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The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review

The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

With the trilogy U.S.A., John Dos Passos (1896-1970) took a stab at writing the great American novel of the twentieth century. The first book in the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, is a panorama of American life from 1900 to the First World War, told through its fictional characters. All the characters are striving, desiring, climbing, grappling with the world in one way or another, trying to overcome the circumstances of their birth and attempting to rise in the world.

The 42nd Parallel is written in an “experimental” style (but still very accessible to the reader), meaning that there is no continuous narrative, but the story moves from character to character (some of whose paths eventually converge). All the characters are fascinating American types (the handsome business tycoon with an eye for the ladies and a difficult wife; the young working man who believes in workers’ rights and the coming socialist revolution; the young woman struggling to make a place for herself in a business world dominated by men; the young auto mechanic who doesn’t have much luck with the women or with keeping a job). The characters are swept along on the wave of history, whether it’s revolution in Mexico or Russia, war, labor unrest, the loosening of nineteenth century moral standards, or the changing political landscape which seems to be tending toward socialism.

Another thing that makes The 42nd Parallel unique is that the narrative is interspersed with brief:

  • “The Camera Eye” sections, autobiographical vignettes in the stream of consciousness style, which means they don’t always make much sense.
  • “Newsreels” sections, consisting of (sometimes) relevant front-page headlines.
  • “Biography” sections, short accounts of the some of the notable people of the first two decades of the twentieth century, such as Thomas Edison, Eugene Debs and Henry Ford.

“The Camera Eye,” “Newsreels,” and “Biography” sections are not as annoying and intrusive to the story as you might think. They are thankfully short and easy to read. They serve more as a brief respite (like a scene change) to the story.

If you are an avid reader (like me) or a student of American literature, you will love The 42nd Parallel. It’s a real piece of Americana and one of the greatest and most unique literary creations of the twentieth century. I haven’t yet read the other two parts of the trilogy (1919 and The Big Money), but I intend to read them very soon.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp  

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It’s You I Adore

It’s You I Adore ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

In a row of two-story houses all very much alike, Cedric Choke lives in the house on the end with his mother. He is forty-two years old and has never bothered to get married. Every morning at seven-thirty he leaves the house to go to work and when he gets home at four in the afternoon, he doesn’t go out again. On weekends he takes his mother grocery shopping and to church service on Sunday morning. His nearest neighbors don’t know his name and have never even heard the sound of his voice.

Lynette Giles lives next door to Cedric Choke and his mother. She also lives with her mother. She is forty years old, or close to it, and has been married and divorced two times. After her second divorce, she moved “back home,” as the saying goes, “to get her life in order.” She and her mother get along fine together as long as they are careful about which topics they discuss.

Lynette  watches Cedric through binoculars out the upstairs window as he cuts the grass in his back yard. He wears a sleeveless undershirt, khaki pants and tennis shoes. She likes the play of his bicep as he pushes and then pulls the mower. On his face is a look of concentration. She likes the neat, straight rows of his cutting. A man who cuts that precisely and evenly must have a lot of good qualities. He would hang up his own clothes and rinse his own dishes and not leave it for somebody else.

He shuts off the mower and sits in a lawn chair and picks up a newspaper and opens it. He likes to read (she surmises) and is a man who wants to know what’s going on in his world. He’s not the kind who would lay on the couch in front of the TV all the time. His mother comes out of the house and brings him a bottle of beer. She is a troll-like woman, about seventy, with stooped shoulders and hair dyed an awful red that hangs down to her shoulders. He takes the beer from his mother without looking at her, takes a drink and holds the bottle between his thighs so his hands are free to turn the pages of the paper.

Cedric is so quiet Lynette hardly knows he’s there. In the year-and-a-half that she’s lived in the house next door to him, she has never heard him utter a single word. The only things she knows about him—and that isn’t much—is what she has seen with her own eyes. He cuts the grass and sweeps the glass clippings off the sidewalks. In the winter he shovels snow. As soon as he finishes these little outdoor jobs, he goes back into the house. Lynette has thought on occasion that she would go over and introduce herself, but somehow she just doesn’t have the nerve. Maybe he doesn’t speak, or maybe there’s something wrong with him, like mental retardation, and she would only embarrass him and herself, too.

When a letter is misdelivered to her mailbox, a letter that belongs to him, she sees it as her chance to engage him in conversation. She takes the letter and knocks on his door assertively, but he doesn’t answer—nobody answers, not even his troll-like mother—so she drops it through the mail slot in the door and leaves. She is certain he is at home since his car in the driveway and believes he might have come to the door if he had wanted to.

At night she lies in her upstairs bedroom and thinks about him and imagines him lying in his own bed in the room just across the yard from hers behind the heavily curtained window. When his light is off, she’s sure he must be asleep. He’s the type who would wear pajamas. His mother would take them out of the clothes dryer and fold them neatly and put them in his dresser drawer for him. He’d wear them for a few nights and then take them off and put them in the laundry and get out a clean pair.

One Saturday night she is watching TV with her mother when she hears a car stop out front and the honk of a horn. Too curious to remain sitting, she goes to the front window and pulls back the curtain a little and peeks out. The car is stopped at the curb in front of the house next door, his house. The car is idling, its taillights gleaming in the darkness. The horn honks again and in a minute Cedric comes running out of his house and gets into the car and it speeds off.

Where is he going on a Saturday night and who is he going with? With this question burning in her mind, she can no longer concentrate on TV. Here she sits with her mother, while she should be the one going out having a good time on Saturday night. She feels lonely and left out, maybe even a little jealous.

“Aren’t you feeling well?” her mother asks.

“I feel all right,” Lynette says. “It must be something I ate.”

“Want me to fix you an Alka-Seltzer?”

“No, I’m going to bed.”

“Don’t you want to watch the late movie? It’s Joan Crawford.”

Lying in her bed in the dark, she realizes she must be in love with Cedric Choke to feel so miserable just because she saw him leaving in a car with another person. Yes, she loves him. Absolutely she loves him, in ways she didn’t love either of her husbands. She believes he would feel the same way about her, if only given the chance. They are just so right for each other!

The next morning is Sunday. She sleeps late and when she wakes up she begins drinking vodka martinis instead of eating breakfast. While she’s enjoying the lightheaded feeling alcohol always gives her, she goes into the kitchen and sets about making oatmeal raisin cookies. While waiting for them to bake, she cleans herself up and puts on clean clothes and a little lipstick and rouge to make herself look more alive than dead.

When the cookies are done baking and have cooled long enough, she puts three dozen in a tin box in a nest of wax paper and closes the lid. After a couple more quick drinks, she makes her drunken way out the door with the tin of cookies and over to Cedric’s house and knocks on his door.

She is certain he’ll answer this time but it’s the mother. Well, never mind! She goes ahead with the words she had planned to say if he had answered the door.

“G-Good morning! I live next door. I just made some oatmeal raisin cookies. I have more than my mother and I can eat, so I wanted to know if you’d like to have some of them.”

“Who? What?” the old woman asks, squinting at her in the bright light.

“I’m your next-door-neighbor!”

“The what? What is it you’re selling?”

“I’m—I’m not selling anything. I’m giving you some freshly baked cookies I just made.”

“Why are you giving me cookies?”

“Just feeling neighborly, I guess.”

“Well, I can’t eat cookies. I have the diabetes.”

“Oh! Well, is your son at home? Maybe he’d like to have them.”

“You know my son?”

“No, I don’t know him. I’ve seen him around.”

The old woman takes the tin of cookies and looks at it curiously. “How much are they?” she asks.

“I’m not selling them,” Lynette says. “I’ve giving them to you.”

“I could give you a couple dollars.”

“No, that’s all right. I don’t want your money. Is your son at home?”

“You know my son?”

“We haven’t been properly introduced.”

“He’s busy right now and can’t come to the door.”

“He’s here, isn’t he?”

She peers around the old woman into the interior of the house. When she hears a man’s voice coming from another room, she pushes past the old woman.

“I want to see him!” she says.

“Wait a minute!” the old woman says. “You can’t just go…”

She continues toward the back of the house until she lurches into the kitchen. Cedric is sitting at the table. He stands up and looks at her, a startled expression on his face. He is wearing a green robe and his legs are bare.

“What is this?” he says.

Lynette runs to him, enfolds him in her arms and puts the side of her face against his chest. “I’ve wanted to meet you for so long!” she says.

“Who is this?” he asks his mother, standing in the doorway.

“I don’t know,” she says. “She said something about cookies. She’s crazy, if you ask me!”

“I’m not crazy,” Lynette says. “I haven’t eaten all day and I’ve had a little too much to drink is all.”

She wraps her arms around his head and kisses him passionately on the mouth. He tries to step back, takes hold of her wrists and pulls away from her grasp.

“Hey!” he says. “Stop that! What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

With those stinging words, he gives her a look of contempt and goes out of the room.

“I didn’t think you knew him!” the mother says.

“I’ve made a complete fool of myself, haven’t I?”

“If you don’t get out of my house in about two seconds, I’m going to call the police!” the mother says.

“All right. I’m going.”

She takes a step toward the doorway and her legs buckle under her. On her hands and knees, she vomits violently all over the black-and-white tile floor.

“Now look what you’ve done!” the mother says. “Now I’ve got a mess to clean up!”

“I’ll clean it up for you.”

“No! I want you to go now!”

She starts to stand up and slides in her vomit. Her face hits the floor.

“I want you to know I don’t ordi-ordinarily behave in this manner,” she says shakily. “I haven’t quite been myself lately.”

The mother reaches down to help her to stand up, but she waves her away. As she is pulling herself to a standing position on her own power, she feels a wetness down her front and she realizes she has inflicted upon herself the ultimate indignity.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

White Boy Rick ~ A Capsule Movie Review

White Boy Rick ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

White Boy Rick is set in dismal Detroit, where it seems always to be winter, in the 1980s. Middle-aged dad Rick Wershe senior (Matthew McConaughey) is, by all accounts, a “lowlife” and a “loser” (his wife ran off and left him). He seems, however, to be well-intentioned when it comes to his two kids, Rick junior and Dawn, but they are also lowlifes and losers. Dawn has a haunted, vacant look because she is a drug addict. Scruffy-looking Rick junior at age fifteen is interested in firearms (he stopped going to school) while Rick senior has a workshop in the basement where he modifies guns to make them more deadly. Rick junior takes up with a gang of black hoodlums—he even adopts their patterns of speech—and becomes a gun dealer.

After Rick junior is shot in the abdomen and almost dies because his associates think he knows too much, the police begin using him as an informant. To expand his repertoire, the police encourage him to sell drugs, telling him he can keep any money he makes. (Soon he has a boxful of cash under his bed containing almost a million dollars.) What they fail to emphasize is that he can go to jail for life for dealing drugs. They half-heartedly promise to protect him if he should happen to get caught, but they refuse to put it in writing so we know they don’t really mean it. In the meantime, Rick junior impregnates a black girl (he’s still only sixteen) and doesn’t know about the baby until after it’s born. Rick senior and Rick junior rescue Dawn from a drug house and take her home and lock her up to help her get over her terrible addiction.

White Boy Rick is based, we are told, on a true story. It’s a portrait of a family and is a story of wasted, hopeless lives. It’s bleak from start to finish with nothing pretty about it; there’s no redemption and no Hollywood ending. To top it off, most of the accents are almost incomprehensible; I rarely understood an entire sentence that was spoken. If nothing else, it’s a movie that makes you thankful if your life has some kind of order and morality to it.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp     

The Last Picture Show ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Last Picture Show ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, The Last Picture Show, is set in the fictional town of Thalia, Texas, in the 1950s. Thalia sits on the edge of the prairie where it’s windy and dusty and hot. There’s a Main Street with a picture show, a café, a poolhall, and not much else. In the way of small towns everywhere, the people of Thalia don’t have much to do, but there’s always gossip—everybody knows everything about everybody else—and if you happen to be different in some way from the other people in the town, you’d better watch out because they’re coming to get you.

Sonny and Duane are high schoolers and best friends. Sonny is sensitive and Duane is a brawler. They both like to drink and carouse and they don’t have to worry about what their parents think because they are both living on their own, free of family. Even though they’re both still in high school, they don’t let it bother them much. They aren’t much interested in education.

Sonny has an unattractive girlfriend named Charlene Duggs. She’s overweight and already possesses the bitchy qualities of a middle-aged shrew. Everybody who knows Sonny believes he could do better. Sonny secretly envies Duane, who dates the prettiest, most-stylish girl in school, Jacy Farrow. Jacy is self-centered, vain, manipulative, and she doesn’t care who she hurts as long as she gets what she wants. (We’ve all known people like this.)

When the good-ol’-boy football coach enlists Sonny to drive his wife, Ruth, to the clinic, Sonny sees that Ruth seems awfully lonely and unhappy. They begin a sexual affair—she’s forty and he’s seventeen—meeting afternoons in her bedroom while the coach is at school. Ruth experiences a sexual reawakening with Sonny. With the age difference, though, you know someone younger is bound to turn Sonny’s head and when it happens it’s none other than Jacy Farrow, who has broken up with Duane. Forty-year-old Ruth is easy for Sonny to put out of his mind when he can have Jacy.

There are other interesting characters in the novel, including Sam the Lion, a sort of father figure to everybody—he owns the poolhall, picture show and café; Genevieve, the world-weary waitress at the café whom the boys secretly lust after; Lois Farrow, Jacy’s smart-mouthed mother, who gave her husband so much hell he just had to go out and make a million dollars just to please her.

The Last Picture Show is a slice of small-town life and also a growing-up, coming-of-age story. It’s about change, the good kind and the bad kind that throws you for a loop and makes you wish you had never been born. It’s a breezy 245 pages that you can read without taxing your brain too much. And who can forget the 1971 movie version (two acting Oscars) of the novel, a good example of how to make a movie from a book and do it right.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp    

Blood of the Lamb

Blood of the Lamb ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The funeral was on Saturday. Vincent spoke to no one for several days, but on Wednesday afternoon the telephone rang.

“Hello,” he said sleepily.

“Is that Vincent Spearman?” a deep voice asked.

“Yes,” Vincent said. “Who is this?”

“Vincent, this is Timothy Nestlerode. I’m the pastor at your mother’s church.”

“Yes?”

“I just wanted to call and see how you’re getting along since your mother’s funeral and to ask if there’s anything I might do for you.”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said. “I don’t need a thing.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Thanks for calling.”

“Well, Vincent, I’m going to be in your area later this afternoon and I was wondering if I might drop in 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 get it over with today. I might be going out of town.”

“Fine! I’ll be there in 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. He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and peered out, seeing part of the big face of the reverend Timothy Nestlerode, Doctor of Divinity.

“Vincent?” the reverend Nestlerode 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 Nestlerode said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said.

“Might we sit?”

Vincent led the reverend Nestlerode into the living room and watched as he placed himself in the middle of the couch. Vincent himself sat in a chair across the room in front of the window and placed his ankle across his knee.

“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,” the reverend Nestlerode said. “Open to the public and free of charge.”

“Grief counseling?”

“Yes, if you want to talk about your feelings of grief in a group setting.”

“Group?”

“Yes, people who are experiencing the same kind of loss as you are.”

“Oh.”

“The group meets twice a month, on alternating Fridays. I believe this coming Friday, day after tomorrow, is their night to meet.”

“Oh.”

“Please feel free to attend if you’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock.”

“I don’t really like meetings,” Vincent said. “I don’t have anything to say.”

“Well, I’m sure the group will put you at your ease. They’re very nice people.”

“Okay.

The reverend Nestlerode leaned forward and locked his fingers together contemplatively. “You mother spoke of you on several occasions,” he said.

“Why would she do that?” Vincent asked.

“She was worried about you.”

“Worried?

“You’re about forty, aren’t you?”

“What does my age have to do with it?”

“She was concerned that, after her passing, you’d be all alone.”

“Oh?”

“Isn’t that right? You have no other family?”

“I have some cousins living in Minnesota. Or maybe it’s Montana. I get those two mixed up.”

“But no family nearby.”

“That’s right.”

“You see, most men your age have a family of their own, a wife and children.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You made it all the way through high school?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Vincent. I’m not trying to pry. I just wanted to let you know that we have many lovely single ladies in our congregation who would be happy to get to know you.”

“Why would they be happy to get to know me?”

“It would be so easy for you to meet them. All you have to do is come to our next social mixer. We have one for the middle-aged—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.”

“Another chance to do what?”

“What I’m saying is it’s no good being alone, Vincent.”

“Not everybody is the same.”

“I’m sure that’s true, Vincent, but I hope you will at least think about what I’m saying.”

“Okay.”

“The message is this: you are not alone.”

“Got it.”

“What are your plans now that your mother is gone and you live in this big house all alone?”

“Plans?”

“Yes, what are you planning on doing now?”

“I’ll do what I’ve always done, I guess.”

“Are you able to take care of the housework on your own? The cooking and shopping and laundry?”

“Sure, I’ve done those things all my life.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t really need any help like that.”

“Well, I’m happy that you are getting along so well,” the reverend Nestlerode said.

“Yeah, thanks for stopping by.”

“We’re having a special prayer meeting on Saturday evening for people like you.”

“People like me?”

“Yes, the theme is going to 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.”

“Okay.”

“So you’ll come then? To the prayer meeting on Saturday evening?”

“I don’t think so,” Vincent said. “I’m planning on being out of town on Saturday.”

“All right. Well, if you should happen to change your mind, please feel free to come anyway. I think you’ll find it very enjoyable.”

“Okay, but I won’t be there.”

“There are times in life where it’s a good to keep an open mind.”

“I know that.”

“You seem to be opposed to everything I’ve said.”

“Maybe I just don’t like your church.”

“I find that difficult to fathom with your mother being the devout church member she was.”

“She only got that way after she got old. She was afraid of dying and going to hell. When she was young, she was pretty wild.”

“Well, she was washed in the blood of the lamb. All her transgressions were forgiven.”

“Maybe so.”

“That’s the message: no matter what you’ve done, you have only to ask for forgiveness and forgiveness will be granted.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Was that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Just one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Your house?”

“My house?”

“Yes, your house has many rooms.”

“Fifteen,” Vincent said. “I used to go through and count them every day when I was little, as if the number might change.”

“Does a young man living alone really need fifteen rooms?” the reverend Nestlerode asked.

Vincent shrugged and wished the man would go away and leave him alone.

“This house would be ideal as a halfway house for young runaways or recovering drug addicts.”

“Halfway house?”

“Yes, a place for people to stay a few weeks or a few months while they’re trying to get their lives in order.”

“I wouldn’t want that in my house,” Vincent said.

The reverend Nestlerode threw his head back and laughed uproariously. “No, you don’t understand. You wouldn’t still live here.”

“Where would I live?”

“We’d acquire the property from you and in return we’d swap you for a smaller house, more suitable to your needs, or a nice apartment in town.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, it’s something to for you to think about, anyway.”

“Okay.”

The reverend Nestlerode stood up from the couch. “Well, I must be running along,” he said. “I have other calls to make. I’m so glad we had this little chat today and I hope I’ve given you something interesting to think about.”

Vincent also stood up. “Thanks for coming,” he said.

“Would you like to pray with me before I go?”

“No.”

“Well, here’s my card. If you ever want to call me for any reason, day or night, don’t hesitate to do so. And I hope you’ll think about coming to Sunday service or any of our activities during the week. I know it would have made your mother very happy for you to become active in the church.”

Vincent took the card and put it in his pocket. “You think you knew my mother but you didn’t,” he said. “She wasn’t what you think.”

“All right! Well, so great seeing you again!”

After the reverend Nestlerode was gone, Vincent triple-locked the door, turned out the lights and went upstairs. He went into his bedroom, locked the door and pulled the curtains closed.

In his dresser drawer he kept a small gun that fit snugly into the palm of his hand. He picked the gun up and looked closely at it as if seeing it for the first time. He hadn’t fired the gun in a long time but he knew it was loaded because it was always loaded.

He stood in front of the mirror and watched himself as he pointed the gun at the side of his head. Then he lowered the gun and inserted the barrel into his mouth. When he saw how silly he looked, he took the gun out of his mouth and turned from the mirror.

“Such a cliché,” he said.

Standing halfway between the bed and the dresser, his back to the mirror, he pointed the gun at his chest where his heart was beating and pulled the trigger. Feeling surprise more than pain, he fell to the floor on his back. When he looked down and saw the blood that was pouring out of him, he said, to anybody who might be listening: At last, I am washed in the blood of the lamb.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Memoirs of Hadrian ~ A Capsule Book Review

Memoirs of Hadrian ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

Hadrian was born in 76 A.D. and became emperor of the Roman Empire in the year 117, at age 41. His reign lasted until his death in 138, at age 62. Hadrian was known as one of the five “good emperors,” meaning he was known for his peaceful reign, rather than for cruelty or for the extravagant vices that some of his predecessors were known for. Hadrian is known mainly today for three things: his love for Antinous, a Bithynian youth (Bithynia is today part of Turkey), who died at age 19 by drowning in the Nile River; for having built the famous Pantheon in Rome (or at least having it finished); and for a wall he had built in Britain (parts of which still remain) known as “Hadrian’s Wall,” which was supposed to keep the “barbarian hordes” out of territory belonging to the Roman Empire.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, is a historical novel, a fictional account of Hadrian’s life and times. Although fiction, it is based on extensive historical research, which the Bibliographical Note at the end of the novel explains. It is told in Hadrian’s voice, from his point of view, as if he, from across the centuries, was writing it himself. It is an extended letter to 17-year-old Marcus Aurelius, future emperor-to-be.

Of course, as emperor of one-third of the earth’s population at the time, Hadrian had many problems, many ups and downs. The emperor was essentially a warrior, a general holding together the military factions of his empire and, as such, was often in peril of his life. There were always the greedy, the ambitious, the selfish who wanted to destroy the emperor in an effort to attain their own ends. Hadrian was by all accounts a modest man, not interested so much in being loved or admired. He believed that true love and admiration from the people must be earned, rather than automatically given just because one has fallen heir to a powerful position.

The most dramatic event in Hadrian’s life was his love for Antinous, the beautiful youth whom he watched grow into manhood. Antinous was Hadrian’s better self, his constant companion, the emotional axis of Hadrian’s life during the years they were together. Their love was a love for the ages, like that of Achilles and Patroclus centuries earlier. When Antinous committed suicide (apparently) by drowning himself in the Nile River at age 19, Hadrian was never the same again, living for about eight more years. He “deified” Antinous, building a city (Antinoopolis) in Egypt to his memory. Many statues, coins, and other works of art bore Antinous’s image. A cult was built up around his name and memory. When Hadrian died of a “dropsical” heart in 138 A.D., one can’t help but believe that the two of them were reunited in death.

Memoirs of Hadrian was first published in 1951, in French, and later translated into English. It is a glimpse into another time and place into the mind of a man who lived so long ago that it’s difficult for us to imagine. Despite its historical subject matter and its moderately dense prose, it is never very difficult reading, especially after the first fifty pages or so. Not for everybody, but if you make it through to the end, you will find it immensely rewarding and memorable.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp 

I Already Hear the Calliope Music

I Already Hear the Calliope Music ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“I hate my name,” Ruth Ellen said. “It sounds like a farm girl. I’m going to change it.”

Mother turned from the stove, spoon in hand. “Change it to what?” she asked.

“I haven’t decided yet. I’m thinking of either Viva or Lucky. Maybe Roxanne. Something with pizzazz.”

“There isn’t anything wrong with the name you have,” mother said. “We’ll stick with that for the time being. When you get out into the world on your own and are making your own living, you can call yourself whatever you want.”

“I can think of lots of good names for her,” Clive said, trailing the tines of his fork through the egg yolk on his plate.

“There’s a girl at school named Cha-Cha and another one named Jeepers,” Ruth Ellen said. “Those are names with pizzazz.”

“Surely those aren’t real names,” mother said. “Who would name a child Cha-Cha?”

“I’ve seen Cha-Cha,” Clive said. “She has a harelip and she’s in special education.”

“She is not!” Ruth Ellen said. “You couldn’t possibly know anything about her.”

“She wears a black leather jacket with a swastika on the back and she carries a switchblade in her purse. She was voted most likely to end up in the electric chair.” He held out his arms and shook all over to simulate being electrocuted.

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

“She belongs to an all-girl gang of juvenile delinquents. They shoplift and smoke dope.”

“If anybody ends up in the electric chair, it’ll be you,” Ruth Ellen said. “And I hope I’ll be there to see it.”

“I think that’s enough talk about electric chairs,” mother said.

“I was asked to join a gang,” Clive said. “I said I’d think about it.”

“Would that be a gang of ugly losers?” Ruth Ellen asked.

“I think I’ll join. It’ll add to my prestige.”

“What prestige?”

“Who asked you to join a gang?” mother asked.

“Just some boys at school. I don’t know their names.”

“He’s just making that up,” Ruth Ellen said. “Nobody would ever want him to join anything. If they wanted him, it would just be so they would have somebody to slap around. ”

“Everybody’s got to start somewhere.”

“As long as you’re living under my roof, you will not join a gang.” mother said. “That kind of talk makes it sound as if you weren’t brought up right.”

“I wasn’t!”

“This is what happens when children have to grow up without a father.”

“He’s only been gone six months,” Ruth Ellen said.

“I don’t know that we really needed him in the first place,” Clive said. “I don’t miss him at all.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say about your father,” mother said.

“Let’s face it. Even when he was here, he really wasn’t. Some people just aren’t cut out to be parents.”

“He went off and left us without a penny,” mother said. “We’d be destitute if it wasn’t for the money my mother left me.”

“Destitute is a relative term,” Clive said. “You’d say you were destitute if you had to buy a cheaper brand of face powder.”

“He knew he wasn’t really needed,” Ruth Ellen said. “That made it easy for him to leave. When his business failed, he had no reason to stay.”

“Other men would think their family was reason enough to stay,” mother said.

“Well, I guess he wasn’t one of those,” Ruth Ellen said.

“He always wanted more than anything to be a clown.”

“You mean like in a circus?”

“Yes. He was always fascinated by clowns. He dreamed of chucking everything and going off and joining the circus and becoming a famous clown.”

“I can easily picture him as a clown,” Clive said.

“Every day I expect to hear from him,” mother said.

“To give us some money?” Ruth Ellen asked.

“No, to ask me for a divorce so he can become a clown without any encumbrances.”

“Are you going to give him a divorce?”

“I don’t think I will. I believe that when you marry, it’s for life. Marriage isn’t something you shrug off whenever you feel like it.”

“That’s so old-fashioned,” Ruth Ellen said.

“You may call it whatever you like. It’s just the way I am. Marriage is an eternal bond.”

“Maybe he’ll want to marry somebody else,” Clive said. “A lady clown.”

“As long as he’s married to me, he won’t marry anybody else unless he wants to go to jail for bigamy.”

“I don’t see him doing that,” Ruth Ellen said.

“What if you died?” Clive asked. “He could marry somebody else then, couldn’t he?”

“When I was eight years old,” mother said, “my parents divorced.”

“Oh, no!” Clive said. “I knew it was coming!”

“My father committed suicide a few years later and my mother was married many times. Can you imagine how confusing it is for a child to have one stepfather after another? After a while, you can’t keep them straight anymore.”

Ruth Ellen made snoring sounds but mother ignored her.

“My brother left home at an early age and ended up a drunkard, in trouble all the time, in and out of prison. I’ll always believe he had a wasted life because he was from a broken home.”

“How is Uncle Stanley these days?” Clive asked.

“My sister ran off with a married man who abandoned her in a cheap hotel room in a faraway city. She called and begged us to send her money so she could come home. She was broken and humiliated. She was never the same after that. Because of all this chaos in our lives, I swore that if I ever got married it would be one time and one time only. The last thing I want is to be like my mother.”

“She left you money, though,” Clive said.

“I’m going to make sure we all stay together as a family. Even if your father is far away and we never see him, there’s an invisible bond connecting the four of us together as a unit. The only thing that will break that unit is death.”

She went down to the basement to put a load of clothes in the washer, leaving Ruth Ellen and Clive alone in the kitchen.

“She gets crazier all the time,” Ruth Ellen said.

“I know something you don’t know,” Clive said.

“I doubt that.”

“No, really, I do. I. Know. Something. You. Don’t. Know.”

“Are you going to force me to make you tell me what it is?”

“I got a letter yesterday. In the mail.”

“Who from?”

“Who have we been talking about, dumbbell?”

“What did he say?”

“He sent me ten dollars and he said he hoped we’re all well.”

“Is that all he said?”

“No. He’s been to clown school. Graduated with top honors and he’s joined the circus.”

“As a clown?”

“He said it’s what he’s always wanted and he’s never been happier.”

“Why didn’t you tell mother?”

“I was waiting to surprise her.”

“I don’t think she’ll see it as a happy surprise.”

“The circus is coming to town this week. He sent me three tickets for the matinee on Saturday. One for me, one for mother and one for you.”

“Do you want to go?”

“Of course I want to go,” Clive said. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“Does the circus have a freak show?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”

“Do you think mother will go?”

“We’ll have to persuade her,” Clive said. “He wants us to come backstage after the performance.”

“Do you think he’ll ask mother if he can come back home and pick up where he left off?”

“He doesn’t want to come back home. He wants a clown divorce. He says a clown has no business being married.”

“I suppose he should know.”

“I’m excited about seeing him perform as a clown in the circus,” Clive said. “I think mother will be excited about it too.”

“It might just be the thing that finishes her off,” Ruth Ellen said. “The ultimate indignity: Her husband ran off and left her—not for another woman—but to join the circus and become a clown.”

“You don’t think she’ll take it well?”

“She’ll make it into the most tragic event of her life. Everything else that’s ever happened to her will pale in comparison.”

“Are you going to tell her or shall I?”

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp