Find today’s 2,200 word story here: http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/jr/037.htm
Another title could have been “Men Who Had Behaved Badly.” Uzelkov is an architect returning to his hometown after an 18-year absence. He finds much of the town has changed and he has almost been forgotten about. What is interesting is the man who does remember him, Shapkin, knows all the details of Uzelkov’s messy divorce and what happened afterward. Shapkin’s past actions and what became of Uzelkov’s ex-wife are the heart of the story. The architect mostly sits aghast in horror and sorrow listening to the decline and debauchery of his ex-wife, Sofya Mihailovna. It is interesting how Shapkin dismisses his scoundrelly actions by saying, “It’s all over and done with, it’s no use to be ashamed.” I wanted Uzelkov to show more outrage, but by giving Shapkin immunity we are able to hear all the horrible details of the lawyer’s heartbreaking swindle of the ex-wife. Later when the story returns to Uzelkov he holds back from crying at Sofya’s gravestone because Shapkin is there. Later when he returns alone to the grave, Chekhov brings out the hammer and using Uzelkov’s inability to cry as a way to summarize the architect’s position in the fouled up situation with a single line: “But the moment for tears had been missed.” He leaves the grave to find his new friend Shapkin. Both men are older, but also richer, living off of the success of destroying Sofya. Crying would seem insincere wouldn’t it?
Uzelkov, a wealthy architect, returns to the town of his youth after an 18-year absence to restore the local church. All of the landmarks have changed but what bothers him most are the unrecognizable people. “Half of the people he remembered were dead, reduced to poverty, forgotten.” Even his bitter divorce, big news at the time of his departure, was lost to time. That is until he finds the attorney that represented him. At one time, his attroney, Shapkin, was a cardsharp known for ruthless behavior. Uzelkov finds him changed into “a modest, grey-headed, decrepit old man.” But he has done well for himself and we soon learn that much of his current wealth may have resulted from how he represented Uzelkov in the divorce. The two have lunch and Shapkin offers to take Uzelkov to the church which he is to restore. Along the way, they talk about the divorce. We never learn the exact details that prompted their separation, but Shapkin was able to bribe Uzelkov’s wife, Sofya, into pleading guilty. Shapkin blunders a bit by incorrectly stating the amount of the bribe to be 5 thousand short of the 15 thousand Uzelkov provided. Discovering his error, Shapkin admits he pocketed the extra and dismisses the deceit by claiming “it’s all over and done with” to which Uzelkov doesn’t object. As they continue their journey, Shapkin recounts the plight of Sofya. We learn she turned to drink and spent only 500 of the 10 thousand she was given before returning the money to Shapkin in a fit of shame. Of course, Shapkin pockets this only to return 10 roubles when Sofya returns a few months later in a drunken state to reclaim her money. Uzelkov is shocked but not to the point of forgoing the rest of the story. For his part, Shapkin claims “you can’t judge by the standards of to-day” further noting that “even that ten-rouble note I did not give her for nothing. It was bad business! We must forget it…” Here I expected Shapkin to recoil at the thought of his wife exchanging favors with the attorney who helped contribute to her ultimate demise, but instead the story is interrupted by their arrival at the cemetery. Shapkin leads Uzelkov to the grave of Sofya without telling us how she died. I suspect those details are no longer necessary for Uzelkov and no longer relevant to Shapkin. “Uzelkov was overcome with melancholy.” He would’ve cried for Sofya had Shapkin not been present. He returns alone to her grave two hours later and imagines her beneath the headstone as an innocent girl, ruined by his own apathy, rather than the divorced wife. “‘To weep, to weep!’ thought Uzelkov. But the moment for tears had been missed.”