Story — From the April 2016 issue


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The taxi stopped on a near-empty street just below the pit of finance and Stak angled his body out the door and jiggled a hand behind him in an ironic farewell. We watched him enter a loft building where he would spend the next two hours in a room choked with dust and stink, learning the principles of jujitsu, a method of artful self-defense predating the current practice of judo.

The driver slid open the middle panel and Emma paid him. We walked for a time, going nowhere, streets that had a feel of abandonment, fire hydrant open to a limp stream of rusty water.

After a while she said, “He invented the Taliban story.”

Another idea for me to absorb.

“You know this?”

“He improvises now and then, inflates something, expands something, takes a story to a limit in a way that may or may not test your standards of belief. The Taliban was fiction.”

“You sensed it right away.”

“More than that. I knew it,” she said.

“Fooled me.”

“I’m not sure about his motive. I don’t think there is a motive. It’s a kind of recurring experiment. He’s testing himself and me and you and everybody. Or it’s pure instinct. Think of something, then say it. What he imagines becomes real. Not so strange really. Except I’d like to hit him with a frying pan sometimes.”

“What about his jujitsu?”

“It’s real, it’s serious, I was allowed to watch one time. His body is willing to follow a strict format if he respects the tradition. The tradition is samurai combat. Feudal warriors.”

“Fourteen years old.”


“Never mind thirteen or fifteen. Fourteen is the final bursting forth,” I said.

“Did you burst forth?”

“I’m still waiting to burst forth.”

We fell into long silences, walking inward, step-by-step, and a light rain did not prompt a word or send us into cover. We walked north to the antiterror barricades on Broad Street, where a tour leader spoke to his umbrellaed group about the scars on the wall caused by an anarchist’s bomb a hundred years ago. We went along empty streets and our shared stride began to feel like a heartbeat and soon became a game, a tacit challenge, the pace quickening. The sun reappeared seconds before the rain stopped and we went past an untended shish-kebab cart and saw a skateboarder sailing past at the end of the street, there and gone, and we approached a woman in Arab headdress, white woman, white blouse, stained blue skirt, talking to herself and walking back and forth, barefoot, five steps east, five steps west along a sidewalk webbed with scaffolding. Then the Money Museum, the Police Museum, the old stone buildings on Pine Street, and our pace increased again, no cars or people here, just the iron posts, the stunted security markers set along the street, and I knew she’d outrace me, keep an even measure, she was will-driven just walking to a mailbox with a postcard in her hand. A sound around us that we could not identify made us stop and listen, the tone, the pitch, a continuous low dull hum, inaudible until you hear it and then it’s everywhere, every step you take, coming from the empty buildings on both sides of the street, and we stood outside the locked revolving doors of Deutsche Bank listening to the system within, the networks of interacting components. I grabbed her arm and moved her into the doorway of a shuttered storefront and we clutched and pressed and came close to outright screwing.

Then we looked at each other, still without a word, one of those looks that says who the hell are you anyway. This was her look. Women own this look. What am I doing here and who am I with, some fool who bubbles up out of nowhere. We were still in the early times and even if the romance endured it would continue to resemble the early times. We needed nothing further to discover and this is not the cold contractual reckoning it may seem. It is only who we were and how we talked and felt. We resumed our walk, casually now, seeing a bare-chested old man in rolled-up pajama bottoms sunbathing in a wet beach chair on a tenement fire escape. This was everything. We understood that the grain of our shared awareness, the print, the scheme, would remain stamped as in the first days and nights.

We wandered slowly back to the street where we’d started and I realized we were walking into a certain kind of mood, Emma’s a subdued disposition that took its shape from the imminent presence of her son. We reached the loft building and when he appeared he was carrying his gear in a knotted bundle, which he would take with him to Denver. We walked north and west and I found myself imagining that the man at the wheel of the taxi we hailed would have a Ukrainian name and accent and would be glad to speak the language with Stak, giving the boy another chance to turn a stranger’s scant life into lavish fiction.

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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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