There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where
each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like
that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become
insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe
broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything. If you are
from one of these families, you believe this, and you always will.
Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead, that he was a citizen of a necropolis. While his parents were living, Ben had thought about them only when it made sense to think about them, when he was talking to them, or talking about them, or planning something involving them. But now they were always here, reminding him of their presence at every moment. He saw them in the streets, always from behind, or turning a corner, his father sitting in the bright yellow taxi next to his, shifting in his seat as the cab screeched away in the opposite direction, his motherdead six months now, though it felt like one long nighthurrying along the sidewalk on a Sunday morning, turning into a store just when Ben had come close enough to see her face. It was a relief that Ben could close his office door.
Ben was a full-time question writer for the quiz show American Genius, where he had worked for the past seven years. Long ago, he had loved it. He had loved the thrill of working for TV, loved telling people he worked for a network, loved thinking up new questions, loved wondering which contestant he would stump next. Secretly, he had dreamed of someday becoming the show's host. The fact that he was five-foot-six, weighed 123 pounds, spoke in a near-monotone, and was legally blind without his glasses never struck him as an impediment to this goal, even though the only reason most people watched American Genius was for Morgan Finnegan, the show's hunky, Texan, redheaded, hilarious, charming, and (Ben had noticed over the years) intellectually under qualified emcee. But before he turned thirty a few months ago, Ben had maintained full faith in logic. If he, Benjamin Ziskind, was the smartest person on the staff, then his intelligence would eventually be rewarded. His specialty was in the thousand-dollar-plus category, questions that no one but the true champions could answer. In the past few months, though, his questions had been repeatedly rejected, and now they were interlaced in his mind with questions he asked of himself:
What acclaimed Russian writer, author of Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry, was executed in 1940 under false charges of treason?
During which of the following incidents in the past year did Nina lie when she claimed that she loved me?
Which 1965 battle in the Vietnam War, code-named Operation Starlite, was successful enough to inspire the Pentagon to send thousands more Marines to the war?
For how many of the eleven months of our brief and pathetic marriage was she actually sleeping with someone else?
To the nearest power of ten, what is the number of American soldiers who have lost limbs in combat since the end of World War Two?
Among American males who have twin sisters, what percentage are as jealous of them as I am of Sara?
Once Sara sells our parents' house, what will be left of them?
What is the probability that my dead parents are disappointed in me?
Ben did not try to answer these questions. In the past few months, he had condensed his life into the few things that still belonged to him: his pitiful job, his twin sister, the apartment his former wife had stripped of nearly all its furniture, and a stack of children's picture books his mother had written. And, as of last night's theft, a $1 million painting by Marc Chagall.
Reprinted from The World To Come by Dara Horn (the full text of chapter 1). Copyright (c) 2006 by Dara Horn. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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