The Twenty-Seventh Man

March 10, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

What follows is an excerpt from a short story, excerpted from a collection of short stories entitled For The Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander. It’s a great collection, and well worth checking out. Englander has also written a book “The Ministry of SpecialCases.”

unberable-urges

The Twenty-Seventh Man

pub. 1999

Vintage

by Nathan Englander

The orders were given from Stalin’s country house at Kuntsevo. He relayed them to the agent in charge with no greater emotion than for teh killing of kulaks or clergy or the outspoken wives of very dear freinds. The accused were to be apprehended the same day, arrive at the prison gates at the same moment, and–with a gasp and simultaneous final breath–be sent off to their damnation in a single rattling burst of gunfire.

It was no an issue of hatred, only one of allegiance. For Stalin knew there could be loyalty to only one nation. What he did not know so well were the author’s names on his list. When presented to him the next morning he signed the warrant anway, though there were now twenty-seven, and yesterday there had been twenty-six.

No matter, except maybe to the twenty-seventh.

*

The orders left little room for variation, and none for tardiness. They were to be carried out in secrecy and–the only point that was reiterated–simultaneously. But how were the agents to get the men from Moscow and Gorky, Smolensk and Penza, Shuya and Podolk, to the prison near the village of X at the very same time?

The agent in charge felt his strength was in leadership and gave up the role of strategist to teh iside of his hat. He cut the list into strips and sprinkled them into the freshly blocked crown, mixing carefully so as not to disturb its shape. Most of these writers were in Moscow. The handful who were in their native villages, taking the waters somewhere, or locking a cabin trying to finish that seminal work would surely receive a stiff cuffing when a pair of agents, aggravated by the trek, stepped through the door.

After the lottery, those agest who had drawn a name warranting a long journey accepted the good-natured insults and mockery of friends. Most would have it easy, nothing more to worry about than hurrying some old rebel to a car, or getting their shirts wrinkled in a heel-dragging, hair-pulling rural scene that could be as messy as necessary in front of a pack of superstitious peasants.

Then there were those who had it hard. Such as the agents assigned to Vasily Korinsky, who, seeing no way out, was prepared to exit his bedroom quietly but whose wife, Paulina, struck the shorter of the two officers with an  Oriental style brass vase. There was a scuffle, Paulina was subdued, the short officer taken unconscious, and a precious hour lost on their estimated time.

There was the pair assigned to Moishe Bretzky, a true lover of vodka and its country of origin. One would not have pegged him as one of history’s most sensitive Yiddish poets. He was huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse. Once a year, during the Ten Days of Penitence, he would take notice of his sinful ways and sober up for Yom Kippur. After the fast, hw would grab pen and pad and write furiously for weeks in his sister’s ventless kitchen–the shroud of atonement still draped over his splitting head. The finished work was toasted with a brimming shot of vodka. Then Bretzky’s thirst would begin to rage and off he would go for another yar. His sister’s husband would have put an end to this annual practice if it weren’t for the rubles he recieved for teh sweat-curled pages Bretzky abandoned.

It took the whole of the night for the two agents to locate Bretzky. They tracked him down to one of the whorehouses that did not exist, and if they did, government agents surely  did not frequent them. Nonetheless, having escaped notice, they slipped into the room. Bretzky was pased out on his stomach with a smiling trollop pinned under each arm. The time-consuming process of freeing the whores, getting Bretzky upright, and moving him into the hallway reduced the younger man to tears.

….

The solitary complicated abduction that took place out of Moscow was the one that should have been the easiest of the twenty-seven. It was the simple task of removing Pinchas Pelovits from the inn on the road that ran to X and the prison beyond.

Pinchas Pelovits had constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshippers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies–testing them sometimes more with joy and good fortune. He recorded the trials and events of this world in his notebooks in the form of stories and novels, essays, poems, songs, anthems, tales, jokes, and extensive histories that led up to the era in which he dwelled.

His parents never knew what label to give their son, who wrote all day but did not publish, who laughed and cried over his novels but was gratingly logical in his contact with the eveyday world. What they did know wat that Pinchas wasn’t going to take over the inn.

When they became too old to run the businesss, the only viable option was to tsell out at a ridiculously low price–provided the new owners would leave the boy his room and feed him when he was hungry. Even when the business became the property of the state, Pinchas, in the dreamer’s room, was left in peace. Why bother, he’s harmless, sort of a good-luck charm for the inn, no one even knows he’s here, maybe he’s writing a history of th eplace, and we’ll all be made famous. He wasn’t. But who knows, maybe he would have, had his name–mumbled on the lips of travelers–not found its way onto Stalin’s list.

The two agents assigned Pinchas arrived at the inn driving a beat-up droshky and posing as the sons of now poor landowners, a touch they thought might tickle their superiors. One carried a Luger (a trinket he brought from home from the war), and the other kept a billy club stashed in his boot. They found the narrow hallway with Pinchas’s room and knocked lightly on his door. “Not hungry” was the response. The agent with Luger gave the door a hip check; it didn’t budge. “Try the handle,” said the voice. The agent did, swinging it open.

“You’re coming with us,” said the one with the club in his boot.

“Absolutely not,” Pinchas stated matter-of-factly. The agent wondered if his “You’re coming with us” had sounded so bold.

“Put the book down on the pile, put your shoes on, and let’s go.” The agent with the Luger spoke slowly. “You’re under arrest for anti-Soviet activity.”

Pinchas was baffled by the charge. He mediated for a moment and came to the conclusion that there was only one moral outrage he’d been involved in, though it seemed to him a bit excessive to be incarcerated for it.

“Well, you can have them, but they’re not really mine. They were in a copy of a Zunser book that a guest forgot and I didn’t know where to return them. Regardless, I studied them throughly. You may take me away.” He proceeded to hand the agents five postcards. Three were intricate pen-and-ink drawings of a geisha in various positions with her legs spread wide. The other two were identical photographs of a sturdy Russian maiden in front of a painted tropical background wearing a hula skirt and making a vain attempt to cover her breasts. Pinchas began stacking his notebooks while the agnts divvied the cards. He was sad that he had not resisted the temptation. He would miss taking his walks and also the desk upon whose mottled surface he had written.

….pick up the book and read the rest – or if you like, come by the green lantern and you can sit with my copy for a while…..

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