Fall 2018, Volume 25

Fiction by Robert Wexelblatt



1. How We Met

“Oh God.  I’m so sorry.”


“And you insist you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.  Really.  The bike, not so much.”

“You’re not bleeding anywhere?  Nothing’s starting to swell?”

“Nope.  No blood, no swelling.  Not my ankle, and not my ego either.  I’m A-OK.”

“I can take you to the hospital.  A clinic.  Maybe you should have x-rays.”

“Entirely unnecessary.  But it’s very good of you to offer me and my Trek a ride home.”

“The least I can do.”

“Oh, I can think of a lot less.”

“It was my fault.”

“I know you think so.  But you shouldn’t.”

“But I should’ve—”

“So should I.  Never mind.  The mistake was mine.  Besides, no offense, you’re too pretty to be to blame.”


“I said you’re too pretty to blame.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think you know.”

“Are you—are you flirting?”

“I don’t know how to flirt.”

“How old are you?”

“How old do you think?”

“Uh-uh.  I’m not playing that game.”

“Suggest another one, then.”




“Is that in Holland?”

“There’s one there, too.” 


“The one I was thinking of is in Michigan.  Population up over five thousand.”

“Are you from Michigan?”

“I’ve been there.”

“Where are you from?”

“How old are you?”

“I think this is where I came in.”

“Okay.  Let’s talk about your biking.”

“Oh, my biking.  The thing that’s brought us together.”


“Maybe.  Anyway, there are days when I’m puffing uphill and worried my heart’s going to protest too much, or once too often, or is going to attack me, and then I daydream about my ideal bike route.”

“What would that be?”

“It starts from my driveway and goes downhill for twenty miles until it arrives back at my driveway.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maurits Cornelis Escher might have been able to design it.  He was Dutch.”

“From Zeeland?”

“For all I know.  Holland, anyway.  The Netherlands.  A whole country devoted to biking.  Know why?”


“Because it’s flat, so flat that it’s mostly below sea-level.  It’s not all downhill but pretty close.  Better, in fact.  With flat you get some aerobic benefit.”

“Do you have some favorite routes that aren’t all downhill?”

“I always take the same route.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Perhaps it is, but it could be why I’m still alive.  I know all the potholes and risky spots.  Safety first.  It’s worked well, for the most part.  Not today, of course.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need to keep saying so.  Besides, I can see it in your face.”

“I have a sorry face?”

“Very sorry.”

“So. . . um, you always take the same route to be safe?”

“Right.  And I assume everybody behind a wheel will kill me, if I give them half a chance.”

“That seems a bit. . . harsh.”


“Has anybody tried to, you know—kill you?”

“A good ride is one during which nobody tries.  It happens a lot and so I don’t ride for speed but. . . prudently.  There was a time when I hated being passed, even by twenty-year-olds in spandex shorts on top of weightless racing bikes.  No more.  Prudence is the homely daughter of a bitter father.”

“Who is?”

“Experience, of course.”

“Ah.  And now I’ve added another wrinkle.”

“Not your fault.”

“So you keep reminding me.”

“You had the right of way.”

“No, I didn’t.  I was coming out of the driveway and you weren’t.”

“The laws of cycling prudence say that the right of way is determined by avoirdupois.”


“Your car weighs a lot more than my bike.  Are you religious?”

“Pardon me?”

“You were coming out of St. Denise’s parking lot.”

“Oh.  No.  I mean, I was there to drop off some decorations for a wedding.”

“You’re getting married?”

“No.  My friend Cecilia.”

“Bridesmaid then?  Maid of Honor?  Matron of Honor?”


“Good.  What do you do when not helping your friends get married?”

“I was just running an errand for a friend, not helping her get married.”

“Point taken.  And the rest of the time?”

“I’m a Chinese historian.”

“You don’t look Chinese.”

“I teach Chinese history.”

“That sounds like quite a challenge.  Does it learn anything?”

“Are you always this annoying?”

“I can’t help it.  It’s only about words.  And I don’t annoy just anybody.”

“Only strangers?  Like me?”

“I don’t know anybody like you.”

“That’s an odd thing to say.  Ambiguous too.”

“So, any particular part of Chinese history?  There’s a lot of it.”

