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Woman in the Dunes ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I read the Japanese novel (in English translation, of course) Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe in 1992, but had never seen the 1964 movie until it was shown on “TCM Imports” on Sunday night. It’s a simple story with two principal characters and a handful of “villagers” that we never see for more than a minute or two at a time.

A young, child-like Japanese woman, whose name we never know, lives in a crude wooden shack at the bottom of a ravine from which there is no escape. It’s a barren, isolated place. Sand is all we ever see and the sand moves all the time (from wind and gravity), like a creepy, sinister entity, down into the ravine in which the woman lives. She must shovel the sand day and night to keep from being buried in it. (We learn after a while that her husband and daughter are both buried there.) She hoists the sand up to the villagers who sell it to be used in bricks or building materials. In return, they send her a scant amount of food and water. While most people would believe that the perpetual shoveling of sand is just another version of hell, the Japanese woman thinks of it as her life and the ravine as her home. She states at one point, “Nobody would even bother with me if it wasn’t for the sand.” She thinks it’s what she deserves.

A young man from Tokyo named Niki Jumpei is a teacher and entomologist. He is looking for a certain specimen of sand beetle and if he can find one that hasn’t been classified yet, he’ll get his name in the journals. When he misses the last bus home in the evening, he asks a villager if there is someplace nearby where he might stay for the night. The villager leads him to the ravine where the young woman lives. A rope ladder hangs there which he might easily climb down. The woman feeds him and he spends the night there. In the morning he prepares to leave but discovers that the rope ladder that he used to climb down into the ravine is gone. He is trapped in much the same way that he traps his insect specimens.

Niki Jumpei spends a lot of time calculating how he might get out of the ravine and go home, but the young woman is cheerful and unmoved. He begins to help her with the shoveling and she prepares his food. He tells himself that when he doesn’t return, the people at home will come looking for him. He tries everything he can think of to get out of the ravine, but nothing works. The one time he does get out, he loses his way, gets caught in quicksand, and the villagers find him and lower him back into the ravine.

In time, Niki Jumpei and the young woman are drawn to each other in a sexual way, as nature dictates when two heterosexual people of opposing genders are thrown together. She bathes him as he stands in the middle of the floor naked. She asks him how she compares with the girls in Tokyo. Does he have a wife? She is clearly delighted at his being there and horrified at the thought that he might get away.

For such a simple, stark story, there is a considerable amount of tension in Woman in the Dunes, accompanied by eerie (though appropriate) Japanese music and the perpetual effects of the sand closing in. What’s going to happen? Will Niki Jumpei kill the young woman? Will he be able to escape? Will he escape and take her with him? Will she finally relent and get the villagers to let him go? There are any number of possible outcomes and the way the story finally ends is something we didn’t see coming.

The “director’s cut” of Woman in the Dunes is almost two-and-a-half hours long. In Japanese with English subtitles, it’s not for everybody, of course, but it’s accessible and memorable for those willing to spend the time. Foreign movies, like grand opera, are an acquired taste. Some people will resist both as a matter of principle. It’s hard for some of us to overcome our hillbilly origins.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Nausea

Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer and philosopher, lived from 1905 to 1980. His philosophical novel Nausea, first published in 1938, is one of the landmark works of twentieth century French literature and Sartre’s most famous work. In it, the fictional character Antoine Roquetin (Sartre himself?) is a Parisian writer who is in the medium-sized French city that he calls “Bouville” (means “Mudtown” and is probably Le Havre), researching the life of—and writing a historical book about—an eighteenth-century aristocrat and political figure, the Marquis de Rollebon. The novel is set in 1932 when Antoine Roquetin is thirty years old.

There is really not much of a story or plot to Nausea. It is told in the form of diary entries and is mostly the stream of consciousness impressions of Roquetin as he goes about living from day to day. He observes the people around him and the things they say and do, whether he’s in a café, his hotel, the library or some other place. He anticipates reuniting with an old girlfriend from his past named Anny. He has a superficial dalliance with a waitress. He takes long walks in the fog. He contemplates, at great length, portraits hanging in the library of the city’s founding fathers. He befriends a man whom he calls the Self-Taught Man, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

Roquetin is afflicted with a sort of moral paralysis that he calls “nausea.” It’s not a physical malady but a degeneration of the spirit. Human life to him is unnecessary. Existence is pointless and there is no God, which is the essence of the philosophy known as “existentialism.” He eventually gives up his writing and research in Bouville to return to Paris to—what?—probably just waste away. Aren’t we all going through the paces of living just so we can die? Seems that way, doesn’t it? But, wait a minute! If we were to write a song that will be remembered long after we die, or to sing that song on a recording that will be listened to for a long time to come, maybe that (or something like it) is enough is rescue us from the awful pointlessness of existence. What do you think?

Nausea is philosophical treatise disguised as fiction. It’s fitfully interesting, fascinating at times and tedious at other times. If you’re a student of French literature or a student of Sartre, it’s going to be essential reading. If you are just looking for a good “story” because you enjoy reading, Nausea probably isn’t it. Not exactly painful reading, but you’ll almost certainly be glad when you reach the last page. I think I’ll take my diary and turn it into a depressing philosophical novel. It won’t matter that it doesn’t have a story, a beginning, a middle or an end, will it? Everything is pointless, anyway.   

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Man with Six Kids Whose Wife Ran Off and Left Him

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The Man with Six Kids Whose Wife Ran Off and Left Him ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

They go to the shops on Saturday afternoon and usually end up in a bar somewhere Saturday night. Leona at one time had a husband but he left her so long ago she barely remembers. Val never married but lives with her mother, whom she loves and despises at the same time. She’s thirty-seven years old but still cherishes the illusion that someday a man will come along and want to marry her.

It’s a hot Saturday in July. Leona and Val sweat as they walk along the sidewalk, avoiding brushing shoulders with any of the other sweating strangers. A small child, three or four years old, squeals and gets a pounding from his mother, which makes him squeal even louder.

“Lord, they sure can make a big noise to be so little,” Leona laughs.

“Little son of a bitch!” Val says. “My mother would have ripped my head off if I had screamed that way in public.”

“They’re not taught to behave, the way we were.”

They stop off at the drug store to pick up Val’s mother’s pills and Leona lingers over the cosmetics counter, looking for a color of lipstick that she thinks will look good with her complexion. The salesgirl comes out from the back and watches them, so they leave the cave-like coolness of the store and go back out into the bright light.

A little farther down the street they find themselves standing in front of a movie theater. A double feature is playing tonight, but it doesn’t begin for two hours. They think they might come back and see both shows, but Leona says she can’t sit still that long on such a hot night and anyway she just isn’t in the mood for cinematic entertainment.

They go into a place called Glad Rags, a store where everything has been owned by somebody else. Leona is looking for a couple of “nice dresses,” as she says, to wear out on dates, and she doesn’t have much money. She goes to the racks of ladies’ dresses, extending all the way to the back of the store, and Val follows along behind her.

“Can I help you find something, honey?” a fat saleslady asks.

“Just looking today, honey,” Leona says.

Val smiles at the saleslady but she ignores her.

Leona picks a red cocktail dress off the rack with a glittery bodice and holds it up. “What do you think about this one, honey?” she asks Val.

“You probably shouldn’t wear that one to church, honey.” Val says.

She picks a blue chiffon and twirls around with it.

“That would have been perfect for you twenty-five years ago!” Val says.

A yellow one with puffy sleeves.

“That one looks like the bathroom curtains.”

A blue one, very immodest.

“Part of that one is missing.”

Finally she finds two that she liked: a sedate black for funerals and a medium-green for happier occasions.

She finds the fat saleslady again and says, “Where can I try these on, honey?”

“There’s a screen back there by the wall, honey. You can go behind there.”

Val sits in the chair for weary husbands and Leona takes the two dresses behind the screen. Val hears grunting and sighing and in a few minutes Leona emerges.

“I guess I’ve put on a little more weight than I thought,” she says. “Neither one of them fits.”

“How can you ever expect to find a man?” Val asks.

“Don’t worry about me, honey! A little face powder does the trick every time.”

“It’s the face powder that catches ‘em and the baking powder that keeps ‘em at home,” Val says.

Come again, honey!” the saleslady calls to them as they go out the door.

“Where to now?” Val asks.

“There’s that man I told you about,” Leona says, pointing with her nose.

“What man?”

“The one in the green pickup truck that just pulled into the parking space.”

“What about him?”

“His wife just left him and he’s got six kids.”

“Where’d she go?”

“I don’t know. Ran out on him. And now he’s got six kids to take care of on his own.”

“Too bad.”

“If it wasn’t for all those kids, I think I’d make a play for him. He’s kind of handsome, don’t you think?”

“Maybe he can get rid of the kids and clear the way for you,” Val said.

“What’s he going to do? Take ‘em out back and strangle ‘em one by one?”

“Well, no. Not that exactly. He could put them in an orphanage.”

“It doesn’t work that way, honey,” Leona said. “Once you bring ‘em into the world, they’re yours to take care of as long as you’re still aboveground.”

“Sounds awful, doesn’t it, honey?”

“Yeah, life’s a bitch.”

“The important thing is not to have ‘em in the first place and then the person you’re married to can’t run out on you and leave you holding the bag.”

“Truer words were never spoken.”

They have a sandwich and a soda at the diner and by the time they are finished the long summer twilight has begun.

They go down the stairs that connect the lower street to the upper and there come to a place called Louie’s Hot Spot. Val has never been there but Leona says it’s a lot of fun, so they go inside and sit down at a table for two.

After a couple of drinks, Val is ready to leave but Leona is obviously enjoying herself. She sways in time to the music and looks appreciatively at the men around her; if they ignore her, she doesn’t seem to mind.

Somewhere about the third drink, Leona sticks her fingernails into Val’s wrist and says, “Guess who just came in?”

“I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” Val says.

“It’s him!

“Who?”

“The man with six kids whose wife ran off and left him.”

“Well, everybody has to be someplace.”

“He just sat down at the bar. After he gets his drink, I know he’ll turn around and look to see if there’s anybody here he knows.”

“So what?”

“He’ll see me sitting here.”

“Do you owe him money?”

“No, silly! I’m going to make myself look available so he’ll ask me to dance.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

“Not unless you’re about to have a seizure.”

Within five minutes, the man with six kids whose wife ran off and left him approaches the table coolly and leans down and whispers in Leona’s ear.

“Why, I’d love to!” she says, standing up.

She gives Val a secret little smile and moves to the dance floor with him.

Val moves around to the other side of the table so she can  watch. They look rather silly together, he so skinny as to hardly have any shape at all, with Leona’s belly obtruding between them. They move awkwardly in time to the music like a couple of self-conscious teens at their first dance.

“Not a pretty sight,” Val says, but not loud enough to be heard.

When the song ends, Leona glides over to the table as though she is still dancing and says to Val, “He’s asked me to go for a ride with him. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No. I don’t mind.”

“You can make it home by yourself all right?”

“I think I’ll find the way.”

“His name is Virgil Miller,” Leona says “He’s just the sweetest thing. And I think he’s kind of lonely.”

“What about the six kids?”

“They’re spending time with grandma.”

“How lucky for you!”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“If you end up murdered, we’ll know who did it. I even have his name now.”

After Leona leaves, Val finishes her drink so as not to appear rushed. If any of the men in the place take any notice of her at all, she sees no outward sign of it.

When Val gets home, her mother is wrapped up in her pink chenille bathrobe watching Have Gun, Will Travel on television. She insists that Paladin is somebody she knew during the war. Earlier in the evening she would have watched The Jackie Gleason Show and Oh! Susanna. In the morning at the breakfast table she’ll have to tell Val all about them. On Sunday she’ll be excited about The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show, not understanding why Val doesn’t want to watch with her.

“Did you get my pills?” she asks, not taking her eyes off Paladin’s face.

“Yes, mama, I got your pills,” Val says, not realizing until that moment how tired she is.

“Put them on the table where I’ll be able to see them.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Did you have a good time tonight?”

“Yes, mama. I met a handsome millionaire.”

“As handsome as Cary Grant?”

“Oh, much better looking than that!”

“Did he ask you to marry him?”

“Well, not exactly. He asked me to go to the Riviera with him, but I told him I wouldn’t be able to get away right now.”

“Too bad.”

“He had tears in his eyes. I hated to hurt him that way, but I believe in time he’ll understand.”

“They usually do.”

On the swell of dramatic music from the TV, Val goes into her bedroom and shuts the door. She changes into her pajamas, gets into bed and turns off the light. She can still hear the drone of the TV and some traffic sounds, but more than that. When she listens closely, she knows that what she hears is the sound of life passing her by.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

A Man is Only as Good as His Word

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I Was Never Here

A Man is Only as Good as His Word ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Tierney stood in the corner of the yard, his work finished for the day. When he saw Wolfram come out of the house, he motioned him over and held out both fists.

“Guess which one,” he said.

Wolfram smiled, something he hadn’t done all day. “That one,” he said, pointing to the right fist.

Tierney unclenched both fists and in his right palm was a dull cold coin.

“What is it?” Wolfram asked.

“It’s an old Roman coin. It’s yours if you want it.”

Wolfram picked the coin up from Tierney’s palm and held it close to his eyes to get a better look. “Thank you,” he said.

“It’s not for spending,” Tierney said. “It’s just a keepsake.”

“I know.”

“Don’t tell the others.”

“I won’t.”

Tierney had given Wolfram other small gifts before: an insect trapped in amber that he said was millions of years old; a shark’s tooth, a monkey’s paw that was supposed to be good luck. Wolfram didn’t question the giving of the gifts but was only glad to get them.

He left Tierney and went in to dinner, the Roman coin in his pocket. He wanted to take it out and look at it again, but he knew that everybody would want to know where he got it.

“I saw Wolfram out the window talking to Tierney,” Eden said, about ten minutes into the meal.

“What were you talking about, Wolf?” mother asked.

“Nothing,” Wolfram said.

“If you were talking, you must have been talking about something.”

“We were just exchanging pleasantries,” Wolfram said. “I’m the only one in the family that ever talks to him.”

“Well, I talk to him!” mother said. “I have to tell him what I want done, don’t I?”

“I think you should discharge him,” Eden said. “He gives me the creeps.”

“Why?” mother asked.

“He’s always looking at me and when I look back at him, he looks away. All innocent like.”

“Has he ever said anything indecent to you?” mother asked.

“Well, no, but he just has this look about him.”

“Who would want to look at you, you silly old thing?” Wolfram said. “If he’s looking at you, he’s probably only trying to figure out what kind of a freak you are.”

“That’s enough of that kind of talk at the table!” mother said. “Nobody is going to discharge Tierney until and unless there’s a good reason.”

“The lawn and garden have never looked better,” father said, obviously bored with the conversation. “Tierney does a very commendable job and we pay him very little money. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

“So Tierney stays,” Wolfram said, giving Eden a victorious look.

Eden was seventeen, three years older than Wolfram, and he despised her. She was always sticking her nose into his business. He had even caught her going through his closet and the drawers of his dresser when she thought he was out of the house. She had made herself the family detective. Wolfram wished Eden would choke on a peach pit and die.

“He does seem like a rather mysterious character,” Isabel said.  “Nobody knows where he lives or what he does after he leaves here.”

Isabel was Wolfram’s other sister. She was twenty-one and engaged to be married to a man named George Jasper. Because she was in love, she always appeared to be partly absent, present in body but someplace else in spirit.

“Well, he’s discreet,” father said. “What’s wrong with that? If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s somebody always coming up with personal excuses for not doing the work they’ve been hired to do.”

“I like Tierney,” Wolfram ventured to say.

“You would!” Eden said. “You’re a junior version of him. When you get older, no girls will want to have anything to do with you because they’ll be afraid of you.”

“I don’t care how much you insult me,” Wolfram said. “And if all the girls are like you, why would I want to have anything to do with them, anyway?”

He was secretly flattered that Eden had compared him to Tierney.

That night he slept with the Roman coin in his fist. When he awoke in the morning, the coin was gone but he found it again underneath the quilt by his side.

During the next week, Wolfram had some troubles at school. He said he was too sick to do calisthenics and, when he was excused and told to go to the nurse’s office, he was found a short time later smoking a cigarette behind the building. Then there was a heated argument with a teacher that ended with him calling the teacher an idiot and being forcibly ejected from the classroom. The next week he was accused of cheating on a geometry test (looking up the answers from the textbook while the teacher was out of the room), a charge he vehemently denied.

The school principal called Wolfram’s father and told him they were going to have to take disciplinary action, which might include suspension.

“Don’t worry,” Wolfram’s father had said firmly. “He’ll be disciplined from this end. I assure you there will be no further problems.”

That evening there was a big row between Wolfram and his mother and father. His mother cried and said she was afraid he was going to end up in the penitentiary, while his father paced the floor, trying, as he said, to figure out where he “had gone wrong.”

“It’s nothing,” Wolfram said, trying to keep a straight face. “They blow everything up out of all proportion. I didn’t do anything that everybody else doesn’t do all the time.”

“Yes, but you were the one that got caught!” his father exclaimed. “How could you be so stupid?”

“How could you be so careless?” his mother sobbed.

Eden lurked around the corner in the next room, taking in every word, delighted in every fiber of her body.

“One more stunt from you,” his father said, “and it’s off to military school! If I can’t instill discipline in you, we’ll see if they can!”

“I have no intention of going to military school,” Wolfram said calmly. “I’ll kill myself first.”

As much as Wolfram tried to appear unmoved by his conversation with his parents, he was visibly shaken when he sought out Tierney in the barn as Tierney was leaving for the day.

“I have to get out of here,” Wolfram said.

“What happened?” Tierney asked.

“Oh, trouble at school. My parents are threatening to send me to military school.”

“And you don’t want to go to military school.”

“No.”

“If you have to get away, maybe military school is where you need to be.”

“My father has some idea it would straighten out all my problems, but I told him I’d kill myself first.”

“He knows you don’t mean it.”

“But I do mean it!”

Tierney put his hand on Wolfram’s shoulder, close to his neck, and squeezed reassuringly. “I have to get a move on now,” he said. “We’ll talk more later.”

When Wolfram went back into the house, his mother was waiting for him. She said, “I absolutely forbid you to have anything more to do with that man!”

“What man?” Wolfram asked.

“You know what man I mean. Don’t act innocent with me. I believe he’s a corrupting influence on you. I believe your downfall began when you started spending so much time with him.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, mother.”

“I want to know what he says to you.”

“He doesn’t say anything that would be of interest to you or father.”

“Does he show you pictures of naked women?”

“Mother, how can you be so oblivious to everything that’s going on around you?”

Wolfram still managed to speak to Tierney at least once every day he was there, but he no longer sought him out for long talks. He was told to come straight home from school and begin his homework. Then there was dinner and then more homework and then lights out. On weekends he was made to do yard work and housecleaning. He never made a move that wasn’t observed, noted and passed on. When his grades slipped even further from where they had been, his father hired a former elementary school teacher, a Miss Dahrenheim, to come in two evenings a week and tutor him in the library. Miss Dahrenheim was under strict orders to report any signs of insolence, laziness or insubordination in her young pupil. Always the threat of military school, tantamount to a prison sentence, was held over his head.

One day in early autumn, Tierney waylaid Wolfram as he was coming home from school. “I need to have a word with you,” he said.

“What is it?” Wolfram asked, heart thumping.

“I’m locked out of my room and I don’t have anyplace to stay tonight. I thought I’d bed down in the barn after everybody has retired.”

“It’s cold in the barn.”

“I don’t mind the cold.”

“Mother would let you stay in the guest room.”

“I would never ask. I think it’s best not to involve them in this, don’t you?”

“You can stay in my room.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

Wolfram laughed. “More trouble than I’m already in?”

“It’s off to the military academy with you,” Tierney said, making a slicing motion across his throat with his index finger.

“Look, I want you to stay in my room,” Wolfram said. “Please. Nobody has to know anything about it. They’ll all be asleep by ten o’clock and they won’t know a thing.”

“Yes, if your father finds me creeping up the stairs after hours, he’ll shoot me and the world will applaud him for it.”

“No, you can climb up to the flat part of the roof and over to my window. There’s a ladder there all the time. It’s easy.”

“Well, if you think it’s all right.”

“I know it is. Just don’t make any noise. Mother has ears like a cat’s.”

“Well, we’ll see how it goes then.”

“After ten o’clock,” Wolfram said.

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.”

That night it was raining. At nine-thirty, Wolfram finished his homework, unlatched the window and got into bed. The small light he left burning would tell Tierney he was expecting him.

A few minutes after ten, he heard a slight rustling and then the sound of the window being inched up slowly. Tierney squeezed himself in through the small opening and reclosed the window as quietly and as deftly as he had opened it.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Tierney said. “I feel like I’m breaking in.”

“Nobody ever comes in here,” Wolfram said. “They’re all asleep, anyway.”

Tierney removed his coat, cap and shoes.

“You can take my bed,” Wolfram said. “I’ll sleep in the chair.”

“No, the floor is fine for me,” Tierney said. “I won’t take your bed.”

“It’s all right. I don’t care to sleep in the chair.”

“The rug beside your bed will do well for me. That way, if I hear anybody coming, I can skedaddle out the window.”

“Nobody ever comes in here,” Wolfram said.

“I’m just glad to get in out of the rain, where it’s warm.”

Wolfram gave him the other pillow off his bed and a spare blanket, said good night and turned off the light.

After Tierney had settled down on the rug between the bed and window, he said, “I’m going to be moving on from here soon. I haven’t told anybody yet.”

“Where to?” Wolfram asked.

“I don’t know yet. Maybe Chicago.”

“I’m coming with you.”

Tierney laughed. “I don’t think I’d get very far,” he said. “Child abductors aren’t very popular in this state. I don’t think I would care to spend the next thirty years behind bars.”

“I could say I wanted to come.”

“You’re a minor. You don’t have anything to say about anything until you’re at least eighteen.”

“You could say I’m your son.”

“Go to sleep. You’re a child. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I know if I stay here I’m going to end up in military school or dead.”

“You’ll be fine, even in military school.”

“Would you want to go?”

“No, but that’s not the issue here.”

“I’m not like other people.”

“I know.”

“When I’m old enough, I’ll come to wherever you are, whether it’s Chicago or some other place.”

“Now, why would you want to do that? You live in this beautiful house and you have a fine life here. Your parents care for you and that means a lot. It’s something a lot of people don’t have.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“No, you’re not. Do you want to get me in a lot of trouble?”

“Of course not.”

“Maybe when you’re old enough, if you’re still interested, we can talk about it then.”

“When I’m sixteen?”

“No, that’s too young. You need to be at least eighteen. You’ll want to finish high school. If you don’t finish, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

“Did you finish high school?”

“Yes, a long time ago. In another life, it seems.”

“So, when I’m eighteen, then?”

“You’re young. You’ll forget all about it.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Four years is a long time when you’re as young as you are. You’ll change completely in the next four years. You’ll find a pretty girl and you’ll want to marry her.”

“No, I won’t.”

“You’ll forget, in the next year or so, that this conversation ever took place.”

“No, I won’t.”

“You’ll forget about me.”

“I won’t.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t say. I can’t put it into words.”

“I’m keeping you awake.”

“No, you’re not. I’ll finish high school in four years. I’ll stay here until then.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes.”

“In four years I’ll send you a letter telling you where I am. If I’m still alive, that is. You can say then whether or not you’re still interested. You don’t even have to send me an answer if you’re not.”

“You’ll really write to me?”

“Yes.”

“In four years.”

“Yes, but I would bet a million dollars you’ll have other things on your mind by then. That’s the way it is when you’re young. Four years is a long time.”

“Four years, four years, four years,” Wolfram said, and then he drifted off to sleep.

When he awoke in the morning at the usual time, the rain had stopped and Tierney was gone. He had folded the blanket and arranged it neatly on the chair with the pillow. He left a note on Wolfram’s desk that said, simply, I was never here.

The four years progressed slowly and uneventfully. Wolfram was kept busy all the time with chores and school work. He attended summer school for two years running to make up for classes he had failed.

In the spring of 1914, right before he graduated from high school, Wolfram received a letter with a Denver postmark. He never doubted for a minute that it would come. He sent back a reply the same day.

He pawned the Roman coin, swearing to the pawnbroker that he was over twenty-one, even though the old man knew it was a lie. It brought him enough money to buy his train ticket West, with enough left over to buy some new clothes and some boots. When he boarded the train for Denver, it was to begin a new life completely removed from the old one.

Tierney met him at the train in Denver. He still looked the same, but Wolfram had changed a lot. He was no longer a boy but a man. He and Tierney spent the next sixty years together until they were parted by death. When one of them died, they both died.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The End is Not as Good as the Beginning

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The End is Not as Good as the Beginning ~ A Short Story
by Allen Kopp

“It’s a beautiful day,” Harmon Bracegirdle said as he approached Chaz Spurlock. He put his arm over Chaz’s shoulders and pulled him closer. “Thank you so much for meeting me here today!”

“Not at all,” Chaz said. “I’m free this afternoon.”

“I love the park, don’t you?” Harmon said.

“Indeed, I do!” Chaz said.

“I asked you here today, not so we could take in the scenery, but to have a little talk, just the two of us. A little private talk. There are so many interruptions at the studio, people coming in and out all the time.”

“I understand how it is, Mr. Bracegirdle, sir!”

“Please, Chaz! Call me Harmon!”

“All right, sir! Harmon!

They walked a little way and sat down on a bench at the edge of a scenic pond, home to a flock of geese and ducks.

“They’re so beautiful!” Harmon said. “Nature is so beautiful!”

“I quite agree, sir,” Chaz said.

“Whenever you begin to feel dehumanized by what you do for a living, just come here and forget your troubles and in a little while you’ll begin to feel inner peace.”

“Inner peace, sir. Yes, sir!”

“But I digress. I didn’t come here to discuss nature.”

“I didn’t think you did, sir.”

“The picture business is a cruel business,” Harmon said, looking over his shoulder up the hill to his car, where his two associates and his driver were waiting. “It’s 1935 and there have been so many changes.”

“Don’t I know it, sir!”

“First sound and then color, and God only knows what’ll be next.”

“You roll with the punches, sir. It’s all you can do.”

“It isn’t easy being head of the largest picture studio in the country.”

“I don’t imagine for a second that it is, sir.”

“I’m responsible for hundreds of jobs. My decisions affect hundreds of workers and their families. If I don’t make the right decisions, a lot of people will suffer.”

“I wouldn’t want that much responsibility on my shoulders, sir.”

“The studio isn’t as profitable as it once was. Competition is fierce!

“Terrible, sir! I’m sure it’s just terrible!”

“You were one of our most bankable stars for five or six years, Chaz, but your last three pictures have lost money.”

“Not my fault, sir! Those pictures just weren’t right for me.”

“I know. Each person has his own version of where things went wrong.”

“The studio is picking the wrong properties for me.”

“Do you think you could do better choosing your own scripts?”

“I’m sure I could, sir!”

“Well, that isn’t the way our system works. When you’re a contract player in a large studio, those decisions, whether right or wrong, are made for you.”

“I have high hopes, though, for my next picture.”

“The one based on the Russian novel?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Literary adaptations haven’t done well for us in the past, I’m afraid.”

“We have a couple of top-notch directors interested in the project and I’m pretty sure we can get Lola Lola to play the female lead.”

“Lola Lola won’t be available to appear in that picture.”

“I just spoke to her yesterday. She said…”

“She has commitments abroad.”

“Oh? She didn’t mention…”

“In fact, we won’t be making that picture at all, Chaz. I’m sorry.”

“Why not?”

“We just received word this morning that another studio has started production on that same story, using a different title.”

“Oh.”

“I know you’re disappointed, Chaz, but that’s the way things are in the picture business. As I said. Cruel.”

“There’ll be something else come along. What about that Western that everybody’s talking about?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I know I can be on top again with my next picture if I’m given the chance. I know I can!”

Harmon put his hand on Chaz’s leg and squeezed his inner thigh. “I’m afraid you’ve come to the end of your run, buddy. I’m sorry.”

“What are you saying? I’ve been with the studio twelve years! I have two years left on my contract!”

“We’re going to buy out your contract. Our lawyers are working on it now.”

“What if I say no?”

“The decision has already been made. I wanted to give you the news myself before you heard it from somebody else.”

“This is so unfair! My pictures have made a lot of money for the studio.”

“You’ve had three flops in a row. Last year alone, Intemperate Stranger and Rascal at Arms were our biggest box office flops. You’re only as good as your last picture.”

“I hope you’ll reconsider.”

“I’m afraid not. The die has already been cast.”

“Just one more picture. One more chance.”

“You have the very best wishes of all of us at the studio.”

“I’m just stunned. I don’t know what to say.”

Harmon gestured to his two associates up the hill, who were at that moment standing beside the front fender of the car smoking cigarettes. They came down in a wide arc so Chaz wouldn’t see them from where he was sitting.

“It’s going to be all right, buddy,” Harmon Bracegirdle said. “Just drink in the splendor of nature arrayed before you.”

“I think you’re making a big mistake,” Chaz said.

“That’s the nature of my job, kiddo. I have to make these hurtful decisions.”

Like children playing a game, the larger of the two men went up behind Chaz so as not to be detected. He waited for a signal from the other man, indicating that no one was watching, and when he received the signal he crept up behind Chaz, took a gun from inside his coat and shot him in the back of the head. One shot and Chaz lurched forward, dead before he hit the ground.

“Get his wallet and his wrist watch,” Harmon Bracegirdle said, standing up quickly. “That’ll satisfy the press.”

The news spread all over the world: Movie Star Shot Dead in Park. Robbery Suspected Motive.”

The funeral was well attended. Leading the pack of motion picture luminaries was studio head Harmon Bracegirdle, in dark glasses and tailor-made suit. On his arm was the great star Lola Lola, looking stunning as she wept behind her lace handkerchief. The picture of her placing one lily on the casket made all the pictures the next day.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Beyond Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Beyond Paradise

Beyond Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Most people today will not have heard of Ramon Navarro, or, if they’ve heard of him at all, it’s because of his vicious murder at the hands of two “male hustlers,” Paul and Tom Ferguson, in 1968, and the sensational trial that followed. With his death, Navarro’s closely guarded, decades-long secret was out: he was a Hollywood homosexual and, in his later years, was in the habit of inviting “male escorts” to his home and paying them for sex. With his sexual predilections and his uncontrolled alcoholism (many run-ins with the law for drunk driving), he was, as one of the lawyers said at his murder trial, an “accident waiting to happen.”

Ramon Novarro (née Ramon Gil Samiengo), was born in Durango, Mexico, in 1899, into a large, devoutly Catholic family. As a teen, he made his way to Hollywood and, after a series of lucky breaks (bit parts and dancing stints), he became the protégé of Rex Ingram, an influential director of silent movies. Ingram used Navarro to great effect in some of the popular movies he directed in the 1920s and—if not overnight, at least pretty fast—Navarro became a bona fide “star,” with a loyal and devoted legion of fans at home and abroad. Between 1925 and 1932, he was THE top male movie star in the world. In 1925, he starred in Ben-Hur, the biggest and most expensive movie made during the silent era.

When movies switched to sound in the late 1920s, it was with his pleasant (though heavily accented) speaking and singing voice that Ramon Navarro segued into sound movies, while many of his contemporaries in silent films were not able to make the transition. Though small of stature (5 feet, six inches) and slightly pudgy, he had other assets that made him a favorite of audiences: a handsome face, an undeniable charm and appeal, coupled with a genuine talent for screen acting. Women loved him and men did not feel threatened by him.

Every star that rises, however, must fall. After 1932, his bosses at MGM (Mayer and Thalberg) began putting him in movies that were not only unsuitable for him (at age 32, he played a college football player in a movie called Huddle) but were almost destined from the start to fail. After a series of box office flops, the studio dumped him in 1935 and, at age 36, he was washed up. He tried for decades to recapture his box office magic, but nobody wanted him anymore and he was relegated to playing small parts in cheap productions. He was successful for a while on the concert circuit and in summer stock, but soon his heavy drinking began to undermine everything he attempted. From the age of 36 to the end of his life at 69, he was merely a “once-was” or a “has-been.” Many of the once-great stars of his generation shared the same fate.

Beyond Paradise by André Soares is the fascinating and unforgettable story of a likeable star (to some a hero) who, in the end, became a tragic figure. Ramon Navarro’s story is a story of the twentieth century and of one of the defining industries of that century. Beyond Paradise reads like a novel, is never boring and is never bogged down in extraneous detail the way some nonfiction books are. The final chapters that cover Navarro’s murder and the subsequent trial are gripping. Highly recommended for those interested in Hollywood biography and lore from the golden age of movie making. A time and place that are no more and will never be again.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Bob White

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Bob White ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The fat woman sat on a bench to rest before walking the rest of the way home. In a moment a little boy ran by, a streak in a red-and-white shirt. When he did it the second time, the fat woman grabbed onto his little bird-like arm and held him.

“Where you goin’ to, boy, in such a hurry?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Let me go.”

She had forgotten that children run just for the sake of running and don’t need a reason.

“Where’s your mama?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You shouldn’t be out here on the street all by yourself. You might get kidnapped or run over by a car.”

“No, I won’t! Let me go!”

“What’s your name?”

“Bob White.”

“My name is Mrs. Tinser. Mary Tinser.”

“So what?”

“Why don’t you sit down beside me on the bench here, Bob? You’re all hot.”

He climbed onto the bench and leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

“How old are you, Bob?” she asked.

“Eight.”

“You look small for eight.”

“How old are you?”

“You should never ask a lady her age, Bob.”

“You asked me.”

“That’s different. You’re young. When you’re young, you don’t ever mind divulging your age. It’s only after you get much older that it becomes a secret.”

“I have to go now.”

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. I was playing with a couple of other kids but they ran off somewhere.”

“Would you like to come home with me, Bob?”

“Where to?”

“To my home. Where I live.”

“Where is that?”

“It’s two blocks down that way; then you turn left down there where those trees are and go two blocks the other way.”

“I don’t want to get lost.”

“You won’t get lost.”

“All right, then,” he said. “I’ll go.”

She wanted to take his hand when they were walking on the street because he was so little, but she was sure he wouldn’t like it. When they came to her building, they went down some steps to get to where she lived.

“I haven’t ever seen a place like this before,” he said as he walked inside.

“Do you like it?”

It was dark and cool in the apartment, but she opened some window shades and soon the room was flooded with cheerful light.

“I like it,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind living here.”

“Where do you live?”

“Oh, I don’t remember the address.”

“I didn’t mean the address.”

“I live with my mother and my sister on the third floor in a building not far from where I go to school.”

“Oh, that must be nice.”

“I should probably go now,” he said.

“But you just got here.”

“I know, but…”

“Are you hungry, Bob? Would you like it if I fixed you a sandwich?”

“Okay.”

She took Bob White into the kitchen and sat him down at her little white table for two against the wall. Sitting all the way back in the chair, his feet were a long way off the floor.

“Is your husband at home?” he asked.

“He died.” she said.

“What was the matter with him?”

“He got sick and he died.”

She took a slice of white bread and slathered it with peanut butter, added a layer of strawberry jam to the peanut butter and slapped another piece of bread over it. She put the sandwich on a little plate and carried it over to the table.

She watched him as he took the first couple of bites. “Would you like a Coke?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“I don’t have any milk.”

“I don’t like it, anyway.”

She took a bottle of Coke out of the refrigerator and placed it on the table in front of him.

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you to say ‘thank you’?” she asked.

He looked at her sheepishly and grinned. “Thank you,” he said.

She sat down in the other chair at the table and watched him as he ate and drank.

“A long time ago I had a little boy a lot like you,” she said.

“What was his name?”

“Troy.”

“What happened to him?”

“He grew up and left me.”

“Where is he now?”

“I wish I knew, Bob.”

“Did he die, too?”

“Not that I know of.”

“At school they always tell us not to talk to strangers,” he said.

“That’s a good policy, but I would never hurt you.”

“I know. I’d better not tell my mother I was here, though. She wouldn’t like it.”

“Whatever you think is best,” she said.

After he finished eating, they went back to the front part of the apartment. She sat on the couch and he sat beside her.

“Do you know you have the name of a bird?” she asked.

“No. What do you mean?”

“A bird called the bobwhite. There aren’t any in the city, but I grew up in the country and we had lots of them there. It’s a pretty brown bird, but you hear them more than you see them. In the evening they call to each other and it sounds like they’re saying ‘bobwhite, bobwhite, bobwhite. That’s how they get their name.”

“I’d like to hear one of them sometime,” he said.

“You’d feel right at home.”

He leaned into her, into her soft, warm flesh, and she draped her right arm over him, touching him lightly along the shoulder.

“Tell me a story,” he said.

“I’m not good at telling stories,” she said, “but I’ll sing you a song.”

“All right.”

In her soft, quavering soprano voice, she began to sing: 

“When the red, red robin
Comes bob-bob-bobbin’
 Along, along,
There’ll be no more sobbin’
When he starts throbbin’
His old sweet song. 

“Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head!
Get up, get up, get out o’ bed
Cheer up, cheer up, the sun is red,
Live, love, laugh and be happy!” 

“Sing some more,” he said. 

“I’m just a kid again,
Doin’ what I did again,
Singin’ a song,
When the red, red robin
Comes bob-bob-bobbin’
Along.” 

By the time she finished the next verse, he was asleep. With her left hand she reached for a pillow and put it behind her head. In a couple of minutes she was also asleep. With her good ear pressed into the pillow, she didn’t hear the knocks on the door. Or maybe she heard them, but if she did she chose to ignore them.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

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