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Books by Sam Vaknin
Shalev is Silent
By Sam Vaknin
Posted: Friday, July 02, 2004
Last edited: Friday, July 02, 2004
This short story is rated "PG" by the Author.
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Recent stories by Sam Vaknin
· Nedís Short Life
· Sexsomnia
· Fugue
· The Galatea of Cotard
· Live Burial
· Lucid Dreams
· A Dream Come True
           >> View all 32
"I have a feeling that no one loves me anymore. She is distancing herself and I am losing my daughters. When on vacation, I am a stranger in my own home, with no authority or recognition. It feels so helpless. I cannot hold on to them. Tonight I dreamt that I am screaming as they retreated, eerily oblivious to my pleading, to my words. So I decided to keep quiet. Tell her all that for me, will you?"


Written by Sam Vaknin



Shalev's ample back is propped against the laundry dryer and he is keeping silent. It jerks, he jolts, eyes downcast, his short-sleeved T-shirt defenseless against the arctic ambiance.

"Shalev, say something" - I mutter. He only smiles. It is my daybreak plea, repeated each morning since he quietened.

By way of responding, he turns to face the glass eye of the coinless Laundromat, his stooping shoulders focused upon the swirling garments. He motions to me to lay my wash on a truncated soggy wooden slab.

The laundry room is high ceilinged. Rags decomposing hang flayed on oxblood iron juts, stabbing four walls coarsely mortared by the inmates. Pipes conjoined with moldy tape drip onto the twin contraptions - the malignantly oversized washer and dryer.

Shalev is average height but way obese. His wild stubble and wire glasses accentuate his burliness, the towering machinery, the vaulted chamber. "The Cyclops's Cave", I call it and well-read Shalev just chuckles. He casts a longing glance at a pile of books and snacks awaiting in his "Promised Corner". But he wouldn't say a word.

I occupied one of the twin armchairs in the ironing parlor and set the backgammon board to play. Shalev was preceded in this job by a transvestite whose nocturnal off-key strains of yearning were still evoked. Forced to sequester him away from virile lust - both others' and his own - the prison authorities allowed him to import his shoddy furniture into the concrete monastery that later became the washroom.

Shalev slept in his predecessor's bed and kept his munchies in his metal bureau, coated with peeling sepia paper cuttings. Now, he sank into the matching armchair, arranging his limbs gingerly, as though preparing to inventory them. He smoothed his feral moustache with two stubby stained fingers and studied the board alertly.

He then rose from his seat, swung shut the door but didn't bolt it (regulations). To fend off the gloom, I stretched over and turned on the milky lights above his bookshelf. His wife got him some of the volumes and others he borrowed from the prison's library, my workplace.

Shalev inclined and smothered a round piece with a bulky fingertip. He drove it to a screeching halt next to a corner of the patterned board. Then, content, he fisted the yellowed dice and hurled them at the table. Six-six. His eyes aflame, he basked in this auspicious opening.

I waited with bated breath for an exclamation of his evident exuberance - but Shalev just proceeded to conjure his pieces into and out of existence in a whirlwind of clattering dice and scraping moves and sweaty palms. He suppressed even his customary snickers at my clumsiness. Perhaps chortling was too akin to speech.

"Shalev," - I said - "why have you stopped talking? Why don't you laugh anymore? Why the silence?"

He flings a pair of agitated dice at me. I groan as I pick them off the gooey floor.

"Listen" - I persisted - "I have an idea". An involuntary twitch betrayed his interest.

"Why don't you write what you have to say? We will prepare a stack of small cards here and you could jot on them to your heart's content."

"What cannot be said in words, can sometimes be expressed in letters."

Shalev froze and for a minute there I thought I lost him. Then he nodded his head excitedly. I abandoned him and his victory over me and bolted outside, into the graying drizzle. I crossed two lanes muddied by steamy kitchen waste and absconded with a pack of printing paper from the library. Hiding them under my tattered blemished coat, I hasted to the laundry room.

Shalev arranged the pieces in two equidimensional towers of alternating black and white. I proudly presented my paper loot. We used a ruler and scissors to divide them into squares. And all that protracted time I prayed that Shalev will not devolve from verbal to written taciturnity.

Shalev held the ordinary pen I gave him as though he never handled a writing implement before. He scrawled his tortured letters excruciatingly:

"I want to ask you for a big favor"

The dryer banged spasmodically and ceased.

"I want you to explain to my wife why I am keeping silent."

The hush was broken only by the sounds of his labored scribbling.

"I have a feeling that no one loves me anymore. She is distancing herself and I am losing my daughters. When on vacation, I am a stranger in my own home, with no authority or recognition. It feels so helpless. I cannot hold on to them. Tonight I dreamt that I am screaming as they retreated, eerily oblivious to my pleading, to my words. So I decided to keep quiet. Tell her all that for me, will you?"
 
I nodded and he lifted himself from the crumbling armchair, hugging my soiled clothes, and trotting towards the rumbling, cornered appliance.

The following morning, at six o'clock, the warden bawled our names, marking those present. Ensconced in dreary blazers, we fended off the chill. Shalev, wearing his semipternal T-shirt, leaned on the barrack wall. "Stand straight" - the warden barked and cast an evil glance. Shalev recoiled dreamily. "Who's missing?" - our sentinel demanded and, not waiting for an answer, invaded our windswept accommodation.

"You, come with me." - he motioned to Shalev - "The staff complained yesterday. Clothes were amiss. What happened?"
 
Shalev kept mum.

"He doesn't talk" - somebody volunteered - "He is on a strike." And wicked sniggering.

"What is it that I am told?" - the warden shrilled - "You are not talking? With this scum" - his outstretched hand enclosed us all, a brown effluence - "you can do whatever you want. But with the authorities of this facility, you hear, you will respond! Clear?"

Shalev just nodded absentmindedly. This far from innocuous acquiescence infuriated our guardian.

"It is not the last you hear of me" - he spat and trotted towards the management's stone parapet, splashing jets of mud on our rubber boots. Shalev grabbed my arm and navigated me towards the prisoners' public phone. Today was his turn to make use of it, his ten minutes with the outside world.

A big, uniformed, crowd surrounded the booth. Everyone knew by now about Shalev's weird protest. They came here to loot his minutes, to scavenge the carrion of his allotted phone call. When they saw me, they hummed in disappointment and dispersed, only to perch on the nearby benches, just in case.

Torrential rain volleyed the butt-scorched and graffiti-tattooed plastic shell with itinerant orange leaves. I held on to the scarred receiver and dialed Shalev's home, his family.

His wife picked up. I recalled her deceptive fragility and her two well-attired, well-mannered offspring. She always carried baskets with her - one with food and one full of reading material. They did not bother to inspect their contents at the gate anymore, that's how predictable she was.

"Hello, this is Shmuel" - I said and read the note to her.

Silence ensued, chased by defiant sobbing:

"This is not true . We do love him." - whimpers.

"Shalev" - I hesitated, distressed, under the shadows cast by his hirsute skull - "Shalev, please, she is crying ..."

To the receiver:

"I am giving you Shalev".

Shalev held the handset in his plump hand and listened attentively.

"Are you there?"

He kept mute for many minutes, digging a moat of silence against the verbal onslaught of his wife. He listened to his daughters, head tilted, eyes moist, lips clenched.

Then, gently, he replaced the mouthpiece in its cradle, stifling his children's whining.

There he stood, bent, broken, brow kissing the frosty metal, reluctantly driven away by the minacious grumblings of his fellow inmates. He mournfully dragged his feet along the silt-spattered road to our barracks. Sometimes he stopped and kicked a gravel listlessly, watching its trajectory transfixed, until it hit the rustling bush and vanished.

"Hey, you!" - it was the warden, materializing with the grayness of an impeccable camouflage.

"The chief wants to talk to you about your silence."

Shalev's eyes shifted in the manner of a hunted game. A muscle pulsed wildly in his cheek.

"He doesn't speak" - I ventured, head bowed, eyes locked on the grimy shoes of our custodian - "I can accompany him. He corresponds with me and ..."

"You do what you are told to do" - the words awhipping, eyes socketed in bloodshot red - "or you will end up just like him, in the solitary!"

Bad winds thrashed Shalev's flimsy summer shirt as he descended towards the patched glass door at the entrance to the headquarters.

Back in the barracks, I sat cross-legged on Shalev's bed, eyeing his neatly folded blankets, clean smelling, flower-patterned sheets, the mound of books under his night lamp.

I got up, tucked my shirttails into my cord-held trousers and crossed the square between the barracks and the management. Shalev was seated, overflowing, on a tiny stone bench, studying his fingers as he crossed and then uncrossed them. He rubbed the sole of one of his boots against the other. His lips, tightened pale, contrasted morbidly with the inkiness of his beard and whiskers.

"Go away" - ordered the warden offhandedly.

"Shalev" - I said but he did not react - "I have an offer to make. Give me your silence. I want to buy it from you. Let me be the one to go to the chief and then refuse to talk to him. You tell him that everything is fine, that it was all one big misunderstanding, that you had a fight with your wife, with your family. Apologize profusely. After we exit, I will give you back your silence, I swear to you."

Shalev exerted himself and raised his head, watching me intently. But then his chin drooped and I chastised myself: "you lost him, you lost him" and I wanted to beat myself unconscious.

The warden shook his head in mute disdain.

The silence was broken by the smoke-drenched curses of prisoners and staff, as they crossed the linkchained paths. A woman staffer exited, banging a wooden frame behind her portly figure. She scrutinized the warden questioningly, a sooty cigarette hanging from the corner of a lipstick smear:

"This is Shalev?"

"That's me" - said Shalev - "I am ready now. I will talk to you."

Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.


Web Site: The Suffering of Being Kafka  

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Reviewed by m j hollingshead
more short stories please

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