Chekhov was sitting in a booth at the back
of Port Jefferson Diner buttering his toast
when I walked in, so I carried my coffee
and oatmeal to a nearby table, close enough
to intrude on his solitude without seeming
to intend it, and asked how he was feeling
and what he was working on. He said his
consumption was not a problem in paradise,
but the situation was otherwise depressing,
with the colony of Russian writers at its
collective throat. Tolstoy, Gorky, Pushkin,
Pasternack, their passionate efforts to teach
morality kept clashing. And Solzhenitsyn
was lecturing all of them that Mother Russia
must embrace the Orthodox. Chekhov said
his brand of writing wasn’t popular
in paradise. Its ambiguity and failed
communication, its lack of clear ethical
messaging, the absence of evident virtue –
these were confusing to angels, minimally
tolerated, though not endorsed. No wonder
Chekhov likes to eavesdrop in American diners
where conversation doesn’t pretend to be
uplifting, and the give-and-take is based frankly
on self-interest. While Chekhov had nothing
to say that was remotely introspective,
I felt a curious glow of compassion around him
that made me think he cherished every one
of the sixteen broken people scattered through
the diner that morning, including me.

Jack Coulehan is Emeritus Professor of Medicine and former Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. Jack’s essays, poems and stories appear frequently in health care journals and literary magazines, and his work is widely anthologized. He is the author of seven collections of poetry.