiet, we could hear Lonnie Legg moving around upstairs in his apartment. Sometimes he laughed and it was an eerie laugh, like a ghost would make if a ghost could laugh. At night he would whistle and it was always the same note over and over. I asked great-grandma why he whistled and she said it was because he was happy. Of course, people in town said fantastic things about Lonnie Legg that you knew couldn’t be true; that he had a beautiful wife somewhere and children, that he worked for a foreign government, or that he was really an alien from a distant planet and being deaf and dumb was his “cover” to keep people from knowing what he really was.

In great-grandma’s living room was a double sliding door that was kept closed all the time. On the other side of the door were another three rooms: living room, bedroom and kitchen. This was her downstairs “apartment” where her “renters” lived. The current family living there was named Owsley: a man and his wife and three little girls.

Joyce Owsley was my age and in my class at school. She was sick much of the time with colds and sore throats and missed a lot of school. She told me the doctor wanted to take out her tonsils but that she would probably die before they ever got around to doing the operation. She had very pale and skin and tiny arms and legs like a fragile doll. Some of the kids at school made fun of her, calling her skeleton or spook, but I knew she had enough problems already and didn’t laugh at her. She had two little sisters, Cherry and Oona. Cherry was in first grade and Oona in third.

Mrs. Owsley, whose first name was Beulah, was a frowzy-haired woman with wide hips and thick ankles. She wore saddle oxfords and bobby socks and dresses that she bought for seventy-five cents apiece from the Goodwill. She had a hard, sour face that told you to stay away from her if you knew what was good for you.

Her husband, Maurice Owsley, was a funny-looking short man with a bald head. I thought he looked like Larry from the Three Stooges. He drove a green pickup truck and worked at a movie theatre in a nearby town. When I asked him what he did at the theatre, he told me he did whatever needed to be done. If the projectionist was sick and didn’t show up for work, it was up to him to run the projection machine. If teens sitting in the balcony became too explicit in their affection for each other, he had to go and shine a flashlight in their faces until they either stopped what they were doing or left and went somewhere else.

When I was staying with great-grandma, we could hear Maurice Owsley and his wife Beulah fighting and yelling at each other. They called each other names and swore at each other. They threw things and slammed doors. Beulah Owsley screamed and Maurice Owsley bellowed like a bull. Great-grandma said they sometimes went at it like that all night long. It sounded like war had broken out on the other side of the sliding doors.

The Owsleys made great-grandma nervous. She was afraid they would kill each other and she didn’t want anything like that going on in her house. She wanted them gone, but she didn’t know exactly how to go about getting them to leave. If she had to, she said, she would call the sheriff and have them evicted.

On a night when I was sleeping on great-grandmother’s couch when my mother was in the hospital having a cyst removed from her uterus, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of breaking glass and a woman screaming. I got up and turned on the lamp beside the couch and great-grandma came out of her bedroom in her nightdress.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Those trashy people are fighting again!” she said. “I’m going to tell them once and for all that they have to get out!”

We stood there in great-grandma’s front room and listened to the screaming and crashing until it became obvious that the Owsleys had taken their fight out into the front yard. Great-grandma opened the front door and turned on the porch light.

Here! Here! Here!” she said, sounding like a schoolmarm. “What’s going on here?”

“The son of a bitch is trying to kill me!” Beulah Owsley shrieked. “Call the sheriff quick! He’s going to kill me!”

She was on her knees with blood streaming down her face. Her husband was standing over her, dressed only in his underpants and an undershirt. He was holding onto her hair with one hand and in his other hand he held a butcher knife over her head.

“I’m finally going to rid the world of this crazy whore!” he said. He had a gash on his temple; blood ran down the side of his face, onto his neck and arms.

“Put the knife down now, Mr. Owsley!” Great-grandma said. “I can’t have this kind of carrying-on in my house! Do you know what time it is?”

“I’m going to kill her!” Mr. Owsley said. “If you don’t want to see her die, ma’am, you’d better go back inside your house and close the door!”

“What must your three little girls think?” great-grandma asked. “You must be scaring them half to death!”

“She’s just been asking for it!”

He sawed off a large chunk of his wife’s hair with the knife and tossed the hair aside.

“Help!” Mrs. Owsley screamed. “Someone please help me!”

Some lights went on in the house across the street. Great-grandma groaned and said, “What are the neighbors going to think?”

Great-grandma went to the phone to call the sheriff. I stood at the door, watching the Owsleys. I had never seen two grown people fighting before. When Mr. Owsley dropped the butcher knife, Mrs. Owsley got up off her knees and began punching him in the face. He punched back, of course, and for a while they were like two boxers in the ring.

Two sheriff’s deputies pulled up in a patrol car in about five minutes. Seeing that Mr. Owsley was drunk and disorderly, they cuffed his hands behind his back and took him away in the patrol car. Mrs. Owsley stood there wailing and watching the car as it drove off. When the car was out of sight, she ran back into her apartment and slammed the door.

Great-grandma was a nervous wreck after things quieted down. She took a couple of pulls on a bottle of “soothing syrup” and picked up her knitting and began knitting. She didn’t sleep any more for the rest of the night.

The next day all was quiet until late afternoon when Mrs. Owsley knocked on great-grandma’s door. She wore a white turban on her head that looked like a bandage; her mouth was smeared with dark-red lipstick. Great-grandma reluctantly let her in.

“What have you got to say for yourself?” great-grandma asked Mrs. Owsley, as though scolding a child.

Mrs. Owsley smiled, showing her ugly horse teeth. “It wasn’t me, honey!” she said. “I was only trying to defend myself.”

“It takes two to fight, I believe,” great-grandma said.

“I just want to apologize for what happened last night and to tell you it won’t happen again.”

“Well, it better not!”

“The old asshole is gone and I hope it’s for good.”

“You’re talking about your husband, I presume,” great-grandma said.

“Who else?”

“Where is he?”

“Right now he’s in jail. I don’t know how long they’ll keep him, but if it was up to me it’d be forever.”

“You know I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” great-grandma said. “I think I have to give you thirty days, but if it was up to me I wouldn’t give you one day.”

“You don’t have to throw me out. Me and my little girls will get along just fine here without that old lunatic around. We’ll never cause you a lick of trouble.”

“I’ve already talked it over with the sheriff,” great-grandma said. “I’m having you evicted.”

“Oh, don’t do that, honey!” Mrs. Owsley said. “Having to find another place to live right now just doesn’t fit in with my plans.”

“That’s too bad!”

“I’d like to stay, at least for the time being.”

“Well, if there’s a repeat of last night’s scene, it’s out you go!”

“Oh, I understand that, honey, and I promise you that nothing like that will ever happen again!”

“I won’t have drunkenness and carrying on in my house! This is a quiet street and I run a respectable house!”

“Of course you do, honey!”

“The sheriff is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for forty-five years.”

“I’m supposed to get a check in the mail tomorrow,” Mrs. Owsley said. “I’m going to pay you the rent for this month that I owe, plus the next month in advance.”

“Well, then,” great-grandma said, greatly mollified by the mention of money.

“We’ll be model renters,” Mrs. Owsley said. “We won’t cause you a bit of trouble. And we’ll pay the rent every month on time. Just you wait and see.”

When Mrs. Owsley was gone, great-grandma turned to me and said, “There’s something about that woman I just don’t like.”

“You’re letting them stay, though,” I said.

“It’s money in the bank,” great-grandma said.

(To be continued.)

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

I’m a Word Person

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I’m a Word Person ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The school mailed out deficiency slips in the middle of the quarter. It was to alert your parents that you were failing a class, or nearly failing, and that you would almost certainly get a failing grade when grades came out at the end of the quarter, unless, in the meantime, you applied yourself assiduously to the subject, hired somebody to tutor you, or generally improved your study habits.

Algebra for me was like a bad dream. I’m sure that Satan thought up algebra on one of his bad days. I hated the class and I hated Mr. Fatty, the teacher. He had a booming voice and I was afraid of him. He wasn’t much taller than me, but he was so fat that his upper arms were like hams and he had rolls of fat on his forehead. He never wore a coat on the coldest days in winter and he sweated all the time. This is the absolute truth. I wouldn’t make this up.

I was mostly a good student, though uninspired. The good students who made decent grades, and would probably go on to college, took algebra. Everybody else—the dumbbells, hillbilly kids, and special education rejects—took general math in place of algebra. I didn’t want to take general math with all those losers—I was sure it would mark me for life—so I signed up for algebra, even though I knew from the beginning it would have its own tragic consequences.

When my deficiency slip came in the mail, I knew I was in for some trouble. I could have hidden it and pretended it didn’t come, but I knew my father would find out about it later (Mr. Fatty lived right down the street from us) and then I would be in double trouble: not only for failing algebra but for hiding the deficiency slip.

After supper I took the deficiency slip out of its envelope, obligingly unfolded it, and handed it to my father with a smile.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“I’m not flat-out failing it!” I said. “I have a ‘D’ instead of an ‘F’!”

All my exchanges with my father were fraught with anger and high drama. He had the parenting skills of a garden gnome. One, two, three, and he was already in high dudgeon.

He read the notice through a couple of times before he realized what he was seeing. I got well out of his way so he couldn’t take a swing at me.

“Do you realize what this means?” he said.

“It means I’m not doing so great in algebra,” I said.

“We’re going down to Mr. Fatty’s house right now and talk to him about this!” he said, getting red in the face.

“No! No! No!” I screamed. “I’d rather die!”

“How can you be failing algebra?” he railed.

“I hate algebra!” I said. “It makes me sick! It doesn’t make any sense! All those X’s and Y’s! All those formulas! I’m a word person! Not a formula person!”

“If you’re not good at math and science,” he said, “you might as well not even go to school!”

“That’s fine with me!” I said.


“I’ll bring the form for you to sign tomorrow.”

“What form?”

“The consent form you’ll need to sign for me to drop out of school. I’ll tell everybody I’m quitting. How about if we make Friday my last day?”

“You’re a regular little smart-aleck, you know that?” he said.

“How about if we move the TV into my room?” I said. “I’m going to have plenty of time now to watch it.”

“How about if I just kick your ass around the block a few times?” he said.

Copyright 2017 by Allen Kopp

Gulliver’s Travels ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Gulliver’s Travels ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift lived from 1667 to 1745. His most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels (complete title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) was first published in 1726. It’s an account, in four sections, of the seafaring adventures of one Lemuel Gulliver, ship’s surgeon, and his sometimes-bizarre adventures among the strange inhabitants of strange lands that nobody in Europe ever heard of or knew about. It’s always through misfortune that Gulliver has his adventures. First he is shipwrecked and finds himself in the land of Lilliput, where the people are about six inches (according to Gulliver’s measurement) tall. The tiny people don’t trust him, of course, because he is so big and might take it into his head to smash them to pieces. It takes many hundreds of them to tie him down, including by the hair of his head. Eventually they come to trust him, though, and let him roam freely. He falls out of favor with the King and Queen, though, because he puts out a fire in the tiny Queen’s chambers in the castle by urinating on it.

He returns home to his wife and children in England after his adventures in Lilliput, but he is a seafaring man and just can’t stay away from the sea. He is only home for a few months before he sets out again. This time misfortune brings him to Brobdingnag, a land where all the inhabitants are giants compared to him. He is kept as a pet or a curiosity in a “traveling box” and eventually ends up in the royal court, where he spends many hours conversing with the king in the king’s native language, which Gulliver quickly learns.  On a trip to the seaside, the box in which he is traveling is snatched up by an eagle and dropped into the sea, where Gulliver is rescued by sailors and returned to his native England.

On his next seafaring adventure, Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates; he is marooned and soon picked up by the “flying island” of Laputa. The people of Laputa aren’t overly big or small, but they are strange. They blindly pursue science without any practical results. They use great resources and manpower to research preposterous schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marbles for pillows, mixing paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons. After his sojourn in (or on) Laputa, Gulliver is awaiting passage to Japan when he visits the island of Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures, including Julius Caesar, Brutus, Homer, and Aristotle, among others. On the island of Luggnagg, he discovers the immortal race of people known as the struldbrugs. They don’t have the gift of eternal youth, though; they get old and stay old forever.

On his fourth and final adventure, Gulliver returns to sea as captain of a merchantman. His crew mutinies and keep him tied up below deck for weeks, after which they leave him on the first piece of land they come to and then continue as pirates. He comes across a race of hideous humanoid creatures, which he finds out later, are known as Yahoos. The Yahoos are filthy and savage, human beings in their basest form. We learn that Yahoos are merely what pass for people back home. This is Swift’s statement about the human race and his not-very-high opinion of it.

Soon he meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent talking horses. He finds them to be everything humans are not: kind, caring, thoughtful, considerate, selfless, and completely alien to the idea of lying, war and warfare. In short, they lack all the qualities that make human beings so odious.

Gulliver is treated well by the Houyhnhnms and comes to admire them among all creatures he has ever encountered. He comes to want to be like them and live as they do. Much to his dismay, however, an Assembly of Houyhnhnms decides that Gulliver, as a Yahoo, has too much reasoning ability for his own good and poses a threat to the Houyhnhnms. They expel him, even though he would like to live among them forever, and he thereby returns to England. He is unable to reconcile himself to living again among the Yahoos, even though he is one of them, and remains a recluse in his own home in England, avoiding his family and all other people, and spends his time in the company of his horses in the stable.

Gulliver’s Travels exists on several levels. It is a satire, a science fiction story, a fantasy, an adventure story, and a forerunner to the modern novel; strangely accessible and readable, almost three hundred years after its first publication. Jonathan Swift stated that one of his purposes in writing the story was to write it for all, the high-born and the low, and to vex the world rather than divert it. It became an instant classic upon its publication and a huge literary success.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp