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Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review

Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A little background information, please: English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived in the small town of Stratford-on-Avon, a hundred miles or so from London. The business of his family was making and selling gloves. When he was eighteen, he married a twenty-six-year-old woman named Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) who was expecting his child. William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway had three children: Susanna (1583-1649) and twins Hamnet (1585-1596) and Judith (1585-1662). Hamnet died, age eleven, in 1596. The cause of his death is not known. Since the plague was a persistent threat during this period of history, it might be assumed—or has been speculated—that Hamnet died of the plague. Nobody will ever know for sure.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s private life or the life of the family. What is known is that Shakespeare’s profession (playwright, actor and theatre manager) made it necessary for him to leave his family behind and spend most of his time in London. He tried to spend at least spend part of every year with his family in Stratford-on-Avon.

The novel Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a purely speculative historical novel about Shakespeare’s family, mostly minus Shakespeare. While the title of the novel is Hamnet, it is more about Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, who is called Agnes here. (Apparently, as explained in a note at the end of the book, she went by either name.)

Hamnet, the novel, is told from the female point of view: that is, Anne Hathaway’s point of view. There is a lot of material here (female angst) about domestic concerns, raising children, dealing with difficult relatives and having a mostly absent husband. The great man himself is a secondary character in this story. If you’re looking for a book that gives insight into Shakespeare’s life and times, his private life and character, this isn’t it.

With her husband (William Shakespeare) away so much of the time, Anne (Agnes) has a lot of time to be jealous and to wonder what he might be doing (and with whom) in London. At the end of the book, she, along with her brother, Bartholomew, makes a surprise visit to London on horseback. She doesn’t find William at his lodgings, but she is told she might find him at the theatre. It’s providential (and coincidental) that she, an unlettered woman who never understood her husband’s passion for writing, finds him acting in his own production of his new play, Hamlet, as the ghost of the king’s father. She understands, for the first time, the alchemy that occurs from the spoken dialogue that her own husband writes, and how the play is, in a way, a tribute to their departed—and much lamented—son, Hamnet.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

When the Time is Right

When the Time is Right ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this story before, in a slightly different version, under a different title.)

The new gardener came in late summer. His name was Geoff Tallis. He wasn’t like the others. He wasn’t a grizzled old man with a sour smell, dirt under his fingernails and hair coming out of his nostrils. He was trim and light on his feet, like a boxer who knew all the moves. He hardly ever spoke and when he did his voice was quiet and confident. He cleaned up the lawn in record time, after a summer of neglect, without complaint and without excuses. And when he was finished for the day, he put away the tools and left without fanfare; never left anything out to get rained on.

Roddy was fifteen and just starting tenth grade. Summer was over and school had taken up again. Sitting in class all day long listening to people talk about things that didn’t interest him left him with a lot of pent-up energy. After depositing his books in his room, he liked to spend time outside, breathing pure air, walking around in the yard or just sitting quietly underneath the trees in the front yard listening to the birds twitter.

When Roddy saw Geoff working in the side yard, he approached him shyly, not knowing how he would take to being disturbed. Realizing Roddy was nearby, Geoff looked up from his work and smiled and gave a little wink. It was the wink that lifted Roddy’s heart and made him smile for the first time all day. Nobody had ever winked at him before.

Emboldened by these outward signs of friendliness, Roddy began speaking to Geoff whenever he got the chance. Roddy opened up to Geoff in a way that was rare for him. Geoff listened when Roddy spoke, never interrupting him or seeming impatient. They talked about clouds, animals, mountains, South America, Mars, the War of 1812, and anything else that came into Roddy’s head. He was amazed at how the words poured out of him and he didn’t have to worry about sounding stupid or being embarrassed. And, when all other subjects were exhausted for the moment, the talk inevitably turned to Roddy’s family.

“Watch out for my mother,” he said. “She’ll smile to your face and then stab you in the back. She fired the last gardener for cutting back the hibiscus bush too much. She didn’t even give him any warning. He was here and then he was gone. There were no goodbyes.”

“I’ll try to keep her from stabbing  me,” Geoff said.

“Have you met my sister?”

“I’ve seen her.”

“She’s a viper.  You don’t want to have anything to do with her. Her name is Janice. She’s seventeen and a senior this year. She’s ten times worse than my mother.”

Geoff laughed. “She can’t be as bad as all that!”

“You’ll find out if you’re here long enough. And then there’s my father. He’s a lawyer. He works all the time. He doesn’t want to be bothered with little domestic details. He leaves everything to my mother. He might come out of the house and fire you, but he’ll be polite about it.”

“I’ll try not to give him any reason.”

“Well, how about you? What about your family?”

“I don’t have any to speak of. My father died when I was five years old. My mother got married again and moved away. I had one older brother but he died.”

“What made you become a gardener?”

“I don’t know. I like being outside and watching things grow. I don’t plan on being a gardener forever.”

“What will you do then?”

“I don’t know. I’m open to all possibilities. I can do carpentry, house painting, and I’ve worked as a machinist.”

“Do you like doing those things?”

“I have to make a living. I like it as long as it pays me money.”

Another time Roddy talked to Geoff about school. He never talked to his parents about school. They only lectured him about applying himself and getting good grades. Geoff spoke to him as an equal, never talked down to him and never gave out with platitudes about staying in school and becoming a success in life.

“I don’t like school very much,” Roddy said. “I don’t fit in very well.”

“Why not?” Geoff asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I’m not like other people. I can’t wait to finish with school and get away from my family and everybody in this town.”

“Where will you go?”

“Out West somewhere, I think.”

“Where men are men?”

“Yeah. Wide-open spaces.”

Roddy began looking forward to seeing Geoff in the afternoons after school and was disappointed when he wasn’t there. He was afraid his mother would fire him or he’d quit without saying anything, and he’d never see him again. He didn’t know where Geoff lived or anything else about him, so that would be the end of that.

On a Friday afternoon, Roddy found Geoff in the yard with his hand bleeding.

“Why didn’t you knock on the door and ask my mother for help?” Roddy asked.

“I didn’t want to bother her.”

“You need to wash that out.”

He took Geoff into the kitchen and held his hand under the faucet. Then he gave him a cold root beer out of the refrigerator and told him to sit at the table while he went to get some antiseptic and a bandage.

The next day Geoff gave Roddy a little gift. It was an insect trapped in a nugget of amber.

“It’s for helping me yesterday,” Geoff said. “I’ve had it since I was twelve years old. I thought you’d like it.”

“It’s beautiful!”

He held it up to the light so he could see the insect better.

“It’s just between you and me,” Geoff said. “Don’t tell the others.”

“No, I won’t.”

He put the nugget in his pocket and went into dinner with a happy smile on his face. Janice couldn’t stand for him to be happy.

“When you’re smiling, you’re up to something and I bet it isn’t anything good,” she said.

“Mind your own business,” he said.

“I saw you out there talking to the gardener.”

“So what? I’m the only one in the family who treats him like a human being.”

“What were you two talking about?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Mother, I think you should fire that gardener,” Janice said.

“Why?”

“I don’t like his looks. He looks at me funny.”

“He doesn’t look at you,” Roddy said. “He looks through you.”

“We’ll only fire the gardener,” father said to Janice, “if you’ll do all his work after school and do it as well as he does.”

“Has he said anything to you, Janice?” mother asked.

“No, he hasn’t said anything, but he looks at me funny.”

“Funny how?”

“Like he’s thinking things.”

“Well, if he says anything inappropriate, you let me know.”

“He would never look at you!” Roddy said. “He has better taste than that. You’re only jealous because he doesn’t look at you!”

“Neither one of you should be associating with him on a personal basis,” mother said. “He’s a grown man and we don’t know anything about him.”

A few days later, Roddy’s mother accosted him in the hallway when he came inside after spending a half-hour or so talking to Geoff.

“What is that man saying to you?” mother asked.

“What man?”

“The gardener.”

“He’s not saying anything! We’re just talking!”

“He’s not trying to get you to do drugs, is he?”

“Of course not! Do you know how ridiculous that is?”

“Is he telling you dirty stories?”

“Why would he do that?”

“I want to know what he says to you!”

“He doesn’t say anything! We’re just talking!”

“We’ve all noticed how much time you’re spending with him. Even the neighbors have noticed. You need to stop hanging around him. You’re keeping him from his work!”

Roddy the next day told Geoff what his mother had said.

“I have to stop talking to you so much,” he said. “My sister is jealous if she thinks I have a friend. She sees me talking to you and then she goes and tells my mother made-up stories. She’s a natural-born troublemaker.”

“I get it,” Geoff said. “I don’t want to be the cause of any trouble.”

“I didn’t want you to think I stopped talking to you because I was mad at  you.”

“I’d never think that,” Geoff said.

“If she fires you, please don’t go away without saying goodbye.”

Roddy began having trouble in school. He was caught cheating on an geometry test. When he got into an argument with a history teacher and she told him to shut up, he threw a book across the classroom and went outside and smoked a cigarette.

When quarterly grades came out, it was worse than he expected. He was failing geometry and almost failing two other classes. If he didn’t get himself “straightened out,” as his father said, he was going to “flunk out” of school, and then where would he be? He’d end living at the city dump, a worthless hobo, without family and friends.

His father engaged a tutor, a former college professor named Mr. Hatley. Two evenings a week Roddy spent three hours with Mr. Hatley in his “study” in the basement of his home. Mr. Hatley believed the only way to save a slacking boy was through hard work and military discipline. He drilled Roddy relentlessly on the finer points of higher mathematics. Roddy hated him instantly.

One evening when Roddy was returning home from a tutoring session, his heart gave a leap when he saw Geoff standing in the front yard close to the house.

“Are you looking for me?” he asked.

“I need a place to stay tonight,” Geoff said. “I thought I’d stay in the storeroom of your father’s garage, but I wanted to tell you about it first.”

“You can have the guest room.”

“The storeroom is good enough and I’ll be gone in the morning before anybody even knows I was here.”

“You’ll get cold.”

“I don’t mind.”

“You can stay in my room with me.”

“And how do you think that’ll go down with your parents?”

“They won’t have to know about it.”

“I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”

“You won’t. It’ll be all right.”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“My parents go to bed at ten. Come to the kitchen door at ten-thirty and I’ll let you in.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Roddy went to his room at ten o’clock when his parents went to bed and, true to his word, he went downstairs to the kitchen at ten-thirty and opened the back door. Geoff was standing outside in the dark.

Roddy held his finger to his lips to indicate silence and the two of them, with Roddy leading the way, crept up the stairs in the dark and along the hallway to Roddy’s room.

“You can relax,” Roddy said, after locking the door. “Nobody comes in unless I say.”

Geoff took off his coat and sat down in the chair and untied his shoes. “If you have an extra blanket,” he whispered, “I can sleep on the floor.”

“Nothing doing,” Roddy said. “You’ll sleep in my bed.”

“I’m not taking your bed.”

“I meant both of us.”

Roddy turned off the light and they both got into the bed. They went to sleep to the sound of the rain on the roof and the wind gently pressing against the windows.

When Roddy awoke in the morning, Geoff was gone; there was no sign he had even been there.

In school all day long Roddy was more calm and courteous than usual. He smiled at the history teacher with whom he had been feuding and admired her expensive leather bag. He passed a geometry quiz and was hating geometry a little less. A girl in his class invited him to a party on Saturday night; he didn’t want to go but was pleased to be asked.

When he got home, his mother was out for the afternoon and Janice was waiting for him.

“I know what you’ve been up with to the gardener,” she said. “I can’t say I’m a bit surprised.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about! I know you sneaked him into your room last night. How many other nights have you sneaked him in? I can only imagine what’s going on in there!”

“It’s none of your business!”

“I heard you creeping past out in the hallway last night and when I opened my door to see what was going on, I saw you take that man into your room in the dark.”

“What of it? It’s none of your business!”

“Do you know that what you’re doing is a crime? They’ll put you in jail for it!”

“Oh, shut up! You don’t know the first thing about it.”

“I suppose you just ‘talked’!”

“I don’t have to explain anything to you!”

“I’m going to tell mother and father! They’ll be appalled that such a thing is going on in their own house after they’ve gone to bed!”

“Nothing is going on! He’s my friend, that’s all. You’re just jealous because he doesn’t want you!”

“Mother will call the police and they’ll come and take your ‘friend’ away and lock him up for the rest of his life. You’re a minor and he isn’t. Do you know what a serious crime that is? There are names for men who do that sort of thing!”

He pretended to shrug off the conversation with Janice, but in truth he was badly shaken. She could cause all kinds of trouble if she wanted to. He had always hated her but never more than now.

At the dinner table she looked at him smugly but didn’t say anything. He knew she was waiting for the right time to ruin his life.

He didn’t see Geoff for three days. When he asked his mother where he was, she told him he needed to forget Geoff. He wasn’t an appropriate friend for a high school boy.

On the fourth day, when Roddy was walking home, Geoff was waiting for him on the corner down the street from the school.

“Where have you been?” Roddy asked. “She fired you, didn’t you?”

“No, she didn’t have to fire me. I quit.”

“Do you have another job?”

“I’m going away. I wanted to say goodbye. You’ve been a real friend to me.”

“I’m coming with you!” Roddy said.

“Do you know how far we’d get? They’d come and get you and they’d lock me up. They’d say I abducted you.”

“I’d tell them the truth!”

“It wouldn’t make any difference. You’re a minor.”

“Will I ever see you again?”

“When you’re older.”

“Do you know…”

“What?”

“Never mind. I won’t say it now, but I’m sure you know what it is.”

“I wanted to give you this.”

He reached into his pocket and took out a small object and placed it in Roddy’s palm.

“What is it?”

“It’s an 1877 fifty-dollar gold piece.”

“You’re always giving me things. I’ve never given you anything.”

“Keep it to remember me by.”

“I’ve never had such a wonderful thing. Thank you.”

“I’ll write and let you know where I am.”

“I hope you will.”

They shook hands and then Geoff walked away quickly.

Father hired an old Italian man to take Geoff’s place. Janice never mentioned Geoff’s name to Roddy again.

Roddy never stopped thinking about Geoff. He knew they would see each other again, that Geoff wouldn’t forget him. He kept the gold coin and the amber nugget in the drawer by his bed and took them out and looked at them almost every night before going to sleep. He never told anybody about them.

The high school years passed in a blur. In his senior year he turned eighteen right before his graduation. While his classmates were excited about going to college, getting married or starting jobs, he was silent about his future plans. He told his parents he had booked passage to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion. He was going away for good and they would never see him again.

A week after graduation, he received a letter postmarked Denver, Colorado. He always knew the letter would come at the right time.

He took the gold coin to a gold merchant and was surprised to discover it was worth a lot more than he thought. After he bought his bus ticket, he had enough left over to buy himself a sturdy suitcase, some warm clothes and a pair of cowboy boots.

Geoff met him at the train in Denver. He still looked amazingly the same—the same dark eyes and thick hair—but Roddy had changed from boy to man.

Roddy and Geoff lived together for the next sixty years. Geoff died in late winter, an old man, and was buried on the lonely wide-open prairie, with an empty grave beside him for when Roddy needed it. They had both known from the beginning that this was how things were always meant to be.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Ones You Do ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Ones You Do ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell continues his saga of the lowbrow Shade family in the 1992 novel, The Ones You Do. This novel, of course, follows the earlier Shade novels Under the Bright Lights from 1986 and Muscle for the Wing from 1988. These three novels are set, for the most part, in the fictional town of St. Bruno, a small city located on the banks of a large U.S. river. (We assume the river is the Mississippi, although the name is never mentioned; neither is the state that St. Bruno is in.)

The principal character of The Ones You Do is John X. Shade. He is the sixty-two-year old patriarch of the Shade family. He is, possibly, one step up from being a bum. He has ruined his health with alcohol, smoking, and chasing after the ladies. His one accomplishment in life is that when he was younger, he was a competitive pool player. He made his living from betting on pool games and then taking the money from the suckers who played with him. His pool game isn’t what it used to be, however; his hands shake from alcoholism and his eyesight is shot. When he was in his twenties, he married a fourteen-year-old girl named Monique Blanqui (in a shotgun wedding) and fathered three sons (Tip, Rene and Francois) with her, whom he proceeded to abandon to pursue his own selfish pleasures.

Later in life, long after he and Monique are divorced, John X. Shade marries a much younger woman named Randi Tripp. She is a “singer,” calls herself the ‘Bama Butterfly, and is determined to become a big-time singer. She and John X. have a punkish, ten-year-old daughter named Etta, who has a mullet hairdo, a crucifix earring and bizarre makeup.

John X. Shade has been keeping a large sum of money ($47,000) for one Lunch Pumphrey, a sociopathic gunman, in the safe of the bar where he works. To repay John X. for all his failings as a husband, Randi Tripp steals the $47,000 and takes off for parts unknown to pursue her showbiz career. Well, as you might have guessed, Lunch Pumphrey wants his money and his plenty peeved that John X. Shade does not have it in the safe at the bar where he works. He will kill over a lot less.

Throughout the novel, Lunch Pumphrey pursues John X. Shade, and John X. Shade eludes him, barely, with his weird daughter, Etta, in tow. A showdown between Lunch Pumphrey and John X. Shade is inevitable and comes in the final chapter. John X. Shade’s family can forget about him showing up for his ex-wife Monique’s birthday party.

The Ones You Do is part crime novel, part Southern Gothic, part small-town elegy, part character study. One of the major themes of the novel is “the way things used to be but no longer are.” As with all Daniel Woodrell’s novels (I’ve read them all at least once), it’s good reading and well worth the time and small amount of effort it takes to read it.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

For Sentimental Reasons

For Sentimental Reasons ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted this story before, in a slightly different version, with a different title.)

Hearing Russell’s footsteps on the stairs, Vee set a glass of orange juice on the table and cracked two eggs into the skillet. When he came into the sunny kitchen, she smiled and wished him a good morning and asked him if he’d like bacon with his eggs. Not waiting for an answer, she took four slices out of the refrigerator and laid them carefully in the skillet beside the eggs.

He helped himself to some coffee and sat down at the table. He looked across the table at Vee’s husband, Milt, but Milt didn’t look back. He was absorbed in the morning newspaper. He loved reading about crime in the city. It seemed to somehow make him happy.

“You’re such a sharp dresser!” Vee said to Russell from her place at the stove, pointing to his natty black pants and red-plaid shirt. “A lot of college students go around looking like bums all the time.”

Russell smiled modestly and downed his orange juice.

“Did you say something?” Milt asked, looking around the edge of the newspaper.

“I was just saying to Russell here how he always looks so dapper, even early in the morning.”

“Oh, Russell!” Milt said, putting down the paper. “I almost forgot about Russell! He is a quiet boy!”

“He’s hardly a boy!” Vee said, setting Russell’s plate down in front of him. “He’s a fully grown man! Just look at those arms!”

“I work out when I have the time,” Russell said.

“Whatever makes you happy,” Milt said. “Say, I was just reading in the paper where a family of six was murdered in their own beds. No sign of forced entry. Police don’t have a clue who did it. Can you beat it? What is the world coming to? And over on Polk Avenue, in those old apartment buildings near the post office, a woman stabbed her common-law husband in the neck and went off to work and left him on the floor to bleed to death.”

“Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?” Vee asked. “It’s a beautiful morning!”

“I heard yesterday about an old woman who lived alone. Somebody broke into her house and after they stole her money and jewels, they killed her. Slit her throat. She had two big dogs. They didn’t have any food for a long time so they ate her body, right down to the bones! Did you ever hear of anything so awful?”

“Russell doesn’t want to hear that gruesome talk!” Vee said. “He’s young and full of life!”

“It’s all right,” Russell said. “I don’t want you to do anything different on my account.”

“How do you like your room?” Milt asked.

“I like it fine, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’. This isn’t the army.”

“No, sir. I know it’s not the army.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-four in October, sir.”

“It’s probably hard for you to believe right now,” Milt said, “but I was twenty-four not so long ago.”

“Russell’s a graduate student,” Vee said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“A what?”

“He’s earned his undergraduate degree. Now he’s in graduate school.”

“Oh, right! I guess you can’t have too many degrees.”

“I should be able to get my master’s degree in two more semesters,” Russell said.

“So you’ll only need the room for two semesters,” Vee said.

“As far as I know.”

“Oh, I hope you’ll stay longer than that! You’re the best boarder we’ve ever had!”

“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble renting the room to somebody else,” Russell said. “It’s a comfortable room, conveniently located, and you are an exceptional cook.”

Vee smiled with pleasure and set down her cup. “It’s sweet of you to say so,” she said. “Most people don’t usually have anything good to say.”

“We don’t want any beatnik types with their bongo drums,” Milt said.

Vee laughed. “You’re so behind the times, dear!”  she said. “There aren’t any beatniks anymore!”

“You know what I mean!” Milt said. “We only want the decent-living, clean-cut types. The ones who don’t make a sound at night because they’ve got their noses buried in books all the time.”

“I think he’s saying he approves of you, Russell!” Vee said.

“We don’t need to overdo it,” Milt said.

Russell finished his breakfast and stood up. He offered to carry his plate to the sink, but Vee told him she’d take care of it.

“I won’t be here for dinner,” he said, as he left. “I’m going to be working late at the library.”

“It’s all right, darling!” Vee called. “Have a wonderful day!”

Darling?” Milt said.

Milt left to go to work. The day was long and dull for Vee. She washed the breakfast dishes and when she was finished she lay down on her unmade bed and read an article in a magazine about a woman who was spontaneously turning into a man, and when she was finished reading she dozed for a while until a big truck passing on the street in front of the house woke her up.

She carried her broom and dustpan up the stairs and let herself into Russell’s room with her spare key. It was her duty as landlady to tidy up, empty the trash, sweep the floor, put clean towels in the bathroom and clean sheets on the bed.

Not only was Russell neat in his dress, but also in the way he lived. The covers on his bed were pulled up over the pillows. There were stacks of books and papers on the desk, but, other than that, no clutter anywhere; no dirt and no piles of dirty clothes. In the bathroom, the towels hung neatly; there were no splashes on the mirror; the bathtub gleamed, as if it had just been scrubbed.

Before going back downstairs, she lingered for a while over Russell’s belongings. She ran her fingertips over his alarm clock and his jade elephant that she admired every time she was in his room. She picked up a couple of the books and opened them, read a few words, and set them back down exactly where they had been. She opened the closet door and marveled at the perfect order: coats, jackets, shirts, pants. On the floor were four pairs of shoes aligned with precision. On the inside of the closet door was a rack of belts and ties, the ties arranged according to color.

One thing she expected to see in Russell’s room but didn’t: a picture of a lovely young woman. Of course such a handsome, intelligent, smartly turned-out young man would have a girlfriend, a real homecoming queen type, who would be waiting for him to come home and marry her when the time was right. Beauty is always rewarded with beauty, isn’t it? Isn’t that the way the world works?

In the afternoon she took a long bubble bath and washed her hair and set it. When she was finished, she dressed in fresh clothes. There was no reason for her to look slouchy all the time. She wasn’t an old woman, not yet, and she didn’t want to get old before her time. Of course, it didn’t help being married to an old stick like Milt, but she wasn’t going to let him drag her down even more than he already had.

At dinnertime she set three places at the table, even though she knew Russell wouldn’t be there. Milt didn’t notice the extra plate or that she had fixed herself up and looked better than usual. He came into the kitchen and sat down at the table at six-thirty, the time they always ate. She served up the food and they sat in silence; she stared absently out the window into the back yard or at the empty plate and unused silverware across from her. Milt didn’t talk about his day; they were all the same and had been for twenty-five years or more.

When dinner was over she washed the dishes and Milt, bone-tired as usual, retired to his spot on the couch in front of the TV. He would watch one mindless show after the other, all evening long, until it was time for the ten o’clock news and then he’d turn off the TV and get into bed, literally asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Vee went to her room at eleven o’clock and closed the door. She lay for a long time without sleeping, listening to the sounds outside: the wind in the trees, distant traffic on the highway, the faraway barking of a lonely dog.

At one o’clock, she had been dozing lightly but awoke when she heard the floor creak upstairs over her head. It meant Russell was home. She imagined him taking off his clothes and getting into bed. He’d be tired out from his long day, a day well-spent, and would go to sleep quickly.

An hour later she was still awake. She got out of bed and, without turning on a light, put on her bathrobe and stepped into her slippers. She crept slowly out of her room, careful not to make a sound, feeling her way along the wall, and up the stairs to the door of Russell’s room.

The door wasn’t locked. She turned the knob and stepped into the room. There was just enough light coming in at the window that she could see him sleeping in the bed, lying on his back. The blanket was pulled up to his waist. He wore an undershirt.

She stood for a minute beside the bed, watching him sleep. He had his right arm over his head with his left arm resting at his side. She was reaching out her hand to touch him when he opened his eyes.

He reached over and turned on the lamp beside the bed and looked at her with alarm. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is anything wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. I…”

“There’s not a fire, is there?”

“No, there’s no fire.”

“Why are you coming into my room late at night without knocking?”

“Please don’t be mad at me! I missed you at dinner and I just wanted to make sure you made it in all right.”

“Of course I made it all right!” he said. “Why wouldn’t I? You don’t have to watch out for me.”

“I know. I wouldn’t blame you for being terribly angry, but…I just couldn’t seem to help myself.”

“Why not?”

“You’re special to me.”

“What are you talking about? You woke me up to tell me that?”

“I can’t stop thinking about you. I like looking into your beautiful dark eyes and talking to you and being in the same room with you.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“I just like being near you.”

“Oh, I think I get it now! I’m not going to have sexual intercourse with you. Now or at any other time.”

“No, it’s not that!” she said. “That’s not what I want!”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to turn off the light. I want you to close your eyes and pretend I’m somebody else. I want to touch your face and your hair. I want to feel your arms and your chest, your legs and your feet. I want to feel you all over.”

“That’s a very odd request. Do you always do that with your boarders?”

“Oh, no! This is the first time!”

“Does Milt know about it?”

“Milt doesn’t know a thing.”

He threw back the blanket that covered his lower body and stood up from the bed. He pulled his undershirt off over his head and stepped out his pajama bottoms and turned off the light.

“All right,” he said in a whisper, lying back on the bed as though waiting for a medical examination. “Please make it quick, though. I’m cold and I feel kind of funny about this.”

“I promise you, nobody will ever know,” Vee said.

In the morning Vee was in the kitchen cooking breakfast when Milt came in, yawning, and took his place at the table.

“Did you hear anything unusual last night?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.

“I heard a dog barking but it didn’t keep me awake,” she said.

“With all the crime in the city, you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. You can’t be too careful these days.”

She handed him the morning paper to get him to stop talking it and he opened it and began reading a story on the front page about a triple homicide.

“One of the people killed was a niece of the mayor’s wife! Can you beat it?”

“Eat your eggs while they’re hot,” she said.

He was halfway finished with breakfast when he noticed someone was missing from the breakfast table.

“Hey, where’s what’s-his-name?”

“Who?”

“Our little boarder.”

“Do you mean Russell?”

“Yeah, Russell. Where is he?”

“He’s gone.”

“He had an early class or something?”

“No, he left. He moved out.”

“Moved out? What are you talking about? He just said yesterday he liked it here and wanted to stay. Did something happen?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Did he skip out on the rent?”

“He was paid up until the first of the month.”

“What is wrong with these people? He’s the third boarder we’ve lost in less than a year! They’re here and everything is fine, and then the next day they’re just gone without so much as a wave goodbye! It must have something to do with all this crime!”

“I’ll place the ad in the paper again,” she said, “but I don’t think we’ll get anybody as sweet as Russell ever again. Not in a million years.”

She turned her head away and went out of the room so Milt wouldn’t see her tears. She stayed in her bedroom until he left for work and then she went into the kitchen and began gathering up the dirty dishes to wash them. She hoped that Russell might come by later in the morning so they could have a private talk, just the two of them, without Milt, and she could apologize for what happened and set things right. Oh, how she hoped!

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp  

Lolita ~ A Capsule Book Review

Lolita ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. He became an American citizen in 1945 and died in 1977. His 1956 novel, Lolita, was a huge success and has earned the lofty number-four position on the Modern Library’s List of the Hundred Greatest Books in English of the Twentieth Century. Some critics consider Lolita the greatest American novel of the twentieth century.

In the language of the 1950s, Lolita was “frank,” “daring,” and even “shocking.” Some even went so far as to label it “pornographic” or “obscene.” What’s all the fuss about, you may ask? The character Lolita (real name Delores Haze) in the novel is an American “nymphet.” She’s twelve years old and is, to put it mildly, sexually precocious, unlike any twelve-year-old ever seen before. She has had sexual experiences with both male and female partners alike.

Well, there wouldn’t be any story in Lolita without the main character in the book, Humbert Humbert. He is a forty-year-old English academic, transplanted to America, who, since his earliest days, has had an intense interest, and attraction to, prepubescent girls of nine to twelve years of age. He is narrating the novel in his first-person voice.

Humbert marries an obstreperous widow named Charlotte Haze. He doesn’t care for Charlotte very much and, in fact, can hardly stand her, but she just happens to be the mother of a stunningly seductive (Humbert thinks) daughter, the eponymous little girl nicknamed Lolita. If you were anybody other than Humbert, you might see Lolita as an uncouth, bratty pre-teen without any attractive or appealing qualities at all, but then, nobody sees her as Humbert sees her. He takes advantage of every opportunity to be near Lolita, hold her in his arms, or come into close contact with her.

He makes the fatal mistake of writing in his diary of his intense passion for Lolita. His wife (Lolita’s mother) finds his diary in its hiding place and reads it. Finally she knows the truth! Distraught, she runs from the house and is struck by a car and killed. Humbert is now Lolita’s “guardian” and may engage with her sexually any time his heart desires, and his heart desires often.

With Mama Charlotte out of the way, these two highly unusual people (forty-year-old Humbert and twelve-year-old Lolita) embark on a year-long road trip, traveling around the U.S. Humbert knows he is a reprehensible man for taking sexual advantage of Lolita. (Though a willing participant, she is still a minor.) Lolita could go to the police at any time and blow the whistle on Humbert, but she knows that, without him, she would be an orphan. This cannot end well.

Some people will still undoubtedly find the subject matter of Lolita distasteful, but it is a book that must be read and experienced for the joy that Vladimir Nabokov seems to take in writing it. He is a master stylist of the English language. He has a penchant for unusual or rarely used words, such as: undinist, logomancy, valetudinarian, lithophanic, caravansary, and selenian. They are all legitimate words but words you might not find anyplace else.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Dickie Manly

Dickie Manly ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Arlene Upjohn sat on the high porch of the old house she shared with her mother, swinging herself gently in the old-fashioned porch swing that belonged to her grandparents. She held a woman’s magazine on her knees and, turning the pages, looked at the pictures and the advertising without much interest. When someone passed on the street in front of the house, she watched them warily to see if it was anybody she knew.

In a little while a young man approached on foot. When Arlene saw him, she felt a little flush of pleasure and interest. One didn’t often see his kind on this street. He wore dark glasses and a dark suit and carried a briefcase.

Arlene watched him without letting him know she was watching him. Surprising her, he approached the porch and, looking up, spoke to her.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “I’m a little lost. I’m looking for the Presbyterian church.”

“The what church?”

“Presbyterian.”

“It’s not on this street,” she said. “Keep going for a couple more blocks and then turn to the right when you come to Fulton Street. That’s where the church is.”

“I’m not too far off then.”

“Are you a minister?” she asked.

“Do I look like a minister? I’m a salesman.”

“What do you sell at a church?”

“Books.”

“Books for people to sing songs out of?”

“Something like that.”

She went back to her magazine, thinking the young man would walk on, but he continued to look up at her.

“My name’s Dickie Manly,” he said.

“Well, isn’t that fine!”

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t think my name could possibly be of any concern to you.”

“Why don’t you come down off that porch and let me get a better look at you?”

“I’ll stay where I am, thank you!”

“Can I come up there and sit beside you? I’ve been on my feet all morning and I’m pretty tired.”

“No! Don’t come up! My mother’s in the house! She’s getting ready to go for her doctor’s appointment and she wants me to go with her.”

“Is she sick?”

“That’s why she’s seeing the doctor.”

“Well, could I trouble you for a glass of water? I’m very thirsty.”

“You can have a drink of water if you promise to leave before my mother sees you.”

“All right. I’ll leave.”

“I’ll go inside now and get your water.”

“Might I come inside with you?”

“No! My mother is very particular! I’ll get the water and bring it out here.”

“When you have the glass of water in your hand, will it be all right if I come up the porch steps and take it from you?”

“No, that won’t do! I’ll set the glass on the top step and after I’ve resumed my seat you can come up the steps and get it.”

“Well, if that’s the best you can do.”

“I’ll be right back in just a minute. If you go away before I come back, it’ll be altogether fine with me.”

“I won’t go away. I’ll wait right here.”

Entering the house, she went into the kitchen, filled a clean glass with cool water and took it back out to the porch. When she saw that Dickie Manly was still there, she set the glass on the top step and stepped back.

With a smile, he climbed the eight steps and picked up the glass of water and drank until it was empty.

“Thank you,” he said, setting the glass back down.

“Now, will you please go before my mother comes down from upstairs and sees you?”

“All right. I’ll go. Might I ask you a question first?”

“What is it?”

“What do people do in this town for fun?”

“Stay at home and mind their own business.”

Hah-hah! You’re really not as hard as you pretend to be! You’re lonely like everybody else. Why don’t you loosen up and have some fun?”

“Look, mister…”

“Dickie.”

“Look, Mr. Dickie, you don’t know anything about me and I’ll thank you to stop pretending you do.”

“You must be thirty years old. I would venture to guess you don’t get asked out on too many dates. You have a lot of lonely evenings at home with mama.”

“How do you know I don’t have a husband and three children?”

“I noticed right away you’re not wearing a wedding ring. That generally means a person isn’t married. I’ve trained myself to notice little details like that.”

“You might do well to mind your own business.”

“For myself, I’m twenty-six. If you’re thirty or thirty-one, I don’t mind a few years’ age difference.”

“I think I hear my mother coming.”

“Will you have dinner with me tonight at my hotel?”

“No! I can’t! You’re a stranger!”

“What’s so bad about that? We’re all strangers until we get to know each other.”

“You’re trying my patience!

“It’s the Edgewater Hotel. Meet me in the lobby at six-thirty and I’ll reserve a table in the restaurant.”

“No! Don’t expect me to be there because I won’t!”

“I’ll bet it’s been a long time since a man asked you out to dinner. Maybe never.”

“I have a boyfriend.”

“No, you don’t!”

“I’ll be spending the evening with my boyfriend, if it’s all the same to you!”

“I know when people are lying.”

“Why would I take the trouble to lie to you?”

“Edgewater Hotel, room three-twenty-six. Dickie Manly’s the name.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Manly.”

“Call me Dickie.”

“I can’t say it’s been a pleasure meeting you because it hasn’t.”

“Until this evening, then.”

“I won’t be there! Plain and simple!”

He bowed from the waist like a viscount and then he was gone.

As Arlene sat and waited in the doctor’s office waiting room for her mother that afternoon, she felt a pang of conscience that she had been so unyielding with Dickie Manly. He was probably a very decent fellow and not at all bad looking. What would be the harm in having dinner with him at his hotel? How many times was she going to be asked out before she was too old to be of interest to anybody?

She was restless all the rest of the day and her mother said she looked “peaked.” She could hardly stand her mother’s incessant chatter about trivialities. She went out into the back yard to be alone, but her mother soon came out, too, wanting polish applied to her fat fingers and toes.

“I want you to drive me to prayer meeting tonight,” her mother said. “We’ll  need to leave at about quarter to seven.”

“Sorry, mother. I have plans. You’ll have to call a cab or get Beulah to come by and pick you up.

Plans? What plans?”

“My friend Edith Farris and I are going to take in the new movie at the Odeon downtown.”

“I thought you said Edith Farris was in New York.”

“She’s back.”

“Well, isn’t that strange?”

“What’s strange about it?”

“She was on a trip to New York and now suddenly she’s back.”

“Well, you know what people are like. They change their minds pretty fast sometimes.”

“Well, all right! If seeing a movie with a high school friend is more important that doing what your mother wants, then go ahead and see the damned movie!”

“I’ll call Beulah and ask her to come by and pick you up.”

“Don’t bother! I think I can take care of it myself!”

Her mother didn’t speak to her or look at her for the rest of the day.

She changed her clothes and at six o’clock sped off in her mother’s old Chrysler that her mother was no longer able to drive. She arrived at the Edgewater Hotel at twenty minutes after six and went into the lobby and sat down in a conspicuous spot where anybody getting off the elevators would be sure and see her.

At fifteen minutes before seven Dickie Manly hadn’t appeared. She began to worry that possibly he forgot that he invited her to dinner. He had seemed so determined, though, so confident. She was certain he wouldn’t give up so easily.

At five minutes after seven she went to the hotel desk and asked the clerk to ring Dickie Manly’s room, number three-twenty-six.

“Mr. Manly checked out, ma’am,” the clerk said cheerfully.

“Checked out?”

“That’s right.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“Not to me, ma’am.”

She didn’t want to go back home so early, with nothing to show for her evening. She thought about going into the restaurant and ordering dinner alone, but she wasn’t hungry and couldn’t eat. She had to ask herself an important question: What do people do when they feel lonely, disappointed and foolish?

She went into the dark hotel cocktail lounge and took a seat at the bar. She ordered a martini and after she drank it down ordered another one. When she was on her fourth martini, a man came and sat down on the stool beside her. He smiled and offered her a cigarette which she readily accepted.

“Could I buy you a drink?” he asked.

She nodded and the drink was placed on the bar in front of her.

“My name is Cleo Hall,” the man said.

“Happy to meet you,” she said, but didn’t offer her own name.

In ten minutes Cleo Hall was nuzzling against her. He put his hand on her shoulder and when she didn’t object he put his other hand on her upper thigh.

“Would you like to go someplace more…intimate?” he breathed his hot alcohol breath into her ear.

She looked at him and nodded solemnly. Standing up from the stool, a little shakily, she waited for him to disentangle his feet and stand beside her. She took his arm then, like an old acquaintance, and together they walked out of the bar—through the hotel lobby—through the slapping revolving door—and out into the cover of night.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Maroon and Yellow

Maroon and Yellow ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Everybody knew Miss Penny. She was the elderly widow who lived in the trim white house on the corner with green window shutters and a pear tree in the front yard. She was frequently seen tending her lawn, walking along the street carrying groceries, or soliciting donations in the neighborhood for a charitable cause or to buy flowers for someone who had died. When she saw any of her neighbors, she always called out to them cheerily and waved and smiled. Everybody loved Miss Penny.

Suffer the little children to come unto me. Miss Penny’s home was something of a haven for the better-behaved, calmer children of the neighborhood. On warm summer evenings, they liked to sit in the glider on Miss Penny’s screened-in porch, sipping Kool-Aid and eating cookies, while she sat in her old-fashioned rocking chair beside her huge fern and listened to them prattle on about school or their families. She smiled and laughed, encouraged them to be themselves, not be sullen and withdrawn. She was like the indulgent grandmother they wished they had. Sometimes she gave them small amounts of money to do little jobs for her, such as sweeping the front walk, putting birdseed out for the birds, or lifting down a box from the top shelf in the closet.

Tippy Kepke lived on the other side of the street, down the block from Miss Penny. She was fourteen years old and lived with her parents and her two manly older brothers. She thought all her teachers in school were bitches or assholes. Her parents were assholes, and she wanted, more than anything, to see her two brothers eat shit and die. She regarded Miss Penny warily and pondered why a woman that old was still allowed to live.

Tippy was unpopular in school, but she knew a way to change all that. She would try out for cheerleader, and if she was lucky enough to be chosen over the other nitwits who tried out, she would be welcomed into the world to which she so fervently aspired: the world of handsome, sleek, well-dressed boys, and pretty girls with perfect hair and skin; the world in which boys would pick her up in their very own cars for Saturday night dates; the world in which she, even she, might be homecoming queen and get her picture in the society column.

She stole a book from the library that told all about cheerleading, with cheerleader routines and yells; pictures of how cheerleaders dressed, how they deported themselves. There were drawings at the back of the book that demonstrated exercises that cheerleaders ought to undertake, because—don’t you know?—a cheerleader needs to be in tiptop physical condition and have winning muscle tone. A cheerleader is a winner and not a whiner. A cheerleader sets an example for the other students in the school, girls and boys alike. A cheerleader excels in all things, at all times. Yes, being a cheerleader is not something to be taken lightly. The cheerleader of today might be the movie star of tomorrow. Anything is possible in the world of the cheerleader.

She began to think of herself as the “cheerleader type.” She tried to do the exercises in the book but she hated any kind of physical exertion and soon became bored and achy. What she was able to do, though, was to pay closer attention to her grooming and appearance. She began washing her hair and face more often and making sure she didn’t have dirt under her fingernails.

The biggest obstacle to not becoming a cheerleader, she believed, was not having the cheerleader outfit with the school colors, maroon and yellow. The outfit consisted of short skirt, long-sleeved blouse, jumper, knee socks, and optional sweater for colder weather. The entire outfit might be purchased at Delaney’s department store for thirty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents: not a lot of money when one considered what it might mean to her future. If she had the outfit, she’d wear it to the tryouts and, surely—if there was a God in heaven—that would give her an edge over the others, even if her cheerleader moves were not all they should be.

She knew it was useless to ask her mother for the money. It would only get her started on one of her boring lectures about how hard money is to earn and to keep after it’s earned. She might steal the money if she knew who she might steal it from.

Then she thought of Miss Penny. She knew that Miss Penny sometimes paid children in the neighborhood money for doing little things for her. She would go to Miss Penny and offer her services for the paltry sum of thirty-nine and ninety-five cents, plus tax. She could work the money out somehow: cleaning house, washing dishes, doing laundry, yard work, or whatever the silly old cow needed.

It was a good plan and she congratulated herself for thinking of it.

The next morning after her mother left for work and her brothers were away doing whatever brothers do, she went to Miss Penny’s front door and knocked timidly. Not getting any answer, she walked all the way around the house a couple of times. Then she tried the back door, found it unlocked, and entered the kitchen without making a sound.

Standing for a moment just inside the door, listening, she heard nothing. Miss Penny must be gone, probably to the store or the beauty parlor, or maybe visiting a neighbor. Maybe she would only be gone for a minute or two. Whatever Tippy was going to do, she had to do it fast before Miss Penny came back and found her. If she could find some money and take it and then leave, that would be perfect. Miss Penny would never know who took it. But where would an old woman keep money in her house? That was the question.

She crept soundlessly through the kitchen and then the dining room into the front room, and there was Miss Penny, asleep on her back on the couch, her chest moving up and down with her breathing. Her right arm was up over her head and her left arm by her side. The television set, to the right of the couch, was on, but with the sound turned so low it could barely be heard.

If Miss Penny woke up at that moment and saw her in her house, she’d scream and jump up and call the police and have a great squawking fit. Tippy couldn’t let that happen. They’d come and take her away in handcuffs and lock her up and she’d never, ever, be cheerleader after a thing like that happened.

She had to act fast. A sound outside scared her. Someone was coming! She felt genuine panic rising inside her, the panic of being found out doing something horrible. She felt faint with confusion and fear. Not knowing what else to do, she ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife from a knife rack on the counter beside the sink. Gripping the knife so hard it hurt her hand, she ran back into the front room where Miss Penny lay.

A sudden solution occurred to her, as though whispered into her ear. Stab the old bitch to death and take the money out of her purse and get out of the house as quickly as she could! Nobody would ever know she did it. She had hardly known Miss Penny and had never been in her house before. The police would think a burglar or a drifter had done it.

With the first thrust of the knife into her flesh, the old woman woke up, gasped for air, tried to sit up. She opened her eyes and when she saw Tippy and knew what was happening to her, she closed them again quickly, as if on a horrible vision. The life went out of her so fast and so easily!

The deed done, Tippy took the knife back into the kitchen, washed it off with hot water—including the handle—and put it back into its rack along with the other knives.

Miss Penny’s purse was easy to find. It sat on top of the dresser in the bedroom, plain as day. Tippy didn’t even have to look for it. She opened the purse, took out the wallet and inside found two twenties, a ten, and two ones. Fifty-two dollars! Enough to buy the cheerleader outfit and have some left over to buy something else. It had all been easier than she thought it would be.

That evening she was especially kind to her family. She smiled at her brothers and helped her mother with dinner and then, when the meal was over, cleared the table and washed the dishes while the rest of the family watched television.

The next morning she slept late, after a night of untroubled sleep. After a light breakfast, she got dressed and walked downtown to Delaney’s. The day was sunny and fresh and much cooler than it had been. There was a hint of autumn in the breeze.

Delaney’s had the cheerleader outfit in stock, in exactly the right size. Tippy’s heart sang! Finally, good things were going to happen for her. Doors would open that had previously been closed. It was the turning point she had been hoping for.

With the bulky Delaney’s bag containing its treasure gripped tightly in her fingers, she went straight home, without any dawdling. She couldn’t wait to take the bag up to her room, lock herself in, take the things out of the bag, admire them one by one and try them on in front of the mirror.

When she got home, she went into the house by the back door, as she usually did. She couldn’t have seen the police cars parked at the curb.

Her mother was standing in the living room. When she heard Tippy entering from the kitchen, she turned and looked in her direction, her face pale and stricken. She took the Delaney’s bag from Tippy’s hands as if not really seeing it and gestured to the two police officers standing a few feet away. Tippy hadn’t seen them at first. She showed by the look on her face that she knew why they were there and what it was going to mean to her future.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Maltese Falcon ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Maltese Falcon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In 1930 San Francisco—that city of hills and fog by the bay—Brigid O’Shaughnessy (if that’s really her name) believes she is in danger and goes to detective Samuel L. Spade to protect her. She’s young and attractive, as you might expect, and Sam Spade knows his way around with the dames. She tells him a story that’s all lies, but it doesn’t matter very much to Sam because she pays him well and he’d like to get to know her better, if you know what I mean.

The truth is, as Sam Spade learns later, the lovely Miss O’Shaughnessy has fallen in with a band of cutthroats and thieves, and she might be the worst of the lot. (“I’ve been bad, Sam,” she says. “Worse than you know.”) Among those posing a threat to her, we have Casper Gutman, the genial fat man who is so corpulent he seems to be made of bubbles strung together. Then there’s Joel Cairo, an effeminate “Levantine” (a person from the area of Turkey or Egypt) who is sweet on Casper Gutman’s gun-wielding psycho named Wilmer.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Casper Gutman, and Joel Cairo all want the Maltese Falcon so badly they will kill for it, or do whatever it takes to possess it. Just what is the Maltese Falcon? It’s a foot-high statuette that has been kicking around since the sixteenth century. It’s laden with precious stones, incalculably valuable, and has been covered over with a thick layer of black varnish to disguise what it really is from those who covet it. The falcon was originally intended, all those centuries ago, as a tribute to the King of Spain from a wealthy order of knights, but the King of Spain never received it, and it has subsequently been bandied about from owner to owner in all that time.

So, Sam Spade the detective is drawn into this knotted web of intrigue because Casper Gutman promises him a wad of money if he can deliver the falcon into his (Gutman’s) hands, but also because Brigid O’Shaughnessy is such a tasty dish of femaleness. Has Spade taken on more than he can handle in dealing with these desperate characters? Will he get the money promised him? Will he get the girl? Will the desperate characters get what they want and play nice and go away when it’s all over? Don’t count on it.

Dashielle Hammett, American novelist, lived from 1894 to 1961. The Maltese Falcon is his most famous and best-known work. It is the detective story that has served as the model for detective stories ever since it was first published in 1930. It is so highly regarded  that it’s number 56 on the Modern Library’s list of the Hundred Greatest Books in English of the Twentieth Century. The 1941 movie version, with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, is a perfect example of how a movie should be made from a book. Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman is cinematic perfection, along with bug-eyed Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo. They’ll kill you if you keep them from getting what they want or, at the very least, slip you a mickey, from which you’ll wake up on the floor in twelve hours or so.

Copyright 2020 by Allen Kopp

Spiritus

Spiritus ~ A Ghost Story by Allen Kopp 

(This is a re-post. It has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)

My name is Igor Dillingham. In 1893 I was twenty-one years of age. I was twenty-one then and I’m twenty-one now. Twenty-one I shall always be. Every time I look at myself in a mirror, I see my twenty-one-year-old self looking back at me. I will never be forty or sixty or eighty, but always the same as I am now, for I am dead and I dwell in the spirit world.  

A lot of years have gone by, I know, although time, the passage of years, means nothing to me. I still dwell in our old house. The house, old as it is, is also big. I forget exactly how many rooms there are in it but, since I am the only one left, all the rooms belong to me. The house, I was told, was built a long time ago by a rich man with many children. All of the original family are gone—I’ve never met any of them—and I have never encountered any of them in the spirit world. They have all moved on, as the saying goes.

Now the house is falling down in places. The paint is all gone, the wood is old, ugly and gray, the roof has holes in it; mice, bats and spiders are my eternal companions. I hear, always, the flutter of wings above my head as birds nest in the attic. Some of the windows are broken out, but it makes no difference to me because I am a spirit and spirits don’t mind the cold wind and rain.       

Sometimes I go out of the house, but the truth is I have no place to go. On occasion, just to prove to myself that I still can, I go outside and travel a mile or two in any direction. In these little forays out into the world, I never see a living person but only wild animals and birds, which is altogether fine with me. Animals, even if they can’t see me, sense that I’m there and are not afraid.

The road that leads down to our house was washed out in a flood forty years ago. Nobody bothered to build the road back. Even if people could get down here, they have no reason to do so. It is a place completely shut off from the world and forgotten. I think isolated is the word. If I saw a living person who wasn’t a spirit, like me, I wouldn’t know what to do. I suppose I’d run and hide and make sure I gave him good enough reason to want to leave.  

In my aloneness, I am sometimes reminded of the people I once knew when I was alive. I had a sister, Sobriety, and a brother, Claxon. Sobriety had an enormous head; she was what’s known as hydrocephalic. She stayed in a crib in an upstairs room most of the time, tended only by a mute servant that mother employed. I used to go into her room to visit her and try her to keep from feeling lonely, but I’m not sure if she ever knew I was even there. Mother sold her to a traveling freak show when she was about twelve years old for fifty dollars. After the freak show people took her away, I never saw her again. I don’t know what ever became of her but I hope one day I will meet her in the spirit world and rejoice to see that she is cured of her affliction.

My brother Claxon was covered with a scaly growth all over his body that made him look like a human frog. He never spoke in words but he made croaking sounds and he knew how to laugh. He was my closest friend; he and I communicated without words in the way of brothers. One day he made the mistake of defying mother in a very bad place—at the top of the stairs. She rushed him and pushed him. He fell all the way to the bottom of the stairs and broke his neck. He died later the same day. She didn’t want anybody to know what she had done, so she buried him in the hog yard out back before anybody had a chance to ask any questions. I nailed together a small cross and put it over the place where I thought he was buried, but the hogs trampled it into the mud.

Claxon wasn’t the first person mother killed, nor would he be the last. When I was six years old, she poisoned the man who was my father, or the man I believed was my father. She claimed he became sick in the night of unknown causes and was dead by the rising of the sun. She collected on his life insurance and become a modestly wealthy woman. That’s when she realized how profitable death could be for her.

She soon married another man with whom she had been communicating through a lonely hearts club. After six months of marriage, she murdered him by dropping a meat grinder on his head and claiming it was an accident. He didn’t have life insurance, but he had over a thousand dollars in a bank account and a small horde of silver coins, all of which became hers as his grieving widow.

About the time mother killed her second husband, she hired an itinerant worker to do small jobs for her. She had him tend the garden, paint the barn and mend the fence before she took him into her bed. He was her plaything for a few weeks, until he became tiresome to her and then she poisoned him—making certain first, however, that he had no relations who might come looking for him later. 

There were others after that. She placed an ad in a newspaper in the city for single gentlemen who might be interested in the pastoral life on a lush farm away from the hustle-bustle of the city. With a small investment of a thousand dollars, they might “buy into” a growing enterprise that had unlimited potential for growth and profit.

I don’t know how many “gentlemen” mother lured away from the city and killed, but I do know our hog yard out behind the barn became quite crowded with rotting corpses, while the wad of cash she kept hidden underneath the floorboards in her bedroom grew ever larger.    

I was the only living witness to mother’s depredations, but she thought I was too stupid to see anything, to know anything. From the time I was eight years old, I began writing everything down: names and ages of the people who ended up in the hog yard, where they came from, physical characteristics (bald, wears glasses, speaks with a stutter, speaks with an accent, missing fingers on right hand), how much money they brought to the “enterprise” and anything else I could see that set each one apart from the others. I also added to the record the details of how she sold Sobriety to a traveling freak show for fifty dollars and how she pushed Claxon down the stairs and broke his neck. I spared none of the distasteful details.

By the time I was a grown man, I had filled an entire notebook with these observations. If mother killed me, as I was certain she would one day, I hoped that my notebook would end up in the proper hands and justice would be served.  

She was gone for three days and didn’t tell me where she was going. When she came back, she had a new husband, a man named Jules DuFray. He was slick, well-dressed, the opposite of a farming man; he wore suits instead of overalls, even all the way out here where nobody ever saw him. I don’t know whatever possessed him to want to marry a pizzle-faced old harridan like my mother, but there you have it. She had always had a way with men. There’s no accounting for tastes, I suppose.

For several days I stayed out of mother’s way, keeping to myself in my room or in the woods. She and her new husband spent most of their time in mother’s bedroom with the door closed. When I passed by in the hallway, I could hear them grunting, breathing,  groaning. When we all sat down to dinner (cooked by a moronic “serving girl” that mother hired with one of her newspaper ads), mother was polite and subdued, almost as if she had been drugged. I knew she was putting on an act for her new husband, while all the time hatching some scheme in her head that would bring her enough money to live like the queen she imagined herself to be.

When I saw the cans of kerosene she had stored under the stairs, I knew that her plans involved burning the house—with me in it, of course—and then collecting on the insurance. She would make it look so convincingly like an accident that she would fool anybody who needed fooling.

I was afraid to go to bed and go to sleep, afraid that I would wake up and the house would be burning and it would be too late for me to get out. I sat in a chair in my room, fully clothed, dozing lightly, clutching my notebook, ready to escape the house at the first sign of smoke or fire.

Finally I could stand it no longer, this waiting for mother to kill me, waiting for the house to go up in flames. One morning I set out on the road for the nearest town, over ten miles away, to deliver my notebook to a man of the law, a person of authority who could set about bringing mother’s killing to an end.

I hitched rides part of the way, so I came to the town of Wadsworth by noontime. I asked an old man sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store where I might find the sheriff. He told me what I needed to know and in a half-hour I was sitting across a desk from an old man wearing a badge. I gave him my notebook and told him my fantastic story, or as much of it as I could get out without crying. He listened to me with unremitting seriousness and told me he would read every word of what I had written and look into my allegations as soon as time permitted. He gave me some water and some jailhouse food and, after I had rested for a while, I began the long walk back home.

Mother was waiting for me. She somehow knew where I had been and who I had been talking to. Without a word, she split my head with an ax and then hit me with a cane until I was dead as I lay on the floor. I felt my spirit leave my body and go up through the ceilings and floors of the house to the attic. It is here I have been ever since.

Mother and her new husband Jules DuFray got away before the sheriff and his men arrived. I don’t know where they went, but my mother, true to her fashion, disappeared as completely as if she had never existed. I’d like to think that she somehow, somewhere, met justice, but I’m more inclined to believe she just transferred her activities to another location.

I stood at the attic window and watched the men exhume the thirty or so bodies from the hog yard. When they were all finished collecting bodies and collecting evidence from the house, they put a heavy padlock on the front door and left. They didn’t know I was still here, and if they had known they wouldn’t have cared. I was as nothing, a tiny puff of air that disappears as soon as you see it.  

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Postman Always Rings Twice ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Postman Always Rings Twice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

James M. Cain was an American author who lived from 1892 to 1977. His 1934 crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is an ironic and steamy (for its time) story of adultery and murder set in a California roadside restaurant. Even though it’s a “genre” novel, it’s ranked number 98 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest books in English of the twentieth century.

Cora Smith is a self-described “cheap trollop from Des Moines.” She goes to California seeking movie stardom, but when the movies don’t quite work out for her, she marries an older man, an unattractive Greek named Nick Papadakis, who she describes as “smelly and greasy.” Even though Nick doesn’t make Cora’s pulse race, he can provide her with some security, a job and a home. He owns his own business, a thriving roadside diner called Twin Oaks. Cora can work out her life slaving away there, cooking and slinging hash.

Along comes a drifter by the name of Frank Chambers. He is narrating the story in his first-person voice. Frank sees right away that Cora is unhappy; the two of them begin a clandestine love affair. Cora tells Nick she is desperate; she wants out of her marriage with Nick, but if she leaves, where will she go? They decide they will kill Nick and make it look like an accident. With Nick dead, the two of them will be free to sell Twin Oaks and take the money and go away together somewhere.

Frank and Cora plot to kill Nick in the bathtub. Frank will hit him in the head while he’s taking a bath; he’ll go under and drown; it will look like an accident, except that when the time comes it doesn’t go off as planned and Nick is injured. Frank and Cora are badly shaken, spooked at how close they came to committing the crime of murder and being found out. They are relieved that Nick will live and happy that he has to spend a week convalescing in the hospital, giving the two of them the chance to sleep together in the same bed while he’s away.

When Nick returns to Twin Oaks from the hospital, he realizes he has had a brush with death and is once again ready to embrace life to the fullest. He wants Cora to have to baby. In the funniest line in the book, Cora says: “I can’t have no greasy Greek child, Frank.” Murder is back on the table.

The second attempt to kill Nick is successful. This time, it’s an elaborately staged auto accident on a mountain road. Nick dies, but Frank is (unexpectedly) severely injured. When a canny prosecutor learns the facts of the case, he sees through Frank and Cora’s story that it was all an accident and knows that they killed the Greek. He makes Frank and Cora turn on each other.

There are a couple more ingenious plot twists but, suffice it to say, things do not go well for Frank and Cora. There is no happy ending in the noir world they inhabit.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a slice of Americana, a small literary gem from the 1930s. (Never mind that it was naughty enough to be banned in Boston.) The book translated well to the screen in a movie adaption from 1946, with Lana Turner and John Garfield thoroughly believable as murderous lovers.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp