Julian Tepper: Balls: A Novel / Ark
Woody Allen: Mere Anarchy / Without Feathers / Side Effects
The Cohen Brothers: The Gates of Eden / The Big Lebowski / Burn After Reading
Like every day, Ben Arkin woke this morning at 4 a.m. and went into his office, a small room at the back of his Wooster Street loft cluttered with stacks of newspapers and books, and commenced with his routine.
A new journal rested on the antique desk and Ben turned to the first page, spreading his hand over the smooth paper, reached for an obituary from his obituary file, “Thomas Posner, fifty-three, pancreatic cancer,” taped the clipping to the journal page and circled the age with a red marker. After Posner, there was:
Newman, forty-two, car accident Smith, seventy-six, liver failure Hicks, sixty-one, aneurysm Vanderbilt, seventy-two, heart attack Morris, forty-nine, lung cancer
With each obituary Ben drew the red loop around the age of the deceased and taped the square of newspaper into the jour- nal. Why, at eighty-three, to see that he had outlived other men gave Ben a good feeling about himself and the day at hand.
Exercise followed. Two sets of ten push ups, three sets of twelve sit ups, three sets of eight barbell curls, four sets of ten jumping jacks, one minute of toe-touches, five squats. Below the last obit he wrote down his stats. He took pleasure in looking over the numbers. They were proof of effort in his battle against aging. He liked to clear away his long list of enemies and concentrate on the one named aging, in particular. Doing this now, he closed his eyes, pressed his hands together before his chest and hummed aloud a long deep note.
Moving on, he addressed sleep. Looking at the chart, he saw:
May 1st, 2012 – 7 hours
May 2nd, 2012 – 8.5 hours
May 3rd, 2012 – 7.5 hours
May 4th, 2012 – 8.25 hours
May 5th, 2012 – 7.5 hours
For last night, the 6th of May, Ben, checking his Mickey Mouse watch and doing the math, wrote down eight hours. It pained him to think of all the time he slept away, creating nothing. Yet he knew that his genius depended more than anything on a good night’s rest. In fact, as far as his list of enemies, fatigue directly followed aging. She was a true bitch. But he had methods for fending her off, too. The ten-minute nap was king. Coffee, yes. However, he also liked to run the bristles of a brush along his body, first the palms, then the neck, then the stomach and chest, for this inspired the skin and senses to awaken.
On the next journal page, he listed yesterday’s fruit and vegetable consumption, his vitamin intake, as well as the herbs, roots and powders he had bought in Chinatown and ingested after lunch:
Two tablespoons of fresh ginger
Handful of goji berries
One stalk of Broccoli
Small scoop of cinnamon
Go to Chinatown, observe the physical toughness of the very oldest Chinese-New Yorkers and soak in that energy. This was Ben’s order to himself and he did it nearly every day for inspiration. In the last year, as well, Ben had begun posting notes around the loft, by the toilet, at the front door. Things like:
Swoop down. Scoop up. Not me. Not yet.
That Pain Is In Your Head.
At the next moment, he prepared a new note, “Picasso died young,” and glued it to door of his office. Then he read yesterday’s newspapers, showered, shaved and drank two cups of strong black coffee.
By 7:30 a.m., he was in the art studio with his assistant, Jerome, wrapping the edges of a blank six-by-four foot canvas in dress-tie material. Many of the ties were the first-ever made by Ralph Lauren, worn by Ben thirty-five years earlier, when he was still an ad man. The artist, in his white robe, his gray fringe standing on end from nervous stroking and blue eyes pulsating, was using a scalpel to open the stitching and then stapling the material to the edge of the canvas. He gave the impression of an escapee from a mental ward, a subway panhandler, one of the down-and-out forgotten. It was a look he had spent years cultivating.
His wife, Eliza Arkin, stood behind him, in leopard-print pajamas. Her haircut was a perfect dark red bob. Her earrings were gold and jade. Although her Parkinson’s medication worked mornings, there was still the semi-paralysis to com- bat, and her nurse, Violet, a short, heavy yet strong Jamaican woman waited in the nearby doorway. Grinding out a pain-free look on her china doll face, Eliza was thinking of how hideous a thing her husband had made. Of course, having heard him complain many times of how the paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were hung in such extravagant frames that you couldn’t even see the artwork, Eliza knew what this was about. And it wasn’t beauty. This was an act of rebellion. But her husband, at eighty-three, was too old to rebel. At his age, and hers, eighty-one, they should be living in Miami Beach, Collins Avenue, in a simple apartment along the beach, with a balcony overlooking the Atlantic, and not in this factory. Granted, it gave her enormous satisfaction to tell anyone how she’d paid only one hundred and sixty-three thousand for her SoHo residence in 1976 and that these days it would fetch six million easily. Yet the envy of those passing below her windows didn’t justify the trouble of making a home here. In winter, they froze, the draughts terrible. During summer they spent five-figures on air conditioning. The wood floors had a unique octagonal pattern. However, they’d had to replace a panel just last month, and it had cost the same as a pair of roundtrip plane tickets to Paris. Pipes ran everywhere, along the walls, across the ceilings, at the backs of closets and the pantry, the laundry room and bathrooms. They could cover them up, but the old pipes would inevitably leak. Then they were cutting into walls, and the bills for reconstruction were astronomical. Worst of all, her husband’s art was everywhere. The living room was over two thousand square feet, and there was hardly room for the sofa and television—his paintings and sculptures were packed in, giving her home the feel of a warehouse. As it were, Ben rented a warehouse in Jersey City, a six thousand square foot basement space where thousands of his works were stored. And yet why did he even make any of this art? He had never sold a single piece!
She said to him, “You waste all my money on this nonsense.”
Ben snatched another tie from the box, slashing it up the belly, saying nothing. He’d never believed Beethoven’s late-life deafness was anything more than wishful thinking brought to fruition. You had to want to tune out the world that badly. Then you might wake one morning to discover your prayers had been answered. Ben tapped one ear and then the other to test his own. They were big ears.
To support his back, the artist wore a brown weight-lifter’s belt, and beneath the white robe, on top and bottom, were gray sweats. His feet were bare. He stood with his knuckles propped on his ribs, so that his elbows stuck out wide, muttering under his breath. Now he took a pink tie in his hand. In an adjacent box, awaiting his scalpel, were eight suits handmade on the Sa- vile Row. He hadn’t put one on in over fourteen years. The occasion had been his fiftieth wedding anniversary. He saw no reason to hold on to any of them. He would never get dressed up again. He draped the tie along the edge of the canvas, readied the staple gun and released:
Eliza’s thirteen medications gave her dry-mouth and there was the sound of her tongue sticking and unsticking to the insides of her cheeks. She said, “I’ve made up my mind, Ben. We’ll sell some of my diamonds to the Russian. We can go to
47th Street tomorrow and speak with him. He gives the best prices for diamonds. It’s what we’ll do. And I’m comfortable leaving the diamonds with the Russian. The thing is, he’s not going to pay up front.”
Ben’s thumb massaged the dimple in his chin.
“…you have to let him sell the diamonds first,” Eliza was saying. “He’s very good, though. He’ll sell them, and then we’ll get the money. Probably next week at the earliest.”
“Good,” Ben replied.
“But it’s okay to give him a little time. We don’t need the money today. All the same, tomorrow we’ll go to 47th Street.”
Having already given his answer, Ben wouldn’t waste physical or mental energy on speaking to the same point twice. Instead, he grunted. For a grunt, Ben had concluded long ago, did give the body and spirit a worthy lift.
“Then it’s settled,” Eliza said. “Tomorrow.”
Eliza went to lie on the sofa at the back of the loft. She spent whole days there, watching cable news on the 14” television, reading fashion and tabloid magazines, dozing in and out of sleep. At the moment she was thinking of all the money she would get from selling the diamonds. She felt extremely confi- dent. Why shouldn’t she? Ask a man to turn shit into gold—it was doable but hardly easy. She would give the Russian great stuff. Her father, Karl Fischer, had only bought her mother, Ruth, the very best. Karl had done so well for himself. His business? Steel file cabinets. He’d locked down the account with the U.S. Armed Services and then it had been big money from there out. Ruth would sit with her daughter on the large brass bed—a pile of diamonds, so bright, so pretty, between them—and Eliza would tell her mother how they were the most beautiful things.
“Never say a word of this to your brothers and sisters, but I’m going to give them all to you one day,” her mother told her.
An eager young girl, enthralled with the stones, Eliza asked, “When?”
“Right after you marry,” her mother replied.
And three years later Ben did propose to Eliza. She was in love with him. So she thought. A very handsome man, at the time giving full financial support to his mother and three siblings, earning a good salary and clearly on his way to making a heck of a lot more. Yes, both Eliza and her parents felt extremely optimistic about Ben’s economic outlook. That said, when Ben first kissed Eliza it was the diamonds which flashed through her mind. Even now she could recall Ben returning to her lips for a second kiss. A fine kisser, indeed. But she knew the truth of her weakening stomach, her sweaty palms and feet.
Then on the day after the wedding while with her mother at the house in Forest Hills—Ruth, who’d had that Old World physique, the tremendous bosom, a full-barreled middle, an elephant’s buttocks and thick rings of flesh for a neck, said to her daughter, “I have a gift for you. Come with me.”
In Ruth’s bedroom, it was difficult for Eliza to help her mother move the brass bed. Her hands were damp against the metal. Her legs were unstable. But she managed, yes. And with the bed set at an angle, Ruth lifted up a piece of the floorboard, reached down and pulled out a cigar box. She said, “You remember what I promised you, dear?” And she flipped open the lid of the cigar box, revealing the stones. “Take any one you like.”
Eliza had suffered neuralgia as a child, and with her fingers massaging her face she seemed just then to be enduring the painful symptoms of that condition. She said, “Only one?”
“You told me I could have them all.”
“Better I give you one a year.”
“It will be our special thing.”
“But you said I could have them all when I married. That’s what you said.”
“Well, it’s what you said!”
“But you said it! You did!”
“Would you rather I gave you nothing!”
And at that, Eliza took command of herself, apologized, and left with a single diamond.
As it were, Ruth lived till her early nineties, and their tradition was observed each year. But towards the end of her mother’s life, although Ruth was handing off a stone whose value was high, the ritual of sitting on her mother’s bed and choosing her diamond had long felt silly to Eliza. That is to say, it made her feel young, like a child, and for that reason, Eliza told herself, she held little attachment to the diamonds and didn’t mind exchanging them for so much cash.
The next morning, the Arkins rode in the Cadillac to the Diamond District. From the passenger seat Ben punched the end of his cane into the floor of the car and groaned, oblivious to his noise-making and the unhappiness it was causing his wife in the back seat and his assistant, Jerome, behind the wheel. For the third time today, Ben was calculating Jerome’s and Violet’s wages, the cost of Eliza’s medication, the upkeep for the loft and the house in Southampton, the loans against both homes which he had to pay back each month, as well as his art supplies. It all ran him about twenty-five thousand-a-month. The Arkins only had sixty thousand in the bank. To think there’d once been so much money, many millions. Over the decades, with the sizeable expenses and no earnings, that figure had dwindled. It was true that there was much more jewelry, gold and other diamond pieces, perhaps two million dollars’ worth. And the houses, yes. Ben wanted to sell Southampton, but he knew it might kill Eliza. He had bought the place in 1981, for her. Leisure meant little to him. Of course, a mere hundred yards from the ocean and sand, it was where he did his thinking. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, sitting at the head of the dining table with books, his pile of newspaper clippings, his journals and a cup of red and black pens, and staying there and Einsteining-it until 5 p.m. He believed that this practice opened up a side of his brain that made the never-before-seen possible.
Could he execute and dream up his new ideas in New York? Perhaps he would have to, he reckoned.
Yes, perhaps so.
Reproduced courtesy of Dzanc Books
Julian Tepper’s writing has appeared in the Paris Review, the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and Manhattanville Magazine, among many others. His first novel, Balls garnered a great deal of attention, marking Tepper as a writer to watch. Since its founding in December of 2011, Tepper’s Oracle Club has become an important cultural center for writers, artists, and musicians, even bringing about his self-portrayal in the popular television series Gossip Girl. He lives in New York.