Readings — From the August 2019 issue

Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution

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From Overthrow, which will be published this month by Viking. Crain’s previous novel was Necessary Errors.

A little before one, Leif’s phone gave the black-fly buzz that signaled its receipt of a text. They didn’t get out of bed. A few minutes later, they ignored a second text too. “You’re blowing up,” Matthew said, when a third one came in.

“It’s happening,” Leif said as he read. “The police are evicting everyone.”

Matthew switched on his desk lamp and shielded his eyes from it. “Do you want to go?”

“We won’t even be able to get close enough to see,” Leif replied, still reading his small screen. “The police are using their clubs.” Another text arrived. “Raleigh’s going,” he reported.

“Is Elspeth?”

“He didn’t say. He’s getting on his bike now.”

“What about Chris?”

“He’s two blocks south of it. The first text was from him.”

Leif hunched over to write his friends back, which on his dumbphone sometimes required laborious repetition of the number keys to bring up the right letters. At the sink, Matthew poured two glasses of water. The edge of the circle of light cast by his desk lamp bisected Leif across his pale chest. The geometry of the scene suggested to Matthew that Leif would never be fully held by any claim of Matthew’s. The stillness of the circle of light and the unsteady working of Leif’s breath in his rib cage added to the impression.

“Do you have any earplugs?” asked Leif. “The police have bought some kind of new sound weapon with their 9/11 money.”

“Are you going?”

“You don’t have to go.”

“I just didn’t realize you were going.”

“I want to see how far I can get.”

Matthew took a bag of foam earplugs out of the top drawer of his desk. “This is so end times. A sound weapon.”

“It’s a war of the senses,” Leif said. He stood up, pulled on his pants, and started buttoning his shirt. “It’s a war over perceiving. Over what we’re allowed to perceive, still. You don’t have any swimming goggles, do you?”

“The strap broke last year,” said Matthew. “I’ll go, too.”

“Why? It’s not your thing.”

“I won’t get in your way,” Matthew promised. “I’m going to go, okay?”

They walked their bikes down the stairwell of Matthew’s building. Outside, by a trick of the light, the asphalt of the street looked wet even though it wasn’t. They set off, Leif in the lead. The streets were mostly empty. It was quiet, and they were alone and unwatched. As the black-and-white city scrolled past, Matthew felt terribly free, as one does when one understands that one has lost touch with one’s old life.

The city was like a sleeping dragon; they were coasting past it almost noiselessly, so as not to wake it. The only sound was the creak of their pedals, echoing off the facades. As each streetlamp passed, the burnish of its reflected light rolled up alongside them on the asphalt, like a dolphin curious about a new boat in her waters, and then veered away.

It was so quiet that Matthew had the impression that he and Leif had survived something. They were touring the aftermath.

“Look,” said Leif, pointing below them as they mounted the bridge. “They’ve shut the bridge to car traffic.”

Two police cars, lights flashing, were slanted across the bridge’s car lanes, and beyond the police cars, the gray pavement was empty.

After looking down, Matthew by reflex looked up into the beautiful double rigging of the old bridge, which was unusual in that it was both a cable?stayed and suspension bridge, doubly supported because its builders had meant for it to stand for all time. Cables that spread at an angle crossed cables that fell straight down, interlacing like fingers and creating diamonds that in their sequence of gradually varying dimensions seemed to be unfolding as Leif and Matthew rode past them.

They crossed the water; they descended into downtown. Tonight it didn’t seem like misplaced prudence for them to lock up their bikes long before their destination, and while the chants and the sirens were still faint, they chose a no parking sign on an empty street. As they threaded their locks and cables through their wheels, three curly?haired men with backpacks walked up with nervous speed.

“Any news?” asked one.

“We just got here,” said Leif.

“We heard they have water cannons,” said another.

The shapes of the men’s noses didn’t match; they weren’t brothers. Leif told them the rumor he had heard about the sound weapon, and he gave them three pairs of Matthew’s earplugs. “I don’t know if they’ll work,” Leif cautioned.

“They might be handy in Central Booking, anyway.”

“Don’t they make you empty your pockets at Central Booking?” asked the third curly?haired man.

“I think they just take your belt and shoelaces,” replied the first. The men hurried on.

“I don’t want to go to jail,” said Matthew. “Do you want to go home?”

“No, let’s just not get arrested.”

As they walked north, toward the site of the encampment, they began to notice small groups of others headed in the same direction. They passed a row of glossy white S.U.V.s bearing medallions that identified them as the property of the Department of Homeland Security. The trucks were backed up diagonally onto the sidewalk, their engines idling. They were as yet unscratched by the city. Matthew wondered where the Department of Homeland Security was kept when there wasn’t any civil unrest. Outside of airports, he had never seen any sign of it before.

“Raleigh says to go one block west,” Leif said, reading his cell phone. When they did, they found sidewalks that were at last a little populated.

There was a chant—“Whose streets? Our streets”—which built for half a dozen iterations, but after a few more, the voices in it fell out of entrainment, and in the end only one persisted, almost scoldingly. It was the middle of the night, after all. At the next intersection, a file of police, in helmets and black plastic armor, stood abreast to block the way to the park that the occupiers no longer occupied. Behind the police was parked a paddy wagon, one of its back doors open, the corner of a bench inside it visible. From every officer’s belt there dangled an insectlike furl of disposable plastic manacles. It was the multiplicity as much as the shape of them that suggested insects. Professional dog walkers sometimes carried a dispenser of baggies in the same place.

To pick up the shit that is us, Matthew thought.“If you step into the street, you will be arrested,” a policeman warned the crowd through a megaphone.

“What’s that about?” Matthew asked.

“It’s their rule,” said Leif.

“If you don’t color inside the lines, you go to jail? Don’t we have a right of assembly?”

Leif didn’t meet Matthew’s eye, as if wary of Matthew’s simple anger. He waved; he had spotted Raleigh, Elspeth, and Chris on the sidewalk opposite. Diana was with them. Matthew and Leif made their way to the crosswalk in order to join them safely.

“You made it,” Raleigh said. He clapped a hand against one of Leif’s. “Diana says the police are pulling everyone out of the park.”

She gestured with her phone. “That’s what I hear.

“We will arrest you if you are obstructing the flow of traffic,” repeated the police officer with the megaphone.

“They keep saying that, and they’re blocking a whole street,” said Raleigh, and to Matthew it sounded reckless of Raleigh, under the circumstances, to give voice even to a mild statement of fact. No wonder Leif had been wary of Matthew’s anger a few minutes earlier. There was risk in letting one’s temperature get too high.

“I can’t be here,” said Diana. “I have a meeting with my adviser first thing in the morning.”

“Oh, are you in grad school?” asked Matthew.

“Sociology.”

“En­glish,” Matthew identified himself.

“Nice.”

A new chant began and staggered across the sparse crowd. As it passed through their group, Raleigh and Chris seemed to compete in giving voice to it.

“This will make Occupy even bigger,” said Raleigh, perhaps a little heady from the shouting. “The way the first arrests did. The way the pepper spray did.”

His hopes hung in the air, unseconded.

“What if we walk down to the water?” Leif suggested.

Another chant started. “Are we really going to just walk away?” asked Raleigh.

“What’re you gonna do, man,” Chris replied.

Across the street, Matthew saw the three curly?haired men standing on the curb, glaring at five policemen who seemed to be daring them to step off it. As if to suggest an answer to Chris’s not?quite?question, one of the curly?haired men did step off the curb, his jaw out, and the police at once rained down blows on him with their clubs, as if he were a nail that they were competing to hammer. As the man’s friends grabbed at him ineffectually, the man crumpled to his knees, and the police bent him forward, twisted his arms behind him, and fastened his wrists together. The police had done this many times before, Matthew saw, and the curly?haired man never had. They knew where to hit so that his body gave out quickly.

The police took the man’s friends too, for having reached out to him. “Let’s go for a walk,” Leif repeated.

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