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Thanksgiving Like the Pilgrims

Thanksgiving Like the Pilgrims ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Veradean held up a picture from a magazine of a family seated around a large table for Thanksgiving dinner—all good-looking, clean and healthy, about to partake of the bountiful meal spread out before them.

“I wish this was my family,” Veradean said.

“Do they look poor to you?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“No.”

“You’re poor. A poor family doesn’t set a table like that.”

“But why are we poor?” Veradean asked. “Why was I born into a poor family?”

“There has to be poor people in the world, I guess.”

“Why?”

“To balance things out. For every twenty or thirty poor people, there is one rich one.”

“Well, that isn’t fair!”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a famous movie actress. I’ll make a million dollars and live in a mansion and I’ll never be poor again.”

“Every young person thinks they’re going to be rich and famous, but then when they grow up they see it’s never going to happen. The sooner you face reality, the better off you’ll be.”

“What are we going to have for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“I don’t know. We’ll think of something. You don’t have to worry about it. You won’t go hungry.”

“But are we going to have turkey and all the other stuff they have in the picture?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“No money.”

“Can’t you get us some money?”

“When you find out a good way, you let me know.”

“I sure wish we had a TV,” Veradean said.

“You say that at least once a day.”

“Everybody I know has a TV.”

“Maybe you should go and live with them.”

“It’s terribly boring sitting here all the time with no TV to watch.”

“Read a book. It doesn’t cost anything.”

“Everything is always about money, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t make the world,” Vicki-Vicki said.

Baby Eddie came into the room laughing, wearing his pajamas backwards. He twirled around so Veradean and Vicki-Vicki could see them from the back.

“You look so stupid!” Veradean said.

Vicki-Vicki groaned. “Go put ‘em on right!” she said.

“No! I like ‘em like this! I’m always gonna wear ‘em like this! I’m gonna start wearin’ all my clothes backwards!”

“That’s because you’re trash,” Veradean said.

“I am not trash! You’re trash!”

“We’re all trash,” Vicki-Vicki said. “That’s why we live in a falling-down dump like this in a rat-infested neighborhood!”

I’m not trash!” Baby Eddie screamed. “You’re trash! You’re trash! You’re trash!”

“The pilgrims were trash,” Veradean said. “They didn’t have any money and look what they did.”

“What did they do?”

“They started their own country.”

“What’s a pilgrim?” Baby Eddie screamed.

“Go to bed, Baby Eddie,” Vicki-Vicki said. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“No! I don’t want to go to bed!”

“Miss Edmonds read us a story about the pilgrims,” Veradean said. “They wore black and prayed all the time. The king got mad at them and kicked them out of the country. They didn’t have any place to go so they came over here from England in a little wooden boat. They just about died on the ocean on the way over and when they got here they landed on a big rock. When they climbed down off the rock and looked around, they saw it was nothing but woods and wild animals. There were no hotels or stores or anything like that. The only other people around were Indians and the Indians were afraid of the pilgrims. They hid from them and shot arrows at them.”

“I know what Indians are!” Baby Eddie shrieked.

“The pilgrims didn’t know how to take care of themselves and a lot of them died right away in the snow. They didn’t have any food because they didn’t know how to grow corn and stuff in the ground. Finally the Indians started to feel sorry for the pilgrims and came out of their hiding places and helped them. They showed them how to grow corn and pumpkins and green beans and stuff and raise turkeys so they’d always have something to eat.”

“That’s bullshit!” Baby Eddie said.

“You’re not supposed to use that word,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“But I like to say it! Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!

“After the first harvest when the pilgrims had all the food they needed, they were so happy they decided to thank God and have a big party. They all sat down at a big table and the Indians served food to them and they all ate so much they had to go lay down. Some of them vomited. That was the first Thanksgiving.”

“The Indians served food to the pilgrims?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“Yes, they did.”

“When did the Indians eat?”

“They sat down and had their Thanksgiving dinner after all the pilgrims were finished eating.”

“I want a hot dog!” Baby Eddie said.

“So, are we going to have turkey and all the stuff the pilgrims had for our Thanksgiving?” Veradean asked.

“Not unless you know some Indians,” Vicki-Vicki said.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Vicki-Vicki saw the ad in the paper: Thanksgiving Day dinner served at the Heavenly Light Mission. Everybody welcome! Come early! Bring the entire family!

When Veradean came home from school Wednesday afternoon, Vicki-Vicki told her, “We’re going to have turkey on Thanksgiving after all and it’s not going to cost us anything.”

“How we gonna do that?” Veradean asked.

“It’s a surprise.”

On Thursday morning Vicki-Vicki awoke early with a sense of purpose. She made Veradean and Baby Eddie get out of bed and take baths and wash their hair. She dressed Veradean in a hand-me-down schoolgirl dress of plaid material with a sash in the back. For Baby Eddie she found an old sailor suit in grandma’s trunk that some little boy had worn long ago.

For herself she had a gray, vintage suit she had been saving for a special occasion, exactly like the one Kim Novak wore in Vertigo. She always believed that she looked at least a little like Kim Novak without the blond hair and dramatic eyebrows.

Trash though they were, they didn’t have to go looking like trash. They would look distinctive, different from anybody else.

It was a mile or so into town, to the Heavenly Light Mission. A cold wind was blowing and the sky threatened rain.

“What’ll we do if it rains before we get there?” Veradean asked.

“Get wet.”

Baby Eddie complained that his shoes hurt, so Vicki-Vicki had to carry him part of the way, with her high heels pinching her toes every step of the way. Veradean tried carrying him some, but he was too much for her.

“It’s like carrying a calf,” she said.

Finally they reached the Heavenly Light Mission. There were already a lot of people and cars, even though the place hadn’t opened its doors yet. They took their place at the end of the long line.

“How long do we have to wait here?” Veradean asked.

“I’m hungry!” Baby Eddie said.

The doors opened at the appointed time and the line began moving, slowly at first and then faster.

“Oh, boy! I smell the turkey!” Veradean said.

While waiting in line, Vicki-Vicki was aware of a group of young men standing off to the side, talking and laughing. She saw after a while that they had noticed her and were looking her way. She made a point of ignoring them, looking down at Baby Eddie and taking his hand.

After a while one of the young men detached himself from the group and approached her.

“You probably don’t remember me,” he said.

“No.”

“Rollo Ruff? People used to call me RR?”

“I don’t think so.”

“High school?”

“Oh,” she said, feeling let down. “That was a long time ago.”

“Not that long,” he said.

“I know so many people.”

“These your kids?”

Veradean and Baby Eddie both looked at Vicki-Vicki to see what she would say.

“No, they’re foundling children,” she said. “I don’t know where they came from.”

“Sister and brother,” Veradean said.

“Yes, my mother is touring the Continent,” Vicki-Vicki said, “and I stayed behind this time to take care of the little ones.”

“Yes, that’s always a problem with the better people,” he said.

“Well, it was so nice seeing you again. Be sure and remember me to your people.”

“Thought I might call you up some time.”

“That would be rather difficult,” Vicki-Vicki said, “since I live in a house where there are no phones.”

“No phones! Hah-hah! You were always so funny!”

“I don’t know what’s funny about it.”

“Tell me where you live and I’ll drop by later this evening and we can get reacquainted.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” she said.

“Well, okay for now. I’ll be seeing you again, though. You can be sure of that.”

“You don’t like him?” Veradean asked after he was gone.

“No, I never saw him before in my life.”

“I think he’s cute. He’s got a quiff.”

“He’s got a what?

“I think a man looks cute with a quiff.”

“Oh, what do you know? You’re in fourth grade.”

“Why didn’t you tell him mama’s in jail?”

“That’s the same as admitting we’re trash,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“We are trash.”

The line lurched forward and they were all the way inside the Heavenly Light Mission. They were handed trays and, as they moved forward in the line, fat women in hairnets and white aprons began thrusting plates of food at them across a counter.

There were rows of tables placed end to end, covered with white table cloths. Balancing her own tray with one hand and helping to keep Baby Eddie from dropping his tray with the other hand, Vicki-Vicki jostled her way through the noisy crowd to the edge and took a seat at the end of a table. Veradean sat on her left and Baby Eddie across from her.

Veradean began stuffing food into her mouth. “This is just like the pilgrims,” she said.

“What’s this stuff?” Baby Eddie asked.

“It’s good,” Vicki-Vicki said. “Eat it.”

Soon Vicki-Vicki noticed a man moving down the table toward them, shaking people’s hands and patting them on the backs. He was dressed all in black like a pilgrim. She knew she was going to have to talk to him.

“So happy to see you here today, sister,” he said, touching Vicki-Vicki on the shoulder and moving around to the end of the table where he stood beside her. “My name is Brother Galvin. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What is your name?”

“My name is Vicki-Vicki Novak,” she said, almost choking.

“Are you the mother of these two children?”

“No.”

“I’m her sister and he’s her brother,” Veradean said.

“My, my!” Brother Galvin said. “I might have guessed as much.”

He flashed them all a grin and patted Baby Eddie on the head.

“All are welcome in the house of the Lord,” he said. “All are welcome. I hope the three of you will honor us with your presence at the service that begins in about half an hour in the building next door.”

“Thank you,” Vicki-Vicki said, and Brother Galvin moved on.

“I’ll bet he’s rich,” Veradean whispered. “Maybe you could marry him and we could come and live with you.”

“He’s at least forty years old.”

“What difference does that make as long as he’s got money?”

After they finished eating, they stood up to let others take their places and went outside.

“Now it’s time for church,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“Do we have to go?” Veradean asked.

“It’s the least we can do.”

The church was part of the same building but reached by going out one door and through another. There were about ten people inside sleepily waiting for the service to begin. An old woman played hymns on a small organ at the front.

In a couple of minutes, Brother Galvin came to the front and looked out at the people assembled. He held up his hands and smiled and the organ music stopped.

“Brothers and sisters!” he said. “Is there anybody here who does not believe that this is a day that the Lord hath made.”

“No!” somebody shouted from the back.

“We are so happy that you have made your way into our little fold on this blessed Thanksgiving Day. I’m here to tell you that the Lord loves you, no matter what you’ve done and no matter how low you might have sunk in this life. That is our message of hope at the Heavenly Light Mission: You are loved, in spite of all your transgressions, as only He can love, and you will be redeemed!”

“Amen!”

“Amen!”

A-men!

Now,” Brother Galvin said, looking directly at Vicki-Vicki, “I’m going to ask each of you to come forward, one by one, on this glorious Thanksgiving Day, and be washed of your sins in the house of the Lord! What better thing could you do on this Thanksgiving Day than be washed in the blood of our blessed savior?”

Baby Eddie quickly went to sleep, while Veradean played with a piece of string. Vicki-Vicki listened and watched the people stand up one at a time and go forward to the front timidly, where Brother Galvin prayed over them and listened to their oaths that they were ready to turn their lives and hearts over to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vicki-Vicki knew her turn was coming and she was going to have to go to the front of the church with everybody watching. It was the kind of display she hated and the thought of it made her feel shy and awkward. What if she fell down in her high heels and everybody laughed? She wasn’t going to let that happen.

When Brother Galvin had his eyes closed in prayer, Vicki-Vicki scooped Baby Eddie up in her arms and, with Veradean following closely behind, made for the door. As soon as they were outside, it began to rain.

“We don’t even have an umbrella!” Veradean said.

“Carry me!” Baby Eddie whined.

They hadn’t walked very far when a red-and-white Chevrolet came along slowly and, honking at them first, pulled off the highway in front of them. The driver’s side door opened and a head popped up.

“Care for a lift?” Rollo Ruff asked.

“Who’s that?” Veradean said.

“Oh, it’s that silly boy, Rollo Ruff, from high school,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“What kind of a name is that?”

Other cars were slowing down and people were gawking, thinking they were witnessing an accident.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Get in before we all get killed!”

Vicki-Vicki got into the passenger seat beside Rollo Ruff and Veradean and Baby Eddie got into the back seat.

“I wouldn’t ordinarily accept a ride from a stranger,” Vicki-Vicki said, “but I have these little ones to think about.”

“I’m not such a stranger,” he said. “We knew each other in high school. Remember?”

“Well, if you say so.”

“You don’t remember me at all?”

“I guess I do. You were just one of so many silly boys.”

“I asked you to a Halloween dance once and you turned me down.”

“I’ll bet I wasn’t very nice about it, either, was I?”

He laughed and looked at her appreciatively. “No, you weren’t. You just about broke my heart.”

“You’re exaggerating!”

“Well, maybe a little.”

She hated now to have him know where she lived, but there was no other choice.

“Turn left on Bryson Road going out of town,” she said. “Go past the mill and the sewage treatment plant and I’ll tell you where to turn.”

“Oh, you live down here!” he said and she heard the disappointment in his voice.

“It’s just temporary,” she said. “We plan on moving soon.”

“I didn’t know we were moving,” Veradean said.

When Rollo Ruff pulled up in front of the house, Vicki-Vicki was glad it was raining so hard that he wouldn’t be able to see the peeling paint and sagging porch.

Vicki-Vicki made Veradean and Baby Eddie both thank Rollo Ruff for giving them all a ride and keeping them from having to walk home in the rain.

“Can I see you a little later?” Rollo Ruff asked.

“What for?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“I can swing by about seven o’clock and we can have a little fun.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

She pointed with her thumb toward the back seat.

“Put them to bed and we can go for a drive.”

“I can’t leave them alone. They’re too young.”

“Well, then,” he said, “put them to bed and you and I can just sit and talk.”

“I don’t think so. I’m tired. My feet ache. We walked all that way.”

“I’m not giving up,” Rollo Ruff said. “When I saw you again today, I wondered why I let you get away in high school.”

“You’re a smooth talker, aren’t you?”

“Not really. I’m usually tongue-tied.”

“Well, good night. It was lovely seeing someone from high school again.”

She opened the door and started to get out.

“I can’t call you because you don’t have a phone,” he said. “If I give you my number, will you call me?”

“Well, I suppose I might consider calling you some time when it’s convenient, if I don’t forget.”

“Do you have a piece of paper?”

“No.”

He took a pen out of his pocket and wrote the number on the back of Vicki-Vicki’s hand.

“Write it down before you wash it off,” he said.

“I will,” she said. “If I don’t forget.”

Rollo Ruff drove off into the night and Vicki-Vicki carried Baby Eddie into the house and put him to bed.

“I hope I don’t catch a cold,” Veradean said.

At ten o’clock, Vicki-Vicki and Veradean were sitting at the kitchen table. Vicki-Vicki leafed through a magazine and Veradean shuffled a deck of cards. The house was silent except for the rain on the roof.

“Do you want to play some two-handed pinochle?” Veradean asked.

“I hate card games,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“That was the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had. It made me feel just like a pilgrim.”

“I’m so happy for you.”

“Are you going to marry that boy?”

“What boy?”

“That Rollo boy.”

“I don’t even know him.”

“I think he really likes you.”

“He’ll get over it.”

“Are you going to call him up sometime?”

“I don’t know. It depends on how bored I get sitting around this dump.”

“If you marry him, will you let me and Baby Eddie come and live with you?”

“I’m not going to marry him.”

“Okay, but if you do.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t want to end up in foster care.”

“You worry like an old woman.”

“I wonder if I’ll ever make it to high school,” Veradean said.

“Don’t be in any hurry to get to high school,” Vicki-Vicki said. “It’s a hell hole.”

“It’s supposed to be a good time.”

“Well, it’s not.”

They heard a car out front and then voices and then a thump followed by another thump. Veradean ran and looked out the front window.

“Mama’s coming up the front walk!” she said.

“What?” Vicki-Vicki said, running into the front room.

The front door opened and mama came into the house, dripping wet.

Veradean ran to mama and put her arms around her big waist. “Mama! Oh, mama! Why didn’t you tell us you were coming home?”

“I didn’t know it myself until last night. They let me out to spend Thanksgiving with my family.”

“I’m so glad you’re here!”

“Are you home for good this time?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Get me a towel. Can’t you see I’m dripping water on the floor?”

Veradean took mama’s little suitcase and mama sat down on the couch, out of breath, and dried her hair with the towel Vicki-Vicki handed her.

“Where’s Baby Eddie?” she asked.

“He was tired out. He went to sleep.”

“I want to see him.”

“Don’t wake him up!” Vicki-Vicki said. “I’ll never get him to go back to sleep.”

“Who do you think are you telling me what to do in my own home?”

“I just meant…”

“I don’t care what you meant.”

“Mama, what did you do to your hair?” Veradean asked. “It’s blond now!”

“You like it?”

“Yes, it looks very glamorous.”

“A gal in prison who murdered her husband fixed it for me. I think it’s a little too short, but I guess it’ll grow out quick enough.

“Oh, it’s elegant!

“Did you kids eat today?”

“Oh, mama! We had the most wonderful Thanksgiving dinner I ever saw. We had turkey and dressing and candied sweet potatoes and corn and pumpkin pie and all the stuff the pilgrims had. The only difference was religious people took the place of the Indians.”

“Where did this take place?”

“At the Heavenly Light Mission in town,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You walked all that way?”

“It’s the only way we could get there.”

“I was going to stop and pick up some chicken on my way home,” mama said. “I’m glad now I didn’t bother, since you already ate.”

“We started walking home in the rain and one of Vicki-Vicki’s boyfriends came along and gave us a ride.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“He was cute, too,” Veradean said.

Mama looked suspiciously at Vicki-Vicki. “You been whoring around while I was gone?”

“Isn’t that what you do? Isn’t that how you get three kids by three different men without ever being married to any one of them?”

“You’d better watch that smart mouth of yours, my girl. I can still slap you silly and don’t think I won’t do it, either!”

“Mama, can I sleep with you tonight?” Veradean said. “I’ve missed you so much!”

“Hell no!” mama said. “I don’t want you breathin’ on me all night. And, anyway, I’ve got a date. I just came home to change clothes. Somebody’s pickin’ me up in about ten  minutes.”

She went into the bedroom and closed the door. In a few minutes she emerged wearing her fancy black dress and left in a hurry without speaking another word.

“Can you sleep with me and Baby Eddie tonight?” Veradean asked. “When mama comes home she’ll be drunk and I don’t want to be around her when she’s like that.”

At two in the morning Vicki-Vicki was still awake. She lay in the bed next to Veradean, listening to the rain and wind buffeting the house. Baby Eddie lay in another smaller bed on the other side of the room. Sometimes he made little mouse sounds in his throat like there was something inside that was trying to come out.

There was a flash of lightning, unusual for the time of year, and sirens out on the highway. The sirens usually meant a car wreck. If Vicki-Vicki could have any wish tonight, it would be for one particular traffic fatality. Just the one and no others.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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Grendel ~ A Capsule Book Review

Grendel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

If you majored in English in college, as I did, you will remember Beowulf, the anonymous epic poem, written in Old English almost a thousand years ago. Beowulf  is one of the first literary works in English, even though it’s an English nobody today would identify or understand.

The story of Beowulf is set in frozen Scandinavia around 1000 A.D., and it concerns a small groups of Danes (or thanes) ruled over by a king named Hrothgar. When these thanes are not fighting wars and conquering their enemies, they sit around in the Meadhall where they drink mead, swap stories, have sex, listen to music, fight and have a good time until they drink themselves to sleep. They seem to have an enjoyable life, but there is one fierce and vicious enemy that might show up at any time and spoil their good times. This enemy is the manlike monster known as Grendel.

Grendel kills as many thanes as he can by picking them up and biting off their heads and generally spreading terror and mayhem whenever and wherever he can. No matter how much the thanes fear him and do battle with him, they can’t seem to prevail over him because, early in the story, he is made invincible by a dragon. (An invincibility that, in the end, seems to wear itself out.) This background sets the stage for the 1974 novel, Grendel, by John Gardner (1933-1982).

Grendel is told in Grendel’s own first-person voice. He lives in a cave that has an underground lake with his blob of his mother who doesn’t speak. We (the reader) never learn anything about where Grendel came from or how he came to be. He just is, that’s all, like the universe.

We see that Grendel isn’t really such a bad fellow. He’s lonely, unhappy, unloved, misunderstood and an outcast. He kills because it is in his nature to kill. There are times when he could kill but doesn’t. He has a sensitive spirit and never fails to appreciate the beauty of nature. He spies on the thanes as they party in their Meadhall because, in reality, he would like to be one of them, to be accepted by them. He just can’t always resist the urge to kill them.

Grendel takes the story of Beowulf a little farther. It’s a psychological examination of a monster and an outcast. No matter how despicable a person or a thing is, we must realize that he (it) always has his (its) own story with which we might sympathize if we could but know the details. It’s been many years since I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the astute reader will, I think, see similarities between the two monsters.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

I Want People to See Us Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had given up driving, so he had to take her wherever she wanted to go, whether it was to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones or to the beauty parlor to get her hair re-crimped and re-tinted. He usually waited in the car at the beauty parlor, no matter how long it took, no matter how hot or cold the weather. He absolutely refused to wait inside and have all the ladies looking at him, thinking what a mama’s boy he was.

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

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

“Of course, mother,” he’d say. “I know you’re right. You’re always right.”

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

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

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

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

It started in high school. There was a boy named Evan Alexander. He was one year older than Lonnie but seemed much older. He talked of improbable sexual experiences he had had with married women. Not only that, he openly experimented with drinking and drugs and didn’t seem to worry about the consequences. He was so handsome, so daring and different that Lonnie felt important, for the first time in his life, just having Evan as a friend.

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

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

After two more beers, Lonnie’s inhibitions began to melt away. They went into Evan’s bedroom and closed the door. They smoked another joint and Evan took his pornography collection out of the closet and showed it to Lonnie. Lonnie had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but not to the point where he wanted to leave.

Evan asked Lonnie if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures. Lonnie had heard about boys doing things with each other, but he never expected to be offered the opportunity to do them himself. He ended up staying the whole night.

When he got home in the morning, his mother was distraught because he had been gone all night and hadn’t bothered to phone. She was just on the point of calling the hospitals, she said. He told her an improbable story about having to stay the night with a friend who was sick and afraid to be alone. She knew he was lying. She barely spoke to him for two weeks and turned her back on him whenever he came into the room.

He went to Evan’s house several more times when Evan’s parents were away. He thought about Evan all the time. When the phone rang, his heart skipped a beat. He was grateful to Evan above all things for letting him discover his own true nature. He knew now what had been bothering him through all his growing-up years. When people found out the kind of person he was, they would call him names and think ill of him, but he didn’t care. His mother, if she knew, would go to bed and die. He didn’t care about that, either.

Then graduation came and Evan was finished with high school. He landed a job in California and went away, vowing never to return. Lonnie didn’t want to believe that he would never see Evan again. He wrote chatty, confiding letters, even going so far as suggest that he himself come to California so the two of them could continue their friendship, but Evan wasn’t receptive to the idea.

There were others after Evan, all of them easily forgotten. None of them meant to Lonnie what Evan had meant. In his mid-twenties, Lonnie decided from that moment on that he would live the life of a celibate. He didn’t want to go through life looking for another Evan and never finding him.

All the dull years went by and Lonnie found himself getting perilously to fifty. He didn’t want to be fifty any more than he had wanted to be forty. He had nothing to show for all the years he had lived. He had to do something, he believed, or his life was over.

He bought himself a computer and taught himself how to use it. It would help relieve the tedium of television and of being alone all the time with his mother. She didn’t approve of his having a computer because it kept him occupied in another room away from her, but she managed to keep her complaining on the subject to a minimum. After a while, he joined, anonymously, an online club for like-minded men. His mother never went near the computer, so he felt safe in indulging in these, for him, secret activities.

He began corresponding with a man in Russia named, appropriately, Sergei. Sergei told Lonnie all about his life in Russia. He was thirty-six years old and had never married. His mother and father were dead. He had learned English as a child in a private school run by English nuns. He lived in a house with two older brothers and one sister. He was lonely and still hoped to find the one person on earth who was right for him. The picture he sent showed a smiling, handsome, dark-haired, young man standing in front of a falling-down house.

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

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

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

Lonnie and Sergei corresponded for several months. Lonnie looked forward to Sergei’s messages. If a day passed without a message from Sergei, he felt downhearted and irritable; he had to restrain himself to keep from snapping at his mother whenever she asked him pointless questions.

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

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

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

They’d go out West somewhere. They would drive day and night, eating in roadside diners and spending the night in small, out-of-the-way motels. Sergei would be seeing America for the first time. It would be the best time that either one of them ever had. He’d send his mother a postcard to let her know he was fine but was never coming back. She’d be hurt at first but would come to accept that it as the natural order of things for an almost-fifty-year-old son to leave his mother.

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

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

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

After his mother went to bed, Lonnie began putting things in his battered old suitcase. Just the necessary items: clean socks and underwear, two new toothbrushes and toothpaste. Of course, if Sergei needed anything, he’d be more than welcome to use what was Lonnie’s. Better not to take too much, though. Travel light.

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

On the fifth day he was worried that something might have happened to Sergei. Maybe he was sick or hurt and there was nobody to let him know. He tried to be patient but it wasn’t easy. He expected things to happen quickly after he sent the money. What could be causing the delay?

After one week, he awoke with the bitter realization of what had happened to his twenty-two hundred dollars. Sergei didn’t exist. The whole thing had been a ploy to steal money from him, and he fell into the trap like a know-nothing fool. There were, of course, people who made their living that way, swindling money out of unsuspecting Americans. Once they have your money you never hear from them again.

For several days, he stayed in his room with the door locked. He turned the computer off and wouldn’t turn it back on. He didn’t bathe or brush his teeth. He knew his mother was mad at him and he didn’t want to be in the same room with her; he didn’t want to hear the claptrap coming from her TV. Late at night after she had gone to bed, he crept into the kitchen without turning on any lights and got himself a sandwich or a piece of fruit. He felt like nothing—less than nothing. He felt like a ghost.

He began vomiting blood. He was dying, he knew, and he didn’t much care. He was amused by the thought of his mother having a yard sale after he was dead to sell his clothes, books and all his possessions. Nobody would want anything that had ever belonged to him. He didn’t want it himself. It was all worthless junk.

He had a disturbing dream in which he shared the same casket with the rotting corpse of his father, dead fifteen years. He screamed and clawed at the sides and ceiling of the casket for somebody to come and let him out, but he knew it was no use. Nobody would hear him and if they did they wouldn’t care.

After he made up his mind to kill himself, he began to feel better. He got out of bed, took a shower and put on clean clothes. He left the house at seven in the morning, before his mother was even out of bed. Realizing he was hungry for the first time in days, he stopped at a pancake house and ate a huge, calorie-laden breakfast.

He drove all over town, to the places he knew as a child. The school where he had attended grade school was still there and didn’t look much different; the same swings, sliding board and merry-go-round, the same blacktop and chain-link fence. He drove to the house his family had lived in up until his fifteenth year, when they were all still alive, and stopped and parked on the street and just looked at the house until an old woman walking a dog began giving him the evil eye.

He spent some time in the park, sitting on a quiet bench in the sun. He regretted all over the loss of his money and how guilelessly he had parted with it. There had always been people like him in the world on which others—Sergei, if such a person even existed—had profited. But the good thing was that he had learned his lesson. He would never be a victim again. Of anyone.

In the attic was a network of cross beams and also old ropes hanging down, left over from the previous owners. It would be so easy for him to put one of the ropes around his neck and jump off a chair into the oblivion that he desired. His mother would be the one to find him, of course, but it would take her a while because she never had any reason to go to the attic. The smell of his rotting body would probably be the thing that would give him away.

There were many ways that a person might commit suicide. Jumping from a tall building? No, too gruesome and too public. Gunshot to the head? No, too bloody, and what if you don’t die right away? Pills? How many and what kind? Getting into a bathtub full of water and slashing the wrists? Well, that’s a possibility but it would hurt terribly. He wanted something clean, painless and aesthetic.

He had read in the newspaper about the son of a successful novelist who bought a length of rubber hose from a hardware store and drove far out into the country away from his home and connected the rubber hose from the exhaust pipe into the car’s interior through an almost-closed window. Breathing in the car’s exhaust through the rubber hose killed the novelist’s son, and it must have been quick, too.

On his way home, Lonnie stopped and bought a thirty-foot length of rubber hose. When he went to pay for it, the old man running the store asked him what he intended to use it for, but he said he was buying it for somebody else and didn’t know its intended use.

With the rubber hose in the trunk of his car where his mother would never see it, ready to be used whenever he wanted it, he felt calm and almost happy. He wasn’t just going to let the years roll over him anymore and not fight back. He had a plan and he was going to put that plan into action. He had even thought of where he would go to do it, a forgotten place far out of town on a country road, on a river, where they used to go on picnics when he was little. People went there long ago, but nobody went there now.

Now that he had decided on the place, he had only to decide on the day and time.

When he got home after being gone all day, the house was quiet and dark. His mother was in her room with the door closed. When he went into his own bedroom, he noticed right away that something was different. The computer was turned on; he hadn’t had it on for about ten days. The chair of his desk was pulled out and his papers were rifled.

He was putting things back in order when his mother appeared in the doorway. Her hair was disheveled and her pale face tear-stained.

“I want you out of this house,” she said.

“What?”

“I said I want you to get out of my house.”

“Is something wrong?”

“I know what you are and I know what you’ve been doing behind my back.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re not the only one who can use a computer, you know.”

“You’ve been spying on me?”

“You’re a filthy abomination.”

“You had no right to spy on me.”

“I have every right to know what’s going on in my house.”

“I believe it’s my house, too,” he said.

“I’m glad your father is dead. It would have broken his heart to know what his son had become.”

“I’m not going to fight with you, mother.”

She went toward him with her fists doubled up. She was going to strike him in the face but instead broke down in wailing sobs. “How could you do such a thing to your mother?”

“Whatever I did, mother, it was none of your business, and it had nothing to do with you.”

“I want you out of this house. Tonight!”

“I’m not going anywhere, mother!” he shouted as she turned and went back to her bedroom and slammed the door.

His hands were shaking and his mouth dry. He hated ugly scenes. He was reminded of the terrible fights she used to have with his mild-mannered father. He always believed that his father went to his grave before his time because of her.

Not knowing what else to do, wanting to get his thoughts in order and wanting to be out of the house, he drove to a seedy bar on the other side of the park, sat at the bar and drank three beers in quick succession. The noise in the bar, the smoke and the music were somehow comforting to him.

He went back home at nine o’clock, expecting that she might have the door barred to him in some way, but he let himself in with his key and saw to his relief that nothing had changed. No lights were on. She was still in her room with the door closed.

He locked himself in his room and went to bed as if nothing had happened. He slept soundly and awoke to the sunlight streaming in and the birds singing. He put his bathrobe on over his pajamas and went into the kitchen and cooked bacon, eggs and French toast, enough for two.

By nine o’clock, his mother still wasn’t up. He didn’t hear her moving around in her room; he didn’t hear the toilet flush. He went to the door of her room and knocked gently.

“Mother, I’ve cooked breakfast!” he said.

Finding the door unlocked, he opened it and went in. The room was dark and smelled faintly of something foul. She was lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.

At first he thought she was dead but when he saw her still breathing, he laid her out flat, put a pillow under her head and covered her with her favorite yellow blanket. He went into the kitchen and called an ambulance.

He followed the ambulance to the hospital in his car and sat in a room of chairs until the middle of the afternoon before a doctor came out to tell him what was wrong.

“She’s had a massive stroke,” the doctor said. “It’s bad.”

“Will she recover?” Lonnie asked.

“I’m afraid not. It’s just a matter of a few days.”

She died in two days. The funeral was well-attended by all the sobbing old ladies, bosom friends of his mother, that Lonnie had met, either at church or at the funerals of others. They all expressed their tearful condolences; a couple of them kissed him on the cheek. Some of them had spinster daughters or granddaughters they wanted him to meet.

His mother had several hundred thousand dollars that Lonnie never knew existed. She had always loved to accumulate money and hated to spend it. She was, to hear her tell it, always on the verge of starvation and bankruptcy.

All the money came to Lonnie as the last surviving member of the family. After he sold the house and all its furnishings, he had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his days. He bought an extravagant red car that his mother would have hated.

Something else he bought was a set of luggage, which he filled with the childhood mementoes, clothes, books and other things he wanted to keep. He loaded the luggage into his new car, took one last look at the house and drove away.

He wanted to see the West. He wanted to see Texas and Utah, Arizona, Wyoming and New Mexico. He wanted to see the Grand Canyon. He drove day and night, eating at roadside diners and spending nights in small, out-of-the-way motels. Always he was stricken with awe at the wondrous things he saw.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

All Hallow’s Eve

All Hallow’s Eve ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Mother stood over him while he ate his dinner of liver and onions. When she decided he had eaten enough, she told him he could go. He ran up the stairs to his room and put on his Halloween costume. A ghost this year, same as last year. Next year he was going to have to be something different. Wearing the same costume more than two years in a row was terrible.

His false face still had dried spit around the mouth, but it was his own spit so he didn’t care. He put it on and checked the entire effect in the mirror, costume, mask and all. Something was missing. Oh, yes, the old derby hat. It was the one thing that made his costume look just a little bit creepy and scary. Without the hat, the costume was just a cheap little-kid’s getup.

Mother was in the living room when he came down the stairs. “Come here, Buster, and let me take a look at your outfit,” she said.

“It’s a costume,” Buster said.

“Oh, don’t you look cute!”

“I’m supposed to look scary!”

“So, where are you going tonight? What are you plans?”

“I’m going tricking-or-treating, mother, the same as every Halloween.”

“Who are you going with?”

“I don’t know. Some of the kids from my class, I guess.”

“What are their names?”

“You want the names of all the kids in my class?”

“Of course I don’t. You’ll be careful, now, won’t you?”

“Yeah, I’ll be careful.”

“Make sure you’re not alone. Wherever you go, go in a group.”

“I don’t care.”

“What?”

“I said okay, I’ll go in a group.”

“Be home by ten o’clock.”

“Mother! It’s Halloween and tomorrow is Saturday!”

“All right, then. Eleven.”

When he finally got out the door, he broke into a run. The evening air felt good after the stuffy house and smelled good, like leaves and burning candle wax. It wasn’t all the way dark yet, but trick-or-treaters were everywhere, mostly little kids accompanied by their mothers.

He met his friends at the corner by the park. Eric was a skeleton, Stan a hobo, and Squeamy the Lone Ranger. Squeamy’s sister, Oda May, stood apart from the others, smoking a cigarette and looked bored. She carried a rubber-and-fur gorilla mask loosely in her hand like a rag.

“What’s Oda May doing here?” Buster asked.

“My mother wouldn’t let me go out without an adult,” Squeamy said.

“She’s fifteen!”

“I guess that’s enough of an adult.”

“Let’s get going, you losers,” Stan said, “before all the good candy is gone!”

Oda May flipped away her cigarette and put on the gorilla mask and they headed for the neighborhood on the other side of the park where all the best houses were.

It was a lucrative neighborhood. Three-quarters of the houses had their porch lights on. When people took one look at adult-sized Oda May in her gorilla mask, their smiles usually faded.

The treats were good, Hershey bars and popcorn balls instead of stale jelly beans. After three blocks, their bags were starting to get heavy. They sat down on the curb to rest for a while.

“That’s how it’s done,” Oda May said, hefting the bag of candy appreciatively between her legs. “If they’re just a little bit scared of you, they’ll fork over the candy quick enough so they can get rid of you.” She lit a cigarette without taking off the gorilla mask.

“Where to now?” Buster asked.

“I don’t know about you little turds,” Oda May said, “but I’m going to go meet my boyfriend.”

“What about us?” Stan asked.

“You’re on your own. I’ve played nursemaid long enough.”

“It’s all right,” Squeamy said. “We don’t need her.”

“And don’t follow me,” she said, “or somebody’s gonna lose some teeth!”

“Leave the mask on!” Squeamy called after her. “Your boyfriend might like you better that way!”

“What will she do with all that candy?” Buster asked.

“Probably give it to her boyfriend.”

“Who is this boyfriend, anyway?” Eric asked. “Why don’t we get to meet him?”

“He’s a criminal, I think,” Squeamy said. “She doesn’t want me to see him because she’s afraid I’ll tell on her. He’s twenty-three years old. I’ll bet he’s really terrible looking, like a convict.”

“I’d like to see him,” Stan said.

“Hey, I stole some of her cigarettes when she wasn’t looking,” Squeamy said, passing them around and lighting them.

“Boy, I like smoking!” Eric said. “I inhale the smoke deep down into my lungs and let it stay there.”

“Me too,” Stan said. “I’m always going to smoke for as long as I live.”

“My mother told me if she ever caught me smoking a cigarette she’d knock it down my throat,” Squeamy said.

“Doesn’t she smoke?” Eric asked.

“Of course she does. They all smoke.”

“Then why does she care?”

“Because I’m in fifth grade.”

“She’s a hypocrite,” Stan said.

Buster had never smoked before except for a quick puff off his mother’s cigarette when she wasn’t looking. He didn’t like the taste of it, but he wasn’t going to be the only one not to smoke.

Several times, he took the smoke into his mouth and quickly blew it out again. He wanted to have the others see him with smoke coming out his nose like a dragon, but he wasn’t sure how to do it without inhaling.

“Don’t you like smoking, Buster?” Squeamy asked.

“Yeah, I like it all right. I smoke all the time when my mother isn’t looking.”

“Well, finish your cigarettes, ladies,” Eric said. “We’ve still got a lot of territory to cover.”

They went over a couple of blocks to another neighborhood where the treats were bound to be good. They covered several blocks, both sides of the street, in just under an hour.

“My bag is getting really heavy,” Squeamy said. “I think I’d probably better go on home now.”

“Somebody gave me a guitar pick as a treat. Isn’t that weird?”

“Hey, it looks like it’s going to rain! If our bags get wet, they’ll bust through on the bottom and all our candy will spill out!”

“What time is it?”

“I think it’s about a quarter to ten.”

“I think we should call it a night.”

Some older kids, sixteen and seventeen, came up behind them with the intention of stealing their candy, so they began running furiously into the dark to get away from them. Stan knew the neighborhood better than the others, so they all followed him.

He led them around in a circuitous loop over to Main Street, where there were lots of lots of lights, people and cars.

“I think we outran them!” he said.

“Can you imagine the nerve?” Eric said. “We’ve been out all night trick-or-treating for our candy, and somebody thinks they can just come along and take it from us? What is the world coming to?”

Some of the businesses on Main Street were giving out treats. A lady at a bakery gave them day-old pumpkin cookies, which they devoured like hungry wolves.

A man standing in front of a tavern was giving out treats from a large plastic pumpkin. “You kids need to be home in bed,” he said.

“If we come inside, will you give us a beer?” Stan asked.

“Come back in ten years,” the man said.

There was a big crowd at the Regal Theatre, a long line of people waiting to buy tickets to the Halloween double feature: Bride of the Gorilla and The Terror of Tiny Town. Anybody in costume could get in for half-price.

“If we had enough money, we could go,” Stan said.

“Aw, I can’t stay out that late,” Buster said. “My mother would come looking for me.”

They were about to walk past the theatre, but Squeamy spotted Oda May in the ticket line in the gorilla mask and stopped. She wasn’t alone, either.

“She’s with a little kid and he’s a cowboy!” Squeamy said. “Her boyfriend is a child and a cowboy! That’s why she didn’t want us to meet him!”

From where they were standing, they all had a good look at the little cowboy. When he turned around to look at the line behind him, Buster saw his face. “That’s no little kid,” he said. “That’s a midget!”

“A what?”

“Oda May’s boyfriend is a midget and his face is all wrinkled! He must be thirty years old!”

“Oh, boy!” Squeamy said. “I’m really going to tell on her now!”

“I think we should go over and say ‘hi’ to her,” Eric said.

“No!” Squeamy said. “She’ll think we’ve been following her!”

They stood and watched Oda May and the midget cowboy move up in the line. When it was their turn, Oda May moved around behind the midget, put her hands on his waist and lifted him up so he could buy the tickets and then set him down again. Several people in line behind them laughed, but they seemed not to notice.

“Now I’m seen everything!” Squeamy said. “Can you imagine what their children will be like? I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Let’s go,” Stan said. “It’s ten o’clock and it’s starting to rain again.”

They decided to walk home with Stan, since he lived the closest. The interesting thing about Stan was that his father was an undertaker and the family lived above the funeral parlor. It was a subject of endless fascination to Stan’s friends.

“I think I’m going to call it a night,” Stan said when they were at the corner near his house. “Thanks for walking me home.”

“Do you mean you’re not going to ask us in after we’ve come all this way?” Squeamy said.

“Do you have a body in a casket we can look at?” Eric asked.

“Stan’s right,” Buster said. “I should be getting home, too.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Squeamy said. “I don’t think I can wait until I get home.”

“Oh, all right!” Stan said. “You can come in but you have to wipe your feet first.”

Stan’s parents were out for the evening, so they had the place to themselves. Stan took them down to the basement to show them around but made them promise not to touch anything. First he showed them the room where the embalming was done with its white cabinets full of jars and bottles and then a separate room where bodies were dressed and prepared for burial. The most impressive part of the tour was the casket room, where more than fifty caskets were opened up so people could see inside them. Eric, Buster and Squeamy took turns taking off their shoes and getting into a casket to see what it felt like, while Stan closed the lid on each of them for a few seconds and then made them get out.

“My dad wouldn’t like it if he knew we were down here,” he said.

“Let us know when there’s a body so we can come back and see it,” Eric said.

“I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. It’s people you don’t know. You don’t feel anything looking at them.”

“You are so lucky! I’ve never seen a dead body!”

“I need to get home,” Buster said. “It’s getting late.”

Buster walked part of the way home with Squeamy and Eric, but they left him at the corner by the church and he had to walk the last four blocks alone. He held his bag of candy in his arms because it was heavy and soggy and he didn’t want the bottom breaking through. He didn’t see a single other person on his way home. Everybody was finished for the night. Halloween was over for another year.

Mother was sitting on the couch in her bathrobe and slippers watching a Charlie Chan movie on TV. “Did you have a nice time?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was okay.”

“I’m glad you’re home.”

“Why?

“I always worry about you when you’re out by yourself.”

“I wasn’t by myself.”

“There’s an escapee on the loose killing people. I just heard it on TV.”

“We just missed him.”

“Now don’t eat all that candy at once. You’ll make yourself sick. You still have to eat your fruits and vegetables.”

“I know. I want to go to bed now. I’m tired.”

She was saying something else as he went up the stairs, but he didn’t hear what it was.

He weighed himself on the bathroom scale, first without the bag and then with it. He weighed eighty-four pounds without the bag and ninety-five pounds with it. Eleven pounds of candy. One pound for every year of his life.

He undressed and put on his pajamas and set the bag of candy on top of the chest of drawers where he could see it from the bed. He got into bed, took one last look at it, turned off the light. Before he could have counted to ten, he was asleep.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review

1920 First Edition Cover

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896. His reputation as a great American writer of the twentieth century rests firmly on his four novels (especially The Great Gatsby) and dozens of short stories that he wrote for magazines. More than any other writer of his generation, he was a chronicler of his age, which became known as the Jazz Age. He died in 1940, age forty-four, of a heart attack.

Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920, when he was only twenty-four years old. The central character in the novel is Amory Blaine, an arrogant, good-looking, heavy-drinking young man from a prosperous family. He has an indulgent mother who spoils him and a mousy father who doesn’t do much of anything except make money. Amory has what might be called a “golden” youth. He attends Princeton University where he and his friends spend a lot of time drinking, socializing, talking and intellectualizing, and having a good time.

The glory of Amory’s youth is rather tarnished by a series of unsuccessful love affairs with spoiled, vacuous debutantes. Each time he begins a new love affair, he believes it is the all-consuming passion of his life that will bring him eternal happiness and peace. None of them turn out the way he wants them to, however. He plans on marrying a girl named Rosalind Connage, but she throws him over at the last minute because she thinks he is essentially a loser who won’t ever be able to make enough money to suit her. Here we have one of the major themes of the novel: how the quest for money and social standing kill romance.

World War I is the defining event of Amory’s generation, but for him it’s no more than a blip. He enlists, as everybody else is doing, but he remains stationed on Long Island and doesn’t see any fighting before the war ends. He says later that he loathed the army.

After the war ends, Amory finds himself in a changed world. Some of his best friends from college have died in the war. His father dies and his mother discovers they don’t have nearly as much money as they thought they did. Is Amory going to be forced to go to work to earn a living?

As Amory grows older, he becomes more disillusioned. His mother dies. His college friends die or drift away. Some investments left by his family that provide a portion of his income dry up (and this is long before the Depression). He’s afraid of being poor. He wants to write but doesn’t. He sees his youth slipping away, its promise unfulfilled. The book concludes with a long philosophical conversation he has with two men he doesn’t know (one of them turns out to be the father of a college friend who was killed in the war), in which he espouses his belief that Socialism will cure all the world’s ills. After all he goes through, he ends up by saying, “I know myself, but that is all.”

On examining Fitzgerald’s life, we see that This Side of Paradise is largely autobiographical. Amory Blaine, his protagonist in the novel, is a heavy drinker, as was Fitzgerald (probably contributing to his early death). Like Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald attended Princeton University, served a brief stint in the army during the war without seeing any real action, had some unhappy love affairs with debutantes, experienced financial reverses, and was disillusioned in early middle age.

This Side of Paradise is a novel that stops rather than ends. We don’t know what Amory’s future life will be. Will he overcome his disillusionment and became a great writer? Will he find another love to fill the void left by the departure of Rosalind? Will he find the thing he wants, whatever it is, as soon as he stops looking for it? Probably not. He’ll probably die in his mid-forties of alcoholism, as unfulfilled as ever, never knowing of his literary legacy that will endure through the decades.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

First Man ~ A Capsule Movie Review

First Man ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

It’s hard to believe it’s been forty-nine years since the first manned space flight to the moon. In July 1969, America bested the Soviet Union in the space race by overcoming the immense dangers and technological challenges of putting a living, breathing human man on the face of the moon and safely returning him to earth. It was the culmination of all the manned space flights of the sixties. The moon was always the ultimate goal. As John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “We do it not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.”

First Man is about the first manned space flight to the moon but, more than that, it’s a personal story about the man, Neil Armstrong, who first stepped out of the “lunar module” onto the surface of the moon—the first-ever human being from earth to set foot on another world outside his own. First Man chronicles the difficulties involved in getting a man on the moon and the personal toll to those involved.

Neil Armstrong was a regular-guy family man. He was quiet, modest, self-effacing and not given to displays of ego or emotion, even with his family. When his small daughter, Karen, dies of cancer, he carries his grief alone. He works in one of the most dangerous professions known to man, but he never shows his fear or lets it get the best of him, even when some of his colleagues die in horrific “accidents.” And when he becomes, for a time, the most famous man on earth for being the first man on the moon, he doesn’t care about adoration or fame. During a press conference when a reporter asks him how he felt when he was chosen to be the head of the first manned mission to the moon, he says, “I was pleased.” When called upon to expound upon these feelings, he says, “I was pleased.” This simple phrase encapsulates his demeanor perfectly.

Current movie star Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Blade Runner 2049) plays Neil Armstrong with humility and sincerity. We never feel like we’re watching a movie star justifying his twelve-million dollar paycheck so he can line up his next twelve-million-dollar project. An actress named Claire Foy, whom I had never seen before, is impressive as Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet. She also seems simple and sincere. We see what she’s going through, knowing that her husband might never come home again from his latest mission. She has to corral the kids and deal with obstreperous reporters on her front lawn. At one point she stands up to the fellows at NASA when they try to assure her that everything is all right and she tells them they’re like a bunch of little boys playing with balsawood airplanes and they don’t know what they’re doing.

First Man is an impressive October movie (with a knock-out music score and special effects) that might disappear without being seen amid all the youth-oriented fluff and crap that floods multiplex movie screens. It’s a serious movie for the serious moviegoer. There are no women in lingerie, no risqué jokes, no bad language (one use of the “F” word that I noticed), no car chases, no explosions, no boudoir scenes, and no reason not to see it.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

 

Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise

Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Already a little seasick, Heaton declined to eat or drink on the first day out. Instead he stayed in his stateroom until he thought most of the other passengers would be occupied with dinner and cocktails and then he put on his coat and hat and went up onto the deck, like a thief in the night, without making a sound. He was pleased that he met no one, and, when he was standing at the railing in the cold night, alone, he looked down at the roiling water and tried to dispel the wave of nausea that crept over him. He closed his eyes, breathed deeply of the ocean air and, when he was certain the sickness was dissipating, he withdrew from his coat a small canvas bag.

The bag contained the ashes of one recently deceased. Looking over his shoulder to make sure he was not being observed, he dumped the ashes into the sea, element to element. He watched the ashes until they dispersed into the air and water and then, as an afterthought, dropped the canvas bag over the side, too. With one stroke, it was all over, so simple and clean. The last earthly vestiges of a life, gone in an instant. He hadn’t realized until that moment how satisfying it would be.

He was about to return to his stateroom when someone came and stood beside him at the railing.

Bon voyage!” a man’s voice said.

“What?” Heaton asked, a little irritated at having his privacy intruded upon.

“I said those words today for the first time in my life.”

“Oh. Yes. We’re on a big boat, aren’t we? I suppose the right word is ship. And we’re on our way to an exotic foreign destination.”

“Care for a smoke?” the man asked.

Although Heaton had never smoked in his life, he reached for the cigarette as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do. He put it in his mouth and the man lit it expertly with a shiny lighter and then lit his own.

“I just said goodbye to my mother,” Heaton said.

“Push her overboard?”

“In a way, I suppose I did. I just dumped her ashes.”

“According to her wishes?”

“No. She had no wishes regarding her ashes. I don’t think she would have cared what I did with them. She never saw the sea or was anywhere near it, so in a way it’s a new experience for her.”

“Release her to the elements?”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Heaton said. He took a puff on the cigarette and looked at the end of it curiously.

“Are you traveling alone?” the man asked and Heaton turned and looked at him in the dim light. He wasn’t young but not exactly old, either. He wore an expensive-looking wool coat and a brown hat that perfectly matched his physiognomy.  Everything about him seemed in perfect harmony: the placement of his nose in the middle of his face and his perfectly arched lips.

“Yes, alone,” Heaton said, resenting only slightly the forwardness of the question.

“First time at sea?”

“Oh, yes! I’ve never been anywhere or done anything in my life.”

“So now that your mother is gone you’re striking out on your own.”

“Something like that.”

“Good for you!”

Heaton was a little surprised at himself that he was opening up to a stranger on such short acquaintance, but that didn’t stop him.

“My mother was a very strong and forthright woman,” he said. “Even as an adult, I always found myself bending to her will.”

“And now that she’s gone and you’re on your own, it’s a little frightening?”

“I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but I suppose it is.”

The man threw away his cigarette and right away lit another one. Heaton found himself looking at the side of the man’s face and at the little wrinkles that radiated outward from his eyes.

“I’m traveling with my sister, you know,” the man said.

“Your sister?” Heaton asked, finding the idea rather appalling.

“Yes. Her name is Louise.”

“Well, that’s funny!” Heaton said. “That was my mother’s name.”

“Well, maybe that’s some kind of omen.”

“I don’t believe in omens.”

“Louise is unattached and you’re unattached. I think she would be awfully interested in meeting a nice fellow like you.”

“I’m not a nice fellow. I don’t know why I’m even standing here talking to you. Nobody likes me. I’m a terrible person. My mother would tell you so if she was here.”

The man laughed and slapped Heaton on the back. “Is that what you call ‘self-deprecating humor’? My sister would love you for it!”

“I really hadn’t planned on meeting anybody this trip. It’s been a long time since I’ve been truly alone, and I’m just looking forward to some solitude.”

“I would guess you haven’t had much romance in your life,” the man said.

“I’ve always been very busy with my work. I never had much time for that sort of thing.”

“I hope you’ll at least have a drink with us. Louise and me.”

“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”

“Well, I’ll see you again,” the man said. “If you change your mind, let me know.”

After he was gone, Heaton spit over the railing. He found it hard to believe that anybody would like the taste of cigarettes.

When he got back to his stateroom and turned on the light, he wasn’t surprised to see his mother sitting there in the dark.

“Go away, mother!” he said. “You’re dead!”

“You make me sick!” she said.

“So you’ve told me many times.”

“I heard every word that man said to you, and you’re too naïve to see what his game is.”

“I thought he was very nice to talk to me. I wasn’t aware that he had a game.”

“He knows you’ve got money!”

“Now how could he know that?”

“You’re traveling first-class on a luxury liner. Take a survey and see how many of the people in first-class are millionaires.”

“I’m not going to take any surveys, mother.”

“A funny little man traveling by himself in first-class. They smell you from a mile off. They smell money.”

“I wasn’t aware that money had a smell, mother.”

“They know you’re lonely and shallow and naïve and know nothing of the world.”

“People can tell all that just from looking at me?”

“They know you’d be vulnerable to the charms of a woman because no woman has ever paid any attention to you.”

He couldn’t keep from laughing. “I think you’d better go now, mother. Satan is probably wondering where you are.”

“You think you’re rid of me, don’t you?”

“I just poured your ashes into the sea, mother.”

“Why didn’t you just flush me down the toilet?”

“I thought of that, but I thought dumping you overboard into the sea from a moving sea-going vessel was more dignified and more final.”

“And now that you’re on your own, what do you think you’re going to do with yourself?”

“Did I tell you I quit my job the day after you died? I’m not going to work anymore. I’m going to take a vacation now, a real rest.”

“On my money?”

“It’s not your money anymore, mother. It’s my money. You’re dead. Dead people don’t have money.”

“If I had it to do over again, I would sign all my assets over to charity.”

“Hah-hah! Too late now!”

“You’re in the middle of the ocean. If you had any sense at all, you’d jump in.”

“Why would I do that?”

“You know you can’t get along without your mother.”

“I’m going to have such fun spending the money that used to be yours but is now mine! I’m going to see all the sights and experience all the things I’ve missed out on in forty-four years on this earth, and you can’t stop me. That’s why you’re so sore at me.”

“You’ll end up squandering all of my money!”

“You don’t need to worry about it, mother. You’ll never know. You’re dead.”

“You will never be rid of me!”

“Oh, no?”

He kicked the chair she was sitting in with such force that it turned over backwards against the wall.

“You stupid ass!” she said. “Are you trying to kill me?”

“You’ll never call me ‘stupid’ again or anything else!”

When he saw her struggling to get up off the floor, he laughed and, like a child playing a game, ran into the bathroom, closed and locked the door and turned on the water. When he came out a few minutes later, she was gone. Gone forever this time, he was sure.

Now that he had her taken care of, he was going to put on his pajamas and get into bed and read for a while, but that’s what the old Heaton would have done. The new Heaton would get out and overcome his squeamishness and his seasickness, mix with people and have some fun.

He checked himself in the mirror and went out of his room again and went to the cocktail lounge. He took a seat at the bar and ordered a pack of cigarettes and a drink. When he told the bartender what he wanted, he didn’t even stammer or hesitate. It was as though he had been ordering drinks his whole life.

“First time across?” the bartender asked as he lit his cigarette for him.

“Yes, and I’m celebrating my freedom,” Heaton said.

“Divorce?” the bartender asked.

“Oh, no! I’ve never been married. It’s a different kind of freedom.”

The bartender smiled at him and he drank his drink in one gulp and ordered another one. Over to his right, someone was looking at him and when he turned his head slightly, he saw it was a woman with breasts  exposed in a plunging neckline. She smiled at him and lifted her glass and he looked away quickly and took a nervous puff on his cigarette. He didn’t know how interested he was going to be or if he was going to be interested at all, but nobody had ever looked at him before and he found that he liked it more than he ever thought he would.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp