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