Memento Mori — March 22, 2017, 2:01 pm

Remembering Charis Conn

Charis Conn, who died this past Monday, was a long-time editor at Harper’s Magazine who worked with such writers as David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, Jack Hitt, and Paula Fox, among many others. During her many years at the magazine, she created and ran the well-known Harper’s internship program, many of whose graduates have gone on to prestigious jobs throughout the publishing world. She was the editor of the Harper’s Index, the map page, and co-editor of several of the Harper’s Index books. Her lively intelligence, great spirit, and sense of humor were valuable additions to the office atmosphere. The short story she wrote for the magazine, “Octopus,” originally published in 1991, is reprinted below.

What he did was weep. With a convulsive, shredded sound, as if fabric were being rent or animals slaughtered. He was so small that his most solemn sorrowful sounds were still very high, like shrieking, but colored with more than shrillness. He sounded as if he were being physically pierced, a frozen wind whistling through his most tender inner parts. I would lie in my room in the early twilight, convinced that my father was beating him, wishing that my father were beating him, that it was simple like that.

His room was painted a series of encouraging colors: yellow in infancy, pale blue a little later, and something slightly warmer than apple green toward the end of our time there. His shelves were stuffed with bright toys he never touched. He preferred sticks he’d found in the backyard or his treasured “jar of air,” which he had labeled carefully and delighted in showing anyone who might understand. He could play for hours with two stones.

We had a large, enviable backyard, with swings and monkey bars, a small pool, and many trees. And our mother was rare and notorious in the neighborhood for her complete disinterest in what children did there. On days when Simon was taking temporary refuge from their bullying, the local children would congregate outside his alley window and shriek his name up at him in a garish parody of neighborhood chums calling for a friend to come out and play. They usually did this just well enough to make Simon feel foolish for ignoring them, and just loud and long enough so that no matter what his state of mind he always had to relent and let them into the yard. I remember the misery of his shuffle as he descended the stairs and made his way to the back door, my father reminding him softly that he didn’t have to let them in, and Simon’s heavy sigh as he shook his head and continued out into the yard, to the back gate, where they were already clamoring. As he opened it, he was almost knocked down by the swarming children, and for the rest of the day he sat alone on a stump in the middle of it all, his head cocked to one side, the middle and fourth fingers of his right hand in his mouth, his light eyes milky and far away. It was safe for him to stay there because it was understood that while they gloried in the abundance of his possessions, it would be impolitic for the children to abuse him. But sometimes he could not stand to be the recipient of this kind of tolerance and retreated to his room again, where the joyful howls of the children enjoying ·his yard poured in through his windows until he called for me to close them.

My window faced the front, and each year on the last evenings of summer, beyond the darkening crowns of the trees across the street, I could see the bright, jeweled tiara of a Ferris wheel. At dusk, in the hush that followed the swish of a bus pulling away from the curb, faint brassy music accompanied the arrival and departure of every glowing, empty seat at the top of the wheel. And I knew that when real darkness fell, everything would begin. Soon, I imagined, I would be rising to the top, near the stars, and slipping into the edge between the candy-lit haze of the carnival and the infinite soft black of the sky.

The last time I went to the fair was the first time l went without my parents. In the gentle beginning of that evening, I was eleven years old, weighted down with loose change and the wonderful prospect of being my own sole representative to the world, with no taller ambassadors, no warnings, and nothing to separate me from the night.

Through air still scented with a delicious dinner no one had enjoyed, I could hear my brother crying in his room. It had started over something spilled, and now someone would have to go in there and find out what it was really about. During the school year, he would often come home in the afternoon and remain completely silent for hours, until some small object slipped from his fingers and broke, or rolled with a lonely rattle across the floor, or simply slid out of sight. His body would become rigid, his face freeze and crumple, and the bottomless sound would pour out of him.

Simon wept. And, gradually, a story would emerge. His gasped answers and mute shakes or nods of the head spelled out the precise paragraphs of his sentence that day: Someone had tripped him at school, someone had caused a group of other students to laugh at him, someone had grabbed his books and hidden them, someone had spoken too fast for him to understand or so slowly he had felt humiliated. His work — the simplest of spelling it was then, the addition of twos and threes — had been wrong or badly done or lost or stolen. And if it was not, if it had been right and praised, he felt he was being patronized, for he knew, even at seven, that three-letter words and single-digit addition were the easiest tasks he would ever be asked to perform; that other children (all other children, he tended to insist) found these things remarkably simple, as they did opening their milk cartons or playing games or somehow believing themselves to be worthy of anything at all.

Simon wept. And into his weeping that night of the fair came the sound of the telephone, clashing insistently with his voice. After it was answered — mid-bleat, almost in deference to him — he quieted. His wailing became staggered — choked breathing alternating with small sobs. He was tired enough now to be curious, I guessed.

My mother placed her knuckles briefly against my door and came in to say that it was Miriam on the phone, that she wanted to know when we would leave and what she should wear. My mother smiled when she said this, amused by the fact that Miriam and I talked on the phone so much, even though we lived only five houses apart.

I spent as many evenings as I could at Miriam’s, where she and her sister and brother lived together in a slope-walled attic their parents never entered. In their three rooms was everything we needed, and we would huddle up there all night sometimes, with music and television and magazines, lying on the floor playing Monopoly or draped across her brother’s moldy couch while he told us dirty jokes.

I had been on my way there the week before when my father announced that I was now old enough to babysit Simon all by myself, and that I would be doing so that very night. He said this as if he were giving me a ·puppy. When I called Miriam with the news, she came up with the astonishing idea that my parents should extend this new appreciation of my maturity to the next logical step: allowing the two of us to attend the fair without them. And after chasing a giggling Simon through the house, satiating him with chocolate milk and stories, Miriam and I sat up until my parents’ return at 2 A.M., planning next week’s night out: the order of the rides we would go on, the food we would buy, deciding whose parents had the best cigarettes to snitch, wondering vaguely about beer, and inventing scenarios in which terrifying but gentle fourteen year-old boys put their arms around us.

As I lay spread-eagled on my parents’ bed, reaching for the inert receiver that was Miriam, my mother emitted a little blur of sound that climaxed with three words: “And take Simon.” The last syllable was neatly timed to leave her mouth just as the phone reached my ear, so that I couldn’t quite speak when I was supposed to. I listened instead to Miriam’s patient breathing on the other end, to the sound of her sister’s stereo playing in the background and the porcelain and stainless-steel music of her mother clearing the dinner dishes. Miriam lived in a very small house where everyone was always bumping into each other and no one ever minded. I often searched the faces of her family for disorder, some deep discord or pain, but I never found it. It was almost as if they were not a family but existed only when I experienced them and spent the rest of their time wrapped in tissue paper in a pretty box.

I listened to Miriam breathe a little longer into the phone and then let her know I was there.

“We have to take him,” I said.



“Shit,” said Miriam, succinctly.

“I know,” I said, rolling my eyes at my mother, who was looking at me with the studied disappointment she adopted ‘whenever I was complaining.

“Oh, well,” said Miriam, suddenly resigned. And I wanted to tell her, Okay, Miriam, you calm him down when he gets anxious, you suffer the stares of people when he sucks his fingers or says something weird or is just plain peculiar in ways I can never anticipate. But no one would ever think that Miriam was attached to Simon anyway. They could tell it was me every time.

After I hung up, I was instructed not to let Simon’s hand leave mine that night. He was seven, looked five, and had fragile, almost visible bones that suggested fractures. He had a habit of paying no attention whatsoever — “tuning out,” we called it. Once, when my family was eating dinner at Miriam’s, Simon did it at the table, and my mother said, right in front of everybody, “Simon, honey, you’re tuned out.” Miriam’s sister laughed, but her parents’ faces became rounder and sweeter and I hated them.

I had to watch him, my mother said, or he would walk into the gears of the Tilt-a-Whirl, get tangled up in people’s legs, or step in front of a moving car somewhere in the six blocks of avenue between our house and the fair.

We waited for Miriam on the front porch. Night had fallen, and the air was sweet and motionless. My mother slipped a card into the breast pocket of Simon’s overalls, saw me watching her, and whipped it out again, wagging it at me.

“This is his name and our address and telephone number,” she said, then tucked the card back into his pocket while he stood facing the front yard, his fingers in his mouth, looking peaceful. He had cried for three hours that evening. I had timed it. His body was now pliant and limp, his eyes alert and empty. I knew he was thrilled to be going. His face was always transparent to me, though I had learned from Miriam — and even from my parents that other people did not find him so easy to read. I could tell from the way he sucked his fingers how he felt at any given moment. I could tell by the shade of blue his eyes became how things would go. Far off, I could hear Miriam’s screen door slam, then her clogs on the slate sidewalk, getting closer. Soon, we could see her head bobbing between the rows of hedges. As she passed each street lamp, her bright hair gave off a coppery glow.

“Look, Simon, there’s Miriam,” said my mother to the side of his passive face. He did not change his position. Only his eyes flitted sideways, watching her progress without moving a muscle. With his eyes straining in one direction and his upper lip clamped down over his fingers, he looked like a small animal, wary, poised for flight.
Miriam waved as she came into full view beside our driveway. She was wearing white pants and a yellow cotton undershirt. We all watched in silence as she crunched over the gravel to the walk.

“Doesn’t she look nice?” my mother suddenly asked no one in particular. I heard my brother exhale noisily through his nose.

She said hello to Simon first, in a cheerful voice even I found patronizing. She tried to give him a poke, but he elegantly eluded her hand, without taking his fingers out of his mouth. She scolded him brightly and then made small talk with my mother. Somehow the presence of Simon that night brought out her dullest Catholic-school side, making her wholesome and pleasant rather than wonderfully warped and resourceful and essentially naughty, as I preferred her to be.

I took Simon’s hand. He let it slip like a fish from my palm. I looked at my mother. She put his hand back in mine, instructing him in whispers. He grimaced and allowed me to drag him down the steps and onto the sidewalk.

By the time we had walked the two blocks to the A & P and the avenue, Miriam was ten steps ahead of us. She was the youngest in her family and never had to contemplate bodies smaller than her own. Simon hung on my hand like dead weight. I knew that any joy he might have felt before was now suffused with terror. It was just a matter of time before he broke into tears. Something in the window of the toy store on the way might upset him, or he might remember that the last time we went to the hardware store he brushed against a bin of screws and sent them crashing to the floor in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

When Miriam crossed the street, Simon and I did not — my last minute effort to keep the hardware store as far away as possible. We walked like that, ridiculously, for several blocks: Miriam on the north side of the avenue and Simon and I on the south; Miriam throwing me questioning looks and gestures, me keeping my head down, pretending to be terribly interested in the stores on our side of the street. But Simon was hardly looking at anything. He had lapsed back into a bland, blind neutrality. I guessed he had come to the conclusion that this patch of avenue was not unfamiliar, that he was not undertaking a journey that was terribly dangerous after all.

We joined Miriam at the corner, where the crowds spilled into the street. The fair was held in the large parking lot of St. Mary’s School, across the street from Miriam’s church. Religious schools puzzled me. They seemed regimented and impersonal. Simon and I had always attended our own peculiar little private schools for reasons much more concrete than religion: Simon because he was so much trouble, and me because I was so smart.

Simon had told me on several occasions that he hated me. Not lightly, not because he was cranky or jealous in the usual ways I had seen other children be. He told me through the thick sobs of his worst depressions, when I was supposed to be making him feel better. I attempted this sometimes by admitting I had felt the same things he was feeling. This was always a terrible mistake. It sent him into an almost physical rage in which he howled at me that I couldn’t say that, that nothing I felt was the same, that I was perfect. It was a word he used frequently, even at seven. He used it like a knife.

But it helped to be perfect at times like this, with the bulb-studded skeletons of carnival rides looming up into the air before us, with walls of strangers laughing too loudly all around us. It helped to have his hand in’ mine and to let him think I could navigate all of it, that I could protect him from anything. I felt him slowing down as the three of us immersed ourselves in the simmering crowds. We were surrounded with blinking lights and washes of color, by the hypnotic odors of sugar and salt and a thousand voices filled with delight and urgency and mock terror.

There were already children crying, even this early in the evening: children who had gone on rides that scared them, children who had been sick, children who had temporarily lost their parents, children who had been cuffed for dawdling or for their drink. Children in our neighborhood were hit at a moment’s notice: hit for using the wrong tone of voice, hit for laughing. Simon couldn’t bear violence of any sort, even in Saturday-morning cartoons. He found the Three Stooges extremely troubling, which no one outside our family could understand or even take seriously. It worried me that I lived in a world populated by people like that: who couldn’t understand the simplest things about Simon, who couldn’t understand him even when he was making more sense than they were.

Miriam was unhelpfully weaving through the maze of people before us. Simon had become dead weight again. By now I was dragging him by the wrist, his small limp hand dangling from my fist like a wet handkerchief. We were heading for the Ferris wheel when he came to a full stop, yanking my arm backward. My voice, alerting Miriam, sounded shrill and puny in the enormous din.

“Jesus, Simon,” I said to the sky, as if he wasn’t there, realizing too late that I was terribly angry, that I looked and sounded terribly angry, that I had tightened my grip on his wrist, and that I was hurting him. When I turned, I saw that he was shouting up at me, barely audible. His face seemed to squirm from within a pit beneath the taller bodies all around us. The swirling lights hit everyone in the face but left Simon in the darkness down where he stood. I couldn’t even see his sneakers.

I knelt down into the dimness with him. He was saying that he didn’t want to hold my hand. I told him he had to. He began to cry. I straightened up, spotted Miriam, and shuffled a few feet toward her with Simon wedged in front of me, my hand on his head. Miriam was standing in a little clearing of space, her arms folded, her face tipped to the sky, and her green eyes electric in the lights.

I asked Simon if he wanted to go on the Ferris wheel and he nodded. Standing in line was a relief, as we were fenced in and Simon couldn’t wander, but he wanted to sit in line, scooting along on his rump each time we moved. He sat staring like a convict through the aluminum bars of the fencing. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, even though this was my only chance to do so.

The tattooed man who buckled us in seemed apprehensive.

“How old you say he was?”


The man rolled his eyes and shrugged.

“Honey, you hold onto him, ’cause if you don’t, he’s gonna fall right out.”

I nodded silently, wishing Simon didn’t have to hear this, knowing he cared less about falling than about the fact that he had been spotted as different and inadequate. I sat with him clamped to my waist, my arm encircling him like steel, too tightly probably. But Simon was sucking his fingers almost contentedly now. It was astonishing how limply his body responded to each pitch forward into the cool air. He simply hung on my arm as if he had no inkling I could release or lose him. In the moments in which we were practically facing the earth — when our car had been set rocking by a particularly furious spin of a gear somewhere below — I could feel him slipping toward the gaping empty space between the seat and the safety bar, slipping toward the ground and the small figures that inhabited it, slipping away from me and making no effort not to do so, knowing I would hold him.

“Look at the lights,” Miriam said to him. “Look at the cars down there.”
I winced at her over his head until she caught sight of me and stopped suggesting views. In this, at least, he didn’t need instruction.

At the very top, we paused for a long time and pondered every Ferris wheel rider’s nightmare: getting stuck. But it was not a nightmare to me. I had always wanted to get stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel: to be unreachable and close to the sky, to be unable to do anything about anything, to gently rock and wait while crowds appeared, while my parents arrived and did all the worrying.

When we returned to earth, Simon had to go to the bathroom—an entire category of trouble I had not even anticipated. We plowed through the crowds to the back of the lot, where two open doors threw parallelograms of warm light onto the pavement. Simon didn’t want to enter alone. I explained to him that there was no alternative. Miriam offered to take him into the ladies’ room, and the horror of this propelled him into the men’s. I watched him disappear through the door and around the bend, his shaky reflection on the tiles following him like a shadow. We turned from the bathrooms and took our first unimpeded look at the fair.

From there, with a little breathing space around us, the people looked cheerful, harmless. Their faces glowed with a hundred tender dramas; their arms were filled with stuffed animals they had won, with small children and luminous clouds of cotton candy. We rushed to get some before Simon returned. As we ran across the asphalt, Miriam handed me big cool fistfuls of dimes and nickels and quarters. Coins fell from our pockets, from between our fingers, from everywhere, hitting the ground with small explosions, and we laughed, spinning around to find them all, doubled up, first with the searching and then with the silliness of it, giggling pointlessly, then laughing harder as we caught people watching.

By the time we had picked up all the change, gotten to the stand, received our mounds of pink spun sugar, and settled onto a bench within view of the bathroom doors, there was a curious, small weight in my stomach. The doors, unchanged, did not look right to me. We ate our cotton candy and watched strangers go in and out of the rest rooms.
“Where is he?” said Miriam finally, clearly annoyed.

I got up and took a step in the direction of the yellow doorway, then stopped. It was the men’s room, after all, and it was suddenly ludicrous to me that my tiny brother could gain admittance to a room he didn’t even want to go into in the first place, and that I could not, no matter how much I needed to now.

“This is an emergency,” I told Miriam, hearing my voice and hating the sound of it.

“Oh, it is not.”

“What is it then?”

“Oh, he probably just wet himself or something.”

“Fuck you, Miriam.”

“Just wait here, I’ll be back,” she said softly, and strode off alone toward the rest rooms. It seemed impossible that she was offering to go in my place. I stood there, frozen to the spot, as she neared a man who was approaching the door, spoke to him briefly, pointing in my direction, and then nodded thank you and retreated back to me.

“You didn’t have to say it was my brother.”

She rolled her eyes, something my mother always said that Miriam had picked up from me. “An unattractive gesture,” my mother called it.

We waited. The man returned, spotted Miriam, and walked over with a painful slowness. He was probably in his twenties, skinny and smiling. Smiling at Miriam.

“I’m sorry,” he said, clearly not sorry at all. “Simon’s not in there.”

Miriam thanked him again, smiling back and giving a little concluding nod. But the man didn’t budge. Instead, he lifted his eyebrows in a “that’s life” sort of way and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, taking Miriam’s arm and moving us quickly away. She looked back over her shoulder, and I slapped at her wrist.

“You didn’t have to tell him his name.”

“He had to call for him. What was he gonna do, stick his head under all the stalls?”
And the idea of a strange man calling for Simon in an echoing public toilet filled my heart with the sudden realization that I had lost him. He was gone and I had taken us away from the last place he had been seen. I had done something stupid, exactly what my mother feared. I thought of the flimsy slip of paper in the gaping pocket of his pale blue overalls, of his thin shoulders, and of the way his sunken chest always collected a puddle of water when he lay down in the bathtub. His skin was skim milk, and when he was frightened even that hint of blue fled, leaving his face completely bloodless, his eyes like gelatin. Wherever he was, he was frightened right now.

I must have been shouting at Miriam. She led me back to the bathrooms, and we searched along the edge of the building, scrutinizing each shadow, each knot of people loitering anywhere nearby. Beyond the black hulk of the garbage bins near the back of the school, the tips of two cigarettes glowed like eyes.

“We have to tell somebody,” Miriam decided, and I realized that I had gone slightly limp and no longer had anything to say. I simply let her lead me around while she made her inquiries. Finally, we stopped beneath a zigzag riot of light called the Octopus, a ride I had always loved. Miriam pushed me gently onto the end of the long line and talked to me slowly, with a hand on each of my shoulders, looking into my face as if I were a baby. She said she had to go to the other side of the school building to see the lost-and-found lady. I wanted to tell her that Simon was not a glove or a handbag, but she was gone by the time my lips had formed the words, her long hair shimmering down her back as she disappeared beyond a brick wall.

The Octopus loomed before and above me, enormous and curving and terribly fast. I had ridden it dozens of times, strapped into a little pod at the end of one of eight long snaky metal arms, careening around at high speeds, getting yanked in every direction at once to the accompaniment of my own screams mingled with the screams of others, and loud music, and lights that smeared with motion into long fingers of color. It felt like flying and falling at the same time. It felt wonderful.

The first time I went on the Octopus, we were living in an apartment in the city. I was four, alone for the evening with my mother. She took me down some small winding streets until we came upon one closed off to traffic, alive with this same jittery glitter, like a chip of some bright world dropped here into the dimness. We wandered, hand in hand, past stalls sputtering with grease and laughter, until, at the end of it all, I could see something astonishing through the legs and elbows of the crowd: a whirl of streaming lights, spinning through the air, carrying faces squeezed with a mixture of terror and joy, their screams echoing off the facades of the dark buildings that rose all around us. We stood silently, watching it, until the thing stopped, and I saw that the people on it were being replaced by other people. I looked up at my mother hungrily.

“You actually want to go on that thing?” she asked with horror.

I nodded.

“It’ll make you sick.”

I shook my head.

“I’d have to go with you,” she said, uncertainly. That seemed reasonable to me. I nodded.

She paused. I could not read my mother’s face at that moment. Something played across her brow that I had never seen before, a terrible indecision.

“I won’t be scared,” I promised.

But this didn’t do the trick. My mother seemed to be considering something of her own, something she had to weigh in a manner that didn’t include me. So I simply stared up at her, knowing, as all small children do, that my upturned, eager face alone was often my best argument.

It worked. She looked at me once, then faced the ride, nodded to herself, and led me by the hand up to a small white booth lit from within. The red deckle-edged ticket she placed in my hand felt stiff and magical. I clutched it greedily while we waited in line, and handed it to the fat man at the gate with an air of importance.

I was not scared. Not in a way I regretted afterward. The ride thrilled me as carousels and slides never had. My mother screamed and grinned and grimaced along with me, and afterward she wobbled only slightly once our feet hit the pavement, and asked to sit down for a moment on the curb.

Later, she bought me an ice and took me home through the still, dark streets, up the stairs of our little building, and into the bright apartment where my father, home from working late, was sitting at the table eating what she’d left him. He seemed pleased that we had gone to the fair. But when I tried to tell him about the ride, my mother interrupted me.

I went to bed angry at her and lay in the darkness listening to the blur of voices in the next room, wondering why she had done it. As I was on the edge of sleep, her voice, now louder, woke me.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter!” I heard her yell. “It does matter!” shouted my father.
“Timothy, I’m only three months.” ” “You were only three months last time.”
“That wasn’t the same thing,” I heard my mother say, more quietly now.
A chair scraped.

“Oh, it’ll be fine,” she said softly into the deepening silence. “It’ll be just fine. I feel great. And it was so much fun, that ride. Like a dream.”

I had been looking up into the Octopus for so long that I flinched when Miriam touched me. My neck throbbed when I tried to turn it, and I was blinded by the darkness of normal light. I stared at Miriam blankly while my pupils opened up.

“That’s it,” she shrugged matter-of-factly. “I told them he’s lost.”

I could barely remember what she was talking about. She had done whatever it was she had to do. There was nothing more to think about, and without discussing it, we moved up in line, nearing the emptying pods.

As I swung up into my seat, I pictured Simon trembling in the dark somewhere, a stranger approaching him, questioning him, confusing him, luring him somewhere. Then the machine yanked us up into the air at a steep angle, and the vision was gone, and I was consumed only with the giddy imbalance of my own body, with the unnatural and enthralling idea of being whipped through space faster than I knew how to go; of being unable to be prudent or careful or right; unable to stop, at last, what I did not wish to stop.

I was screaming suddenly through the night, my voice so loud it was no longer mine, no longer a voice at all. It was the sound that the air made as it went through me, as I became scrambled up with color and motion and music. I closed my eyes and there was nothing left but the invisible plumb of my heart waving crazily inside of me, betraying gravity again and again in enormous convulsive waves of joy.

When I opened my eyes, I could see the crowd below, smiling and pointing up at us, dreaming of being in these astonishing seats. Everyone below had been reduced to faces, small spots of changing color and shadow, dark pockets of eyes, flashes of teeth. Then Simon’s.

He was standing in a circle of empty pavement out by the concession stands. The garish colors of the spinning lights washed over his pale face like nausea. His skin was slick, his mouth a jagged black hole that would not close. His tiny hands clawed at it as if there were something in there that could save him. He was looking right at me.

The Octopus screams still rolled through me, without my permission. But they were different screams now, clearly another color when they began in the dark near my heart but the same as any other rider’s once they left my mouth. It was why I was up here, I suddenly understood, up here where screaming was expected and encouraged: so that I could make the sounds I needed to make, the sounds that Simon had stolen from me, my answer to the unreasonable universe that had turned my life into an appendage of his.

The ride slowed at last, and I wondered if I had somehow caused it to end prematurely. I searched the faces in the galaxy of pods that hung in the air all around me. I looked for disappointment, for resentment, for accusing glares. But every face was flushed with spellbound luminosity, as if each body had absorbed the brightness of the thousand bulbs of the Octopus, as if they had been permanently infused with air and motion until they glowed like water and sky, their lives lit from within by possibility.

My face felt slack and bloodless, exhausted from a screaming that did not temper horror with faith. I realized I had looked away from Simon. But he was still there, alone at the edge of the crowd, white as bone now and glistening with tears.

The couple below were getting unbuckled and helped out of their seat. Our pod dangled ten feet off the ground, waiting to descend to the exit platform. I undid my own buckle and swung the safety bar away. I didn’t look at Miriam. I imagined that her impulse to protest was interrupted by whatever she might have seen in my eyes.

I jumped from my seat, landing in a four-point crouch on the pavement. And then I ran. Past the scolding attendant, past the curious faces of the families waiting in line, past teenagers entangled in dark corners, past mothers tugging children by the wrists, past fathers hoisting toddlers onto their shoulders, past the clatter of wheels of fortune and the whir of cotton-candy machines; hurtling through knots of strangers like a hunted animal, through summer, through night, through everything I was and have become, to

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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