The Executor - By Jesse Kellerman


I used to own half of Nietzsche’s head. It was the only thing I truly considered mine, and on the night Yasmina threw me out, it was the last item I retrieved before going to the door and turning around to offer my concluding thoughts.

She spoke first.

“I’ve always hated that.”

I said nothing.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you love it. But it’s really creepy.”

I told her I didn’t want to argue anymore.

She asked if I would be okay. I told her it didn’t matter. She insisted that it did, so I told her yes, I would be fine. This was false. I said it so she wouldn’t feel guilty. You cannot live with someone for two years without developing a kind of reflexive sympathy, and I knew that if I didn’t reassure her, she would spend the whole night awake, worrying about me. Not without cause: she was putting me out in the middle of a blizzard. She ought to’ve felt guilty. But pride forbade me from exploiting that.

“I’ll be fine,” I said again.

“The more you say it, the less I believe it.”

Still, she didn’t seem inclined to let me back in, her body blocking the doorway. Behind her was the apartment where we had lived and worked, where we had slept and talked, where we had made love. Observe the bulletin board, pinned with photographs and paper memorabilia, evidence of a shared history. Dinners with friends. Weekends in Salem and Newport. Remember the coffee table, a battered leather trunk unearthed at an estate sale. Adjacent to the front door, a nail juts out of the wall. Sometimes something hangs there, its absence a conspicuous reminder of all that has gone wrong.

I’m not a man easily lost for words, but standing there on the verge of expulsion, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Tears periodically rolled down her expressionless face, as though out of obligation. The contrast between us could not have been greater than at that moment. She was small and dark, bejeweled, glittering, and elegant. And I? Six-foot-three, ruddy, thick-limbed, capable of holding all my possessions—the entire physical evidence of my existence—in two hands without breaking a sweat.

This speaks primarily to how little I owned. Packing had been a depressingly brief process, everything fitting into a medium-sized duffel bag—which I’d had to borrow from Yasmina. Half the bag belonged to my laptop, my books, and six inches’ worth of unfinished dissertation. The other half contained my shirts, fraying at the cuffs; my jackets, mangy at the elbows; my wrinkled khakis and jeans. Jammed into the bag’s side pocket was one pair of brown loafers, scuffed beyond repair. All told, a thoroughly wretched wardrobe, one that reflected a self-image cultivated over years: rumpled scholar. Clothes belonged to the world of things. I belonged to the world of ideas. Fretting over my appearance would have meant acknowledging the importance of how others perceived me. Back then I found this idea repellent. To some extent I still do. Despite everything, part of me cannot relinquish the notion that I stand outside society, above its judgments.

It is a part of me that grows smaller every day.

Last, there was Nietzsche’s head. Half-head. The left half, to be precise. I’d found it in an East Berlin flea market. For the life of me I can’t say what I was doing there. (In the flea market, that is. I know what I was doing in Berlin: spending yet another travel grant doing yet more research for yet more of my never-ending dissertation.) I’ve never been one to make frivolous purchases, and everything one finds in such places is, essentially, frivolous. If memory serves, I was coming from the Staatsbibliothek, headed back to my tiny studio in Prenzlauer Berg, mulling over what I’d read that day. I must have strayed from my usual route, because when I stopped moving I found myself standing in a noisy aisle I could not remember entering, in front of a booth I could not remember approaching, holding an object I could not remember picking up.

Cold and heavy, it was made of cast iron, with a square base that sprouted into a half-bust, a human head split sagittally: one ear, one eye, the left half of a nose. The crudeness of the workmanship testified to clumsy hands wielding inferior tools: the proportions were off, the surfaces uneven, and the eye in particular had an unreal quality to it, set alarmingly far back in its socket, as though staring out from