Nachmann’s grandfather used to tell him a story about the four days one October when he slept on boxes of gold. It had been during the Spanish Civil War when both the prime minister and the finance minister were convinced the only way to keep Spain’s vast gold reserve safe was to ship the treasure to Russia. Also, they needed to pay the Soviet Union for men and weaponry desperately needed by the Republicans, Communists, anarchists, and everyone else who was fighting against Franco. Stalin said please, let me take care of your reserves, and from that store we will accept payment for our services only. The gold first went by train to a cave outside Cartagena. Durutti, the anarchist, planned a raid but was talked out of it. From there the gold was loaded onto a gray ship said to weigh four thousand tons, manned by sixty sailors who worked all day and by night slept on the boxes of Louis d’or coins, sovereigns, and pesetas. Nachmann’s grandfather was one of the sixty. The steamer itself was nondescript, the name on its side had been rendered illegible, and it flew no flag. When the ship arrived at an Odessa roadstead, two boxes were missing. Nonetheless, upon its arrival, Stalin held a banquet at which he said, “The Spaniards will never see their gold again, just as one cannot see one’s own ears.”
By the time Nachmann was born, the youngest of many grandchildren, his grandfather was very old and had retired to a part of the city far from the docks. He was remembered as a small man who kept his hat on at all times, even in the house, said the word pesetas with an Odessa accent, and at some point after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, changed his name from Nischtmann, to Nachmann. Nischt, nothing, a reasonable name if you can make yourself invisible, he had said, but this was not a family skill, as proven many times over. The two stolen boxes of gold were never found intact. What did they expect? His grandfather shrugged. You give a bear a piece of meat, you expect he’s going to return it to you in the same condition in which it was offered?
If only his grandfather had been the sailor, if it had been a sailor, who figured out how to steal such a treasure. Even two boxes would have been plenty, even all those decades ago, enough to change Nachmann’s life as it reached into the twenty-first century. If his grandfather had shown even a little ingenuity instead of just sleeping on top of the all that money, Nachmann now wouldn’t be balancing in his knock-off running shoes on the edge of a Coney Island rooftop, feeling the crenellated tiling through thin soles. The ladder to the nearest fire escape down didn’t look very securely attached and some of its rungs were corroded. He could make out a sign on the ironwork that said, Anyone Placing an Encumbrance On This Balcony Will Be Fined $10. Ten measly dollars. Who cares? That’s how old it was. In the yard between the buildings lay a patch of poured concrete whose cracks resembled a topographical model of some large creature’s arterial system, bottles both glass and plastic, abandoned signage from Gross’ Aluminum Siding, and a small halal food cart.
In order to get a better view of the possibilities Nachmannn climbed from the roof down to one of the fire escapes that looked serviceable enough. Many of the iron structures intended for the purpose of emergency escape were barely recognizable because small huts made of pieces of wood, what looked like reeds and plastic or real vines, had been built on them. These innocent, symbolic structures were a pain in the ass. Not only were there people inside eating and drinking, but the succot, even when empty, interfered with his access. The day before he’d been on a fire escape and a man in a black hat had asked him to be a guest in the succah, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, invite guests for dinner, but Nachmann had declined. He was working. By now it was October and many hutshad been taken down, but enough remained to present an annoyance. The building he surveyed had looked promising from a distance, but now on the roof, it appeared less so. Many of the windows were lit, people were home, then he spied an open window, no lights, only one floor below him. This was good.
Nachmann had been a driver for an escort service, Escort Plus. The service had recently been busted, and the owners went to jail, but Nachmann, just a driver, was able to disappear into thin air. He was small potatoes. One week, two weeks, more passed, and he began to miss driving the girls all over town to meet men who looked not so different from himself but with money. Apartments and two- or three-family homes lay before him waiting, for the most part, to be harvested. An open window in a dark apartment was an opportunity asking to be investigated, beckoning with unknown riches: jewelry and electronic hand held devices, the rare expensive kind glittering like a pile of onyx saucers. Just as he was about to put a foot on the rungs of the fire escape below, a man climbed out of the window and stood for a moment, hands on the railing staring out at the city curved along the shore. Both of them looked out at the same night, the same lights of Astroland and the infinity of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Nachmann began to retreat in order to find other quarry when he realized the disheveled man was leaning too far out. He was certainly about to jump.
Burton’s girlfriend had dumped him, and he missed her terribly. Though she hadn’t ever completely moved in, her absence was tangible. He woke up feeling something was missing, not so much the concoctions (fenugreek and habanero paste, pomegranate and kefir sauce) that littered the stovetop, as the sound of her voice. Naomi had been in a chef-training program, and she used to read to him aloud from books on the chemistry of cooking and baking, describing the journey of CO alcohol and sugar in yeast or why egg whites act as a binder. In the middle of such a passage she would shout, that explains what the hell happened to the gluten in my pastry. Burton was happy just lying in bed listening to how bread was invented and why loud sounds make cakes collapse, but Naomi was agitated. She dropped out of the training program because she knew after graduation all that really awaited her was the slavery of apprenticeship under, if she was lucky, a half-way decent chef somewhere in the city, and she was doing that already. Naomi also complained about Burton. She said he was like one of those bobble heads people had on their dashboard, always looking around, but also he slept way into the afternoon and never wanted to go anywhere. He couldn’t help it, he told her, he always did his best work at night, and he had big student loans to pay off. Collection agencies dogged his steps with letters and phone calls. He had no time to go anywhere and no money.
“We’re like flour molecules cleaving from butter when we’re meant to adhere,” Naomi said as she packed up a dog-eared copy of The History of Salt, rolled up her flannel bundle of extra-sharp knives, shouldered her oversize messenger bag, and left.
Burton had no guide to explain the physics of his flopping. To make his despair complete, not only was Naomi no longer returning his calls, not even to be polite. His business partner, A. Lassiter, disappeared, and their client base had dried up. No one was using holograms for credit card fraud anymore. There were faster, more accurate, and cheaper ways to make the cards than to use his handmade products that reflected the high standards of a craftsman. Anybody could make fake cards now. It was like the invention of Polaroids, the automatic transmission, the Internet arrived, and boom he’s an antique, out of business. He leaned further out on his fire escape only to hear the thump of two feet landing directly behind him and a hand on his shoulder. Then Nachmann jumped down like Spiderman, pulled him back from the edge, and shoved him through the open window, knocking over a couple of parched plants. With the force of Nachmann’s push, both of them landed flat on their backs on his apartment floor.
“I can’t believed someone who was about to break into my apartment would save my life.” Burton pushed Nachmann off him.
“Look, it would have been easier for me to let you jump, then I hop into your place, collect what you got, and I’m out before your carcass hits pavement. Nobody’s the wiser.” So much for gratitude. Nachmann looked around. No flat-screen TV, no mp3 players, no high-end portable electronics to speak of, and this joker didn’t look like the kind of guy who wore jewelry or left wads of cash lying around. A couple of Bakelite-handled ice cream scoops hung from a wall as if family heirlooms. Pretending to be absent-minded or preoccupied, Nachmann opened an El Producto blunts cigar box lying on a table, hoping he could at least pocket a smoke. It was full of very small screws. An El Ray Del Mundo Flor de la Vonda box contained nothing but assorted lenses. Who was this guy? He could see not one thing worth lifting.
“Why did you save me then?”
Nachmann shrugged. On Burton’s worktable: Bank of America, Washington Mutual, Commerce Bank, Wachovia. While Burton was tossing water on his face from the kitchen sink, Nachmann pocketed one of the credit cards that looked finished, not realizing it probably wouldn’t work. Hungry, he opened Burton’s fridge.
“Feh,” he said. “How long has that sushi been sitting there? Don’t you have anything decent to eat?”
Burton turned from the sink.
“There’s some bread in there, I think.”
Nachmann found the heel of a rye bread and spun it on the flat of his palm. “That,” he couldn’t believe this guy, “you could use to hammer nails.” This was what he remembered from Odessa-level food. He drank cautiously from an open bottle of orange juice, sniffing before bringing the bottle to his lips.
“You want some?” He offered to his host. “You should have something to drink. You have a little beer or whiskey in the house?”
“Use a glass. They’re in the sink.”
Nachmann looked over at the sink, overflowing with dishes.
“I only save lives. I don’t do dishes.”
Burton noticed the man said house, the way Burton sometimes said house when he meant apartment. Burton lived in this apartment building because rent, this far at the end of the subway line, was cheap. He knew from maps there were islands out beyond the airport, and he’d heard about a guy who wrecked a small boat on one. He did OK on the island. He killed ducks with his hands and survived for a few days until someone doing maneuvers in a police helicopter spotted him, and so he was rescued, but if you went to one of those islands with enough supplies, and didn’t want to be rescued, it was conceivable you could live for a while at least like the Swiss Family Robinson within sight of JFK. So if the card business really tanked, he could move to one of those islands for a while, maybe.
When Burton started work on the cards, years ago, he felt like a watchmaker working out of Geneva or Zurich, places he could only imagine: turreted, Alpine, as different from the suburb of Rochester where he grew up as possible. As a miniaturist his teachers at art school thought he was a freak, but to some, his dexterous fingers were golden. In another century he might have made automatons or fit gears into minute timepieces or music boxes. As a sixteenth-century Mughal painter he would have fit fragments of butterfly wings no bigger than a newborn’s pinkie fingernail onto Sita’s sari, but he was an art student in New York in an era when Benazir Bhutto had been under house arrest. While others constructed giant sculptures from scrap metal, logs, chunks of stone, his genius was recognized by a classmate’s cousin who could put his oddities to good use. He made Burton an offer and, just out of school, he liked the idea of continuing to work alone, unbothered by office routine; the rewards, at first, were considerable. A. Lassiter provided many of the contacts, and they got on well enough until he disappeared from his house in Greenpoint and the missing-persons report filed by Auggie’s parents threw an uncomfortable light on their enterprise. The police interviewed Burton, but he claimed he was under the impression the holograms he made for Lassiter were for legitimate purposes, corporate identification cards. They seemed to believe him, but he suspended operations for a month, then needed to get back to work. How long could you lay low? And then what? Burton carried on alone as best he could, but then the nature of their business was changing anyway.
“You sell these?” Nachmann held a half finished card up to the light.
“I used to.”
“Not many clients at present.”
“You got busted, too?”
“What?’ Burton’s head was clear enough now so the conversation was beginning to register. He leaned back in a chair, short legs outstretched, cocked his head to one side, and took a long look at this Nachmann who had appeared from nowhere.
“I know someone you could do business with. I know someone who might be interested. Think about it,” he said.
“Listen, I do business with the people I do business with.” Not wanting to get suckered again, especially by a man who had intended to rob him, Burton declined. Then he considered that Nachmann had saved his life and could be making a second and potentially very generous offer. Robber/Hero. Hero/Robber. Which was it? Burton went back and forth, not sure what to do. Nachmann put the orange juice back in the fridge.
“OK. Your choice. I’m done here.” Nachmann walked to the door. He didn’t leave Burton his name or tell him how he could be found. The front door clicked shut just as Burton was about to say, but who are your friends?
Though he’d never met them, Zenia and Dina lived next door to Burton. While Nachmann was snooping around Burton’s drawers, Zenia, on the other side of the wall, was getting dressed to go out. She planned to begin her night at a nearby restaurant, then move on to Lyakhov, a club whose name came from a small island north of the Arctic Circle. It occupied a building directly behind a shuttered furniture store. Lyakhov had a narrow side entrance, and in order to get in, you had to know exactly where the place was, and you also had to know the guy at the entrance. Dina leaned against the bathroom doorway looking at the array of tubes and small glass bottles that would be left behind to leak or be knocked over until she picked them up long after Zenia had left for the night. Newly bronzed Zenia, just back from a session at Alaska Tanning, brushed coppery dust on her eyelids, stuck a diamond-shaped bindi on her forehead, then turned to ask Dina how it looked. Dina was impressed and told her so, but Zenia still wasn’t sure.
“I mean, I’m not Indian.” Zenia took it off and stuck it on the mirror.
“I know.” Dina confirmed.
Zenia had narrow shoulders like switch blades and sinewy legs like marching broom handles. She adjusted a sliver of an olive green vinyl skirt studded with chain links she had found in a Salvation Army bin.
“So I was on the train and I was standing, you know it was packed, and there are these two women sitting right below where I’m hanging on to the overhead pole. They’re talking about their friends, and one says to the other, ‘he was all over her like he wanted to nail her.’ Then what do you think the other one answers?”
“ ‘Yeah, you’d never know he was her brother.’ ”
Dina cracked a smile, picked up a bottle on nail polish labeled Frosted Tornado. If you didn’t look at it closely it was the color of something you might pour in your coffee. Zenia would clean everything up by maybe three o’clock the following afternoon.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?” Zenia asked her zipping up her boots.
Dina shook her head. “I need to get paid, you know that. I’m behind on the rent.”
“Who reads such things? Even children google. You should get a real job. Text me, if you change your mind.” Zenia gave one last look in the mirror before heading to the door.
In the hall Zenia ran into the landlady, Mrs. Katan, and a strange man raised his cap to her while fingering the edges of a credit card hidden a pocket of his leather jacket. One of Mrs. Katan’s children stood on the stairs clutching an Elmo in Jerusalem DVD.
“Genya, Genya,” Mrs. Katan called to her. “You look like a queen, but you’re behind in rent. I can’t accept half only, month after month. I’ve got a lovely couple who can move in next week. Doll, why should I make this sacrifice for you?”
“I’m going out now, Mrs. Katan. I’ll try to get you the back rent by next week.”
“What about your roommate, the clarinetist?”
“There’s no one home now.”
Dina went to her computer. She had a job writing entries for a children’s encyclopedia. The company sent her a list of words and a word count, the number of words needed for each entry. She was paid by the word, but the number of words weren’t under her control. Some required only two hundred; more complicated concepts could be as high as one thousand, but the boundaries between complicated and trivial seemed arbitrary. The Spanish Inquisition was sent to her with a diminutive number, but Black Friday, the shopping day after Thanksgiving, was a whopping 800. No matter what the requirement she found herself periodically hitting the word count calibration, hoping that however little she had actually typed, the end of a definition had magically or at least effortlessly been reached.
Pictographs are the earliest form of writing.
On a Post-It pad near the computer Dina drew a picture of a Grand High Inquisitor, narrow eyes and claw-like hands. Ink from a felt-tipped pen soaked satisfyingly into paper. The Inquisitor morphed into an alien of some kind, then she reduced the whole figure into the tangled mass of a very hairy caveman. Whoever chiseled or daubed the first pictographs never imagined that thousands of years later someone living in a walk up apartment with a view of a giant roller coaster would be describing his or her activity on an electronic cave wall decorated by a fringe of yellow sticky notes warped from an unidentified spilled drink.
Dina had played the oboe, worked in a music store which went online, then when it went out of business altogether, she posted ads offering to teach private oboe lessons. The small number of responses yielded only one or two actual paying students. She had offered to teach the oboe to Mrs. Katan’s eldest son, aged ten, in exchange for part of the rent, but the landlady made a face as if Dina offered to teach him the triangle, in other words, what’s to teach? She owned a violin that had belonged to her father, and this instrument which she called the prince of instruments, was meant for the boy. That he showed no interest in either violin or oboe was no deterrent to Mrs. Katan or to Dina. What are you waiting for? She dared to ask. Ten is already too late to begin the violin in any serious way, but with the oboe you have a chance. Dina thought she was offering a good deal. She had played in the Cleveland Children’s Orchestra at one time, auditioning in a concert hall the size of Astroland. Mrs. K. was not impressed. The violin had traveled from Odessa to Berlin to its present home. She was not about to buy an oboe.
Dina asked if she could see it, such an old instrument must really be something, but it was never produced, nor did she ever hear anyone playing it. She wondered if it even existed, or had it been one of those things left behind, imagined and regretted back into life on the third floor of an apartment building with a view of Steeplechase Park. Dina herself hadn’t practiced in months, because no sooner did she begin to play when it signaled that she was home, and so Mrs. K. who lived only one floor below them would knock on the door.
The word Calligraphy comes from two Greek words meaning beautiful writing.
Two words approached one another like sparring partners. What do I want with you? Screams Writing. I do OK solo. I’m legible. I get the job done. You’re one big unnecessary draytsi. This was a word Dina’s mother used to indicate frills, excess, curlicues on top of fillips. Though this wasn’t strictly the correct usage, in Dina’s mind, it stuck. Don’t you wish you could find out? Beautiful taunts, circling Writing. Dina asked herself, why assume Writing was masculine and Beautiful was feminine, then erased the whole dialogue even though it jacked up the word count.
The encyclopedia job she had gotten online from a freelance website. It was, she told Zenia, only temporary until she got more pupils. Five hundred more words to go on pictograph. Three hundred for calligraphy. She pushed herself away from the desk and walked to the bathroom. Zenia’s perfumes and scents lingered in the air. An open lipstick rolled into the sink leaving a spiraling tail of red wax trailing to the drain. Dina put the bindi on her own forehead. It looked ridiculous. She stuck it back on the mirror then returned to her desk.
Reddish in color and good at conducting heat, copper is the oldest metal known to humans. It is an element, one of the building blocks out of which everything on earth is made. The name copper comes from a Latin word for the island of Cyprus.
Like Zeno saying each cigarette was going to be his last, and in this way the end would never quite be reached, it was as if fractions of words always stood between her and the end of the definitions. Where does pictograph end and animation begin? The company kept asking for revisions, the definitions were never finished. The company, location unknown and never reachable by phone, had been contracted by the encyclopedia publisher, and took its time sending checks. Dina had figured she needed to produce a certain number of words per week, but she was continually behind schedule.
Animation is the art and science of making drawings or cartoons appear to move.
When the last breath is drawn, then exhaled, animation ceases, Dina typed. What would happen if, in a few months, her students stopped their lessons, and the encyclopedia contractor folded up shop, emailing her only to say: everything is defined. You’re done. Sorry. She had visions of living under the boardwalk where murder victims turned up from time to time, and no one said a word about who these people had been, or who their families were. At night she would stare at the abandoned playground equipment perched so high on the beach the swings and slides were unreachable due to sand erosion. Even if the world’s tallest man strolled over from Coney Island he would be unable to go for a swing without assistance.
Dina pulled a pair of Zenia’s pants out of the closet. They were way too small, just as she knew they would be. Returning to the closest she flipped through hangers, finally pulling out a long dress, also Zenia’s, also from a second hand store. It was silvery and had no straps. Dina squeezed into it, and pulled a sweater out of her laundry. The air from the boardwalk would be chilly. Listening at the door to be sure she could hear no sound of Mrs. Katan or any of her children, Dina, silver dress swishing against the jamb, stepped into the hall and locked the door behind her.
It shouldn’t have worked, but Nachmann didn’t know that, and for him the turquoise and platinum card with a hologram of a buffalo (Midwestern bank), produced magic. He presented it at a sliver of a check-cashing operation on Stillwell Avenue. The woman behind the bullet proof partition was so angry at her boss who called her a ho once too many times that she was going to quit that night, and before she did she was going to screw up his business but good.
“You got ID, honey?” she asked Nachmann.
Producing all kinds of identification: passport, driver’s license, drugstore discount card, Nachmann glanced nervously at the pin pad at her wrist, the one she would shortly push through the opening in the glass so he could punch in a personal identification number, a series of digits neither he nor anyone else knew. The woman turned the piece of plastic over, looked at the scribble that represented a signature, pretended to swipe the card through a terminal he couldn’t see, nor could he see that she wasn’t actually swiping it through anything. She didn’t pass the pin pad through the glass.
“How much you need tonight?”
“That’s all you want? I see here on my screen you got a very high limit on this card. I could give you $5,000.” She was already walking out the door, getting in the subway, traveling to the apartment she shared with her brother and his children, stopping there long enough to change her clothes, then party like it’s 19 whatever, without once looking back at Ready Checkplus. She’d stop answering the phone for awhile, no maybe she would answer it, and tell her soon to be former boss that she didn’t know anything about any transactions that night, and he would never see her again.
Nachmann walked into the night with $5,000 cash in his pocket. The bogus card was golden. He had planned to make some small purchases with the card, requesting cash back and in this way spread the love around, to diversify, he said to himself, and strike while the iron was hot before the magic card itself got too hot, but now there was no need. He wasn’t greedy. He had a decent bundle. The ocean breeze was good and salty. With nothing to eat since midday except Burton’s lousy orange juice he was starving and so headed toward the avenue.
Zenia saw the man who’d tipped his hat in the stairwell of her building. He was a few yards ahead on the pavement, so she slowed down, not wanting to run into him. He opened the door to the restaurant she’d intended to enter, looked back, saw her, and held the door looking hopeful. She shook her head, no, while thinking, fookit, where do I go now? He shrugged and the door closed on his heels. Zenia walked on, glancing at her reflection in the glass, hoping he would settle himself at the bar or a table with someone, and she could safely circle back in maybe fifteen minutes. She looked in shop windows at pink fur jackets and dyed rabbit fur hats combed to resemble big hair, she stared at displays of traditional chess sets made of wood, and envied the mathematics of the checkered black versus white universe. The ordinary knights, bishops, queens and so on were foregrounded by ceramic Bart Simpson and Star Wars characters, pieces lined up on boards newly introduced in the window of an otherwise dark sliver of a store. Stopping too long in order to scan the headlines of rows of newspapers folded on a rack, the news-seller glared at her, and she kept walking. A women passed her pushing a stroller, three other young children clinging close behind, looked right through Zenia as if she weren’t there. She followed them as they circled the block.
It was late for them to be out, Zenia thought, whoever they were, part of a family that didn’t want to go home. In her gym there were days for women only, and on those days she’d seen rows of wigs with hats and black or navy blue hair bands attached sitting on a shelf in the changing room near the entrance to the pool. Some were pinned to Styrofoam heads, others lay in heaps like something that had been run over in the middle of the road. She imagined the owners of the rumpled wigs, the ones tossed on the tile, were the rebellious ones, the ones who hid in remote parts of their houses late Friday night checking cell phone messages. Shortly after that she’d switched to a gym where there were men all over the place except in the changing room. This, to her, was more interesting. Men with hair growing over the collars of their t shirts, men whose hands on the machines smelled of metal coins and motor oil, men whose shorts stuck in their cracks, and women who checked out most of them.
Nachmann inhaled the smell of lamb cooked with walnuts, chilies, and pomegranate. All the tables were taken, so he turned to the bar. He watched as a man in a gray fedora examined his reflection in a cell phone, pressed the keys that would lead him to the address book function, then turned the phone over and over in his hand as if there might be more information on the back. After a moment he looked up, and attempted to strike up a conversation with Nachmann, beginning with an explanation of his baffling condition.
“None of the names here,” he held up the phone, “mean anything to me.”
“Did you steal this phone?” Nachmann asked. He didn’t look like the kind of man who would steal a cell phone, but you never knew.
What the man remembered was walking into a room in his house where he found a woman who resembled his wife, but somehow she wasn’t quite the same. The woman got angry at him when he asked her who she was. “I don’t remember you!” He cried. “That dress I think I’ve seen before, but I’m not sure I know who you are.” She yelled he was useless; she was tired of his deceptions, and told him to leave, which he did because he was no longer sure that he belonged there. He didn’t know how he got to the restaurant, but it was warm and smelled nice. Everyone inside seemed happy and flirtatious, if not with him, then with one another, and that made him feel comfortable for the moment, even if he couldn’t join in. He watched men and women dance to something that sounded like My Funny Valentine, but the woman at the microphone sang in a language he didn’t understand.
“Why don’t we look in your wallet? Maybe you have a driver’s license or something else that will tell us who you are and where you live.” The man had opened his wallet and discovered he had an ID from a college where he taught mechanical engineering, but didn’t believe his name was as stated.
“Something about it doesn’t sound right. Perhaps this belonged to someone else who looks like me. Here you take it.” He flipped the leather clamshell shut and extended it to the thief. A few hours ago the old Nachmann might have taken advantage of an amnesiac with an open wallet, but for the moment he had no need.
“However you got it, it’s yours now.”
The man nodded.
“Let me buy you a drink.” Nachmann said.
“No, no, I don’t think that would help me,” and he stuck his nose back in his phone like a parrot looking for seeds. “However, I can tell you there’s a game in the back room. I heard two men at the bar talking about it before you came in.” The engineer with no solid memory older than twenty-four hours cocked his head towards a door at the back of the restaurant.
“A card game here? Perhaps I can make it interesting,” Nachmann said to him as he slid off his chair. “Thanks for the tip.”
Buried in his phone, the man didn’t answer him. He was remembering a filmstrip of Nachmann, dollar signs spinning in his brain, as he walked into the restaurant a few minutes earlier, and at the same time the man began to hear snatches of a mariachi band that played on the F train car he had once traveled in with his wife when they returned home from work. They hadn’t been employed anywhere near one another, but had run into each other by chance and laughed as they recognized each other across the crowded car. The engineer, as a shadow of Nachmann traversed the dance floor to get to the back door, desired only to revisit that subway as sentient as if he were still there, smiling, waving, on his way home.
Because he’d been planning to depart the planet that night, Burton hadn’t bought food in awhile and now, rescued, he was starving. He knew a waitress, another cooking-school drop out, who worked in a restaurant a few blocks away. She would serve him, and make the check vanish. He wandered in just as Nachmann disappeared through the crowd of dancers, the shadow of his foot vanishing behind a door Burton never noticed. Standing at the edge of the crowd he watched a woman with rhinestones threaded in her hair stand shakily while holding up the hand of a fat man, his shoulders straining the seams of what looked like a custom made suit. As they stood, their table burst into applause and toasted the couple, knocking back arak flavored with roses, mint, and cherry. Burton slide up to an out of the way corner of the bar, a good location if you intended to freeload. Naomi’s friend gave him a cheery hello and took his order. He could hear more toasts in the background and more applause. As the couple whirled around the floor the man’s eyes darted around, and so the couple stumbled from time to time, especially when the door to the restaurant was opened by a rosy-cheeked woman in a short olive skirt. His eyes were riveted until she disappeared from his sight as he was danced to a far end of the room. The newcomer was oblivious and made her way up to the bar, sitting a few feet from Burton. She ordered an arak then asked Burton if he wanted to dance. He shook his head. He could no more step onto a dance floor than walk on the moon.
Zenia shrugged, and Burton tried to explain that he didn’t just not dance, he didn’t even go to events where dancing was required. At the rare wedding he was invited to, he sat glued to his seat at the assigned table, or tried to strike up a conversation with the bartender. Who asks someone to dance before they even know your name? What did she want from him? Dance to this Tatar version of I’ve Got You Under My Skin to later find out he was only there for the free satsivi? Anything that involved moving to music made him feel like a squat middle-aged man in a pork pie hat that children would point to and laugh at.
“I move like a marionette,” he said.
Zenia swiveled on her bar stool to face the dance floor. With her back to Burton she tapped the heel of her boot against a rung, not exactly in rhythm, the music was slow, and her tapping, like a nervous tick, was pretty fast. Burton shoveled another mouthful of chicken and sweet sour tamarind paste into his mouth, swallowed hard, then asked her name. Zenia swiveled back around to face Burton. This bar was her business office, but she hadn’t seen Burton there before, nor had she seen him in her building. Zenia tended to go out at night. Burton, when he was working, hardly went out at all.
“Your business office, huh,” Burton said. It wasn’t a question. “I work for a bank, a couple of banks actually, as a kind of consultant.” This wasn’t so far from the truth, he reasoned, if you thought of the cards as legitimate representations of commercial transactions, forgetting the routes they traveled and the hands they fell into. Zenia smiled. Burton wondered if he was radiating waves that said deadbeat, deadbeat, deadbeat. “Business has been hurt by the sub-prime mortgage crisis,” he added. There had been months when he and Naomi took cabs to and from the city, bought clothing in small shops with lighting and chairs that looked like buildings from a miniature Brasilia, and indulged in hotels where they ordered coffee as expensive as whole meals back home. Thinking about these things he began to believe he really was a form of a financial somebody who lost a bundle when so many homeowners defaulted.
Telling him she’d be right back, Zenia went to use the bathroom. Burton arranged with Naomi’s friend to make it look like he’d paid for her arak. When Zenia returned he slapped down a credit card the bartender knew was worthless, but she thanked him as if he were a regular who left very generous tips. Zenia asked Burton if he wanted to go to Lyakhov.
“An island above the Arctic Circle. Behind the furniture store. I’ll take you.”
Burton had finished his free meal. He didn’t think there was anything much there behind the store or above the permafrost, but OK, why the hell not, as long as it didn’t cost him money he didn’t have. He took Zenia’s hand, and she hopped off the bar stool as if she were descending from a filigreed carriage, and they departed into the night. He hoped he could be a banker until morning, or perhaps, if she agreed to come back to his apartment he would come clean about the credit card business, which was kaputzsky anyway.
The amnesiac watched them disappear, arm and arm into the chilly air, imagining they were going on a long journey, never realizing the ends of the earth were right around the corner.
Dina bumped into the heavy-set dancer just as she was entering the restaurant. He was alone and looked up and down the avenue before going back inside. He lumbered into her dress, almost knocking her over, and she reflexively snapped at him to watch it, though she didn’t want any trouble from him. He ignored her. She made her way up the bar, and from her perch looked around the room, but Zenia was nowhere to be found. A man at one corner of the bar bent over its mirrored surface writing in a spiral notebook. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, so sitting next to this man seemed a safe bet, but the engineer, feeling so detached from all possible anchors, was in a mood to give advice.
“If it’s money you need, I suggest the back room where I hear there’s a long running game of Texas Hold ’Em.” He jerked his head towards the door at the back. He must have heard this information recently, because long running was no longer a concept whose meaning he fully understood, unless parroting someone else’s speech.
