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1917 ~ A Capsule Movie Review

1917 ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Film director Sam Mendes hit it big twenty years ago with American Beauty (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor Oscars). He has hit it big again with his latest directorial effort, 1917, a war drama set in France in World War I.

1917 is a simple story with a simple premise. Two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield—who would rather be anyplace else other than fighting a war—are given an urgent assignment by their commanding officer. They must cross enemy territory to deliver a message of the utmost importance. Two battalions (1600 men) of English soldiers are being tricked by the Germans. These 1600 men and their commanders believe they are going to engage with the enemy, but the truth is they are being tricked and led into a slaughter. The message the two young British soldiers carry to the two battalions is that they are to “stand down” and don’t go on with the battle as planned.

Time is of the essence. If Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield don’t deliver their message in time, the results will be disastrous. Lance Corporal Blake is told at the outset that his own brother is among the 1600 English soldiers, so he has an additional reason for wanting to succeed.

The odds are against Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield making their way across enemy territory without being shot or captured. What they see and experience over the next two hours is what we (the audience) sees: endless mud, foxholes, dead bodies of men and animals, flies, stench, rats, barbed wire, gray skies. It’s a story told in “real time,” meaning that the two-hour runtime of the movie is how much time elapses in the story. We (the viewers) see it as it happens. The camera movement is so fluid that we are hardly aware of any edits. It’s an amazing two hours of filmmaking.

Lance Corporal Blake doesn’t make it. He’s stabbed, ironically, by a downed German pilot whose life they save by pulling him out of his burning aircraft, and bleeds to death. Lance Corporal Schofield must carry on alone. He is the “one against many,” “the last man standing.”

There is much to admire in 1917, including its sense of realism and its stirring music score by Thomas Newman. It’s a movie that pushes the boundaries of art. I can’t wait to see it again.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

At the Mountains of Madness ~ A Capsule Book Review

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At the Mountains of Madness ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) wrote At the Mountains of Madness in 1931. (It was first published in serialized form in a magazine in 1936). It’s a horror/fantasy/science fiction novel about an exploratory expedition to Antarctica, possibly the most inhospitable place on earth, where men go, not to get a good suntan or to meet girls, but to engage in scientific research. Besides frigid temperatures, rugged terrain, discomfort and loneliness, these explorers must also deal with something unexplained: the massive ruins of a fantastic, ancient city. (“Ancient” in this case meaning 500 million years.)

The Antarctic expedition in At the Mountains of Madness is led by a geologist named William Dyer from the fictional Miskatonic University from the fictional Arkham, Connecticut. He is relating the story in his first-person voice. After the explorers discover the remains of fourteen prehistoric life forms, previously unknown to science and also unidentifiable as either plants or animals, they find a vast, abandoned stone city, alien to any human architecture. By exploring these fantastic structures, they learn through hieroglyphic murals that the creatures (dubbed the “Elder Things”) who built the mysterious city came to earth shortly after the moon took form and built their cities with the help of “shoggoths,” biological entities created to perform any task, assume any form, and reflect any thought. There is a suggestion that life on earth evolved from cellular material left over from creation of the shoggoths.

The explorers soon realize the Elder Things have returned to life and to their ancient city. They (the explorers) are ultimately drawn towards the entrance of a tunnel, into the subterranean region depicted in murals. Here, they find evidence of various Elder Things killed in a brutal struggle and blind six-foot-tall penguins wandering placidly, apparently used as livestock. They are then confronted by a black, bubbling mass, which they identify as a shoggoth, and escape. The survivors of the expedition then make it their mission to discourage any future exploration to the region.

H. P. Lovecraft is considered the premiere American fantasy writer of the twentieth century. I think he is not an easy writer to read. His work is generally very wordy, laden with ponderous description. It’s not light or breezy reading. You have to pay particular attention to the text and if you’re reading late it night, it might put you to sleep.

Along with the short novel At the Mountains of Madness, there are three short stories in this Belle Epoque Original edition: “The White Ship,” “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” and “Herbert West—Reanimator.” “The White Ship” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” are verbose fantasies set in other realms. “Herbert West—Reanimator” is the famous story about a doctor obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. He rifles cemeteries for fresh corpses, aided by his assistant and friend, also a doctor. These two “mad scientists” conduct unholy experiments with dead people, often with tragic and horrifying results. Delicious.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

I Want People to See Us Together

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

(I posted this short story previously in a different version.) 

Carl Piccarelli 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, with the same mattress and box springs, 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 Carl 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 Carl 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 Carl 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 Carl and asked if he’d like to come over. Carl 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. Carl accepted a beer, but he was reluctant to smoke pot. Evan seemed like an expert. He showed Carl how to draw the smoke into his lungs. Carl choked and Evan laughed. Carl hated smoking pot but he pretended to like it because he didn’t want Evan to stop being his friend.

After two more beers, Carl’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 Carl. Carl had never seen pornography before. He was embarrassed, but not to the point where he wanted to leave.

Evan asked Carl if he had ever thought about doing the things shown in the pictures. Carl 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. Carl 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 Carl what Evan had meant. In his mid-twenties, Carl 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 Carl 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 Carl 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.

Carl 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.

Carl told Sergei the truth about himself, no matter how distasteful. He didn’t want any secrets between them. 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 Carl, he said; it made him want to make his home in America that much more. Carl wrote that if he wanted it badly enough, he would make it happen.

Carl and Sergei corresponded for several months. Carl 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 Carl 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.

Carl 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 Carl’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. Carl was uncharacteristically happy and smiled at everything she said. She didn’t notice anything different about him.

After his mother went to bed, Carl 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 Carl’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, Carl 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?” Carl asked.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think she’ll last more than a few days.”

She died three days later. The funeral was well-attended by all the sobbing old ladies, bosom friends of his mother, that Carl 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.

The money from the sale of the house and all its furnishings, combined with Carl’s mother’s estate, brought him enough money to live comfortably without having to work for a paycheck ever again. He donated his clothes, shoes, coats, hats, suits, socks, underwear—even his pajamas—to charity and bought everything new. Out with the old. In with the new.

He bought an extravagant red car with a powerful engine his mother would have hated. He bought an expensive set of suitcases and filled them with books, childhood mementoes, pictures and other things from the house he wanted to keep.

He loaded the suitcases into the back of his car, all of his past life fit snugly between the front and back seats. As he drove away, he took one last look at the house he had lived in all his life. He could see his mother standing on the front lawn clutching her chest, looking at him with everlasting disapproval.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Washed in the Blood

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Washed in the Blood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this story previously in a different version.)

The funeral was Saturday the twelfth. Vincent spoke to no one for several days, but on Wednesday the sixteenth he received an unexpected phone call.

“Am I speaking with Vincent Spearman?” a resonant male voice asked.

“Yes,” Vincent said. “Who is this?”

“Vincent, this is Dr. Nesselrode. Dr. Timothy Nesselrode. I’m the pastor at your mother’s church. I wanted to call and see how you’re getting along since the funeral and ask if there’s anything I might do for you.”

“No, I’m fine,” Vincent said. “I don’t need anything.”

“It’s hard to lose a loved one, I know.”

“Yeah.”

“Your mother was a highly esteemed member of our congregation. She will be sorely missed.”

“Yeah. Thanks for the kind words.”

“Now, listen, Vincent! I’m going to be in your neighborhood later this afternoon and I was wondering if I might drop by and have a few words with you.”

“What about?”

“I promise I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”

“Well, I’m pretty busy today.”

“Would tomorrow be better?”

“No, we’d better do it today. I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Fine! I’ll be there in, let us say, about an hour.”

After he hung up the phone, Vincent brushed his teeth and put on his shoes and sat nervously in his mother’s wingback chair waiting for what’s-his-name to get there. He couldn’t think of any reason why this man who preached his mother’s funeral would want to talk to him. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. He would hurry it along as much as possible. Why did people always want to bother him?

Thirty-eight minutes after the phone call, there was a loud knock at the front door. Vincent opened the door as far as the chain would allow and peered out, seeing part of the big face of the reverend Timothy Nesselrode, Doctor of Divinity.

“Vincent?” the reverend Nesselrode shouted. “Is that you?”

Vincent undid the chain, opened the door all the way and allowed the big man to come into the house.

“My goodness!” the reverend Nesselrode said, laughing heartily. “It certainly is lovely to see you again! How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said.

“May we sit?”

Vincent led the reverend Nesselrode into the living room and watched as he placed himself in the middle of the couch and sprawled his big legs. Vincent sat in the chair across the room in front of the window with the closed drapes and looked warily at the reverend.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” he asked.

“I want you to know that we offer grief counseling at the church.”

“What?”

“It’s to help people like you work through your feelings of loss in a group setting with others who know and understand what you’re going through. The group meets twice a month, on alternating Fridays. I believe this coming Friday, the day after tomorrow, is their night to meet. Please feel free to attend if you’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock. Dress is casual.

“I don’t think so,” Vincent said. “I would never be able to talk about…”

“I understand what you’re saying, Vincent, but I hope you’ll keep an open mind. I think it might help you. The people in the group are very lovely, very understanding people.”

“I’m sure they are, but talking about my ‘feelings’ in front of a roomful of strangers is not my idea of a good time.”

The reverend Nesselrode put his fingers over his mouth and sucked air in through his nostrils. He knew he was taking the wrong approach. Some people are just difficult to reach, but he had a very good record of breaking through.

“Your mother spoke of you on several occasions,” he said.

“Why?”

“She was worried about you. She was concerned that, after her passing, you’d be all alone. There’s no other family, I understand.”

“I have some cousins living up in Minnesota. Or maybe it’s Montana. One of those.”

“No family living nearby?”

“No.

“How are you managing with the household chores all on your own? Things like cooking, laundry and house cleaning?

“I manage. I’ve always looked after myself.”

“Eating a healthy diet?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Vincent. I’m not trying to pry into your affairs. I just want you to know that if you need help we have ladies in the church, volunteers, who will come in a morning or two a week a help out with laundry or household chores.”

“Ladies?”

“Yes, they’re older women, retired, with plenty of time on their hands. They like to help out bachelors and widowers. People like yourself.”

“Do they get paid by the hour?”

“They don’t get paid at all. They’re Christian ladies. They like to help out where help is needed.”

“Like Superman?”

“Well, not quite like Superman. Superman’s a fictional character. These are real people.”

“I see.”

“So, shall I send someone out for you?”

“No, I don’t need anybody.”

“Well, you’re lucky. Most men are helpless without a woman around.”

“Not me.”

The reverend Nesselrode narrowed his eyelids and took a couple of deep breaths. “You’re about forty, aren’t you?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“It’s not too late for you to have a family of your own.”

What?

“We have many lovely single ladies in our congregation who would be happy to meet you.”

“Why would they be happy to meet me?”

“It would be so easy for you to meet them, Vincent. The women in our church, I mean. All you have to do is come to our next social mixer. We have one for middle-aged people—widows and divorcees and people like that—and also one for younger adults—people in their twenties and thirties who may have made a poor choice the first time around and are looking for another chance. You would fit in either category.”

“I wouldn’t know what to say to people like that. I’d just be looking for the first opportunity to leave.”

“I know. You’re naturally shy. I understand that, but I hope you’ll at least think about what I’m saying to you. The message is this, Vincent: it’s no good being alone. You don’t have to be alone in this world.”

“Maybe I like being alone.”

“If you want to know the truth, Vincent, I think you’re saying that because you just lost your mother and you’re in a fragile emotional state.”

“I’m not. In a fragile emotional state. I knew for a long time my mother was dying. I was prepared for it.”

“Even though your mother is gone, you still have a life.”

“All right. Well, thanks for dropping by!”

“What plans do you have for the future?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Come, now, Vincent! You must want something out of life.”

“To be a better person, I suppose.”

“Well, that’s a step in the right direction! You can be a better person by becoming a church member and attending regular services.”

“If you want to know the truth, Mr. Nistlerod, I don’t think I’m ready for this conversation and I don’t think I ever will be.”

“We’re having a special prayer meeting on Saturday evening that you might find enlightening. The theme will be ‘succor for the lonely’.”

“Sucker?”

“Yes, ‘succor for the lonely’. The meeting starts at seven o’clock. We’d be happy to have you join us. Dress is casual.”

“Am I the sucker?”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“So, will we see you at the prayer meeting on Saturday evening?”

“No. I won’t be there.”

“Vincent, sir, if you’ll pardon my saying so! You haven’t been receptive to anything I’ve said. I feel I haven’t been able to get through to you.”

Vincent laughed, recalling his mother. “She always said I’m stubborn. Of course, she was stubborn, too.”

“I find your resistance difficult to fathom with your mother being the devout Christian she was.”

“She wasn’t really a devout Christian. She pretended to be devout because she was afraid of dying and going to hell. When she was younger, she was a big-time liar and whore. A champion sinner!”

“Well, I don’t know of her distant past, but I can assure you she confessed all her transgressions to the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever they were, and was forgiven. She was washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”

“Do you think she believed that?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“She had you fooled, too, then.”

The reverend Nesselrode took a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose loudly. There were tears of frustration and failure in his eyes.

“There is one more topic I wanted to broach with you today, Vincent, but I don’t know if now is the proper time.”

“Don’t hold anything back.”

“I’m going to make you a proposition and I ask that you give it serious consideration.”

“What kind of proposition?”

“You live all alone in this big house. It has how many rooms?”

“Fifteen.”

“And how many bedrooms?”

“Six.”

“Why does one young man living alone need a house with fifteen rooms and six bedrooms?”

“I think I’m beginning to understand,” Vincent said.

“There’s no other way to say it than to just come right out and say it,” the reverend Nesselrode said.

“You want me to donate my house to the church.”

“It would make an excellent halfway house.”

“A what?”

“Halfway house. A place for troubled young offenders to stay while they’re getting their lives in order.”

“Are you out of your mind? I don’t want people like that in my house!”

“Oh, no, no, no! You don’t understand! You wouldn’t still live here! We’d swap you for a smaller, more modern house or a nice apartment in town.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, you know that? You come here pretending to be concerned for my welfare, and all the time you only want me to give you my house. I see right through you!”

“Please, Vincent, don’t think of it in those terms!”

“I warned my mother about you church people, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“I’m afraid you have the wrong idea, young man. I have nothing but the best intentions toward you. I just thought we might come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. I merely wanted to propose the idea to you and see if you might be receptive.”

“No, I’m not receptive!”

“Very well. I see where we stand. I thank you for taking the time to talk to me today and I apologize if I offended you. Would you like to pray with me before I go?”

“No!”

“Well, I’ll be running along, then. I’ll leave you my card in case you have any questions about any of the things we discussed today.”

The reverend Nesselrode took a card out of his wallet and put it on the lamp table by the couch and then stood up and quietly went out the door.

After the reverend Nesselrode was gone, Vincent triple-locked the door, closed all the curtains and went upstairs. Across the hallway from the top of the stairs was the room that had been his bedroom all his life. He went inside and closed the door and locked it.

He pulled a .45 caliber handgun out of the dresser drawer, held it in his hand and stood looking at himself in the dresser mirror. He pointed the gun at his temple and then inserted it in his mouth and after a few seconds withdrew it.

Turning from the mirror, he pointed the gun at his chest and pulled the trigger without hesitation. The blood poured from him, soaking his shirt, pants and shoes. After teetering backwards and forwards for a few seconds, he fell to the floor, pulling the bedspread off the bed and covering himself with it the best he could.

“Oh, God!” he said.

He knew then that there was someone else in the room with him. He thought at first it was his mother but when he lifted his head up and looked toward the door he saw it was an oddly familiar man.

“Who are you?” he asked, but before the words were out of his mouth he knew it could only be the Jesus Christ, the one and only, come to wash him in the Blood of the Lamb and take away all his sins. It might be seen as a miracle, except that there was no one there to see it. In the last few seconds of his life he became a believer.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Sins of Jack Saul ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Sins of Jack Saul ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Who the hell is John “Jack” Saul, you might ask. He was a real-life person who lived from 1857 to 1904. He was five feet, five inches tall, well-endowed sexually, slightly effeminate, and a notorious male prostitute. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and when he went to London he was widely known as “Dublin Jack.” He is known today for writing (or at least partly writing) a pornographic novel titled The Sins of the Cities of the Plain and for being a witness in a high-profile libel case involving an important person known as Henry James Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, who was reported to have visited a male brothel in London at 19 Cleveland Street. When the male brothel was discovered and publicized, it became the major sex scandal of the Victorian Era.

Lord Euston filed a suit and (and won) against a crusading newspaper man, Ernest Parke, who claimed that he (Lord Euston) went to the brothel to have sex with young men. Lord Euston claimed in court that he was taken to the brothel under false pretenses and that when he realized what kind of establishment he was in, he left. Jack Saul was a witness for the defense, meaning that he testified against Lord Euston. He was defiant on the witness stand and admitted he was a professional male prostitute and that Lord Euston did indeed visit the male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street to engage in forbidden sex acts with men. The court eventually decided the case in favor of Lord Euston, although his later life was plagued with blackmail and allegations of homosexuality.

In the 1880s, as now, the news media and the public love a good sex scandal, especially if it involves important or highly connected persons. Other important or notable people were implicated in the Cleveland Street brothel scandal, including Lord Arthur Somerset (equerry to the Prince of Wales) and several high-ranking army officers. (There was a persistent rumor at the time, that has never been disproved, that Prince Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales and grandson of Queen Victoria, second in line for the English throne, was a visitor to the brothel.) At this time in English history, any sex act between two men was illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Many of the male prostitutes working in the brothel were only about seventeen and worked as messenger boys for the post office. They became prostitutes to supplement their meager wages.

The Sins of Jack Saul by Glenn Chandler is as much about the times (Victorian era) as it is about a single person. Jack Saul had a sad, difficult, dangerous life, oftentimes picking up men on the street to have sex with them. He worked at several “legitimate” jobs from time to time, but nothing was as lucrative for him as prostitution. He could read and write, as many of his contemporaries could not. He died at age forty-six in 1904 of tuberculosis in his native Dublin. There has been a renewed interest in his life because he was a kind of symbol of gay defiance long before there was anything resembling gay rights. (He disproved the belief, widely held at the time, that homosexuality was a vice of the wealthy that corrupted the innocent.) He was what he was and if you didn’t like it, that was just too bad. He claimed to be covered in shame, but on the other hand he made no apologies and always sent money home to his mother.

Copyright 2019 by Allen Kopp

Frozen Charlotte

Frozen Charlotte ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The snow has stopped falling. The temperature hovers at fifteen degrees. The wind is minimal. The air crackles with electricity. The stars twinkle like diamonds on a bed of blue-black velvet. Atmospherically it is the best Christmas Eve on record.

Roads are snow-packed and have been for weeks. The best way to get from place to place is by horse-drawn sleigh. The automobile is still not in common use, as it is 1897, but those days are coming.

Charlotte Little will be attending the party at the Whites on her own, even though she is only twelve. Vardaman will drive the sleigh. He will watch out for her and see that she returns safely.

It is to be a party for adults as well as children. There will be an orchestra, bountiful food and drink, musical acts, caroling, magic tricks, surprises and a visit from Santa. Those who attend the party will remember it all their lives into old age. They will take memories of the party to their graves.

As the best friend of Amy White, Charlotte will be an honored guest at the party. She doesn’t mind that she has to go alone but finds it rather exciting and grown-up. She has a new dress made for her by a real dressmaker. It is white bombazine with red satin trim. It reminds her of peppermint, of Christmas. She has never had a dress before of which she is so proud.

She is to leave at five o’clock. Allowing for no mishaps with the sleigh, she will arrive at the party at six o’clock. She is dressed and ready to go hours in advance. Mother tries to get her to eat before she goes, but she is too excited; there will be lots of time to eat later.

When she goes down to leave, mother and father are waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Mother has her coat and scarf for her and father her fur hat, gloves and galoshes, but she doesn’t want to put any of them on. She has spent hours getting herself ready for the party and doesn’t want to spoil the effect. The coat will flatten the frills and puffs of her dress and the fur hat will mess up her hair. She doesn’t need the boots at all but will walk in tracks that have already been made. As a kind of concession, she puts the scarf around her shoulders and slips the gloves on her hands.

Vardaman is waiting for her in the sleigh at the front gate, whip in hand. He is so bundled up in his riding accoutrements that only his eyes can be seen. Charlotte gets into the sleigh, piling her warm winter coat and fur hat on top of the lap robes in the corner of the seat. She throws her galoshes on the floor of the sleigh and forgets about them. Who wears galoshes with a fancy Christmas dress?

Vardaman drives slowly at first and then faster. Soon he seems to be flying without leaving the ground. The trees and farmhouses whiz past in an icy blur. Charlotte breathes deeply of the icy air and looks up at the twinkling stars. Already she is having a good time, and she’s not even at the party yet. She spreads her coat over her lap, but that is the only concession she makes to the cold.

She doesn’t speak a word on the way. If she has anything to say, she would have to say it to Vardaman and she rarely speaks to Vardaman unless he speaks first. He is what they call all business.

The trip goes smoothly enough without incident. Vardaman has guided the sleigh expertly and efficiently, as he always does. He pulls up to the side of the house belonging to the Whites and gets out, throwing a blanket over the horse’s back. His back is sore and he is in a hurry to get inside and take off his coat and outer wrappings and warm his feet at the kitchen fire. In his haste, he fails to notice that Charlotte hasn’t moved from the sleigh. She still sits there, not moving, her icy blue eyes staring straight ahead.

Sometime during the trip, Charlotte’s blood freezes in her veins. Her heart stops pumping blood and turns into a useless, frozen muscle in the middle of her upper torso. Her eyes become fixed in their sockets, frozen in place, eyelids opened. How can someone so dead look so alive?

It is the easiest of deaths. She has felt nothing, not even a tingling sensation. From one second to the next, she is here and then she is gone.

The party disperses at eleven o’clock. Those who expected Charlotte to attend are disappointed, but they figure something must have come up unexpectedly at the last minute to keep her home.

Vardaman, sated with food and drink, comes out and is happy to see that Charlotte has taken her place in the sleigh and is ready to go home. He is all too eager to get home to his warm bed. He wakes up the horse and takes the blanket off his back and in thirty seconds the sleigh has taken to the road.

He turns and asks Charlotte if she had a good time at the party. He believes she answers in the affirmative but, of course, no answer is forthcoming.

When they get back home, it is near midnight on Christmas morning. Unknown to anybody, Charlotte has been sitting in the back of the sleigh on a frigid Christmas Eve for seven hours.

He stops the sleigh at the front gate. When Charlotte doesn’t get out as he expects, he turns around in the seat and looks at her, at her blue, staring eyes. Right away he knows something is wrong. He runs to the front door and bangs loudly. Mother and father, both in their night clothes, know that something is wrong and come running out.

When they see that Charlotte is frozen through and through, they take her in and set her by the fire. They try to lay her flat, but she is frozen in a sitting position. They rub her hands and wrists and pat her cheeks. They put more wood on the fire. They believe all they have to do is thaw her out and she will revive and start breathing again. Not knowing what else to do, mother sends for the doctor.

In the morning they send for the undertaker’s men. They come promptly and take Charlotte away. In the afternoon on Christmas Day, mother and father pay a call at the undertaking establishment. They choose embalming for their little girl and, after she is embalmed, they want her dressed in her fancy, red-and-white Christmas dress that she wore to the party. They pick out the finest and most expensive cast-iron coffin with a little window over the deceased’s face. Only the best will do.

Two days before the New Year, a service is held at the Methodist chapel for Charlotte Little. All the same people who were at the White party attend the service, except now they are in black and are no longer smiling. Everybody wants to know how such a thing could happen. How could a little girl go out on a freezing Christmas Eve in only a thin dress and no coat, hat, gloves or galoshes? Some of the ladies look accusingly at mother and then look away quickly when she looks back.

The ground is hard as iron. No new graves can be dug until there is an appreciable thaw. Frozen Charlotte is kept in the frigid sub-basement of the church for the duration. All through the winter, people may come and visit her and pay their respects. They line up and peer into the little window over her face and are subdued into silence by the mystery of death.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Frozen Charlotte

Frozen Charlotte ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The snow has stopped falling. The temperature hovers at fifteen degrees. The wind is minimal. The air crackles with electricity. The stars twinkle like diamonds on a bed of blue-black velvet. Atmospherically it is the best Christmas Eve on record.

Roads are snow-packed and have been for weeks. The best way to get from place to place is by horse-drawn sleigh. The automobile is still not in common use, as it is 1897, but those days are coming.

Charlotte Little will be attending the party at the Whites on her own, even though she is only twelve. Vardaman will drive the sleigh. He will watch out for her and see that she returns safely.

It is to be a party for adults as well as children. There will be an orchestra, bountiful food and drink, musical acts, caroling, magic tricks, surprises and a visit from Santa. Those who attend the party will remember it all their lives into old age. They will take memories of the party to their graves.

As the best friend of Amy White, Charlotte will be an honored guest at the party. She doesn’t mind that she has to go alone but finds it rather exciting and grown-up. She has a new dress made for her by a real dressmaker. It is white bombazine with red satin trim. It reminds her of peppermint, of Christmas. She has never had a dress before of which she is so proud.

She is to leave at five o’clock. Allowing for no mishaps with the sleigh, she will arrive at the party at six o’clock. She is dressed and ready to go hours in advance. Mother tries to get her to eat before she goes, but she is too excited; there will be lots of time to eat later.

When she goes down to leave, mother and father are waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Mother has her coat and scarf for her and father her fur hat, gloves and galoshes, but she doesn’t want to put any of them on. She has spent hours getting herself ready for the party and doesn’t want to spoil the effect. The coat will flatten the frills and puffs of her dress and the fur hat will mess up her hair. She doesn’t need the boots at all but will walk in tracks that have already been made. As a kind of concession, she puts the scarf around her shoulders and slips the gloves on her hands.

Vardaman is waiting for her in the sleigh at the front gate, whip in hand. He is so bundled up in his riding accoutrements that only his eyes can be seen. Charlotte gets into the sleigh, piling her warm winter coat and fur hat on top of the lap robes in the corner of the seat. She throws her galoshes on the floor of the sleigh and forgets about them. Who wears galoshes with a fancy Christmas dress?

Vardaman drives slowly at first and then faster. Soon he seems to be flying without leaving the ground. The trees and farmhouses whiz past in an icy blur. Charlotte breathes deeply of the icy air and looks up at the twinkling stars. Already she is having a good time, and she’s not even at the party yet. She spreads her coat over her lap, but that is the only concession she makes to the cold.

She doesn’t speak a word on the way. If she has anything to say, she would have to say it to Vardaman and she rarely speaks to Vardaman unless he speaks first. He is what they call all business.

The trip goes smoothly enough without incident. Vardaman has guided the sleigh expertly and efficiently, as he always does. He pulls up to the side of the house belonging to the Whites and gets out, throwing a blanket over the horse’s back. His back is sore and he is in a hurry to get inside and take off his coat and outer wrappings and warm his feet at the kitchen fire. In his haste, he fails to notice that Charlotte hasn’t moved from the sleigh. She still sits there, not moving, her icy blue eyes staring straight ahead.

Sometime during the trip, Charlotte’s blood freezes in her veins. Her heart stops pumping blood and turns into a useless, frozen muscle in the middle of her upper torso. Her eyes become fixed in their sockets, frozen in place, eyelids opened. How can someone so dead look so alive?

It is the easiest of deaths. She has felt nothing, not even a tingling sensation. From one second to the next, she is here and then she is gone.

The party disperses at eleven o’clock. Those who expected Charlotte to attend are disappointed, but they figure something must have come up unexpectedly at the last minute to keep her home.

Vardaman, sated with food and drink, comes out and is happy to see that Charlotte has taken her place in the sleigh and is ready to go home. He is all too eager to get home to his warm bed. He wakes up the horse and takes the blanket off his back and in thirty seconds the sleigh has taken to the road.

He turns and asks Charlotte if she had a good time at the party. He believes she answers in the affirmative but, of course, no answer is forthcoming.

When they get back home, it is near midnight on Christmas morning. Unknown to anybody, Charlotte has been sitting in the back of the sleigh on a frigid Christmas Eve for seven hours.

He stops the sleigh at the front gate. When Charlotte doesn’t get out as he expects, he turns around in the seat and looks at her, at her blue, staring eyes. Right away he knows something is wrong. He runs to the front door and bangs loudly. Mother and father, both in their night clothes, know that something is wrong and come running out.

When they see that Charlotte is frozen through and through, they take her in and set her by the fire. They try to lay her flat, but she is frozen in a sitting position. They rub her hands and wrists and pat her cheeks. They put more wood on the fire. They believe all they have to do is thaw her out and she will revive and start breathing again. Not knowing what else to do, mother sends for the doctor.

In the morning they send for the undertaker’s men. They come promptly and take Charlotte away. In the afternoon on Christmas Day, mother and father pay a call at the undertaking establishment. They choose embalming for their little girl and, after she is embalmed, they want her dressed in her fancy, red-and-white Christmas dress that she wore to the party. They pick out the finest and most expensive cast-iron coffin with a little window over the deceased’s face. Only the best will do.

Two days before the New Year, a service is held at the Methodist chapel for Charlotte Little. All the same people who were at the White party attend the service, except now they are in black and are no longer smiling. Everybody wants to know how such a thing could happen. How could a little girl go out on a freezing Christmas Eve in only a thin dress and no coat, hat, gloves or galoshes? Some of the ladies look accusingly at mother and then look away quickly when she looks back.

The ground is hard as iron. No new graves can be dug until there is an appreciable thaw. Frozen Charlotte is kept in the frigid sub-basement of the church for the duration. All through the winter, people may come and visit her and pay their respects. They line up and peer into the little window over her face and are subdued into silence by the mystery of death.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp