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Chernobyl ~ A Capsule TV Review

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Chernobyl ~ A Capsule TV Review by Allen Kopp

On April 26, 1986, a nuclear power reactor exploded and melted down at Chernobyl, Ukraine, Soviet Union, releasing deadly radiation into the air that was detected the next day as far away as Sweden. It was an accident, as accidents very often are, that was never supposed to happen. The Soviet Union didn’t want the world to know about the accident and tried to cover it up—not only that it happened but that it was as bad as it was. Over time the toll on people, animals, crops, forests, and the environment would be incalculable.

HBO’s five-episode series, Chernobyl, is a grim dramatization of the explosion and meltdown and the events that followed, including the politics, the obfuscation, the lies, the temper tantrums, and the hunt for a scapegoat. It makes for great TV viewing, if you don’t mind seeing graphic human suffering. It’s more disturbing than any horror movie because it’s real-life horror instead of the product of a writer’s imagination. Sometimes you just have to look away (or fast-forward or mute), as, for me, when pets were being killed because they, as everything else, was contaminated with radiation.

Chernobyl has an authentic Soviet Union look and feel, instead of a slick Hollywood feel. Everything, down to the smallest detail (clothes, shoes, hairstyles, interior furnishings, etc.), looks absolutely authentic. Every character, no matter how small (the old woman milking the cow, for example) seems perfect for the time, the place and the situation. If you’re looking for something seriously good to watch on TV this summer, I don’t think you’ll do better than Chernobyl.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review

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1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American writer John Dos Passos wrote three novels in the 1930s that is really one extended novel of 1200 pages that came to be known as the trilogy U.S.A. The three installments of the U.S.A. trilogy are The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). U.S.A. is a saga of American life as seen through the eyes of some of its more ordinary everyday people: a sailor, a set designer, a stenographer, a marketing man, a college man, a labor activist, a pampered Texas belle, a mechanic, etc. Life for these characters is at times cynical, gritty, ugly, difficult, frightening, tiresome, worrisome, unglamorous, prosaic, confusing and confounding.

The Great War (“The War to End All Wars”) was the overlying event in American life in the late teens. Woodrow Wilson ran for (and won) the presidency in 1916 with the promise to keep America out of the European war, but it was drawn in eventually, anyway. In 1919, we see some of the characters who were introduced in The 42nd Parallel living in Paris in pursuit of the war effort. It seemed it was the thing to do for stylish young women to go to Paris and volunteer their services, more in the pursuit of glamor or having a good time or finding a suitable man than out of a sense of service to mankind.

Another important topic in the novel is socialism and the impending (it was believed) worldwide workers’ revolution. With the revolution in Russia in 1917 and then with the Great War, many people believed the stage was being set for the world (and the United States) to abandon capitalism and democracy and revert to a system of government for the people (the workers) and not for a few elites to accrue wealth. (Background information reveals that John Dos Passos was himself an ardent leftist.)

The U.S.A. trilogy is a landmark of American fiction, although it’s not what we might call a people pleaser or a bestseller. It’s accessible to the modern reader and well worth the time and effort to read it, but it doesn’t have a central character that we (the reader) might root for, and there is really no plot to speak of because the story moves around from one character and one situation to another. And, then, there are the Camera Eye and Newsreel sections, which are described as “experimental” (many people are put off, including me, by the word “experimental” when it’s applied to fiction). There’s plenty here of interest, though, especially if you are a student of literature or American fiction of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Euthanasia Clinic

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The Euthanasia Clinic ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The bus let me out at the bottom of a hill. I stood in the silence after the bus roared away and looked at the sign by the side of the road. An arrow on the sign pointed upward.

I began the ascent slowly, taking in the country view around me. It was spring and I couldn’t help noticing how blue the sky was, how vibrant the blues and yellows of the wildflowers. The tree-covered hills extended as far as the eye could see; there were birds everywhere, singing and zigzagging in the sky.

When I got to the place where I was going, I was out of breath and sweating. The young girl at the reception desk asked me if I needed assistance and when I said I didn’t she asked my name. She checked it against a list and then smiled and told me I could move on to admissions, down the hall on the left.

Another woman greeted me in admissions. After I told her my name, she asked me if I had any valuables or money. I gave her my watch and wallet containing two worthless dollars. “You can do whatever you want with them,” I said.

In exchange for my worthless valuables, she gave me a pair of loose-fitting pajamas with a matching robe and told me to go into a little room and put them on, putting all the clothes I was wearing into a basket on the table. When I came out, she led me down the hall and up a couple of flights of stairs, apologizing for the elevator being out of order. She took me through a door marked RECEIVING, told me somebody would be with me shortly, and left.

The room was nearly empty except for a couple of chairs and a low cabinet with a TV on top, tuned to the news from the city. I went to the window and looked out to keep from having to look at the TV, when a thin, tired-looking woman came in wearing a white coat like a doctor and I turned around to face her. The name tag on the white coat said her name was Margaret.

“I want to hear this!” she said, going to the TV and turning up the volume.

The pictures were of rioters turning over cars, hurling bricks through windows, setting fire to anything that would burn. Absolute chaos.

“I just came from there,” I said.

“I’m worried about my son,” she said. “He’s still in the city. I’ve tried calling him but the phones are dead.”

“I’m sure he’s safe,” I said.

“He was going to come here so I could administer the end drugs for him.”

“The buses are still running. He’ll probably be here any minute.”

“Any time someone comes in, I look to see if it’s him.”

“Have faith.”

“If I couldn’t administer the end drugs for him, I wanted to at least give him Father Time.”

“What’s Father Time?”

“The do-it-yourself end pill.”

“Why haven’t I ever heard of it?”

“There are only a few left. People in the city were killing each other for them up until a few days ago.”

“Ironic, isn’t it?” I said. “People killing each other for a pill that will kill them. ‘What fools these mortals be’.”

“The world has been off the rails for a long time now,” she said.

“I think we’re getting what we deserve,” I said.

“We?”

“The human race.”

She began crying. She took a handkerchief out of her pocket and covered her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That wasn’t a very appropriate thing to say.”

“It’s all right,” she said, trying to smile. “Most of the time I’m resigned until I think about him being all alone in the city and I’m here.”

“Maybe he’s not alone. Maybe he’s with friends.”

“He isn’t able to get around very well. He has an artificial leg.”

“Oh.”

“The last time we spoke he promised he’d come here to me for the end. He’s all I have left now.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-one, but I still think of him as a child.”

“What’s his name?”

“Christopher.”

“Bearer of Christ,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s right. His father wanted him to have that name.”

“All my family died in the Final War,” I said. “So you can see I have no reason to want to go on.”

“A lot of other people share that sentiment.”

“Yes, I’ll have lots of company when I get to the other side.”

“I think we’d better get on with it,” she said. “Are we ready to proceed?”

More than ready.”

“I’m going to give you a shot to calm you down.”

“I’m already calm.”

“It’s just procedure. We do it for everybody.”

“Okay.”

“Then, after the shot I’ll take you upstairs and you’ll get into bed and get comfortable. Then I’ll hook you up to the machines and after a few minutes all your troubles will go flying out the window.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Only a feeling of euphoria, I promise.”

“Will I see the face of God?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“What about afterwards?”

“Afterwards?”

“My dead body?”

“You don’t need to worry about that.”

“I’m not worried. Just curious.”

“You’d be surprised at how many people ask that question,” she said. “We’re not supposed to say anything that will make you anxious in your final moments. Professional ethics.”

“The body isn’t important anyway,” I said. “When we die, it’s an empty shell that we cast off. What matters is the soul.”

“Each to his own beliefs,” she said.

“You don’t believe in the soul?”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” she said. “I’m here to help you.”

“When I was young, I was afraid of death.”

“You’re still young.”

“Now that I’m faced with it, I feel almost happy.”

“That’s the start of the euphoria.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette on you, would you?” I asked. “Before we get on with it?”

“No smoking in here.”

At that we both had a good laugh. She went to the cabinet and opened one of the drawers and took out a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches and handed them to me.

“If there was ever a time to relax the rules,” I said, “it’s now.”

I lit up and took a big puff and drew the smoke down into my lungs. “I was always afraid of smoking,” I said. “Afraid of what it would do to my body. That seems kind of silly now, doesn’t it?”

“We’re afraid of dying only when we think we never will.”

“It’s been good to talk to you,” I said. “I haven’t had a chance to have a real conversation with anybody for a long time.”

“I’m not much of a conversationalist,” she said. She took my cigarette and took a couple of puffs on it and crushed it out in the trash can. “Are you ready for the shot now?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I was just thinking.”

“Time to stop thinking.”

“No, I don’t mean I was thinking about dying. The buses are still running, at least for today. I was thinking I could go back to the city and get your son and bring him back here.”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask. I’m volunteering.”

“It’s too risky. I don’t think you’d make it back. I wouldn’t put you through that.”

“If I find him and if we aren’t able to get back out here to the clinic, I can take him a little gift from his mother.”

“Father Time?”

“Yes, and there’ll be one for me, too, I hope.”

“No, it’s too dangerous,” she said. “If people knew you were traveling with Father Time, they’d kill you to get it.”

“Nobody will know.”

“No, I don’t want you to…”

“Look, I’m going to die anyway. If not today, then tomorrow or the next day. I figure it doesn’t make any difference if I die here or in the city. This is my last chance to do a good thing. It might square me in heaven.”

“I wouldn’t want to be responsible for…”

“Then it’s settled?”

“Well…”

“I’ll bring Christopher back here if I can, if the buses are still running, but if I can’t he and I will die together. He won’t die alone.”

She started crying again, uncontrollably this time. Sobbing, she went out of the room and closed the door. She returned a few minutes later bearing a small envelope and my clothes I had put in the basket.

“Get dressed,” she said. “Put the envelope in your pocket. Father Time is in it, one for Christopher and one for you.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Here’s a small picture of him to give you an idea of what he looks like. It was taken when he was eighteen, but he hasn’t changed much since then. On the back I’ve written his address in the city.”

“Seems you’ve thought of everything.”

“Bring him back here if you can, but if you can’t you’ll know what to do. Tell him his mother is here, still alive, and thinking of him at the end.”

“Leave it to me.”

She turned away while I threw off the pajamas and got into my clothes. She gave me the pack of cigarettes and the matches, a bottle of water, and a couple of energy bars.

“Do what you can,” she said, patting me on the upper arm. “I’m not expecting any miracles.”

I went down the stairs and out the building without meeting anyone.

I jounced down the hill in half the time it took to go up. A few clouds had gathered in the sky and the air was cooler now, but the sun was still brightly shining.

I figured it was a waste of time to wait for the bus, which might be along but probably wouldn’t, so I began walking in the direction of the city. I wouldn’t think about how far it was but only about each step as I took it. If I laid down in a ditch along the road and died, I would have at least tried.

The world was beautiful, nature was thriving, and man was in his death throes. God’s million-year experiment with the human race was about to end. Soon the world would be given over entirely to other living creatures, as it had been for tens of millions of years before man came onto the scene. Maybe the human race would continue on other planets—there was all kinds of speculation on that subject—but for now, at least, humans on Earth were finished.

We had been told two days ago that everybody would be dead in a week, but when I got the city, I began to think it was happening sooner than expected. I saw few people and those I saw looked and acted like frightened animals. They were confused, looking for food or a place to hide out. It seemed I had nothing to fear from any of them; they didn’t approach me or even look at me.

