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The Look in His Eye

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The Look in His Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

She worked as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. She hated her job but she went to work every day and performed her menial duties to the best of her ability because she had a dependent child to take care of on her own, a nine-year-old son named Devin. She had been a widow since Devin was three, when Devin’s father was killed when a scaffolding he was working on, forty feet high, collapsed and sent him and two other workers to their deaths.

When she wasn’t working, she liked to have a good time. She smoked a lot of cigarettes and sometimes she drank enough beer to make her sick all the next day, but she was an attentive mother to Devin and rarely punished him for not eating his vegetables, making a mess of his room, or getting less-than-spectacular grades on his report card.

Usually on the weekend she engaged an old lady from the neighborhood or a high-school girl to sit with Devin, watch TV with him (no monster movies), give him pizza or a sandwich for dinner, and then make sure he brushed his teeth and went to bed at a reasonable hour. Sometimes she would not come home until the next morning. More than once, the old woman staying with Devin got tired of waiting and took him home with her and put him to bed on her couch, leaving a note for mother to let her know where they were.

Mother attracted boyfriends effortlessly. She specialized in low-life, no-account men, she said. Some of them had long hair and tattoos and were just out of jail. They were all right for a little while but she soon grew tired of them and could never take them seriously.

And then she met Kelly Gottschalk. He was different from her other boyfriends. He had gone to college but, more importantly, he had been an officer in the marine corps. He had a flat-top haircut and he wore form-fitting shirts that showed off his bulging muscles. He had been married to a couple of different ladies (not at the same time), but he found out after he married them that he didn’t like them as much as he thought and divorced both of them.

Mother had Kelly over for spaghetti so he and Devin could meet and get acquainted. From the beginning, they didn’t have much to say to each other, but they shook hands politely at the front door and smiled. Mother and Kelly hardly looked Devin’s way or spoke to him during dinner. Mother spoke quietly into Kelly’s ear as if she didn’t want Devin to hear what she said. Her eyes shone and she giggled a lot; she could hardly keep her hands off Kelly. Devin had never seen her act so silly. When dinner was over, they sat on the couch and watched TV, holding hands, while Devin went to his room and closed the door.

Devin wanted to tell mother he didn’t like Kelly, that just the look in his eye gave him a bad feeling, but he said nothing because she seemed happy and he didn’t want to give her anything to feel bad about.

A few days after the spaghetti dinner, mother told Devin that she and Kelly were getting married and there were going to be some big changes in their lives. Finally she could quit her job at the nursing home and stay at home and be a real wife and mother. They were going to live in Kelly’s house, with its big yard, garage, and basement. Devin would, of course, have his own room. He was lucky because he could keep going to his old school, although he would have a lot farther to walk.

Mother and Kelly were married by a justice of the peace (how romantic!) and were gone for three nights, during which time Devin stayed with a neighbor lady and her yapping miniature schnauzers. He couldn’t wait for mother to get back home so he could feel normal again, but the only problem was that when she came back Kelly was with her.

Within a week they had left their small apartment and moved into Kelly’s house. Devin had bad dreams at first because his room was upstairs and he was lonely and the stairs creaked on their own as if a ghost was walking up and down them. If he called out to mother, she didn’t come to him the way she used to because her bedroom was downstairs and Devin couldn’t sleep with her whenever he was scared and couldn’t go barging into her room any time he felt like it because it was Kelly’s room too and mother said they needed their privacy, as all newlyweds do.

She didn’t quit her job right away as she thought she would, because, as it turned out, she had some old debts to pay off and she didn’t want to have to burden Kelly with them. It meant that Devin, with mother at work all day, was left alone in the house with Kelly.

Devin still didn’t like Kelly very much but he would try for mother’s sake. He’d be civil if nothing else. He’d stay out of Kelly’s way as much as he could, watch TV, stay in his room reading his comic books, or occupy himself with something in the yard.

Kelly had other ideas, though, about the way Devin should spend his time. He believed in military-style discipline. To begin with, the TV would not be turned on during the day. It sucked up too much electricity and it was a bad influence on kids; it made them soft and unrealistic and made them want things they couldn’t have.

“Your mother indulges you too much,” Kelly said.

“What does that mean?” Devin asked.

“She lets you have your way all the time. She spoils you. I won’t do that.”

“That’s all right. I like to be left alone.”

“Yeah? Well, those days are over.”

After the “honeymoon” was over and mother had returned to her job at the rest home, Kelly gave Devin a broom and a dustpan and put him to work cleaning his room, pulling all the furniture way from the wall and cleaning behind it. When that was finished, he gave him a scrub brush and a can of cleanser and made him get down in the bathtub and clean the tile.

“That isn’t fair,” Devin said. “All this dirt was here before I came here. This is somebody else’s dirt.”

“Yeah? Well, tell me about fair,” Kelly said. “Life isn’t fair, is it? The sooner you learn it, the better.”

How Kelly loved his little book of rules!

You will take baths regularly, of course, if not daily. (He came into the bathroom while Devin was in the tub to make sure he wasn’t wasting water.) After the bath, clean the tub thoroughly, tidy the bathroom, and hang all towels neatly on their racks. We don’t live on Park Avenue and we don’t have a maid. You will be your own maid, which includes hanging up your clothes and putting your dirty socks and underwear in the laundry basket at the bottom of the basement stairs to be sorted later.

We observe nine o’clock bedtime every night of the week, even on weekends. (No more late movies on TV.) Going to bed early and getting up early is a healthy habit and it instills discipline.

Every morning, you will make your own bed before breakfast and before getting dressed. Change the sheets at least once a week and take the dirty sheets down to the basement and put them in the washer.

You will only have one light on at a time and that’s the light you’re using. When you go out of a room, turn off any lights that are on. When you open the refrigerator door, get out everything you need at once. Opening the refrigerator door repeatedly wastes electricity.

Mow the lawn at least once a week. Keep the rows straight and even. Rake up the cut grass and put it in bags made especially for that purpose. After the grass is mowed, pull the weeds growing in the flower bed. Repeat in one week.

At first Devin enjoyed operating the powerful mower, but the sun was hot, his arms ached and he hated having Kelly finding fault with everything he did.

“Go over that row again,” Kelly barked. “You missed some sprouts growing there.”

Mother came out of the house to observe. “That mower is too heavy for him,” she said. “You have to remember he doesn’t have the strength of a grown man.”

“He’s never too young to learn to do things right,” Kelly said.

“Watch him and make sure he doesn’t lose any fingers or toes,” she said.

Kelly had a temper and he liked to pout, mother said. She would do whatever was needed to stay on his good side. She didn’t want to cross him or do anything to make him mad.

“I hate him,” Devin one evening when he was drying dishes after supper.

“He’s trying to be a good father to you,” mother said.

“He’s not my father. I hate him.”

“You have to give him a chance. This is all new for him.”

“Can’t we go back home and forget about him?” Devin asked.

Mother laughed. “This is home now,” she said.

And then there was the attic and after the attic the basement. They hadn’t been cleaned out in years, Kelly said, and it was high time.

The attic was full of dust and cobwebs. There was old furniture and stuff his mother and father used and, even before them, his grandparents. Kelly wanted everything straightened up, righted, and dusted off. That meant lugging the vacuum cleaner up the steps and plugging it into the one bulb that hung from the ceiling and sucking up all the spiders and cobwebs and the years’ accumulation of dust. Then there was the nightmare of bundling up all the things to throw away, according to Kelly’s exact specifications, and setting it out for the trash collectors to pick up.

The basement was dark and frightening, with strange smells and piles of old furniture and boxes everywhere. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling all the way to the floor, making it seem like Dracula’s castle. Devin saw his first rat when he was moving some boxes and ran out into the yard, shivering with revulsion.

“I can’t do this!” he said. “I’m not a slave, for Christ’s sake!”

Summer vacation was over and he started fourth grade. It was the first time in his life that he was glad to return to school. He had to walk a mile each way, but he didn’t mind it so much, even when it was raining. He liked the rainy days best because on those days there was no yard work to be done.

Mother was tired and nervous when she got home from work. She cooked the supper that they ate in silence. Devin saw that she had changed since she married Kelly. She had dark circles under her eyes and she didn’t laugh anymore. He wished that things could be the way they used to be.

On some days Kelly told mother to leave the supper dishes for Devin to do on his own. He would take her into the living room and get her to lie across his lap while he rubbed her shoulders and whispered in her ear. Mother seemed to like that kind of treatment, but Devin hated Kelly for it. He hated to see them together. Sometimes they went into their bedroom and closed the door early in the evening, before dark, and Devin wouldn’t see them again until the next morning.

It was well into fall and the big trees in the yard were shedding their leaves. There were thousands of leaves, millions of them, so many that Devin had to rake every day after school just to keep up with them. They used to be able to burn the leaves but now they had to bag them up in yard-waste bags. Devin didn’t know which was harder. raking the leaves or getting them into the upright bags. Kelly wasn’t much help—though always present—because he had a couple of slipped discs in his back and couldn’t bend over and couldn’t lift.

On a Sunday afternoon toward the end of October, Devin was in the side yard working on the leaves. He had a sore throat, didn’t feel well, and wanted to go to his room and spend the afternoon doing what he wanted to do. The leaves were never-ending.

Kelly, for once, was occupied elsewhere. He had bought a vintage 1956 Cadillac and was restoring it. The Cadillac was in the driveway, near the house, and Kelly was underneath it with only his big feet sticking out. The tires had been removed and the front end of the car was jacked up; only a thin arm of metal kept the car suspended in the air.

Devin found a formidable-looking slingshot by the back fence. He didn’t know who it belonged to, but since he found it in his yard he would claim it as his own. He picked it up and pulled back on the rubber sling to test its resiliency. It begged to be tried out. Since Kelly wasn’t paying at attention at the moment, there was nothing to keep him from firing a few missiles into the air.

In the back yard was a walnut tree. The branches were heavy with walnuts but a lot of them had fallen to the ground and lay scattered about. (Yes, Devin would have to bag them up, too, when the time came.) He picked one up and felt its hardness and solidity. He shot one up into the walnut tree, scaring a squirrel and causing some birds to take to the air.

He fired one over the house and watched the satisfying arc it described in the air. He kept firing them in all directions, realizing it was the most fun he had had for a while. He didn’t care if Kelly saw that he was playing instead of working. He’d like to shoot one squarely between his eyes.

One of the walnuts went wildly astray. He saw too late that it was headed toward the Cadillac. If it hit the Cadillac of anywhere near it, Kelly would be out from under the car and all over him in a matter of seconds.

The walnut hit the jack holding up the car. It made a ping! sound and bounced off. The jack held for a couple of seconds and then shimmied and collapsed as if by design. The Cadillac came crashing down on Kelly. He let out one short, sharp scream and his legs twitched.

Devin dropped the slingshot and ran for the back door. Mother was standing in the kitchen. She already knew something had happened. She took one look at Devin and followed him out the door. She ran to the Cadillac to try to help Kelly, but of course there was nothing to be done.

A neighbor called the ambulance. The ambulance people came with their emergency equipment and lifted up the Cadillac high enough to pull Kelly out. They rushed him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Lots of people came to the funeral home to see Kelly laid out in his casket. All the people from the neighborhood were there, all of mother’s coworkers, people she knew from as far back as high school. Relatives she hadn’t seen for years heard about the accident and came to pay their condolences.

Mother was standing in front of Kelly’s casket in her black dress. Devin went and stood beside her.

“Do you think it hurt when the car fell on him?” he asked.

“I don’t think he felt anything,” she said. “They said he died instantly.”

“I’ve never seen a dead person before.”

She put her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. She started crying again.

“I’ve had two husbands and they both died in accidents,” she said. “I’m through with marriage. I will never be a widow again.”

What was going on in Devin’s mind no one could ever know, least of all her. He was the only person in the world who knew what really happened to Kelly. He would never tell anybody; people would think he did it on purpose and he would go to jail for the rest of his life. No, it was his one true secret and he would hold it close for as long as he lived.

Some new people came in and mother went to greet them, leaving Devin standing alone in front of the casket. How different Kelly was now, lying on his bed of peach-colored satin. No longer the big, blustering man, barking out orders in his best military style. He would go into the ground tomorrow after the funeral and turn to dust in his grave, never to speak another word.

Devin felt conspicuous standing there in the open. He heard his name spoken behind him. People were looking at him, feeling sorry for him. He went and found a chair against the wall where nobody could see him, flattened his hands under his thighs and took a deep breath. He wanted only to leave, to be left alone, to get into bed and cover up his head without anybody watching him or speaking his name.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Muscle for the Wing ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

We first met boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade in Daniel Woodrell’s 1986 novel, Under the Bright Lights. He’s back two years later in Muscle for the Wing, another crime romp set in the fictional bayou city of St. Bruno. Muscle for the Wing is not as atmospheric as  Under the Bright Lights, but there’s still plenty of murder, mayhem and people doing ugly things to each other.

Wanda Bone Bouvier is the redhaired femme fatale in Muscle for the Wing. (She inflames men’s passions, don’t you know.) She’s married to the much-older Ronnie Bouvier, who is behind bars.  She claims to love Ronnie, but that does not keep her from being carnally unfaithful with tough-guy Emil Jadick. She’s going to get revenge on Emil for Ronnie’s sake (and at his direction from the state penitentiary), but she admits openly that she “digs” Emil’s muscular body. (She’s a good-time girl who will take her fun wherever she can get it.) Emil wants Wanda to be his number-one girl—and his alone—not knowing she will eventually hurt him in a big way. When she gets a job as a do-anything stripper in a naughty nightclub, it’s all part of Ronnie’s plan.

When young, off-duty police officer Gerry Bell is shot to death at a gentlemen’s poker game at the country club by intruders set on robbing the wealthy poker players, police officer Rene Shade is called in to figure out what happened. Evidence leads to Emil Jadick and his two dimwitted associates, all members of a white supremacist prison clique called “the Wing.”

World-weary, boxer-turned-policeman Rene Shade has lived in St. Bruno his whole life; he knows the city and he knows the people. In investigating the murder of Gerry Bell, he’s drawn into a morass of crime and corruption, involving some of his old friends and associates, including friend-since-childhood Shuggie Zeck, who beats his wife to a bloody pulp. In St. Bruno, everybody is tainted in some way. There’s no such thing as innocence. Everybody is guilty of something. You can’t even tell the good people from the bad ones.

Daniel Woodrell is one of the best current American writers. If you like redneck noir, nobody does it better. His books are a delight to read, even if you are on your second reading. I highly recommend The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The World That Comes After

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The World That Comes After ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Katherine Isabel Burkhardt was born in 1898 and died of a summer fever in 1912 at the age of fourteen. When she found herself in the family vault, she was more afraid than she had ever been in her life. She didn’t know where she was or why.

Hello!” she called. “Is anybody there? Hello! Mother! Father! Are you there? Do you see me? Can you figure out how to get me out of here? I don’t like it here! It’s spooky and I think I’m going to cry! I think there’s been some mistake! I don’t think I ought to be here!”

She was on the point of screaming when she saw an old woman standing over her. She didn’t know the old woman but was so relieved she wasn’t alone that it didn’t matter.

The words came out in a torrent: “Who are you? What is this place? Can you tell me where I am? I need to go home! My mother and father will be worried about me if I don’t come home for dinner!”

“Not so fast!” the old woman said. “All your questions will be answered, but only one at a time.”

“I don’t know where I am. I don’t like it here! I don’t remember how I…”

She stopped in the middle of a sentence because she saw, not having noticed before in her excitement, that the old woman had a mellow glow emanating from her chest.

“What is that?” she asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it! You’re glowing!”

“Of course I’m glowing,” the old woman said. “We’re all glowing. You’re glowing too.”

“What?”

When she looked down, she was delighted for a moment by her own glow coming from inside her.

“What is this?” she asked. “What does this mean?”

“It’s very simple,” the old woman said. “You’ve crossed over.”

“Crossed over where?”

“You’ve passed from the world of the living to the world that comes after.”

“The world that comes after? Are you telling me I’m dead?”

“Yes. You must accept it. Embrace it.”

“But I don’t want to be dead! I have things to do. I promised mother I’d clean out my closet. I have my schoolwork to do. I have my cats to take care of. I’m going to a church picnic on Saturday.”

“The picnic will go on without you. That’s what happens when we die. The world keeps right on spinning.”

“I don’t believe you. I think I’m just having a bad dream. In a little while I’ll wake up and everything will be fine.”

“It’s a dream, all right, but not the kind of dream you wake up from.”

“Who are you anyway?”

“I’m your grandmother. You never knew me because I crossed over before you were born.”

“Just what is this place? Where am I?”

“You’re in the family vault. In the cemetery.”

“I remember! I remember the family vault! Father showed it to us on one of our Sunday drives. It looks like a little church with spires.”

“That’s right. Your great-grandfather, my father, was a wealthy man and he had the vault built at great expense so all of us would have a place to go when we die.”

“That was very thoughtful of him, I’m sure. Now, can you tell me how to get out of here so I can go home?”

The old woman laughed. “You can’t get out. This is where you belong now. With us.”

“There are others?”

“Of course, there are others. You’ll meet them all soon.”

Katherine began to cry real tears, as opposed to tears for effect. “I didn’t get a chance to tell anybody goodbye because I didn’t know I was going to die! Mother and father and Boyd, my brother. My cats.”

“They knew what was happening. They were in the room. They all said goodbye to you, even though you didn’t know it.”

“Will I see them all again someday?”

“It doesn’t hurt to hope.”

“I’m worried about my cats. They’ll starve if I’m not there to feed them.”

“Don’t you think your brother will take care of them now?”

“Yes, I suppose he will. He was always quite fond of animals.”

“All your worldly cares are over. You are at peace. Peace like a river.”

“I’m feeling so sleepy now, as if I can barely hold up my head.”

“That’s right. Time to sleep. And when you wake up you’ll meet the others.”

A curtain descended as at the end of an act in a play, and Katherine knew nothing again until she was being led by the hand to meet the rest of the family.

She felt shy at being brought before a gallery of strangers. She was not at all  surprised, however, to see that they all carried the mysterious and arresting glow inside them, the same glow that she now had.

Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they crossed over. (They went over a roaring waterfall in a rowboat on a flawless June day and drowned.) They looked at Katherine with wide-eyed wonder; each of them gave her a quick, unsmiling bow from the waist and then they were gone.

Great-grandfather was tall and broad, wearing his fancy dress suit and sporting the elaborate mustache and side whiskers for which he was known. He was a successful businessman, the millionaire who financed the family vault. On meeting Katherine, he tilted his head back and looked at her as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes.

“I don’t think we’ve met, my dear,” he said. “How are you?”

“I’m dead, thank you, sir,” she said. “How are you?”

Uncle Evan, great-grandfather’s son, was handsome in his military uniform. He was only twenty-five when he crossed over during the Spanish-American War. He shook Katherine’s hand politely, gave her a grim smile, and receded into the background as his military training dictated.

Aunt Ida was a sad-faced woman carrying a baby. The baby, Augustus, crossed over at the age of three months when Aunt Ida was only in her twenties. Now that she had him with her again, Aunt Ida vowed that she and Augustus would never be separated again.

A formidable woman was Aunt Zel, great-grandfather’s sister. She had an elaborate coiffure piled high on her head and a stunning array of jewelry gracing her person. By her side always was her diminutive husband, Uncle Ivor; he was a hundred-and-twenty pounds when he was alive and eight inches shorter than Aunt Zel. He had lost his right arm, not on the field of battle, but to a rabid skunk when he was eight years old.

“I’m so happy to make your acquaintance, my dear,” aunt Zel said to Katherine. “I just know we’re going to be great friends.”

Uncle Ivor took Katherine’s hand in his and bent over and kissed it until Aunt Zel turned and gave him a warning look.

Uncle Jordan wore a dress suit with a diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Katherine on each cheek and then he was gone as if he had a pressing engagement elsewhere. The truth was that he avoided being around the other family members for long because none of them approved of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent money freely that didn’t belong to him and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.

Cousin Talbot’s appendix burst when he was thirty-two. Immediately after he crossed over, his beautiful young wife, Magdalene, married a man she hardly knew by the name of Milt Clausen. Magdalene did not honor Talbot’s memory in her widowhood. She was not in the family crypt and never would be. Cousin Talbot didn’t want her anywhere near him. He had renounced women and marriage for all eternity.

“If you were a boy instead of a girl, I’d advise you never to get married,” Cousin Talbot said to Katherine.

“I don’t think my gender makes much difference now,” Katherine said.

Cousin Emory was sixteen when he crossed over as the result of a crushed larynx sustained in an impromptu game of tackle football with some of his friends. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s and, indeed, extended upwards to his neck, face and head. His smile was infectious and he seemed all the time to be on the verge of laughter. When he touched Katherine’s hand, she felt he was a kindred spirit.

“How do you like being a ghost?” he asked her.

She shook her head and blushed, not knowing what to say.

“It was the same for me when I first came here,” he said. “I didn’t know why God would have me die so young. We learn not to ask why but just to accept things as they are.”

“I don’t like it here and I want to go home,” she said but she wasn’t sure if Cousin Emory heard her.

Before moving on, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I can show you around if you like. There’s a lot more than just this.” He held out his arms to take in the whole family crypt.

“If you find you have the time,” she said, “I think that would be lovely.”

There were others after Cousin Emory, but the truth was they blended together in a blur and Katherine couldn’t remember them after she met them.

The next time Katherine saw Cousin Emory, he showed her, much to her delight, that she could leave the family crypt at will (hers and not anybody else’s). All she had to do was press her body against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it. He tried to explain the laws of physics involved, but she didn’t understand what he was talking about.

The cemetery was much larger than Katherine imagined. Cousin Emory took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a tall, criminally handsome policeman with a handlebar mustache who loved to tell stories about apprehending cutthroat desperadoes; a Civil War soldier who shook hands with Abraham Lincoln and spent ten minutes engaged in conversation with him; a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept away everything in its path”); a governor of the state who once had presidential aspirations; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire, all occupying the same grave; a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his massive vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.

On one of their forays outside the crypt, they came upon a funeral on a hillside that resembled, with all the attendees dressed in black, an aggregation of crows.

“This is the fun part,” Emory said.

He walked among the mourners, pretending to kiss or touch or put his arm around certain of them. He also demonstrated the technique of coming up quickly behind them and making the more sensitive of them turn around to see who—or what—was there.

“They sense I’m there but when they turn around they’re not so sure.”

He made her laugh when he floated over a couple of old ladies in large feathered hats and, assuming a reclining position over them, pretended to pat them on the sides of their heads.

“I, for one, love being a ghost!” he said.

“Can I fly, too?” Katherine asked.

“We don’t really fly like a duck going south for the winter. What we do is float. We float because we’re lighter than air.”

“Can I try it?” Katherine asked.

“You can do anything you want, now,” he said.

He demonstrated his floating technique and they spent the afternoon floating all over the cemetery.

“Maybe there are some good things about being a spirit,” Katherine said.

“Of course there are!”

“No more head colds, sore throats or stomach cramps. No more trips to the doctor or dentist. No more nightmares or math quizzes. No more being made to play badminton with my little cousins. No more boring church sermons that make everybody cranky, and no more liver and onions for dinner ever again!”

Cousin Emory laughed, but then Katherine started thinking about all the good things she had left behind, such as her cats and her beautiful room at home and her mother and father and brother and all her friends, and she started to cry.

“I think it’s time to go back,” Cousin Emory said.

Katherine began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with Cousin Emory or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she happened to be in the right place at the right time and she saw them.

She recognized father’s automobile and then she saw that all three of them were riding inside: father, mother and her brother Boyd. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it as it turned out of the cemetery and headed toward home.

She held on easily enough until father pulled into the driveway of the old house. She was happy to see that everything looked exactly the same. The first thing she did was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there and seemed healthy and happy, but they were now adult cats. She cried when they meowed and purred and recognized her and begged to be picked up.

Her room upstairs was the same. Everything was just as she left it, the books and pencils on her desk, the dolls and stuffed animals on the bed and the chair, the pictures on the wall, the lamp, the rocking chair, the clothes hanging in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.

She was home again! With her family! Of course, her physical self—her body—was back at the family crypt in the cemetery, but the most important part of her was here—in her childhood home that she loved and never wanted to leave.

She would stay with her family always. She floated over the dining room table as had their dinner. She floated over their beds at night when they were sleeping. Sometimes she went up behind them and gently blew air on the backs of their necks. At those times, they seemed to know she was there because they smiled and sometimes they turned all the way around.

When they were all away for the day, she would go from room to room, touching the beloved objects: the piano where she learned to play, the horsehair sofa that was so comfortable for a nap, the dishes in the China closet, the books on the shelves, the worn rug on the floor, the ferns and philodendrons. All the things that made home what it was.

She spent time every day with her cats. She watched them as they grew up and had their own babies. Some of them left and ventured out into the world on their own, as cats will do. She watched as they grew old and cried whenever any of them became sick and died.

The years went by but, since she was a spirit, there was no such thing as time. She remained the same, always fourteen years old, but her family changed, as families will. Boyd went through college and got a job in New York City and left home. He sent postcards and letters, saying how happy he was. Father became old and stooped; he had a heart attack and had to stop working and draw a pension. Mother’s hair turned gray and her shoulders were perpetually bowed. She still fixed three meals a day and worked always at keeping the house clean and running smoothly.

Katherine was standing beside father’s bed when he died on a January night. She believed that in the last minute of his life he saw her and knew she was there. He died happily.

Mother continued in the big, empty house on her own. Always busy, she was never one to give up. She continued to cook meals and clean a different part of the house every day, even though nothing was the same for her. In the evenings, she sat in the parlor alone and read, sewed, or knitted. Sometimes she would stand up and go to the piano and play a hymn or a popular song from her youth that she recalled. And always, Katherine was close by. She longed to reach out and fold mother in her arms and comfort her.

In the time that was no time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furnishings moved out. A family with four children took up residence. They were noisy and quarrelsome. They went in and out all day long, slamming the doors every time. They had two large dogs that barked at the slightest provocation.

Katherine couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers. She didn’t like the family that moved in. They were nothing like her own family and had their own way of doing things. They removed mother’s drapes from the living room and dining room and replaced the wallpaper in Katherine’s room with a print with sailboats that she didn’t like.

There was nothing left for her to do but go but back to the family crypt. Her grandmother was right; it was where she belonged.

In living time, she had been away for decades, but to the other spirits in the family crypt, it was no time at all. They weren’t aware she had even been away.

She was sad when she went back to the crypt, but not sad for long. Mother and father were both there with their own glows. Why had she not thought of it before? Weren’t they part of the family? Didn’t it stand to reason that they would be in the family crypt the same as any other member of the family? She had just never thought of them as dead in the same way she was dead.

They were all on the same side of the Great Divide now between Life and Death. There would be no more leave-taking. One day Boyd would be joining them. His spot was waiting for him on father’s right side.

In the middle of Katherine’s joyous reunion with mother and father, she heard a small sound like mewing. It could only mean one thing. Yes, they were all there. Every cat she had ever owned in her life was waiting for her, no farther away than the length of her arm. Now, at last, heaven was upon her.

Copyright 2020 by Allen Kopp  

Prentiss Peckinpaugh Prefers Pornography

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Prentiss Peckinpaugh Prefers Pornography ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Miss Sullivan belched quietly into her handkerchief; the hamburger steak with onions she had for lunch didn’t quite agree with her. With the handkerchief over her mouth, she looked out over the thirty-two lost souls in her care until five minutes to the hour. They were all fifteen years old and most of them she would happily strangle if she could. She had been in the teaching profession for too long and was overdue for retirement.

Since it was Friday afternoon and everybody was waiting to be unleashed and unfettered until Monday morning, this group of ninth graders was engaged in what was called silent reading. Everybody must know that silent reading was serious business. You couldn’t write or giggle or daydream or think about what you were going to do when you got home or work on your algebra problems (it wasn’t study hall) or pass notes or whisper or gaze out the window or thumb through a magazine. You had to read a “good book,” preferably one from the reading list or one that Miss Sullivan herself had approved. You had to put the fifty-five minutes to good use, reading every word on every page, and absorbing what you read as if you would be tested on it.

Halfway through the hour, Miss Sullivan launched a surprise attack, suddenly standing up from her desk and walking the aisles between the desks, down one aisle and up another. If anybody was doing anything they weren’t supposed to be doing—reading a comic book or concealing a paperback of some kind behind a library book—she would catch them before they had a chance to hide it.

Prentiss Peckinpaugh was an odd boy from an odd family. He lived on a farm with his family; he had many brothers and sisters. His clothes always looked too big for him as if they had belonged to somebody else before he wore them. He always kept the top button of his shirt done up, even in warm weather. He walked with a cautious, forward tilt as if he had something wrong with his back.

Prentiss was sitting in the row of chairs against the wall. Miss Sullivan came upon him from behind, from the left, and her eyes fell upon the book he was reading, a paperback with a pink cover.

“What is that you’re reading?” she asked.

He closed the book so she could see the front cover. The title of the book was The Passionate Orphan.

“Where did you get that book?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“May I see it?” she asked.

He handed her the book and she flipped through the pages and read several passages, standing there in the aisle between desks.

“You’re reading this book?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Prentiss said.

“It’s ‘yes, ma’am’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How far along are you in the book?”

“Almost to the end.”

“Do you know what this book is about?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What is it about, then? Would you care to tell me?”

By now everybody in class had their attention focused on the conversation between Miss Sullivan and Prentiss Peckinpaugh.

“I don’t think I can say it,” Prentiss said.

“Don’t you know this book is not appropriate reading material for ninth grade English?”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“Who gave you this book?”

“Nobody gave it to me. It’s my book.”

“You don’t know where it came from?”

“No.”

“Did you steal it?”

“Why would I steal it when it already belonged to me?”

“Did a grown man give it to you? Maybe a friend of your father’s?”

“No. I already said nobody gave it to me. It’s my book.”

“Do you know the meaning of the word ‘pornography’?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s what this book is. It’s pornography and if somebody in this school gave it to you, we need to know who it was. This is a book that certainly doesn’t belong in a school, in a classroom, where other people can see it. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

“How about if we go downstairs and show the book to Mr. Ball?”

“I have the feeling I don’t have a choice.” Prentiss Peckinpaugh said.

“Right you are,” Miss Sullivan said.

Miss Sullivan put the class in charge of Mavis Blaylock, a know-it-all, holier-than-thou toady who would stop at nothing to gain favor with the teacher and would take down names of those who misbehaved. Mavis smirked with superiority and took her place at teacher’s desk.

After an admonition to the class to continue their silent reading, Miss Sullivan escorted Prentiss Peckinpaugh down the three flights to the principal’s office.

Principal Ball was engaged on the phone, so Miss Sullivan and Prentiss had to wait for about five minutes until he was free. When at last they were ushered into the carpeted, wood-paneled office, Mr. Ball took one look at them, frowned and said, “What’s this?”

“Well, we’ve been having silent reading this hour,” Miss Sullivan said, “and I found this boy reading this book.”

She handed the book to Mr. Ball.

“Just what is this?” he asked.

“Well, as I was just saying to him…”

“What’s your name, boy?” Mr. Ball asked.

“Prentiss Peckinpaugh.”

“Say ‘sir’ when you’re speaking to me.”

“Prentiss Peckinpaugh, sir!

“I was just saying to Prentiss here that this book doesn’t belong in school and should never see the light of day,” Miss Sullivan said.

Mr. Ball laid the book on the desk and turned over several pages, reading as he went.

“Who gave you this book, Mr. Peckinpaugh?” Mr. Ball asked.

“Nobody gave it to me. It’s my book.”

“Where did it come from?”

“It didn’t come from anywhere. It’s my book.”

“Don’t you know that a book like this is not allowed in school?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. Nobody sees it but me.”

“Do you have other books of this nature?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know.”

“No, sir.”

“Well, we’ll let you off with a warning this time because you’re young and you didn’t know, but I want you to know that if you ever bring pornographic material into this school again, we will take disciplinary action that will include a three-day suspension. Now, do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“When you’re on your own free time at home, you can read whatever you want, but in a school like this with hundreds of other students, you must follow our guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not. Am I getting through to you?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Take him to the library, to the fiction section, Miss Sullivan, and have him check out Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. That’s a good book and, more importantly, it’s an appropriate book.”

“I’ve read it,” Prentiss Peckinpaugh said.

“Well, read it again!”

“Are you going to give me back my book, sir, that you took from me?”

“No! I want to absorb it more thoroughly. I need to know what the students in this school are up to.”

The library’s one copy of Of Mice and Men was checked out, so Miss Sullivan suggested The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

“I’ve read it,” Prentiss Peckinpaugh said.

“Well, read it again! And after you’ve finished, I want a solid book report on it.”

“Okay.”

“That’s ‘yes, ma’am’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

During study hall next hour, Prentiss Peckinpaugh went back to the library and checked out Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. He wanted to choose for himself what books to read. He liked The Old Man and the Sea fine, but he didn’t want to read it again.

While reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he could easily hide it behind The Old Man and the Sea and nobody would ever know the difference.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Ground My Bed, the Leaves My Blanket

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The Ground My Bed, the Leaves My Blanket ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

The vast cemetery was many splendid acres of hills, trees, ponds, statues, winding roads, mausoleums, columbaria (for cremated remains), crypts, and walk-in burial chambers gouged out of the sides of the hills. For those inclined to notice, there was every shape, style (a century and a half of changing styles) and description of grave marker known to man, from no bigger than a shoebox to magnificent enough for a Roman emperor.

It was a sprawling city of some one-half million departed souls, but also home, on any night of the year, to dozens of indigents who didn’t have the price of a room or an acceptable flop and so found themselves with no other place to rest their weary (living) bones than among the unsuspecting dead.

Anybody who ever took up residence in the cemetery, if only for one night, knew it afforded many excellent and discreet hiding places where one might sleep, copulate, administer drugs, perform bodily functions, eat, bathe, think, drink, cry—or do any number of other things—away from the prying eyes of man.

As with every person in reduced circumstances who found himself or herself residing in the cemetery, Vicki-Vicki Novak had a story. After graduating from high school, she believed she had everything she needed to find herself a good job, so she left her rancorous mother and her unhappy home and spent six nausea-inducing hours on the bus and moved to the city. Life for her had always been hard, but it wasn’t until she came to the city that she discovered how cruel and unforgiving it is.

She would have taken any job she could find but the truth was there were no jobs of any kind to be had. She was turned away repeatedly because she had no experience of any kind. It didn’t matter that she was good at figures, was a stellar reader, and made better-than-average grades in school. She couldn’t get a job as a cafeteria worker because there were already seventy-five girls on the list ahead of her. She applied for a job in a laundry but was told she was too young and too slightly built to carry heavy loads. The sad truth was she didn’t make a good impression on those who might have hired her; she was too diffident and naïve; she knew too little of the world.

She spent her first two weeks in the city in an old hotel but, when she saw how fast her money was being used up, she took what little she had left and moved to a cheap boarding house where she slept in a tiny, box-like room and ate two small meals a day.

Finally even the boarding house was too expensive for her and she ended up living on the streets, where she met a coterie of other down-and-outers just like her. They gave her advice about how to survive and where she might get a bite to eat or a place to flop for the night. More than once she engaged in sexual congress with nefarious men in exchange for a small amount of cash, a package of cigarettes, an orange, or a couple of pills that were guaranteed to make her feel wonderful and forget all her troubles. She abhorred these couplings at first but after a time didn’t mind them so much because she disconnected herself from the proceedings and felt nothing.

Vicki-Vicki was fortunate in one respect because when she first began living on the streets of the city, it was May and the cruel and dreadful winter was past and wouldn’t be coming around again for a while. During a police crackdown on the street people, she sought refuge in the cemetery on the advice of a friend, one Chester Burnside, a man who might at one time have been a woman (one of those aberrations of nature all too abundant in the large city). The number-one piece of cemetery advice that veterans like Chester Burnside had to offer to newcomers like Vicki-Vicki was this: Don’t get caught because if you do you might get your brains knocked out or you might end up in jail. All the veterans had horror stories about people getting their brain matter literally knocked out of their heads onto the ground by leering, sadistic cemetery guards.

On a Friday afternoon in October, Vicki-Vicki was washing up at one of the cemetery’s fountains. She trailed her hands in the water and brought them to her face. The water was fresh and clean. She wished she might take off all her clothes and get down in the water naked and give herself a good scrubbing, but if she dared to do such a thing, somebody was sure to come along and see her, so she just contented herself with rinsing her arms and face.

Towering above the fountain was a seven-foot tall lady angel. Her wings were only marginally chipped and bird-splattered; she looked down with a benevolent and loving expression.

“What are you doing here?” the angel asked, bending her head in Vicki-Vicki’s direction.

“I was washing myself,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You might drown yourself if you have any sense.”

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s October. Winter’s coming. Are you going to go home while you still can?”

“I don’t have a home.”

“Everybody has a home.”

“My mother said she’d kill me if she ever saw me again.”

“When did you last eat?”

“I don’t know. Yesterday, sometime, I think.”

“Life is hard, isn’t it?”

My life is. I don’t know about anybody else’s.”

“You must do better.”

“Tell me how.”

Somebody was coming. They both heard the footsteps moving through the leaves at the same time. The angel went back to being mute and immobile, while Vicki-Vicki ran and hid behind the nearest large tree.

When she peered cautiously around the tree, she was relieved to see it was the old wino Eulah Knickerbocker and not a cemetery guard.

Hey! You!” she said, stepping out into the open.

Eulah Knickerbocker jumped and only kept from screaming by placing her filthy hand over her mouth. “You shouldn’t scare people like that!” she said. “My nerves is shot all to hell!”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“I’m going around telling everybody I see. It’s lucky I found you. There’s going to be a purge tonight.”

“What’s a purge?”

“They’ve took on extra guards. They’re going to go through the cemetery and round up everybody who doesn’t belong. Some of us will end up dead.”

“Just hide,” Vicki-Vicki said. “That’s what I do.”

“No, dear! You won’t be able to hide from them this time. If you’re here, they’ll find you. You’d better get out before dark.”

“Where would I go?”

“How on earth should I know? Go back to the city.”

“But I came here to get away from the city!”

“I know! It’s terrible, ain’t it? But if they find you here tonight, it will go very bad for you. They might throw you in jail, and if they do you might never get out again.”

“They don’t scare me,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“Take it from somebody who’s been there, dearie. I’ve been living on the streets for seventeen years. I know how these things go.”

“You haven’t seen that fella they call Diego, have you?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“If I did, I’d try to forget it.”

“He owes me money.”

“You’ll be lucky to get a nickel out of him, even if you do find him.”

“No, he’s been working, clearing brush. If I can catch him before he spends all his pay, I can get my money and have enough for a decent room for the night.”

“Say, you wouldn’t mind me coming along, would you, darling? Two can stay in a room for the same price as one.”

“Not this time, Eulah. I just need to be alone tonight.”

“Well, all right. I figure it don’t hurt to ask.”

“No, it don’t. Have you got anything to eat?”

“If I did I’d share it with you.”

“I know you would, Eulah.”

“Have you seen my twin sister, Beulah?”

“No, I don’t think I have.”

“She’s the great beauty of the family. Have I ever told you about her?”

“I believe so.”

“She’s coming to get me and take me home with her to live. I don’t know if it’ll be tonight but any day now.”

“I hope it all works out for you, Eulah.”

“It’s bound to, this time.”

The sun was going down and the air suddenly had the feel of late autumn. It would be about the time that normal people who live in houses would be sitting down to dinner. She needed to think about where she would spend the night in case she didn’t find Diego and get her money. The important thing was to find a snug little place out of the wind that hadn’t already been claimed by somebody else.

She went to the oldest part of the cemetery, the part she liked best and the part where she was mostly likely to see a ghost if there were any about. The trees were sheltering; the gravestones were large and close together. She began piling up dry leaves to make herself a bed in a secure little spot between stones when she heard someone coming. She started to hide but it was too late; she had already been spotted.

“Hey, there, little chicken!” a man’s voice said.

Right away she recognized the voice as that of Julius Orange. He was tall and rather handsome but his face and hands were crusted with dirt all the time as if he never washed them and one of his eyes was permanently half-closed.

“I thought you were one of the guards,” she said breathlessly.

“No, but I could have been. Have you heard the news about the raid tonight?”

“Eulah Knickerbocker told me.”

“You’d better get out while you can.”

“No, I’m going to stay,” Vicki-Vicki said. “I’m cold and I’m sick and I don’t feel like walking all the way back to the city tonight.”

“It’s your funeral.”

“I don’t think the guards will come all the way over here. They’re afraid of ghosts.”

“You’re cold, aren’t you?”

“I have ice water in my veins.”

“I know a way to warm you up.”

“You got a bottle of whiskey?”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. “I was wondering if you’re open for business. I got four dollars.”

“You’d spend your four dollars on me?”

“And a lot more.”

“Save your money. Tonight I’m not worth four cents.”

“Well, if you change your mind…”

“Say, you haven’t seen Diego around anywhere, have you?” she asked.

“Not that I remember.”

“He owes me money.”

“You can have my four dollars and catch yourself a bus back to town.”

“Thanks. That’s awfully sweet, but I’m just going to bed down here for the night and see how things go.”

“It’s your funeral,” he said, and then he was gone.

It was fully dark now. She kicked at the leaves and shivered in the rising wind. She looked up at the sky anxiously, hoping to forestall any rain, but the sky wasn’t telling any tales. She burrowed into the leaves like an animal and gathered the leaves around her like a warm comforter.

The smell of the leaves was earthy and good, an uncorrupted smell, untouched by human filth. She was completely hidden from view, she believed, but she could still breathe and could still see up into the trees as far as the darkness would allow. This is not so bad, she thought. If only life could be like this always.

She felt the cold rising from the ground. She shivered and her teeth chattered but soon she felt warmer and went to sleep. She dreamed she was in a big bed in a warm room in a snug house and those who cared for her were within the call of her voice and there was nothing to be afraid of.

She jerked awake to the sound of men’s voices. They were far away but coming closer. There might have been as many as ten of them and they might have been at a drunken party for all the fun they seemed to be having.

She lay still and breathed deeply. There were so many leaves on the ground and she was sure they wouldn’t bother looking through all of them. They would just make a quick sweep and, finding no one, move on. She would laugh later at how close they had been but still missed her.

She was right. They did move on, but one of the men had detached himself from the others and was searching through the leaves between the gravestones. She heard his slow, decisive steps and then felt a rush of cold air on her face as he scraped the leaves away that were covering her.

“Come out of there!” a deep voice said.

She gave a little yelp and covered her face with her hands but knew there was no use resisting.

“Leave me alone!” she whimpered. “I didn’t do anything!”

“You’re not supposed to be here!”

“I’m leaving. Please don’t hit me with your stick!”

“Nobody’s going to hit you. Get up and talk to me.”

She stood up. The man, towering over her, shone his flashlight in her face. She couldn’t get a good look at him, but she knew from his voice and his bearing that his face, if she could see it, would be beautiful beyond believing.

“How did you know I was here?” she asked.

“Magic,” he said.

“Please don’t take me to jail.”

“It’s where you belong. Don’t you know you’re trespassing?”

“I’m going, I swear!”

“It’s dangerous for you to be here.”

“I know! I’ll leave right now.”

“People freeze to death out here all the time. Last winter we picked up thirty frozen dead bodies.”

“I was looking for someone, but he’s not here now so I’ll just go.”

“If I turn you over to the others, you’ll go to jail.”

“Please don’t do that!”

“I’ll let you go this time, but only one condition.”

“Anything!”

“Promise me you’ll get out and don’t come back. If I see you again, I’ll remember you and I’ll turn you in. You don’t want to end up in jail, do you?”

“No!”

“Go home. Don’t you have a home?”

“No.”

“Go to a shelter in town, then. There are people there who will help you.”

“I will. I promise.”

He handed her a small paper sack, which she took unquestioningly. Switching off his flashlight, he took off his coat and dropped it on the ground beside her. He gave her one last look and then he was gone.

“Wait a minute!” she said. “I was…”

She could still here his voice after he was gone. If I see you here again, I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.  

“Take me with you!” she called out, but he was already gone and couldn’t have heard.

She remembered the paper bag she held in her hand and opened it. Inside were a ham sandwich wrapped in paper and a little carton of milk.

She ate the sandwich and drank the milk as if tasting those things for the first time and when she was finished she vomited, bending over at the waist and leaning against a tree.

When she was finished, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve and then as she was turning away from the tree she remembered the coat lying on the ground and picked it up and put it on. It was much too big for her, going almost to her knees, and it still held the warmth of the man’s body and traces of his man smell.

She hugged her arms to her body and, like a princess in a fairy story, was transformed. A celestial light appeared above her head and shone down on her, entering her brain and settling around her heart. She heard the sweetest music she had ever known, coming from a faraway place. She trembled all over and fell to the ground in a kind of religious ecstasy, having looked, at last, upon the face of the one and only God.

Two hours later, by which time she could no longer remember she was supposed to hide herself, she was taken into custody by a second wave of guards making their way through the cemetery. Nobody hit her with a stick or beat her, but she was taken to jail and locked up.

She spent the night sitting up in a filthy, stinking cell with about two dozen other women. In the morning at seven o’clock, she was given an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee and released. When she stepped out onto the sidewalk, the sun blinded her and she didn’t know where she was or where she was supposed to go.

A sympathetic soul, someone who knew the kind of person she was, gave her a ride back to the cemetery. She wept when she found herself back in the familiar place. It was like going home.

It was a much warmer day than the day before. The sun shone and the breeze was refreshing instead of chilling. After the night in jail, she wanted only to sleep.

She went to what she thought was the most secluded part of the cemetery and found an ideal sleeping spot under some bushes. It was like a little cave or animal’s lair. The ground was dry, covered with soft needles, and there was just enough sunlight filtering through the leaves to create a soporific warmth.

Knowing she would not be disturbed, she slept comfortably throughout the day. When she awoke, it was just turning dark. She pulled herself out of the bushes, trying to remember the last thing that happened to her. Oh, yes, there was Diego. She would find him and get the money he owed her. She would get herself a roast beef sandwich, a bottle of wine and a room for the night, and it would be just like heaven.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Day of the Locust ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Day of the Locust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Nathanael West’s classic American novel, The Day of the Locust, was first published in 1939. It’s set in 1933 in Hollywood, California, and is about the seedy underside of Hollywood (no glamour and glitz here) and the “people who go to California to die.” Nearly everybody who lives in Hollywood has gone there from some other part of the country.

Tod Hackett works in a movie studio as an artist. We don’t get a clear notion of exactly what he does, but he seems to “conceptualize” movies on paper before they are made. Like a lot of other people in Hollywood, he hopes to be a big success. When he meets Faye Greener, he is taken with her, as a lot of other men are. Faye is only seventeen years old but old beyond her years. She calls herself a movie actress but has only ever appeared as an “extra.” She is more of a floozy than anything else and doesn’t mind working as a whore if it’s the only way she can get money.

Faye lives with and takes care of her father, Harry Greener. He is an alcoholic bum, a broken-down vaudevillian who makes furniture polish in his own home and then goes around selling it to unwitting customers. Times are hard. He remains a performer, though, and will do his vaudeville schtick when compelled to do so. Harry provides a lot of the comic relief in the novel.

Tod continues to pine for Faye, but he is a smart young man and sees that it is hopeless. She is just a superficial flake who will never be seriously true to anybody. When she meets a strange, older man named Homer Simpson, she latches on to him because he lives in his own house and encourages her in her hopeless acting career. After Harry dies, she moves in with Homer. Tod is jealous at first, but after he sees how Faye flits around from man to man indiscriminately, he seems to change his opinion and becomes ambivalent toward her.

And then there is Adore, the androgynous child actor who is a neighbor of Homer Simpson’s. Adore has a “stage mother” and is a rising child star in Hollywood. At the conclusion of the novel, Adore meets a tragic and violent end at the hands of Homer Simpson.

Nathanael West (1903-1940) had a spare writing style that might almost be called minimalist. He didn’t waste space or words. The Day of the Locust is a decidedly pessimistic view of Hollywood and the human race. The concluding scene in the novel takes place outside a Hollywood movie premiere, where an unruly mob demonstrates the worst of human nature. People are as mindless and swarming as a plague of locusts.

A memorable 1975 movie version of The Day of the Locust starred a 36-year-old Karen Black playing seventeen-year-old Faye Greener and Burgess Meredith playing her father.  Why is it never shown on television? I for one would love to see it again after these many years.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Never Mix, Never Worry (I Was Dancing and I Was Ridiculous)

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Never Mix, Never Worry (I Was Dancing and I Was Ridiculous) ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

They were out all night and didn’t get home until after dawn. Honey was sick from too much to drink and went right to bed. Nick slept on the couch in the living room, slept the morning away, and didn’t wake up until the middle of the afternoon. When he awoke, he had a terrible headache that he hadn’t been aware of while he slept. He wasn’t sure if his body was going to allow him to get up, but after a while he pulled himself to a standing position, head reeling, and went into the kitchen.

Honey was sitting at the table reading a book. She had a cup of tea beside her; she always said tea with lemon settled her stomach. When Nick came into the room, she didn’t look at him but concentrated on her book.

“Hello, Honey,” Nick said, going up behind her and affectionately putting his hands on her shoulders close to her neck. She flinched and leaned forward; he took his hands away as from a hot stove.

“What a night!” he said with a little laugh. “Whew! I feel like eating something but when I think about what I might eat I think I’m going to puke.”

She marked her place in the book, closed it, and laid it aside. “Want me to fix you scrambled eggs?” she asked.

Nick groaned. “I can’t stand the thought of eggs.” He went to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Don’t we have any bacon?”

“I haven’t been to the market yet. I was planning on going today but I don’t think I’m up to it.”

He poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat down at the table across from her. “Can somebody please tell me what happened last night?” he said.

“You haven’t asked me how I feel,” she said.

“How do you feel?”

“Lousy. I feel lousy.”

“Were you able to stop the vomiting?” he asked, pulling downward on his face with both hands as if trying to pull it into shape.

“Yes, a person can only vomit so much. I’ve stopped for now, but I don’t dare eat anything. I think it’s going to take several days for me to feel right again.”

“Do you want me to fix you some toast? Do we even have any bread?”

“No, if I eat anything, I’ll vomit again.”

“All right.”

“We need to talk about last night,” she said.

“Not now, Honey,” he said. “I don’t really feel like a serious discussion at the moment. And, really, I think it’s better if we don’t talk about last night at all. Don’t you agree?”

“Better for you, you mean,” she said.

“I’m going to take a shower,” he said, standing up. “If you feel better later, we’ll go out and get some chicken or something.”

“Maybe I need to talk now!” she said in an insistent voice that made him stop in his tracks.

“Talk about what, Honey?”

“I humiliated myself last night.”

“You didn’t! You didn’t do anything the rest of us didn’t do.”

“I was dancing and I was ridiculous.”

“We were all dancing. It was all in good fun.”

“Then why do I feel so humiliated today?”

“You’re tired and you’re overly sensitive.”

“Don’t talk down to me!”

“I don’t mean to…”

“I’m humiliated. I drank bourbon and scotch. Not together, but one after the other.”

“That isn’t anything to be humiliated about. We were all drinking. It was a drinking party. We’re all grownups. Grownups get to drink as much as they want. That’s what it means to be a grownup.”

“Yes, but you know my one steadfast rule: Never mix, never worry. Well, I mixed and I’m paying the price.”

“Honey, nobody’s perfect,” he said. “We all have little lapses.”

“Stop treating me as if I were a child!”

“Why don’t you go back to bed? You can stay there all day and I’ll wait on you. How will that be? If there’s anything you’d like to have to eat, I’ll go and buy it.”

“The faculty party was bad enough, but after that was over we couldn’t just go home and go to bed and quit while we were ahead the way any two normal people would. No, we had to go to an after-party party.”

“Yeah, I admit it was a mistake,” he said. “I wish we had never gone.”

“Then why did we?”

“She’s the daughter of the president of the college and he’s a senior professor in the English department.”

“The history department.”

“It never hurts to cozy up to the entrenched people. They’ve both been around a long time. They’re part of the landscape. She’s daughter of the president of the college, for Christ’s sake!”

“You’re thinking of your career, of course.”

“Well, one does what one can to get ahead.”

“Just once I wish you would give the same consideration to me that you give your career.”

“Honey, that’s absurd,” he said. “There’s no comparison.”

“Well, I’m glad you admit it!”

“That isn’t what I meant!”

“A night like last night causes me to question my entire existence.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are we going to spend our lives hobnobbing with disgusting people just so you can get ahead in your career?”

“No!”

“Because I’m telling you, Nick, I don’t want to live that way.”

“It was just one party.”

“You can find out a lot from one party.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“If those people, that George and his wife Martha, are representative of the life in this college, then I don’t want any part of it. The way they tear each other apart is indecent. And when they’re finished attacking each other they go after whoever happens to be present at the moment. Just being in their presence makes you feel degraded.”

“You’ve been reading too many books.”

“Did you know he called me ‘angel boobs’?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I think I heard that,” he said.

“And ‘monkey nipples’.”

“He really called you ‘monkey nipples’? I didn’t hear that. When did he call you that?”

“When you were doing your provocative dance with that horrible woman.”

“He was making a joke! You ought to be able to take a joke! You’re not a child!”

“How can you stand by and do nothing when a strange man calls your wife filthy names?”

She began to cry. He sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. “You take things too seriously, Honey.”

“How would you like it if he called you those names?”

“I think I might have punched him in the nose!”

“But it’s all right when it’s me?”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“I can never face those two again,” she said. “I vomited all over their bathroom. It was as if they saw me without my clothes.”

“You were just being human, Honey. It happens to the best of us.”

“How can we live here and you teach here when I feel so uncomfortable?”

“It’s just something you’re going to have to get over.”

“I don’t think I can. I want you to start looking for another position right away. If not today, then tomorrow.”

“But, Honey, we just got here! Do you know how hard it was for me to get this job?”

“I don’t care! If you have as much regard for me as you do for your career, we’ll leave right away!”

“Honey, that’s so unreasonable! You can’t be serious!”

“I have never been more serious in my life.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re here and we’re going to stay.” He picked her book up off the table and threw it hard against the far wall, not because he was so angry but because he wanted to make a point.

“I can always leave on my own,” she said. “I don’t necessarily need you.”

“Fine. Go home to your mother. Tell her what a mistake it was to marry me.”

“I want to know what happened between you and that woman, that Martha, while I was passed out.”

“Nothing happened! What do you mean?”

“I’m not as stupid as you obviously think I am. I heard them talking about it afterwards.”

“Heard who talking?”

“George and Martha. They thought I was still passed out, but I was just lying there, fully awake, with my eyes closed. I heard the words stud and houseboy. They were talking about you! Were you a stud or were you a houseboy?”

“I didn’t hear any such thing, so I don’t know what you mean.”

“How are you going to face them again?”

“I don’t think I’ll see them again until the next faculty party and that probably won’t be for several months. Everything that happened last night will be forgotten by then.”

“Well, I can tell you right now I’m not going to any more faculty parties.”

“What do I say when people ask me where my wife is? She’s too squeamish for university life? She throws up a lot and can’t stand to be teased a little bit?”

“I don’t care what you tell people. It’s your career, not mine.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m going away tonight.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll think of something.”

She stood up from the table and went upstairs.

“I’m hungry,” he said to the empty chair where Honey had sat. “I’m going to see what I can find to eat.”

A little bit of humoring would bring Honey around. She would never leave him. She was too dependent on him. He’d finesse her, just the way he finessed everybody. He’d cajole her, buy her a new coat or a piece of jewelry and everything would be fine. She needed to get out more and meet more people. If she happened to meet a young fellow, a handsome athletic type, who wouldn’t mind romancing her, so much the better. Nick would encourage it. Casual infidelity was all part of the game. The sooner she realized it, the better off she’d be.

And as for Martha, she wasn’t half-bad. A little bit gone to seed, but obviously with a few good years left in her. If she really liked Nick—and he would give her every reason to like him—she could help him in ways he hadn’t yet imagined. Of all the pertinent wives he might plow to further his career, the daughter of the university president had to be the most pertinent. And what could he do for her? He could make her feel good, make her feel young again. Remind her, if she had been inclined to forget, what it’s like to be with a real man.

He started to make himself a sandwich but then stopped what he was doing and went to the phone and picked up the receiver. He looked over his shoulder to make sure Honey wasn’t in earshot and then he dialed Martha’s number, which he had committed to memory. He let it ring twelve times and was about to hang up when she answered.

“Hello,” she said.

“Martha?” he said.

“Yeah, who is this?”

“It’s Nick.”

“Nick? I don’t know any Nick.”

“Nick from last night?

“Oh, yeah! You woke me up, you bastard!”

“Well, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you are! Tell that little slim-hipped wife of yours she vomited all over my downstairs bathroom last night. Nobody can stand to go in there today. I ought to make the little twit get her ass over here and get down on her hands and knees and clean it all up.”

“She’s not feeling very well today.”

“Got a hangover, huh?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, what can I do for you, lover boy? It’s Sunday, you know.”

“Is your husband at home?”

“No, he’s at school. Even on Sunday the old bastard goes to the old salt mines, just to get away from little old me.”

“I was wondering if we might get together today. You know, just the two of us.”

“My goodness! You are an eager beaver, aren’t you?”

“I had a really nice time last night.”

“So did I, lover boy. What did you say your name is again?”

“Nick. The stud. Remember.”

“Sure, baby, I remember! Who could forget?”

“So what time can I come over?”

“Make it about an hour.”

“Perfect!”

“And when you get here, you can clean up the vomit in the downstairs bathroom.”

“What about my wife?”

“You can drop her down a well as far as I’m concerned.”

After he hung up the phone, he had the distinct impression that Honey had been listening in on the upstairs extension. He was sure she took down every word in her secretarial shorthand. She would use it in a court of law during the divorce proceeding.

He crept to the bottom of the stairs and looked up. Not a sound came from Honey’s bedroom. He went halfway up the stairs and stopped, as if afraid to go the rest of the way.

“Honey!” he called. “I just remembered some work I have to get done today in my office at school! I’m going to be gone for a couple of hours. When I come home, I’ll bring you a cheeseburger and a milkshake. How does that sound? Bye-bye!

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In Carson McCullers’ wonderful, adolescent-angst novel, The Member of the Wedding, Frances “Frankie” Addams is a feisty twelve-year-old girl living in a small Southern town. Too smart for her own good, she is just on the verge of her teen years. Her mother died when she was born, so she just has her father, a preoccupied watch repairman at a jewelry store in town. The time is the 1940s, during World War II, but Frankie has other things on her mind besides war. Her young-adult brother, Jarvis, is marrying a girl named Janice in Winter Hill, a town a hundred miles away. Frankie longs to escape from her dreary, small-town life. She believes that Janice and Jarvis will take her with them after they are married and they will be a threesome. Everybody who knows how the world really works knows that Frankie is about to be seriously disillusioned.

In the absence of a mother, Frankie has Bereniece Sadie Brown to take care of her. Bereniece is an oft-married black lady who has known her share of grief in the world. Her favorite husband, Ludie Maxwell Freeman, died of pneumonia on a winter night, and since then she has been trying, without much success, to find someone to take his place. Bereniece is always kind to Frankie and tries hard to understand her and help her with her loneliness and insecurity.

John Henry West, Frankie’s brightly inquisitive, six-year-old cousin, lives in the neighborhood but is always at Frankie’s house. He eats most of his meals there and spends the night with Frankie a lot in her room, an “enclosed sleeping porch” above the kitchen. Frankie may not want to admit it, but John Henry is her best friend. She tells him to “go home” when she’s had enough of him.

The world is a frightening place for Frankie and we can see that, at age twelve, she has a lot of growing up to do. She has a near-date with a soldier who believes she is older than she is and is forced to hit him in the head with a water pitcher in his hotel room to discourage his advances. When she goes by bus to the wedding of Janice and Jarvis in Winter Hill with her father, Bereniece, and John Henry, she discovers just how disappointing the world—and life in general—can be.

The Member of the Wedding is a delightful novel to read, so beautifully written, by one of the most talented American writers of the twentieth century. It is evocative not only of time (the 1940s) and place (the American South) but also of childhood. What adult hasn’t experienced the terrors of growing up in an uncertain, frightening world? One of my favorite novels out of the many thousands I’ve read.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Doctor is Not In

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The Doctor is Not In ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

Underneath the No Smoking sign on the wall opposite, somebody had written, in large block letters, the word PUSSY. Temple’s eyes traveled from the obscene word to the faces of the only other two people in the room, a Man and a Woman. The Man had a small, round head on a long neck with lush lips and a sickly grin, giving him the look of a demented Ventriloquist’s Dummy. The Woman, with her bright-red hair, wide mouth, and round nose, brought to mind a Circus Clown.

To keep from having to look at the Man and Woman, or speak to them, Temple picked up a soiled magazine and began thumbing through it. When she realized the Woman was speaking to her, she lowered the magazine a couple of wary inches.

“How are you today?” the Woman asked.

“Fine,” Temple said, going back to the magazine.

“Beginning to look like rain,” the Woman said.

“Who you talking to?” the Man asked.

“This lady here just walked in.”

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

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

“Doctors have emergencies,” the Man said.

“Oh, they make me sick! They should only do one thing at a time! The people sitting here waiting should come first!”

“You need to be patient,” the Man said.

“Patience is something I ran out of a long time ago.”

“You’re not even the one waiting to see the doctor. I am.”

“Oh, excuse the hell out of me! If you’re the one waiting to see the doctor, then why am I here?”

“You can go any time you’re ready.”

The Woman looked at Temple and stuck the tip of her tongue out and made a comical face. “Isn’t that just like a man?” she asked. “He won’t go to the doctor unless I take him. You’d think he was five years old and I was his mommy!”

“Oh, shut up, you old hag! Nobody said any such a thing!”

“Do you want me to split your head wide open? Calling me an old hag in front of this nice lady!”

“She’s got eyes, don’t she? She can see you’re an old hag!”

“You can see plainly he’s not right in the head,” the Woman said confidentially to Temple. “He’s like an adult-sized baby. I have to watch him every second the same as if he was three years old.”

“Oh, you’re a liar!” the Man said.

“A while back he started having blackout spells. The first time he did it we were having dinner and he pitched over in his chair onto the floor. He pulled half the dishes on the table down on top of his head. I thought he was trying to playing a joke on me. I said ‘Get up from there, you big jackass! You’re not the least bit funny!’ Then when I saw his eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving, I thought he was dead.”

“I’m sure you wished I was,” the Man said.

“That was only the beginning,” the Woman said. “Another time he blacked out in the grocery store. Can you imagine? He fell over into the meat counter and everybody thought he was dying.”

“I disappointed you again that time, too.”

“He can’t drive a car anymore or mow the lawn because he might have one of his spells at any time. I have to do everything myself!

“That’s not true!”

“I even have to give him a bath because he might drown himself in the bathtub.”

“You’re full of it! You’ve never given me a bath in your life! I wouldn’t  allow it!”

“I’m thinking about putting him in a nursing home and washing my hands of the whole deal.”

“You just try putting me in a nursing home! I’ll have you committed! I’ll slap your ass into a mental institution, which is where you’ve belonged for as long as I’ve known you!”

“I think his problems started as a small child. His mother was a terrible drunk. I think she dropped him on his head regularly when he was a baby. He hasn’t been right since.”

“Oh, how could you know anything about when I was a baby? You weren’t even born yet!”

Temple sighed and stood up and went over to the little sliding window to the receptionist’s area and rattled it to get the attention of the Dragon Lady on the other side.

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

“Where is Dr. Hackles?” Temple asked.

“He busy. What you think?”

“He’s been keeping me waiting for a long time.”

“Just sit and wait turn. He be with you before you say Jack Robinson.”

“I’ll only wait five more minutes and then I’m leaving and I’ll be finding myself another doctor.”

“Okay, lady! Don’t get panties in a bunch! Doctor be right with you!”

“These people sitting here are annoying me,” Temple said in a low voice meant only for the Dragon Lady. “I need to get away from them.”

The Dragon Lady craned her neck around to see who Temple was talking about. “They not bother,” she said. “Tell them no bother.”

“What did Slanty Eyes say?” the Man asked Temple when she sat back down.

“Nothing that helps.”

“I’d like to slap her silly!”

“Honestly!” the Woman said. “I feel like sending them a bill for all the time they’ve wasted! My time is just as valuable as theirs!”

“I’m just on the verge of walking out the door and telling them to kiss my nether parts!” the Man said.

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

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

“You can’t do that!” the Woman said. “There’s nothing here to burn.”

“There are plenty of old magazines!”

“And how long do you think it’d be before Slanty calls the police and they come and take you away in handcuffs?”

“I’ll be gone by then.”

“See how crazy he is?” the Woman said to Temple. “He thinks he can go around setting fires whenever he feels like it.”

“They need to be taught a lesson,” the Man said.

“Not that way!” the Woman said.

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

The fire was just beginning to burn efficiently when the Dragon Lady opened a door and stepped out into the waiting room.

“What going on here?” she said. “No fire allow in waiting room!”

“Just having a little fun!” the Man said, stomping out the flames. “Nothing to get excited about!”

“I have announcement about doctor,” the Dragon lady said.

“Better spill it,” the Man said

“Doctor leave big hurry! He have terry-bull emergency at hospital!”

“Well, how do you like that?” the Woman said. “We didn’t see him leave. Is he invisible?”

“Private entrance back of building.”

“I don’t think he was even here,” the Man said. “I think you’re just been screwing with us.”

“You’ll be getting a bill from me for my wasted time,” the Woman said.

“Doctor say you should call again next week for reschedule appointment,” the Dragon Lady said. “Have a nice day! Bye-bye!

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

“He needs to be taught some manners!” the Man said.

“Not by setting another fire!” the Woman said. “That was a terrible idea!”

Temple wasted no time in getting out of the building, before the Man and Woman had a chance to speak to her again. She had a feeling all day long, ever since waking up that morning, that everything would go wrong that day. She never cared for Dr. Hackles anyway. It was absolutely the last time she would ever go to him.

She was just getting into her car when the Woman came up behind her suddenly, startling her.

“I wonder,” the Woman said, “if you would give us a ride? Our car broke down and we’re just stuck here.”

“Where are you going?”

“Burkhardt.”

“I’m not going to Burkhardt,” Temple said. “That’s fifty miles out of my way.”

“I know, but I just thought, since you seem like such a nice lady and you have a such a new-looking car, that you wouldn’t mind taking us.”

“Can’t you call a taxi?”

“Do you know how much that would cost?”

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

“Now, that just isn’t very nice at all,” the Woman said.

Temple put her purse on the seat and started to get in when the Woman grabbed her by the wrist and pointed a gun in her face.

“I’m sorry to do this to you,” the Woman said, “but we’re taking your car.”

“You’re what?”

“I said we’re taking your car.”

“You’re stealing my car?”

“That’s what I said, bitch!”

“You’re not taking my car! How long do you think it’ll be before I call the police?”

“You’re not calling anybody, lady!”

The Woman grabbed Temple by the arm and pushed her to the ground. When she tried to get up, the Woman hit her in the side of the head with the gun, stunning her. She was barely aware as the Man and Woman both got into the car and drove away with a screech of tires.

As she fell back onto the blacktop, she felt that something inside her head was broken. She was dizzy beyond being able to stand up. She vomited, unable to turn her head to the side. After she vomited a second time, she lost consciousness.

She awoke to rain on her face. As she came awake, she remembered nothing, knew nothing, except that her head hurt terribly and she didn’t know why.

She pulled herself to a sitting position and looked around her. She was lying on an empty blacktop parking lot and she didn’t know why. When she tried to stand up, she staggered and fell.

Finally she was able to stand without falling over. She took a few tentative steps, stopped, leaned forward and groaned. She believed she might be dying.

She began walking along the shoulder of the highway; she chose to go left because she could see bright lights off in that direction. She was staggering. People honked at her because they believed she was drunk. One car swerved and narrowly avoided hitting her. Teenagers passed by in a pickup truck and screamed and laughed at her.

A police car came along, red lights blazing. The car stopped, barely off the road. A uniformed officer got out of the car and approached her.

“You been drinking, lady?” the officer asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said.

“Your head is bleeding. Did you have an accident?”

“I don’t know. I don’t seem to be able to remember.”

“Do you have any ID?”

“ID?”

“Identification.”

“No, I…”

He opened the back door of the police car and gestured for her to get in.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked.

“Just get in.”

The sudden jerk of the car as it started moving gave her the feeling of being on a rocket ship propelled into space. Star-lights burst on the edge of her vision. She leaned forward and vomited on the floor between her feet.

The officer drove to the nearest hospital, stopped the car and went inside. In no more than a minute, some people in white came out and removed Temple from the back seat of the police car and took her into an emergency room.

They left her alone in a tiny white room, reclining on a cot. She lay on her back with her eyes closed, hands folded across her chest as though dead. In a couple of minutes a nurse and a doctor came in. The nurse took her blood pressure and told her to open her eyes. The doctor held his finger in front of Temple’s face and told her to follow it with his eyes. It was then that she knew she had seen the doctor before. He had blubbery lips and a long neck and small head, giving him the look of a Ventriloquist’s Dummy. The nurse also was familiar. She had flaming-red hair, a wide painted mouth and a round nose. She looked for all the world like a Circus Clown.

“I know what you did to me!” Temple said. “You pistol-whipped me and took my car! I want out of here!”

“Clearly delusional,” the doctor said with a little laugh.

The nurse laughed, too, and prepared the needle to draw the blood from Temple’s arm. The doctor sat down, his fleshy lips two inches from Temple’s mouth.

“Now, then!” he said, blowing his foul breath into Temple’s face. “Suppose you tell me everything that happened.”

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Trial ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Trial ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Franz Kafka, one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century, was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1883, and died of tuberculosis at the young age of forty in 1924. His famous novel, The Trial, was written in 1914 but not published until 1925, after his death.

The Trial is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed European country. The principal character is Josef K., age thirty. He lives in a boarding house and has an important job, that of chief loan officer, in a large bank. One morning, just as Josef K. is getting out of bed to go to the bank, some men show up at his boarding house and arrest him for a crime. What is the crime? We never know and Josef K. never knows either.

After his arrest, he optimistically believes that it (his arrest) will all just go away if he ignores it and does nothing, but soon he is drawn into an inexplicable and nightmarish world of court procedures that go nowhere, nonsensical meetings with a bedridden lawyer, flirtation with the lawyer’s servant, paranoia, fear, a meeting in a dark cathedral on a rainy day (the person he goes there to meet never shows up, but he has a strange encounter with a priest), flirtation with a woman in his boarding house, speculation and worry about what is going to happen to him and to his position at the bank. (His trial is taking up so much of his time and energy that he hardly has enough energy anymore to do his job.)

So here we have a person, Josef K., with a pleasant life and a successful career whose world is shattered in a flash. Isn’t this the kind of thing that could happen to anybody anywhere? Isn’t it the stuff of nightmares?

The Trial is a less-than-perfect exploration in weirdness, but well worth reading. It contains long, long paragraphs (in some cases going on for pages), but the sentences are not long and tortured, as you might expect, so it is mostly easy to read. The long scenes and long chapters should hold your interest about ninety percent of the time. It’s a novel that might have been improved by some judicious editing. Since the original novel was written in German, I (of course) read it in an English translation. I’d like to be able to see I read German fluently, but if I said it, it wouldn’t be true.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp