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Short Story

Kugelman The Tumler

Ron Pies wonders if people live authentically according to their early ideals.

Bok was able to round up three of the Iverson Four, but Kugelman was playing cat-and-mouse, just like in their college days. “Lots going on that weekend,” he had written in an email, “but I’ll try to make it, if I’m not getting laid that Saturday!”

At this, Bok had heaved a sigh, animated not so much by Kugelman’s provocativeness, as by the sense that – once again – things were out of his hands. The galaxy would go on spinning its merry way. His osteoarthritis would progress at whatever rate his genes dictated. The sagging skin over his upper eyelids would continue its descent, unless, as a plastic surgeon had told Bok recently, “We do a bilateral blepharoplasty,” which had sounded vaguely fatal. In recent years, life had taken on the aspect of a car on an icy patch of highway, careening according to impersonal physical laws while the hapless driver sought desperately to maintain control.

Bok, now 65 and about to retire from the Iverson College Philosophy Department, had hoped earnestly, more than forty years after their graduation, to bring about a gathering of the group he had dubbed ‘The Iverson Four’. Weeks ago, Giametti had arranged to put aside his priestly responsibilities for the proposed dinner and make the four-hour drive upstate from Manhattan. Hartunian, a successful commercial artist in Richmond, Virginia, would fly up with his wife and the youngest of three daughters in tow – although only he would be attending the dinner. But Kugelman – cagey, crazy, profane Kugelman, who had instigated Iverson College’s first ‘streaking party’ in 1969 – remained on the fence about it. Even now, as the three friends sat at the candle-lit dining table in the Broward Inn, just off campus, nobody knew if Kugelman would show.

For three years the four men had been ensconced in one of Iverson College’s new co-ed dorms – a cultural legacy of the late 60s – sharing a suite of four rooms. Hartunian and Giametti had roomed together for a year, then, for reasons never fully disclosed, moved into separate rooms for their junior and senior years. Bok and Kugelman had always occupied separate rooms, but had been close friends. It was a source of sour disappointment to Bok that Kugelman had barely kept in touch over the years, save for a couple of Chanukah cards and one call of condolence when Bok’s wife of thirty years died of a massive stroke.

“So, whaddya think, guys?” Giametti said, munching on a piece of French bread, “Is Kugelman coming or not?”“

Father Frank Giametti – still lanky and fit at 64, with suitably graying hair, cut a bit long for a priest – had served for the past twenty-five years at the Church of San Biagio, near Greenwich Village. In his college days, Giametti had majored in European literature, and, for a time, had nourished the hope of becoming a poet. In his junior year, Giametti had mailed his own translation of Dante’s Inferno to John Ciardi, the poet who had produced a much-admired translation of the work in 1954. But the great man did not reply, even if he had received Giametti’s work. Bok had always wondered whether Giametti’s parish in Soho, two blocks from the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, was his friend’s side path to the road not taken.

Hartunian, having imbibed two large glasses of Merlot, let out a cackle. “Hah! As for Kugelman, there’s an old Armenian proverb, my friends: ‘Shad kntatzogh khevuh chi kheloknar’: ‘The fool who laughs a lot will never become wise!’”

“Ah, but my dear Hartunian,” Bok intoned, “Kugelman was never a fool. He was what my tribe calls a tumler: somebody who makes a racket, a tumult! Kugelman was an entertainer.”

“Well now, Professor Bok,” Giametti chimed in, “You’re speaking of our friend in the past tense. So far as we know, he is still among the living, no?”

“As of the email a few weeks ago,” Bok replied. “But what he’s been up to of late, that’s anybody’s guess.”

“None of us exactly followed our original path, I suppose,” said Hartunian, his earlier ebullience having defervesced.

Aram ‘Ramses’ Hartunian had maintained his bearish bulk since their college days, Bok mused. In those years, Hartunian had been quite the lady’s man at Iverson. His swarthy good looks and artistic temperament were like catnip to the artsie co-eds on campus, several of whom were usually found trailing behind the brawny young man. His nickname, ‘Ramses’, was not an allusion to the great Pharaoh, but to Hartunian’s preferred brand of condom. Yet no one doubted the young man’s academic talent. Hartunian had come to Iverson on a full tuition scholarship from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, having submitted an impressive portfolio while still a senior in high school.

A young and very buxom woman in waitress attire entered the private dining room and began to serve a selection of vegetables and cold cuts. Hartunian whispered to Bok, his eyes caressing the woman’s curves, “Now that’s what I call an appetizer!”

Munching a celery stalk, Bok reflected on Hartunian’s early promise, and the young art student’s intention to create a huge mural commemorating the Armenian genocide. But after graduation, financial pressures – a wife, and eventually, three college-bound daughters – had pushed him increasingly toward commercial art. The mural idea went through several mid-level reviews by various local committees, and was quietly tabled. Hartunian now ran a successful ethnically-oriented art supply store in Richmond called ‘Siroon’. He also provided computer graphics services for several area colleges, which, as he put it, “helps pay the rent.”

“One thing you have to say about Kugelman,” Giametti chimed in, “He always marched to his own drummer. I mean, do you remember that crazy tattoo he got in our senior year? The one on his neck? Was it Einstein sticking his tongue out…?”

“Hell, no!” Hartunian interjected, “it was Einstein mooning!”

Bok laughed heartily: “This is what I’m saying! Kugelman was a tumler – a jester. In the old days of the Catskills resorts – Brown’s, Grossinger’s – Kugelman would have walked around the lobby, making jokes, telling stories, maybe singing a song – keeping the guests entertained…”

By the time the main course arrived – blood-rare prime rib for Hartunian, breast of chicken for both Bok and Giametti – the conversation had noticeably ebbed. Bok sensed that neither of his friends was eager to discuss his life-story these past forty years, although there was plenty of talk about the “missing man.” As for Bok himself, he had little to complain about, save for what Marcus Aurelius had called “the regular workings of the universe”: the manifold dents and dings of the aging body; the sting of thwarted ambition; the illnesses of friends and family. Rivka’s death had hit Bok particularly hard – harder than his supposedly stoical philosophical temperament might have led him to suppose – and after five years, it still seemed like some grayish film that permanently clouded his vision.

Certainly Bok had many reasons for gratitude, at least in material terms – including the expectation of a generous pension following his retirement from Iverson. And yet it seemed to him that he had little to show for his innumerable scribblings and ruminations these past four decades. As a philosophy major at Iverson, Bok had become obsessed with Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher regarded as the Father of Existentialism. Bok had written his doctoral dissertation on ‘Kierkegaard and the Leap of Faith’, and had intended to amplify his thesis into a book. But Bok’s thesis advisor had poured cold water on the idea: “It’s all language and logic in philosophy, now, you know, Bok,” he had said. “Nobody really cares much about these old theologians. Why not spend your time on Wittgenstein or Frege?” And indeed, as an earnest and ambitious Assistant Professor, Bok had turned away from Kierkegaard, and began diligently to dissect the corpus of the analytic philosophers, with their language games, theory of descriptions, and predicate logic. And in his progression from Assistant to Full Professor – and finally, to the Gottlob Frege Distinguished Professor of Philosophy – Bok had managed to produce four well-reviewed but seldom read books, now, alas, out-of-print.

Bok, who had been raised in a nominally Jewish household in which left-wing politics were the closest thing to theology, had never embraced Judaism as such. Yet in the ‘old days’ he and Kugelman had engaged in many spirited discussions of spirituality, during those late-night bull-sessions-cum-pizza-binges. Although not conventionally religious, Kugelman came from a long line of rabbinical scholars. His grandfather, Yaakov Israel Kugelman, was regarded as one of the foremost disciples of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg. And for all his manic jokes and ribald songs, at twenty years of age Kugelman knew enough about Jewish mysticism to debate the fine points of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, the Ten Sefirot, and the Jew’s obligation to “gather the scattered, primordial sparks” of creation.

Judiciously chewing his chicken, Bok, now recalled one of Kugelman’s late-night, slightly inebriated ‘teachings’, back in the spring of 1969.

“Listen, Bok,” Kugelman had said conspiratorially over pizza and beer, “Do you know what the Talmud says about us clowns? In the words of Elijah the prophet himself, my man! Elijah sees these two dudes walking by, okay? And Elijah says to a near-by scholar, “See these two guys? They are destined for a special portion in the World To Come.” And the scholar says, “Oh, yeah? What’s so special about these two guys?” And Elijah says, “They’re comedians, man! When they find somebody who’s depressed, they cheer him up. That’s their claim to the World To Come!”

Bok did not know much about Kugelman’s life after the Iverson years. In one of his Chanukah cards he had alluded to “a nice gig with NBC, writing paper towel commercials” with no elaboration. In a later card Kugelman mentioned “doing some scripts” for Chevy Chase, and gave the impression that he was living somewhere near Hollywood. Recently, out of curiosity, Bok had done a Google search, but it came up with too many “Lawrence Kugelman” hits to be of any use: doctors, lawyers, accountants, even political consultants.

As the three friends made small talk over dessert, it was clear that, like Elijah the prophet at the Passover seder, Kugelman was unlikely to appear before the gathered guests. As Bok prepared to say his goodbyes to Giametti and Hartunian, a bittersweet thought came to him from his Kierkegaard days. That philosopher had written about ‘three stages of life’ – the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. It occurred to Bok that the three friends could serve as exemplars of this template, albeit in a pallid, much-diminished way. As for Kugelman – well, how could you classify a creature of such protean powers?

The handshakes and half-hearted “Let’s do this again!” lines were dutifully enacted. Giametti left for his hotel, to be ready to drive back to New York early the next morning. Hartunian drove off to stay with near-by cousins for a couple of days. As Bok was retrieving his coat, he heard a raucous laugh coming from the downstairs pub. Turning his head sharply, Bok could make out two couples and a single male sitting at the bar, drinking. The single man, slightly rotund and in his sixties, wore a rumpled tweed jacket, with corduroy patches on the elbows. He was gesticulating in an exaggerated way – imitating some sort of flapping bird, it seemed to Bok – and producing a kind of clucking sound. The two couples, evidently quite drunk, giggled or guffawed appreciatively. Bok took a few more steps toward the bar. On the side of the man’s neck he saw the faded but familiar tattoo. Bok sighed deeply and stood perfectly still for a moment, feeling the room spinning. As he left the inn, he saw an entire life flash before him. But it was not his life.

© Dr Ronald Pies 2012

Dr Ronald Pies, Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, is the author of several books of philosophy, and has published stories in The Bellevue Literary Review, Moment, and Midstream, and contributed pieces to The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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