The city was almost unrecognizable. Large sections of it had been burned and torn asunder in the rioting. Stores and businesses had been not only looted but ripped apart and burned. Bodies in various stages of decay lay everywhere. Cars had been smashed into each other and set on fire. A noxious stench mixed with thick smoked hung over everything and darkened the sun. It was a scene that I might have imagined out of hell.

I was tired from my long walk and found a place out of the way to sit down and rest. I was surprised I was still able to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I took some small sips of the water I had and was glad I had it. Food was a distant memory; I hadn’t eaten in so long I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to eat again.

After I felt at least partially rested, I took the picture of Christopher out of my pocket and studied it so I would recognize him if I saw him and then I turned the picture over and memorized the address on the back. From what I remembered of that part of the city, the address was ten or twelve blocks from where I was. It was going to be another long walk and I had no way of knowing if I would ever make it.

I walked for an hour or more and saw no signs of anything I knew. Buildings I had known or at least seen had been burned or lay in ruins. In places the streets were impassable and I found myself climbing over mountains of bricks and debris. I saw an occasional foot or arm sticking out, but I just looked away and went on. The few people I met moved slowly and dream-like; they seemed to pose no threat but if they challenged me I was more than ready to defend myself to the death.

Finally—quite by accident, it seemed—I found the street I was looking for and once I found the street, I found the number easily enough. It was a four-story brick apartment building. Some of the windows had been broken out and the side of the building was caved in as if it had been rammed by a tank, but the building still stood while many others were only piles of rubble.

The door to the building was blown off its hinges so I went inside as if I belonged there, quickly before somebody saw me and tried to stop me. I found my way down a dark, filthy hallway to a flight of stairs and I began going up them to the fourth floor. I found the door with the number I was looking for, amazed that I had made it this far. I knocked loudly and put my ear to the door.

I heard a faint rustle coming from inside and I knew somebody had heard my knock.

“Is anybody there?” I said.

“Go away,” came the voice from inside. “I have a gun and I don’t mind blowing your fucking head off.”

“Christopher?” I said.

“Who is it?”

“My name doesn’t mean anything to you. I just spoke with your mother.”

“My mother’s dead.”

“No, she’s not. I just saw her.”

“You just want to rob and torture me.”

“No, I don’t. Can you open the door? I have something I want to show you.”

He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and I held up the picture of him his mother had given me with his address written on the back.

“Where did you get that?” he asked.

“I just told you. I saw your mother at the clinic where she works.”

“I don’t believe you. It’s a trick.”

“Why would I want to trick you?”

“Why does anybody do anything?” he said.

“Could you open the door all the way and let me come in?”

“Do you have a gun or a knife?”

“No. No weapons of any kind.”

“I don’t mind killing you if I have to,” he said.

“So you said.”

He unfastened the chain and opened the door and I went inside. He was indeed the same person as the one in the picture. He had a crowbar in his hand instead of a gun. As soon as he take one step, I saw how debilitated he was with his artificial leg.

“I walked from the clinic,” I said. “I’ve been walking for hours to try to find you.”

“Why would you want to find me?”

“Your mother was worried about you. She thought you were coming to the clinic so she could give you the end drugs, but you never showed up.”

“Somebody on the street told me the clinic had been raided and everybody killed.”

“That’s not true. I just came from there.”

He insisted I turn out my pockets so he could see what was in them. When he decided I posed no threat, he put down the crowbar and relaxed.

“Are you a friend of my mother’s?”

“I never met her until today.”

“Why would you want to help us?”

“Why does anybody do anything?”

I sat down heavily in the nearest chair without being asked. I wasn’t able to stand on my feet any longer or take another step. He got me a cup of water and I took the envelope out of my pocket and tore it open and held the two of Father Time in my palm and then laid them side by side on the table where he could see them.

“What is that?” he asked.

“The way out of hell,” I said.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Dirty Parts of the Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Dirty Parts of the Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The time is 1936. Tobias Henry is twenty years old, but sometimes he acts like he’s twelve or thirteen. He’s a Baptist preacher’s son from Michigan who has led an altogether sheltered life. (His one goal in life is to have sexual intercourse with a girl before the “Rapture.”) While Tobias’s pious father spouts scripture whenever it suits him, he skillfully avoids mention of the “dirty parts of the Bible,” namely The Song of Solomon, where breasts are openly and frequently discussed.

When Tobias’s father gets drunk and smashes his car into the church, the Baptists decide they no longer want him to be their preacher. They give him his walking papers; he has sixty days to clear out. The Henry family is about to become destitute. Wait one damn minute, though! Tobias’s father hid a bag of money—a lot of money—in a well in Texas some twenty years earlier. He draws a map where he left the money. If Tobias can go on his own to Texas and find the money and bring it back, the family will be saved.

Right away, Tobias’s trip to Texas doesn’t go as planned. He ends up in a whorehouse in St. Louis, where he has a not-very-pleasant encounter (not a sexual one) with a jaded whore, whose only interest is in stealing Tobias’s money. From that point on, things only get worse. He loses his suitcase, along with the map to find the money, and ends up living the life of a hobo, living in a “Hooverville,” eating “Hoover steaks” (sardines), and riding the rails in boxcars. An old, philosophical hobo with a hook for a hand, named Cornelius McCraw (“Craw” for short), becomes his mentor and protector and teaches him some of the tricks of survival, such as how to catch a catfish when you’re starving and how to run from the law.

Eventually Tobias and Craw make it to Texas and the home of Tobias’s uncle and aunt. The uncle gives them a place to stay and puts them to work but won’t allow Craw into the house because he’s a black man. Tobias meets Sarah, a strange girl who believes (and everybody else believes it, too) that she is under an ancient Indian curse that makes her boyfriends die young.

In a roundabout way, Tobias finds his way to the lost money in the well, but it’s not the lifesaver his family hoped it would be. There’s money forthcoming, however, from another, unexpected source that will keep the Henry family from ending up on the poor farm. More importantly, Tobias discovers love—and sex—with the Texas girl Sarah. “Where did you learn to swear?” Sarah asks Tobias. “From my mother,” he says. “I can’t wait to meet her,” Sarah says.

The Dirty Parts of the Bible, by a writer named Sam Torode, is a too-cute, coming-of-age story with a simplistic plot and predictable characters. What I’m saying is, there’s not much depth here, although it is well written and engaging. It’s light summer reading if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s pleasant, fast, easy reading that will not require you to use your brain. Try not to roll your eyes too much while you’re reading it.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Yellow Bird

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Yellow Bird ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Lonnie awoke to the smell of cooking food. When he got out of bed and went into the kitchen, mother turned from the stove and smiled at him. She was wearing her red silk dress with the white buttons instead of the usual old chenille bathrobe.

“Sit down and have some bacon and eggs,” she said.

“Why are you so dressed up?” he asked.

“Eat your breakfast while it’s hot.”

While he ate, she sat across from him and drank coffee and smoked her cigarettes.

“What are you going to do today?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Read comics and watch some TV, I guess.”

“Don’t you think you should get outside and get some exercise and fresh air?”

“I might ride my bike to the park.”

“Don’t you have anybody to go with?” she said. “Isn’t it more fun with friends?”

“Sure. Is anything wrong? You’re acting funny.”

“We need to have a little talk.”

“What about?”

“Do you remember my friend Tony? You met him once when we were having lunch downtown.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

She looked down at her hand holding the cigarette. “Well, he and I are going away together this morning. He’s coming by to pick me up.”

“Going away? What do you mean, going away? Where are you going?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Will you be back in time for supper?”

“No.”

“Does father know?”

“I wrote him a letter. He’ll read it when he gets home from work.”

He looked at her searchingly, as if her face might reveal something her voice wasn’t saying.

“So, when will you be back? Next week sometime?”

“I don’t think so, honey.”

“Why not?”

“I think it’s time for father and me to go our separate ways. I’m going to file for divorce so I can marry Tony.”

“Can’t I go with you?”

“Father and I discussed it and we decided it would be better for you to go on living here. Father wants you to stay with him.”

“I’d rather be with you, though.”

“Don’t you want to keep going to the same school you’ve gone to since kindergarten?”

“I don’t care if I go to school or not.”

She laughed and flattened her cigarette out in the ashtray. “You don’t mean that,” she said.

“Yes, I do.”

“Now, I need you to be a good boy and not a difficult boy. This is hard enough as it is.”

“But why can’t I go with you, wherever you’re going?”

“See, that’s the thing. Tony and I are going to be unsettled for a while. I don’t know where I’ll be while I’m waiting for my divorce.”

“Can’t you stay here while you’re waiting for your divorce?”

“It doesn’t work that way, honey. One of us has to leave and it has to be me.”

“Is it something I did?”

“Of course not! I don’t ever want you to think that.”

“Is it something father did?”

“No, it isn’t anything father did, either. It’s grownup stuff. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to you if I could. When you’re older, you’ll understand better.”

“But why Tony?”

“Because I love him and I believe he loves me. He’s the man I should have married in the first place.”

“Then why did you marry father?”

“I was young and I didn’t know him very well.”

“So, is that what grownup people normally do?”

In a little while there was a honk out front. Mother went into the bedroom and came out carrying her suitcase and the jacket that went with the red dress.

“I want you to come out on the porch and see me off,” she said, taking Lonnie by the hand.

Tony had parked his shiny blue car at the curb. When he saw mother and Lonnie come out of the house, he got out of his car and smiled and waved. He was wearing a coat and tie like church. He stood beside the car smiling, looking like a picture in a movie magazine.

Mother let go of Lonnie’s hand on the porch and bent over so that her face was close to his. She didn’t have to bend very far because he was almost as tall as she was.

“Everything will be all right,” she said with what she thought was a reassuring smile. “I just need to get away.”

“But for how long?” he asked. He was about to cry but didn’t want to with Tony looking on.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“When will I see you again?”

“I don’t know that, either. I’ll call you just as soon as we get to where we’re going and we can talk on the phone. I’ll know more then.”

He nodded his head and looked away.

She opened her purse and took out some money and put it in his fist. “Here’s a little mad money,” she said. “Buy yourself something special. Something impractical.”

She laughed for no special reason then and gave Lonnie a kiss on the cheek and held him for a few seconds in a squeeze and when she let go of him she ran to Tony like a schoolgirl.

On any other day, Lonnie would love having the house to himself, but with mother leaving unexpectedly it felt lonely and empty. He tried watching TV but wasn’t used to watching during the daytime and wasn’t interested in any of the shows that were on, so he took mother’s advice and rode his bike to the park.

He saw some people he knew but didn’t speak to them; he didn’t want to have to talk to anybody. He went to the most secluded part of the park near the war memorial and sat under a tree. It was so quiet and breezy that he almost went to sleep and ants started crawling on him, so he got up and went back home.

He hoped mother would somehow be there, having changed her mind and forcing Tony to bring her back, but everything was just as he left it. He ate some leftover fried chicken for lunch and wondered how to spend the rest of the day.

When father came home from work at the usual time, he found the letter from mother on the kitchen table. He unfolded the letter and pulled out a chair and sat down and read it.

“Did she tell you about this?” father asked Lonnie.

“A little,” Lonnie said. He shrugged and opened the refrigerator door to see what they would have for supper.

“Did you see what’s-his-name?”

“You mean Tony? Yeah, I saw him.”

“I have grounds for divorce now,” father said. “She ran off with her lover.”

“She said she’d call.”

“I don’t know what to think about a mother who abandons her only child.”

“It’s all right with me,” Lonnie said, “if it’s what she wants.”

“When she calls, tell her I’m going to see a lawyer to start divorce proceedings.”

“I think that’s what she wants, anyway.”

“I hope she rots in hell.”

In August for his fourteenth birthday, Lonnie received a large bird cage with a yellow parakeet inside, delivered by a white truck that pulled up out in front of the house with a screech of brakes. It was a most unusual and unexpected gift. Mother wrote on the card: Thought you could use a pet. Much love, as always.

He didn’t know how to take care of a parakeet so he walked downtown and bought a book on the subject and a couple of different kinds of birdseed that the woman in the store said any bird would like. If he won’t eat none of it, the woman said, bring it back and we’ll try something else.

In the attic was an old birdcage stand with a hook. Lonnie had seen it before but never knew what it was for. He was surprised somebody hadn’t thrown it out long ago, but he was glad now they didn’t. Everything eventually has its purpose if you wait long enough.

He named the bird Toppy. It didn’t mean anything; it just seemed like a good name for a bird. Toppy hopped around inside his cage, sang little musical trills, drank water, ate birdseed and pooped aplenty. He seemed happy enough.

Lonnie hoped every day that mother would come home, but he knew it was an unrealistic hope. In the real world, mothers didn’t return home after running off with another man. It didn’t even happen in the movies.

Everybody thought father would get married again after the divorce, but he liked being single, he said. When marriage-minded ladies called to invite him over for a home-cooked Sunday dinner, he told Lonnie to tell them he was in Moscow or in the hospital for a lung operation.

He got an old woman, a Mrs. Farinelli, to come in two or three days a week and clean the bathroom and the kitchen, wash the clothes, shop, and usually cook a little food. She had a son on death row in prison and another son who was a priest. He paid her money in cash so she wouldn’t have to pay income tax on it. She was neat and quiet and never complained.

Mother called Lonnie a couple of different times when she knew father was still at work. When Lonnie asked where she was, she said they were still moving around, still unsettled. She sounded distant, preoccupied, not the mother he remembered. He believed at last that she didn’t care for him and was trying to phase him out of her life because she had a whole new life now.

Summer ended and Lonnie started ninth grade. He mostly didn’t like school—he never had from the very beginning—but he knew he had to make decent grades and get through to the end; there was no other choice anymore. Only dopes and losers quit high school.

A couple of times, on his way to and from school, he thought he saw mother in passing cars, but he knew later it couldn’t have been her. She would have at least waved to him.

On Christmas and birthdays, he always received cards from her with money in them. He couldn’t send a card to her in return because he didn’t have her address, but he knew that’s the way she wanted it.

As the months and years went by, he stopped thinking so much about her. He stopped thinking long ago that she would return and father would forgive her and everything would be just as it was.

Lonnie and father never had much to say to each other. They had occasional arguments and disagreements but for the most part they stayed out of each other’s way and got along as well as any father and son living alone in a house had a right to.

Toppy lived inside his cage and thrived and seemed happy. Lonnie sometimes felt sorry for him because he lived in such a small space and didn’t have the company of other birds. He thought about opening the window and letting him fly away, but he knew the world would be too much for Toppy and he wouldn’t survive on his own for very long.

Lonnie came to the end of high school and was glad for that that phase of his life to be over. Father dressed up in his one blue suit and came to the graduation ceremony by himself and sat toward the back of the auditorium surrounded by strangers. Lonnie thought several times about mother and wished she could be there to see him get his diploma.

He didn’t care to go on to college, at least not right away; he had had enough of school for a while. He thought vaguely that one day he would get married and have children of his own, but he was in no hurry and didn’t much care one way or another. He didn’t like the idea of having a marriage that would one day end in divorce.

A few weeks after graduation, he got a job in a hardware and paint store. He didn’t like it very much, but he got used to it and after a year or so he got a promotion and a raise in pay. He moved into sales and found it more to his liking than working at a counter and answering questions from customers.

As for mother, Lonnie didn’t hear from her again after the card he received on his nineteenth birthday. He didn’t know where she lived or if she was alive or dead. The best thing he could do, he told himself, was to stop thinking and wondering about her.

The years went by and Lonnie found himself at age twenty-one. He still lived with father in the house he grew up in. He went to work every day, as did father, and the two of them went their separate ways and lived their separate lives.

On a Friday morning in October father collapsed soon after arriving at work. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died two hours later. He had an enlarged heart and had smoked cigarettes, a lot of them, since he was thirteen. He was forty-seven.

The funeral was well-attended, despite a steady downpour. Relations of father’s that Lonnie had never seen before came from out of town, with stories of father when he was a child. The company father worked for sent an impressive arrangement of flowers. Father’s boss and a couple of his coworkers came and introduced themselves to Lonnie, slapped him on the shoulder, expressed their condolences, and told him what a great guy father was.

At the gravesite the rain kept up. Lonnie wore a raincoat and an old man’s hat he found in the closet and used a borrowed umbrella to keep himself dry. The minister droned a few words and the casket began its slow descent into the earth, indicating that the service was concluded it was time for everybody to go home.

As the crowd was dispersing and Lonnie was about to make his getaway, a woman emerged from the crowd and approached him. She was wearing a long coat, dark glasses, and a scarf wound around her head like a refugee. It wasn’t until she came toward him, stopped and smiled that he knew it was mother.

“You’re all grown up now,” she said.

He looked at her, feeling almost nothing. He brought the umbrella down in front of his face to keep her from looking at him, sidestepped, and sprinted for his car as fast as he could before she had a chance to come after him.

At home, he felt a tremendous sense of relief now that the funeral was over and all those people had gone away. He was truly alone now, for the first time in his life, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with himself. The house was his now and there would be some insurance money after the funeral expenses were paid. He was a family of one, a free agent. He might never return to his job at the paint and wallpaper store.

He went into his bedroom and closed the door and took Toppy out his cage and lay on his back on the bed, holding the bird on his chest. Toppy tried his wings a couple of times as if confused at being out of the cage and then settled down and nestled on Lonnie’s sternum contentedly. His little eyes blinked and he looked with what seemed like comprehension right into the eyes of the only human person he had ever known.

“Don’t ever leave me,” Lonnie said. “Please don’t ever leave me.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Overstory ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Overstory ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory, is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s a big novel, 500 dense pages, that took me almost three weeks to read. It’s a big story about big ideas. People don’t matter much where big ideas are concerned. You see, the earth has grown too overcrowded. The earth has to sustain seven billion (and counting) people. Trees are something that most people don’t ever think about. Trees play an important part in keeping the world functioning the way it’s supposed to. They replenish the air we breathe. Their roots keep the soil from coming apart. They provide food and medicine. Birds and small animals live in trees and rely on them for their livelihood. Trees are beautiful and capable of inspiring awe in insignificant humans—that is, those humans who are able to put aside their cell phones long enough to pay attention.

The world’s forests are dwindling at an alarming rate. The human race is an insatiable beast that must be fed. People must be kept happy and comfortable, oftentimes at the expense of the earth’s resources. People don’t seem to be aware of what’s going on, or, if they are aware, they don’t much care. Many species of trees in the world are extinct and more are becoming extinct every year. A few dedicated souls are establishing seed banks where seeds can be stored and replanted at a later time but, if the human race is dead, who is going to plant the seeds? Aliens from outer space?

All the characters in The Overstory come to see the importance and significance of trees, each in his or her own way and in ways that most people don’t ever imagine. Nick is a lonely Iowa boy-man. He’s a sketch artist who sketches trees. His legacy is a gigantic and unusual tree that graced his family farm for generations. His life lacks meaning until one day Olivia comes along and changes it for him. She’s a self-absorbed college girl, a self-described “bitch,” who is electrocuted in her room at school and brought back to life. After she is revived, she hears “voices” that tell her to travel across the country to California because ancient trees there are being sacrificed to “progress.” Armed with nothing but their “cause,” Olivia and Nick set out across the country to California, where they become “environmental activists.” They “tree sit” in a California redwood that is marked for destruction; it’s a thousand years old and hundreds of feet high. The idea is that the tree can’t be cut down while people are living in it. Nick and Olivia live in the tree for almost a year until they are forced out and the tree is cut down. The lesson here is simple: When you fight the law, the law always wins. From being an “environmental activist,” it isn’t a very large step to being an “environmental terrorist.” Nick and Olivia make the step easily enough, along with others.

There are also other interesting and compelling characters in The Overstory. Dr. Patricia Westerford is a tree scientist. If anybody in the novel can be called the “lone voice in the wilderness,” it is her. She advances the theory that trees communicate with each other, help each other, know how to heal themselves, and know when they are going to die. She sounds the alarm about the number of species of trees that are vanishing, but most people are not willing to listen. These environmental people are very passionate, willing to give up everything they have, to die, even, for their cause.

Neelay Mehta is an Indian-American who, from an early age, is a computer whiz. As a high school student, he falls out of a tree he is climbing and breaks his back. From that point on, he is a paraplegic. His stunted body doesn’t keep him from achieving success, however. He starts a software computer company that makes wildly successful computer games. Despite his wealth and success, happiness eludes him. He wants always to create bigger and better programs that mirror the diversity and complexity of life on earth. In this way, he is God in miniature.

The Overstory is long, involved, and mostly involving. Reading it through to the end takes a considerable amount of time and effort but, despite its environmental subject matter, it never seems preachy, condescending, or pretentious. As long as it is, it’s not difficult to grasp for the, let us say, casual or unscientific reader. I would never have read it if it hadn’t won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m glad now that I did. I learned some things and it opened my eyes on the subject of trees and forests and the few people who will do anything, go to any lengths, to protect and preserve them.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Sleep Now, Child

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Sleep Now, Child ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

Ottilie Oglesby, upon awaking and finding herself in an unfamiliar place, took a deep, choking breath as she sat up and looked around in alarm. She began to panic but then calmed herself with the knowledge that there had to be a perfectly logical explanation for where she was and what she was doing there, and in just a moment everything would become clear. A little shakily, she called out Hello! Hello! When nobody answered, she said it again, a little louder this time.

An old woman appeared, as if she had vaporized out of the wall. Ottilie had never seen the woman before, but it didn’t matter because she was happy to see that, at the very least, somebody else was there besides her. Astonishingly, the old woman had a glow emanating from inside her, in the area of her lower chest and upper abdomen. Ottilie stared at it, unable to take her eyes off it.

“What in the world?” she said. “You’re glowing! I’ve never seen a person glow before.”

“You’re glowing, too,” the old woman said.

Ottilie looked down and, indeed, she glowed from inside her own chest as if she had a small light inside her body and she was made of some transparent material.

“What is this?” she said. “Where am I?”

“Do you know what year it is?” the old woman asked.

“It’s 1912, I think.”

“For you it will always be 1912.”

“What do you mean?”

“Time has stopped for you. There is no more time.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You must at least have given some thought in your life to what happens to us after we die.”

“Die? Do you mean…” She was unable to finish the sentence.

“It’s always a shock, especially for the young who had no thought of dying.”

“But I can’t be dead,” Ottilie said. “I have things to do. I promised mother I’d clean out my closet. I have to go to school. I have to take care of my cats. I have a Sunday school picnic on Saturday.”

“The picnic will go on without you. That’s what happens when we die.”

“I don’t believe you. I think I’m just having a bad dream. In a little while I’ll wake up and everything will be fine.”

“No, my dear. This may be a dream, but it’s not the kind of dream you’re used to or one you wake up from.”

“Who are you, anyway?”

“I’m your father’s grandmama. That makes me your great-grandmama.”

“I thought you looked a little familiar. I’ve seen pictures of you.”

“I died long before you were born.”

“What happened to you? How did you die?”

“I have no recollection of my death and it doesn’t matter anyway. I believe I died peacefully in my own bed.”

“Did I die peacefully in my own bed?” Ottilie asked.

“No, you didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you’re here now.”

“I’ve got to go home now. My mother and father will be worried about me. They’ll think I was kidnapped and sold into slavery.”

“They know where you are. They know what happened.”

“How do they know?”

“They were there when it happened.”

“When what happened?”

“When you died.”

How did I die?”

“You were run over by a pie wagon in Philadelphia. How should I know? It doesn’t matter how you died. The only thing that matters is that you died and you’re here now.”

“Can you tell me how to get out of here and go home?”

“Even if I could tell you, you wouldn’t want to do it because you’re here now and here is where you belong.”

Ottilie looked around her at the confining walls that she could see only because of the glow inside her chest, and she began to cry. “Do you mean I can’t go home. Ever? I have to stay here now? Always?”

“You’ll get used to it as all the others have.”

“What others? Just what is this place, anyway? Is it heaven?”

“It might be. We don’t know for sure. It might be the only thing we’ll ever know of heaven.”

“I’m awfully confused,” Ottilie said.

“I’ll bet your father used to take you and your brother and your mother for Sunday drives, didn’t he?”

“He was the first one on our street to own an automobile and he always wanted to show it off for the neighbors.”

“Did he ever take you to the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost outside the city limits and show you the family vault?”

“The family vault? Yes, I remembering seeing it. I thought it was scary and forbidding. It had a big heavy door that wouldn’t open.”

“That’s where you are now.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“It’s where all the deceased members of our family go. First all the others and now you.”

Ottilie began crying again. “Can’t I go back home, just for a little while? I want to see my cats and make sure they’re all right.”

“Your brother is taking care of them now.”

“I didn’t get a chance to tell everybody goodbye.”

“Everybody you knew came to bid you a fond farewell. You weren’t aware of it at the time.”

Ottilie cried some more, even louder than before. “I find my own death very heartbreaking, indeed,” she sobbed.

“Sleep now, child. You’ll meet the others later.”

There was a lapse then, a cessation, as of a heavy velvet curtain being drawn. When this nothingness ended (and who knows how long it lasted because in this place there is no time?) great-grandmama was leading Ottilie by the hand to meet the rest of the family.

She felt shy when brought before a gallery of strangers. She was not at all surprised, however, to see that they all carried the mysterious and arresting glow inside them, the same glow that great-grandmama had and now she herself had.

Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they entered the spirit world, having gone over a roaring waterfall in a rowboat on a flawless June day. They looked at Ottilie with wide-eyed wonder; each of them gave her a quick, unsmiling bow from the waist and then they were gone.

Great-grandpapa was tall and broad, wearing a dress suit, sporting the elaborate mustache and side whiskers for which he was known. He was the millionaire of the family. He financed the family crypt and selected the spot in the capacious cemetery where it would be built. He was not the first member of the family to be interred in the crypt, however. That honor fell to grandmama.

When confronted with Ottilie, great-grandpapa put his pince-nez to his eye and looked at her as though seeing a bug or an interesting specimen.

“How are you, my dear?” he asked.

“I’m dead, thank you, sir,” she said. “How are you?”

Uncle Evan, great-grandpapa’s son, was handsome in military uniform. He was only twenty-five when he came to the spirit world during the Spanish-American War. He carried himself a little stiffly because he had been shot in the neck and his wound still bothered him. He shook Ottilie’s hand politely, gave her a grim smile, and receded into the background as his military training dictated.

Aunt Katherine was a sad-faced woman carrying her baby. The baby was Augustus, in the spirit world forty years before aunt Katherine. Since being reunited, aunt Katherine and Augustus were inseparable; she wouldn’t let him out of her sight and wouldn’t let anybody else tend to him. She carried him with her night and day, wherever she went, vowing they would never be separated again, since they were now both on the same side of the Great Divide.

A formidable woman was aunt Zel, great-grandpapa’s sister. She had an elaborate coiffure piled high on her head and a stunning array of jewelry on her neck, fingers, ears and wrists. By her side always was her diminutive husband, Little Louie. He weighed a hundred and twenty pounds when he was alive and was eight inches shorter than aunt Zel. He had only his right arm, having lost the left one at the age of eight from the bite of a skunk.

“So happy to make your acquaintance, my dear,” aunt Zel said to Ottilie. “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.”

Little Louie, in aunt Zel’s wake, shook Ottilie’s fingers and gave her an aggrieved smile.

Uncle Jordan wore a dress suit with a diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Ottilie on each cheek and then he was gone as if he had a pressing engagement elsewhere. The truth was that he avoided being around the other family members for long because none of them approved of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent money freely that didn’t belong to him and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.

Cousin Phillip’s appendix burst when he was thirty-two. Immediately after he entered the spirit world, his young wife, Odette, married a man she hardly knew by the name of Milt Clausen. Odette was not in the family crypt and never would be; she could rot on a garbage heap for all cousin Phillip cared. He had renounced all women for all eternity, bitter that his lovely young Odette had not honored his memory by staying a widow.

“If you were a boy instead of a girl, I’d advise you to never get married,” cousin Phillip said to Ottilie.

“I don’t think it would make much difference now, anyway,” Ottilie said.

Cousin Gilbert was sixteen when he entered the spirit world as a result of a crushed larynx sustained in an impromptu game of tackle football with some of his friends. Ottilie immediately saw cousin Gilbert as a kindred spirit. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s and, indeed, extended upwards to his neck, face and head. His smile was infectious and he seemed all the time to be about to burst into laughter. When he touched Ottilie’s hand, she felt a connection she hadn’t felt with any of the others.

“How do you like being a ghost?” he asked her.

She shook her head and looked down, not knowing what to say.

“It was the same for me when I first came here,” he said. “I didn’t know why God would have me die so young. We learn not to ask why but just to accept things as they are.”

“I don’t like it here and I want to go home,” she said with tears starting again, but she wasn’t sure if cousin Gilbert heard her.

Before moving on, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I can show you around if you like. There’s a lot more than just this.” He held out his arms to take in the whole family crypt.

“If you find you have the time,” she managed to say, “I think that would be lovely.”

There were others after cousin Gilbert, but the truth was they blended together into a blur and Odette wasn’t able to remember them all.

When next she saw cousin Gilbert, he showed her, much to her delight, that she could leave the family crypt at will (hers and not somebody else’s). All she had to do was press her body against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it. He tried to explain the laws of physics involved, but she didn’t understand what he was talking about.

The cemetery was much larger than Ottilie imagined. Gilbert took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a tall, handsome policeman with a handlebar mustache who loved to tell stories about the bravery involved with apprehending desperate criminals; a Civil War soldier who shook hands with Abraham Lincoln and spent ten minutes engaged in conversation with him; a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept away everything in its path”); a governor of the state who once ran for president but fell short; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire (all buried in the same grave); a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his massive vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.

“He loves to have somebody to talk to,” cousin Gilbert explained.

On one of their forays outside the crypt, they came upon a funeral on a hillside that resembled, with all the attendees dressed in black, an aggregation of crows.

“This is the fun part,” Gilbert said.

He walked among the mourners, pretending to kiss or touch or put his arm around certain of them. He also demonstrated the technique of coming up quickly behind them and making the more sensitive of them turn around to see who—or what—was there.

“They sense I’m there but when they turn around they’re not so sure.”

He made her laugh when he floated over a couple of old ladies in large feathered hats and, assuming a reclining position over them, pretended to pat them on the sides of their heads.

“I, for one, love being a ghost!” he said.

“Can I fly, too?” Ottilie asked.

“We don’t really fly like a duck going south for the winter. What we do is float. We float because we’re lighter than air.”

“Can I try it?” Ottilie asked.

“You can do anything you want, now,” he said.

He demonstrated his floating technique and they spent the afternoon floating all over the cemetery.

“Maybe there are some good things about being a spirit,” Ottilie said.

“Of course there are!”

“No more head colds, sore throats or stomach cramps. No more trips to the doctor or dentist. No more nightmares or math quizzes. No more being made to play badminton with my little cousins. No more boring church sermons that make everybody cranky, and no more liver and onions for dinner ever again!”

Cousin Gilbert laughed, but then Ottilie started thinking about all the good things she had left behind, such as her cats and her beautiful room at home and her mother and father and brother and all her friends, and she started to cry.

“I think it’s time to go back,” cousin Gilbert said.

Ottilie began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with cousin Gilbert or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she was very lucky and saw them.

She recognized father’s automobile and then she saw who was riding inside: father, mother and her brother Boyd. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it as it turned out of the cemetery and headed toward home.

She held on easily enough until father pulled into the driveway of the old house. She was happy to see that everything looked exactly the same. The first thing she did was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there and seemed healthy and happy, but they were now adult cats. She cried when they meowed and purred and recognized her and begged to be picked up.

Her room upstairs was the same. Everything was just as she left it, the books and pencils on her desk, the dolls and stuffed animals on the bed and the chair, the pictures on the wall, the lamp, the rocking chair, the clothes hanging in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.

While mother, father and Boyd were having dinner in the dining room, Ottilie walked around the table, stopping and putting her hands on the back of each chair, experiencing the odd sensation of being in the same room with those closest to her in life and their not knowing it.

It felt good to be home, but she knew things could never be the same again. She could only observe life going on around her and not be a part of it. But still, wasn’t it better than nothing?

Since she dwelt in the spirit world, time, of course, didn’t exist. All time was the same. A minute was the same as an hour, a day the same as a year. In the time that was no time, her brother grew up, got a job in another state and left home to begin a life of his own. Mother and father grew old and frail. At ninety-one years, father died in his own bed and mother was left alone.

On winter evenings, while mother sat and read or knitted, or sometimes played the piano, Ottilie was nearby.

“I’m here, mother!” she said. “Don’t you see me? I want you to know you’re not alone!”

At times she was certain mother knew she was there but at other times she wasn’t so sure.

In the time that was no time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furniture moved out. Another family took up residence. They had four children, two dogs and no cats.

Ottilie couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers, even if she was just a spirit, so she went back to the family crypt and was glad for it. Great-grandmama was right, that the family crypt was where she belonged, but Ottilie had to find it out for herself.

Cousin Gilbert and great-grandmama and the others didn’t realize Ottilie had been gone, although in the world of the living it would have been decades.

There were additions to the family crypt, of course, in all the time that was no time. Great-grandmama had a surprise for Ottilie. Mother and father were there with their own glows, which meant they were now all on the same side of the Great Divide between Life and Death, and there would be no more leave-taking for any of them.

After the joyous reunion with mother and father, Ottilie learned another surprise awaited her. All the cats she ever had in her life were only as far away as the length of her arm. She might pet and play with them and snuggle them any time the spirit moved her. Now she really was in heaven, she believed, and she could settle down to a life of eternity. Maybe one day they would all move on to a place that looked more like heaven, with floating clouds, celestial music and occasional glimpses of the saints, but for now they would just have to do with what they had.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp