Kate Kort: Tempered


(a novel excerpt)


Cleveland, 1998

I’m still sleeping with the lights on. I thought I’d be done with that by now, but closing my eyes in the dark still feels like hell. Danielle says it doesn’t bother her and I guess I believe her. Not much bothers her. Today is ten years since my father died, so I’m awake at 4:12 a.m., watching the clock tick above the dresser and listening to Danielle breathe. I’ve never felt as peaceful as she looks right now; I’m sure I look anxious even when I’m asleep.

I get up and go to the kitchen. The light’s on there, too. My utility bill isn’t pretty, but it’s worth not being surprised by whatever lurks in the dark. I hate to be surprised, just like my dad. I open a beer, but I won’t finish it. Just a few drinks to slow my pulse. I toss the opener onto the counter, and it slides into a stack of unwashed dishes. It’s loud and I wince, but then I remember Dani sleeps through anything.

I move into the living room and sink into the worn gray recliner. It’s darker in here so when I glance around, I see shapes I can’t place. I rub my eyes and tell myself it’s ridiculous for a grown man, nearly thirty years old, to be afraid of the dark. I frown. Maybe it isn’t.

My heart skips because there’s a pool of blood on the floor, in the corner by the fireplace. I even start to smell it, so I fumble for the switch on the lamp next to me and squint as it fills the room with yellow-tinted light. It’s just my T-shirt, wadded up on the floor.

I sigh as I think about the calls I’ll get later. My mom. My brother Jake (but not Matthew). John. Maybe Austin. Milestone days get people all worked up. They want to check on you, but the last thing you want to do is talk. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t told Danielle. She doesn’t need to know why I keep the lights on at night, or why I threw away my legal career. I like that we don’t have those things weighing us down. Sometimes, with her, I can forget.


I didn’t tell John or Austin I was going to New York.

I realize there isn’t anybody else I would tell. A few years ago it would have been my mom, but we don’t talk as much since she moved out to Chicago to be with Jake and his kids. A few days ago it would have been Dani, but I fucked that up beyond repair. I’ve tried to call her a few times this week, but she never lets me get past the flustered apology I always open with. Then there’s Austin. He won’t worry; he’s good about giving me space when I need it. But John . . . I trudge forward, staggering under the weight of my bags. I should have called him.

I walk out of the airport, and a strong gust of wind nearly blows me back. I hail a cab right away and heap my stuff into the backseat with me. I know I packed too much. I’m only here for two days, but I brought a large duffel with about a week’s worth of clothes, a few books and toiletries, and a garment bag with my suit. We pull away from the airport and for some reason I feel better.

I was prepared for New York to be loud, crowded, and overwhelming. That’s what I’d always heard, and it’s true, but I couldn’t have predicted my reaction to it. Walking up Sullivan to my hotel, I can already feel my mind calming. I pass a group of older men speaking Spanish. I catch the heavy smell of fried street food as I pass a subway station. I hear the musicians on the corner playing makeshift drums. There are thousands of people in the city block around me, but I don’t know any of them. I don’t know their neighborhoods or restaurants, and when I see a building or sign I don’t feel the stab of an unwelcome memory.

By the time I check in and shower, I have just enough time to get dressed and find my way to Spodek Law Group. I’ve never been good with directions, so I double-check my map with the concierge. He has more confidence in my abilities than I do, assuring me I can walk the three blocks with time to spare.

I feel the urge to ask him if I look okay—if I look like I’d fit in there— but he’s already turned his attention to someone else. I duck into the bath room to smooth my hair down and practice smiling in the mirror one more time. My reflection is uneasy, unnatural. It makes me think of an alien trying to impersonate a human. I glance at my watch. I can’t put it off anymore.

I push through the heavy lobby door, grateful to be met with the cool October air again. I breathe in, greeted with the recurring relief that I’m no longer in Cleveland.

The next morning, my eyes dart open, already pulsing. The air is now thick and rancid, weighed down by uncovered Chinese food and spilled beer. I turn my head and glance around the room, remembering the details. It’d be better if I hadn’t woken up at all.

I catch my reflection in the television, wishing I could bash it in with the curtain rod that hangs above my bed. Would it shatter like a bowl or a sculpture, spraying shards across the room, or just crack into spiderwebs? I narrow my eyes until my vision blurs, not really caring about the answer. I know it won’t help.

After all that optimism and unearned confidence, I blew the interview. I failed to impersonate a human. I was sweaty and stuttery, and came off as unreliable. Probably worse. I sit up and look out the window. They didn’t even pretend I had a chance—the woman running the interview told me outright it wasn’t going to work. And I don’t even blame them for giving the job to someone else. A few leaves and bits of stray trash whip past my window. I think about leaving tomorrow. About coming home with nothing.

I walk a few blocks around the hotel, trying to ignore the people rush ing past me, all with smug purpose. I zip up my sweatshirt, feeling better without the stiff interview clothes. Maybe I shouldn’t be in a job like that anyway. Maybe I’d just feel trapped again.

My mind steadies as I walk. I’m calmed by the people, their anonymity and easy movement, and I start to lose track of everything else. After about an hour I end up at NYU’s campus. I wander the buildings, the green space, the bookstore. It’s too depressingly nostalgic, and I think about heading back out when I pass the law library. I pause a moment, but I can’t help it. I walk in, just to smell that wonderful air, thick with the clean, earthy scent of books.

I breathe in and my pulse quickens. I scan the room, thinking how lucky these people are that they spend the day here. My hands shake. A thought shoots into my mind. It’s a crazy thought, but I walk up to the circulation desk, because I no longer have the luxury of waiting for things to happen. I have the rest of the day in New York, but that’s it. And I’m not ready to give Cleveland the victory yet. Three students are busy working, but after a moment the one in the middle, a young woman with dark red hair, calls me over.

“Can I help you?”

She’s still looking at her computer screen.

“Yeah.” I shift my weight, glancing around.

“Are there any job openings in the library?”

She looks up. “Student positions?” Her eyes narrow with doubt.

“No, I’m looking for something more permanent.”

“Are you a librarian?”

“No, I have a law degree. But I’m interested in anything full time; I don’t mind entry-level.”

She tells me she’ll get a staff librarian and walks to the offices behind her. The library is crowded and a line has formed, so I step out of the way and let a few people check out. After another minute or so, I see the student worker emerge, trailed by a middle-aged man with dark shaggy hair and a gray beard.

“Hi,” he says, walking out from behind the desk. “I’m Alan Anders, one of the research librarians.”

“Murray Henderson,” I reply, shaking his hand.

“And you’re a lawyer?”

I smile. “I haven’t practiced in a few years.”

“Still, our openings would be a pretty big step down,” he says with a laugh. “You want to tell me how you got here?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” I begin, appreciative of the casual vibe Mr. Anders is emitting. “I was here for another job interview—a paralegal position at Spodek. I didn’t get the job, but I’d like to stay in New York. And the library was about my favorite place in law school.”

“Where are you from?”


“No kidding?” he says, a wide smile crossing his face. “I lived there twenty years.”

“Wow, that’s crazy.” I flush with relief. “What neighborhood?” “South Euclid.”

“I grew up about ten minutes from there in Cleveland Heights.” Mr. Anders shakes his head. “Unbelievable.” He laughs a little to him self then looks at his watch.

“I have a few minutes; why don’t you come on back with me?”

Hope surges through my chest and I follow him. I feel like reality is paused with me standing outside the library, waiting for my desperate fan tasy to dissolve. Mr. Anders offers me a seat at a conference table and walks to the filing cabinet on the back wall.

He pulls a file and reads for a long time. There’s nothing on the walls for me to look at, so I settle for picking at a small divot in the table. I wish I still had on my nice clothes. Mr. Anders pulls another file. And another. Minutes pass. I start to think I should tell him not to worry, that he doesn’t have to do this just because we came from the same place, but he pulls out a paper and looks up.

“Okay,” he says, “this might be something. How do you feel about Assistant Stacks Coordinator? It’s a little bit of everything—organizing reference material, helping us shelve and process, that kind of thing.” I stare at him.

“Yeah. That sounds amazing.”

“Well, I do need to interview you,” he says. “But with a JD you’re obviously overqualified.” He sets the paper down in front of him. “How long would you want to keep this position?”

“At least a year.” I’m not sure where this answer came from, but I mean it.

Mr. Anders nods. “Do you have a while to wait now?”


“Okay.” He looks at his watch again.

“I’ve got to get back to work, but we should be able to do the interview in the next hour or so. You’re lucky,” he says with a smile, “it’s a light day.”

That evening I collapse onto the bed, exhausted. My temperature rises as I consider what I’ve done.

I have changed my life.

I have no home. My lease back in Cleveland is up at the end of the month and my address is now the Days Inn on Broadway. In two weeks I need to show up to a job I’d never heard of before today, in a city I’ve known for forty-eight hours. But I can’t think about it too much or I’ll start to panic. I’ll start to feel like I can’t do it alone.

I miss Dani.

She won’t take my calls yet, and I don’t blame her. I pick up the phone and punch in four digits before I stop. I can’t put this on her. I look around the bland, vacant room, and realize I’m not ready to leave everything I need to tell her in a message. I hang up the phone.

I rummage through the bag of groceries I bought at the convenience store a block over, and pull out a can of beer. I sit on the bed, leaning my back against the wall, and take a long drink. I just need to relax.

After another hour, I get up enough nerve to call John. I shouldn’t have left him to interpret the vague smattering of information I gave Austin yesterday.

He picks up on the second ring.

“Hey, John.”

“Murray! Hey, what is going on? Where are you?”

“Well . . .” I trace the phone cord with my finger. “I’m still in New York. I-I might be here for a while.”

“Murray,” he says, and I can tell he’s summoning his patience, “can you please tell me what’s going on?”

“I didn’t get the paralegal job.”

“Yeah, that’s what Austin said.”

“But I got a different job. Today. At NYU’s law library.”

There’s silence on John’s end and I know he’s trying to make sense of all this. He’s a practical guy and everything I’ve done in the past three days has been absurd. “The law library,” he repeats. “Why didn’t you just come home?”

I try to answer him, but my throat tightens and I can’t form the words. Home. I shut my eyes against a pounding wave of emotions. “Murray, are you there?”

The room is blurry when I open my eyes. I blink, once again taking in the unfamiliar hotel room. “I’m sorry,” I say after a moment. “I fucked everything up.”

“What do you mean?”

I open my mouth, wanting to say it, but I can’t. Shame stalls my voice and I can’t admit to the man who has been a father to me for the last ten years that I’m even weaker, more selfish, more dangerous than I was the day we met.

“John, I have to call you back.” My voice wavers. “I’m sorry, can I call you tomorrow?”

There’s a pause. “Sure,” he says, and I wish I could see his face because I can’t read his voice.

I hang up with him and glance at the empty beer cans on my night stand and the digital alarm clock next to them. I’m tired and should get to bed—get away from my destructive thoughts. But I don’t close my eyes for another two hours, after I’ve finished the six-pack. And when I do sleep, I dream of Cleveland Heights.


Cleveland, Five Months Earlier

Most Sunday nights I made it to The Velvet Dog. Somehow it was still

my favorite place in Cleveland. I glanced down as always toward the basement as I walked up to the front door. Chase was waiting. He still dressed up for poker night; that night he was wearing a shiny blue dress shirt and ironed khakis.

“Hey, Murray. Did John come with you?” He glanced at his watch. “No, he said he’d be a few minutes late.”

“Did he sound all right to you?”

“What do you mean?”

Chase rubbed his gray-blond beard and looked away. “I think he’s really feeling down. I mean, next week will be ten years since Ash—” “I know,” I broke in. My father and Mr. Everett, gone in the span of two weeks. How could I forget.

“I just wish I could help.”

“You run the poker game,” I said, managing a smile. “That helps. Believe me.”

“I hope so.”

We walked to the back of the club, to the usual table. The place hadn’t changed at all in ten years, which was comforting as well as unsettling. On the wood-paneled walls hung the same nostalgic Cleveland photos; the same dim lights littered the ceiling like kitschy stars. The floor was still sticky. It wasn’t long before the door opened behind us and I turned, relieved to see Austin. Sam was right behind him and they seemed to be joking about something. Good. Austin could use a laugh.

Sam gave Austin a devilish wink, like he had more to say but it wasn’t meant for us. Sam was the youngest in the group until I joined. He just turned forty but still reminded me of a cocky college freshman.

He hopped the bar and began fixing himself a drink. I walked over to Austin.

“I’m glad you made it,” I said, trying to gauge his mood.

He hadn’t been shaving and his eyes were heavy, but his smile still seemed genuine.

“Thanks, Murray. I tell you, though, it’s going to be a hard week.”

“You mean about Mr. Everett?”

He nodded. “Ten fucking years.” He looked around, but Sam was still at the bar and Chase was focused on shuffling at the table. “I still can’t believe it, you know? It feels like we were all just at his funeral.”

“Yeah. I think about that day all the time.”

Austin put his hand on my shoulder. “Sorry, kid. I shouldn’t complain. I know this is all harder on you.”

I shrugged, ready to tell him it wasn’t that bad when Sam called out to us.

“What’ll you have, guys?”

“Gin, splash of tonic,” Austin replied. He leaned down to brush some thing off his jeans, and his thick silver hair gleamed under the bar lights. “Any beer’s good for me,” I said, moving to the table and sitting down next to Chase. “Thanks, Sam.”

“You bet.”

He brought the drinks over as John rushed through the door, cursing as he tripped over the front step.

“Chase,” Sam said, with apparent restraint. “The goddamn step.” Chase poured pretzels into a bowl. “It’s on my list.”

John swept his light brown hair out of his eyes and adjusted his grip on the bag he was carrying. He was getting on toward fifty but had always looked young for his age. And there was an energy he radiated—a con tented aura I often found comforting.

Sam went back to the bar. He grabbed a bottle of vodka and held it up. “John?”

John nodded and smiled, sinking into the empty chair next to me. “Sorry, guys. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“No problem,” Chase said. “Haven’t even dealt yet.”

Austin asked Chase a question about contract work around the bar, so John leaned in close to me.

“You doing all right?”

I smiled. “I think so.”

John gave me a look, like he wanted to believe me but couldn’t. “I tried calling you last week. A few times.”

“I know.” I rubbed my neck. “I’m sorry about that. I just didn’t want to think about it.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“But I was wondering, maybe . . .”


“Can we talk after this? Go to Clevelander or something?” John nodded. “Of course.”

“Thanks.” I looked down, embarrassed I said anything at all, but relieved he said yes. I noticed his bag again. “What’d you bring?”

“Oh, yeah.” He reached down and brought the bag up onto the table. “Guys,” he said, motioning for Austin and Chase to stop their conversation. Sam looked up from his drink. “I found something I thought we should look at.”

My stomach twisted. I wasn’t going to like it.

He brought out a book, The Complete Baseball Record Book from 1987, and pulled several folded sheets of paper from between its pages. “A few weeks before he died, I asked Menashe to give me feedback on a short story of mine. I’d just started writing and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I used some of the therapy exercises he’d given me to start, which is how I began writing about my time in Vietnam.” He unfolded the papers and smoothed them out on the table. “Anyway, I thought he’d forgotten about it. He had enough on his mind.”

John frowned and I already felt my stomach begin to churn. “But he didn’t forget,” John continued, emotion softening his voice. “He returned this book to me a week later, and I didn’t think anything of it. But I went to look something up a few days ago, and my story fell out of its pages.”

“What did he say?” Chase asked.

“I thought he’d mark it up. But he didn’t write anything until the last page.”

John flipped to the back and I saw there was a lot of writing under the last line of John’s story. I recognized Mr. Everett’s handwriting and my muscles tensed. How many times had I seen him scribbling notes on his yellow legal tablet? John took a breath and started to read.


Sorry I don’t know shit about this. I’m a horrible writer. I meant to give you something helpful, but once I started, I realized you don’t need me at all. What I can tell you is, I know you’ve changed since you started writing. Your head is clearing. You’re determined. And your heart’s in it. I wish mine was. I’m sorry I haven’t helped you as much as I wanted. Your success has always been your own. I really appreciate how you gave this a shot, though. It always made me feel better to have my best friend around. Anyway, whatever happens, please keep writing.”

John wiped his eyes and looked around the table. He did way better than I could have, reading that, but now he was close to breaking down. I used my sleeve to wipe my own eyes, then I turned to him. “He knew,” I said. “He knew what he was going to do.”

John nodded and Austin rubbed his face with both hands. “Why couldn’t Ash just level with us?” Austin muttered. “We would have understood, right?”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Chase said. “He was in so much pain. He prob—”

“No,” Austin barked. “Don’t tell me how it works, Chase. I’ve been there, remember? No, he didn’t trust us. He didn’t trust anybody.” I glanced at Sam. He was looking down, playing with his chips. This must have been pretty uncomfortable for him. He got to know Mr. Everett, but he was never a client. He never saw that side of him.

“I just wish . . .” John said. “I wish I’d found it before he died. Maybe I would have understood what he was thinking. You know, I could have helped him.”

Stopped him.

“What else is in there?” I asked, indicating John’s bag. A thick uneasi ness rose in my throat.

John smiled as he once again reached into the bag. He pulled out a new bottle of Ten High whiskey. “I thought we could all take a shot for our friend.”

Chase went to the bar and came back with five glasses. Austin was looking sick now, too, and I knew he wasn’t ready to feel all this. He’d worked so hard not to. Chase filled the glasses and passed them out. He looked up.

“Should we say something?”

John gazed into his glass. “How about, we’ll never forget the man who brought us all together. We’ll never forget what he worked for, and all he gave up.” John lifted his glass and the rest of us followed. “To Menashe.”

We all murmured the same and knocked back the whiskey with resign ing force. It was harder than I was used to and burned the back of my throat. But it was nothing. This pain was nothing.


By my third day of searching for an apartment, I can no longer focus.

The ads and flyers are running together and all I can think about is every morning the Days Inn sucks another hundred dollars out of my sav ings. But once I find a place, I can feel like I’m really here. Like I’m moving forward.

I’m late to meet this guy about his two-bedroom place on Bleecker Street, so I end up running the last three blocks. The old building is beautiful, red brick with black fire escapes zig-zagging up the sides, and somebody yelling down from a window to her friend on the street, just like in the movies. The location is great; I could walk to work in about ten minutes. But I won’t get my hopes up yet.

I’m standing on the street, panting, realizing I’m not sure if the door man will even let me in, when a young Middle Eastern man jogs out of the building. A good-looking guy, tall and well built with black hair and a faded Mets T-shirt. He’s wearing rectangular glasses with thick black frames. He looks around, then his eyes settle on me.

“Hey, are you Murray?” he asks, out of breath as well.

I nod.

“Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

“No, I just got here.” I smile. “This is a great building.” I wish my T-shirt wasn’t sticking to me with sweat.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, squinting up at it. “Want to take a look at the place?”

“Sure. And you’re Ronnie?”

“Rahmi. With an ‘m.’” He laughs and I think he must get that a lot. “Sorry, I guess I heard you wrong on the phone.”

“No problem,” he replies, waving for me to follow him. “Come on in.”

We take the elevator to the fourth floor. It’s mirrored, and on the way up, Rahmi points to my baseball cap. “Are you from Cleveland?” “That’s right.”

“Nice. Drew Carey, right?”

I laugh. “Yeah, he really put us on the map.”

We get out and walk down the hall until Rahmi stops at number 429. He turns the key and apologizes for the mess, but as he opens the door, the place looks quite clean.

He grabs a soda from the fridge and offers me one. His hand shakes a little as he holds it out, and for the first time I get the idea he’s nervous. “Thanks.” I take the soda and follow him out of the kitchen. I’m still sweating, and I can’t get Dani’s voice out of my head. She’s telling me it looks pretty easy—starting all over again without her. I shake my head. It’s not like that.

“Well . . .” he says, looking around, his thumb jittering against the can. “This is the living room.”

I smile because it’s clear he’s not used to doing this. “It’s nice.”

“It’s also Grace’s room,” he continues, showing me how the couch folds out into a bed. “She doesn’t have much stuff, so it works out.” He points behind me. “And that was the kitchen, right there. It’s got the normal stuff: fridge, electric stove, microwave. No dishwasher, though.” “That’s all right.” I follow him down the small hallway to the bedrooms. He’s whistling a little, but I don’t think he realizes it.

“This,” he says, tapping on the first door. “Is Jemma’s room.” He gives me a look. “We don’t go in there.” He opens the next door. “This is my room. Pretty small,” he says, “but not bad.” Rahmi steps in to give me a better look. I take in the room. I don’t think I’ve seen such a well-organized place since I lived with my mother.

“Would you do all my cleaning, too?”

He laughs. “Maybe we could work something out.”

We check out the bathroom, tight and crammed with toiletries, before walking out to the living room again. Off to the left is an office nook, about the size of the bathroom.

“This,” Rahmi says, pulling over a screen partition to shield it from the rest of the apartment, “could be your room.”

My eyes sweep over the space. “Think I could fit a futon in there?” “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Absolutely.”

I’m self-conscious now because I can feel him still watching me and I’m not sure what else I should say. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him smoothing his hair back, then he moves into the kitchen, letting me look around, I guess. I try to take it all in, imagining life in six hundred square feet with three other people. I glance again at Rahmi, busying himself at the kitchen counter, and my heart beats a little faster. I take a few gulps of soda and meet him back in the kitchen.

“Should we go over some of the details?”


“Are you interested so far?” he asks as he sits down at the table. He offers me a chair and I sit, too.

I nod. “Yeah.”

“Awesome. Well, you’d be the fourth roommate. We’ve got Grace; she’s twenty-one and a full-time student at NYU. She’s a nice girl, kind of a goof, but fun to hang out with. Uh, let see,” he says, taking a drink. “There’s Jemma; I think she’s about twenty-five. Now, she’s something.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s really private so I don’t have a lot of details, but, well . . . most of the time she’s not even here—I have no idea what she does. She’s got kind of a Goth vibe going. She’s serious, angry, but won’t talk to you much.” “Okay.” I guess I can handle that.

“Then there’s me.” He shrugs. “I’m thirty-three, work part time at my family’s restaurant, and go to BMCC.”


“Oh, sorry. Yeah, it’s Borough of Manhattan Community College. I’m working on an English degree, but it’s slow going. I guess I’m easily dis tracted.” Rahmi smiles and his eyes meet mine. “As far as the living situation,” he continues, glancing down, “I’m pretty neat and organized—as you noticed—and I don’t like a lot of noise at night, that kind of thing.”

“That sounds good to me.” I pause. “What’s the rent?”

“Well, you and Grace pay less, since you don’t have your own rooms.” He squints at the ceiling. “That would put you guys at three-fifty a month. Jemma and I would be five hundred.”

I’m working out the numbers in my head and Rahmi’s watching me. “Does that seem doable for you?”

I nod. “Yeah,” I reply, getting excited. “That should be fine.” “Great.” He sounds relieved. “So, you want to tell me about yourself? I mean, you seem pretty normal, but it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker if you’re not.” He leans back in his chair.

“Boring is more like it.” I rub the side of my neck, trying to think of what to say. How much to say. “Well, I’m twenty-nine, and from Cleveland. I went to law school out there and practiced for a while, but it wasn’t for me.

I was working as a file clerk for a law firm until I came out here, which was . . . man, I guess about a week ago now.”

“Did you come out for a job?”

“Yeah.” I smile. “But I didn’t get it. It was a paralegal job at Spodek. But after they turned me down, I didn’t want to leave. So, I walked around the city and ended up at NYU. I passed the law library and got the crazy idea of asking them for a job. It worked.”

“Wow,” he laughs. “That takes some guts.”

“No, I’ve been stupid,” I say, shaking my head. “I was really lucky they had this position. I mean, it’s entry-level, but I think it’ll let me stay in New York.” I pause. “I’ll definitely be able to pay rent.”

Rahmi smiles. “I’m not too worried.”



Kate Kort has published two other novels with Brick Mantel Books: Glass (2015) and Laika (2017)