“At Ken’s Expense” – Fiction by Arman Safa

Don Quixote and the Windmills - Salvador Dali, 1945
Don Quixote and the Windmills – Salvador Dali, 1945

From our Spring 2015 issue, “At Ken’s Expense” is Arman Safa‘s metafictional short story-length novel about Arman writing a novel at Ken’s expense.

{ X }

{ chapter 1 }

THE FIRST SENTENCE SHOULD BE SEVEN WORDS LONG.

“Damn it,” muttered Ken to himself.

Having the last word was becoming increasingly problematic. When he wanted it, the last word evaded him. And when he sought out the perfect seven word opening sentence to his second novel, the last word confounded him still.

It was February the third, a typical and unremarkable occasion, and the eight inches of expected snow was a surprise to no one. Still, at 6pm, the bookstore was extraordinarily empty. And quiet. Just Ken’s fingers tapping on the keyboard in the back office and some aesthetically inappropriate Irish music Arman had put on behind the register.

“Damn it,” muttered Ken, audibly. Arman smiled. Though unable to see Ken, he amused himself with an image of Ken hunched over the keyboard, face aglow, pulling his hair.

“Am I cruel?” he thought. “Can boredom and the certainty of an excruciatingly slow evening turn the butter knife of my heart into a sharpened blade?”

Impressed with his pretentious eloquence and swagger of tongue, Arman decided that, if nothing else, he should be the one writing a story. And in that moment, he knew that the perfect first sentence would, in fact, be eight words long.

Distracted, and desiring a bit of amusement before committing himself to writing an entire story, Arman stepped into the back office. He saw Ken at the computer reading a news article.

“What do you want to eat tonight, Ken?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“How’s your novel coming along, Ken?” And before letting Ken respond, he added confrontationally and with more than a touch of perplexing irony, “I’m going to write one as well. In fact, I’ve already started. And I’ve even written more words than you.”

“Well,” said Ken. “I’m doing some editing. And it’s easier for you because I’m your main character.”

Arman was more than a bit perturbed by Ken’s brash display of egoism.

“I had ramen for lunch earlier,” Ken continued, “and it was awful.”

And it was. 

 

 

{ chapter 2 }

March 3rd.  And to Arman’s surprise, exactly one month had passed since he began his opus At Ken’s Expense. That this day coincided with yet another evening shift at the bookstore shared with his partner in prose was beyond fortuitous: it was kismet!

And once again, Ken was in the back office, typing. The only discernible difference Arman could make out between Ken-of-today and Ken-a-month-ago was that he now had a belly full of Arman’s gummy bears, taken unapologetically and without permission.

And Russia was preparing to invade Crimea and possibly move onward towards the rest of Ukraine. “Much like Ken’s foreboding and greedy hands moving towards my gummy bears,” thought Arman.

The snow storm, dubiously named Titan by The Weather Channel, failed to arrive as predicted, and an unopened fifty pound bag of ice salt lay in the basement with a scribbled warning taped to it: Do Not Open. The rest of winter would be forecast by that bag and its seal.

“How many customers have come into the store this evening?” wondered Arman. “Maybe five. This doesn’t make for much of a story, does it?”

Having pondered alone for long enough, Arman approached the back office looking for Ken to entertain him.

“Ken! Entertain me!” he whined, stepping through the doorway.

And then, taken aback, shocked! Arman guffawed, cried, and shook with anger. Ken was sitting carefree at the desk, surfing the internet, oblivious to the worries and pressures of writing a novel. “Ken!” Arman bellowed, shaking the back of Ken’s chair from side to side, “You said you were working on your novel!”

“I was taking a break,” said Ken, defensively.  And emerging from his lazy lair, he followed Arman out into the store, flooding the air with pathetic entreaties such as: “I worked on the novel earlier” and “Look how well I mopped the floor.” And after standing behind the register for a moment too long, catching sight of Arman’s own novel written At Ken’s Expense, he slowly meandered back into the office, where he most certainly resumed his pursuit of fruitless diversions.

“Unbelievable,” grunted Arman.  Or, rather, all too obviously believable. Arman’s story, originally intended as a light, humorous flight of fancy, was taking on a sense of realism hitherto undesired and unintended.

“Unbelievable”, he muttered again to himself. 

 

 

{ chapter 3 }

This is a sample chapter from Ken’s novel after an evening in the back office:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ chapter 4 }

Forces beyond Arman’s control have prevented him from working with Ken – it has been weeks! And his novel is suffering. March is nearly over, and though the weather channel continues to forecast wintry precipitous events, they seldom arrive.

And time is running out.

Ken has purchased a one way ticket to Egypt and will be leaving April 19th. This happens to be the day before the 125th anniversary of Hitler’s birth, a coincidence that has not gone unnoticed at the bookstore.

Ken is also periodically overheard mentioning jihad. But who is to say what implications can be drawn from this, other than Ken’s complete inability to tow the line of human decency.

And as his travel date draws near, he continues to stumble: performing racist impersonations of an agitated Korean deli owner, praising the Muslim Brotherhood, and periodically announcing his support for Hezbollah.

As Arman considers including these details in his novel, he hesitates. What will his readers think? Will they judge Ken too harshly? Because when it comes down to it, Ken is alright, and an author shouldn’t mislead his readers, especially when it comes to the very moral compass of the main character. Or does the reader want to be misled, to revel in a fog of dubious uncertainty, where Ken might emerge the leader of a coup d’etat or the rescuer of a downed plane full of helpless orphans? Surely the reader wants Ken to do something.

“Arman! I need the computer. I have to do my homework!” shouted Yanik, a fellow bookseller, interrupting Arman’s train of thought and preemptively concluding his chapter.

 

 

{ chapter 5 }

It is May 21st and the first dispatch from Ken has arrived. It is a video link to “MC Supernatural Freestyle at Surf Expo,” and Arman is disconcerted. Expecting Ken’s journey to provide a cornucopia of middle-eastern flavored anecdotes and a veritable mezze platter of inspiration, Arman is now confronted with the possibility of a correspondence bereft of substance.

“Is Ken trying to thwart my novel?” worried Arman, as he deliberately closed Ken’s message without clicking on the link. “The Islamic State is wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq. Boko Haram is raiding villages in Cameroon. And Ken writes to me about – what!? – MC Supernatural.”

And it’s true. Ken’s apparent aversion towards international political discourse comes as a genuine surprise to all, a callous affront to his previously well-established character.

Where was Ken-The-Committed, who once shared an incredibly arduous commute with Arman back to Brooklyn, staying on long past his stop in order to clarify an objectionable comment he made concerning the rights of women in Arab countries? It was a point that began in Manhattan and would have surely continued all the way to Coney Island had Arman not insisted upon exiting the train at his own station.

And where was Ken-The-Concerned, who diligently sifted through the daily reports of horrendous atrocities occurring throughout the world in order to better advocate awareness and understanding?

Was this Ken in Egypt now, or not?  Or did he only exist in a past tense?

Or, perhaps the authorities there had detained Ken, sentenced him to an existence based solely on conjecture, then released him a changed man, whose scope of interest was now limited to weather forecasts and YouTube videos.

One thing was certain.  Arman’s novel, which started out as a novel about Ken’s attempt at writing a novel, was now facing a crisis of identity.

 

 

{ chapter 6 }

Summer has arrived along with the throngs of international tourists, and the air is heavy with a moist sense of entitlement. Book sales are up, orders are in, and every day ends in the Sisyphean promise of new shipments waiting to be unpacked.

Unfortunately for Arman, the ruminative moments necessary for pursuing literary endeavors have been stifled by this brisk pace.  Naturally, his thoughts turn to Ken.

“Where is Ken now?” he wondered. “Always off somewhere when I need him most…”

And as Arman’s thoughts trailed off, he tried to picture a present-tense Ken, wandering around Cairo or Alexandria, ignorantly not knowing a word of Arabic. Arman imagined Ken unleashing an unwieldy array of inarticulate gesticulations upon innocent and bewildered pedestrians, trying to mime “How do I sign up for the militia?” or “Where is the closest restroom?”

Arman made a note to include these thoughts in his novel.

But was that enough?

“Is this enough?” Arman asked himself.  “Again, always writing now about Ken from afar.  What will I do?  Without his Quixotian presence, I am lost!  Is it even possible now? Can my writing, At Ken’s Expense, find a new direction?”

This pressing question weighed heavily on his mind, preventing him from relishing the smug satisfaction he usually felt whenever he successfully referenced Cervantes.

And afraid of sinking into an inescapable despondency, Arman looked searchingly around the bookstore for a possible alternate source of motivation. He scanned the store’s back wall. He surveyed the front of the store. He panned slowly across the room towards the main counter, and there his vision came to rest just behind the register, where Yanik sat on a stool, listless, engrossed in some sort of smartphone malarkey.

Arman frowned. “I guess this is it, reduced to relying on a second rate muse.”

 

 

{ chapter 7 }

“Quit staring at me!” Yanik snapped. “You’re giving me the creeps!”

Yanik’s theatrical voice, though slightly dampened by the outside patter of a summer shower, resounded throughout the empty bookstore, nonetheless.

The prevalence of fireflies and mosquitoes meant that it was almost the end of July, and Arman’s new subject of interest was participating, but with objections.

Feeling suddenly bored by his own anger, Yanik lost interest in Arman and returned to studying chemistry.  His final was approaching and a good grade would ensure him a spot in the teacher’s advanced class next semester.

Thus occupied, Arman resumed his own observations, noting that Yanik’s scholarly pursuit involved frequent digital diversions.

“He swings like a mad pendulum, back and forth, between absent-minded hours spent absorbed in homework and studious hours spent looking up profiles on grindr.”

And carried away by his own mellifluous cerebration, Arman further posited, “Yanik, however, seeks out his one night stands in an awkwardly sincere quest to find true love.”

Touched, having moved himself almost to tears, Arman raised his eyes, overflowing with empathy, and looked upon Yanik anew.

The book hit him in the face.

“I said Quit It, you freak!” yelled Yanik.  “Go write about Ken!”

Arman turned away, down-hearted, and retreated to the back office, scathingly aware of how Ken-like his withdrawal was.  He turned on the computer with the vague intention of working on his novel, but found himself checking his email just moments later.

And there it was. A Sign! A portent! A dispatch from Ken!

“Cairo is so fucking hot.”

 

 

{ chapter 8 }

October 17th arrives in a whirlwind of activity.

In reaction to Ken’s last weather report, Arman has sought out solace and direction in a group setting, enrolling in a writing class at the local college. He has been work-shopping At Ken’s Expense, and hopes to submit it for publication before Ken remembers he ever began trying to write a second novel.

Meanwhile, the bag of unopened ice salt has returned to the office, where it sits, a harbinger of the weather channel’s seasonal rise in ratings.

The sudden drop in temperature has given Arman time to edit, and after accidentally leaving a working copy in the office, the entire bookstore has been eager to join in the process.  Yanik is demanding credit for chapter 3, and is eager to make further appearances.  He has taken to strutting around the store in skimpy tank tops, and constantly appears looking over Arman’s shoulder, where he stands now.

“It’s hard to write with you there,” wrote Arman, assuming Yanik would get the message.

“Well, if I were you, I would be more concerned with focusing on the novel’s conflict.”

That was, in fact, exactly what Arman was intending to do, and Yanik’s surprisingly incisive literary observation made Arman pause for a moment and reconsider his characterization.  He even toyed, momentarily, with the idea of renaming his novel Yanik: The Vain Pursuit.

But when he glanced back at Yanik and saw him touching the screen of his phone in an uncomfortably provocative manner, Arman decided to resume work on the conflict.

“The problem is obviously Ken,” he mumbled, repeating Ken’s name like an incantation or a summons.

Unable to make any progress, Arman decided to revisit his notes from the workshop.

“This editing process is my real conflict.”

And so it was.

 

 

{ chapter 9 }

These are some notes made while work-shopping At Ken’s Expense:

Get rid of Yanik, his character is too shallow.

Arman’ s importunate use of magniloquent language is vexatious.

“I have been lectured by an editor that you must write subject verb, so ‘Ken muttered.’ Make of that what you will.”

Everything is perfect the way it is.  Don’t Change A Thing.

Is this story from Arman’s POV, or Ken’s?  It reads like a sudden omniscient narrator.

Is Ken writing Arman’s novel?

There is an issue with the narrator.  It vacillates between close third and omniscient.  I think you should stick to either or…or, you could start each chapter omniscient and then change the “lens” and close in on Arman.

Consider removing all zoological metaphors from the entire novel.

Where is the conflict? The climax?

Consider citing the Bob Dylan lyric in chapter 6, as it alludes to Ken being Arman’s Patron Saint.

Try to provide some sort of time frame for each chapter.  Time is your conflict!

Ken is your conflict.  Remove Yanik entirely.

This reminded me of Marcel Benabou.

I like it.

 

 

{ chapter 10 }

A well-conceived novel should have 10 chapters.  The 10th chapter should be the longest.  And the last sentence should have one less word than the first.

“I guess that makes sense,” said Ken, though he was not quite sure how.

It was two days until Thanksgiving, and judging from the message Ken had just received from Arman, New York was in the path of Winter Storm Cato, a storm so powerful that it would surely require a fifty pound bag of ice salt to keep the old storefront safe.

Ken considered this information for a moment, mulling it over while sipping his mint tea.  Although he had only known Arman for a little over a year, he was unsure whether this hyperbole was entirely Arman’s or The Weather Channel.  Either way, Cairo would be sunny and in the mid-sixties, perfect “Ken” weather.

From out his window Ken heard a raucous guffaw.  Although not typically paranoid, Ken could not shake the feeling that this pernicious laughter was somehow at his expense.  But he closed the window and carried on, eager to read the rest of Arman’s unusually long letter.

“This is long enough to be a novel,” he joked, only to realize moments later that that was exactly what Arman had sent him.

“Ana mondahesh,” winced Ken, transliteratively, sucking in air through the sides of his mouth.  And for those unfamiliar with the meaning of such a statement, one quick glance at Ken’s grimace would suffice for translation: surprise.

Ken’s head fell upon the keyboard, mashing the keys from cheek to cheek, over and over, as he moaned barely discernible phrases that sounded like “This can’t be!” and “How did he do it?” and “I didn’t give him anything…”

All the trouble Ken had gone through, the months he spent biting his tongue as he sent Arman misleadingly inconsequential dispatches, all a waste.

“I might as well have told him everything!” cried Ken, pulling at his hair, his head still facedown.

And it’s true.  Had Arman known about Ken’s forays into serious journalism, his skirmishes with the authoritarian regime, or the gag order he had received, perhaps the story Ken now began to read would have been different.

Ken lifted up his head and pulled himself together.  From what he could remember, Arman’s novel was entirely about him.  It was confusing.  It was inconsistent.  And it could not possibly sustain itself without its main source of inspiration.

And so he read.

And Ken grew more uncomfortable with each passing chapter, though deep down he knew that this discomfort was simply his reluctance to admit the vainglorious pleasures At Ken’s Expense provided.

Ken even found himself saddened as the last chapter winded to a close.

What would he do now?

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked Arman, from a curious distance.

And miraculously, as if some omnipotent narrator had heard his plea, Ken noticed a postscript in Arman’s letter:

PS: Ken!  Talk to me!  How’s your second novel coming along?  Are you still stuck on that first sentence?  I have an idea that will help us both.  You see, I’m having trouble with my last sentence, and I thought perhaps you could write me a seven word sentence about how you are doing. or maybe where you are exactly…right now! physically, mentally, geographically.  Inspiration for us both.

“This is so typical,” mumbled Ken.  “What the hell! How can I help with his last sentence when he’s already finished At Ken’s Expense?”

But as Ken thought more about it, he realized that this could be his chance.  Yes! His chance to get the first and last word in.  This was the inspiration he needed.

So Ken opened the blank document that was his second novel and began:

“Asked the heavily armed teenager where disco was.”

“Dammit,” said Ken, powerless, as Arman laughed.

{ X }

ARMAN SAFA lives in Brooklyn.

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