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.

Horns were making sporadic noise and Stak was still talking to the driver through the closed panels. Talking, shouting, listening, pausing for the right word or phrase. I spoke to Emma about my money. Money comes to mind, I speak about it, the fading numbers, the small discrepancies that turn up on the withdrawal slips that are spat out by the automated teller machines. I go home and look at the check register and do the simple arithmetic and there’s an aberration of one dollar and twelve cents.

“A bank mistake, not your mistake.”

“Maybe it’s not even a bank mistake but something in the structure itself. Beyond the computers and grids and digital algorithms and intelligence agencies. It’s the root, the source, I’m almost serious, where things fit together or slip apart. Three dollars and sixty-seven cents.”

HA084__03H90-1Traffic was stopped dead and I nudged the window switch and listened to the blowing horns approach peak volume. We were trapped in our own obsessive clamor.

“I’m talking about the minor matters that define us.”

I shut the window and thought about what I might say next. Faint sounds of news and weather kept coming from the screen at Emma’s kneecaps.

“Those blanked-out eternities at the airport. Getting there, waiting there, standing shoeless in long lines. Think about it. We take off our shoes and remove our metal objects and then enter a stall and raise our arms and get body-scanned and sprayed with radiation and reduced to nakedness on a screen somewhere and then how totally helpless we are all over again as we wait on the tarmac, belted in, our plane eighteenth in line, and it’s all ordinary, it’s routine, we make ourselves forget it. That’s the thing.”

She said, “What thing?”

“What thing. Everything. It’s the things we forgot about that tell us who we are.”

“Is this a philosophical statement?”

“Traffic jams are a philosophical statement. I want to take your hand and wedge it in my crotch. That’s a philosophical statement.”

Stak backed away from the partition. He sat upright and motionless, looking into vague space.

We waited.

“The man. The driver. He’s a former member of the Taliban.”

He said this evenly, maintaining his aimless look. We thought about it, Emma and I, and eventually she said, “This is true?”

“He said it, I heard it. Taliban. Involved in skirmishes, clashes, all kinds of operations.”

“What else did you talk about?”

“His family, my family.”

She did not like this. The light tone we’d evolved yielded to a silence. I imagined a pub where we might go after dropping off the kid, mobbed bodies at the bar, couples at three or four tables, spirited talk, women laughing. Taliban. How is it that so many end up here, those who flee terror and those who render it, all driving taxis.

We were in a taxi because Stak rejected the subway. The barbarian heat and stench of the platform. The standing and waiting. The crowded cars, the voice recordings, the bodies touching. Was he the species that rejected all the things we were supposed to tolerate as a way of maintaining our shaky hold on common order?

We were quiet for a time and I hit the off site and then Emma hit it again and I hit it again. The horns diminished but traffic did not move and the noise was soon resurgent, a few warped drivers prompting others and then others and the amplified sound becoming an independent force, noise for the sake of noise, overwhelming the details of time and place.

Traffic jam, downtown, Sunday, senseless.

Stak said, “If you close your eyes, the noise becomes a sound that’s more or less normal. It doesn’t go away, it just becomes something you hear because your eyes are closed. It becomes your sound.”

“And when you open your eyes, what?” his mother said.

“The sound becomes noise again.”

Why adopt a boy that age, five or six or seven, someone you see for the first time in a city you’ve never heard of, many miles from the capital, in a country that was itself an adoptee, passed from master to master through the centuries. She’d told me that her husband had Ukrainian roots but for her part I knew it had to be something in the boy’s face, in his eyes, a need, a plea, and she felt a compassion that overwhelmed her. She saw a life bereft of expectation and it was hers to take and save, to make meaningful. But there was also, wasn’t there, a kind of split-secondness, a gamble in the form of flesh and blood, let’s just do it, and a brisk dismissal of all the things that could go wrong? And would this stranger in the house bring with him the long run of luck that might save their marriage?

She said that Stak counted pigeons on the rooftop across the street and never failed to report the number. Seventeen, twenty-three, a disappointing twelve.

Then, standing on the sidewalk, not a homeless man with sagging face and crayoned sign, begging, but a woman in meditative stance, body erect in long skirt and loose blouse, arms bent above her head, fingers not quite touching. Her eyes were closed and she was motionless, naturally so, with a small boy next to her. I’d seen the woman before, or different women, here and there, arms at sides or crossed at chest level, eyes always closed, and now the boy, first time, pressed trousers, white shirt, blue tie, looking a little scared, and until now I never wondered what the cause was or why there was no sign, no leaflets or tracts, only the woman, the stillness, the fixed point in the nonstop swarm. I watched her, knowing that I could not invent a single detail of the life that pulsed behind those eyes.

Traffic began to move and Stak was talking to the driver again, forehead welded to the plexiglass.

“Sometimes I tell him to shut up and eat his spinach. It took him a while,” she said, “to understand that this is a joke.”

He was here for a long weekend now and then and for ten days when the school year ended. This was all. She hadn’t told me why she and her husband split up, and there must be a reason that I never asked. To honor her reticence, perhaps, or was it more essentially that we were two individuals exploring a like-mindedness, determined to keep clear of the past, defy any impulse to recite our histories. We weren’t married, we didn’t live together, but we were braided tight, each person part of the other. This is how I thought of it. An intuitive link, a reciprocal, one number related to another in such a way that when multiplied together, day or night, their product is one.

“He doesn’t understand jokes and this is interesting because his father used to say the same thing about me.”

HA085__03H90-1Emma was a counselor in a year-round school for children with learning disabilities and developmental problems. Emma Breslow. I liked to say the name. I liked to tell myself that I would have guessed the name, or invented it, if she hadn’t told me what it was at the wedding of mutual friends on a horse farm in Connecticut, where we first met. Would this become a nostalgic theme to return to in future years? Country roads, bluegrass pastures, bride and groom in riding boots. The idea of future years was too broad and open a topic for us to explore.

The towers grew taller here and the driver simply drove, letting Stak rehearse his Pashto. Two young women crossed at the light, heads shaved, and the man and woman on the screen spoke in faraway tones about a new surge of Arctic melt and we waited for footage of some kind, amateur video or network helicopter, but they changed the subject and I hit the off site and they were still there and then Emma hit it and I hit it again, calmly, and we resigned ourselves to the deadly sedative tenor of picture and sound.

Then she said, “He talks about the weather all the time. Not just today’s weather but the general phenomenon narrowed down to certain places. Why is Phoenix always hotter than Tucson even though Tucson is farther south? He does not tell me the answer. This is not something I would know, it is something he would know, and he has no intention of sharing the knowledge. He likes to recite temperatures. The numbers tell him something. Tucson one hundred and three degrees Fahrenheit. He always specifies Fahrenheit or Celsius. He relishes both words. Phoenix one hundred and several degrees Fahrenheit. Baghdad. What is Baghdad today?”

“He’s interested in climate.”

“He’s interested in numbers. High, medium, low. Place names and numbers. Shanghai, he will say. Zero point zero one inches precipitation. Mumbai, he will say. He loves to say Mumbai. Mumbai. Yesterday, ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit. Then he gives Celsius. Then he checks one of his devices. Then he gives today. Then he gives tomorrow. Riyadh, he will say. He is disappointed when Riyadh loses out to another city. An emotional letdown.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“Baghdad, he will say. One hundred and thirteen degrees Fahrenheit. Riyadh. One hundred and nine degrees Fahrenheit. He is making me disappear. His size, his presence in a room, he shrinks our apartment, can’t stay in one place, roams and talks, recites from memory, and his demands, his ultimatums, and the voice that issues them, with its own echo. I’m exaggerating slightly.”

The cab was edging its way through the constricted streets downtown and if Stak heard what his mother was saying he gave no sign. He was speaking English now, trying to guide the driver in and out of the board game of one-way and dead-end.

“I don’t know who he is, I don’t know who his friends are, I don’t know who his parents were.”

“He didn’t have parents. He had a biological mother and father.”

“I hate the phrase ‘biological mother.’ It’s like science fiction. He reads science fiction, terminal amounts. That’s something I know.”

“And he leaves when?”

“Tomorrow.”

“And you will feel what when he’s gone?”

“I’ll miss him. The minute he’s out the door.”

I gave this remark a chance to settle in the air.

“Then why don’t you demand more time with him?”

“I couldn’t bear it,” she said. “And neither could he.”

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.”

“Fourteen.”

“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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