“Do you play? Why aren’t you back there then?” She asked.
“I’m waiting for better luck.” The engineer fancied that luck was something you could measure as you might calculate waves, yet it was as unpredictable and as inevitable as earthquakes or typhoons.
Dina’s father and uncles in Cleveland engaged in a sacrilegious game of floating Friday night poker. The game rotated, but when it was at her house she liked to listen and watch. Nobody paid attention, no one said she should be in bed, and this game wasn’t for children, so she learned a bit about cards. Feeling nostalgic for the smell of cigar smoke and highball glasses etched with different states that were given away at the local gas station, she made her way through the dancers to the back of the room. Her dress sounded like rustling paper, and a man in a leather jacket grabbed her arm in an attempt to whisk her into a dance. Couples spun like helicopters all trying to land at once, making it difficult for Dina to skirt the edge of the crowd. Finally she reached the heavy glass door partially hidden by some kind of metallic tweed curtain. She put her shoulder to it, and it opened. The game lay one flight of stairs below. It was easy. She was in.
Underworld, Dina thought defining the word as she descended, Persephone eats six seeds of the pomegranate and has to spend six months a year in Hades. Eighteen words done, four hundred and eighty two to go. Eighteen, symbol of life and good fortune. She could say the night was young and looking good, or at least not so bad.
Nachmann sat between a man wearing a large watch made of chunky silver links that clinked when his wrist hit the table and a woman who looked like she might have had a Rockette costume under her clothes. Nachmann had never seen the Rockettes, but this was what he imagined. There were four other players, and as the amnesiac at the bar had indicated, the game was interesting and stakes fairly high. Two of the four wore dark glasses, so their eyes wouldn’t give away the gap between their hand and how they played. His strategy was to only play a few hands but to bet and raise often. The dealer laid five cards on the table: two of clubs, ten of diamonds, nine of diamonds, three of spades, queen of spades. The pot was up to $20,000. A few onlookers murmured. His first hand wasn’t bad. Queen of diamonds. Jack of diamonds. He bet $1,000. Combover sitting across from him folded, cut his losses, pushed himself away from the table. Heavy watch bet $3,500. He had a good hand, but as it would turn out, not good enough. Nachmann looked at them, the ones who ringed the table, watching women, mostly. A girl in a silver dress standing behind him made too much noise when she moved, and it annoyed him a little. He turned around once to look at her. She was maybe too young to be in the basement, but no one was going to tell her to get lost. The Rockette bet $2,000 two aces. She cleaned up. The next round Nachmann lost steadily, then he began to win a little back. Feeling good, looking better, he thought.
Just as he was about to put $3,000 on the table the lights flickered, just for an instant, then the room went completely and utterly black. At first no one said a word; it was almost a religious silence. Everyone froze, expecting the power outage to be only temporary, and the lights would flicker back on in a second, but they didn’t. The man next to Nachmann frantically pushed buttons on his watch to get some kind of illumination. Cell phones were held up, not as illuminating as you might think. A muffled sound like a cap gun going off could be heard somewhere in the inky fog, except judging from these patrons and this place, it was unlikely any of them carried cap guns. A stifled scream came from the direction of the Rockette. Somewhere in the dark there was a table with a pile of money on it; hand accidentally touched hand as players groped. Nachmann shoved his $3,000 and small winnings back into this pockets, grabbed the hand of the woman behind him, the one in the rustling dress, and allowed himself to be buoyed out some unknown passageway that someone in the crowd seemed to know about, an exit that did not lead back through the restaurant.
They emerged in an alley alongside a furniture store. Nobody in the alley made eye contact, and no one wanted to hang around to speculate as to why the lights went out. A man in a houndstooth jacket over a Smiths t-shirt bumped into Nachmann. Nachmann instinctively checked for his wallet, then told the fellow to watch the fuck out. Strains of music came from the vicinity of the shuttered furniture store whose power was mysteriously unaffected by the sudden blackout. Nachmann let go of Dina’s hand.
“How’d you do?” she asked him, referring to the game.
“I used to have to ask for money to play video games in arcades. Now they give me cash before I even say one word.” With the final land grab at the moment of the blackout, he’d about broke even. Nachmann smiled his most charming cat-in-the-bag smile, and put his hand protectively on the small of her back, only to come in contact with the prominent teeth of a metal zipper from the Eisenhower era.
“I watched you play, and I have to say you were a little careless.”
“I have my methods. If the lights hadn’t blown I would have done very well.” Who did she think she was? If he were superstitious he would believe she made the lights go out, a witch, her shoulders covered by a pilly black sweater that had a salty metallurgical smell. They walked toward the boardwalk, neither going their separate ways, nor, for a few minutes, saying a word.
“The truth is, you never know when someone is going to have a better hand than you,” Dina finally said. “Even if you have a good memory and can figure what’s likely to be left. There are too many possibilities.” She used the same tone of voice she used for her oboe students.
“This is news?”
