Story — From the April 2016 issue

Plexiglass

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

I muttered something about Urdu, reflexively, in self-defense, because this was the only word that came to mind under the circumstances.

Photographs by Karine Laval

Photographs by Karine Laval

We were leaning into each other, she and I, and she exaggerated the terms of our complicity, speaking from the side of her mouth for comic effect and telling me that Stak walked in circles in his room enunciating phrases in Pashto in accordance with the instructions from the device clipped to his belt.

He was seated directly behind the driver and spoke into the plexiglass shield, undeterred by traffic noise and street construction. He was fourteen, foreign-born, a slant tower, six four and growing, his voice rushed and dense. The driver did not seem surprised to find himself exchanging words and phrases in his native language with a white boy. This was New York. Every living breathing genotype entered his cab at some point, day or night. And if this was an inflated notion, that was New York as well.

Two people on the TV screen in front of us were speaking remotely about bridge-and-tunnel traffic.

Emma asked when I’d start the new job. Two weeks from today. Which group, which division, which part of town. I told her a few things I’d already told myself.

“Suit and tie.”

“Yes.”

“Close shave, shined shoes.”

“Yes.”

“You look forward to this.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Will this transform you?”

“It will remind me that this is the man I am.”

“Down deep,” she said.

“Whatever there is of deep.”

The driver slipped into the bus lane, temporarily gaining position, advantage, dominance, and he gestured backwards to the boy as he spoke, three lights ahead all green — Pashto, Urdu, Afghani — and I told Emma that we were riding in a taxicab with a driver who enters the bus lane illegally and drives at madman speeds with one hand on the wheel while he half-looks over his shoulder and converses with a passenger in a far-flung language. What does this mean?

“Are you going to tell me that he drives this way only when he speaks this language?”

“It means this is just another day.”

She looked into the options below the screen and put her finger to the inch-square site marked off. Nothing happened. We were back in mainstream traffic moving slowly down Broadway, and I told Emma, out of nowhere, that I wanted to stop using my credit card. I wanted to pay cash, to live a life in which it is possible to pay cash, whatever the circumstances. To live a life, I said again, examining the phrase. Then I leaned toward the screen and hit the off site. Nothing happened. We listened to Stak speak to the driver within the limits of his Pashto, intensely. Emma looked hard at the images on the screen. I waited for her to hit the off site.

She and her former husband, a man whose name she did not speak, went to Ukraine and found the boy in a facility for abandoned children. He was five or six years old and they took the risk and made the arrangements and flew him home to Denver, which would eventually share time with New York when the parents divorced and Emma came East.

These are just the barest boundaries, of course, and she took her time rounding out the story for me, over weeks, and even as her voice went weary with regret, I became absorbed in another kind of home, in what was most immediate, the touch, the half-words, the blue bedsheets, Emma’s name like baby talk at two in the morning.

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’s most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, “Hammer and Sickle,” appeared in the December 2010 issue. His novel Zero K, from which this story is excerpted, will be published in May by Scribner.

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