"He is a total plant," says Vuk, shooting me a look, all fire.
"A what?" I ask.
"A plant," he repeats, though sounding hesitant now. Vuk, a Slav, frequently muddles his idioms, taking leaps of faith in expressions, hoping, like a boy playing Scrabble, they withstand verification in the OED, if it came down to that.
"A tool, you mean."
"I know what a tool is, thank you." He waits, the sharp, crescent moon of his face twisted in consternation, as if expecting the right word to come wafting by, like a smell from the downstairs Chinese takeout place. "A veggie. A vegetable. You know, utterly comatose."
It's true that Pete, the man I set Vuk up with, is guarded and a little stiff, but in him it amounts to a sort of subdued charm. ("A dark William Hurt," was how I sold him.)
"His contribution to the conversation was minimal, mostly variations on mm-hmm," says Vuk in his slow, laborious manner.
"He's a meditater," I offer. "A listener." That's where Pete and I met, at a gay men silent retreat at the Buddhist center on 6th Avenue.
"I'm a meditater and a listener; he was caging a fly in his mouth: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm," Vuk demonstrates, his lips pinched shut.
"No, he didn't," I say quietly, letting the argument fizzle out. It is a hot July afternoon, and Vuk and I will spend the rest of the day in his apartment in Astoria, probably not moving too far from where we are now, in the living room, stretched out on his rope rug, a little scratchy island provisioned with magazines, tepid iced coffee and an unstable moving fan that cranes its neck at us, curious as a lapdog. This has become the thing we do, the two of us, two middle school teachers on the long stretch of summer vacation, all our other friends out on Fire Island.
"Why can't you and I be together?" Vuk asks. Lately he's been given to saying what he feels about us, and I've been given to allowing it.
I turn my face away. I try to think of something glib to say. "It's not you," I tell him. "It's life." Then, inexplicably, I feel like crying. Glib, but true?
"A lie," Vuk determines. "It flies in the face of reason."
"In whose face?" I ask, so he questions getting the expression right.
"Shush" he says, deep-voiced, the word lingering, becoming a soft whistle. Heavily, he lifts his hand from the rug, bringing his finger to trace the shape of my lips. "Now tell the truth."
"Don't." I push his hand away. "It's because you broke up with me. You've had your chance."
This makes more sense to him. "That's better," he says. He doesn't mind it if I hold a grudge; he finds grudges sexy and fecund (his word). But you mention something about feeling broken or irrevocably damaged, not even by him, necessarily, and Vuk shuts down, quick as anybody.
"So next week, you will fix me up with whom?" he asks, milking the "m" of his "whom."
"No one," I say. "I can't turn tricks for you anymore."
He lifts his gangly frame up on his elbows. "No. Please. C'mon. I like being fixed with your zombies."
"I know," I say. "But the zombies. Think about them."
Vuk shakes his head and smiles. "You are just as cute as a mutton," he says.
I don't say "button." I know he knows this one. I say, "Thanks."
Three-Minute Fiction Round Four: The Winner Is ...
hide captionOur judge, Ann Patchett, is the author of five novels: The Patron Saint of Liars, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Taft, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize; and Run, which was a New York Times best-seller. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for The Magician’s Assistant. Her nonfiction book Truth & Beauty was also a New York Times best-seller. Patchett has written for many publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic and The Washington Post. She lives in Nashville, Tenn.
Our judge, Ann Patchett, is the author of five novels: The Patron Saint of Liars, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Taft, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize; and Run, which was a New York Times best-seller. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for The Magician’s Assistant. Her nonfiction book Truth & Beauty was also a New York Times best-seller. Patchett has written for many publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic and The Washington Post. She lives in Nashville, Tenn.
You submitted nearly 4,000 original short stories for Round Four of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, and our judge, the acclaimed author Ann Patchett, has picked a winner.
As always, the stories had to be 600 words or fewer — fiction that can be read in roughly three minutes. This round, however, the stories had to include four words: "plant," "button," "trick" and "fly."
We had students from the Iowa Writers' Workshop help us select about 200 stories for Patchett to read. Patchett tells NPR's Guy Raz that even though she picked more finalists than she was supposed to, in the end there was no contest. "I knew who the winner was going to be."
"The way he used all four of the words," Patchett says, "I didn't see anyone else use the words in these ways. And aside from that, it's just a great piece of writing."
In Ben Yosef's story, two men spend a hot, static afternoon in an Astoria apartment. Their lazy dialogue masks an underlying tension as the ex-lovers redefine their relationship.
"What I think constitutes a good short story is something where they use a small amount of time to capture a moment where things are shifting." Patchett explains.
"This is a very small moment. It takes place in real time, it's one conversation, but you really feel the subtle shift in their relationship. They don't quite know where they're going, but they're going forward in some way in the end of this story, and I love that."
"Boy, Yoav, if you haven't been writing, time to get back to work," Patchett tells Ben Yosef. "Because this is what you should be doing."
The irony, Ben Yosef says, is that most of his writing lately has been more about giving up writing. After finishing an MFA program in creative writing, "I was sort of was having a little bit of an identity crisis for a year."
"Every writer worth their salt needs to have a year of an identity crisis," Patchett laughs. "You wouldn't be a writer without one."
"Just the fact that you pulled this really hard thing off makes me have a lot of confidence in you," she tells him. "I hope that what the prize ultimately will be is that it will give you a lot of confidence in yourself."
In the meantime, Ben Yosef will receive signed copies of Patchett's books Truth and Beauty and What now?.
We're taking a break from Three-Minute Fiction for just a little while. But we'll be back with new judges, new challenges — and, of course, new stories from you.