“Sui Dynasty.  That’s my specialty.  It’s the shortest.  Only two emperors.”

“Let me guess.  A good one to begin it and a bad one to end it?”

“Never thought of it quite like that but, yes, that’s more or less it.”

“Who was good and who was bad?”

“Emperor Wen was hardly a lamb, but he was lot better than his son Yang.  So yes, Wen was good, comparatively speaking, and Yang—his second son—was a tyrant, decadent, a ruthless drunk, warmonger, degenerate and lecher—a nasty piece of work.”

“How nasty?”

“I think he arranged the murder of his father.”


“It’s a matter of dispute.”

“Cold case, eh?”

“Everybody detested Yang.  His own generals finally got rid of him.  Yet he was one of the best poets of the Sui period.  He was a monster, but he had his sensitive side.”


“He wrote this about peonies:

       Springtime radiance, gradually, gradually where does it go?

       Again before a wine jar, we take up a goblet.

       All day we’ve questioned the flowers, but the flowers do not speak.

       For whom do they shed their petals and leaves, for whom do they bloom?”

“That’s rather touching. I’m impressed by your memory.  Also your fair-mindedness.  Credit where it’s due.  I like the smell of peonies.  The bad emperor was right; they don’t last long.”

“Like so many things.”



“Summer romances.”

“And honeymoons.  Anyway, it just goes to show.”

“Show what?”

“That not only isn’t poetic talent caused by tuberculosis, it’s no proof of virtue, either.”

“Emperor Yang was also a critic.  And, in his way, he was fair-minded too.”

“In his way?”

“Someone showed him verses by two young poets.  Yang judged them superior to his own, then he had them beheaded.”

“Credit where it’s due.”

“Do you write poetry by any chance?”

“Why do you suspect me of that?”

“The way you play with words, or they play with you.”

“Well, what can I say?  At least I try my best not to.”

“I don’t think Yang Guang would have said the same.”

“Here we are.  On the left.”


The physics of any event may appear simple; but, the more closely you look, the more complicated the thing gets.  For example, say you roll a yellow tennis ball down the dining room table.  Friction and air resistance will slow it down some but, when it gets to the table’s edge, it will fall off as if it is dying try to make its way to the center of the Earth, so to speak loving that center at an accelerating a rate of 32 feet per second squared.  But it won’t get far, let alone to the center of the Earth.  It will be baffled at once, hitting the floor (or dirt or grass or gravel) and bouncing to a height relative to a whole lot of what the experts airily call variables such as the height of the table, the temperature, humidity, and chemical make-up of the air, and whether the ball falls onto well-hardened cement or a shag rug left over from the 1970s.

Psychology can also appear simple and not be.  For instance, suppose a ten-year-old boy wants to get a ten-year-old girl’s attention and she has pigtails, so he grabs one of them and yanks it.

I met the love of my life because of physics and psychology.  Optics had a lot to do with it, but I count optics as a branch of physics.  Newton wrote a treatise that he titled Opticks, a significant contribution to knowledge, I’m told.  Though I find it humiliating to admit, in the case under examination here, I think the physics (optics included) might be more complex than the psychology.  Though I’m probably wrong—the mechanics of human brains being harder to reckon than the motions of yellow tennis balls—this is how I feel about it.  From my limited and admittedly biased point of view, the psychology of our encounter was as simple as the physics of a mousetrap or a letter opener, and not all that different from either (snapping shut, cutting open).  Like the tennis ball, I fell—first off my Trek, then for her. You may insist the second fall’s one of life’s mysteries but I say it’s simple, if you can refrain from looking too hard.

The physics of our collision, on the other hand, I’ve never untangled to my satisfaction.  She in her small Honda SUV coming out of Saint Denise’s parking lot; me on my hybrid pedaling smoothly east on Hattersfield Street at 9:30 on a summer morning.  Cloudless welkin.  Stunning sunlight.  I’m all the way on the right, in the bicycle lane, pedaling through the shade a large maple just as she’s exiting the driveway of the parish church.  She doesn’t see me because of the shade and I don’t see her because I’m looking straight into blinding July sunlight.  When we do see what’s going to happen, we both swerve to the right.  My thigh brushes the Honda’s fender or my left pedal strikes its hubcap or my arm knocks against her side mirror and the bike’s front tire slips because of a rock, a bit of oil, a moment of inattention.  Then a tumble, squealing brakes, Trek’s front wheel twisted, handlebars skewed, her face full of horror as I look up at it from St. Denise’s freshly mown lawn and, for no sensible reason, I start laughing.  I’m fine, only the bike is damaged, along her equanimity, my resolute singleness, her delicate conscience, my precarious dignity.  She makes the offer of a ride and I accept at once.  The twisted Trek fits in the back of her Honda so perfectly that the space and the bike might have been made for one another.  I settle into the shotgun seat. My hands are on my knees.  The Honda is tidy and gives nothing away.  It smells of nothing at all, except, perhaps, for a faint whiff of myrrh. I keep glancing over at her profile, her hair, her hands.  And, through all the twenty miles to my little house, we talk and talk. 


2. What Happened Next

“Is there some place you’ve got to be?”

“Well, let’s see.  I’ve done my wedding errand and run down my daily quota of cyclists.  It’s the groceries next.”

“Ah, the supermarket.  Why is buying food less tedious than putting it away?” 

“You’re right.  It is more tedious.”

“It takes longer, so it shouldn’t be.  Look, it’s nearly lunch time.  Come in and I’ll throw something together.”

“Oh.  I don’t know.”

“Afraid I’ll poison you in revenge?  Like some imperial usurper?”

“But you said it wasn’t my fault.”

“Sorry.  Just teasing.  It’s a way of dealing with the world which, like you, doesn’t care for it.”

“What’ve you got?’


“To eat?”

“Hm.  Canned soup, tuna fish, sourdough bread.  And I’m pretty sure I’ve got a cake.”

“What kind of cake?”

“A round one, I think.”

“Well, if it’s round. . .”


She goes straight for the books, of which there are a lot.  Of making many books there is no end, saith the preacher, and saith it while making a book.  He might have added there’s no end once you start collecting the things either. 

My classification puzzled and amused her.

“F. O. Matthieson, R. P. Blackmur, T. S. Eliot, G. B. Shaw, W. B. Yeats, E. L. Doctorow, I. F. Stone. . ?”

“Bet you figured out the organizing principle of that shelf.”

“Kierkegaard, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gide, Szymborska, Kafka. . ?”

“Ones I re-read.”

“Why so many books?”

“I used to be a scholar.”

“Used to be? And what do you do now?”

“Make furniture.”

“Oh.  So, you’re a craftsman with a good library.”

‘You say that as if you approve of the combination.”

“Do you?”

“It was my childhood ambition.”

“Well, that accounts for the bookshelves being so nice.”

“Thank you.  How about clam chowder?”

“Manhattan—or the real stuff?”

“You have to ask?”

“A whole shelf of Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West?”

“I was going to write a doctoral thesis about them.”

“Going to?”

“Started.  Didn’t finish.”

“Why not?”

“Let’s say I didn’t see eye-to-eye with my advisor.”

“Why didn’t you get a new one?”

“My department didn’t work like that.”


“If you’d fallen out with your advisor, could you have switched?”

“I’m not sure.  My advisor was wonderful.  Like a mother, really.”

“Mine was like a father, a father with a temper and a belt.  I lost interest anyway.”

“And took up cabinet-making?”


“What interested you about Fitzgerald and West?”

“It was a deductive interest.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was interested in the downside of the Depression.”

“There was an upside?”

“For the radicals, maybe.  But I didn’t care for the political stuff.  So I laid out my criteria and deduced which writers to write about.”

“Fitzgerald and West.”

“It’s funny.  When I started out, I didn’t know there were any links between them except the one in my mind.  But I kept finding more and more connections.”

“Give me an example.”

“West favored Continental writers.  Fitzgerald was the only American one he had a good word for.”


“Fitzgerald was asked to contribute to an article called something like 'The Best Unread Books of 1933.'  He suggested Miss Lonelyhearts.”

“That must have pleased West.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is a minor masterpiece that has a love triangle in it.  West named the woman Daisy.”

“As in Buchanan?”

“West had to parody everything he loved.  He was like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“One of those people compelled to make fun of the things they admire.”

“Like you’re teasing the world?”

“I wouldn’t say so.  But you might be right, in a way.”

“So, did you find out any more?  About Fitzgerald and West, I mean?”

“Oh yes.  At the end of the decade they both wound up in Hollywood.  Fitzgerald was hired by MGM to work on prestige projects.  He was unsuccessful.  Meanwhile, West churned out B-movie scripts for second-rate RKO." 

“Fitzgerald had higher standards?”

“You got it.  Fitzgerald needed heroes to admire and picked Irving Thalberg.  West didn’t take the movies seriously, or those who made them.  Their last novels are both about Hollywood.  They were writing them at the same time.  Fitzgerald hero-worshipping Thalberg and West probing Hollywood’s rotten underbelly.”

“Was there any more?”

“West died the day after Fitzgerald.  They were both laid out in the same funeral parlor.”

“What?  Amazing coincidence.”

“Not a coincidence.”


“Causally connected.”

“What was the connection?”

“The usual.  Love and death.”

“Do tell.”

“Over the chowder.  It’s ready.  I’ve got oyster crackers and Hungarian paprika.  Authentic.  From Szeged.”

“Sweet or hot paprika?”




I tried and failed to recall the last time anyone but myself had been in the house so it was something to see her there, seated at my table.  It was, in fact, the kind of gargantuan something that can blot out even a gigantic nothing.


“Okay.  Here’s the story.  West met Eileen McKenney in October 1939.”

“Bike accident?”

“Dinner party.  The accident came later.”


“A year before that party Eileen’s sister Ruth published a popular book called My Sister Eileen.”

“Wasn’t that a movie?  A comedy?”

“There were movies—a make and a remake.”

“So, West and Eileen?”

“Jewish boy who changed his name and a Midwestern girl who changed her address.  Both went West.”

“Horrible pun.”

“There’s little difference between a good pun and a bad one.”

“If you say so. But getting back to West and Eileen at the dinner party, was it love at first sight?”

“Guess so.  They married six months later, in April, 1940.”

“A happy ending.  A comedy.”

“If you could stop the movie there.  Happy, but not an ending.  They were killed on December 22, the day after Scott Fitzgerald’s heart gave out.  The Wests were on a hunting trip in Mexico when they got the news.  Leapt in a station wagon full of dead game and sped north for the funeral.  Apparently, West was a reckless driver at the best of times.  The crash was in El Centro." 

“How old?”

“West was thirty-seven, Eileen ten years younger.”

“That’s awful.”

“I discovered that Fitzgerald and West were laid out in the same funeral parlor. There were substantial obituaries for Fitzgerald.  West got a tiny notice. His first name spelled wrong.”

“Love and death.”

“In that order.  Liebestod.”

“Makes me think of Yang and those two poets.”

“Two dead writers?”

“Yes.  And Eileen.”

“Tell me why you believe Yang killed his father.  I’d like to know.”

“It’s a matter of debate.”

“So, some people don’t think he did it?”

“Some respectable scholars.  But I agree with the people who convicted Yang long ago.  You could say it’s become a traditional belief. Chinese people have a different take on history than we do.”

“In what way?”

“We’re always doubting the best stories.  Debunking is a cottage industry.  You know, like George Washington and the cherry tree.  Jefferson and everybody being equal.  The Chinese don’t do that.  On the contrary.  Even though every new dynasty rewrote it, they like their history stable.  Anyway, the Sui dynasty is fixed in their memory as if it all happened a couple weeks ago.”

“But if Emperor Yang’s patricide’s just a story, a popular legend, why do you believe it?”

“I don’t think it’s just a legend.  There’s circumstantial evidence.  But even more, it’s in character.  Yang was the kind of man who’d kill two poets for writing well.”

“Some round cake?”

“What is it?”

“Angel food, I think.  With a hole in the middle.”

“El Centro.”

“Ah.  Who’s punning now?  And coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

“So, what’s the circumstantial evidence against the deplorable Yang?”

“For me, the best source is Sima Guang, a historian who wrote four centuries later.”

“Four centuries?”

“The Chinese have a lot more history than we do.  To them, four centuries don’t amount to all that much.  Small percentage.”

“What’s this Sima Guang have to say?” 

“You’re really interested?”

“I’m interested.  Really.”

“Okay, then.  Wen had fewer concubines than any other emperor, only two.”

“Faithful to his wife, was he?  In his fashion?”

“Yes.  I think he was, until she died.  Anyway, according to Sima, while the Emperor was vacationing at Renshou Palace, he fell ill.  One of his two consorts left his bedside to answer a call of nature. Yang saw her and was overcome by lust and he molested her. She resisted and fled to the Emperor, who inquired why she was in such a distressed state.  Sima says she answered, quote, ‘The Crown Prince was being indecent to me.’  It’s a good translation, ‘being indecent’ is a decent translation, ‘being indecent’. Very Chinese.”

“Polite.  Did the Emperor believe her?”

“He must have.  Sima says he roared, ‘Animal!’”


“Well, yes.  Yang got wind of what his father said and sprang into action.  He had orders forged replacing Wen’s guards with his own.  Renshou Palace was sealed and Yang sent his deputy to the Emperor’s bedchamber where he promptly expelled the eunuchs and all the ladies of the court.  Shortly after, Emperor Wen was found dead, his ribs crushed.  As soon as he assumed the throne, Yang made his father’s two concubines his.”

“What could they do?”

“Nothing, of course.  But, as I say, scholars are still arguing.”

“Milk?  Sugar?”

“Just milk, please.”


Love and death tend to shatter your plans.  Love—or maybe just lust, that crude simulacrum—drove Yang to molest his father’s consort, setting in train parricide, usurpation, a new corrupt regime, the snuffing out of one promising dynasty along with two talented poets.  Love at first sight united the solitary West, our most pessimistic and unromantic novelist, with Eileen McKenney, the sunny Midwestern girl who might have achieved showbiz stardom if they’d never met, or if West hadn’t given up a hunting trip for a funeral, three of them, as it turned out.  West admired Fitzgerald and, after all, admiration is another form of love—the opposite of lust.

Odd that we’d have shared our scholarly obsessions over lunch, that I’d want to know all about the Sui emperors, that she’d be interested in the lives and deaths of two American writers eighty years ago; yet no stranger than meeting because of a collision, our encounter outside the place where people get married.  El Centro.

She complimented my little house, particularly the bookcases.  As for me, I was filled with gratitude to her Honda, the too-bright sun, the spreading maple tree.


3. Happily Ever After?

“Were Eileen and West happy?”

“I’m sure of it.  West promised his agent that his next novel was going to be all sweetness and light.”

“That’s sad.”

“So, is the wedding on Saturday?  Cecilia’s?”


“Have you got a dress and a date?”

“Got the awful gown.  It’s peach.  I don’t need a date.  I’m a bridesmaid.”

“Is that some sort of rule?  Bridesmaids have to wear awful gowns and can’t bring dates?”

“This one doesn’t.”

“Recent breakup by any chance?”

“Maybe.  But look, it’s getting late.  Now, you’re sure you’re okay?  Really?”

“Absolutely.  Never better.”

“Okay, then. Guess I should go.  Thanks for lunch and the chat.”

“Why don’t you stay?”

“Excuse me?”


“You mean for the whole afternoon?”

“We could talk more about Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney and the Emperors Wen and Yang.”

“Are, you kidding?”

“We could have a nice dinner.”


“Well sure, to begin with.”

“What?  You need a ride to the bike place or something?”

“Not really.”

“Then, what?  I’m not sure I follow.”

“It’s simple.  I want you to stay.”

“You’re not going to pull a Yang, are you?  I’ve got pepper spray.”

“Look, here’s an idea.  What do you say we give it a year or two and see how it goes?”


I fell. I didn’t fall because of sudden lust, like Yang’s, nor was the collision that felled me lethal, like the Wests’.  My fall was a fortunate one, a lucky accident.  Perhaps I fell with the blessing of Saint Denise.

Happily ever after?  Who can say?  Ever after’s a long time.




BIO: Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Play and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. Hsi-wei Tales, a collection of Chinese stories, and Intuition of the News, a book of non-Chinese stories, are forthcoming.