.Ten Tens.

By Robert Klein Engler


A cold light from the street below seeps through the vertical blinds and stripes the floor. At the other end of the room the green glow from a stereo receiver burns robotic. The CD has stopped playing. The only sound in Peter Ashcomb’s apartment is that of breathing and the grind of a refrigerator in the kitchen. In the darkened front room, shapes and shadows fade together like the image on an old black and white photograph.

“Can you put your baseball cap back on?” Willie asks. “The one you wore at the bar.”
There is a moment of silence, followed by the racket of a passing L train two blocks away.
“My baseball cap?”
“Yeah,” Willie says.
“But I’m not done yet. Neither are you.”
“I know…but it’ll help.”
Peter shifts his weight from one knee to the other and pulls Willie closer to him.
“When you have your cap on,” Willie says, “I don’t see your bald head. I can get into it more.”


The next morning Peter turns on his computer as soon as he gets up. It’s C major chord fills the room. It snowed last night and he wants to see how badly the storm will effect his commute to the college where he teaches. The weather page reports ten inches. That’s not too bad. Maybe he’ll take the later L. Peter walks to the window and looks out at the street below from his 10th floor condo. It’s still dark. Just a few flurries dance in the streetlight below. He follows the red taillights of a car with his eyes. The car stops at the corner, fishtails out of a snowdrift and then turns right onto Sheridan Road. Peter then follows his morning ritual; coffee, beagle, shower, and lecture notes. Before he leaves home, Peter straightens up the apartment. His Cubs cap is still on the sofa.


Willie’s roommate Hester bends over the gray mattress that fills the floor near the corner of the bedroom
“Look, Willie, if you wanna stay here you gotta cough up some rent money,” Hester demands, poking Willie on the shoulder.
“I will. I’ll have the rest tomorrow.”
“I need it today.”
“OK.” Willie reaches into his jeans. “Here’s 50 bucks. I only made 100 last night.”
“Didn’t you steal anything? A ring? His wallet?”
“No. The trick was careful. We never made it into his bedroom. He just did me on the couch. Besides, I kinda liked him.”
“Well, like him some more, cuz I need another 50.”
Willie turns to face the wall. He studies the torn wallpaper. He hears the door open and Hester leave. Hester’s footsteps fade as he goes down three flights of stairs. Willie studies the pattern of roses on the wallpaper. Funny, Willie thinks, the roses have no thorns, then he shuts his eyes and tries to fall back to sleep. It’s only ten in the morning.


“The Golden Age of Latin Literature begins with Cicero,” Peter tells his class at Jefferson College. “The death of Ovid in 17 A.D. marks the beginning of the Silver Age.” Peter adds, “We read them to learn there is nothing new under the sun.” Peter looks out at his students. One girl is typing on her laptop. Peter doubts she is taking class notes. From where Peter stands at the podium he sees a boy doodle manga characters in his notebook. Peter realizes he can give this lecture in his sleep. Unfortunately, he gives it in his students’ sleep. After class, Peter stops by the admissions office and picks up a college handbook. The receptionist in the office is applying red nail polish. She blows on her fingernails to dry the polish and gesture to Peter to take as many copies as he wants. Peter will give the handbook to Willie if he ever sees him again.


Willie saluted, passed the MP, and headed towards his rack on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Willie was drunk and so was the sailor who walked behind him down the corridor. They both met at a bar in the shadow of the Parthenon. The bartender wanted American money, so they gave him dollars and drank too much ouzo and whatever the bartender offered. They joked about their life in the navy. Willie thought it hilarious when Nick referred to their sister-ship as the “Hairy Ass Truman.” Willie had seen Nick look at him in the mess hall, earlier, and Nick even bumped into him on the way to the shower. They just said “Hi,” to play it safe. When they saw one another at the bar, they opened up and spent the time talking about their lives back in the States. Now, as Willie listened to Nick’s foots steps behind him on the ship’s deck, Willie felt emboldened. It wasn’t the first time for Willie, but it was the first time he said the word “love” to himself. When the two young men turned the corner, Willie grabbed Nick and kissed him. Willie kissed Nick hard on the mouth, hard, the way a drunk does who not know his own strength or his own weakness. The hum of machinery that forced air about the great ship hushed the friction of their hands. Willie listened for sounds in the corridor like an animal that waits. Two weeks later, Willie got the letter notifying him of his LTH discharge.


“Mom, it’s not that awful,” Peter says into the phone. “I’ll come and visit. You’ll like it. All the meals are cooked for you.”
“It smells like piss,” Peter’s mother says back, with the blunt words of an old woman.
“No, it doesn’t,” Peter asserts.
“What will I do with my furniture?” she pleads.
“You can’t take it all, but there will be room for your favorite chair.”
Peter tries to assure his elderly mother a move from her apartment to a nursing home won’t be that bad. She thinks otherwise. Maybe she’s right. But what else could Peter do? His mother is forgetful. She starts out to make soup. She opens the can. Pours the chicken noodle into a pot. Puts the pot on the stove and turns on the gas flame. A day later, she remembers the soup and wonders why there’s a burnt smell in the apartment.


“Fuck off, Dude’” Willie says pushing the older man down to the sidewalk in front of the Lucky Slipper bar.
“Hey,” cool, I like rough trade,” the older man says, brushing snow from the seat and legs of his corduroy pants.
“Well, fuck you. I’m not trade.”
“Baby, the sooner you know what you are the better off you’ll be. Shit, I offered you 200 and this is what I get. Fuck it. You’re not worth my time, let alone my fuckin’ money.”
The older man turns and walks away.
“Go play with yourself,” Willie shouts, hoping the man would at least turn around and give him the finger. Instead, the older guy just keeps walking down Clark Street, as if nothing happened and Willie didn’t exist.


Peter counts out the bills, then heads for the frozen food section of the supermarket. He asked the woman at the service desk when he cashed a check to give it all to him in tens. Peter divides off ten, ten dollar bills and places them in his shirt pocket. The rest of the money will be used to buy vodka, lettuce and frozen lasagna. Maybe I should give him five twenties, he thinks. Then he decides ten tens looks like more money. Peter worries about the money. He never hands it over, but leaves it on a coffee table by the sofa, under the weight of a crystal ashtray. With plastic bags of groceries dangling from each hand, Peter leaves the supermarket and walks home. At least the sidewalks are shoveled. A squad car rushes down Belmont, its blue lights flashing.


Willie pays for his two fish sandwiches, a cola and fries. The girl at the register drops the change into Willie’s cupped hand without a word. He looks at the change and shakes his head. He is running out of money, again. Willie walks with his tray to a table by the window so he can see the traffic pass on Belmont. Behind him a black couple makes out in a booth. Willie looks at them before he sits down. Outside, cars and people pass as if behind a wall of glass. They all seem to be going somewhere, while Willie’s not. Willie is just stuck eating fish and fries. He takes a sip of his cola and remembers the flight crew that went down the last week he was on the carrier. He was below deck when it happened. An E-2 Hawkeye crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after being catapulted off the flight deck. About half a mile out from the ship, the plane nosed into the ocean. There was an explosion. A helicopter and small boats were sent out immediately, but no survivors or debris could be found. A strange silence infected the ship for a few days after that. I think I’ll call Professor Peter after I eat, Willie says to himself. The silence in the restaurant reminds Willie of the loneliness on the aircraft carrier. He pokes another fry into a little paper cup of catsup. The thing about catsup is, it makes everything you put it on taste like catsup.


The phone in the kitchen rings and rings, but Peter has his headphones on with the volume turned up, so he doesn’t hear the ringing. He doesn’t want anyone to disturb him while he listens to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. He first heard this symphony when he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Every time he hears the symphony again, he remembers his halcyon days with Bradley. He could still point to the dorm room where they fumbled together through the night. Bradley is long gone to Thailand these days, with his German wife, heading up a nature preserve. Peter listens intently for the end of Brahms’ second movement, where a long note played on the violin fades off into silence. This is Peter’s favorite part. Just one note alone, but expecting more. The note is like a sigh running out of breath. When the music ends, a nervousness comes over Peter with almost a shiver. He says to himself, damn, I gotta do something different, change the direction of my life. Then, Peter hears the phone ring once more.

One Comment

  1. Sissy Van Dyke wrote:

    Wow, what a great story, Robert. It was so well-written and visual. All of the characters and situations felt very real.