HAVE YOU READ THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV?
By Richard Dokey
Thunder boomed behind the blackened sky. Arthur Hollenbeck ducked into the tiny pastry shop. He shook his overcoat. A few drops of water ran down behind the collar of his shirt. The water traveled to a spot between his shoulder blades.
His cell phone rang.
“Mr. Hollenbeck,” the voice of his secretary said, “the Feathercraft contract is complete and ready for your review.”
“All right, Katherine,” he said. “Thank you. I was looking at the Beckler property over here and got caught in the rain. It’s really coming down. I’m in a small pastry shop on West 24th. I’ll have a cup of coffee and wait it out a bit. I’ll be in directly. How about the Crown offer? Any word?”
“I’ve scheduled an appointment for you with Mr. Crown for three o’clock.”
“Good girl. What would I ever do without you?”
“Well, about that raise, then?”
He laughed. He enjoyed Katherine. She was a kidder. He actually did not know what he would do without her. She organized his entire day into an efficient schedule.
“I’ll think about it. That is, when I get warm enough,” he teased.
He sat under a window and turned his back to the rain.
He did not enjoy using the cell phone. There was something ephemeral about speaking into a flat, black box one could carry in a shirt pocket, talking anytime, anywhere with anyone who wanted to talk. He glanced about the shop.
It was a nondescript pastry shop like the shops he had known when he was young: cubby holes with wooden tables and chairs one sees for sale at the edge of sidewalks, a glass case with trays of doughnuts and sweet rolls. Someone in a soiled apron might make a toasted cheese or tuna sandwich. On top of the case were plates of pie and cake, covered by glass domes, in the center of which were round, black knobs. Always there was a dome of day-old pastry and a sign that read “two-for-one.” The selections were not choreographed in polished metal frames against the back wall, but written on powdered chalk boards next to the case. Like this shop, the coffee table was always at the far side of the room. His shops used shiny aluminum urns to dispense coffee from beneath black spigots. A fruit jar held tips. This shop had a table with white porcelain mugs and a hot plate, upon which sat steaming Pyrex pots. One of the pots had orange print.
Arthur Hollenbeck was amused at this wave of nostalgia. He tipped the girl who brought him a mug of coffee.
The shop contained an odd assortment of patrons, nondescript people, a hodge-podge, quite unlike the people at Starbucks or Peets or Panera, where he took pleasure in seeing himself reflected. These people were from cramped apartments nearby, from kitchens and shops, men in coveralls, others in plaid shirts and baseball caps, women in print dresses or wrinkled pants, who looked as if they should be on the line in a cannery. Several students with backpacks thumbed messages, all the while managing to talk with anyone who managed to talk.
Next to the coffee table, a young woman sat alone reading. She was a student. That is, he assumed that she was a student, but in a kind of out-of-date way. A brown leather briefcase rested beside her on the floor. She was plain. Yet, when he looked more closely, he might say that she was pretty, in that vague way something is pretty when you first encounter it and before it becomes worn and common. His anxiety about escaping the storm was palliated by her odd intensity. It was pleasant to sit in a nondescript café sipping burnt coffee with people he would never see again and would not recognize if he did.
Perhaps it was the briefcase. It had a fat belly and a clasp beneath the handle. His father had been a real estate broker and had owned such a briefcase. Sometimes, when he wasn’t in a hurry for work, his father permitted him to lift the briefcase. It was a heavy briefcase, filled, he had always believed, with important papers. He was proud to be able to lift it and to hear what his father would say because he had succeeded in taking it all the way to the front door. His father was dead. His mother was in a care facility on the other side of the city. He saw his mother when he could.
He remembered the old house. He lay under the great oak in the back yard, looking up through the ragged leaves at clouds building in a blue sky. It seemed a moment ago. It was millions of moments, but all the moments were now. Child hood was a moment, hidden beneath moments, when feeling came as the wind came, or the rain came against the cedar fence beyond the great oak, or the shadows of leaves at evening came, lingering upon his window pane.
He shook his head. The coffee mug was empty. He decided for a refill and made his way across the room. The young woman had the book up. He could not see her face. He saw the name on the book.
“Excuse me,” he said, standing above her. “Isn’t that Russian?”
She lowered the book. Her eyes were marvelous. They were a translucent green, very bright and large.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s not in Russian, of course. It’s just Russian.”
“Yes,” he said. bending closer. “I recognize the name.”
“Oh, have you read The Brothers Karamazov?”
“No, no,” he said. “Not that one. I don’t believe I ever did, I should say. When I was in school, there was something by that writer, though.”
“Yes. Is that how you say it?”
“That’s the one. It’s difficult to pronounce those names. When you’re not Russian, that is. Is it interesting?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Very.”
“What’s it about?”
“Evil,” she said. “And good.”
“Well, I guess that about covers it all, wouldn’t you say?” He laughed.
She looked at him out of the corner of those enormous green eyes.
“So, you’re a student,” he said. There could be no other reason to read such a book.
“Yes. The University.”
“Ah,” he said. “And what are you studying?”
“Nothing in particular,” she said. “That’s the problem. I’m interested in so many things. It’s very hard for me to choose anything. I wish I didn’t have to choose, but I know I have to, no matter what.”
“That’s true,” he said. “It’s hard to make up one’s mind, when one is young. I remember trying to make up my mind.”
“What did you choose?”
“Come to think about it, I believe it chose me. My father was a broker. I went in for business. I was a business major. I stayed on for the MBA.”
“Oh, how nice,” she said. “It must be good knowing what to choose when you start out.”
“Yes. I always thought I was fortunate,” he said. “And, wouldn’t you know, I am busier now than ever I was in school. Perhaps that’s just part of being an adult. You’re right, though. There are more things these days, so many more for anyone to deal with. These new technologies. It makes one wonder, doesn’t it?”
“About choosing anything properly. All these distractions. That’s what I call them anyway.” He nodded toward a nearby table, where other students thumbed their machines.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Yes. I don’t know enough about anything to choose something wisely. Not really, I mean. I know I must choose. But, then, won’t I have to go ahead and do that something? How can you choose something and be sure? That is, if you can’t know what you’re getting into until you’ve gotten into it. It is confusing. It’s like my sister. She got married, and then she got unmarried. She chose someone because she thought she knew him, and then she didn’t know him, and she got divorced because she said that then she knew him. It’s all so mixed up. One is as good as the other, don’t you see? And you don’t know if what you’ve chosen is good until after you’ve chosen it. And there you are.” She blushed. “Listen to me,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no,” he replied. “That’s fine. That’s all perfectly natural. It’s true about everyone, particularly when one is so young. We all start out confused.”
She looked across the room. “I have no idea what to become,” she said softly. “But everyone has to become something, I suppose, to live, I mean. But how can I make a commitment to something when I don’t know if that something is good for me to commit myself to or not? Am I making any sense at all?”
“Perfect sense,” he said. “When I was your age, I wasn’t committed either.”
“But you finished your MBA.”
“Well, yes, of course I did, but then it never occurred to me about any commitment. I just wanted to stop wasting my time and get on with it.”
“Well, anyway, you knew how to choose something.”
“I didn’t know.”
“You chose business.”
“It seemed the proper thing to do.”
“And it was, then.”
“Yes. Certainly it was.”
“Then you were lucky. You chose something and didn’t know if that something was right for you, but then it was. I can’t imagine myself being lucky that way. I’m terrible with luck. If I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s always a mess.”
“You’ll find the right thing,” he said. “For you, that is. That’s what school is for.”
“I suppose it is,” she said, a bit downcast.
“Look here,” he said. “You’ll go off and be quite successful. I’m sure of it. You’ve got sense. And you’ll have a fine family too.” He smiled. “You seem too intelligent not to be successful.”
She blushed again. “Oh, I don’t know about any of that,” she said. “I don’t think of myself that way.”
“But here you are in school,” he said.
“Yes, certainly,” she said. “But this something must be something that I truly must do. It has to be with people. I know at least that much.”
“Isn’t everything with people?”
“I suppose,” she said. “But something truly with people, even if it’s not important to anyone else and nobody knows anything about it but me. If it matters to me, if it truly matters, then that’s what matters. I’ll have chosen the right thing.”
“I see,” he said.
“Sounds silly, I suppose.”
“No, not at all,” he said. “There are many paths to success. If you do what matters to you, why wouldn’t that be successful?”
“It would, then, wouldn’t it?” she said.
“Of course it would. You’re young. You have all of your life.” He pointed at the book. “You like this, then?”
“Oh, yes,” she brightened. “Very much. It’s very deep and very complicated and emotional and thoroughly human. I’m lost in it. I don’t think about anything else when I’m reading.”
“And that’s good?” he asked. “Being lost that way, I mean.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “You have to be lost in it if you’re going to understand anything. How else could someone read something?”
He nodded. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not much of a reader that way. I could never get into anything that wasn’t real to me. To my life, I mean. Such things were required, of course, so I read them. They didn’t seem to matter about anything that I had to do. Not really. They were so, well, Russian, and they went on forever, with lecture notes from the professor tacked on. And all you did at the end was to write a paper that nobody cared about anyway, most of all the professor. Then you forgot about it the next day.”
“You sound like my roommate,” she smiled. “She hates lit classes.”
“I didn’t hate them, of course,” he said. “They just were so extraneous. If you know what I mean. I would think that would be even more so these days, when there’s hardly enough time to turn around.”
“It does feel like that sometimes,” she sighed. “Maybe that’s why I love books like this so much.”
“I only meant, with so much one has to do and so many distractions, there’s no time for being lost.” He smiled.
“It must be nice, then, to be so successful,” she said. “You’ve done exactly what you wanted to do.”
He thought a moment.
“I think I am successful,” he said, with some embarrassment. “I’ve met my goals, certainly.”
“Oh, then there’s that,” she said. “How do I set goals when I’m not interested enough in anything to know where I’m going so I can set goals? I don’t stay long enough with something to decide anything. I run around in all sorts of directions. Goals are like places on an itinerary to me. I can’t get off anywhere because, well, where am I going? I don’t want to be like my sister. So places just fly by.”
He remembered how, as a young man just out of school, he had considered throwing a bag over his shoulder and tramping through France and Spain, not knowing where to stay, but staying whenever he got there.
“It’s important to set goals,” he said.
“I know it is,” she said. “If I didn’t want to get good at something, why else would I be in school?”
“Indeed,” he said, smiling. “When one is young, it’s natural, I think, to feel somewhat lost. It’s a big world, but growing up is the only way we get on with it.” He winked, tapping the book.
The mug was cold. He filled it with hot coffee. He wanted to sit down.
“Well,” he smiled. “Then good luck to you. And happy being lost with the Karamazov brothers. I admire your ability to slog through and enjoy something required like that.”
“Oh, it’s not required,” she said.
“It’s not?” he said.
“No. I’m just reading it.” She looked at him with those marvelous green eyes. “I love this book. But thank you anyway,” she said. “You’ve been most kind and understanding. And I suppose I can’t wish you more luck than you’ve already had.” She grinned. “That might be unlucky. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.”
“Me too,” he said.
He returned to the table.
Outside, the rain pounded the striped awning. It struck the sidewalk, where it splashed in a sparkling rim. Someone turned on the heat. The room grew warm and cozy. It was pleasant sitting alone with people he did not know.
He had tolerated all that was irrelevant to arrive at exactly the place where all was important. Imaginary worlds revealed nothing. They made him want to stand under a hot shower or to swim in a cold sea. They made him stare out of windows at the fog or the rain or the blue air of a spring day between gray buildings where he had gone to school, where others, like himself, had strode across campus lawns toward their destinies, ticket holders determined not to miss the train. He had dreamed once, as everyone dreams, of a world beautiful beyond anything necessary or real, a world he still recalled, vaguely, at times, like a shower upon a cedar fence or a leaf shadowed upon a window pane. Finally, now, without remorse, he dreamed of no world but the world in which he dreamed.
About the Author:
Richard Dokey‘s stories appear regularly in the reviews. They have won awards and prizes, have been cited in Best American Short Stories, Best of the West, have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and have been reprinted in numerous regional and national texts and anthologies. He has novels and story collections to his credit. “Pale Morning Dun,” his collection, published by University of Missouri Press, was nominated for the American Book Award. Stories have appeared most recently in Alaska Quarterly Review, Grain(Canada), Natural Bridge, Southern Humanities Review, Lumina and The Chattahoochee Review.