Blanche Barrow ~ A Short Story

Blanche Callaway Barrow image 3
Blanche Barrow
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

(This is an expanded version of a short story I posted previously.)

They had two side-by-side rooms around in back at the Arimosa Auto Court, away from the road, underneath the tall trees. The rooms were small but clean and the walls like paper. Everything that went on in one room could be heard through the wall. Blanche resisted when her husband, Buck, reached for her after lights-out because she knew the others in the next room would be able to hear the slightest intake of breath and she didn’t like the thought of putting on a show for them. She didn’t mind rebuffing Buck from time to time, whenever his appetite needed curbing. We’re not animals, she would say, slapping at his hand. Besides, it’s my time of the month.

Buck and Blanche hadn’t been married long and were still on their honeymoon. They were both nearly forty but still felt young and amorous. Buck had been married twice before and Blanche once. Now that they had found each other, they wanted to forget their previous marriages and not ever talk about them—start out afresh, as the saying goes.

They met at a bingo game in the basement of a church in Kansas City. When he flirted with her, she thought he was crude and low-class, but he persisted and eventually she succumbed to his charms. Two weeks after they met, they were married in a civil ceremony at the courthouse. As Buck liked to say, it was the face powder that caught him and the baking powder that would keep him at home.

They set out on a grand honeymoon. They drove around from place to place in Buck’s sturdy old Ford, seeing the sights, laughing a lot, reveling in their freedom. They spent a few days in a fancy hotel in St. Louis where they saw some shows, ate in fine restaurants and shopped in the big stores.

From St. Louis they drove down to the Missouri-Arkansas border, where they stayed nearly a week in a kozy kabin with a kitchenette at a lakeside resort. It was at the resort that Buck heard through a family friend that his brother Clyde was staying nearby. Clyde wanted Buck and his new wife to come and meet him. He had plans for a moneymaking venture that he believed Buck would be interested in.

Blanche was peeved with Buck for making her leave the lakeside resort before she was ready. She didn’t especially want to meet brother Clyde and wondered why it was such an urgent matter. She was carsick on the way and Buck asked her if she might be going to have a little baby in a few months. He laughed then and tried to pinch her, but she slapped his hand away and moved over as far away from him as she could get.

Clyde had summoned them to an out-of-the-way country town (Far Corner, population 113) where he was staying at a rundown motel, and it ended up taking half a day to get there. Buck got lost on unfamiliar roads and had to stop and get a map at a gas station. Blanche fumed the whole time and refused to help him read the map.

Finally Buck found the place. It was a place so far off the main road it was almost impossible to find, but find it he did, and the brothers were reunited. They whooped and hollered and acted like a couple of backwoods boys in their pleasure at seeing each other again. They embraced and jumped up and down and took affectionate punches at each other.

When they settled down enough, Buck said, “Hey, brother! I want you to meet my missus!”

Blanche was still in the car, forgotten for the moment. Buck motioned her to come out and even took hold of her hand to pull her if need be. She decided she wasn’t going to be mad at him anymore. She dredged up a polite smile.

“This is my wife Blanche!” Buck said.

“Hello,” Blanche said to Clyde, shyly shaking him by the hand.

“Congratulations, Mrs. Barrow!” Clyde said, showing his prodigious teeth.

She wondered why he was congratulating her and then realized it was because she and Buck were newly married.

“Hey!” Clyde said. “I got somebody I want you to meet!”

A blond-haired woman came out from behind Clyde’s back. Clyde took hold of her shoulders as if she was an animal he had caught that might get away.

“Well, who is this little lady?” Buck gushed. She was as thin as a pencil and sallow as if she didn’t get outdoors very much.

“Bonnie, honey, I want you to meet my older brother, Buck Barrow. And this here is his wife, Mrs. Blanche Barrow.”

H’lo,” Blanche said with her same polite smile.

“Pleased to meet you,” Bonnie said.

“Wife?” Buck asked Clyde.

“No.”

“Sweetheart?”

“Yeah.”

“You old dog, you! You always did have an eye for the prettiest gals!”

“And rounding out our little entourage,” Clyde said, “is Mr. C.W. Moss. He’s my driver and all-round factotum.”

C.W. shook their hands profusely. “I sure am glad to meet all of you!” he said. “Clyde’s told me all about his family! It sure is a pleasure! How do, ma’am!”

Buck and Clyde laughed because C.W. was wearing only his union suit and seemed to not know he wasn’t wearing any pants. Blanche had seen men in their union suits before but was embarrassed anyway. She blushed like a schoolgirl and turned her head away.

C.W. spied a movie magazine on the seat of Buck’s car with a picture of Myrna Loy on the cover.

“I see you got the latest issue of Motion Picture World!” he said. “Would it be all right if I borrow it from you, Miz Barrow? Myrna Loy is my favorite movin’ picture actress!”

Without waiting for an answer, C.W. snatched the magazine off the car seat and held it to his bosom. He couldn’t wait to get off by himself and read the latest news from filmdom.

With introductions out of the way, they had a picnic lunch in Clyde’s motel room. Spirits were high. Buck was the life of the party. He told jokes he heard on the radio and did impressions of Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. Blanche laughed so hard she wet her pants.

“She’s got a weak bladder! “Buck said, setting the men off on another outburst of laughing while the women looked bewildered.

After lunch, Buck and Clyde went off by themselves to talk business. Blanche still wasn’t feeling well, so she lay down on the broken-down sofa in Clyde’s room, turned her face away and went to sleep. C.W. looked at all the pictures and read all the gossip about his favorite motion picture stars in Motion Picture World and then went to sleep in a hammock under the shade trees. Bonnie sat on the front steps smoking cigarettes and after a while went inside and washed her hair.

Buck and Clyde didn’t come back for three hours. Blanche was anxious to leave and wasn’t happy when Buck told her they were staying.

“Stayin’ here with them?” she said. “What for?”

“We can manage for one night. Tomorrow we’ll move on to a bigger place.”

“You mean all of us?”

“Yeah.”

“Move on where?”

“We haven’t decided yet.”

“What were you and Clyde talkin’ about so long?”

“A little job he’s got planned.”

“What kind of a job?”

“I’ll tell you about it after we’ve worked out all the details.”

“It’s nothin’ illegal, is it?”

“Now, honey! You don’t have a thing in this world to worry about!”

The little job Clyde had planned—and worked out to the smallest detail—was robbing the bank in the town of  Morganville. He needed help, though. He needed his older brother, Buck. The two of them together would be unstoppable.

At first Buck didn’t think that robbing a bank anywhere on God’s green earth was a good idea. He was a newly married man, he said, with a wife to think of, and he didn’t want to get mixed up in any old bank robbery.

“It’ll be so easy,” Clyde said, “you won’t believe your eyes.”

“How do you figure?”

“Shit! A bunch of farm hicks and small-town rubes! They’ll be so scared when you flash a gun in their face they’ll piss their pants.”

“I don’t know,” Buck said. “It seems kind of mean to me.”

“We don’t have to actually kill anybody, if that’s what you’re worried about! We’ll just pretend we’re going to kill them if they don’t do what we want!”

“And what is it we want?”

“To put all the cash in a bag and not try to keep us from leaving!”

“Well, that sounds easy enough.”

“See, you’re talking about the element of surprise! They’ll be so surprised when we burst in on them that they won’t be able to think until after it’s all over.”

“When do we do this little thing?” Buck said.

A week after talking it over, the Barrow brothers, along with Bonnie and C.W. Moss, robbed their first bank in the town of Morganville. They took a little over three hundred dollars without a shot being fired. Even Blanche was impressed. She had never seen that much cash before. She was able to bury her religious scruples for  the time being.

Other banks followed. Clyde and Buck saw it as a sure-fire way to get large sums of money without having to work for it. The only trouble was they became wanted across five states and people were on the alert for them. Banks hired extra guards and armed them well. Small-town police departments took on extra deputies.

And then the expected happened. One bank put up more resistance than the robbers were accustomed to. Bank guards fired their weapons and Clyde had no other choice but to fire back. A zealous fellow who was determined to stop the robbers from getting away with the bank’s money jumped on the running board of the car. Clyde shot him in the face and killed him. Now they were something more than robbers. They were desperate killers to be feared by the public at large.

At first it was fun: robbing banks, outsmarting the laws, being always on the move. Then, when Clyde had to kill a man and the laws began to take them seriously, it wasn’t quite so much fun anymore. Their pictures were everywhere: in newspapers, post offices and government offices. Their story blasted on the airwaves. They could no longer go into a restaurant and order a meal, for fear of being recognized.

They found the Arimosa Auto Court by accident. It was so far removed from the known world that they felt safe there. They could rest for a few days and plan their next move. They got two rooms around in back, away from the road, underneath the tall trees. It was a peaceful place, where the birds sang and the soft breezes blew. The place was run by two old men and they didn’t ask any questions.

They got on each other’s nerves, though, being cooped up in two small rooms, especially Blanche and Bonnie. More than once, they had been about to come to blows over little things, until Clyde and Buck had to separate them. The sound of Blanche’s whining voice made Bonnie want to tear her hair out by the roots. Blanche complained of Bonnie’s “rotten disposition.” Buck and Clyde didn’t know how much longer they could keep them from killing each other.

It was a Sunday afternoon. The men were hungry. Blanche was the only one whose face wasn’t known to the public, so they sent her into town to get some food. C.W. drove her in Buck’s car.

As soon as Blanche and C.W. were alone in the car, Blanche began crying.

“What’s the matter, Miz Barrow?” C.W. asked.

“I’m just a nervous wreck!” she said. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

“Of what?”

“Just waitin’ around. Just waitin’ for the laws to come and shoot us to ribbons, one by one.”

“They won’t find us way out here,” C.W. said. “Clyde made sure of that.”

“Oh, Clyde! May the devil take Clyde! He doesn’t know anything! He’s the reason we’re in all this mess!”

“What do you mean?”

“My papa would just die if he knew the kind of life I’m livin’. With a bunch of thieves and bank robbers! It just don’t make sense!”

“What don’t make sense, ma’am?”

“Even if they do get away with lots of money, you know people are not going to stand for that! It don’t take a genius to figure it out!”

“Figure what out, ma’am?”

“When you’re livin’ this kind of a life, it’s only a matter of time before they catch up with you. And when they do, they’ll either shoot you on the spot or lock you up in jail for the rest of your natural life. Those who live by the gun die by the gun. It says so in the Bible.”

“You just have to take it as it comes, I guess,” C.W. said.

“You’re not afraid of dyin’ or goin’ to jail?”

“I don’t think about it much.”

At the restaurant in town, C.W. waited in the car while Blanche went inside and ordered the food. Five chicken dinners to go and twelve bottles of beer. While she waited for the food, she sat at the counter drinking a Coca-Cola and smoking a cigarette. She didn’t look directly at anybody for fear they’d know who she was.

Most of the other people in the place didn’t even look at her, but a couple of older men over to the left were giving her the eye, whispering back and forth. When she realized they might be a couple of lawmen and they might know who she was, she felt a chill go up her spine.

When the food was ready, she lugged it out to the car, along with the twelve bottles of beer. C.W. got out and helped her put the stuff in the back.

“Did you see a couple of men go in that place who might have been laws?” she asked C.W.

“I didn’t see nobody,” he said.

“They were givin’ me the eye while I was waitin’.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I think they know who I am.”

“How could they know that?”

“I don’t know how they know. They just know.”

A couple miles down the road, she asked C.W. if they were being followed.

“I don’t see nobody,” he said. “Just relax.”

Blanche couldn’t eat her chicken at the thought that those two men were laws. If they knew who she was, they couldn’t just let it go. They would follow her and she would lead them to the Clyde and Bonnie and Buck and that would be the end of that. Shoot now and ask questions later.

Blanche had never participated with them in any of the robberies, had never fired a shot, but she’d be just as guilty as they were, just by being with them. She’d be just as guilty of shooting that man in the face as Clyde was. It’s called guilt by association.

She loved Buck, or believed she did, but she wasn’t going to die for him or go to jail for him. If he and the others were too stupid to see the writing on the wall, she saw it plainly. The laws weren’t stupid. The laws would find them and make them pay the price for their crimes and it was going to be sooner than any of them imagined.

She hardly slept at all that night. She got out of bed before daylight and dressed quietly in the dark, making sure not to wake Buck. Carrying her suitcase, she left the Arimosa Auto Count for the last time and went out and started Buck’s car as quietly as she could. She drove the seven miles to the nearest town, the same town where they had bought the chicken dinners, and stopped at the bus station. She left the car in a place where Buck would be sure to find it when he came looking for her.

Everybody would expect her to go back home, where she came from, but she wasn’t going there; it was the first place Buck would look. She bought a ticket to Chicago. She had only seen Chicago once before in her life, and she knew it was big.

A day and a half later her bus rolled into Chicago. She spent the night in a cheap hotel beside some railroad tracks and the next day she fixed herself up, had her hair bleached and went out looking for a job, using the name Ruby Weems.

She was just one of thousands of dames in the big city, scratching out a living. She didn’t expect to have an easy time of it, but in three days she landed a job as a hostess in a nightclub.

“Go home and put on your best dress and some face powder and lip rouge,” the nightclub manager told her. “You’ll work from eight o’clock in the evening until closing time at three a.m., five nights a week. You’ll dance with the customers, flirt with them, make them feel good and get them to spend money on drinks. If you encounter any ruffians or cavemen, all you have to do is call the bouncer and the guy will be bounced. If you think you’re not up to the job, let me know now. We’ve got plenty of girls that want to work here.”

“No, it’ll be all right,” she said. “I can do it.”

At first she hated the job and wanted to quit, but after a couple of weeks she learned to handle the customers. Most of them were shy and lonely and wanted only to talk. The more motherly she was toward them and the more she patted them and smiled, the bigger the tips they left her. She danced with some of them, but they were mostly bad dancers and stepped on her toes. She liked the ones best who just wanted to sit with her in a booth and drink and talk. If any of them became overly aggressive, help was always at hand.

One night the expected happened. She was sitting at the bar smoking a cigarette, talking to one of the other hostesses, when she saw Buck come into the place. She went to him and took him to a booth.

“How did you find me, Buck?”

“Does it matter?”

“How did you find me?”

“The old gal you bought the bus ticket from told me it was for Chicago. After I got here, I showed your picture around. You’d be surprised how a sawbuck loosens people’s tongues.”

“I figured you’d be glad I was gone.”

“You’re my wife. Did you think I’d let you go that easy?”

“I’ll bet your brother Clyde and Miss Bonnie Parker are glad I’m gone. Even Mr. C.W. Moss.”

“Nobody’s glad you’re gone.”

Oh, Buck! I’m just no good at robbin’ banks and keepin’ one step ahead of the laws!”

“I’m takin’ you home with me, honey,” he said, reaching across the table and taking her hand in his.

“And where is home, Buck? Another auto court?”

“They’re waitin’ for us down in Joplin, Missouri.”

“I’ll bet Clyde’s got the next big job all planned, don’t he?”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, honey. All I want you to do is be my wife and be sweet to me.”

“When they come after us, they’ll kill me same as you, even if I haven’t done anything.”

“You don’t belong in a place like this, honey. This place ain’t you.”

“A person can used to just about anything, Buck.”

“Go get your things packed, Blanche. We’re goin’ home tonight.”

“I’m not goin’ anywhere with you, Buck.”

“Why not?”

“Livin’ the life of a bank robber ain’t for me.”

“Nobody said it is.”

“I don’t want to go to jail. I don’t want to die. And when I die, I don’t want to go to hell.”

He laughed. “That’s just silly, honey. Nobody’s goin’ to hell.”

“It’s the way I was brought up. You’re forgettin’ I’m a preacher’s daughter.”

“No, I ain’t forgettin’ that.”

“I’m not goin’ back with you, Buck.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“I’m gonna stay here for now. I’m makin’ my own livin’ and makin’ my own way. I don’t depend on any man for my dinner.”

“You’re still my wife, Blanche. I can make you go back if I want to.”

“I don’t think so, Buck.”

“So it’s goodbye then?”

“I guess so, Buck.”

“I got six hundred dollars in my pocket, Blanche.”

“That don’t make any difference. I’m not goin’ back.”

“I want to give you half of it.”

“I don’t want any of your stolen money, Buck. You can gain the whole world, Buck, but what does it profit you if you lose your immortal soul?”

“I guess I’ll just leave then. Go on back down to Missouri and get out of this stinkin’ city.”

“I think that’d be the for the best, Buck.”

He stood up and put on his hat and looked down at her. “Could I have just one final kiss before I go?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think we should kiss goodbye, Buck. The big boss is over there givin’ me the evil eye. I’m supposed to be workin’.”

He gave her one last look and turned around and left the place. At the door, he didn’t hesitate, but seemed in a hurry to get away.

“Who was that fella you were talking to for so long?” the boss asked her.

“It was nobody,” she said. “Just an old boy I used to know back home.”

“I ain’t paying you to sit and visit with home folks, dear.”

“He won’t ever be back. You can be sure of that.”

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

All Hallow’s Eve

Halloween 2021 3

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

(This is a repost.)

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

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

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

“It’s a costume,” Buster said.

“Oh, don’t you look cute!”

“I’m supposed to look scary!”

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

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

“Who are you going with?”

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

“What are their names?”

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

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

“Yeah, I’ll be careful.”

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

“I don’t care.”

“What?”

“I said okay, I’ll go in a group.”

“Be home by ten o’clock.”

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

“All right, then. Eleven.”

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

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

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

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

“She’s fifteen!”

“I guess that’s enough of an adult.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where to now?” Buster asked.

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

“What about us?” Stan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably give it to her boyfriend.”

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

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

“I’d like to see him,” Stan said.

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

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

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

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

“Doesn’t she smoke?” Eric asked.

“Of course she does. They all smoke.”

“Then why does she care?”

“Because I’m in fifth grade.”

“She’s a hypocrite,” Stan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What time is it?”

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

“I think we should call it a night.”

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

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

“I think we outran them!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it was okay.”

“I’m glad you’re home.”

“Why?

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

“I wasn’t by myself.”

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

“We just missed him.”

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

I Heard a Fly Buzz

I Heard a Fly Buzz image 5
I Heard a Fly Buzz
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

I’m in a dark place here and always searching. What I’m searching for isn’t always clear in my mind. Sometimes I’m searching for a way out (or in) and other times I’m searching for something else, but I can’t always say what it is. There are other people here, just like me, but they are also searching and seem just as confused as I am. I bump into them sometimes in the dark—that’s how I know they’re here. Sometimes I try to speak to them, if only to apologize for bumping into them, but I can’t seem to form the words, as if I’ve forgotten any language.

The darkness here is not like darkness anywhere on earth. Sometimes there is flashing green light from above that is like lightning, but isn’t lightning because there’s no thunder and never any rain. I stumble along; sometimes I can see where I’m going and sometimes I  can’t, so I’m always running into things that I can’t see—or can’t see very well. Occasionally—very rarely, though—I see a few seconds of light that is like daylight. I call it daylight, even though I’m not sure it’s light from the sun, and it always lifts my spirits and makes me think I’ve found what I’m looking for, or that finally I’m going to be able to leave this place and go to a better place.

Sometimes I hear sounds but I don’t know where they’re coming from. I hear voices, nearby and far away, but I can never make out the words. I hear music, but when I try to find out where it’s coming from it turns into something else, like a wolf howling or an elephant trumpeting. A lot of confused sounds. When I hear gunfire, it scares me and I think I need to take cover, but then the gunfire stops and I hear screaming and crying, worse than the gunfire.

I know why I’m here. I did a bad thing. I went up to the attic and committed suicide by hanging. As soon as I stepped off the table with the rope around my neck, I knew I had done a foolish thing, but it was too late to take it back. In those few seconds while I dangled at the end of the rope, I struggled mightily to undo what I had done, but the more I struggled and tried to make the rope release me, the tighter it became around my neck. They say when you are hanged you die of a broken neck. My neck wasn’t broken, though. I died of strangulation, pure and simple, which means I was deprived of air enough to go on living. In two minutes I was unconscious and in four minutes my heart stopped beating and I was dead.

What I was seeking was Oblivion. The Great Void. The Divine Nothing. What I got instead was an absolute awareness of what I had done and that I was in a place of torment and confusion. I’m not sure how long I’ve been here because here there is no time; words like “hour,” “minute” and “day” have no meaning here.

One day (or night) when I was crossing a field to God-knows-where, I crashed into a tree trunk. Crashing into a tree trunk was nothing unusual for me, but this tree was different because it was lit by a faint light from above—just enough light for me to see a sign hanging from the tree at eye level. Printed on the sign were these words: Keep going to Wind Mountain and you will find a way out.    

I can’t know who else saw the sign, but I was sure it was intended only for me. I didn’t know where Wind Mountain was and had never heard of it, but I would keep going until I found it. Maybe there would be other signs along the way to guide me. Maybe I would meet another person and could ask for directions. Anything seemed possible. For the first time since coming to this place, I had hope.

I traveled for what seemed like years looking for Wind Mountain but might have been only hours or days. Whenever I tried to ask the people I crashed into if they could direct me to Wind Mountain, they only looked at me in terror and tried to get away from me. They were no help at all. I was beginning to think that Wind Mountain didn’t exist and that the sign I saw on the tree was a hoax or just another cruel trick.

At the end of a long, weary road, I came to a  man in a dark cloak with a hood covering his head. I couldn’t see his face or any part to of him but, since he didn’t recoil from me, I got the distinct impression he was waiting for me.

“I’m looking for Wind Mountain,” I managed to say, and I knew they were the first words I had spoken in this place that made any sense.

The road I had been walking on for so long ended here. The man in the cloak pointed upward and I knew there was a mountain here and I was meant to climb it, even though I had never climbed a mountain before and wasn’t sure if I had the strength.

I turned my back on the man in the cloak and looked up at the mountain. “That’s a big mountain!” I said. “What happens when I get to the top?”

But when I turned around again the man was no longer there. He had disappeared as completely as if he never existed or as if I had just imagined him.

I began climbing. It wasn’t easy because I was weak and tired. When I looked up, I could see light up above, but it was still dark down below where I was. I heard music then, faint and faraway, but unmistakable. I felt fresh air on my face and hands that didn’t have the smell of damp earth or decay. I began climbing faster, getting closer and closer, I believed, to that thing for which I had searched for so long.

It took me years to climb Wind Mountain. When I finally came to the top, there was an opening through which I could see blue sky and white clouds. When I emerged from the opening—like being born—the glorious sunlight blinded me. I covered both eyes with my hands and that’s when I knew I no longer had human hands and arms but the appendages of a different species altogether.

I tumbled clumsily away from the opening and that’s when I saw, rushing toward me, others of my kind. There were five or six of them. They laid me out flat on the ground, either to give me aid or to pluck the gizzard out of my body. I asked for a drink of water in the only language I knew and they looked at me uncomprehendingly. It was going to take some time, I could see.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp    

It’s Not the Pale Moon That Excites Me

It's Not the Pale Moon That Excites Me image 2
It’s Not the Pale Moon That Excites Me
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

(This is a repost. It has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)

They sat on the front porch to catch the cooling breezes. Mrs. Llewellyn fanned herself with a cardboard fan courtesy of Benoist Funeral Home and took pulls on a bottle of “medicinal” whiskey she kept in her apron pocket. Miss Clemson, the nearest neighbor, sat on the steps close to Mrs. Llewellyn, holding her hands demurely around her ankles to keep her skirt in place.

“Gets mighty lonely over at my place sometimes,” Miss Clemson said. “Especially of an evening.”

“You should have found yourself a man to marry,” Mrs. Llewellyn said.

“I still might.”

“At your age?”

“I’m only fifty-four,” Miss Clemson said. “And, anyway, the world don’t revolve around no man. I know plenty of women manage just fine without a man orderin’ ‘em about the place.”

“Well, I’ve had four husbands and I can’t say I’d recommend it,” Mrs. Llewellyn said.

“There’s a rumor going around that you just received a proposal of marriage from a Mr. Chin. Is that right?”

“Yes, a Mr. Chin asked me to marry him,” Mrs. Llewellyn said, “but I turned him down.”

“Is he a Chinaman?”

“No, why would he be a Chinaman?”

“Well, that’s what the name sounds like.”

“No, he ain’t a Chinaman.”

“Well, what then?”

“I don’t know what he is, but he ain’t no Chinaman.”

“Why don’t you marry him if he wants to marry you?”

“Well, for one thing, he’s covered with scales.”

“You mean like a snake?”

“Exactly like a snake.”

“I guess a woman could get used to a few snake scales if the man was a good man,” Miss Clemson said.

“I don’t think I ever could. I’d have to turn away when he was gettin’ dressed, or at least turn the light off.”

“Maybe he’ll just shed them scales in the woods during moltin’ season and not have them anymore.”

“Why are you so interested in Mr. Chin’s scales?”

“Well, if he’s marriage-minded, maybe the two of us ought to meet. We might strike up a real lively friendship.”

“The next time I see him I’ll send him over your way,” Mrs. Llewellyn said.

“Will you really?”

“When you see them scales, you might change your mind.”

“Well, I really don’t think I’d mind the scales all that much as long as he keeps them hidden during the daytime when he’s dressed. The scales are not on his face, are they?”

“Not yet.”

“As long as they’re not on his face, I think we’d be all right, then.”

“The scales is not the only reason I don’t want to marry Mr. Chin,” Mrs. Llewellyn confided.

“What, then?”

“I don’t want him moonin’ around over my granddaughter Laura Louise all the time.”

“Oh, yes. I almost forgot about Laura Louise.”

“She lives with me, you know. I’m all the family she’s got left since her maw killed herself in the river.”

“Do you think Mr. Chin might be particularly drawn to her?”

“I think he’d never stop starin’ at her.”

“Well, if staring’s all he done, that wouldn’t be so bad.”

“Yeah, but the starin’ would lead to pawin’ and the pawin’ would lead to other things.”

“I think I see what you mean. She has turned into a right pretty little thing.”

“She’s got her womanly wiles. It’ll just take the right man to bring it out in her.”

“Do you think Mr. Chin might be the one to do that?”

“I think any man might do it, even one covered in scales.”

“Does she still go swimmin’ naked in the river?”

“I don’t think she swims naked no more, no. Not since she accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as her personal savior.”

“The Lord certainly works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.”

“Don’t He, though?”

“There for a while she seemed headed down the road to damnation.”

“Most of that was rumor. You know what nasty tongues people have.”

“They said she was havin’ an affair with I-don’t-know-who-all, even Dr. Birke in town.”

“She went to him for a bladder infection. He treated her and she came home and that’s all there was to it.”

“That’s not what people says.”

“Do you think I care what people says?”

“No, I know you don’t care.”

“But, I’ll tell you on the other hand. I didn’t definitely turn Mr. Chin down.”

“What? You think you still might marry him?”

“If that’s the way the chips fall.”

“What do you mean? What chips?”

“Well, since Laura Louise has got herself so keen on religion, she thinks she might want to dedicate her life to the spreading of the Gospel.”

“You mean as a lady preacher?”

“Well, something like that. She’s got it into her head that she wants to go to Darkest Africa and become a missionary.”

“Darkest Africa? What would she do there?”

“She’d teach them headhunters to put down their spears and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior, same as she done.”

“Lord, I wouldn’t want to go to Darkest Africa!” Miss Clemson said. “I’d be scared out of my wits every minute!”

“That’s because you’re an ignorant woman. Them missionaries get training before they go. They learn how to deal with them natives and make their sit down and read the Bible and listen to hymns.”

“Well, it might be right for some people, but I don’t think I would ever choose that kind of life for myself.”

“Laura Louise is all the family I got left. All my children and grandchildren has died or run off and left me. Laura Louise is the only one left to sweep out the house and fetch me what I need and cook me a little supper of an evening. She’s the only one left to keep me company in my old age. And she’s the only one to see that I’m put into the ground proper when my time comes.”

“Oh, I think I see what you’re sayin’,” Miss Clemson said. “If Laura Louise goes off to Darkest Africa, you could still marry Mr. Chin and he could do all them things for you that Laura Louise does now.”

“You catch on quick.”

“But you’d only marry Mr. Chin if you don’t still have Laura Louise at home?”

“That’s right.”

“I’m sure the Lord will work it all out for you. He’ll come up with the solution that’s right for all parties concerned.”

“I guess so,” Mrs. Llewellyn said.

“I think I see somebody comin’ up the road now,” Miss Clemson said.

“That’ll be Laura Louise, come from service.”

“Good evening, Laura Louise, dear!” Miss Clemson said in a loud voice. “How are you? There’s going to be a lovely full moon tonight, did you know that? It kind of puts you in mind of romance, don’t it?”

“Hello,” Laura Louise said.

“Them services are gettin’ longer and longer, ain’t they?” Mrs. Llewellyn said. “I’ve been waitin’ for my supper.”

“Your supper will just have to wait, gran,” Laura Louise said. “I just got some good news at the end of service and I’ve just got to tell you what it is!”

“Whatever could it be?” Miss Clemson asked.

“I’ve been accepted in missionary school in Memphis, Tennessee! School starts in two weeks. It’ll last for two months and after that I’ll go over to Darkest Africa to do the Lord’s work!”

“My goodness!” Miss Clemson said. “That is excitin’ news, ain’t it?”

“How long will you be gone?” Mrs. Llewellyn asked.

“Oh, I don’t know! Years and years, I guess! Isn’t it wonderful? Brother Rabbit arranged the whole thing over the telephone. He told the people in Memphis what a good worker I am and how dedicated I am to the Lord. They told him to send me on up. They can’t wait for me to get started.”

“That’s fine,” Mrs. Llewellyn said, “but who’s goin’ to do your work around here while you’re gone?”

“What work?” Laura Louise asked.

“You would say that, wouldn’t you? That’s because you’re so selfish! What work do you suppose? Cleanin’ and cookin’ and washin’ and all the rest of the housework waitin’ to be done, that’s what work!”

“Why, I don’t know, gran. I guess you’ll have to get yourself a hired girl to help out, won’t you?”

“And just where am I goin’ to get the money for that?”

“The Lord will provide.”

“I think it’s just wonderful!” Miss Clemson said. “You were turnin’ out to be such a tramp around these parts, takin’ up with any man that would give you the time of day—including Dr. Birke in town—and now just look at you! The Lord has taken a-holt of you and turned you around into the kind of girl He always wanted you to be! Praise the Lord!”

“I’m just so excited about it I’m about to burst! I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep a wink tonight!”

“Well, just go on in now and get started on my supper now,” Mrs. Llewellyn said. “There’ll be plenty of time later to be excited.”

“Do you want to stay and eat supper with us, Miss Clemson?” Laura Louise asked.

“I don’t think so, honey, but thanks for askin’. I need to get myself on home.”

After Laura Louise went into the house to start cooking supper, Miss Clemson turned to Mrs. Llewellyn and said, “I think I hear wedding bells!”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Well, now that Laura Louise is goin’ off to Darkest Africa to be a missionary, you’ll want to marry Mr. Chin as fast as you can so he can do all your work for you, won’t you?”

“Not so fast! She thinks right now that she’s goin’ to Darkest Africa to be a missionary, but what if I say she’s not?”

“You mean you gonna try to stop her?”

“I think I’m goin’ to pay a call on Brother Rabbit at the church tomorrow and tell him to stop meddlin’ in my affairs. Laura Louise ain’t nothin’ but a child and she’s almost feeble-minded to boot. She needs her grandma, her only living family, to look after her and keep her safe. She can’t be goin’ off on her own to no Darkest Africa to be no missionary. She’d be a babe in the woods. Why, they’d eat her alive!”

“Well, I don’t know,” Miss Clemson said. “It certainly seems the Lord is pointin’ her in that direction and if He’s decided it’s the right thing for her to do, then He’ll make it happen, no matter what.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.”

“Are you really goin’ to see Brother Rabbit tomorrow at the church?”

“I said I am, didn’t I?”

“Do you want me to go with you?”

“No, I’d rather go alone.”

“Well, good luck, but I don’t think you should go pokin’ your nose in. Laura Louise is a grown woman and if she’s decided she wants to go to Darkest Africa to be missionary, then I think you should just let it alone.”

“Do you have a granddaughter?”

“You know I ain’t. I ain’t ever even been married.”

“Well, until you have your own granddaughter, you can’t know what it’s like to have her leave you and go off to Darkest Africa to be a missionary.”

“Well, all right, then, honey. I won’t say another word about it.”

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think my supper is about ready and I’m hungry. I don’t like to be kept waitin’.”

“All right, honey. I’ll go on home now and eat my own lonely supper. And after I’m finished and all the dishes are washed up and put away, I’ll get into bed and look out the window at the big old sad yellow moon. It’ll remind me of all the things that might have been and never were.”

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

My Policeman ~ A Capsule Book Review

My Policeman cover

My Policeman
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

My Policeman, a novel by Bethan Roberts, is set mostly in 1957 in the seaside town of Brighton, England. Marion Taylor is an unmarried teacher of small children. There is a man she likes named Tom Burgess. She doesn’t understand Tom very well; she wonders why he is cool toward her and rather aloof. He is handsome, blond, athletic and well-built; he goes swimming in the sea every morning and he eventually teaches her to swim.

Tom is what might be called a straight-arrow type. As a police officer, he is interested in projecting an image of conventionality and respectability. Marion falls in love with him, while he remains blasé on the whole matter of courtship and marriage. She begins to suspect he is gay but believes that she can get him to change, if only he will marry her. Because marriage is what is expected of every young man and because he must project an image of respectability to the world, Tom marries Marion. We can see it’s a marriage that probably isn’t going to be a smashing success.

Tom meets a man thirteen years older than himself named Patrick Hazelwood. Patrick is worldly and sophisticated; he works as a curator in a museum and knows the world of art, music and books. He is also unabashedly gay, at a time in England when sexual activity between men was still a crime and punishable by confinement in prison.

Patrick and Tom begin a “discreet” relationship, although Tom, as a police constable, must be very careful that his “secret” is never revealed. Marion knows that Tom and Patrick are “friends” but doesn’t suspect (at first) the true nature of the relationship. She wants to believe that Tom, with her help, might be cured of his “affliction.” (None so blind as those who will not see.)

Patrick invites Tom to go on a trip with him to romantic Venice. While Tom thinks there is nothing wrong with the two of them going to Venice together, Marion, as Tom’s wife, doesn’t take it well; she is jealous and moved to commit an uncharitable act, to put it mildly. It is this trip to Venice that provides the catalyst for the novel’s tragic third act.

The novel alternates between first-person passages narrated first by Marion and then by Patrick. They are both besotted with Tom. While most of the action takes place in the late 1950s, some of the novel is set in the late 1990s, showing how these three characters change over forty years through the unique dynamic they share.

My Policeman espouses the themes of jealousy, guilt, and the stupidity of laws that govern human sexual behavior (the lengths to which these laws force people to go to conceal their true natures). It is a memorable, intelligent, adult story. It’s not a story I would recommend to my elderly mother but, then, she and I are tuned to completely different frequencies.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp   

Gender Ambiguity

Rita Hayworth
Gender Ambiguity
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

They sat in a semicircle in front of the television. Old black-and-white movies, they agreed, were the best thing to watch on TV. Not only were they clean, but they brought back memories of happier times.

“Rita Hayworth is certainly a lovely woman,” Ivy said.

Woman!” Jane said. “Don’t you know she’s really a man?”

“Rita Hayworth is a man? I don’t think so!”

“Hell yes, she’s a man! Everybody knows she’s a man!”

“That must have come as a surprise to Mr. Orson Welles,” Vernon said.

“He knew she was a man before he married her.”

“How do you know so much about it?” Ivy asked.

“I read those newspapers they sell at the supermarket checkout,” Jane said.

“Of course, that makes you an authority,” George said.

“I know what I see. If I see it in print, I believe it.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of being skeptical?”

“What’s that?”

Myrtle sat forward in her chair and pretended to burp her baby, a lifelike doll made of rubber. Everybody turned and looked at her.

“How is Baby Doe, Myrtle?” Ivy asked.

“He’s the best baby in the world,” Myrtle said.

“That’s because he’s not a real boy,” George said.

“Is he eating his carrots?”

“Oh, yes! He eats everything I give him!”

“We believe what we want to believe,” Vernon said with a roll of the eyes.

“Do you know today is my birthday?” Ivy asked.

“I don’t think so, dear,” Jane said. “I think your birthday is in December, isn’t it? Right before Christmas?”

“If I want today to be my birthday, then it’s my birthday.”

“How old are you?” George asked.

“You should never ask a lady her age,” Jane said.

“I’m as old as I want to be,” Ivy said. “If I want to be twenty-one today, then I’m twenty-one.”

“There you go!” Vernon said.

“I wouldn’t want to be twenty-one again and have to go through all that shit again,” George said. “When I was twenty-one, I was in jail.”

“What for?”

“They got me on a robbery charge but I was innocent. I was in the slammer for two and a half years.”

“I’m surprised they let you out,” Ivy said.

“I paid my debt.”

“I thought you said you were innocent.”

“I was.”

“Then why did you owe a debt?”

“Twenty-one was so long ago that I can’t even remember back that far,” Jane said.

“Wasn’t that about the time Lee surrendered to Grant?” George asked.

“It’s time for me to put Baby Doe down for his nap,” Myrtle said. She threw the baby by the arm behind the couch, hitting the wall with a thud. “He’ll be fine until his two o’clock feeding.”

“Whatever happened to your husband?” Ivy asked.

“He’s still in the war,” Myrtle said.

“What war is that?”

“Isn’t there always a war going on someplace?”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s been about fifty-seven years.”

“But what about Baby Doe? Are you saying that somebody besides your husband is Baby Doe’s father?”

“Of course, not! What kind of a tramp do you think I am?”

“She creates her own reality,” Vernon said, “which is not altogether a bad thing when you think about it.”

“And when my husband sees Baby Doe, he is going to be so happy!” Myrtle said, tears in her eyes.

“What is your husband’s name?” Jane said. “I haven’t ever met him.”

“His name is Percival, I think. Unless he’s changed it.”

“Why would he change it?”

“He’s impulsive that way.”

“Fifty-seven years is a long time for your man to be away at war.”

“Don’t I know it? I get so lonely for him sometimes I think I’m going to go mad! I don’t know what I’d do without my little Baby Doe.”

“My own children were never much of a comfort to me,” Jane said. “They never liked me very much.”

“That’s because they had a witch for a mother,” George said.

“And if you want to know the truth, I never liked them all that much, either.”

“How many children did you have, dear?” Myrtle asked.

“Seven.”

“That’s a lot for somebody who doesn’t like kids!” Vernon said.

“Where are they now?”

“I don’t know. Some are dead, I think. Some are in prison.”

“Hey!” Ivy said. “The movie with Rita Hayworth is over and another one is beginning.”

“Which movie is it?”

“This one stars Bette Davis.”

“Oh, I like her!”

“It’s the one where she steals Olivia de Havilland’s husband and drives her car through a fence and breaks her neck when the police are after her.”

In This Our Life,” Vernon said.

“What a memory you have for an old bastard!”

“We just watched it last week. Don’t you remember?”

“Is Bette Davis really a man?” Ivy asked.

“No, I believe she’s really a woman,” Jane said. “I’m not too sure about Olivia de Havilland, though.”

“I think Olivia is definitely a woman,” George said.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.”

“What is that movie where Lana Turner and John Garfield kill her husband?” Ivy asked.

The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

“Yes, that’s it. I’d like to see that one again.”

“Is Lana Turner really a man?”

“She started out as a man,” Jane said, “but she had a sex-change operation. Now she’s a woman.”

“Maybe she’ll go back to being a man again,” Vernon said.

“Anything goes with those motion picture people.”

“They get sick and die just like the rest of us,” Jane said. “Beauty fades and then what do you have?”

“Ugly.”

As if on cue, Nurse Tillinghast came into the room, rolling the medicine cart.

“Time for your meds, people,” she said in her voice that was like fingernails on a blackboard.

You take it,” George said. “I don’t want any.”

“Just what the doctor ordered,” Nurse Tillinghast said. “Take your meds and then you can get back to your movie.”

“We were just discussing whether Lana Turner is really a man,” George said. “We’re about evenly divided.”

“A lot of those movie actresses are really men, or so we’ve been told,” Ivy said.

“Everything is all illusion, you see,” Vernon said.

“I wish I had nothing better to do,” Nurse Tillinghast said, “than sit around all day and talk about which women might really be men.”

“Are you really a man? George asked.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out!” Nurse Tillinghast said. “To you, I’m just a sexless dispenser of meds. Now take your meds and let me get on with my rounds.”

The meds were handed out and swallowed and Nurse Tillinghast pushed the cart out of the room.

“What is that movie about a women’s prison where they have a cruel matron who shaves somebody’s head?” Jane asked.

Caged,” Vernon said.

“That’s it! Tillinghast looks just like the cruel matron in Caged.”

“The matron’s name is Evelyn.”

“That’s right. How do you remember all that stuff?”

“I’m having a really lucid day today. Tomorrow I might not remember a thing.”

“Come to think of it, I think Nurse Tillinghast really is a man,” George said. “She has a big nose and big hands.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Ivy said. “I think we should accept at face value all we see. That’s what God wants us to do.”

“How do you know what God wants?”

“I talk to Him all the time!”

“It’s all illusion,” Vernon said. “We create our own illusion. If you want to believe you’re talking to God, then you’re talking to God. If you want to believe that Bette Davis is really a man, then she’s a man.”

“Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Empty Mansions ~ A Capsule Book Review

Empty Mansions cover
Empty Mansions
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

W. A. Clark, who lived from 1839 to 1925, was an American entrepreneur who became known as the “Copper King.” He amassed a huge fortune with his copper mining (also banking and railroads) interests in Butte, Montana. He served as United States Senator from the state of Montana, but he became mired in political scandal that tarnished his name and reputation. He was famous for his flamboyant way of doing things and his expensive and showy homes, first in Butte and then on Millionaires’ Row in New York City, where he built a remarkable 121-room mansion at a staggering price.

W. A. Clark was married to two different women. His first wife, Katherine Louise, contracted typhoid fever at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and died at age fifty. (They had seven children, four of whom survived past the age of sixteen.) He married his second wife, Anna Eugenia La Chapelle, in 1901, when he was 62 and she was 23. He had two daughters with Anna: Louise Amelia Andrée Clark (1902-1919), who went by the name Andrée, and Huguette Marcelle Clark (1906-2011). Huguette (pronounced oo-get) is the subject of the nonfiction book, Empty Mansions, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Huguette Clark was born in France in 1906 and grew up in New York City in a world of unimaginable wealth with her father, her older sister, and her mother, in the fabulous Clark mansion on Millionaire’s Row on the edge of Central Park. When she was 22, she married a man named Bill Gower, who was a year older than she was. The marriage was never consummated and ended in a few months, although Huguette and Bill Gower remained friends until his death.

When W. A. Clark died in 1925 at age 86, his immense wealth was divided among his five surviving children, including Huguette. Huguette continued living with her mother, Anna, after her father’s death, but the two of them (Anna and Huguette) vacated the Clark mansion and moved into an exclusive apartment building at 907 Fifth Avenue.

Living alone with her mother in a luxurious New York apartment building, Huguette was isolated from the ugly realities of the real world. She cultivated her interests in music, painting, Japanese art and architecture, French illustration, and rare dolls. She owned at least two priceless Stradivari violins and collected paintings, painted by such artists as Monet, Degas, and Renoir. (Each of these paintings sells for upwards of ten to 25 million dollars.)

And then there were the homes. Huguette and her mother owned Bellosguardo, a fabulous mansion built on a cliff in Santa Barbara, California, overlooking the Pacific. Maintaining Bellosguardo cost a fortune in itself. Nearby, they kept a “farm,” which was  a place they could escape to if the Japanese attacked California during World War II. Huguette and her mother never lived at the farm.

Back in New York, Huguette bought another apartment in the building, where she and her mother lived, which was to be her primary residence. Later she bought another apartment above her to protect her from undesirable neighbors, for a total of three apartments in the same luxury apartment building. (After Huguette’s mother’s death at age 85 in 1963, Huguette kept her apartment exactly as she had left it.) In later years, Huguette bought an estate in Connecticut so she would have a place to live in case of a terrorist attack in New York City. All of these fabulous homes remained unoccupied for many years. These are the “empty mansions” of the book’s title.

Abandoning her apartment, Huguette moved to a hospital, where she lived in a small hospital room for the last twenty years of her life, surrounded by a small group of people she knew and trusted. The hospital very indulgently allowed her to occupy the same room for all those years because they hoped to get a large chunk of her fortune when she died.

Huguette was generous to the people close to her. She gave more than 30 million dollars to her long-time nurse. (There were accusations, of course, of people manipulating her for their own ends.) When she died at the remarkable age of 104 (two weeks short of her 105th birthday), her fortune was worth an estimated $300 million, counting her paintings, dolls, jewels, real estate, furniture, etc. Not surprisingly, a long battle ensued among her blood relatives, most of whom she had never even met, for her money.

Empty Mansions is the fascinating story of a super-rich American family, the Clark family: the flamboyant father, W. A. Clark, his two wives, his nine children, his life and times, but, more specifically, it’s about his youngest child, Huguette Marcelle Clark, who lived a life of secrecy, cut off from the world, but living life her own way and having lots of time (104 years) and an unlimited amount of money to indulge her eccentricities. Most of us can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to have so much money that ten million dollars seems like so much pocket change.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp   

Robinson Crusoe ~ A Capsule Book Review

Robinson Crusoe cover
Robinson Crusoe
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

English author Daniel Defoe lived from 1660 to 1731. He was a prolific writer whose most famous work is the novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. Robinson Crusoe is generally considered the first English novel and has appeared in many reprints and translations. It is the famous story of an “everyman” who is shipwrecked alone on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean, as all his shipmates perish.

As a young man, Robinson Crusoe (the man, not the novel) can’t decide what profession to take up. Against the better advice of his father, he becomes a sailor. After a brief (and might have been successful) stint as a plantation owner in Brazil, he goes to sea on a commercial voyage to the Caribbean. There is a terrible storm and (you guessed it), the ship that Robinson is on is wrecked. All his shipmates drown but he, miraculously, survives. He washes up on a tiny, uninhabited, isolated, tropic island in the Caribbean, which turns out to be forty miles from Trinidad.

At age twenty-six, Robinson has never learned how to be on his own and he doesn’t know how to do much of anything; he doesn’t have what we might call “survival skills.” Luckily he is able to retrieve some essential supplies from the shipwreck, such as tools, rum, gunpowder, guns, clothes, and some food items. He has also salvaged some seeds for planting, which will prove useful to him later on.

Alone on this terrible island, he must learn to survive, or he will die. He must construct a shelter of some kind to protect himself from the tropical rainstorms, hurricane winds and sweltering heat. When he first comes to the island, he lives in fear that he will be devoured by wild animals or eaten by cannibals, which, he believes, live nearby. He must learn to find enough food to eat to keep himself alive. He must cope with isolation, loneliness and his own fear. He lives always with the hope that he will see a friendly ship on the horizon, coming his way.

As the novel progresses, we see how Robinson Crusoe is transformed. He must learn to do the things he never imagined he would have to do, such as killing animals for food, planting crops, making bread, making pottery, baskets and building himself a sturdy shelter to protect himself from whatever might be out there. He comes to realize after being on the island for years that God played a part in his salvation, when all the others on board his ship died. He sees how God played a part in providing everything he needed to sustain life. Without God helping him, he would have died. How he changes, how he is transformed from one kind of man into another kind, is the emotional core of the novel.

It’s many years before Robinson Crusoe finds a way off the island. He endures and somehow he thrives and becomes stronger. He finds happiness, comfort, peace and contentment. The irony is that he probably wouldn’t have had those things if he had stayed at home in England where he was born.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

A Thousand Others

A Thousand Others image 1
A Thousand Others
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

In September 1921, Mr. Fatty motored the three hundred miles—in his custom-made, $20,000 automobile—from his home in Hollywood, California, northward to San Francisco, for a much-needed hiatus from the arduous pursuit of making motion pictures. Mr. Fatty was, you see, the biggest star in Hollywood. People adored him. His pictures raked in prodigious amounts of cash.

If you ever saw Mr. Fatty act on the screen, you knew why he was so popular. He was funny. He was charismatic. He was charming. He was talented. He was Good with a capital G. He deserved the million dollars a year, tax-free, that he raked in. He deserved all the love, all the fame and popularity, that the world had to offer. He deserved it all, except, perhaps, the fate that awaited him in San Francisco.

On arriving in that picturesque, seaside city, Mr. Fatty checked himself and his entourage into his luxurious suite on the twelfth floor of the finest hotel. He refreshed himself with a bath and a brief nap. After taking some pills to pep himself up, he ate a steak sandwich and then began drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol.

The party guests began arriving before the sun went down. They were picture people, directors, producers, writers, and other actors; acquaintances, friends and friends of friends; flappers and party girls and party-girl flappers; would-be actresses, girls who would do anything with anybody to get their big break in motion pictures. Some were no more than fifteen, fresh off the farm. They took pills to crank themselves up, to make themselves happy, to make themselves lose whatever inhibitions they might still have.

And they were loud. They were raucous. They were crude. They were unleashed. They consumed bootleg hooch by the barrelful. They danced, some of them alone and some together. They removed part of their clothing and then all their clothing. They sang, they brayed like animals, they screamed, they whooped. They tore down the curtains and busted up the furniture. They coupled, on the couch, on the floor, in the bathroom, the kitchen, standing up, lying down, wherever they happened to be.

Any number of the unattached girls made a play for Mr. Fatty because they knew he was a major player in motion pictures. One kind word from him could get them in to see Hollywood’s top producers and directors. Making Mr. Fatty feel especially good, even for just a few minutes, might be the one little thing that could launch a motion picture career.

Some of the girls, of course, already had a few screen credits. They had played waitresses, maids, or “extras” in crowd scenes. They all hoped to be able to stand out from the others, to be noticed and get a chance to play the really substantial parts opposite the handsome, sleek-haired leading men who set their hearts aflutter.

May Beasley had appeared in twelve different motion pictures, but in most of them she didn’t get a screen credit because the part she played wasn’t big enough. She could play any kind of part—she could even sing and dance—but she thought of herself first and foremost as a comedic actress. She just hadn’t had the chance yet to prove to any influential person just how good she was. She could change all that if Mr. Fatty would just notice how pretty she was and how eager to make good.

Mr. Fatty noticed May, all right. He kept his eye on her as she moved like a cat around the room with a drink in her hand, flirting first with one man and then with another. Sometimes she danced her way from one person to the next, in time to the syncopated jazz music. He found her quite fetching. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her gyrating buttocks; he was sure she wasn’t wearing any underwear.

May also kept her eye on Mr. Fatty until he sat down on a French divan, where she went and sat beside him and put her arm around him, giving him a closeup view of her breasts. She whispered in his ear and nuzzled on his earlobe in the way she knew that drove men wild. He was so drunk and so high at that moment that he would have liked anything she did.

They kissed—a long, lingering kiss. He could have taken possession of her right there, but he was still a little conventional and didn’t like doing the things in public that he loved doing in private. He took her by the hand and led her into the bedroom, discreetly closing the door.

Mr. Fatty and May Beasley were in the bedroom for hours. The more playful of the party guests listened at the door, but heard nothing. They could only imagine the scene that was playing out, knowing as they did what a prodigious lover Mr. Fatty was.

The hour grew late and the party guests began to drift away. Mr. Fatty emerged from the bedroom, disheveled and sweating. The remaining guests cheered him, whistled and hooted. He smiled, wiped his brow, and bowed dramatically.

“You must have worn poor old May down to a nub,” someone said.

“She’s sleeping it off,” Mr. Fatty replied. “She’s feeling no pain.”

Mr. Fatty went downstairs for a bite to eat, telling everybody the party was over until next time. He hoped all his dear friends had a lovely time. He wanted everybody to have left by the time he came back upstairs to his suite because he needed to rest before driving back home. Au revoir, my dears! Until we meet again!

Late the next day, back home in Hollywood, Mr. Fatty received an urgent telephone call from his lawyer. Word was about that May Beasley was seriously injured from the treatment she received at the party in San Francisco. She had a ruptured bladder and was bleeding internally.

“What did you do to that poor girl?” the lawyer asked.

“Nothing that I haven’t done to a thousand others,” Mr. Fatty said.

“They’re saying you sexually assaulted her. If she dies, I’m afraid there’s going to be big trouble.”

“Should I go back up to San Francisco and see about her?”

“No, just go about your business. Go back to work at the studio. I’ll call you when I know more.”

Mr. Fatty went to work and for two days heard nothing. He was sure May Beasley was going to be all right. On the third day, he received another urgent call from his lawyer. May had developed peritonitis and was gravely ill.

“You weigh three hundred pounds,” the lawyer said. “May Beasley weighs a hundred and eight. People are saying you ravished her, crushed her.”

“I’m sure I didn’t do anything to her that hundreds of others haven’t done,” Mr. Fatty said. “She loved every minute of it.”

“She didn’t show any signs of being injured when you were with her?”

“None at all. She’s an actress. She’s just trying to get attention.”

“I hope that’s all it is.”

One week after the party, May Beasley died. The press ripped Mr. Fatty apart. They were calling him an animal, a cad, a monster, a ghoul, a fiend. Suddenly he was made to represent all the excesses of Hollywood and picture people: the heavy drinking and the use of narcotics and reefers; free love and out-of-wedlock birth; sexual perversion and the switching of the genders—feminine men and masculine women. In short, the casting aside of decency and the Christian values that made this country great.

To show his heart was in the right place, Mr. Fatty offered to pay all of May Beasley’s hospital and doctor bills. While his friends saw it as a magnanimous gesture, others saw it as tantamount to an admission of guilt.

He believed he should attend May Beasley’s funeral, but his lawyers and the studio bosses advised him to stay away. The last thing he needed, they said, was to show his face at her funeral and be inextricably linked to the tragedy of her death. He needed to begin thinking how he might extricate himself from the scandal and limit the damage done to his career and his public persona.

Mr. Fatty felt so sad about what happened to May Beasley, but the biggest blow of all came when his lawyer told him he was being charged with first-degree murder and must surrender himself to authorities in San Francisco.

He knew the world and he knew people. He had a few friends and admirers who would always believe in him, but the majority of people chose to believe he was a monster, a defiler and murderer of innocent young women. They were the ones, he knew, who would not rest until they had flailed all the flesh from his bones.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

This Storm ~ A Capsule Book Review

This Storm cover
This Storm by James Ellroy
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

James Ellroy’s noir-mystery novel, This Storm, is set in and around Los Angeles in the early days and months of World War II. It is a time of rainstorms, blackouts, fear, paranoia, murder, suicide, racial unrest, Nazis, fascists, European refugees, Japanese internment camps, police corruption, cover-ups, violence, prostitution, promiscuous sex, and Simons Drive-in, where you can get a fantastic cheeseburger and a pineapple malt served by a floozy carhop.

This Storm is a gargantuan novel, almost 700 pages. If you are familiar with James Ellroy’s writing style, you know he doesn’t write like any other writer. “If you want political correctness, you’ll have to go someplace else,” he plainly states. He uses racial epithets the way other writers use adjectives. In short, there is nobody else quite like him. His style is choppy, with lots of slang expressions, punchy chapters, lots of tough-guy language and hair-trigger violence. We see the bad-boy cops in The Storm kill “suspects” they are pursuing when nobody is looking or pound them in the head with the massive LA phone directory while they are “interrogating” them. The war has unleashed all of men’s (and women’s) worst instincts, it seems. Almost all the characters The Storm are horrible people. Some are worse than others. These people are beyond redemption, but they also make for entertaining reading.

Of all the many dozens of characters in The Storm, you might say that police lieutenant Dudley Smith is the principal character. He is an Irish immigrant who killed many British soldiers in his homeland before coming to America, a “shit-heel,” a self-serving, arrogant, corrupt, lying, cheating bastard with the looks and savoir faire the ladies toss their panties over. In Baja during the war, he’s involved in several nefarious and illegal enterprises, such as “selling” Japanese laborers to the highest bidder. If he was ever called to ground, he could be locked up in prison for many lifetimes for all his transgressions. Nothing seems to touch him, though.

Hideo Ashida is the most interesting character in the novel. He’s a Japanese-American, working as a forensic chemist for the Los Angeles Police Department. As a Japanese man, he is spit at and reviled in the days after Pearl Harbor. He is a homosexual and is believed to be in love with Dudley Smith, flaws and all. They have a special kind of man-to-man friendship, which Hideo knows will never be realized sexually.

There are many other characters, sometimes so many of them that it’s hard to keep them all straight and remember their names; some of them are, by necessity, one-dimensional. Barbara Stanwyck, Ellen Drew, Orson Welles and symphony conductor Otto Klemperer are real-life characters among all the fictional ones. (If these people weren’t all dead, they might have grounds for legal action based on the way they are portrayed here.)

This Storm is a follow-up to the earlier novel Perfidia. These two novels are the first two parts of James Ellroy’s Second LA Quartet. (You remember the First LA Quartet, don’t you?) We will be eagerly awaiting the third novel, which, we presume, will pick up where This Storm leaves off.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp