Throw Substance from the Plane – Why Captain Koblic Deserves a Remake

It has often been a thorny issue in cinema – tackling the murky side of human nature and of course its darker episodes. At best, directors, writers and producers run the risk of being so compellingly accurate and explicit in their accounts of horrid histories that critics cry foul with accusations of turning tragedy into entertainment, or of abdicating responsibility to the audience or even using deeply emotive historical events to deliberately manipulate viewer emotions. read more


The rural hospital where her father languished was brand new, a sparkling edifice improbably situated like some medical temple in a cow pasture. It was such a young building to house the old. Dr. Christine Hartford hurried to locate her dad’s room. She’d been given directions in the social worker’s melodious Outer Banks drawl. Finding Joe would be easier for Christine than accepting his condition. read more

A Little Night Story

In undergraduate school Carly spent the night before the first day of classes going through textbooks, reading the introductions. She told herself that in order to succeed in business, she needed to experiment. They had been told, hadn’t they, that social relationships would be the most important thing to their success in business school. She would be someone else now.

Where She Goes

I knew it would happen. I thought about it all the time the way any wife with a sick husband does about what it would actually be like when he went. All those nighttime runs to the emergency room, all the phone calls and the drugs and the tubes. What would be the moment? And when he did finally–and finally it was everything that got him, kidneys, heart, lungs all of it–what a relief. Not that I was prepared, I wasn’t, how could you be really but it wasn’t a surprise, not at all, no. On the way to the cemetery I was looking out the window, amazed that it had actually happened. I may even have said so out loud which would have been embarrassing if I did. If I did, nobody remarked but who would?

I knew my whole life I was meant to be alone though I never had been, not ever, with him fifty three years, imagine. I was the oldest of six brothers and sisters. As each one came along, I shrank more and more into the background of the family but where somebody else might have felt bad about it, being left out of things, being last, being an afterthought, I was actually glad of it. We grew up and all lived near each other except the one brother who joined the Navy and stayed out west.

My sisters and I saw each other at least once every week and were in telephone contact daily.

This went on for years and years and years knowing the details of each others lives, what we put on the table, how the children gave us pleasure or worried us, our husbands’ quirky ways.

Then they both died, one demented, out of her mind and puffed up with anger and she had been the smart one, the one who married a little money, who saw the world and let me know it oh did she ever. Wait till you see Canada, she’d say, wait till you’ve seen France. Yet she died first after carrying on one Christmas Eve to my face oh why oh why did her husband die and mine, mean and unloved, live on and on. Who would have dreamed she’d be so cruel to ever say such a thing but I didn’t really mind, had even wondered it myself the unfairness of it but just was surprised she actually came out with it after all this time. My younger sister, the youngest of all of us, the prettiest, the one who kept the peace and funny too, went next, bone cancer, the only cancer in all of our family including in-laws and cousins. That was a surprise and a sad one. Two of my brothers went next, one after the other, from heart disease, both overweight and heavy smokers but with good dispositions, though one had a conceited wife who never stopped bragging about this surgery and that surgery and lives on to this day.

I trusted my sisters. I never had a friend I trusted that way without even thinking about it. I could say anything to them. I didn’t but I could have. And when they went, one right after the other like that, well, I knew I wouldn’t ever be able to, not to them or anyone, and something dropped out of my life. How often do you come across people you feel that way about? It’s inborn. My sons are something else. They’re always going to be my boys but if I were ever to really rely on them I don’t think I’d be in a very good position. I’m not even sure I would know how. One is young and very selfish, he can’t help it and you can’t help noticing it. The other one lives far away. I don’t ask for what I’m not going to get. I’ve got myself. I’ve got my cleaning lady. I’ve got the superintendent of the building. They know my name in the deli downstairs and that I go for the Post and the 2% skim. My doctor is nearly as old as I am, a brilliant man formerly a chiropractor. You’re fine he tells me every time. I am. Oh my hands hurt but I can still make dinner for myself and wear a pair of high heels when there’s a gathering.

My brother moved into an apartment down the hall with his wife. I introduced them originally. I first knew her years ago when we worked in the shipping department of Mallory’s. We’re like sisters, she says and it’s true that she’s my closest friend in the world now that I have no one but it’s not the same. I have always had my suspicions about her. She loves costume jewelry and can’t buy enough, wears pearls big as marshmallows, rubies the size of cherry tomatoes and a face to match, two big circles of rouge on her cheeks and blue eye shadow at her age.

We talk about everything. She insists on being right. My brother never intercedes because he’s a good husband who loves his wife and better be on her side if he knows what’s good for him.

He’s afraid of her I can tell. Our father was afraid of our mother, so. I never argue with anything she says. It’s not me. I have no one else but her and my brother and I’m lucky they live right down the hall. We meet in front every morning then get in their car and shop. On Friday he takes us to have our hair done. I would never go without that and Rick really knows how to give it body. I come out of that chair and feel like a million. She still colors her hair. Red. Isn’t that the limit? It’s not my business to say anything but how lovely how smart how young. I don’t like to make a fuss or stir things up because what for?

Then of all things the wind knocks me down. Go figure. One minute I’m standing in front of the building waiting for my son, I mean Mickey, Joe, I mean Joe, my brother! to bring the car around. I’m wearing my wool coat with the fur collar because they said it was going to snow and thinking about getting a nice lamb chop for dinner that I could make in the toaster oven and I hear a snap and the trees are swimming and I’m upside down. Hip. Hospital. Rehabit… rehabitate… that’s where the animals are! My sons are very nice about it. One of them is here every day all day the other ones lives somewhere else the south but he comes when he can I think yesterday he was here or, no he called. My sisters also come and….no no that’s a dream, that’s right I know that. They’re both gone, that’s very sad. The nurses are adorable. No fat ones except that Wanda one at night who is and then she’s gone.

In my apartment the girl comes and wakes me up but first there’s no milk or but no, sometimes it’s sour. OK I don’t mind that much but my son gets red in the face and then there’s another girl she kisses me when he’s here but I don’t think he knows. I don’t ask her to do anything. She’s a nice girl but oh the stories about her family. The one child has a mental problem and the daughter dropped out she’s pregnant. Her husband beats her…the one in jail, no not now not in jail now, the one who comes over who I met. He picks her up after work. He has a key. My brother’s wife pays me a visit in the afternoon to check on me. She always has something to say. No apples? No pears? No fruit at all! What does she have to check on me for? We’re strangers. What is it her business?

He can’t talk my brother any more. He can’t make any sense. Oh it’s very sad. He looks at you he listens but he’s shaking his head you can see in his eyes he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, so no more driving, no more shopping. She puts him on a leash so he can’t wander away, then she’s ashamed. And now all of a sudden he’s in a wheelchair. He can’t walk! The man can’t walk! She wheels him around talking as if he can understand. Then she puts him away. My own brother! I go to see him in the home. It’s nice. They’ve redone it, it looks like in Miami. And then the next thing is, what happened is, I’m staying there myself in a room with another girl. My one son insists I would burn down my house. When he comes to see me I put on some lipstick and a string of pearls. I tell him I’m ready to die.

I call out from my room to my brother. I tell him to get out of that wheelchair he’s embarrassing us. He sits at the end of the corridor staring out the glass door. He’s all slumped over. On my way to my room I pass his room I look in then I look away. I can’t stand it he’s all slumped over staring at his shoes. One of these days he’s going to fall over on his face! Who ever thought we would live together like this?

I’m watching TV where you have to know the word and what’s her name…the one with the baseball cap…she has the nerve to tell them I stole her roasted nuts! Can you imagine? They’re on the table in a little jar right between my bed and hers so why is she leaving them out like that? I don’t even like nuts! I like Chiclets. Then she passes me in the hall and under her breath curses me. The nerve of her! Bitch. You heard me. I don’t care.

The peas taste like paste. Oh they’re awful. The peas aren’t even green. They’re like mush. They taste like paste. The chicken has white paste on. Everything needs salt. Why can’t I have 7up? The red haired one sits with me sometimes with some special spoon oh it’s so special to her all right throwing paste wiping my face she never wanted me to do better than her and now she’s glad I can see that.

And all of a sudden it’s warm! How do they do that? He wheels me out into the…plant thing, the…green… What is that….it’s a…it’s a… Don’t tell me it’s…a red… Oh… a breeze. Oh that’s nice. I feel good. My hands don’t hurt. So what do you think? Should we go in?

They say me stop screaming.
… my sisters…
I want 7Up!
…my baby the old man.

Gbye. Done forget me.

Barry Jay Kaplan’s stories have been published in Descant, Kerouac’s Dog, Bryant Literary Review, Upstreet, Talking River, Storyglossia, Apple Valley Review and others. read more

The Choir

The composer came to work with the choir before the concert, just for a few days. It wasn’t common: first of all most composers are dead. Then, how likely a living one (being alive and performed isn’t common either) would be in town and show up? Not very. Of course there are helpful circumstances, such as being in a very large town, or preparing a truly glamorous concert. Or, the choir director being one of the composer’s best friends. All that said, the visit still was exceptional – a miraculous blessing.

The composer didn’t resemble his picture, which I had previously seen on magazines and in theater halls. It is normal: pictures of stars aren’t faithful. They project an ideal people can buy… thinking they will own it somehow. You don’t want to buy things ordinary, things that could grow in your back yard. You don’t want to buy a bunch of wild flowers: you can gather them from the roadside. You only want to buy orchids or roses with a very long stem. The composer’s pictures sure looked like exotic flowers: head bent in a philosophical pose, gaze deep and penetrating, square jaw, regular features, beard and mane harmoniously combed, giving him the allure of a Greek statue. Since his face occupied in general the entire frame, you were made to believe he was large and tall.

On the contrary, he was very small. Old, wrinkled, and shriveled. In person, his features were less fit: definitely asymmetrical and casually bunched up, like for most of us. Meaning that when he was introduced, when the entire room turned the way our director’s excited gaze pointed at, everyone looked past him. Everyone stared aimlessly in the air, or expectantly at the door. While he was there, already, casually perched on a stool. Then he sat at the piano. We started working without further ado.

In the first couple of minutes he confirmed what I thought of great artists. They are a strange combination. Unassuming, quite humble, and relentlessly ferocious. He knew how the pieces ideally should sound and he wouldn’t settle for less. With the quietest and most submissive attitude, but with unbound courage and absolute obstinacy, he led our crowd where he wanted. Meaning to the summit, no matter how high it was and how inappropriate our gears.

He was admirable. As a man, he possessed all the depth expressed in his art, as it was evident in the way he interacted with us: such lucidity, matched by compassionate understanding. He owned the sadness and wounds, as well as the resilience we could hear in his music, or he wouldn’t be able to act – well… so humanly. Such isn’t always the case.

He coached us until the last minute, clearly unhappy, but expressing indeed satisfaction. First, voicing his gratitude and content, then – when everyone relaxed – asking for a small improvement, as a plus we could certainly tackle, now, seen our overall state of preparedness.

Then he hammered that detail, that demand, as deep as you could imagine – or rather you couldn’t. No, you wouldn’t believe the nuance he wanted could be wedged so far, could change the whole texture, implying subtler adjustments, giving the interpretation another tight turn, making it yet more accurate, more significant. Clearly, the process was potentially endless. But we reached the finish line: the audience sat on red velvet, the curtain pulled open.

Now we were left to the choir director, who wouldn’t lead the entire concert (conducted by a visiting foreign star) but the composer’s work, only. A most intimate piece, a delicate China he only could handle. He did it masterfully and the choir sang well.

Very well. At a particular moment, during a suite called “Nocturnes” (a traditional term, as you know), silence was thick in the house. Not an absence of noise but a suspension of breathing. Not quietness but a void, a suction, leaving the entire room to the music. Then, the applause was directly proportional: a rush forward of what was pulled backward. A waterfall, a cascade.

Well deserved.

Why was the Nocturnes’ execution so strong? We were singing about maximum matters. Life and death, the after life, the departed, the meaning of all… Or the search for a meaning, that of course no one found yet, but it preoccupies everyone. Normally, singers don’t give a thought to what they sing, especially when pitches and rhythm are complex. But they sing the words anyway and the words get hold of them, catching them unaware. It is worse. We become the words’ prey. They infect us without us knowing. Then we are happy for days, or extremely sad, unaware of the reasons.

We were holding a score of great beauty and significance. Both lyrics and music were shining crystals, precious polished stones. Something no one, truly, could claim for him or herself: it would have been unbearable. Words, notes, chords – and their interlacing – were a jeweled crown, an urn containing heroes’ ashes, a Sacred Grail… We should hold it up high, like a flag. But it wasn’t simple.

We were given a story to tell – of uppermost value, crucial to our tribe’s survival. Now, we could embody it, sipping it in our flesh and blood: if we did, everyone in the room would feel it right in their flesh. Everyone would gather the message, understand, and be safe. Or we could miss it.

The director took care of the task, as always. He unblinkingly embodied it, taking responsibility without a drop of reserve. That’s why leaders are such: that’s what they can do. He hung in there, reiterating his pledge second by second. If we could simply copy him – if we tried to be him – the magic would happen. The whole challenge consisted in breathing with him, inhaling, exhaling. Then, we’d see what he saw and feel what he felt: it came with breathing. He did not demonstrate: he knew it wouldn’t work. He stepped in, clothes and all: so thick and so true, he won all of our attention. We were splashed by the full gamut of his emotions and thoughts. We reflected it like mirrors… it bounced back through the hall, like a wave.

As I said, the subject matter was scary. Terrifying, in fact. The songs talked about giving up life when we are ready to trespass, while those we still love remain. It expressed the necessity of conscious letting go, its inevitability, and monstrous melancholy. I don’t know what composer and director knew about it: but each singer knew something, for sure. We learn loss since the beginning of our passage on earth: sometimes briskly, more often in small age appropriate doses. But those little increments, like seeds, hold the map of the full experience. Everybody in the public is equally aware. It’s in general a secret knowledge. We avoid chat and small talk about it. It doesn’t boost our mood and it’s bad for social relationships.

Thus, in the concert hall, the thing was shared ‘secretly’. In code, but with bare emotion. Was it why the moment became unforgettable? I don’t know. I’m not sure what happened, exactly, why the audience was evidently lifted from their chairs during a split second or two. I can tell every singer was giving the maximum, and so did the orchestra. The director, his stick oscillating like the hand of a cosmic pendulum, didn’t keep an iota of energy for himself.

Clearly, his rapture was highly contagious. Did he know? He just hoped.
Why did we do this? What compelled us? Was it money? For most, money wasn’t even involved. Choristers are rarely paid. If yes, peanuts will do. Was it glory? Who remembers the name of a chorister? Who even reads it? Come on. Why did we consent to give such attention, fatigue, effort? I don’t know.

I just noticed, when the director stood still, after the last note of the piece disappeared, the entire world stood still. It is rare, it is precious. There is such bliss in that instant. Maybe, we unconsciously aimed for such ineffable pleasure, which – believe me – you don’t get in many other ways. Less than you think. Maybe, no other way.

There is some of Jesus’ “Father, all is accomplished”, in such moment. And in fact the leader, his back to the audience, only visible to the singers in his lonely, excruciating parabola, conveys something of a Christ figure. Singled out, taking all on his shoulders. Saying: I’ll go first, follow me if you love me. Teaching us how to surrender.


Wasn’t it what the lyrics talked about? Did we literally apply the lesson? Is there more than one lesson to learn? I don’t think so.

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Icarus Down, Intrinsick, Alebrijes and Entropy, among other journals and anthologies. read more