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Buses Boarding in Blue Letters

Buses Boarding in Blue Letters ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a re-post.)

The bus station was smoky, noisy, crowded. All the seats were taken. Ada Bloodsaw held her mother, Mrs. Bloodsaw, by the hand, looking for a place to sit down. On the far side of the room against the wall, a man and a woman were just vacating chairs. Ada pulled Mrs. Bloodsaw by the arm, quickly, to get to the chairs before somebody else got them.

Ada backed Mrs. Bloodsaw up to the empty chair and then, taking both her hands, gave her a little push to get her to sit. Mrs. Bloodsaw sat obediently, grappling for her little suitcase. “What is this place?” she asked. “Are we here to see the doctor?”

“We’re in the bus station!” Ada shouted, sitting down beside her.

“Are we going on a trip?”

You’re going on a trip. I’m staying home.”

“What if I don’t want to go?”

“Now, mother, we’ve been all through this. You don’t want to disappoint Warren and Minnie, do you? They’re expecting you.”

“Call them and tell them I won’t be there.”

“Sit right there and don’t get up. I’ll go and buy your ticket.”

There was a long line at the ticket counter. Ada stood in the line for about fifteen minutes. It was taking so long that Mrs. Bloodsaw hoped that Ada would give up and drop out of the line and they could go back home, but this, of course, is not what happened. Ada came back with the ticket in her hand and sat down in the chair beside Mrs. Bloodsaw.

“I don’t know why there are so many people here today,” Ada complained. “Maybe you should have gone on the train instead.”

“I don’t want to go,” Mrs. Bloodsaw said meekly.

“Now, here’s your ticket,” Ada said. “Keep track of it. Don’t let it out of your sight. Give it to the driver when you get on the bus.”

“I think I’m going to be sick. I think I’m having a heart attack. Maybe a stroke.”

“Remember now, your suitcase is on the floor by your feet. Don’t let it out of your sight. If you have to go to the toilet, take it with you. People steal things in bus stations.”

“Why do they do that?”

“Listen for the voice on the loudspeaker. When your bus is announced, you get up and go through that door over there where it says Buses Boarding in blue letters. Can you remember that?”

“Buses boarding in blue letters.”

“Yes! Listen for the voice on the loudspeaker!”

“I heard you!”

“Good! Well, then, I guess that’s everything. I know you’re going to have a  wonderful time!”

As always, Mrs. Bloodsaw was relieved by Ada’s departure. She didn’t like being bossed, made to feel incompetent. One can only take so much bullying from other people, even if they are one’s own family.

Left on her own, Mrs. Bloodsaw enjoyed watching people. They were always so different from oneself, so unexpected. There was a fat man over there, surely one of the fattest men in the history of fat men. He made his way through the throng with tiny steps like an elephant. The black coat he wore was like a tent. He sat down on a bench and wiped his face with a handkerchief. Even from across the room, anybody could see he was out of breath and not well. It must have been a tremendous effort just to carry that gargantuan body around.

A pair of nuns came in. Their long black dresses swept the floor. They were looking for a place to sit but at the moment were out of luck. They had hard, sour faces; they appeared to be arguing. They found a spot on a bench that was hardly big enough for one person and sat down together in the compact space, appearing from a distance to be a creature with two frightening heads. One of them lit a cigarette, baring ugly yellow teeth, and they passed the cigarette back and forth until they finished with it and threw it on the floor.

The voice on the loudspeaker rumbled unexpectedly, causing Mrs. Bloodsaw to jump and emit a tiny scream. She wasn’t able to understand a word that was said. It might as well have been Chinese or Hungarian.

The terrible voice on the loudspeaker was displaced by another jarring sound. A small girl screamed and her mother jerked her by the arm, knocking her off her feet, where she dangled in a horizontal position just inches from the floor. The mother pulled her upright and clapped her soundly on the side of the head. The screaming turned to gasping shrieks.

The screaming girl and her mother were absorbed into the crowd and in their place was a pair of midgets, a man and a woman. They were the size of eight-year-old children, dressed in adult clothes. The wife’s face was pleasant but freakish and mask-like because of the disproportionate size of her head. The man wore a dark suit and a fedora and smoked a cigar, like a little boy playing grownup businessman. When a man carrying suitcases nearly collided with the midgets, the lady midget nearly lost her balance, but the man midget laughed and grabbed onto her to keep her from falling. How sweet they were and how precious. They were as good as any show. Mrs. Bloodsaw could have watched them all day and all night.

Again the voice came on the loudspeaker, scaring Mrs. Bloodsaw out of her wits. She leaned forward and tilted her head to one side to give herself a better chance of hearing the voice, but again she was not able to make out a single word. Now she was getting worried. How was she supposed to know when they announced her bus?

She looked around for somebody who might help her and when she saw not a single person who might be the least bit sympathetic, the tears came unbidden to her eyes. She was lost and in trouble.

She was about to get up when a fat woman and a young girl approached her. The fat woman wore a maroon-colored turban that made her look foreign and exotic and the girl had protuberant eyes like a frog. The woman sat on Mrs. Bloodsaw’s right and the girl with the frog eyes sat on her left.

“Anything wrong, honey?” the fat woman in the turban asked.

“I don’t know what’s happened to the bus I was supposed to take,” Mrs. Bloodsaw said pitifully. “It might have already left.”

“You got a ticket?”

The woman looked at the writing on the ticket and then at the clock. “You got about three minutes before your bus leaves,” she said.

“Three minutes! That’s not much time!”

“Do you know where to go?”

“My daughter said something about ‘buses boarding in blue letters’ but I didn’t know what she was meant.”

“Do you want me to show you where to go?”

Would you, honey?”

“Of course, I will! Better hurry, though! You ain’t got much time.”

She helped Mrs. Bloodsaw to her feet. They had taken only a couple of steps when Mrs. Bloodsaw remembered her suitcase. “It’s got my money in it and my Bible and all my valuables,” she said. “People steal things in bus stations.”

“Don’t worry, honey,” the fat woman said. “Greta’s got it.”

“Who’s Greta?”

“My daughter. She’s right behind us.’

On the way to the buses, Mrs. Bloodsaw remembered she would never be able to ride on the bus without first paying a call at the ladies’ room. She looked in the fat woman’s face and gestured toward the door.

“All right,” the fat woman said, “but you’ll have to make it quick. Me and Greta’ll wait right here for you. Right outside the door.”

Mrs. Bloodsaw did what she went to do, washed her hands thoroughly in plenty of hot water to kill any germs, and when she went outside the door of the ladies’ room, where the fat woman and her daughter were supposed to be waiting, they were gone.

“I’ve been robbed!” she said, after she had a few seconds to absorb what had happened. “That awful, foreign, fat woman took my suitcase! Oh, what am I going to do now? It had all my money in it and my clothes and my Bible and everything.”

Several people looked at her and then looked away. Nobody was inclined to help her, though. They all had troubles of their own.

Oh, oh, oh!” she said.

When she approached the man who swept the floor and emptied the trashcans and told him what had happened, he told her she needed to report it to the office.

“I don’t know where the office is,” she said tearfully, but the man had moved on with his broom and didn’t hear her.

She walked around among the crowds of people for ten or fifteen minutes and, realizing she was doing no good and not knowing what else to do, she found the door to the street and went outside.

It was the middle of the afternoon. The sunlight blinded her. She looked one way and then the other, shading her eyes with her handkerchief. Both ways looked the same. She began walking to the right for no other reason than it seemed more promising than the left.

It was a street of old brick buildings. She saw nothing she recognized; it might as well have been a foreign country or the planet Mars. Some of the buildings were empty with papers covering the windows. What kind of a place was she in? Why did the bus station have to be in a slum?

A man in a filthy coat stepped out of an alleyway, startling her, and asked her for a dollar.

“No!” she snapped. “I don’t have a dollar. I’ve been robbed of all my money!”

She started crying again but kept walking, afraid to stay in one place too long. In the next block she came to an old hotel with a smudged plate-glass window. The old-fashioned lobby with its sofas, chairs and potted palms looked inviting in a way, so she went inside.

“I’m looking for someone,” she said to the desk clerk. “A fat woman in a turban and a girl of about twelve or so. The girl’s name is Greta, I believe.”

The clerk laughed. “That would be Lucille Allgood and Greta Goode. They took you at the bus station, didn’t they?”

“What?”

“They’re a couple of crooks. They make you think they’re trying to help you and then they steal your property.

“Do you know where I can find them?”

“Maybe, but it’s gonna cost you.”

“They took all my money!”

“You don’t have any reward money to pay for the return of your property?”

“No!”

“You don’t have a watch or a bracelet or a diamond brooch or anything like that?”

“I don’t wear jewelry.”

“I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to help you, then.”

“Why not?”

“You can’t get something for nothing, I’m afraid. Not here.”

“If I could just talk to them and explain I’m old and all alone. I’m on my way to visit my nephew in another state and…”

“I don’t think it’d do any good. Not if you ain’t got any money.”

“Are they staying here? In this hotel?”

“Now, lady, just think about it. I can’t divulge information about our guests, don’t you see? It’s a question of ethics.”

“If you’d just…”

“Sorry I can’t be of help to you, miss. You have a good afternoon, now.”

She went back outside then and kept walking, not back toward the bus station but in the other direction. A couple of blocks past the hotel, she heard a wailing siren and turned and saw an ambulance coming very fast toward her. She waved her handkerchief at the ambulance, believing it would stop for her to see what was wrong, but it kept going as if she wasn’t even there. She heard someone laugh then and, turning, saw the man in the dirty coat who had earlier asked her for a dollar.

“Did you see a big fat woman in a turban and a young girl?” she asked the man. “They stole my suitcase.”

“Don’t speak no English,” he said.

“I’ll bet you speak English when you want to!”

“Maybe I see them. Maybe not.”

“I’m in no mood to play games,” she said and kept walking.

“No, wait a minute, lady! I take you. I take you any place you want to go. Only five dollar.”

“I don’t have any money,” she said. “It was all stolen.”

“Take you any place you want to go.”

“I can’t pay you.”

“Big fat woman with thing on her head. I think I know where you find her.”

“Just tell me where.”

“No. I take you. Only five dollar.”

Mrs. Bloodsaw looked around. “How can you take me anywhere?” she asked. “Where’s your car? Don’t you have a car?”

“Hell no! Ain’t got no car!”

“I’m not going to stand here all day talking nonsense with you. Just leave me alone!”

She began walking faster to get away from the man, but she was having pains in her chest and her legs felt weak.

“It has just been an awful day!” she sobbed.

She turned around and started walking back the way she had come, toward the bus station. She knew the man in the dirty coat was following closely behind her, but she planned on ignoring him, swat him away like a fly if she had to.

“I told you to leave me alone!” she said. “I don’t have any money! Don’t you understand that?”

The man, laughing, began walking closely beside her, taking hold of her arm, obviously enjoying himself.

“You nice lady,” he said. “I wish you was my mother.”

She stumbled and he steadied her, kept her from falling.

“I have to get my suitcase back,” she said. “It has all my money in it. If you get my suitcase back, I’ll give you a reward.”

“How much?”

“Ten dollars.”

“I think I know where fat woman is with suitcase.”

“Can you take me there?”

“Sure. Take you any place you want to go.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder, not minding the smell so much. “You’re the first person all day who has shown me any kindness.”

“I take you to fat woman with suitcase.”

“If I could only just sit down for a while,” she said. “Rest my feet.”

“I know good place,” he said. “For rest. Not too much farther. Just a little bit more. Almost there. Fat woman with suitcase there.”

“You’re so kind,” she said. “If only we had met sooner.”

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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Vice ~ Capsule Movie Review

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Vice ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

He’s laconic, soft-spoken (“beware the quiet man…”), smart, cautious, chooses his words carefully, and is as reckless, ruthless and unapologetic as he needs to be in performing what he perceives as his duty to his country. He’s not the traditional politician with the 1000-megawatt smile and the standard line of bullcrap. (“If you want it, we’ll be sure and get it for you.”) He’s overweight, has a serious heart condition, is uncharismatic, unexciting, faithful to his wife and family, with no hint of scandal attached to his name (except for a lesbian daughter, which doesn’t seem to bother him in in the least). He’s Dick Cheney, Vice-President for eight years under President George W. Bush, probably the most powerful and consequential vice-president in U.S. history.

According to the new movie about Dick Cheney’s life, Vice, Dick Cheney was unambitious and unmotivated as a young man. He drank to excess and worked as a telephone lineman in his home state of Wyoming. His girlfriend (and soon to be wife), Lynne, forced him to snap-to and, as the saying goes, “make something of himself.” She was the motivating force in his life and was responsible for his being a “something” rather than a “nothing.” If it hadn’t been for Lynne, none of us would have ever heard of Dick Cheney.

Soon Mr. Cheney found himself in Washington as a young congressional intern. He “caught on” in Washington and found himself taking to Republican politics. He ran for Congress from his home state of Wyoming, won, and later served in a number of high-level government positions, spurred on, as always, by his wife, Lynne Cheney. He was just about finished with politics, was raking in the dough as CEO of Haliburton, when he was tapped to be George W. Bush’s unlikely presidential running mate in 2000. “I think we can make this work,” he says to GWB over fried chicken in the back yard.

Regardless of your political affiliation, Vice is an entertaining, wry, ironic behind-the-scenes political story and a panorama of recent American history. It’s the story of a man without political connections or family connections who came from nowhere and became the ultimate Washington insider and power player. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are sensational as Dick Cheney and his wife. Sam Rockwell, who won an Oscar last year as the amazingly dumb small-town deputy in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, plays the swaggering George W. Bush, “black sheep” of the Bush family,  governor of the state of Texas and two-term Republican president.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Greatest Story Ever Told ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Greatest Story Ever Told ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The subtitle of The Greatest Story Ever Told is A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived. It is, of course, the life of Jesus Christ and is essentially a retelling of the first four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the Bible in the form of an accessible, 300-page novel by a writer named Fulton Oursler. It’s a story that most people, Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers, will be at least partly familiar with.

What can you say about Jesus Christ that hasn’t been said millions of times before? He was a teacher, philosopher and prophet who came into the world as the living embodiment of God to live life on earth as a human being for 33-1/3 years, to experience human pain, hunger, thirst, despair, disappointment, and persecution, and to die a slow, painful and horribly cruel death at the hands of his persecutors and be resurrected three days later.

Jesus Christ’s message was one of peace, not to overthrow the government by violence, but to change men’s hearts and make them see things in a different way. Kings and magistrates and public officials hated and feared Him because He was an existential threat to their power. What if He decided to set himself up as king and ruler with the backing of most (many) of the “common” people. When asked if He was a king, His reply was: “My kingdom is not of this world.” How was the status quo to deal with Him? The answer was simple: They would deal with Him by wiping him out, destroying Him, removing Him from the world, and in a short time people would forget He ever existed.

The life of Jesus Christ has been called the most influential life ever lived. Do you believe He healed lepers, gave blind people the power to see, lame people the power to walk, brought the dead back to life, changed water into wine, turned a small amount of fish and bread into enough food to feed the multitudes, walked on water, and, after His life on earth, was resurrected into eternal life in heaven? Whether you choose to believe or not in this cynical age is up to you. As always, we are all given the choice of deciding for ourselves.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp          

The Favourite ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Favourite ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

It’s the early 1700s. Queen Anne sits on the throne of England. She has had seventeen children, all of whom died. (“Some were born in blood, some never breathed, and others were with me only for a short time.”) She has seventeen rabbits that she keeps in the royal bedchamber which serve as surrogate children. (“They are my babies.”) She is child-like, petty, temperamental, mentally unstable, sick, gout-ridden, obese, and in every way unfit to run affairs of state. England is, of course, engaged in endless, expensive warfare with France. (God help England!)

Queen Anne (played by an actress named Olivia Colman) has a “favourite,” a woman who goes by the name of Sarah (the ever-frightening Rachel Weisz). Sarah is what is known as a forceful woman. She has Queen Anne firmly in hand. She treats her at times like a child and she will slap her in the face if she feels like it (when they are alone, of course). Sarah tells the queen what to say, what to do, how to dress, and in general manages her life behind closed doors. She is the power behind the throne. And, oh, yes, they are lesbian lovers. We can’t leave that out.

There’s a new bitch in town, though. Her name is Abigail (Emma Stone). She is a wily manipulator. She has recently lost her “status” in life (her father lost her in a card game), and she longs to be a “lady” again. When she comes into the household as a lowly maid, she sizes up the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah and decides that the situation is rife with possibilities for her. She eventually discovers the sexual nature of the association between Queen Anne and Sarah and learns the way to the queen’s heart.

I didn’t care which of the two dragons (Abigail or Sarah) prevails with the queen. They are equally unlikeable. When they resort to poisoning, I don’t really care which one gets up off the floor. Queen Anne is the most interesting and compelling character, the one character with whom our sympathies lie. We pity her and also find her repulsive.  The often-tragic, often-ugly lives of English kings and queens make for fascinating viewing.

The real fun of The Favourite is the way it looks and sounds. It is a wig movie of the highest order and we don’t get many of those. (The voluminous curly wigs are worn by the men; in the battle of the hair, the women recede into the background.) The early eighteenth century sets look absolutely authentic and believable. The music of the period (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi) is loud and there’s lots of it. There’s plenty here to like, especially if you are a fan of historical costume drama and don’t really care for most of the youth-oriented crap at the multiplex.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Listen to What I am About to Say

Listen to What I am About to Say ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The first lesson was a lecture in a small room that smelled like wet towels. Nelson Hess hated it already. He sat in the back of the room observing the fifteen or so other boys who, like him, were lucky enough to be going to learn how to swim. They were all forceful, confident types; they swaggered when they walked and their voices were loud and bursting with authority. They couldn’t wait to get their suits on and get into the water.

When Boss walked into the room, the voices stopped. He was a stocky, middle-aged man with a face like a movie hoodlum. He wore a sweatshirt and black shorts and around his neck a whistle. He had more hair on his thick legs than he did on his head.

“Now, beginning swimming is not easy,” Boss barked, the gruff drill sergeant whipping the raw recruits into shape. “Most of you are not in shape for swimming and we’re going to have to get you into shape. I hope none of you are babies or whiners because if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a baby or a whiner. Or a sissy. Sissies are even worse. So if there are any sissies, whiners or babies among you, you are welcome to leave right now!”

The boys attested confidently that they were manly enough for what was coming.

“No babies?” Boss asked, holding up all his fingers. “No whiners? No sissies? No? Well, good, then! Let’s get started. He took a deep breath and smiled sadistically.

“Everybody must have his own suit and his own towel. If you arrive for your lesson without either of these two items, you will not be allowed to participate. You will fall behind and end up failing the class and we don’t like failures. Now, do we have any failures here?”

No!” the boys shouted.

“You will not at any time ask to borrow someone else’s towel if for some reason you do not have your own. That is an unsanitary practice that we do not engage in. Does everybody understand this simple rule?”

Yes!

“Good! Now, your suit may be any color you like. Except pink. I wouldn’t recommend pink.”

The boys laughed appreciatively.

“And it must be presentable.”

What does that mean?” somebody asked.

“Well, you don’t want your manly parts hanging out, now, do you?”

The boys laughed loud and long. Boss was one of them. He was a good guy!

“Now, we all know what horseplay is, don’t we? That’s another thing that will not be tolerated here. You will have fun, of course, but you will walk and not run at all times when you are near the pool and you will never play grab-ass with another swimmer, either in or out of the water.”

Hah-hah-hah!

“Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand what I’m saying?”

“No!”

“Good. Now, whenever you hear my whistle, whether you are in the water or out of it, you will stop what you are doing and listen to what I have to say. The whistle is the signal for you to stop and pay attention. Is there anybody here who doesn’t understand this?”

No!”

“All right, then! Over the next eight weeks, each and every one of you will learn how to swim like a champion. Are we all champions?”

Yes!

“Is there any one of you who doesn’t firmly believe in his heart that he is a champion?”

Nelson Hess took a deep breath and when he exhaled his breath was shaky. He wanted to raise his hand and dismiss himself, say he was having chest pains or had had a sudden premonition of the end of the world, but the time was past for such a move. Everybody would laugh at him and Boss would deliberately embarrass him.

“Now, at the end of your eight weeks,” Boss continued, “you will take a final exam.”

A collective groan went up.

“It’s not the kind of exam you take sitting at a desk with a pencil in your hand, though. It’s an exam that will consist of swimming the length of the pool, from the shallow to the deep, and back again. And that’s not all. Each of you will be required to dive at least once off the high dive.”

“How high?” somebody asked.

“Thirty feet.”

“What if we can’t do it?”

“Then you fail the class. You will have wasted your time and mine and made a complete ass of yourself in the bargain. Is there anybody here who thinks he can’t do it?”

No, sir!

“All right, then. Be here on Friday at two o’clock, suited up and ready to swim. And that doesn’t mean two minutes after two, either. It means two on the dot!”

Yes, sir!

After the others had left in high spirits, Nelson hung back to have a word with Boss.

“I won’t be here on Friday, sir,” he said. “Or any other day.”

Boss looked at him, seeing him for the first time, and frowned. “Why the hell not?” he asked.

“Well, this was all kind of a mistake.”

“What was?”

“My being signed up for a swimming class. I don’t want to learn how to swim.”

“Why did you sign up for a swimming class if you don’t want to learn how to swim?”

“My father signed me up. Without checking with me first.”

“Don’t you think swimming would be a good skill for a young fellow like you to have?”

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid of being in the water over my head. I’m afraid of drowning.”

“Do you think I’d let you drown?”

“I don’t know, sir. Would you?”

“If you have to ask that question, you’re in the wrong place.”

“Not only am I afraid of the water, I’m also afraid of heights. I could never jump thirty feet into the water.”

“That’s what swimming class is about. Helping you overcome your fears. Wouldn’t you like to reconsider?”

“No, sir. I made up my mind the minute I walked into this room.”

“It’s irreversible, you know. You can’t change your mind again. There are other people who want your spot.”

“I understand that, sir!”

“So, when you tell your father that you quit swimming before it even started, don’t make him think he can make a couple of phone calls and pull some strings to get you back in again.”

“That’s perfectly all right, sir. I understand completely. This is absolutely the end of the line for me when it comes to swimming.”

“You won’t get your money back. The tuition is nonrefundable.”

“I understand, sir. That’s perfectly all right.”

“What name?”

“What?”

“What’s your name?”

“Nelson Hess Junior. It’ll be under the H’s.”

Boss opened the class roll and marked out Nelson’s name. “I knew a Nelson Hess in high school,” he said.

“That would be Nelson Hess Senior,” Nelson said. “He’s my father.”

“I see. Give him my regards.”

Boss went out the door and Nelson was left alone in the quiet room. He laughed to himself, as he often did when he found himself alone. He felt weak with relief at having escaped the high dive, but, of course, that was just a small part of it.

At the dinner table that evening, Nelson Junior knew that Nelson Senior would be curious about the first day of swimming. It came about ten minutes into the deli fried chicken and potato salad.

“Well, how did it go today?” Nelson Senior asked.

“How did what go?”

“The swimming lesson, of course! What else?”

“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” Nelson Junior said, “and I’m sure you’re not going to like it.”

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Third Day of Winter

The Third Day of Winter ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story was published in KY Story’s Offbeat Christmas Story Anthology and is a re-post.)

They had a little party at work, complete with cake and champagne (Here’s to another successful year!), and then everybody was allowed to leave for the day. It was the day before Christmas and nobody had to be back to work for three days. What a festive mood the downtrodden workers were in! There was dancing on tabletops, furtive kissing in corners, drunken laughter.

As Vesper left the office, it was just beginning to snow so she decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. She had always liked snow, especially at Christmastime, and had seen too little of it in recent years. She stopped on the way home at a little market and bought a dozen oranges and a small box of chocolate-covered cherries. As she was paying for her purchases, the old man behind the counter gave her a sprig of mistletoe.

When she reached her building, she felt agreeably fatigued and slightly frostbitten. As she climbed the stairs to her third-floor apartment, she couldn’t help noticing how quiet the building was. The usual loud voices, TVs, crying babies and yapping dogs were absent. She seemed to be the only tenant who hadn’t gone out of town for the holiday.

She unlocked the door, kicked off her wet shoes and hung up her coat. It was just beginning to get dark outside so she turned on all the lights. She tied a ribbon around her mistletoe and hung it in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room; plugged in the lights on her little artificial Christmas tree that was made to look real but wasn’t fooling anybody with its brown-and-green plasticity. She stood back and admired the comfort, the appeal, of her little home. It was the first home she had ever had that was hers and hers alone without belonging to somebody else.

“I’m really very lucky,” she said to herself as she stood in the middle of the room.

Already she was missing her friend Marlene at work, even though she had just left her a short time earlier. She wanted to call her and tell her about walking home in the snow and about the mistletoe. She knew that Marlene would enjoy hearing those things and would laugh at them in her usual way.

She went to the phone, not to call Marlene—she would be busy now with family—but to call somebody else.

“Hello?” she said when she heard her mother’s voice, sounding very faint and far away.

“Who’s that?” her mother said.

“It’s Vesper.”

“Is anything wrong?”

“No. I just got home from work and I wanted to call you and wish you a merry Christmas.”

“You know I don’t go in for that stuff very much.”

“I know. Did you get the silver pin I sent you?”

“Yes, I got it.”

“I thought it would look good on your black coat.”

“Oh, I don’t have that coat anymore. It was a little too funereal for me.”

“It was a beautiful coat.”

“If I had known you liked it so much, I would have given it to you.”

“It doesn’t matter. How’s Stan?”

“We’ve separated. I haven’t seen him such summer.”

“Are you getting a divorce?”

“Oh, I don’t know. There’s a new man in my life now. His name is Milt. He’s talked about marrying me, but I don’ think I want to get married again. I’ve been down that road too many times.”

“Any news of Weston?”

“Nothing, except that he’s living the bohemian life and wants nothing to do with his family.”

“When you see him, tell him I said hello.”

“I will, dear. I really have to run now. I’m meeting some people for dinner. I have a terrible headache and don’t really feel like going out, but I said I’d go and I don’t want to break my word.”

“All right, mother. Goodbye.”

As Vesper hung up the phone she was aware of the hurtful omissions in the conversation. Her mother hadn’t bothered to ask her how she was or what plans she had for Christmas, if she had someone to spend it with or if she was going to be alone. Those things wouldn’t occur to her—she simply didn’t bother herself too much with her grown children. She had delivered them safely to adulthood and that’s all that anybody could reasonably expect.

Vesper went into the kitchen to see what she might dig up for dinner, but the prospect of having the usual everyday fare on Christmas Eve and then dozing on the couch in front of the TV until time to go to bed was suddenly dismaying to her. She didn’t have to do what she always did, just because she always did it. She could make Christmas Eve into something special, even if she did have to spend it alone.

She went into the bedroom and changed her clothes quickly before she gave herself the chance to change her mind. She made herself ready to go out again (boots, scarf, gloves, coat) and turned off all the lights except for one small lamp beside the door.

She began walking, not knowing for certain where she was going. The snow had accumulated to three or four inches and was still coming down, the wind blowing it along the sidewalk and causing it to drift along the building fronts. Nothing made it seem more like Christmas.

Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger one, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men looked down into the barrel, but when she passed near them they turned and looked at her. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street every day, ragged and undernourished. The younger man was thin, medium-tall and sturdy-looking. He wasn’t wearing a hat (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint) and he wore an enormous overcoat that went down past his knees, with the collar turned up to partly cover his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, long ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife. These details about him registered on her brain in the few seconds she looked at him and then she looked away.

She came to a brightly lighted drugstore and stopped and looked through the frosty window at the rows of displays and the people moving about as if they were underwater. After a moment of indecision, she went inside, passing a perfume display over which two fat women were talking loudly, and went to a rack of magazines in the back. She picked up a magazine, thumbed through it and put it back.

The wall behind the magazine rack was a mirror. As she reached out her hand to put a magazine back on the rack where she had found it, she saw the reflection of a man in the mirror. He was half-a-foot taller than she was and standing behind her, to her right, as though looking over her shoulder. Thinking herself in the way, she stepped aside to give the man more room and that’s when she realized it was the same young man with the scar on his face who had been standing over the fire in the barrel. She felt embarrassed at the thought that he might speak to her, so she left the drugstore and went back out into the freezing night.

She walked on from the drugstore for a block-and-a-half and when she had to stop at a corner with a clot of other people to wait for the light to turn, she took a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the young man had come out of the drugstore after her. She saw no one, so she knew it was just a coincidence that he had been in the drugstore at the same time she was. He wasn’t following her after all. Why would she have ever thought he was?

A little restaurant with the smell of garlic and twinkling lights in the window attracted her attention. It was a place that ordinarily would have been too expensive for her, but she was tired of walking and went inside.

The lights in the restaurant were very dim, giving the place a dreamlike quality after the snowy street. A smiling waiter seated her at a small table near the front and helped her remove her coat. He handed her a menu and when she seemed to be having trouble making up her mind, he suggested fried calamari and polpette di baccala. She didn’t know what it was but readily acceded to his suggestion anyway. Since it was Christmas, she was glad to be able to order something unusual and exotic that she could tell Marlene about.

When the waiter asked her if she wanted a bottle of wine, she said yes and as soon as he brought it she started drinking copious amounts of it and eating delicious garlicky breadsticks out of a little basket while she waited for her food.

The food was very much to her liking but what she liked most was the wine. She ended up drinking the entire bottle before, during and after the meal.

When all the food on her plate was gone, she felt happy and fortunate, happy to be alive and fortunate to have a good-paying job that would allow her to have an extravagant meal on a special occasion. She thanked the waiter effusively, gave him a more-than-generous tip, and wished him a merry Christmas. He helped her into her coat and opened the door for her as she left.

In the next block she slipped on an icy spot on the sidewalk and fell sideways into a pile of snow, unhurt, but attracting some unwelcome attention. As a small crowd of people gathered around to see if she was all right and to help her to stand up again, she saw coming toward her the man in the long coat with the scar on his face. Someone blocked her view for a few seconds and when the way was clear again he was gone. Was she seeing people who weren’t really there? It must have been a result of drinking all that wine.

It was not late at all for Christmas Eve and, in spite of the snow and cutting wind, she wasn’t ready to go home just yet. She would make a night of it. She would have lots to tell Marlene and her other friends at work how she spent Christmas Eve while they were all with their families. They wouldn’t exactly envy her but would admire her for having a good time on her own without having to depend on somebody else.

Four or five blocks farther on was the Odeon movie theatre. She was delighted to see that the show was just about to begin. She paid her admission and went inside and took a seat in the orchestra among a handful of other people. She dozed during the previews of coming attractions and a featurette about a Christmas tree farm, but when the feature began she was fully awake.

In the feature presentation, a woman named Mildred was released from a mental hospital at Christmastime. She had to become reacquainted with her children because she had been away so long they almost forgot she existed. She tried to resume her role in life as wife, mother and society hostess, but she had terrible nightmares and hallucinations that showed she should never have been released from the mental hospital at all. What was even worse, though, was that her fifteen-year-old daughter, Veronica, was showing signs that she had inherited Mildred’s mental illness. She would put her dress on backwards without even knowing it and stand up during mealtimes and scream there were Martians on the roof. These were the exact same things that Mildred had done that caused her to be sent to the mental hospital in the first place when Veronica was in grammar school.

When the picture was over, Vesper sighed heavily, put on her coat and went back out into the cold. She was feeling tired now and the movie, although she had enjoyed it, made her feel like crying. It had been a lovely evening, though.

It was nearly eleven o’clock. The snow had stopped but it seemed colder now because the wind was blowing. When she thought of the long way she had to walk to get back home, she wished she was already there, relaxing in her pajamas, drinking hot chocolate and listening to Christmas music on the radio.

The streets that had been so crowded before were almost deserted now. Everybody had gone home to celebrate Christmas. A drunk stepped out of the shadows and asked her a dollar but she sidestepped him and kept going without looking back.

Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger one, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men looked down into the barrel, but when she passed near them they turned and looked at her. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street every day, ragged and undernourished. The younger man was thin, medium-tall and sturdy-looking. He wasn’t wearing a hat (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint) and he wore an enormous overcoat that went down past his knees, with the collar turned up to partly cover his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, long ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife.

As she walked past these two men, looking straight ahead, the younger man disengaged himself from the older and began following her. She didn’t hear  a sound—his footsteps in the snow were silent—but she knew, she felt, that he was a few paces behind her.

She came to her building and climbed the stairs to the third floor, opened the door with her key, let herself in, and reclosed the door without locking it.  Without turning on any lights, she went to the window overlooking the front of the building and looked down. Standing there in the snow, looking up at her, was the young man in the long overcoat with the crescent-shaped scar on his cheek.

She wrote on a piece of note paper from beside the phone these words: Come up, apartment 320. She wadded the paper into a little ball and opened the window just wide enough to insert the ball of paper and let it drop to the ground. She stood there in the dark and watched the man approach the paper, pick it up and read it. She took a couple of deep breaths and in a few seconds she heard his footsteps on the stairs, exactly in time to the beating of her own heart.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ~ A Capsule Book Review


Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an imaginative science fiction/fantasy adventure set in the 1860s aboard the Nautilus, the electrically powered, fabulously futuristic submarine designed and built by the enigmatic and misanthropic Captain Nemo. Captain Nemo (he knows no other name) remains something of a one-dimensional character throughout the book because we never learn much about him other than that he has cut himself off from his fellow man and prefers to live under the sea. Like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Captain Nemo is out for vengeance, but we never learn exactly what happened to him to make him so bitter. Captain Ahab was seeking to destroy the whale that cost him his leg, while Captain Nemo seems to want to kill as many people in the world as he can. His small, uncommunicative crew (if they speak at all, they don’t speak in any identifiable language) of ten or so men on the Nautilus seem to share his disdain for the people of the world.

The American ship Abraham Lincoln was seeking a destructive “narwhal” (an enormous, apparently very cantankerous, whale-like animal) that was known to have destroyed and sunk several unoffending vessels for no apparent reason when it is rammed by the Nautilus and three men are thrown overboard: A French naturalist named Pierre Aronnax (he narrates the story in his first-person voice), his faithful manservant named Conseil, and Canadian harpooner Ned Land. Captain Nemo rescues these three from the sea and takes them on board the Nautilus, where they are essentially held prisoner only in the sense that they are not allowed to leave. Otherwise, they are treated well, with comfortable accommodations, shelter, comfort and plenty of good food. (I’d like a ten-month vacation like this where I can see all the wonders and splendors underneath the sea with minimal danger or discomfort.)

The Nautilus goes all over the world under the sea, witnessing wonders never before seen by man, including the lost continent of Atlantis, the inside of an extinct volcano, wrecked vessels, an attack by monstrous squids, an undersea cemetery, the South Pole, and myriad fish, plants, animals and undersea creatures that most people never have a chance to see in their lives unless they are passengers on the Nautilus. (Captain Nemo, on more than one occasion, takes them on a “walk” on the bottom of the sea.) As a scientist, Pierre Aronnax is fascinated by all he sees, while the Canadian harpooner Ned Land is unhappy and resents not being able to leave the Nautilus. Pierre Aronnax’s faithful manservant, Conseil, just seems to be happy to be able to go along for the ride.

The submarine can go to fantastic depths in the ocean because it is so solidly built by Captain Nemo. It is also equipped with sliding panels in the outside walls so passengers can get a closeup view of all the strange and wondrous sights in the undersea world (illuminated by powerful electric outside lights). The three captives, no matter how diverted they are by all they see, cannot help asking themselves exactly where the Nautilus is going and what is Captain Nemo’s end game? As cordial as he is to his guests (prisoners), he doesn’t reveal anything to them.

The Nautilus is like a character in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as is the sea itself.  Background information tells us that Jules Verne studied submarines (which, in the 1860s, were still unsophisticated) before he wrote the novel and that a lot of the information he “fabricates” for the story later came to pass. In this way he was a visionary. Also the technical knowledge he displays in describing fish, animals, plants and undersea topography is impressive. He apparently had more than just a passing interest in his subject matter.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp