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Painting by Michael Harrington for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

Painting by Michael Harrington for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

I live with my grandmother in a town called Laskerville. The town was created a hundred years ago when they dammed the Sassusquanatt River. It’s a pretty town—just what you would think. What does it look like? Out the front door of my grandmother’s house you can see clear up the riverbed ten miles to the edifice of the dam, rising pale and inarguable like a cliff. And below it all these ridiculous lives in a deep ravine. There are houses all around ours. In that respect we’re far from alone. There’s a church. There used to be a grocery, an army-navy store, a five-and-ten. All in the shadow of the dam. Now the only thing left is the post office, and that’s closing next week. Nearly all the houses are empty. You can bang on doors if you like, but no one will come. I know because I tried it.

I came here six months ago and I have only one friend, Loma, whose father is unbelievably strong. I once saw him move a stove by himself. Loma said to me, Ignatius—she always uses my full name—just hold the door. He can get it. And her father picked up the stove and carried it out of the house and down the steps like it was nothing. Loma is eighteen. She and her family are sticking around so her dad can scavenge the town. He takes boilers, stoves, copper wire from the walls. He knows a little about anything and everything. Call me Hank, he told me one time. I don’t know what his original name is.

When I came the town had already gotten the news. Most of the people had left. I only ended up here because I had no choice. Thing is—my dad got sent to prison. For a long stretch everything was fine with my dad and me, but then he got caught buying stolen cars and stripping them. There were seven or eight cars in the garage when the police got there, and not one of them was his. So he went away, and I got a bus ticket to his mother, Grandma Palavar. I never heard her first name. Not sure she has one.

But she has a dark turn of mind, Grandma. The other day a man came from the school system to find out why I wasn’t in school. Her face is always kind of twisted up, even at the best of times, and as she stuck it out the door she twisted it up real skeptical.

What’s that? You want the boy in school? Can’t you see there’s no school anymore? They took all the tables. No one’s been in there for weeks.

But, Mrs. Palavar, if you would move to the housing we’ve set up, there is indeed a temporary school building.

If my husband were here, I know what he’d say. He’d, he’d say: Climb up there into your own ass real deep and take a nap, if you can stomach the stench, and leave the rest of us alone.

The man smiled weakly and excused himself. He left some official-looking paper, which my grandma put into the stove.

There’s no one to like anymore. One day it happened, everyone stopped being worth liking. Not you, of course, Iggy. Not you.

Not Loma.

That’s right. Not Loma.

The place I used to live before is called Pittsburgh. You must have heard of it. Pittsburgh’s a real town. A lot of important people come from Pittsburgh. Anywhere in the world you go, you could say, I’m from Pittsburgh, you know, if they ask you where you’re from, and when you say Pittsburgh they’ll perk right up. They know it’s not nothing. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to fill up my dad’s old seabag with everything I own and get on a goddamn bus to Laskerville. Even if my life in Pittsburgh was mostly helping my dad take cars apart, watching for the police, and showing up late to school, I didn’t mind it. I’m not one of those people who hate school, by the way. All my teachers loved me, and so they would get angry when I wouldn’t come for a week or two, but I’d still pass all the tests. Sometimes other people would even cheat off my exams, which I don’t mind at all. Cheating is a very important skill for some people to learn. If you are the sort of person who needs to cheat, then you should become good at it as soon as possible, trust me.

Here in Laskerville the school officials can hassle us because I’m fourteen and can’t drop out yet. For a long time my plan was to join the French Foreign Legion, but I don’t want to shoot anyone, and I guess that’s part of the racket. Even Grandma says that probably I should stick it out in school since I’m so good at it. Loma thinks that, too. She told me I know as much as someone her age, maybe more, and Loma never exaggerates. She measures things exactly as they are every time, and that’s what she says. It is such a comfort to me I can’t tell you.

You see, Grandma Palavar, who is most definitely a straight shooter, has had a difficult time of it. She lost her leg and has this horrid prosthetic that I usually have to help her with because some of the straps are broken and she won’t bother to get it fixed. And then once she got used to the false leg, her husband up and died. But she keeps going. She insists, though, that he didn’t die, and continues talking to him. I’m not to lock the front door, because he comes in that way in the night and sits at the table, and the three of us have conversations, which is a difficult business because I can’t hear anything he says. But Grandma lets me in on what he’s saying. A lot of it is complaints, and a lot of it is advice, which is essentially what you’d expect an old person or a dead person or a dead old person to say. Some of it sounds like her advice. And as for the complaints, well, most people’s complaints are the same. But some of the stuff he says I’ve never heard before. I don’t know where Grandma dreams it up.

One time we’re sitting there and Grandma says, Be still, Iggy, he’s at the door. And she went over and opened it, and he came in. Then she sits down, and the two of us are there at the table, and she says, Move the chair a little, it’s not quite where he wants it. So I say, Where does he want it, and she says, A little that way. I move it a little that way. A little more. Okay, how about there? Okay, he’s sitting down.

And she makes a pot of tea, and cracks open a cold beer and sticks it on the table with a bowl of pickles. She keeps the beer for his visits. No one else can get near it. Then she says, Iggy, Grandpa wants to tell you about something. So I say, Thank you, Grandma, I’m ready to hear it, and she says, Iggy you’re a young man, and I say, Is that you saying that, and she says, No, I’ve started, keep quiet. You’re a young man, and you’re going to be in a lot of places, rough places I can tell. It’s in your brow. I can see it there, all the trouble you’re aimed at. So I want you to know something I told your father years ago, something that served him well. I’m going to tell it to you.

Thank you, Grandpa, I said. I didn’t like to say it, to talk outright to him, being that he wasn’t there, but sometimes it was necessary or Grandma would have a conniption.

When you’re in one of these places, son, and you’re around a lot of types, you know, weak types, rough types, loud types, you’ll see sometimes you run afoul of somebody. They take a dislike to you.

All right, Grandpa, I get it.

Well, when one of these types gets near you, if you get to feeling the skin on the back of your neck—that’s an old trick. That’s the trick. We’ve always been able to do it.

I looked at my grandma, but she was looking at the spot right above the beer, at the empty chair and such.

The trick?

When you feel that patch of skin, that’s the moment. You just up and slug the guy. Hit him in the mouth hard as you can. It’s our benefit, us Palavars. We can tell when it’s about to happen right before it happens, and so we can get an extra one in.

It’s Tuesday or Wednesday, I’m not sure which, and I’m sitting with Loma at the bus station. Of course there aren’t any buses there anymore, but it’s a good place to smoke cigarettes. I don’t smoke, but Loma does, and she sits on the bus station wall looking down at me. She’s got a red jacket on, and I am completely in love with her.

Loma tells me, Ignatius, men used to wear hats all the time. They never went anywhere without hats. But they weren’t ever to wear them indoors, it was a kind of rule. Outdoors, always a hat; indoors, never a hat. And the worst thing you could do was knock someone’s hat off. If you did that, they were allowed to kill you.

How would they kill you?

Well at first probably with swords, but then with pistols. And since it started being pistols it’s always been pistols. The point of a pistol is to shoot someone who is unarmed. If you’re fighting somebody who has a gun then you want a real gun, like a rifle or a shotgun, not a pistol. Pistols were first created for officers to shoot their own men, in order to force them to charge in battle. The soldiers were always running away. Of course they were. Who would want to fight in a battle?

She tells me, during the Civil War, the North and the South had different specifications for their train tracks. So whenever the battle lines moved they brought along some poor bastards whose job was to move the train tracks a few inches this way or that.

I tell Loma that it’s almost time to watch Bell the Cat and she gets excited. We practically run to my Grandma’s house and set up by the TV in the attic—that’s where I sleep. The TV doesn’t work, but it’s the only one we have. Loma’s folks don’t have a TV at all. This one is a proper color television but there’s no picture. It worked for about a week or so, and when Loma and I started hanging out we watched Bell the Cat in color once or twice, and then when the third episode comes along, there’s no picture, just sound. But we don’t give up. Loma and I listen to the broadcast and we talk about the events, we talk about what we probably would get to see if we could see it. Loma’s good at paying attention, and I am too, and we’re real quiet, listening to every last damned thing we can hear, and afterward we dissect it. We come up with our theories.

Bell the Cat is a Japanese show. It’s broadcast in England though, so it gets shown on the BBC, which is how it ends up on PBS here in Pennsylvania. And luckily PBS is about the only station we get. I know what you’re thinking—it must be a really good show if it’s made in Japan but the British had to have it too, and then when the Americans heard about it, they had to have it just the same. And yes—it is. It’s the best show of all time. For Bell the Cat, the Japanese built a house that is made for giants. I think it’s somewhere outside of Tokyo. It’s a real house, a regular house like you would live in, but at giant size. Everything is in proportion: the chairs, the tables, the windows, the doorknobs, the oven, you name it. Then they built a robot family, a man, a woman, two kids. The family moves around the house on these tracks, kind of predictably, and does things that a typical Japanese family would do. The family’s like clockwork. They’re the background of the thing—they give you the feeling that it’s a house that’s lived in. But then there’s the cat. It’s a giant cat, of course, because it has to be the right size for the family. And it’s a robot cat, or maybe, well, I should say: I think it’s a robot cat, but Loma thinks it is a cat with a pilot inside. She thinks someone’s piloting the cat. We can’t quite figure it out. Anyway, the theme of the show is: a bunch of Japanese men and women, and maybe a few kids (this is also a point of argument), are dressed up in mouse costumes. They run around back and forth in the house. They’ve been locked in there for a year, that’s the premise, and they have to feed themselves. Now I know that robots don’t eat, and you know that too, but there has to be food for the mice to forage, so the producers make the robots act like they’re eating food, make them leave some of it on plates, drop crumbs, etc. The pantry is stocked with food, Japanese food, which is, of course, in this case, giant-size food. In the episode we saw the food was very beautiful. Two of the mice got into a package of rice crackers and it was a dream, just a dream.

My grandma likes to tell me how it is. She’ll say, for instance, Iggy, it’s 1989, your mom is never coming back. And even if she did, I’d send her away, just send her away, and you know what you’d do? You’d keep your damned mouth shut and we’d watch her walk her ass right out of here.

Grandma Palavar has always hated my mom, especially after my mom got a job as a stewardess, left for a month, and then left for good. She was a very beautiful woman, my mother, at least that’s what my father’s girlfriends would say to me. They would take some pictures out of a shoebox and we’d look at them, and they’d say to me, Iggy, your mother was a very beautiful woman. Just look at her. She must have turned a lot of heads. And I would say, I don’t think I look like her at all, which I don’t, and then the girlfriends, practically en masse, would argue that I did, that I looked just like her, why, here, a little bit in the nose, in the eyes, etc. My father was not bad to look at either, I guess, which is why our house has always been full of women. But I don’t really look like him either. He has this thing he does where he gets excited and he looks at you like a tractor beam. You know—you’re just stuck staring into his eyes and he’s explaining about a church in Tennessee that got bulldozed years ago, but then was found somehow intact inside the chamber of a coal mine. Crazy stuff like that.

My grandma told me that if I wasn’t going to school, I should have a project. So I started making a census of all the cats in the town. I do this by meticulously observing each cat and noting its movements. Then I made a large map of the town, and specified each cat’s range. My grandpa told my grandma to tell me I was doing it wrong, but he didn’t say how.

Loma’s theory about the cat pilot is the following: No robot is smart enough to make decisions and follow the mice from room to room. Also, no robot can see well enough to identify the mice when they’re hiding against misleading backgrounds, like a floral-print couch. I feel very sure that the cat is a robot. I feel sure there is no pilot. But I don’t have any good argument to tell to Loma, so I stay quiet, and let her think she’s won. I will sometimes even talk about the cat pilot to her as if I believe in it. I’ll say, for instance, Is that mouse/person screaming? I guess the cat pilot timed that paw swipe pretty well. But she knows that I haven’t given up, and what I’m really saying is, Robots: 1, Humans: 0.

Loma and I like to go and look at the moon. The ravine is pretty high and narrow; the town is pretty bleak, and you can’t see that much sky out of it, but at least part of the night the moon is there, high up above, lifting its hand in greeting. So we go and climb the roof of the house across the way and lie on our backs staring up. I can understand why people would give up their lives for the moon. There really isn’t anything like it, even if people will tell you that other planets have their own moons, even moons that have their own moons, etc. In my particular predicament there is a thing called the moon, and whatever it is that would be analogous to the moon in someone else’s world, well, so be it. We meet down below, in the street, which of course is empty since there aren’t any cars anymore, with garbage blowing here and there. And it’s dark, real dark, and when we go through the front door of the house it’s even darker. Up the creaking stairs to the top floor, then up another staircase to the attic. And then out a hole we busted in the side of the roof, and there it is, flat as a plate, indomitable, patient: the moon, as if it’s been waiting for us for a thousand years, or a week. The moon is made of hours, but wants no part of it. Friendly moon. People say it’s at the heart of all disasters, like a patron saint, or a heresy.

She’s got to be here when the dam goes, she being Loma, Loma is telling me. She says there’s nowhere better, better to be, than watching a dam collapse, and I think it’s the best thing she’s said yet. Being me, I point out that it’d be shortsighted to watch from down here, to which she says she already set up buckets on the cliff face, three buckets, for watching the disaster. Because it’s cool to sit on buckets the way workmen do. Who’s the third bucket for, Loma? I want to ask, but I don’t because either it’s for Elijah, which is some kind of old-timey joke like she’d make, or it’s for my Grandpa, which would be funny too.

Loma: They were going to, you know, dynamite it, to know for sure when it would go, that’s what my dad said, but then they discovered that it would make them legally accountable for the collapse, whereas if they wait, it’ll be the firm that built the dam originally, which somehow is still in business a hundred years later, and so if it’s on their dime, well, it’s better for the city, even if it ends up catching someone unawares, so.

She likes to end sentences that way sometimes, just with a “so.” An embarrassing thing I should tell you is that after we met I started doing it too, but just with Grandma Palavar. You can imagine how that worked out. Iggy, she said, nobody’s holding their breath for you to finish your bastardy little thoughts. Whatever you’ve got to say, spit it out and get on with the day. Saints alive but no one’s taught you a goddamn thing.

Still I sometimes try it in the dark, repeating things Loma’s said, and then ending with “so.” I don’t even need to say things out loud to hear them like they’re out loud. Maybe it’s that way for everybody. I say things in my head and they sound like I’ve heard them. Sometimes it keeps me awake, the noise of all the talking that goes on. My dad said there’s a whole branch of philosophy just about that, and I could go to the library and read about it, but I don’t really care enough. My dad used to always trick me into finding things out that he couldn’t be bothered to. Then I’d say, Nothing for free in this life, Dad. Nothing for free. Grandma Palavar says we should write a letter to him in prison but we have to wait for him to write first, and I just know he won’t. I know he won’t.

Something’s happened on the show that we don’t understand. It seems like the cat has gone over to the mice. That is, to the cause of the mice. First I thought something else had happened, and Loma did too, but then the narrative sounds just stopped making sense altogether, and also there was new theme music, one we hadn’t ever heard. Two of the mice had gotten cornered somewhere in the vestibule. From what we can gather that’s the worst place, the toughest spot to get caught. The mice are really afraid of it, they never go there unless they have to. But in this case, they got a little careless, I mean, this is what we gather happened. None of it is very clear. But all of a sudden there’s noise, like maybe one of the mice is dying, which, I mean, you remember, we’re talking about a woman or a man in a mouse costume, no? Not an actual mouse, or maybe a bit that way, but not all the way. So it could be that one of the mice is dead, but the other mouse, who must surely die too, somehow gets a reprieve. The cat seems to let him go.

The death moment is odd, though. Specifically odd because it doesn’t sound like a mouse death. It sounds like a human death. I don’t know how much you know about mouse death or how much you know about human death. I don’t really know much about either, so maybe we are in the same boat. But I do know what “agreed-upon mouse death” should sound like, or at least, even if I couldn’t say what it was, I know it when I hear it, and what we heard on the show was something totally different, much more like what I’d imagine human death does sound like. I mean, not “agreed-upon human death noise,” but “true human death noise,” which would be, or is likely to be, something different. In other words, maybe, the mouse/human died and they just let the cameras run. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to go that way. But then would they be allowed to continue to run the program? Wouldn’t the family of the deceased mouse/human raise a fuss? Were there payoffs involved? Payoffs for the Japanese show, payoffs for the British version, payoffs for the American run? It isn’t clear how it would go.

To be sure about what happens in the episode, because we only get to hear each show once, Loma and I use shorthand to write down what we’ve heard and then afterward we compare them. We’re not supposed to talk during the show. It would be too hard anyway . . . writing things down is a lot of work, especially because my shorthand style is pretty terrible. Loma’s is better, but she actually took a class.

The show ends with a loud tone that goes on for about four seconds. Then it’s silence, and then the next program, some kind of comedy with rowboats, comes on. As soon as the tone stops, we start chattering away—that’s usually. This time, we’re both just quiet. Just trying to figure out what we’ve heard. I’ve got this graph paper I was using to write on and I’m shuffling it, looking for the exact spot. My scrawls are all crazy. You know what shorthand looks like. It’s not easy street to decode, not even if you did it. Loma’s busy too, she keeps saying, I think, and then stopping, shuffle shuffle, I think, something like that, and then she’s like, I think Seventh Mouse is down. I think he went down.

We number the mice to keep track of them, but even then it’s hard, because the voice acting doesn’t always seem to be consistent. Fourth Mouse and Ninth Mouse have basically the same voice, a thin voice. I can’t tell them apart.

But, but maybe the cat’s a turncoat! Anyway, that’s what I say. Loma knows I’m on the cat side sometimes, and today is one of those times. I bitterly want the cat to win. But there are days when I’m with the mice. That’s true too.

Seventh Mouse, Loma continues, he’s the one who makes all the plans. Without him, I just don’t think . . . I just . . .

We’re quiet for a minute, and then she launches into some kind of theory about how her favorite band Pink Floyd lost Syd Barrett and then went on to somehow be even better, but I don’t think she believes it, at least as far as the ramifications with regard to Seventh Mouse and the mouse leadership on Bell the Cat. The mouse leadership is in tatters. That’s what I tell her. Just tatters.

We talk for a while about a mouse funeral and what that would look like, and whether the cat would honor it, i.e., would it let the procession go through the house unmolested, or would the funeral just turn into a general slaughter? Or would the mice use a mouse funeral procession as a way to launch a surprise attack? Loma says I’m overthinking it. The cat doesn’t even remember that a mouse died. To him it’s a non-event.

It is Loma’s birthday today, and I know that because Loma said to me a while back, Iggy, when you look out the window and see me standing in the street in a collared dress, that will be my birthday dress, it will be my birthday, and we will go up on top of the dam because why shouldn’t we.

Everyone says, of course they do, don’t go up on the dam. Ignatius, don’t go up on the dam. Loma, don’t go up on the dam. Don’t go up on the dam. So of course we have to, because sooner or later there won’t be a dam to go up on, and then what? All these so-called people walking around with dead eyes because they never did a thing they wanted to, just following orders, etc. No way.

So there it is, the tapping at the window. One little stone after another. I look down, bang! Collared dress, and such and such. I grab my worn-out desert boots and hotfoot it to the street.

Loma’s got: herself, her dress, cheap ballet slippers, and a paper bag. In the paper bag is: little cakes her dad made her, some kind of foreign cakes. She tells me they’re good, and I say, Sure, Loma, I know they are. I know they are. I have a glass bottle of apple juice, a clasp knife, and a deck of cards. I give the cards to Loma.

Aww, Ignatius, you didn’t have to.

All kinds of stuff like that she says, and I say, Don’t think about it, it’s nothing. Anyway, they’re not new. My dad gave me them years ago, but I thought, I don’t know. You know what I mean? They’re, look, they have . . .

Oh, yeah, she says, I see. These are so cool. I never saw them in real life. Where did you?

It was my dad, I said, he . . .

Oh, right, your dad . . .

Because the cards are for sailors, or people like that. They have very pretty naked girls, not photos but drawings, you know, in an old-fashioned kind of classic way. I went with that.

Because you’re kind of a classic type of person, you know. I mean, I think we both . . .

Loma agrees that we are both a classic type of person, and it’s okay. The dirty-sailor-card gift goes over okay. She even gives me a hug, a quick hug, real quick, and then we’re walking toward the dam. I suddenly have the feeling it will be today. Today the dam will burst, Laskerville will be destroyed. Nothing will be the same again. Grandma Palaver will hear the crash and she won’t bat an eye. She won’t even stand up from her chair. I can’t even imagine that she’ll drown. She’ll just die sitting there, in the space between one moment and the next. I love that lady.

Yeah, somehow it’s that day, and I know it’s that day, and maybe Loma doesn’t. I don’t know. But Loma and me, we start walking toward the dam. Or, not toward it, but kind of away from it. You have to walk away from it to get to it. That’s how things are, right? Not just dams, but basically everything.

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December 2013

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