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Ethan Frome ~ A Capsule Book Review

Ethan Frome ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American author Edith Wharton (1862-1937) gained fame for her novels about wealthy New Yorkers during America’s Gilded Age, such as House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Her 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, is not about high society but is instead about a poor farmer in a bleak New England village, set at some unidentified time in the late eighteenth century.

Ethan Frome has a wife named Zenobia (“Zeena”) that he doesn’t like very much, and who can blame him? He married her out of convenience (inertia) in a weak moment when she came to help him take care of his sick mother. Zeena is older than Ethan and is a bundle of complaints and physical ailments. There is no warmth or kind feelings between Ethan and Zeena.

Zeena has a “poor relation” (even more poor than Ethan and Zeena) named Mattie Silver. Mattie comes and lives in the Frome household to help Zeena with the farm work. Mattie is the opposite of Zeena. She is young, pretty and sunny. Zeena doesn’t like Mattie very much and is always quick to find fault with her.

Ethan is naturally drawn to Mattie Silver. He knows it’s wrong to have “feelings” for her, right in the house under Zeena’s nose, but Mattie makes him feel good, maybe for the first time in his life. Zeena is such a whiny old thing, so sick all the time. Why doesn’t she just die and leave Ethan and Mattie alone in their little love nest? Hah! No such luck!

This ménage a trois can’t end well. Ethan dreams of running away with Mattie, but they are desperately poor, and where would they go and how would they get there? Is he really the kind of man to leave his life for a younger, prettier woman? Has he no decency? Well, yes, he has.

A new doctor advises Zeena to bring in a “hired girl,” meaning somebody who is more competent than Mattie. That means Mattie Silver is going to be tossed out of the Frome household on her ear. On the day that Mattie is supposed to go, Ethan’s hand is forced. Is he just going to keep his mouth shut and let Mattie Silver go out of his life forever without even letting her know how he feels about her? When he discovers that the feelings he has for her are reciprocated, will that make a difference, or will it just lead to an ill-advised action on his part?

Ethan Frome is an American classic about a love affair that is doomed from the start, set in a snowy Massachusetts landscape. It’s a simple story about loneliness, alienation and hidden feelings. When Ethan married Zeena, he missed his chance of ever meeting a woman like Mattie Silver who might have made him happy. He missed the boat and then he paid the price, as so many people do.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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In the Shape of a Man

In the Shape of a Man ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Alexander comes to Marceline in the night, undresses in the dark, and gets into bed beside her. She smells his clean man smell and is aware of the mere animal presence of him: a torso, a head and shoulders, two arms and two legs. The mattress sags under his weight and she sinks closer to him, huddling beside him under the blankets. Timidly she runs her finger along his pectoral muscles and when he seems annoyed she stops.

She can’t, of course, do all the things she longs to do, but it is enough to just have him there in the bed beside her, to watch his handsome profile in the dark. She is reminded of the phrase from the Bible: My cup runneth over. She is too happy, too fulfilled, to sleep well, but it doesn’t matter. She can work on very little sleep or no sleep at all and nobody will notice her heavy eyelids or how sloppily she is dressed or the mistakes she will make in her typing.

When she wakes in the morning he is gone. She sees at once that she is going to be late, but she doesn’t care. She places her hand on the bed where his body has lain and she believes she can still feel his warmth. When she feels herself starting to drift off to sleep again, she throws back the cover and jumps up with alarm.

After performing the necessary ablutions in the bathroom, Marceline dresses hurriedly and goes into the kitchen. Mother is sitting at the table underneath the chicken clock with her back to the wall. She still holds her cards from the gin rummy game the night before. Her glasses glint and her fingernails glisten in the morning light coming from the window.

“Good morning, mother,” Marceline says as she sets about making her morning cup of tea. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. Alexander was with me last night. He’s very passionate, such a wonderful lover. I’m a lucky woman.”

A quick look at the chicken clock tells her she doesn’t have time for breakfast, only her scalding cup of tea. Oh, well, she isn’t hungry, anyway. She can get something out of the vending machine at work.

Before she goes out the door, she takes a quick look at her mother and blows her a kiss. “I’ll be home at the usual time!” she calls cheerily. “God willing, of course!”

She misses the early downtown bus and has to wait fifteen minutes for the second one and when she gets on the bus she doesn’t get a seat and has to stand the whole way. When she walks into the office, half-an-hour late, Mr. Frizzell frowns at her and points at his watch. She smiles and goes on to her desk, ignoring the inquisitive glances of her co-workers.

“Late night last night?” Miss Arlette asks archly.

Marceline ignores her, hangs up her coat and sits down at her desk and begins working.

She despises Ivan-Bello (she has worked there for twelve long years) and the people in it. Her days are routine and uneventful. Her real life seems at times like a prison sentence from which there is no reprieve. The building she works in is old, dreary and dilapidated. Rats run along pipes hanging from ceilings. Plaster and paint rain down on people’s heads. Elevators are permanently out of order. And the people in the company are well-suited to their environment; they are unimaginative, unoriginal, colorless and not worthy of interest. Marceline knows, however, that in describing them in this way, she is also describing herself.

Some of her co-workers, especially the younger women, look upon Marceline with suspicion because they know nothing about her and they think there is something fishy about somebody who isn’t friendly with them. They make jokes behind her back about her sack-like dresses, unflattering hairstyle, and lack of makeup. Knowing she isn’t married, they speculate about whether or not she is a virgin or even if she is a woman. They play little tricks on her, like breaking the lead points off all her pencils or putting a rubber spider on her shoulder while she’s sitting at her desk.

At lunch she buys a sandwich and a bottle of pop in the employees’ lunchroom and takes them to the mannequin storage room. It is cool and quiet in the mannequin room—only the mannequins—and she can have a little time to herself away from ringing phones, clacking typewriters and the self-important voices of those around her.

She goes to the back of the room where the mannequins are closest together, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. Some of them are clothed but most are unclothed. Even with no clothes, their painted-on faces are always the same. The men are handsome and the women are beautiful. Some of them have brilliant, life-like eyes and mouths showing pearl-like teeth. They’re lifelike (but not in the way of real people), agreeable and pleasant to be near. They make her feel happy in her life and less alone. Sometimes she kisses one of the more appealing male mannequins full on the lips; she enjoys the sensation and never thinks how peculiar such an action might appear to the casual observer.

She finds a place to sit on a display case where a mannequin has recently been removed and eats her sandwich slowly and when it is gone she finishes her bottle of pop. The empty bottle makes a convenient ash repository, so she lights up a cigarette and blows the smoke out luxuriously. People in the mannequin factory are desperately afraid of fire and she would probably be fired if management knew she was smoking in the highly combustible mannequin room, but that doesn’t keep her from smoking. She is not careless the way some people are; if there’s ever a fire it will be through no fault of her own.

As she leaves the mannequin room, she conceals the pop bottle with her ashes and cigarette butt in it in the folds of her dress. On the way back to her desk she throws the bottle away in one of the tall trash cans, hiding it underneath a mound of papers. Nobody can ever claim she isn’t careful.

In the half-hour or so that she has been away, Mr. Frizzell or somebody else has piled more work on her desk that has to be finished by the end of the day. She never hurries herself because she knows in the world of business everything is always urgent. They’ll have the completed work when they have it and if that doesn’t suit them, well, they’ll just have to go up to the roof and take a sixty-foot dive into the trash cans in the alley.

When the day is finally over and Marceline goes back home, mother is still sitting at the kitchen table holding her cards. She lifts mother up—so light!—and carries her into the living room and sets her on the couch and turns on the TV. Mother enjoys the chatter, the endless commercials, the applause and the mindlessness, of late-afternoon TV fare.

She cooks a modest dinner for herself and mother and when it’s ready she carries mother into the kitchen again and slides her up to the table in her customary chair. She has a full place setting for mother—knife, fork, spoon, folded napkin beside the plate—but the truth is mother doesn’t eat much because she isn’t real. She weighs fifteen pounds. She is a life-size doll; that is, she is one of the mannequins from Ivan-Bello, wearing her real mother’s clothes, wig and glasses. Marceline brought her home from work on the bus one day, paying the fare for her as if she were a real person. People on the bus looked at her if she was a crazy person, but nobody said anything and she just smiled to herself at her little joke.

Her real mother, not the mannequin, has been dead for a year and a half. All that remains of her on this earth is an urnful of ashes on the dresser in her bedroom. She died in her bed, in her sleep, not knowing anything, at age seventy-six. For the last twenty years of her life, she had been in what might modestly be described as “poor health.”

Mother was Marceline’s only friend and companion. They never fussed or quarreled in the way of other mothers and daughters. They were together always, each an extension of the other, and when mother died Marceline couldn’t bear coming home every day to an empty house.

One day when she is eating lunch and smoking her Camel cigarette in the mannequin storage room, she notes the resemblance between mother and one of the female mannequins. They each possess the same small, pointed nose, the same high cheekbones and the tiny dimple in the chin. When she looks at the mannequin for long enough and squints, she sees her mother and hears her voice. That’s when she decides to claim the mannequin for her own after office hours and take it (her) home with her on the bus.

When dinner is over, Marceline returns mother to her TV in the living room and washes the dishes. She lets mother watch her favorite programs throughout the evening. When it’s time to go to bed, she undresses her, puts her nighty on over her head and tucks her comfortably under the covers.

The man who comes to her that night is Tab. He isn’t beefy and muscular like Alexander but tall and thin, with blue eyes and flaxen blond hair. He whispers Marceline’s name when they are in the throes of passion and she is embarrassed to think that mother might hear them through the thin wall. When it is all over, Tab leaves and Marceline falls, with the help of a pill, into a blissful sleep that is broken only by the harsh buzz of the alarm clock at six-thirty in the morning. It is time to begin another day.

Another noon when she is lunching and smoking in the mannequin room (nobody has a clue where she is or what she is doing), she spots a male mannequin she has never seen before. He has dark-red hair and long-lashed, amber eyes. He has broad shoulders (but not too broad), a narrow waist, and stands about five feet, ten inches tall. He is in almost every way the perfect man, except, of course, that he isn’t a real man but a facsimile of a man. Marceline knows at the moment she sees him that she must—she simply must—have him. Sensibly or not, she names him Finch.

The next day she brings to work in a shopping bag an old tweed suit that belonged to her deceased father, as well as shirt, bow tie, belt, old-fashioned union suit, overcoat and hat. After five o’clock that day, when everybody else has gone home, she goes up to the mannequin storage room and dresses Finch up in the clothes she has brought, takes him down to street level by way of the fire stairs and home with her on the bus. People look at her and snigger but she doesn’t care.

At home once again, she puts Finch in her bedroom and closes the door. She isn’t ready just yet for mother to meet him. She expects a honeymoon period with him before he and mother become acquainted.

She enjoys undressing Finch at bedtime and putting him to bed and getting in beside him. All night long, she tricks her mind into believing she is not alone in the bed but with a man. And while he may not exactly be a real man, he has dimension. He possess the bodily proportions of a real man—meaning, of course, that he is made up of more than air. She finds that Finch is more satisfying than either Alexander or Tab.

In the middle of the morning Mr. Frizzell summons Marceline to his office and gestures for her to sit in the chair in front of her desk.

“I’m going to ask you a question,” Mr. Frizzell says, “and I want you to tell me the truth.”

She smiles, wishing she could stub out her cigarette on his veiny nose.

“Have you been stealing property belonging to Ivan-Bello?”

“Why would I do that?” she asks.

He sighs, folding his pudgy hands on the desk in front of him. “Somebody saw you leaving the building with one of our mannequins.”

Who was it?”

“It doesn’t matter who it was.”

“I’ll bet it was Miss Arlette, wasn’t it?”

“I doesn’t matter who. Did you steal one of our mannequins?”

“No, I didn’t steal it.”

“But you took it?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I wanted it.”

“To sell?”

“No, not to sell.”

“For what, then?”

“I wanted it.”

“It’s company property. We can’t have people stealing from the company. It’s grounds for immediate dismissal.”

“You’re firing me?”

“You have the rest of the day to say your goodbyes.”

It’s a little early for lunch, but she goes immediately to the employee lunchroom and buys a sandwich and a bottle of pop and takes them up to the mannequin storage room.

She knows she will not be seeing the mannequins again, so she says goodbye to as many of them as she can. She tenders an apology to the room in general and then smokes the last cigarette she will ever be smoking in the place.

All the way in back of the huge storage room are some old barrels containing papers, books, cloth samples and mannequin clothing. She picks up a little wedge of wood and lights the end of it with her cigarette lighter and throws it into one of the barrels. She isn’t sure if the fire will take hold or not, but after she leaves the building and goes home for the last time she doesn’t give it much thought.

The next morning she gets out of bed and dresses for work at the usual time, careful not to disturb Finch in the bed. She has her cup of scalding tea, gives mother a tiny goodbye peck on the cheek and walks the three short blocks to catch the downtown bus.

The bus can only go so far. It’s four blocks or so from her destination when it becomes snarled in traffic. Rather than waiting for the traffic problem to resolve it, she gets off the bus and walks the rest of the way.

Right away she notices the stench of burning.

Ivan-Bello has been burning all night long and has just about burned itself out. While the outside walls still mostly stand, all the floors, from six on down, appear to have collapsed in on each other. Police keep onlookers back at a safe distance.

As Marceline stands with dozens of other people and watches the fire, she is thankful for many things, not the least of which is that Ivan-Bello is no more. More importantly, however, mother and Finch are safe at home and she’ll see them again in just a little while and the three of them will be together forever.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Lord of the Flies ~ A Capsule Book Review

Lord of the Flies ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Author William Golding was born in Cornwall, England, in 1911, and died in 1993. His most famous and enduring work is his 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies. In it, a group of about twenty British schoolboys, ranging in age from six to fourteen, crash-lands on an uninhabited and unnamed island in the Pacific. We learn nothing of where they come from, where they’re going, or of the crash that landed them on the island. Their world begins and ends on the island.

The first thing the boys must do when they find themselves alone (no adults) on the island is to figure out how to survive. There’s plenty of fruit (we never know what kind of fruit it is) on the island, so they aren’t going to starve to death. There are also wild pigs but they’re very difficult to catch and kill. The problem of food and fresh water solved, they build crude shelters to sleep in. They find a large shell (conch) which they blow into to call meetings. The shell becomes a symbol for law and order because, in the meetings, only the person who holds the conch can speak.

Their only hope of being rescued is to keep a smoky signal fire burning all the time, which they believe will be seen by passing ships. They can have fun on the island, but their top priority needs to be the signal fire, according to their elected leader, Ralph. He is the most sensible boy on the island and the one most likely to maintain a semblance of “civilization.” Ralph’s chief ally is Piggy, a chubby boy who uses bad English and is afraid of almost everything. The boys have no matches, of course, so they cleverly use Piggy’s glasses to kindle flames from the rays of the sun.

Months go by. The longer the boys remain on the island, the less chance they have of surviving their ordeal. A boy named Jack challenges Ralph’s authority as leader. He and his group of followers gradually break off from the group as a whole and begin doing things their own way, which is Jack’s way. They become less and less civilized and more like savages. So now we have two warring factions, Ralph’s small group (representing rules and a sensible approach to survival) and Jack’s group (chaos and savagery). They become the world in microcosm.

Lord of the Flies is an influential book that has influenced and inspired many writers—and readers—over the many years since it was first published. If you’ve never read it and you don’t know how it ends, you might be surprised and gratified (or disappointed) by its deus ex machina conclusion.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Reflections in a Golden Eye ~ A Capsule Book Review

Reflections in a Golden Eye ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Carson McCullers was an American writer who lived from 1917 to 1967. She published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when she was only in her early twenties. It was a literary sensation that established her as an important American writer and one of the most gifted writers of her generation. Her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, was published in 1941, when she was twenty-four. While it was not the critical and commercial success of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, it is still a fascinating and highly readable book.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is set at a sleepy peacetime army base in Georgia in, let us say, the late 1930s. The story, the plot, is centered around five characters: Leonora Penderton is the wife of an officer. She is free-spirited, rather course and vulgar, attractive and not very smart. She is married to Captain Weldon Penderton and it is not a happy marriage. He is bitter, withdrawn, suspicious, and a closeted homosexual. He and Leonora have separate bedrooms. Major Morris Langdon is much more temperamentally suited to Leonora Penderton than her husband is. He drinks to excess, is jovial, likes a good time, and is having an affair with Leonora. Major Langdon’s wife is Alison, a nervous, sickly, neurotic woman who despises her husband and depends a great deal on her feminine Filipino houseboy, Anacleto, to make life palatable for her. The fifth character is private Ellgee Williams; he is a country boy who doesn’t know much of the world before enlisting in the U.S. army. He has never been around women much, being raised by a woman-hating father, and becomes obsessed (silently and secretly) with Leonora when he glimpses her naked. He takes to breaking into her house at night and, without making a sound, stands in her bedroom and watches her sleep.

Private Williams tends the stables on the base and, since Captain Penderton rides almost every day, the two of them come into contact frequently. Captain Penderton develops an infatuation (love and same-sex attraction mixed in with an unreasoning hatred) for private Williams, not knowing or not caring that private Williams is infatuated with his wife, Leonora. Of course, private Williams is only vaguely aware (or not aware at all) of Captain Penderton’s sexual longing for him. It might be that he is too unsophisticated to know of those things or to understand, even if he does know.

Reflections in a Golden Eye moves along almost in the way of a Greek tragedy toward its inevitable tragic conclusion. It’s a simple story with clear-cut themes of lust, longing, and isolation. All the characters are flawed in some way, misfits in some fundamental way. Happiness and satisfaction are qualities that don’t exist in this world. It’s a world of superficial, self-indulgent people, destructive to themselves and to their world. Keep those before-dinner cocktails coming and also the after-dinner ones. We must keep drinking to give ourselves the impression we’re happy.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Lamented

Lamented ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

A child’s life in school is a continuous round of simple commands: stand up, sit down, go out, come in, open the book, close the book, stop talking, start reading, don’t run, spell the word, solve the problem, go to recess, come in from recess, go to lunch, come back from lunch, don’t copy your answers from your neighbor, write legibly, don’t knock anybody down on the playground, don’t press anybody’s fingers back the wrong way, don’t stand up in the swing, don’t lie to me, don’t spread disease germs, use the bathroom when you’re supposed to and don’t wet your pants.

Recess was over and all the children came back into the room quietly and took their seats. Looking out over the ten-year-old faces, Miss Snow saw that one piece of the mosaic was missing. On the outer row of desks, next to the wall, third seat from the front, the space ordinarily occupied by Ella Ruffin was without a face and without a body.

“Does anybody know where Ella Ruffin is?” Miss Snow asked.

No answer.

“Did anybody see Ella?”

“She was sitting out on the playground when the bell rang,” Kay Hood said.

“Why was she doing that?”

“I don’t know, Miss Snow.”

“All right, everybody open your social studies books to page thirty-eight and begin reading the chapter on Peru. I’m going outside for a minute and see if anything has happened to Ella.”

She was sitting all alone at the corner of the playground, a tiny, frail child in a vast expanse of asphalt.

“Didn’t you hear the bell?” Miss Snow said.

“I heard it,” Ella said.

“What’s the matter? You’re not sick, are you?”

“No, I’m not sick.”

“Well, come back inside, then. We’re just starting social studies.”

“I can’t get up,” Ella said.

“Why not? Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m not hurt. It’s worse than that.”

“Ella, I haven’t got all day! What is the matter with you?”

“I wet my pants.”

“Oh, Ella! Why didn’t you go to the restroom when everybody else went?”

“I didn’t have to go then.”

“Do you want me to bring you some paper towels?”

“No.”

“You can’t sit there all day. Come on inside and we’ll get you cleaned up.”

“I’m not getting up.”

“Why not?”

“After I peed in my pants, I did the other. You know. I pooted in my pants. It was an accident. I sneezed and it just happened.”

“You go on home, then, and get yourself cleaned up. You’re excused for the rest of the day.”

“I can’t go home. There’s nobody there. The door’s locked and I don’t have a key.”

“Do you want me to call your mother?”

“She’s in Atlantic City.”

“What about your father?”

“He’s been drunk for three days.”

“Don’t you have an older sister?”

“She’s in the hospital with vaginal bleeding.”

“I’ll go get the school nurse and she’ll bring a big towel to tie around your waist and she’ll take you back to her office and get you cleaned up.”

“No, I’m not getting up. I’m too embarrassed.”

“Ella, there’s no reason to be embarrassed. It was an accident. Everybody has accidents.”

“How many people have you known of that’ve peed in their pants at school and then pooted on top of it?”

“All right. We all have embarrassing moments. We’ll get it straightened out.”

“People will laugh at me when they see what I did.”

“No, they won’t. Nobody will even know.”

“They already know. They were talking about it.”

“Who was?”

“Certain people.”

“You can’t sit there. It’s going to rain. Just look at the sky. If you can’t go home now, you’re going to have to come inside. Come on in now and we’ll get you cleaned up.”

“I think I’d just rather sit here for a while.”

“Ella, I’m responsible for you and I can’t just let you sit out here by yourself during school hours.”

“I’ll be all right. When school’s over, I’ll go home just like I always do. If you would be so kind as to have somebody bring me my coat, that’s all I ask. It’s yellow. It’s hanging in the cloak room next to the fire extinguisher.”

“Well, all right. I guess I can do that. But if it starts to rain, you come back inside, do you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If nothing else, go to the girls’ restroom on the first floor and wait it out. Nobody will see you.”

“I will.”

Miss Snow went back upstairs to her classroom and put Ella Ruffin out of her mind for the time being. In a half-hour or so, the sky turned dark and the wind blew briskly from the southwest. The rain began lightly at first and then came down in torrents. The windows had to be closed and the lights turned on.

When Miss Snow’s eyes were once again drawn to Ella Ruffin’s empty desk, she remembered something she was supposed to do. What was it? Oh, yes. She was going to have somebody take Ella’s coat down to her, the yellow one hanging in the cloak room next to the fire extinguisher, but she somehow forgot. Poor Ella. A little girl outside in a rainstorm without a coat. She’d probably end up with a terrible cold, at the very least.

A lightning strike that shook the building to its foundations caused the lights to go out. Miss Snow knew that nobody was going to learn anything as long as the storm kept up, so she told everybody they could close their books and sit quiet as mice and not make any kind of disturbance. A few of the children were nervous and worried about the storm, but most of them were excited and couldn’t sit still. They hoped that school would be called off for the rest of the day and they would be released into the wild like a bunch of captive birds.

The children jabbered among themselves and Miss Snow let them do as they pleased as long as they didn’t make too much noise. The other fourth grade class across the hall was not making a sound; likewise the fifth grade classes down the hall.

Miss Snow stood up from her desk and went to the window, hoping to see some sign that the storm was dissipating, but there was no indication at all that their old school building and everybody in it was going to be saved from annihilation by lightning and thunder. From her third-floor perch, she could see the playground, but not clearly.

Water had collected at one side of the gently sloping playground, as it always did during a heavy rain. Gravity forced the water into a trough where it ran off into storm drains.

She was going to turn away from the window and go back to her desk when she saw something that arrested her attention. In the rushing water that had collected and was running off, she thought she saw a small, shabby, blonde girl in a plaid dress, face down, arms out, being carried along in the torrent. She couldn’t be sure of what she saw and when she strained to get a better view she decided that what she had seen was a clump of old newspaper.

When the rain let up a little and the sky became lighter, the lights still hadn’t come back on, so the principal, Mr. Murtaugh, sent word to all the classes that school was suspended for the day and everybody could go home or could go to the devil if that’s what they wanted.

Miss Snow dismissed her class and they left, eagerly, in a happy, holiday mood. She herself was relieved that another day was over, another week, and for two days and nights she wouldn’t have to give school a single thought.

In the night she woke up thinking about poor little Ella Ruffin. She hoped she had made her way home in the storm and hadn’t caught a cold. She probably should have insisted that Ella come inside, not matter how embarrassed she was. And maybe she should have called for help when she thought (or imagined) that she saw Ella’s body floating in the runoff water during the storm, but she didn’t, and in those situations it’s best not to think about it anymore. She was sure it all worked out for the best.

Monday morning was a new day. The sun was shining and the air cool and fresh. As teachers and students alike arrived at school, they all heard the sad news.

Ella Ruffin had been found dead in the river, several miles away from the school. Nobody knew how she came to be there. Police were not ruling out the possibility that she had been abducted by a madman, sexually molested and killed, and her body dumped into the river.

The police came to the school and asked Miss Snow a myriad of questions. Did the little girl leave school before she was supposed to? What was she wearing? Did Miss Snow notice anybody suspicious-looking near the school that day? What kind of family did the little girl have?

Miss Snow told them all she knew. Ella lived outside of town on a farm, or what used to be a farm. The family was poor and there were many children, who often came to school dirty and poorly clothed. Ella usually kept to herself and didn’t mix much with the other children. She wore ragged clothes and always seemed sad and underfed. You couldn’t look at her without feeling sorry.

When all their questions had been satisfied, the police left and Miss Snow took a deep breath and hoped she wouldn’t have to speak to them again. The whole thing was too distasteful to even talk about.

The class took up a collection for a floral tribute for Ella. The entire fourth grade class attended the funeral, including Miss Snow. Ella wore a white dress with a white ribbon in her hair and a spray of white flowers in her hands. Since the family was without funds, an anonymous benefactor from town paid all expenses.

On a certain day a few days later, Miss Snow arrived at school early, before anybody else was there. She had some work to do that she wanted to get done before her students arrived.

She turned on the lights and opened some of the windows to air out the room and then she sat down at her desk and started working. A slight stir in the room caused her to look up and when she did she saw Ella Ruffin sitting at her usual desk on the outside aisle, third row from the front.

The apparition seemed so real that she spoke to it.

“Ella,” she said, “what are you doing there?”

But, of course, there was no answer. Ella just kept working, kept writing, and Miss Snow knew from the way she looked that she wasn’t really there, or, anyway, not in any physical sense. She wore the white dress and the white ribbon in her hair. She was altogether clean, something she had never been in life, and, not only clean, but glowing with a kind of radiance.

“Ella, how are you?” Miss Snow spoke again. “I was very worried about you.”

Ella did not look up or acknowledge Miss Snow in any way. She continued to write and in a little while she became dim and disappeared as if she had never been there at all.

When Miss Snow’s students arrived, she had everybody pitch in and clean out Ella’s desk, throw away any old papers, and turn in her textbooks. Then they took some cleanser and wet paper towels and gave the desk and its seat a good cleaning from top to bottom. When they were finished the desk gleamed. She then pushed it out into the hallway for the janitor to pick up and put in the storeroom for when a spare desk was needed.

The next time Miss Snow saw Ella, she was floating up near the ceiling, as if floating was the most natural thing in the world for her to do. She floated on her stomach and when Miss Snow became aware that she was there, she turned over and floated on her back and made her way out of the room that way.

Finally Miss Snow believed that Ella was taunting her in a way and she wanted it to stop. One afternoon after everybody had gone home and Miss Snow was still at her desk, she looked up and there saw Ella standing a few feet away looking at her.

“Did you want something, Ella?” she asked. “Can I do something for you? I think you need to go on to wherever you’re supposed to be and not hang around here anymore. It’s not healthy for you or for me.”

Ella made no reply.

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Miss Snow said, “but, really, considering the circumstances of your miserable life, don’t you think you’re better off where you are now? I know it’s not your fault, but your mother and father ought to be ashamed of themselves for having more children than they could reasonably take care of.”

Still no reply.

“I’m going to go home now, Ella, and I want you to know that this is the last time we’ll be seeing each other. I won’t see you again, Ella. Do you understand what I’m saying? You’re going to have to quit haunting me or whatever it is you’re doing because it’s not helping either of us.”

Ella smiled blandly and faded into the air, as if she had never been there at all.

It was Thursday before Easter. School was closed for Good Friday, so Miss Snow was going out of town for a couple of days, up to the small town where her parents and her retarded sister lived. She went home and packed her suitcase and collected her mail and set out in her car, glad for the chance to get away for a while.

After she had driven for an hour or so, it began to rain; a light rain at first and then a pounding, punishing rain. She turned on her wipers and headlights and cringed when the lightning ripped the sky. She turned on the radio and found some soothing jazz music to calm her nerves.

It was an old country road, curvy and hilly. She had to watch every second because it was fully dark now and the road was unpredictable: a hilltop curve followed by a precipitous drop as if you were skating off the side of a mountain, followed by a curve in the other direction and then a climb up a steep hill with woods on both sides.

Once when the lightning flashed, Miss Snow realized she wasn’t alone in the car. In the passenger seat beside her was Ella Ruffin. When Miss Snow became aware of her presence, she realized that Ella had her head turned slightly and was listening to the music on the radio.

“Don’t you like this music, Ella?” Miss Snow said. “Do you want me to find another station?”

While she was turning the knob on the radio, she came to a low place in the road where water was flowing across. It was so dark she couldn’t so how far the water went and she had no way of knowing how deep it was, but she was tired and impatient and couldn’t stand the thought of anything holding her up. She drove into the water, hoping against hope that it wasn’t too deep to drive through, and when she had driven a hundred feet or so, the water drowned out the engine. She tried to restart it, but it showed no signs of life.

“What do I do now, Ella?” she said.

But when she turned to her right in the dark she saw that Ella was no longer there.

Believing she had no other choice, she opened the car door and when she did the cold water rushed in and covered her feet. Shivering, she stepped out into water up to her knees. When she was leaning back into the car to get her purse and some papers, a wall of water she never saw came out of the darkness and overtook her and knocked her down. She struggled the best she could, flailing arms and legs, but the water carried her away and she was dead in a matter of minutes. Her body was found three days later a couple of miles away, bloated and unrecognizable.

Miss Snow’s fourth grade class took up a collection to buy her a floral tribute to go alongside her closed casket. The entire fourth grade class attended her funeral, accompanied by their newly hired teacher, a fat lady named Mrs. Bertha Boykin, who was nothing like—looked nothing like—the late and lamented Miss Snow.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Billy Budd, Sailor ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Billy Budd, Sailor ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American author Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote his last novel, Billy Budd, Sailor, toward the end of his life and it wasn’t published until more than thirty years after his death. As with his contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Melville wasn’t recognized as a literary genius until after he was in his grave.

Billy Budd, Sailor is set on board a British man-of-war (battleship) in the 1790s. It is a serious exploration of the ethics of capital punishment, the rights of the individual versus the good of the collective, and the what happens when a “decent” man is confronted with a situation where what he “feels” to be right (his conscience) is in conflict with what the law is saying must be done.

Billy Budd is twenty-one years old. He is “impressed” into naval service on a British man-of-war, the Bellipotent; this means he is forced to serve against his will as if he is a slave. (This was a common practice during these times.) Billy possesses great physical beauty, a child-like innocence, and charm; he is well-liked and even loved by most of the other sailors and also the officers on the Bellipotent. There is something about him that is almost noble. He is more than once likened to Christ. His only defect, as far as anybody can see, is a stutter that manifests itself at inopportune moments.

Naval commanders are more than usually aware of mutiny at the time of Billy Budd, Sailor, because a couple of mutinies have occurred that are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Enter John Claggart, the master-at-arms on board the Bellipotent. He is the snake in Billy Budd’s garden whose mission it is to corrupt innocence. He goes to the captain of the Bellipotent, Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, with stories that Billy Budd has been making remarks that could incite mutiny among the men. Anybody who knows Billy Budd knows this not to be true. Is it just that Claggart is envious of Billy Budd’s good looks and his popularity among the men and is out to “get” him?

When Captain Vere brings Billy Budd and John Claggart together and Billy Budd hears what Claggart is saying about him, he punches him once in the face; with just this one blow, Claggart falls to the floor dead. Now Captain Vere is faced with a dilemma. Will he follow the law, which calls for the execution of the offender, or will he allow his personal feelings for Billy Budd to stand in the way of his “duty?”

Billy Budd, Sailor is not an easy novel to read or comprehend. A great piece of writing though it may be, it’s not always “enjoyable” reading. Melville’s style of writing (the style of the time in which is was written) is wordy; he makes far too many digressions and parenthetical statements for the narrative to flow smoothly. Our interest is constantly challenged. How many readers just give up and don’t finish reading the book to the end? I doubt if Herman Melville cared or gave it much thought.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

You Can Leave Any Time

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You Can Leave Any Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Jenks arrived for her appointment with Dr. Capers on time. She gave her name to the inscrutable Asian nurse and took a seat in the dreary waiting room where everything was gray—gray walls, gray floor, gray chairs. She hated her visits to the doctor, always made worse by having to wait. She would rather dig in the dirt with her fingernails than sit and wait her turn.

Underneath the No Smoking sign on the wall opposite, somebody had written, in large block letters, the word PUSSY. Mrs. Jenks’s eyes traveled from the obscene word to the faces of the only other two people in the room, a man and a woman, obviously a married couple. With her wide painted mouth and curly red hairdo, the woman resembled a circus clown. The man, with his bow tie, protruding ears, long neck, and wooden-like bald head with a tuft of hair on top, resembled nothing so much as a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The circus clown looked at Mrs. Jenks and smiled, showing horse-like teeth. “How you today?” she asked.

Mrs. Jenks managed a tight smile but, in an attempt to forestall any conversation, picked up a battered copy of Popular Mechanics and pretended to be engrossed in its contents.

“Who you talking to?” the ventriloquist’s dummy asked.

“We’re not alone,” the circus clown said, nudging the ventriloquist’s dummy with her elbow.

The ventriloquist’s dummy looked at Mrs. Jenks over the top of his glasses; his lips drew back in a grimace.

“Oh, hello!” he said. “I thought we were alone.”

“We’ve been here over an hour,” the circus clown said, “and in all that time there hasn’t been a single person go in or come out. You have to wonder what in the holy hell those people are doing back there.”

“Doctors are busy,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“That’s no excuse! They need to have a little more consideration for the patient.”

You’re not the patient,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “I am.”

“Oh, excuse the hell out of me! If you’re the patient, then why am I here?”

“You can leave any time.”

The circus clown looked at Mrs. Jenks and rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that just like a man?” she said. “He’s too much of a baby to go see the doctor on his own. I have to take him as if he’s a tiny child.”

“I’m a sick man,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “I need you to help me in case I falter.”

The circus clown pursed her lips and blew out a stream of air in derision. “You are so full of it!” she said. “If anybody falters, it going to be me!”

“Let’s not fight in front of this lady,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“Nobody’s fighting,” the circus clown said.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”

“My panties are perfectly fine. You don’t need to worry yourself about my panties.”

The ventriloquist’s dummy made a sound with his lips like fshaw-fshaw-fshaw that Mrs. Jenks realized was laughing.

“No, honestly,” the circus clown said, “my husband isn’t right in the head at all. I guess you can tell that just by looking at him.”

“This lady doesn’t want to hear about my troubles,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“He has fits and fainting spells. Have you ever been sitting across from a person at the dinner table and have them faint on you and end up with their face in the mashed potatoes and gravy? The first time it happened I thought he was dead. Every time it happened after that I thought he was just being an ass, so I ignored him. When he came to—or pretended to come to—I told him to get up and quit acting like an infant and clean up the mess he made.”

“Nobody wants to hear all that!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“When they had him in the hospital, they did every test known to man and—do you know what?—they couldn’t find a thing wrong with him. It should be obvious to any five-year-old child that there’s something terribly wrong with this man! What is the matter with these people?”

“Doctors! the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “They only do all that shit so they can charge you a lot of money.”

“Well, anyway, getting back to my story,” the circus clown said. “When he was three years old he was kicked down an elevator shaft and landed on his head. I think that is the root of all his troubles! Those doctors don’t need to look any farther than that! He’s never been right in the head since he was three years old.”

“You didn’t even know me then,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“He can’t drive a car anymore so I have to take him to the doctor or the grocery store or anyplace else he wants to go. It’s as if I have no life of my own because I have to take care of this adult-sized baby!”

“You’re welcome to go any time,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

Mrs. Jenks sighed and stood up and went over to the little sliding window to the receptionist’s area and rattled it to get the attention of whoever might be on the other side.

“Yes?” the Asian nurse said, sliding back the glass, obviously annoyed at being bothered.

“Is Dr. Capers even in?” Mrs. Jenks asked.

“Well, of course he in,” the Asian nurse said. “What you think?”

“It’s taking him an awfully long time.”

“He in. Just take seat and wait turn. He see you shortly.”

“These people are driving me crazy,” Mrs. Jenks said in what she hoped was a soft voice so that only the Asian nurse could hear.

The Asian nurse looked over Mrs. Jenks’s shoulder disinterestedly to see who she was talking about. “Just be oh-so patient,” she said. “Take seat and wait turn.”

“What did that slanty-eyed son-of-a-bitch say?” the ventriloquist’s dummy asked Mrs. Jenks as she sat back down.

“Nothing that helps.”

“I’d like to slap her silly!”

And suddenly Mrs. Jenks had a warm feeling for the ventriloquist’s dummy because she was thinking the very same thing.

“Honestly!” the circus clown said. “I feel like sending them a bill for all my time they’ve wasted. They need to realize my time is as valuable as theirs.”

“I’m just on the verge of walking out the door and telling them to kiss my ass!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“We’ve waited this long,” the circus clown said. “We’ll give it a few more minutes.”

“Let’s set this place on fire!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“You can’t do that!” the circus clown said. “There’s nothing here that would burn.”

“Magazines!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“And how long do you think it’d be before they call the police and have you arrested for arson?”

“I’ll be gone by then.”

“See how crazy he is?” the circus clown said to Mrs. Jenks. “He thinks he can go around setting fires and everybody will think it’s all right.”

“They need to be taught a lesson,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

“You can’t do it that way!” the circus clown said. “If they take you to jail, it’ll be up to me to figure out a way to get you out! And I might just decide to leave you there!”

Ignoring the circus clown, the ventriloquist’s dummy began gathering up the old magazines and piling them on the floor in the middle of the room. Some he ripped apart and others he opened up and tossed upside down so they would burn better. When he had a knee-high pile of magazines, he took out his cigarette lighter and set fire to them.

The fire was just beginning to burn efficiently when the Asian nurse opened a door from within and stepped into the waiting room.

“No fire allow in doctor waiting room,” she said, without a change in her mask-like face.

“Oh, my!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “It’s getting out of control, isn’t it?”

He stomped out the flames with both feet and looked at the Asian nurse with a guilty smile. “Just having a little fun!” he said.

“Doctor leave, big hurry,” the Asian nurse said, ignoring the smoke from the magazines. “He go out on biiiiig emergency.”

“Is he invisible?” the circus clown asked. “We didn’t see him leave.”

“Private entrance back of building,” the Asian nurse said.

“I don’t think he was ever even here,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “I think they’re just screwing with us.”

“You’ll be getting a bill from me for my time that you’ve wasted today,” the circus clown said.

“Doctor say you call again next week. Have a nice day! Bye-bye!

“Well, how do you like that?” the circus clown said. “He’s wasted all our time today and we never even laid eyes on him!”

“Terrible way to treat people!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.

Mrs. Jenks wasted no time in getting out of the building, away from the circus clown and the ventriloquist’s dummy. She was fuming because she didn’t like Dr. Capers anyway, and this was absolutely the last time she would ever go to him. Who does he think he is, anyway? He’s not the only doctor in the world!

She was just getting into her car when the circus clown ran up behind her.

“I wonder,” the circus clown said, “if you could give us a ride. You see, our car broke down and we’re just stuck here.”

“Where are you going?” Mrs. Jenks asked.

“Burkhardt.”

“I’m not going to Burkhardt,” Mrs. Jenks said. “That’s fifty miles away.”

“So much for the milk of human kindness.”

“Can’t you call a taxi?”

“Do you know how much that would cost?”

“No, and I don’t care. I’m sorry for your troubles but we all have them.”

“I’m sorry to do this to you, honey,” the circus clown said. “You seem like a nice enough woman, but we’re going to take your car.”

What?”

The ventriloquist’s dummy handed a gun to the circus clown and the circus clown pointed the gun at Mrs. Jenks.

“What is this?” Mrs. Jenks said. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Either we take your car, or I shoot you and we throw your body in the river. Nobody would ever know how it got there.”

“You must be out of your mind,” Mrs. Jenks said. “I’m not letting you take my car. You’ll have to kill me first.”

The circus clown pointed the gun at Mrs. Jenks. “You think I won’t shoot you?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think you will.”

But, instead of shooting her, the circus clown hit Mrs. Jenks with the gun, on the side of the head, just above the ear, with enough force to crack a coconut.

Mrs. Jenks was just aware of the circus clown and the ventriloquist’s dummy getting into her car and driving away with a squeal of tires. Time seemed to slow down as she fell backwards. The blow to the back of the head, coupled with the blow to the side of the head, rendered her unconscious there on the abandoned parking lot of Dr. Capers’ clinic.

When she regained consciousness, it was almost dark. She was aware of pains all through her body but especially her head. She pulled herself to a sitting position and looked around for someone who might tell her what had happened, but saw no one. She stood up then, took a few halting steps, and began walking in the direction of the most beautiful faraway lights she had ever seen.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp