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TEN-MINUTE NOVEL

by: Robert Wexelblatt

Warren

She had not gone to bed with him, consoled or inquired after him, eaten with him, reproached, upbraided or mocked him in seventeen days. Before their last time together there had been a hiatus of a week and a half. And he knew she was free too, free over the three-day weekend, on Wednesday afternoons when they were both off as usual, and last Thursday night when her husband, fifteen years too old for her, had been out of town; and so when he asked why and there was a viscous silence he’d broken it by blurting I’ve had enough and that it was obviously over and in that moment their whole romance or affair or whatever it was had turned into a downhill slide, a shift of semantic stress from “Nothing is better than this” to “Nothing is better than this.”  She hadn’t even bothered to remark on how long it had taken him to catch on.

So he’d been the one to end it.  Technically.  The words had bubbled out before the thought, without any consideration at all, which was a new experience for him, a careful and deliberate man, afraid of bars and drug addiction and even pornography, as indeed, was the whole unprecedented thing.  It had been adultery and young love at once, with a married colleague from the nonprofit where they both labored in the odor of secular sanctity.  People who work for human rights organizations make a lot of assumptions about each other that speed up conversations. The affair really began when over their salads one day he had lightly asked her who her best friend was and she’d blushed and said she guessed he was.  It was a stunner.  Sure, she’d told him a few things about herself and, as for him, he’d divulged more than he intended because it was a pleasure having a confidante—but her best friend obviously ought to have been her husband or her college roommate and if they weren’t, if he were her best friend, then something had been going on of which he had been oblivious.  “You know how you look when you see me?” she purred later, in his bed.  “You just light up.  I swear I saw your knees buckle.”  She giggled.  “Twice.”

It was true.  He remembered the knee-buckling and how it had perplexed him—a brain tumor, vertigo, hypoglycemia?  Once you assume nothing can happen because she’s married and a colleague, well then the body proceeds all uncensored.

Warren opened the window of his one-bedroom apartment and looked at the night which seemed to him a shroud full of bullet holes.  He would forever remember this as the weather when his life changed, when the hope of her showing up at his door with a valise in her hand and a plea on her face ended in five seconds of the thickest nothingness, the substance of nothing.  Is nothing ever better than something?

He put on his running shoes, grabbed up his wallet and keys, threw a hooded sweatshirt over his shoulder, headed for the door, then the stairway.  Getting out must be a kind of tropism, an instinct lodged deep in the reptilian brain.  He needed to get out.

Burcu

Burcu hated driving out to where Konstantinos lived with his good-looking wife and two nice-smelling children.  He considered the suburbs more American in the worst sense than the city, for they were indulgent, lazy, boring, denatured, bland, rich but not so prosperous as they tried to appear with their hedges and green street signs.  To his friend Nikos he once described his brother’s neighborhood as full of trees that belonged and grass that didn’t.  He had been acerbic.  “Everything is too nice, you know?  And the houses, they all look like pumped-up body builders.”

Burcu coped with his envy by exaggerating it, especially to the children.  “This is your room?” he’d said to his niece.  “All this space to yourself?  Amazing!  Uncle Burcu lives in a shoebox, and not a big shoebox either but the kind baby shoes come in.”  In the kitchen he feigned awe.  “What’s this thing?” he asked his nephew.  “What?  A machine that just washes dishes—and it’s called, what?”  The boy had howled with laughter and his sister-in-law smiled tightly.  Her smile was as clenched as her husband’s fist.  The kids laughed when he told them his diet consisted exclusively of sardines and saltines, which he often got mixed up. As he stroked the family terrier he told them tales about his own pet, which he said was an ant.  “That’s how lonesome your Uncle Burcu is,” he’d moaned.  “He made a pet of an ant.  Well, it’s all he can afford.  But this is no ordinary ant; she can do tricks.  For a crumb she does up to three somersaults—that’s the record—not easy with all those extra legs.”  What was the ant’s name?  “I call her Athena, because she’s a girl ant, and very wise.  Hardworking, too.”  He told how she had built a house under his bed with thirty-seven tiny rooms so she would always be prepared in case relatives showed up.  Athena was prudent as well and saved up spare crumbs in a matchbox, again for guests.  “What’s a matchbox?” asked his nephew because no one in the suburbs smoked, at least not where children could see them.  “Aunt Athena!” his niece would cry as soon as Burcu came through the door while Konstantinos squirmed in his leather slippers. “Tell us another story about Aunt Athena.” Aunt/Ant, they thought that was just hilarious.  His sister-in-law always smirked and coyly asked him if he were seeing anybody special and when would they get to meet her and Burcu would force himself to grin and say that he was content to play the field, not being quite ready to settle down. 

It was not a pretty dance, but all of this humiliation he endured to get Konstantinos alone and ask him for money.  His brother would frown and cross his arms.  Even as a child he would make that face, cross his arms just as stubbornly, and say, “I am the ant, Burcu, and you, you are the grasshopper.”  Perhaps that was the origin of his pet, Athena, with her full larder and big house full of tiny rooms for siblings and cousins who never arrived. 

When they were at last alone on the big wooden deck with its gas grill, flowery umbrella, and the concrete planters with petunias spilling out of them Konstantinos said just two words.  No more.  How my big brother loves being a success, thought Burcu, buying a whole lamb every Easter, hiring and firing, writing checks to private schools, yelling at his suppliers.  No more.  Then he said it again, this time in Greek.

Burcu lit up a Marlboro the second he was in his used-up Toyota, which was stuffed with trash and stank.  He drove back on the almost empty highway, over the bridge, into the city streets, paying no attention to the blinking light on the dashboard just to spite all the world’s prudent ants.  Then there was clunking and smoke finally the car juddered to a stop.  Burcu hammered his feckless grasshopper’s fist against the dead steering wheel and got out swearing in good demotic Greek.  No more.

Herb

Twenty-seven years at Donnelly Manufacturing Company cranking out copier cases, refrigerator shelves, wing struts, specialty fasteners, interlocking ducts, God-knows-what-all.  When business got hot six years ago he’d volunteered to work nights for the extra pay, so Peg did too, at the hospital.  For a time they had lived in a kind of photographic negative but found it had advantages or at least got used to it.  They’d been able to put some money by and thank God for that, though it probably wasn’t nearly enough, a lot of it going to help Harriet with her tuition and then the wedding.  And so on. 

What are the odds of getting laid off the same week you become a grandfather?  Come to that, what are the odds of anything?

So for three days he’d been a grandfather and for five unemployed, but he still couldn’t sleep at night when Peg was on the night shift. He’d watch TV and down beers, which made him feel stupider and fatter.

At night the apartment had the feel of a funeral parlor. The minutes went slowly and, though they’d said they might, Donnelly didn’t call which wasn’t surprising, given the way home sales were tanking, the shuttered stores all over the place.  And so on.

Peg worried about him.  He liked that she worried.  He encouraged it.  He also liked it when she tried to cheer him up.  “Business’ll pick up soon, you’ll see,” she chirped.  The nursing racket was going great guns at least.  She came home at dawn exhausted and told him what had gone on in the ward when she was dying to fall into bed.  She probably thought it  would perk him up to realize that at least he didn’t have a brain tumor, bacteria eating his flesh, or half his guts cut out before it spread.      

Harriet and Bob lived under an hour away. They’d named the baby Harold.  Herbert, Harriet, Harold.  Everybody would call him Harry, or maybe Hal.  Boys went for one-syllable nicknames on the ball fields, on the basketball court.  He’d always been Herb.  “I love fresh herbs,” Peg had whispered in his ear the first time he put his arm around her in the movies.  The baby was healthy, thank God, and Harriet took to mothering as if she’d been at it all her life. If he didn’t find a job he might turn into their babysitter.  Hal and Gramps at the beach, the ballgame, going fishing, working on a science project, telling each other riddles.  Okay. What color is an orange, Hal?  If a little brother or sister came along he might be back on the night shift.  He pictured Harriet and Bob at dinner parties, restaurants, in theaters as he turned into one of those au pairs.

He should be feeling grateful, ought to be counting his blessings. He should pour a heaping dollop of resignation into the shaker and call the cocktail contentment.

Daytime felt too bright and busy.  Yet he knew the night no better, not really.  He was used to being in the shop making things, trying not to lose a finger.  His hands were still complete only now they were empty. He missed George and Sal.  Hell, he even missed sour Mrs. Hilsop.  The hobbies he’d always complained he hadn’t enough time for bored him now because he had too much.  The idea of hobbies bored him.

The corduroy-covered couch, the absurd lamp with a half-topless Diana carrying a bow and followed by whippets, which had been Peg’s mother’s, the worn track down the middle of the Belgian-Persian runner, the dust caked into the kitchen corners, none of which he’d noticed for years he now couldn’t stop seeing.  He began remembering things like standing up and spelling mosquitoes wrong in third grade and his cousin breaking his leg when he jumped off the garage roof and Patches, the dog they’d had to put down when she began dragging her hindquarters like a busted hook-and-ladder.  Never anything good, even when he tried.

So he began to take walks.  He didn’t tell Peg because—seeing what came into the Emergency Room—she’d have scolded him saying that the city was unsafe at night, that it was, “a war zone.”  She’d given him suggestions because she never criticized without offering alternatives.  “Why don’t you make something for the baby,” she’d say.  Make what?

“Damn it,” he said aloud and turned off the television, put some folding money in his pocket, and headed for the park.

Karl/Rodion

The Raskolniki were gathered in the musty basement of Chuck/Mitya’s grandmother’s apartment building, smoking, ragging on each other, but chiefly weighing the merits of Les Caves du Vatican against those of Les Faux-Monnayeurs.  Everyone agreed that Lafcadio flat out buried Bernard Profitendieu and so they favored the former.  Karl/Rodion had given them their head up till then, keeping his obiter dicta dry.  He expected not servility but deference and generally got it.  So they all raised their heads and listened when he declared, “The Counterfeiters may not be the better book, but it’s certainly the greater achievement.”

“And what the fuck does that mean?” asked the ever-combative Fred/Ivan.

“The way I see it,” Karl/Rodion explained a little menacingly, “an achievement has an objective element to it—how long it took to accomplish, its magnitude and complexity, its influence, stuff like that.  On the other hand, whether one book’s better than another—that’s purely subjective.  Somebody just likes one more, which usually means he likes being inside of it.”

“Bullshitter,” Antonio/Versilov laughed admiringly.

“Shit, Bernard, Lafcadio—they’re all gay anyway,” groused macho Julio/Stavrogin.

“Not at all,” said Karl/Rodion coolly.  “Neither one, actually.  Just the author.”

“What about that Olivier dude?”

“Okay, I’ll give you Molinier.”

“So what’s that tell you?”

“Hey, what happened to that cell we boosted last night?”

“My sister.  Gave it to my sister.”

“Gave it?  Gave it?”

“What?  You gotta problem?”

The conversation broke down into dialogues to which he paid no attention.  Karl/Rodion’s mind was on Miki with her long black hair, exotic eyes, slightly bowed, very white legs, and that Yoko Ono accent.  She had transferred into his linear algebra class three weeks ago—apparently, she already knew calculus.  He tried to figure out what he liked so much about Miki, what made her irresistible to him who liked so much to resist.  He decided it was that she was the most self-contained sane person he’d ever met.  It was as if under that dignified seriousness lay depths of chocolate sweetness.  He was compelled to delve into them.  Eros had him by the short hairs, again.

He would give her something nice, an expensive present.  He’d have to guess what she’d like, a sweater or a necklace, maybe one of those German fountain pens.  Then he’d leave it for her somewhere with an unsigned note, wait a day or two and ask her about the sweater or the necklace or the pen and she’d catch on and he’d ask her to go dancing with him.  Something like that.  It would mean shopping.

The Raskolniki were a gang but also, as Karl/Rodion repeatedly had to remind them, a coterie.  His ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Ardekian, who was so raw and enthusiastic he wanted everybody to call him Larry, singled Karl out because he’d broken his rule and spoken up in class.  The discussion that day had been so numbingly stupid he was provoked into saying something sharp about the Dickinson poem that begins, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”  Ardekian accosted him on his way out of the room and, all lit up, began larding on the positive reinforcement. With due sullenness Karl made clear to Larry that he hadn’t the least interest in Dickinson’s poetry, had only spoken out of exasperation, and had no plan to do it again.

Two days later Ardekian slipped him an oblong package wrapped up in brown paper and tied with twine.  He handed it off to Karl surreptitiously, in the hallway, without saying a word, as if it were a stash.  Under the paper was the Penguin edition of Crime and Punishment.

Karl chose his posse over the next year and a half.  His requirements were strict but few:  high intelligence, good criminal instincts, and a level of alienation falling just short of outright socio-pathology.  All boys.  To get in a candidate had to read that Penguin edition of Dostoyevsky’s novel in a week then pass a test.  Most finished in less than four days and all but one passed the exam.

Karl/Rodion figured that to obtain what he wanted for Miki it might help to have some cash.  Cash is always useful.  He had been mugging people—women mostly—for a couple of years; it was safer than shoplifting, what with those damned cameras all over the place.  Mugging was quick and easy, especially after he’d gotten that old .22 from Jasper.  You didn’t even need bullets.

W B H K/R

The branches of the ancient maples on the west side of Rheinach Park obscured the street lights so that the broad sidewalk by the wrought-iron fence was in darkness.  Herbert’s routine took him as far as the park entrance, where he would turn back.  It was in this recessed entrance that Karl/Rodion waited impatiently, considering what would make the perfect gift for Miki and composing the elegantly mysterious note he wouldn’t sign.  A quiet night.  No single women had walked by as yet; he reckoned an old man would do.  His right hand was in his jacket pocket gripping the little pistol.  It’s rusty, he thought, but so much more chic than an axe.

Herbert was just preparing to turn around when the thin boy in the leather jacket leapt in front of him, nose inches from his face.  “Okay, turn it over,” whispered the boy with stunning nonchalance; it was as if he assumed they had both been through this transaction scores of times and knew the drill. 

Herbert felt fury bubbling up like heartburn, like magma, and he calculated his chances.  The boy looked almost frail but could be hopped-up on anything, probably was.  He knew that he shouldn’t resist but there it was. He said, “No.”  Enough had been taken from him. Hal’s  grandfather was no coward.  “No way,” he repeated.  “Get lost, dickhead.”

Just as Karl/Rodion, irritated by this lack of cooperation, was taking out the pistol, Warren came jogging around the corner twenty yards to the east and, simultaneously, Burcu’s overheated Toyota pulled to the curb a dozen feet away.  Warren accelerated as the car door was slammed and Burcu stomped out yelling what sounded to Warren, Herb, and Karl/Rodion like gibberish.

This sudden increase in the local population distracted Karl/Rodion in the middle of extracting the pistol.  He hesitated.  For an instant he thought of running into the park but then he saw that Warren was coming at him full tilt.  Burcu caught sight of him too and let out a roar heavy with testosterone. Herbert shouted “Gun!” as if he were a cop—which he might have been, off duty, heading home. Swiveling his head, Karl/Rodion pointed the gun upward, counting on just showing it, and that’s when the old man made a grab for his arm.   He tried to step backwards but by then Warren had delivered a chop-block to his knees, as Burcu loomed up behind the grappling Herbert, bellowing like the bull closing in on Europa.

Now Karl/Rodion was on the pavement and all three men were hitting and kicking him.  The gun fell; Burcu snatched it up and hit him hard on his left temple with its butt.  There was an eruption of incandescence and he wanted to protest that this was out of all proportion but there was blood in his mouth and he’d lost his wind from a kick in the stomach. The kicking and punching went on and on, each man’s violence egging on the others, granting them permission. The last thing he heard was their crazy panting and no words at all.

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