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10/13/10 4:00am

Ben Greenman‘s last book, What He’s Poised To Do (Harper Perennial), was full of stories about love and loss, populated by men and women who spanned a wide range of places and times. His new book, Celebrity Chekhov,” is full of stories about love and loss, populated by American celebrities. Add to that the fact that Greenman didn’t exactly write them from scratch—the stories are based heavily on original works by Anton Chekhov—and you have a high-concept experiment in surreal comedy, that’s also an act of devotion regarding the persistent power of literature. Below, Greenman has “translated” one of Chekhov’s originals, “The Death of a Government Clerk,” into “The Death of a Redheaded Man.”


One fine evening, Conan O’Brien was sitting in the second row at the Staples Center, watching the Lakers run away from the Sacramento Kings. He was thrilled to see the game, excited and gratified. But suddenly, In stories one so often meets with this “But suddenly.” The authors are right: life is so full of surprises! But suddenly his face puckered up, his eyes disappeared, his breathing was arrested, he put his head down, then drew it up suddenly, and “Achoo!” It is not reprehensible for anyone to sneeze anywhere. Petty thieves sneeze and so do captains of industry, and sometimes even television stars. All men sneeze. Conan O’Brien wiped his face with a napkin, and like a polite man, looked round to see whether he had disturbed any one by his sneezing. But then he was overcome with confusion. He saw that an old gentleman sitting in front of him in the first row of the stalls was carefully wiping his bald head and his neck and muttering something to himself. In the old gentleman, Conan O’Brien recognized Larry King.

“I have sprayed him,” thought Conan O’Brien. “I am not planning to be on his show any time soon, but still it is awkward. I must apologize.” Conan O’Brien gave a cough, bent his whole person forward, and whispered in the man’s ear.
“Pardon me, Mr. King, I sprayed you accidentally “
“Never mind, never mind.”
“Excuse me, I did not mean to.”
“Please, sit down! Let me watch the game. I’m here with Chance and Cannon!”

Conan O’Brien was embarrassed, he smiled stupidly and fell to gazing at the court. He gazed at it but was no longer feeling bliss. He began to be troubled by uneasiness. At halftime, he went up to Larry King, walked beside him, and overcoming his shyness, muttered: “I sprayed you, Mr. King. Forgive me. You see, I didn’t do it to”
“Oh, that’s enough about it. I’d forgotten it, but you keep reminding me. It’s like Liz Taylor,” said Larry King, moving his lower lip impatiently.
“I don’t know what he means, but there is something fierce in his eyes,” thought Conan O’Brien, looking suspiciously at Larry King. “And he doesn’t want to talk. I ought to explain to him that I really didn’t mean anything by it, that it is how nature works. I don’t want him to think I spit on him. He doesn’t think so now, but he will think so later!”

On getting home, Conan O’Brien told his wife about his sneezing. It struck him that she took too frivolous a view of the incident; she was a little frightened at first, but when she learned that Larry King had said that it was nothing to him, she was reassured. “Still, you had better go and apologize,” she said, “or he will think you don’t know how to behave in public.”
“That’s just it! I did say that I was sorry, but he didn’t take it right. He just said something strange about Elizabeth Taylor. There wasn’t time to talk properly.”

The next day, Conan O’Brien went to apologize. He found out that Larry King was taping a series of brief interviews with sitcom stars. He put on a shirt and tie, drove to the studio, and waited while Larry King spoke to Kaley Cuoco, Jon Cryer, and Joel McHale. Finally, Larry King stood and walked toward the bathroom. Conan O’Brien intercepted him.
“Yesterday at the game, Mr. King,” Conan O’Brien began, “I sneezed and accidentally sprayed you.”
“I have nothing to say about it,” Larry King said. He went to the bathroom and when he came out, he went straight over to Julie Bowen to speak to her.
“He won’t talk to me,” thought Conan O’Brien, turning pale. “That means that he is angry. It can’t be left like this. I have to explain myself to him.”

When Larry King had finished his conversation with Julie Bowen and was heading out to the parking lot, Conan O’Brien intercepted him again.
“Mr. King! If I am bothering you, it is only because I feel such regret. It was not intentional. Please believe me.”
Larry King made a mournful face, and waved 
his hand.
“You’re just making fun of me,” he said as he closed the car door and drove away.
“Making fun of him?” thought Conan O’Brien. “That’s not true at all. He has interviewed thousands of people, but he won’t stop to listen to me. If that is how it is, I am not going to apologize to that guy anymore. He can go to hell. I’ll write a letter to him, but I won’t make any more 
attempts in person.”

So thought Conan O’Brien as he drove home. But he did not write a letter to the Larry King; he thought and thought but could not write a sentence. He had to go the next day to explain in person.

The following day, Larry King was interviewing sports figures: Lamar Odom, Phil Mickelson, Rafael Nadal. When Conan O’Brien saw that he was done with Danica Patrick, he hurried toward him. “I tried to talk to you yesterday,” he muttered. Larry King fixed him with an owlish stare.
“But it was not to make fun of you. I was apologizing for having sprayed you when I sneezed. I did not dream of making fun of you. If I made fun of you, if people started making fun of people without any concern for the truth, then there would be no respect for persons, there would be…”
“Get out!” yelled Larry King, turning suddenly purple, and shaking all over.
“What?” asked Conan O’Brien, in a whisper turning numb with horror.
“Get out!” repeated Larry King, now stamping 
his foot.

Something seemed to give way in Conan O’Brien’s stomach. Seeing nothing and hearing nothing he reeled to the door, went out into the street, and staggered to his car. Reaching home mechanically, without taking off his tie, he lay down on the sofa and died.

03/26/08 12:00am

[JOHAN SANTANA is standing in front of a river in his native Venezuela. Behind him there is a forest. Beyond the forest, there are mountains.]

JOHAN SANTANA:
My country is lovely. My country is vast.
Its natural beauty is quite unsurpassed.
There is no place of which I am fonder.
Look! Over there! An Andean Condor!

[While JOHAN SANTANA is watching the Andean Condor, an Andean bear, also known as an OSO FRONTINO, ambles out of the forest and stands next to him. Both of them look at the Andean Condor.]

OSO FRONTINO:
It has such power and strength when it flies
Over the water and across the skies.
It’s truly majestic to gaze upon
Don’t you agree with me on that, Johan?

JOHAN:
Oso Frontino, my brother, my friend,
This is too much to comprehend
I did not know that you could speak.

OSO FRONTINO:
I can, and also can critique.

[OSO FRONTINO vomits up a fish. JOHAN SANTANA steps back quickly so the disgorged fish does not get on his shoes.]

JOHAN:
Was that what you call criticism?

OSO FRONTINO:
I can do without your cynicism.
Things are busy for me these days
I wouldn’t have come but I feel your malaise
From the things that I have seen
You seem to have a haunted mien
If you inquire deep within
Don’t you wish you had stayed a Twin?
You arrived in New York with such expectations
Truly impeccable qualifications
Everyone thought that the Mets’ sad collapse
Would fade away fully or even perhaps
Serve as a source of great motivation
And you were the savior! You were salvation!
Hailed as the messiah by Omar Minaya
You could throw the ball with perfect precision
Reaching the Series is what was envisioned
They thought you’d humble every NL bat
But things just didn’t work out like that.

[JOHAN SANTANA starts to leave. OSO FRONTINO reaches out and rakes a claw across JOHAN SANTANA’s back.]

JOHAN SANTANA:
Jesus! Ow!
That hurt! And how!

OSO FRONTINO:
Certainly you were aware
That a man is no match for a bear
Now before I maul you and drag you away
Tell me what happened on Opening Day.

JOHAN SANTANA:
In April, we opened at home against Philly
They won by a run; I didn’t mind, really
My fastball and sinker were in evidence
But Ryan Howard, he powered one over the fence.
It was just one start. I couldn’t complain
The season is long. No need to feel strain.

OSO FRONTINO:
You’d think so, right? But April led to May.
You lost in the night. You lost in the day.
By mid-June you were in fourth place, and then
Maine and Perez were sent down to the pen.
Then, one August night, Pedro’s arm just snapped.
Beltran’s knees followed. The team was trapped
In the cellar. It couldn’t be righted
It was flat, it was flaccid
It was bad, it was blighted
Your pride took a tumble and the team took a fall
From the brink of the playoffs to .300 ball.

[The bear looks at JOHAN SANTANA and then vomits up another fish. JOHAN SANTANA wakes up suddenly. It is April. He is in the Mets locker room before the home opener against the Phillies, surrounded by other Mets players.]

DAVID WRIGHT:
Look, the new guy took a nap
Hey new guy, go get your cap
We’re about to take the field
That’s where our fate will be revealed.

JOHAN SANTANA:
My friends, I had the strangest dream
A talking bear told me our team
Will flounder and flail all year long
We might think we’ll improve, but we’re wrong.

[JOHAN SANTANA’s teammates scoff.]

MIKE PELFREY:
If you’re going to mock us
Go back to Caracas.

CARLOS BELTRAN:
You think
We’ll sink
As low as the Nationals?
I say
No way
That sounds irrational!
At the end of last season
You should have seen us
Now we are stronger
There is faith between us.

[JOHAN SANTANA explains that the bear’s dream has made him doubt himself rather than the team.]

JOHAN SANTANA:
Don’t yell
Don’t shout
My fear and doubt
Concerns my own ability
I know
You all
Can play baseball
So temper your hostility.

MOISES ALOU:
You’ll throw
As well as in Minnesota
I should know
I’m as old as Manny Mota.

PEDRO MARTINEZ:
What goes down comes up
So said Isaac Newton
Few men have won thirteen straight
Just you, Rick Sutcliffe, and Bert Hooton.
Oh, you have the pitching
Like balls have the stitching
Your fastball, your changeup, your vicious slurve
The teams we play will get what they deserve.

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[JOHAN SANTANA considers this counsel.]

JOHAN SANTANAz;
Who knows?
I suppose
You could be correct
My nightmare
About the bear
Is probably suspect.

[JOHAN SANTANA takes the mound against the Phillies. He pitches brilliantly, and the Mets win 3-0 behind a double by David Wright and a solo home run by Jose Reyes. The next night, the Mets win 4-2. They then sweep the Brewers. The tone is set, and the team never flags. Oliver Perez is sterling in his starts. Pedro Martinez is effective in his. Delgado and Beltran remain healthy throughout the season, and Wright flirts with 40-40. But JOHAN SANTANA is the team’s anchor, entering the final week of the season with a 29-4 record, a 2.62 ERA, and 290 strikeouts.]

JOHAN SANTANA:
This feeling’s supreme
I’m walking on air
I feel deceived
By that Andean bear
[Entering the final series against the Marlins, the team is 115-44, on pace to set a new MLB record for wins. Perez drops the first game. Martinez wins the second. JOHAN SANTANA is set to pitch the final game of the season. WILLIE RANDOLPH convenes his team.]

WILLIE RANDOLPH:
I’m not much
For fiery speeches
I would have been calm
On Normandy’s beaches
All I will say
On this fine fall day
Is that we can do
What’s never been done
We can win more games
Than have ever been won
This moment is long overdue
Let’s start what we’ve begun.

[JOHAN SANTANA walks to the mound. He fires his first pitch in. The Marlins’ leadoff hitter smacks the ball right back at him. JOHAN SANTANA ducks. The ball whistles over his head and strikes JOSE REYES in the face. He crumples to the ground. CARLOS DELGADO and DAVID WRIGHT rush to his aid, collide, and fall in a heap, writhing. LUIS CASTILLO trips over the heap and is critically injured. The baseball rolls into the dugout and explodes, killing PEDRO MARTINEZ. JOHAN SANTANA looks around him. The stadium is populated by bears, They begin to climb out of the stands, chanting.]

BEARS:
El lanzador
Es muy famoso!
Oso! Oso!
Peligroso!

[JOHAN SANTANA wakes up. He is at home, in his bed. He gets up. He looks at the front page of the newspaper, expecting to see that it is April. It is September. JOHAN SANTANA opens to the sports page, his hands trembling. The Mets are 39-122 entering the final game of the season. Oliver Perez is scheduled to start the game. JOHAN SANTANA gets back into bed. He tries to sleep but cannot.]

08/16/06 12:00am

The Duck Knows How to Make the Most of Things. That’s the name of his stage show, so it must be true.
“Sometimes I cry when I’m lonely,” he sings, and the little ducks sing backup, doo-wop, ah-ah-ah-ha-ah-ah, ay-ay-ay, la-la. “Sometimes I laugh when I’m blue.” Ah-ha-ah-ah-ha-ah. He didn’t write the song. It is one of the few in his show that he didn’t write. But he sings it like he sings them all.
He’s not an actual duck. A duck can’t sing, let alone make the most of things. The Duck is a man, a rather large man at that, and the little ducks are his children. They are not his actual children. They are students who are enrolled in his music school, the Gifford E. Tannhauser Academy of Vocal Performance. He is Gifford E. Tannhauser.

The Duck’s not married. He was, but after a few years filled with regret and recrimination his wife finally picked up and went elsewhere. This pained him tremendously, but that pain was mitigated by the fact that she moved only five minutes away. They’re on good terms, the Duck and the former Mrs. Tannhauser. They have no actual children. They have dinner together once a week at least, just like when they lived together. “Getting a spare tire, Gifford,” she says, pointing at his stomach. She’s the only one who calls him Gifford.

“Getting a flat, former Mrs. Tannhauser,” he says, pointing at her breasts. “Age is doing us both in. Remember when we were in our prime?”

“Of course I do,” she says. “We were flippin’ miserable.” This always gets a laugh.
The former Mrs. Tannhauser has not remarried. She tells the Duck that she is done with men except for the occasional roll. “I’ll tumble but I won’t fall,” she says. “Isn’t there a song like that?”

“Yes ma’am,” the Duck says. It is one of the mainstays of The Duck Knows How to Make the Most of Things. He begins to sing. “I will tumble but I will not fall/I may crumble but I will not crawl/There are things I’ll do for you and things I can’t abide/I can’t go on forever but I want it said I tried.” He gives a bravura performance, tugging on each line of the verse and swelling magnificently for the chorus: “Let’s go to the store/I’ll buy one, then buy more/Follow my lead/You know what I need/Close the door.”

The former Mrs. Tannhauser applauds. “It’s not a very good song, is it?” she says.

The Duck turns his palms up in surrender. “Not at all.”

The Duck befriended a woman while he was still married to the former Mrs. Tannhauser. This woman’s name was June (“like the month”) but she preferred to be called J. “Like the letter,” the Duck said.

J didn’t have an answer for this. The Duck thought she was insulted or, worse, indifferent, but he has since learned that she will sometimes sink into moods where, even though she is experiencing satisfaction or elation, she will not, or cannot, respond to him. Of course, he has also seen her exhibit the same behavior when she feels insulted or indifferent. He once mentioned in passing that he had written a song about her. He thought it would make her happy but instead it made her miserable. “I don’t want to be in someone else’s song,” she said. “I can’t bear it.”

Many of these moods occurred during the first months of the Duck’s friendship with J. “You know what I mean?” he said. “What can I do?”

“You can shut the fuck up.” She saw the hurt in his eyes. “You know what? There is something you can do. You can sing me a song or two, softly.”

That got him going. He sang “Somewhere Safe to Bury My Bone.” He sang “Water Lace.” He sang “I Got Big and Fat in a Coldwater Flat.” There were more songs in The Duck Knows How to Make the Most of Things, but those were the ones he sang.

The singing always worked. One song would bring the first tear and more would follow: more songs and more tears. “The Satisfaction and Elation Flowed Out of Her (Saltily)” was the name of the song that the Duck ended up writing about the effect of the other songs.
The crying sometimes took a while.

After J finished crying, the Duck stopped singing and the two of them went for a walk. At first, the walks were just walks but they evolved over time into something else. They adjourned to a nearby playground and commenced to romp in a decidedly adult manner. The playground was the safest place for miles around. There were guards to keep out the drug dealers and stick-up kids. The Duck knew one of the guards, Alberto. He was once one of the little ducks. When the Duck told Alberto to take a walk, Alberto took a walk, and the Duck and J
had their pick: the slides, the swings, the climbing bars.

One day J goes off sometimes and comes back with her hair disarranged. He does not ask her questions because he does not believe in jumping to conclusions. The next day she goes off in the other direction and comes back with her hair disarranged and one earring missing. He does not ask her questions because he believes in giving her a chance to come clean. The next day she goes off in an entirely new direction and comes back with the Bootblack in tow. He does not ask her questions because now it is too late.

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The Bootblack is a young man. When he was born the Duck was already teaching a flock of little ducks to sing “Mainsail on the Adriatic,” an extremely simple chantey that he wrote as an exercise during his first year as a songwriter. The Bootblack has never sailed. He has never seen the ocean. He lives in a city a few hours to the north, where he has a television show, which makes sense given that he is significantly more handsome than the Duck. The Bootblack is a man of many talents, but one in particular has preceded him: he can swallow a handful of change and bring up specific amounts on command. “Thirty-seven cents,” a guest on his show might say, and he will grimace slightly and produce it in descending order: quarter, dime, penny, penny. Sometimes if he’s in a fancy mood he’ll follow the quarter directly with a penny, and the studio audience will begin to boo. Then he socks it to them: penny, penny, penny, penny, penny, and so forth, one after the other in quick coppery succession. He’ll make them flip end to end on his tongue to give the appearance that they’re walking out onto the black mat he has spread before him for his performance. There are many men who can bring up change on
command but this is his move and the one that has made him famous. It’s called “pennying.” Lined up the way they are, the pennies look, the Duck thinks, like ducklings.

J met the Bootblack at a hotel. She had met him once before, through a friend, and at that time the two of them had not gotten along. They had argued about the distance from the moon to the sun. The Bootblack said that it was a very short distance, and J insisted, correctly, that he was thinking of the distance from the moon to the earth. The sun was as far away from both as a… she could not think of a way to express herself with clarity and force. “It’s far,” she told him and told the Duck later, when she was relating the story. In the retelling she was incensed. Her nightshirt was unbuttoned and the Duck was beginning to make the most of it. Her anger gave a slight flush to her face and the skin on her chest and the Duck was grateful to this Bootblack, this nickel-vomiter, this astronomical idiot, for greasing the rails a little bit.

It was the last time he felt that way about him. One day the Bootblack was just a guy you saw when you were flipping from porn to The Weather Channel, a guy who warmed your friend up inadvertently, and the next day he was sitting next to her in the car as she pulled into the driveway, her hair disarranged. The transformation was so quick that the music that played behind it when the Duck remembered how things had gone was melodramatic soundtrack music, without any vocals. There was no place in it for him to sing. It could not have been included in The Duck Knows How to Make The Most of Things.

J skips to the door. Skips! She greets the Duck with a hug and introduces the Bootblack. It is too far for him to drive home, J says, and she tells the Duck that the Bootblack will be eating dinner with them. “It’s my night to eat with the former Mrs. Tannhauser,” the Duck says. “We’re having chicken.”
“Wonderful,” J says. “We can all four eat.”

It is the worst meal of the Duck’s life, with the possible exception of the Indigestibly Dry Turkey Incident of ’77, which was served up by a very young, very optimistic former Mrs. Tannhauser. The poor food is matched by the poor seating; the four adults have resolved into the most awkward arrangement possible. When the Bootblack does not think anyone is looking, he whispers to J, sometimes directly into her ear. The word “skin” leaks out of the whisper, as does the word “thigh.” It is faintly possible that he is discussing the chicken.

That leaves the Duck and the former Mrs. Tannhauser, who are and may always be on estimable terms, to talk about the world, which is what they do and have always done. They spend ten minutes explaining to each other that the vaunted ability of one particular candidate to pick up momentum and power late in his campaign is something of a ruse, as the previous race in which he demonstrated this power should never have been as close as it was to begin with, and in fact is more an illustration of the candidate’s ability to nearly lose an election that he should have won handily. The former Mrs. Tannhauser grasps this with both hands, as she likes to say.

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After dinner, the Duck goes out back to smoke a cigarette. He takes work with him to calm him down. It’s only for a few minutes but he can make some headway in picking songs for the little ducks to sing the following week. The Duck hears some noise and peers around the side of the house, where he sees J and the Bootblack standing there next to the car. They are arguing. The Bootblack strikes the signpost with his bicycle lock. It gives a clang that is similar to the sound of a belt buckle striking a jungle gym bar that is damped by the soft hand of a naked woman who is hanging there while she is being worked over consensually by a man of her acquaintance.

The Duck’s memory for noises is very precise.

The Bootblack says something that maligns the chicken. Then he says something that maligns J. He says that she is insufferable in most ways and good for only a few things and that, to prove it, he is going to take her car and drive to a hotel and stay there. “I’ll return it in the morning before you wake up,” he says. “That way I don’t have to see you, which means that I don’t have to be disappointed in you.” J cannot or will not respond to this. The Duck can detect her sadness from where he stands. He wants to run out and do violence to the Bootblack, maybe take the keys and stuff them down his stupid mouth, the mouth that only moments ago was eating his chicken and propositioning his friend under his roof. But the Duck is a reasonable man and surmises that the Bootblack would just bring the keys up, one by one.

Back in the house, J is chagrined. The former Mrs. Tannhauser gives her special attention in the interest of healing her. Clearly, there is a wound. The former Mrs. Tannhauser’s special attention consists of the kind of diverting small talk that is her forte. “I was reading about the head of Interpol,” she says. “A Frenchman named François Zolan. He is a singer and songwriter just like someone else I know.”

“Is that so?” J says coldly.

It seems that the former Mrs. Tannhauser may have misread the situation but she presses on. “One of his songs
has to do with the work he does. It’s a long, long piece called Incident Team. Wouldn’t you think that something like that would compromise security?”
J does not answer.

“What do you think, Gifford?”

The Duck is not present in the conversation though he is present in the room. He is thinking about the little ducks and about the vocal arrangements for one of his favorite recent compositions, which is called “Born Inside the Baker’s Head.” The first two lines, “Born inside the baker’s head/Are many kinds of baker’s bread”, buoy his heart whenever he hears them. He thinks that the little ducks should do an “oh-ah-ah-oh-ah-ah” after the first line and a “ah-ha-aha” after the second. J’s sullenness does not bring him to attention; neither does the former Mrs. Tannhauser’s attempts to mitigate that sullenness. What does, finally, is the sound of J storming out without a word.

The Duck follows. He catches up to her outside. She has no car and as a result no way to leave. “I just want to take a walk,” she says. “Alone.”

“There was a time when we were tied to one another,” he says.

“Is that the opening line of one of your stupid songs?”

“No. I am actually talking about a time when we were tied to one another. Remember? With rawhide.”

“I can’t think about those things now,” she says. The implication is that she has other things to think about, and though her tone is hard she is crying underneath: ah-ah-ah-ha-ah-ah.
The Duck has an idea. “Can I interest you in a slow waltz?”

“A what?”

“A slow waltz. A tennis match. A trip to the supermarket.” He hopes he does not have to spell out the double entendre.

“I think we have to talk.”

“Penny for your thoughts.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Tell me what you want to tell me. That’s all I’m saying.”
She inhales compositionally. “You know that song you wrote, Serving You Lunch Is a Betrayal Given the Fact that I Am Planning On Eating With Somebody Else?”

“I know it,” he says. “I wrote it. I can sing a verse if you want.”

“No, no,” she says. “I’m describing the situation, not making a request. I’m going to call a cab and head over to the hotel.”

“Oh.” He steadies himself on the side of the house. “I think I am going to be sick.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

But the Duck is not being dramatic. He is being predictive. He is sick. He moves past the former Mrs. Tannhauser in a state of disrepair and retires to his bed. His heart slowly jellies. He dies at half-past ten. He is buried in a fat man’s coffin, as he once requested, both because he is somewhat fat and because he superstitiously wants to leave room for a companion, whether J or the former Mrs. Tannhauser or someone he has not yet met.

The Duck breaks apart there under the earth, the minerals in him going one way, the water going the other way.
He wakes up at five in the morning, his heart thrumming like a lawnmower engine. The former Mrs. Tannhauser has not stayed over, as she will do now and again, but has left a note telling him to call her when he feels better, or if he does not.

He calls J. “Hello,” she says. It is neither question nor statement. The phone is a wall between them.

He strains to hear the Bootblack in the background and he thinks he does: a laugh and a coffee cup clinking awfully. “I am going to stop singing for you,” he says to J. He hopes this will break her. “I may even close up The Duck Knows How to Make The Most of Things. The little ducks will be out of a job, but who cares?” But he cannot make good on the threat, not even the first part of it, not even for a minute. He sings right then and there, with diminished force but a greater sense of risk. He knows she can hear him over the wall. This is what he has to offer. He hopes it is enough. He does not care if it is enough. It will have to be enough. Enough.