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Diana J. Wynne

Dostoevsky and the Idiots

 

"Bernard Barker, Frank Sturgis, Virgi..."

I press a buzzer gleefully. "Who are the Watergate Burglars?" I reply for 25 points.

This is College Bowl, a room filled with tension and fluorescent lights. My buzzer is blue. Our team is called Dostoevsky and the Idiots. Usually I am just one of the idiots.

I know nothing about history. The summer of the Watergate trials, we spent house hunting in South Florida. I was still small enough to sleep in the back of a Toyota.

But years later, after we'd moved into the house on Bay Harbor Island and he'd been released from prison, Frank Sturgis used to visit my grandfather. They'd sit on recliners in the living room and talk about making a million, or a billion, it really didn't matter much to them.

My mother would stroll in with very green key lime pie, made with Jell-O and green food coloring. Real key lime pie is yellow, but when she made it that way, no one would eat it. Frank laughed and ate pie and talked about the days when he worked for the CIA and was called Frank Fiorino. He met my grandparents in Havana in 1958.

In the warm tropical nights before I was born, they'd sit outside and drink cafe cubano for a penny a cup and eat churros, sweet fried dough shaped like elephants' ears. At Christmas time, my mother flew in from college. She'd swim and play tennis and diet to fit into the new dress she'd bought for New Year's Eve. That night, my grandparents served icy champagne and as midnight neared, the guests took their glasses and climbed on the roof of the apartment building to celebrate the new year among the stars. The sky was bursting with activity, excited voices, planes flying overhead. My family had no way of knowing the planes were Batista and his government fleeing, taking the Cuba they had known with them into the night. The next day a new government was in power. My mother could not telegram Duke University that she would not be back for finals. She made it back three days later on a military transport. In time, Dicken smuggled out money in cases of liquor and returned to New York. They did not see Frank Fiorino for a long time.

Meanwhile, Frank had begun to work on the Bay of Pigs invasion, training exiles in the Florida swamps to take back their country. When that failed, he was assigned the task of Castro's assassination: he trained a woman named Marita Lorenz who was Castro's mistress. Her job was to seduce him, and then poison him. The seduction worked, but she left the cyanide tablets in her Noxema and the Havana sun melted them. Or maybe she just changed her mind. Marita and Frank remained enemies for the rest of their lives.

My grandmother suggested that Frank had underworld connections. After all, she and Dicken used to eat dinner in Havana with Santos Trafficante, the head of the Cuban mafia.

"Come on," said my mother. "Frank's not smart enough for that."

Frank had written a novella called "The Red Road to Dallas," which he claimed was being made into a TV movie. It was about the Kennedy assassination, the famous grassy knoll. He used to tell us Oswald's bullets never even touched Kennedy.

"The CIA had conclusive proof there was a second gunman," he would say, and grin and intimate the CIA had been responsible. "A second gunman," he would say, chuckling.

I suggested maybe Frank was the second gunman. He and fellow Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt had been arrested on the grassy knoll, dressed as hobos. He and the Novo brothers were reportedly running guns in Dallas in November 1963, on a road trip with Marita Lorenz. But in those days, Frank was just another evening's entertainment. My grandfather was always arranging deals that never happened, selling oil to sheiks and hotels in Las Vegas to Turks.

Not all our company was as cordial as Frank. Once, a man came for dinner and sat and smoked a cigar, and he and grandfather talked and talked. "Judy, get out the calculator," my grandfather would yell to my mother. That particular night, I was supposed to sleep on the couch in the living room. By eleven, I was tired of watching television, and this man showed no sign of departure. I had to get up at 7 for school.

Bits and pieces of conversation ("Telex him immediately," "Shiek Yamani," and "Only 720 million?") wafted in our direction. My cousin and I opened up the Castro convertible and sat on it. We looked in at the two men drinking coffee, eating very green key lime pie in the dining room. We got into pajamas and staged a pillow fight. We made up the bed.

They continued to sell Paris and trade camels. My cousin and I turned out the lights and got into bed. The men looked up briefly, but kept talking, oblivious to children, to a world of normal obligations. Eventually we gave up trying to sleep. My mother said I didn't have to go to school the next day. The man left some time after 2. I watched a lot of late movies in those days.

 

Early mornings, I left for school, less than thrilled with a world that opened its eyes at dawn. I hated history; it seemed so dead next to people like Frank Sturgis.

With the next year came new notebooks, confirmations, and bar mitzvahs, and Michael Kesselman. Kesselman's Herculean task was to teach the entire 8th grade American history. He taught two lectures of 150 students each. We all hated history.

"You're going to love it," Kesselman would bellow like a maniac, pointing in turn to each unfortunate person who was seated in the front row. He was short and massive with a Rasputin-like mustache, beady black eyes.

"This," he growled, pointing to the linoleum tile, "is American soil. But you're going to have to fight for it!" We looked back in fright. And this was how we learned history. We had battles. Kesselman would point his mighty finger at one of us and scream "Yankee!" and you would roll up paper towels and run around the room in search of a Confederate swine to kill at Getttysburg.

Or he would sum up culture with a ditto:

WRITERS: Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

For Black History Month, we had to know who wrote Invisible Man and what position Satchel Paige played. He had read none of them, although he had written a 600-page doctoral thesis on hurricanes.

In November, we held a mock United Nations. I was assigned a country no one had heard of in 1976: Iran. "Used to be called 'Persia,'" I told my mother, reading from the World Book. Iran had a lot of oil. Maybe my grandfather would want to sell them more. Kesselman also covered World History for ninth grade honors. In a good mood, he assigned Food Days. "Asia, India, and Africa on Friday," he'd announce Monday morning. "Bonus points to anyone who cooks." I became a gourmet. The New York Times International Cookbook sat faithfully next to TV Guide at my side. On France Day, I made petit fours. On Mideast day, I rolled sesame seeds with oats and honey and dates.

"History is great," I told my mother. That year, as one of Kesselman's favorites, I got first pick in the United Nations. I took the United States and came as Miss America in a Catalina swimsuit. Miami was still a lot of fun in those days.

My cousin was born the day of the UN. The following year, on Alexis' birthday in 1979, Iranian students raided the American embassy and took hostages.

"You've got to see the news," my mother said as I walked in the door. On the TV, there was Frank Fiorino smiling with an interviewer. The broadcaster said, "Mr. Fiorino has bravely offered himself in place of the American hostages. Let's go to Iran to see what the officials there have to say."

They went to Iran, where thousands of angry Iranian men shook their fists in the air, chanting. The Iranians did not want to exchange the hostages for Frank. We tied yellow ribbons instead. I don't know what became of Frank after that, or where he went in pursuit of adventure.

History became dull again at Beach High. No one sat in our dining room all night, and when the phone rang, it was usually just for me. Once in a while, I would answer the door in pajamas to one of my grandfather's late-night friends, and they would take over the house, filling it with perfume and coffeecake and dreams of unrealized fortunes. These people were far more interesting to me than Woodrow Wilson or the platforms of the 1828 election. Still, I studied hard. I won the American History award and went away to college, to create my own history.

 

When my uncle and my mother were teenagers vacationing in Puerto Rico with their parents, someone told them Irving Berlin was staying in their hotel. They could hardly believe their luck. My uncle approached a chubby, middle-aged man reclining on the sand.

"Are you Irving Berlin?" he asked the man.

"I certainly am," said the man. "And this is my friend Agnes Moorehead." My uncle shook hands with Berlin and got both their autographs.

Back in the hotel room, my uncle showed his prize signatures to my mother.

"Agnes Moorehead?" she said. They went out on the balcony, and my uncle pointed out the woman on the beach.

"But that's not Agnes Moorehead," she said.

"Then who was that man?"

 

Michael Kessleman became principal of North Beach Elementary School. He won a lot of awards, until teachers in his school went to the press and claimed he'd made them lie about their perfect attendance records.

 

Sunday mornings in college, I listened to pop radio surveys, trying to capture history in progress.

"Oh year, life goes on," John Cougar gruffly assured me, "long after the thrill of living is gone. Hold onto sixteen as long as you can..." Sixteen, I thought listening to the radio. I was over the hill at 20.

"This has been Dick Clark's National Music survey," they announced, when the countdown was at last complete. "Tune in next week to see if Quincy Jones can beat out Hall and Oates for the number one spot in the nation. A Frank Fiorino production."


Diana J. Wynne's essays have appeared in the New York Times, Exquisite Corpse, Ms. Magazine, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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