Jacob M. Appel: An Excerpt from The Man Who Trounced God at Chess


Killing, Balint discovered, was the easy part. Not killing required discipline and restraint. Whether his medical career had inured him to death, or his steady constitution enabled him to suppress his emotions, or merely the sheer depth of his need for his wife and his hatred for Warren Sugarman transcended all moral barriers, he grew to see the slayings as a routine matter, even a mundane nuisance, like his four weekends each year as the on-call cardiologist at the hospital. Never, not even with his hands choking the life from innocent strangers, did he experience any guilt. At worst, he suffered a nagging fear of future guilt: the apprehension that he’d one day find himself overcome with remorse and confess for no good reason—like Raskolnikov or Leopold and Loeb. Then even these worries faded, leaving behind only the fact of his crimes. All of this occurred much later, of course: After he’d committed himself irreversibly.

His transformation from conscientious physician to calculating assassin had seemed impossible only a year earlier, on the rain-swept Saturday afternoon when he’d accidentally run over the brindled dachshund and then watched like a stranger as his life came untethered from its moorings. He’d been driving home from Hager Heights, following lunch with his mother and stepfather. Amanda had begged off—as she often did—claiming a toothache. Their girls were away at summer camp. Balint recalled being in particularly bright spirits that day, because his promotion to section chief had been approved only the week before, which made him—at thirty-four—the youngest head of any medical division at Laurendale-Methodist Hospital. And then, out of a forsythia hedge, bolted the hapless dog.

On a clear day, he might have stopped in time. In a steady downpour, the brakes of the Oldsmobile squealed until the animal bounced off the grille.

He was traveling east on Meadow Drive—taking the shortcut between Chestnut Street and Hamilton Boulevard—with no other vehicles in sight. To his left sprawled the country club, where a flock of Canada geese sheltered itself at the edge of the golf course. To his right, thick hedges protected a row of upscale homes; farther along the road, the shrubbery gave way to a wall of whitewashed brick. Balint sat in the vehicle for several minutes, waiting for the shock of the collision to subside. Surely, if anyone had witnessed the accident, they’d have come to offer help. Nobody did. That meant absolutely nothing prevented him from abandoning the dachshund to its fate and driving off. Escape was the rational response to the situation, he told himself. Instead, he did the right thing.

The dog lay unconscious, but breathing. Blood had colored its left eye crimson and a bone protruded through the fur below its left front knee. The luckless animal’s body shivered, either from cold or pain. Balint wrapped the creature inside his sport jacket. Rain matted his shirt to his chest—and it struck him, too late, that the water might cause his hospital pager to malfunction. His initial intention had been to carry the beast back to his car and to drive it to the emergency room. Yet as Balint lifted the heavy, sopping body, he suddenly recalled that Sugarman, the transplant surgeon, lived hardly a block away. In an instant, he made the decision that would lead to so many others, and he carried the bleeding animal around the corner toward Sugarman’s house.

Sugarman’s son and his own younger daughter attended the same grade at Laurendale Prep. Amanda and the boy’s mother played tennis together. Over the past several years, a friendship had arisen between Balint and the surgeon—not an intimate friendship, but a convivial relationship built around common circumstances and shared worldviews and overlapping social circles. Both men had graduated from Columbia within three years of each other and from its medical school in the same class; both attended the same synagogue on High Holidays. When Balint ran into Sugarman on the ward service, he enjoyed his colleague’s easygoing good cheer. In all likelihood, if Balint’s daughters married someday, Sugarman would attend the weddings, although the surgeon’s recent, bitter divorce threatened to complicate the seating chart. At the same time, if Sugarman vanished suddenly—accepted a job in a different state or even burst an aneurysm—Balint couldn’t say that he’d have suffered any genuine sense of loss. What mattered at the moment was that Sugarman lived nearby, and that he might be capable of stabilizing an injured dog.

Later, Balint reflected on how many unfortunate contingencies led to what transpired next. After all, had the asphalt been dry, or had he left his mother’s place only seconds earlier, he might have avoided the smashup entirely. Or he might not have recollected that Sugarman lived on Meadow Court. Or he might have decided that a transplant surgeon could offer little service to an injured canine. An infinite number of other possibilities might have happened; what actually did happen was that he approached Sugarman’s driveway, his forearms straining under the weight of his cargo, and he spotted a familiar silver Plymouth sedan parked beneath the basketball hoop. Again, he had an opportunity to avoid calamity—to return to the main road and go in search of help. Instead, he stole around the side of the building.

Sugarman’s backyard looked almost indistinguishable from his own: a slate patio equipped with a kettle barbecue, a swing set, a vegetable patch ringed with chicken wire. All that distinguished the surgeon’s property was the absence of a swimming pool. Despite the pelting rain, the surgeon’s sprinklers ran at full tilt—likely on a timer.

Balint climbed the wooden steps onto the deck. He peered into the nearest window and was rewarded with a view of an empty kitchen. The second window belonged to a dimly-lit bathroom. Beyond the third window—at the far corner of the patio—stood a spacious den, furnished much like Balint’s own family room, with two loveseats and a sofa focused upon a large-screen television.

The transplant surgeon relaxed on the sofa. He sipped from a brandy snifter. Amanda’s head rested on the far arm of the couch, her bare feet nestled in Sugarman’s lap. With his free hand, the surgeon toyed with her toes. While Balint’s mind struggled to place an innocent spin on what could not plausibly have been an innocent encounter, his colleague leaned forward and sucked Amanda’s big toe into his mouth.

That was enough for Balint. He retreated down the patio stairs and dropped the dying dachshund into the flowerbeds. Not his problem.

On the journey home, his entire body shuddered violently—just like the dog’s had done—and as he crossed the highway overpass onto Roosevelt Avenue, an intense urge seized him to veer into the traffic below. Somehow, he managed to resist.


Amanda Uransky hadn’t been the prettiest girl Balint ever dated. In fact, they’d slept together for a brief spell in college—and then he’d cast her aside, rather unfairly, to forage in other pastures. Yet she’d taken her rejection in stride, unlike several of the other women he’d mistreated; instead of crying and pleading, she merely gave him a farewell hug and sent him a card on his birthday for each of the next four years. So when chance reunited them in the medical school library, where he was cramming for his anatomy final while she interned at the circulation desk, he found her company a warm refuge from his cold, unforgiving nights of memorizing pharmacological mechanisms and the symptoms of obscure diseases. Soon enough, he didn’t even notice the extra flesh on her hips or that her deep-set black eyes, otherwise enthralling, sat slightly too close together. Even as they planned their wedding, Balint knew he’d chosen wisely. His bride possessed all the practical skills he lacked: She could haggle with a caterer, threaten to discharge a florist. When they blew a tire on the way to the rehearsal dinner, she climbed down on her knees beside him and showed him how to install the spare.

That had been nine years earlier. Two daughters ago. Balint tried to remember who he’d been before his marriage, but the Jeremy Balint of his bachelor days was as inaccessible to him as his months inside the womb.

At home, he found a note from Amanda on the letter table in the foyer: “Tooth better. Gone shopping. Back at four.”

He did not experience anger, not at first. He didn’t feel numb. What swept over him was a sense of helplessness. How would he handle life without Amanda? He had no clue how to prepare his estimated taxes for the accountant, or where the key to their safe deposit box was hidden, or the telephone number for the pediatrician. He didn’t know in which banks they held accounts or even how much money they had. All he knew was cardiology, and that Amanda attended to everything else—and now one of those two pillars of faith appeared in jeopardy of toppling.

He passed the afternoon scrubbing dachshund blood off the bumper of the Oldsmobile and from the sleeves of his shirt. The sport jacket proved unsalvageable; he dug a shallow hole behind the woodpile and buried it.

Amanda returned at precisely four o’clock. The back seat of the Plymouth was loaded with grocery bags and she asked for his help carrying them into the kitchen. Now, the sky had cleared; puddles still pocked the front walk.

“They had a special on paper towels,” she said. “Eighty-nine cents a roll. So I bought twenty.”

“I suppose we can never have too many paper towels,” replied Balint. “What made you limit yourself to only twenty?”

What he wanted to ask was: How long has this been going on? What does Warren Sugarman have that I don’t? Are you going to leave me? But he didn’t dare, because he feared the answers.

He deposited the last of the paper grocery bags on the countertop.

“Aren’t you glad they didn’t have a special on anvils?” asked Amanda.

She sounded so nonchalant. As though she had indeed spent the entire day searching for discounts on paper products.

“How’s your mouth?” he asked.

“Better. Not good, but better.”

“I’m glad,” he said.

Even a simple phrase like “I’m glad” now sounded strange to him. Had his inflection hinted at doubt? Would she think he was mocking her? On an ordinary afternoon, was this something he might have said?

“Are you up for dinner on the town?” his wife asked. “Someplace romantic.”

“I really should get paperwork done,” he lied.

Amanda approached him from behind and wrapped her arms around his abdomen. This was not something she normally did, he thought; she was obviously overcompensating for what had occurred that morning. Balint wracked his brain to recall other recent episodes of uncharacteristic behavior.

“Come on, Jer. You can do all the paperwork you want next month when the kids get back from camp.” She rested her chin on his shoulder. “How many nights do you get to spend alone with your devoted wife?”

If he were going to hate Amanda, that would have been the moment. But what he actually felt was confusion. An oppressive sense of psychological bedlam. So he accompanied his wife to the candle-lit bistro overlooking the harbor and then for ice cream cones at the old-fashioned parlor opposite the railroad station. He made conversation—but as he spoke, mostly about the girls, but also about the family vacation to Disneyworld they had planned for November, he felt like an actor in a play.

In the back of his head, he was planning how to rebuff Amanda if she sought to get frisky that evening. He would refuse—he had to draw a line somewhere. But to his relief, and also disappointment, she didn’t try.


Balint’s encounter with Warren Sugarman two days later could not reasonably have been termed a coincidence. He was not the service attending that month, and he had only a handful of private patients in the hospital, so he had no reason to be wandering through the wards. Yet he somehow found excuses for multiple forays onto the acute care units. He’d spot a specialist he hadn’t seen in some time—and they’d stand at the nursing station, chatting, while the interns and residents typed away on their progress notes. Inevitably, he crossed paths with the transplant surgeon.

Sugarman stepped off the elevator with a pack of house officers in aquamarine scrubs nipping at his heels. The burly surgeon sported a copper-tone business suit over a burgundy shirt and lavender bowtie; a matching handkerchief protruded from his breast pocket. He walked backwards like a tour guide, declaiming to his minions as he went. When he spotted Balint, who was in the process of purchasing a soda from a vending machine, he broke off his lecture and dispatched his disciples to their tasks.

“Balint!” he hailed. “How’s the new division?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Sugarman strode up to him and actually slapped him on the back. You medicine people never cease to astound me,” he said. “I keep telling myself that I’ll relearn physiology someday, but I never get much further than one heart, two kidneys.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “I’m far better off sticking to plumbing, I know. Everybody needs a plumber.”

“Especially on a weekend afternoon,” replied Balint.

“Agreed,” said Sugarman—without a hint of discomfort. “Especially on a weekend afternoon.”

The doors to the transport elevator opened. They stepped aside, allowing a crew of orderlies to maneuver a lunch tray rack into the corridor.

“Damnedest thing happened to me,” said Sugarman. “Someone killed my neighbor’s dog and tossed the carcass into my tea roses. Isn’t that the damnedest thing?”

“When did this happen?” inquired Balint.

Was that a reasonable question? Had he displayed too much curiosity?

“Over the weekend,” said Sugarman. “I went outside to check on my gladiolas yesterday—I’m trying a new breed this year—and smack in the middle of my rose garden is a goddam dog carcass. Smelled like hell, too.” The surgeon waved his palm in front of his nose. “Flies everywhere.”

“Flies,” echoed Balint. “Nothing good about flies.”

He had hoped to run into Sugarman all morning, but now that he stood face-to-face with his wife’s lover, he longed to be rid of him. What could the two of them possibly have to talk about? A certain caliber of man, Balint recognized, would have challenged the surgeon directly: fisticuffs, pistols at dawn. And he had also heard of so-called “enlightened” husbands who might take the affair in stride, wishing their rivals the best of luck—or even comparing notes. Balint was neither brave nor liberated. He didn’t want to fight the surgeon, or to tolerate him. No, what he wanted was for the surgeon to stop screwing his wife. Nothing more or less. But that wasn’t the kind of request you could make without humiliating yourself.

“Balint? You okay?”

Sugarman had been talking to him—probably more nonsense about the dead dog—but he hadn’t been listening. “I’m fine. Just a migraine.”

“You’ve got to take care of yourself, Balint. None of us is getting any younger.” Sugarman patted his own paunch. “Want to hear my idea for a new novelty item? Of course, you don’t—but I’m going to tell you anyway.” The surgeon chuckled. “Dementia cookies, that’s my million-dollar gag. Just like fortune cookies, only they all say the same thing inside: ‘This is a cookie.’ Half of the twenty-five year olds in the country would buy a box for their fathers. Now am I right or am I right?”

“It’s certainly an idea.”

“Anyway, enough of my brilliant schemes,” said Sugarman. “I’d better catch up with that chief resident of mine before she takes my job. But you and Amanda ought to come over to the bachelor pad one night for dinner. Gloria may squeeze every last dime out of me, but I’m not going to let her walk away with my friends. What do you say?”

“We’ll see,” replied Balint. “It’s a busy month….”

Sugarman nodded—with no apparent sense that he was being snubbed. “I’ll call you. We’ll set something up. Now take a triptan before your head explodes.”

The surgeon slapped him on the back a second time and then lumbered down the corridor, leaving Balint alone in the elevator bay. A moment later, a code-7000 blared over the public address system—a cardiac arrest—and then the resuscitation team charged past with their crash cart and defibrillator. Balint said a brief prayer for the dying patient, as he always did—more force of habit than faith; and for a moment, he wished it were him.


Balint went through the motions of treating his patients that afternoon: checking blood pressures in both arms, ordering EKGs. What amazed him was how much medical care one could deliver while on auto-pilot. He managed to interrogate and console and even engage in small-talk with the elderly congestive heart failure victims who comprised the bulk of his practice—and he was confident none noticed anything amiss. For six hours straight, he inquired after children, grandchildren, the status of college applications. He praised the talents of his patients’ other medical specialists, armies of ophthalmologists and endocrinologists whose names sounded vaguely familiar. He even removed a wood splinter from the thumb of a teenage girl who’d accompanied her great-aunt to an appointment. But if, at the end of the workday, anyone had quizzed Balint about these exchanges, he’d have conceded that he remembered absolutely nothing he’d said—and often not even which patients he had examined.

He longed to speak to someone about his own problems. Anyone. To discuss how his life had unraveled so quickly and how he might patch it back together. Alas, he now confronted the second stark discovery of the week: He had nobody to talk to. Not one single human being. He had friends, of course, lots of them. College buddies, medical school buddies, a handful of high school baseball teammates he met up with every Memorial Day weekend. If he’d wanted to hit the squash courts, or to go on a fishing trip, or even to shoot a round of pool, he had a rolodex of colleagues and neighbors to invite. But for an intimate tête-à-tête, he had no place to turn.

There was Steinhoff, the hip young Israeli who’d replaced Rabbi Felder, but he hardly knew the man. He could always make an appointment with a therapist, but his previous bout with psychiatry—after his father’s fatal asthma attack, when he was sixteen—had left him angrier and more mixed up than ever. He had no siblings, no close cousins. Other than Amanda and the girls, his mother and stepfather provided his only intimate connections, but his parents’ sole coping mechanism was denial. When his Aunt Clara’s liver cancer metastasized to her spine, Balint’s mother had attributed her sister’s pain to rheumatism. After he’d been rejected from Princeton, his first choice for college, she’d wanted him to phone the admissions office to make certain that he hadn’t fallen victim to a clerical error. So Balint could speak to his parents, but the last thing he wanted was his mother insisting that Sugarman’s toe-sucking had a hidden, non-sexual purpose. He already envisioned her asking, “Are you sure it wasn’t a medical procedure? Maybe she’d been bitten by a poisonous snake and he was sucking out venom.” No, at the end of the day, he was utterly and incontrovertibly alone.

After he’d attended to his final patient of the afternoon, Balint found himself in no hurry to return home. For what? So that he and Amanda could continue their game of make-believe until she decided to call it quits. For all he knew, she was already in the process of shifting their property into her own name—of setting herself up for the day when she transferred her address to Meadow Court. That’s what he would have done, he told himself, if he stood in her shoes. Of course, he didn’t stand in her shoes. Because he wasn’t the one having an extramarital affair. No matter how many attractive women he’d met since their wedding—nurses, flight attendants, bleach-blond pharmaceutical sales reps who accompanied him to dinner talks—he’d never considered cheating. Not once. So much, he lamented, for playing by the rules.

Balint completed his electronic billing for the month and killed an hour reorganizing his filing cabinet. The sun had already dipped behind the adjoining laboratory building when he shut off the lights and drifted downstairs to the parking garage. Then he drove the streets aimlessly until the last light vanished in the western sky. To torment himself, he cruised past Sugarman’s house, but found no sign of the silver Plymouth. He flipped on the radio and half-listened to news of the war.

What have you learned from this, Balint? he asked himself. That was the question he always posed after an unexpected negative outcome at the hospital—a medication error or a catheterization gone awry. It was probably the reason for his administrative successes. Yet now, applying the same question to his personal life, he came up with only one answer: Playing by the rules was for losers.

He’d lived his entire adult life as an upstanding citizen: hard-working, honest, faithful. He placed his patients’ welfare first, honored his mother and stepdad, strove to set a good example for his daughters. He long ago had accepted that probity didn’t guarantee him immunity from the vagaries of misfortune—traffic accidents, stock sell-offs, fatal asthma attacks—but he couldn’t help believing that virtuous living ought to insulate a man from betrayal by his own friends and family. Obviously, it did not. Sugarman—glad-handing, oafish, two-faced Sugarman—had flouted the most fundamental of rules, and he’d been rewarded with Amanda.

So what now? Even if he could find a confidante to bounce his ideas off, did he have any ideas actually worth sharing? What Balint really yearned to do was to clasp his bare hands around the surgeon’s fat neck and to squeeze until the man’s eyeballs turned blue. The image arose before him of Warren Sugarman prying at his knuckles, his lips quivering, his mottled face pleading for another chance. And then he imagined the surgeon’s tongue hanging limp from his bloated mouth, and he literally sensed the surgeon’s weight as he eased the man’s lifeless body to the ground.

If he’d been able kill his rival without facing any consequences, Balint thought, he had no doubt he’d actually do it. Why not? And then a second idea struck him: Why should he get caught? He wasn’t your average petty criminal: He’d finished first in his class in medical school—seventy places ahead of the transplant surgeon. If he was smart enough to run a cardiology division at thirty-four, wasn’t he also intelligent enough to eliminate his wife’s lover with impunity? Of course, he was!

That was how, as he drove along Van Buren Turnpike past Laurendale Preparatory Academy, where his innocent daughters attended the first and the third grades respectively, toward the house where they lived, Balint decided to murder his former friend and classmate, Warren Sugarman.


Read Jacob’s interview about The Man Who Trounced God at Chess, his novel in progress.