"Gurion's Escape": an excerpt from "The Instructions"

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October 29, 2010

Adam Levin’s novel, The Instructions (McSweeney’s, 2010), tells the story of young Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, scholar at Aptakisic alternative junior high. Prior to the scene below, Gurion, hoping to commemorate his love for a girl named June, attempted to destroy the clock in the school gymnasium and, to his great disappointment, failed. It needs no other introduction.

—Joan Gelfand, Fiction Editor

You were allowed to drink caffeine drinks at Aptakisic, except you couldn’t buy them there if you were a student. The only Coke machine was in the teachers lounge. There was a coffee one, too, and I liked to drink coffee if it was half cream and sugar the way my mom drank it, but Coke made my stomach burn. Still, I enjoyed breaking into the teachers lounge for a Coke on occasion to practice stealth.

I didn’t care about getting any practice right then, and I certainly wasn’t hoping to find any joy, nor was I kidding myself that a teachers-lounge-Coke’s value as a tribute was equivalent to a smashed-apart gym clock’s— though no one else would have broken into the lounge, and no one else except for me ever even had, it would be, yes, my sixth or seventh time, so although it was hard, no one thought it impossible—but if I didn’t do something at least a little hard for June, then…what? The dickhead, beaten feeling wouldn’t go away.

Aptakisic’s passing-periods lasted four minutes, which meant four minutes, tops, to get in and out of the lounge unseen. There was always the possibility of a dawdling teacher, or a teacher who let her class out a couple minutes early and went straight to the lounge, but those things weren’t worth being too concerned about, even though they ticked the clock down; with the right coinage ready, it wouldn’t take more than thirty-five seconds to get the Coke and exit. Even with a balled-up dollar to flatten, I’d gotten in and out of there in under a minute. The thing to be concerned about was getting caught in the doorway.

You had to hide in the doorway so you could stop the lock from clicking when the last teacher in the lounge left. It was the kind of door that automatically locks when it closes, and no one had been able to steal a key yet.

So, for Coke-getting purposes, it was lucky that the teachers lounge was in C-Hall, which had doorways the size of walk-in closets. They were meant to be buffer zones between hall-noise and pedagogy. Like storm-windows that trap cold between the panes, C-Hall doorways were air chambers for trapping sounds. Soundstorm-windows.

Some of the doorways were darker than others. Benji Nakamook and I put the bulbs of most of the darker ones out for a contest we had in my third week at Aptakisic. No one had replaced them, and Nakamook told me a joke about it afterwards. Benji won the contest 5-2, and it was him who blanked the teachers lounge one.

The doorway was not entirely dark, though. Dim light came from the panels in the hallway, and brighter light from the other side of the door, by way of the small door-window. The window was higher up than my head, and the light it let through made a rhombus by my feet. It wasn’t a rhombus I wanted to violate. To overstep its outline could mean exposure.

It turned out its outline wasn’t grey like I would’ve assumed, but purple, and I thought that was nice, maybe poetry-worthy, whatever that meant, and it occurred to me that maybe the Coke I was getting for June, if a strong poem were taped to it, would come closer to approximating a smash-faced gym clock than would a Coke without a strong poem taped to it. Granted, I couldn’t make a strong poem, but there was no doubt in my mind that a weak poem was a closer approximation to a strong poem than was no poem, and therefore a Coke with a weak poem taped to it was a closer approximation of a smash-faced gym clock than a poemless Coke, so I wrote June a weak poem in the doorway, in my head:

I Won’t Tell You I’m Not Breaching the Penumbra by Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee

While I hide inside a doorway in C-Hall, preventing my toes from breaking an outline, I reject a fancier string of words than this one because when I don’t know if you know penumbra.

Because the doorway was darkest by the walls, the most stealth thing to do was become a wall by getting as flat as possible against one, but I needed to get some information first. I needed to know exactly how many teachers were in the lounge so I could stop the door as soon as it started to close behind the last one. I inched to the window and stood on my toes, angling my body so no one inside would be able to see me, and I had to employ phenomenal agility so I wouldn’t violate the light rhombus either. I counted the heads—seven total, two bald—and dropped back onto my heels.

Seven was a large number of people to hide from in a doorway. It got me edgy and my foot started tapping, which wasn’t stealth. I crouched so it couldn’t tap so easy, but that made me less flat, and then I remembered I was out of wingnuts, and I got even edgier. Usually I’d lay a wingnut on the floor in front of the door-jamb to prevent the lock from engaging. It was way too risky to stop the door with a hand. If the last teacher out lingered, which they usually did—they weren’t the last out because they were rushing to teach—and you had your hand in the door, you’d be exposed in the light, and if the teacher turned around, they’d see the hand and who it was attached to. The right-sized wingnut was perfect for the job, though. It not only allowed the door to nearly close, which made it highly unlikely that a teacher would notice that anything was off, but the click of the contact between closing door and wingnut was almost identical to the click of the lock.

All I had was a pen. A chewed disposable. A very thin cylinder. I didn’t know if it could do the trick. If the bottom of the door was higher off the floor than the pen laid on its side, the door would pass over the pen and lock. I was really edgy. I was so edgy that I thought it. I thought: You are really very edgy right now. And right when I thought it, the end-of-class tone came through the intercom to shock me like the punchline before the closing credits of a thousand stupid television shows.

I revolved to face the wall and got as flat as I could. Then I started telling myself a children’s version of the story of the kind of holiday I wanted to one day be the hero of, the version you’d tell kids who didn’t know how to read yet and couldn’t understand the complexities of scripture—like the version of Chanukah where it’s all about the oil, or the version of Rosh Hashanah that’s all apples and honey and new year’s joy. But I was not the little kid with the big imagination who half-grown nice Jewish boys star in their novels to attempt to make readers feel special and congratulated. That kid’s a drip. That kid has fantasies behind his closed eyes in order to escape the facts on the ground, and somehow he doesn’t know it. The facts on the ground that I had to face if I wanted to get June a Coke were these: I was highly edgy and I needed to stay pressed to the doorway wall for at least a couple minutes. In times of high edginess, I’d usually read or break things or fight, or try to break all of my fingers at once, and since I couldn’t stay pressed while doing those things, but couldn’t stay pressed if I remained edgy either, I had to try something else. That’s the only reason I told myself a story. It was the one way I could face the facts on the ground. And I made it a kids’ one because kids’ ones lack layers and I was too preoccupied to get all in-depth, and I tried to keep it similar, at least thematically, to what I was doing, so I wouldn’t lose focus on the task at hand.

So I told me one about how Gurion got out of his cell but was in such a rush that he didn’t have time to get the keys to his manacles off the ring on the belt of the famously sadistic prison guard he’d clouted and left half-conscious on the third-tier catwalk drooling strings that splashed on the heads of the general population while Gurion escaped, and the ways the holiday would celebrate all of it.

The first teacher exited. Passed me. Was gone. The door squeaked three times on its hydraulics, clicked shut.

The holiday’s name would be Gurion’s Escape. At the holiday meal, the youngest boy present would ask his father—a second teacher passed: three squeaks and click—a set of four questions. The boy would say, “Why on this night do we wear handcuffs and leg-shackles at the dinner table?” And his dad would say, “Because our hero and his people, our people, were restricted in their movements by robots and the arrangement.” And the boy would say, “Why on this night do we smash glass bottles on the pavement in the parking lots of our township?” And his dad—teacher three had a limp: two squeaks this time before the click, which meant I couldn’t count on three—would say, “The glass bottles are clear like the rules of the robots, and all clear things may be broken and so all clear things should be broken and shall be broken, for the noise of their breaking is the only pleasure to be gotten from them.” “Why on this night do we punch holes in the walls of popsicle-stick-models of schools after dessert?” would say the boy. “We forget,” would say the dad, “that the walls of schools can be broken like bottles. We forget that we can break them. We must remind ourselves that we are stronger than the house of the arrangement.” “And why on this night,” the boy would say, “do we celebrate Gurion’s Escape?” And the dad would say, “Gurion’s Escape was the birth of perfect justice in the world.” Then there would be soup and the dad would sneak off to hide a set of holiday handcuffs in a dark space between things or behind a thing. Between the meat and the dessert—the fourth and fifth teachers, I think Miss Farmer and Mr. Novy, but it wasn’t worth revolving to make sure, stopped a few seconds in the doorway to flirt. She said, “I was watching you write your lesson plans and I couldn’t help but admire the condition of your fingernails.” He said, “I’m so flattered to hear that. You know, between lifting weights every morning at the gym and making visual art in my spare time, I always assumed that people found them cracked and nubby.” She said, “Visual art! I do needlepoint! I—” but she was interrupted by the sixth teacher, whose voice I never heard before. He said, “Some kinda party here?” and they all laughed fake laughs while exiting, and I couldn’t count the squeaks for the laugh-noise— Between the meat and the dessert all of the children at the table would go looking in the dark spaces of the house for the handcuffs. Whoever found them would get a prize that the father and the finder would bargain about. The father would say, “What do you want for a prize?” And the finder would answer: “Power.” And the father would say, “Power can be used but it can’t be had. If I had it to give, I would give it to you. You are my child.” And the finder would say, “Then I want funniness.” And the father would say, “Funniness is a kind of power. That is why people who try to have funniness are so rarely funny. How about some cash?” And the finder would take some cash for his prize. And there would be traditions at Schecter, Anshe Emet, and at both Hebrew Days. The students would build their popsicle-stick schools all week long. They would spend half the day of Erev Gurion’s Escape in arts-and-crafts. Papier-mache handcuffs would be sculpted til noon, and they’d dry by 3:30, and the students would stay after to paint watercolor scenes of my escape on the handcuffs. They would paint me pressed against the inside of a doorway, becoming a wall. All day they’d sing a song that went “Famous in the prison/ The guard who met with Gurion/ Famous in the prison/ And Gurion bled his head/ Oh Gurion, Gurion, Gurion/ Gurion bled his head/ Gu ri on ben-Ju dah!/ Gurion Mac ca bee!” They would sing it in school and they would sing it in shul. And around the dining room table they’d dance, handcuffed to each other, their legshackles shed, singing my song and shouting l’chaims, their high-kicking shins getting bruised on the chairs, their hats and their yarmulkes all flying off, fragments of popsicle sticks in their hair, the joy so huge the good silver would melt and the china for company would crack on the placemats.

Teacher #7 came out of the lounge.

I was worried the hydraulics would only squeak twice before the door shut, like with the third teacher, so I revolved after the first squeak in order to get the pen in place before the second, but the teacher paused at the outer-edge of the doorway, then turned her head to sneeze right when I was about to activate the pen-block, and I had to keep still and shut my eyes so they wouldn’t betray me, flashing. The second squeak came and I opened my eyes, tossed the pen down. It landed well, right against the jamb. Another sneeze from the teacher. I closed my eyes again. There was a third squeak after all, and a third sneeze. Then the teacher’s departing footsteps.

Nothing clicked. I was in.

This excerpt is reprinted by permission of McSweeney’s (c) Adam Levin 2010 All Rights Reserved.

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