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Newly Minted


They had assembled in the atrium for the viewing of the coins—a retired heart surgeon, a lawyer assigned to monitor export licenses, a banker twice accused of fraud. Each had his eye on a ruble minted for a count who had refused the call to become tsar; each thought he had a failsafe means of extracting it from the display case set up for a delegation of mining engineers from the Urals: first, disarm the guard checking names at the door, then distract the docent responsible for the kopeks and ingots commemorating rulers and victories at sea and on land, and then replace the coin with a replica made by a counterfeiter amazed to receive the same commission three times in a week. He kept the mold for luck. The thieves were also superstitious: they hoped the rules of engagement had changed since the discovery of the collection hidden by the Grand Duke. (He was shot by a firing squad.) The engineers headed for the buffet.
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The captions of the silent film were in translation; and since none of the original prints remained (destroyed in a fire, hidden during the uprising, or stolen after the war: no one knew what had become of them), they hired deaf students to read the lips of the men fighting over a woman who would die young. What they learned was that the gap between the actors’ words and gestures could not be bridged; also that the translator had a sense of humor, editing the dialogue to suit his view that romantic love posed a threat to mankind. The train’s late, said one man. I can hear its whistle, said the other. There’s no train, is there? said the woman—and the men raised their fists. Fidelity to the spirit of the original acquired new meaning for the students translating into signs jokes that had lost their sting. But they persisted, and soon they could anticipate the translator’s inventions. Which is to say: they could speak his language. All aboard!
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If hospitality determines the outcome of the campaign to save our way of life, then we will surely lose. There was no reason to define the occupation in the same terms that we used for The Book of Hours. And when the accuracy of the gauges was questioned it was foolish to replace them with tiles retrieved from the bottom of the sea. Anything’s possible! This was how we described the new dispensation. But we should have known better than to seal the drums with pitch before the trumpeters and zither players had learned their parts. For there was no turning back once the music started. A phalanx of policemen marched toward the square, where the crowd gathering by the fountain chanted the name of a prophet whose warnings had not been heeded; the snipers on the roofs of the surrounding buildings checked their sights; from a loudspeaker came the refrain of a popular song from the revolution: Anything at all!
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She wanted to get out of the car. But when she told him to pull over to the side of the road he gunned the engine, tightening his grip on the steering wheel until his knuckles whitened. She could see the drawbridge rising above the canal, and as his features hardened she wondered what it was that she had ever seen in him. The gate was down, red lights flashed, bells rang. The abyss opened before them: blue sky, blue water, and a caravel built in the style of the ships used by the early explorers to sail to the New World. Please, she said in a soothing voice, knowing that if she pleaded he would never stop. An elderly couple leaned against the guardrail, watching the boat glide under the bridge, toward the bay, tapping their feet, as if listening to music. Look, she said, touching his sleeve. Nor was she surprised when he lifted his foot off the accelerator and coasted toward the gate, which would rise soon. They could be singing our song.
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Why have a dog and bark yourself? the diplomat asked the arms control negotiators. And when no one answered he knew the treaty was doomed. A fortune-teller swept into the conference room, read the minutes from the last meeting, and scribbled something on the palm of her hand. The future, she declared—and then abruptly left. Both teams of negotiators began to argue among themselves, their voices rising, the note-takers writing as fast as they could. Kiss the hand you cannot bite, the diplomat whispered to his aide, then asked for a moment of silence, which seemed to go on and on, testing the resolve of the note-takers and the imagination of his aide, a man who would never distinguish himself; when the diplomat finally clapped his hands, the negotiators gathered up their papers and filed out of the room, refusing to meet his eye. And when the sirens blared all the dogs in the neighborhood howled.