When Nachmann drove for Escort Plus there were tips and a reasonable salary. He knew some of the escorts. They knew how to dress even if they had problems, not like this girl with close set eyes, maybe drunk, but maybe not, who knew a few things about poker and whose fingers twitched as if she were playing an instrument as they walked. He asked her where she lived, and she pointed in the general direction of her building, not sure she wanted to give him her exact address. Well, maybe it would be OK. Zenia wouldn’t be back until the morning. She was already telling Zenia how it happened. He asked me, so I said, sure, why not? Come on up. Because this was something she didn’t do very often, and it was the calligraphy and pictographs of her friend’s daily life, she wanted to join the party, even if only temporarily, to have something to talk about, instead of always listening to how it went. The probability of winning large at a game of Texas Hold ’Em was far greater for Dina, so when Nachmann took her hand after the lights went out, she thought, sure, why not?
“Walk me home. You can come upstairs if you want to.” She explained the situation with Mrs. Katan. It was late for her to be lurking around, but sometimes there was a holiday which involved the men in her family staying up all night, and you would come home to find Mrs. Katan’s door open, smells of coffee and cardamom filling the hall. You have to understand, Dina warned, this woman doesn’t sleep, so walk as noiselessly as possible. “Really. I think it would be OK.”
Probability: the likelihood or chance, odds that something will happen. What is the probability that you’ll win the lottery? It was a definition she’d left unfinished; it bothered her. The company sent urgent emails: we need probability now. You’re way past the deadline.
“Not tonight. I’m not done working,” Nachmann said. Actually, he did want to go home with her, and he was very much finished working. He had enough Benjamins in his pockets to stay off fire escapes for the next week, at least, by which time all the little obstructionist huts would have been removed, and put away until next fall. Nachman had been very lucky in one department that night. He wasn’t greedy, and didn’t want to push his luck, so he turned down Dina’s offer. He noticed once again that she wasn’t exactly Escort Plus material; those girls wore only new clothes and kept bags full of make up in bright containers that looked like collections of Christmas tree ornaments.
Dina’s hair blew all over her face, obscuring her vision of the Atlantic as if she were looking out from behind bars. She needed more of those little metal hair clips but felt armored enough already without her head looking like a helmet. So he didn’t want to go home with her; she thought he was wagging his tail, but evidently not. The story, telling Zenia about this man she met a poker table would have to wait.
Nachmann reached into his pocket and gave Dina the magic card. He couldn’t use it again, the card was done for him, but it might renew itself for someone else. The silver witch looked like she could use some cash. He took her hand and put the card in her palm.
“This card will only work at one place. Ready Checkplus on Stillwell. They close at midnight.” He looked at his watch. “You have ten minutes. Let me know if you make it.” A skilled pickpocket, Nachmann suddenly held Dina’s glittering phone in his hand and punched in his number. “Call me.”
Dina held the piece of plastic in her palm for a minute, more offended at getting the brush off than aware of her good fortune. She hiked up the loud dress so she wouldn’t trip, and jumped, mushroom-like, off the boardwalk, but didn’t run up the street. She looked back once to see Nachmann waving, go already, still she didn’t run. Could it work? Taking her time she considered, what if the card did work? Why did he hand her the bit of plastic as if it was a golden key? She had a vague idea that to the northwest industrial spaces hulked, encroaching on blocks of apartment buildings. A wrong turn and you’re in a no man’s land of warehouses, anonymous cinderblock structures, empty lots, and blocks that go on for maybe a quarter of a mile, so even if you turn back, you’ve gone a long way and are easily swallowed. She began to run up Stillwell, past the mural of Neptune and mermaids, a painting of a man whose eyeballs popped out of his head tethered on springs, past a twenty-four-hour bodega where the man behind the counter kept his eyes on a televised soccer game because it was morning somewhere in the world; she ran directly under the elevated train tracks that, in the middle of the night, looked like the dark de Chirico twin of the Cyclone.
At a stoplight she reached into her pocket to find the card had disappeared. It had begun to rain, and the sidewalk was slick. She looked down, backtracked. Nothing. In the depths of an all night automotive shop a man looked out at her from beneath a car. She walked forward again. The block was dark and deserted, how do you ask someone to help you find a credit card anyway? Looking down, she ignored the calls of a man who asked her if she wanted a ride. The lights changed. How much time did she have left? Four minutes, maybe. Something shone, reflecting a bit of yellow light a few feet from her shoes. The card lay on a grate, tottering on the edge about to be swept away by rainwater. Kneeling on the curb Dina stretched her hand and just managed to pull the card out by the tips of her oboist fingers, though it slipped a few times nearly flowing into the drain enroute to the Atlantic Ocean, in danger of drifting out to sea only to wash up on the Canary Islands. She clutched the card, representative of a bank in the midwest, and ran. Ready Check’s lights blinked in the middle of the next block. A tall woman in tight pants, keys swinging from a chain, had begun to reach up in order to pull down the metal security gates, but then turned to look up the street, not at Dina, just to look for a moment, for the last time, before she walked out.
“Live for yourself, not women like that. Life may be ugly, but you can find your own corner of paradise,” Zenia said to Burton after hearing the story of Naomi, the cooking school dropout. She offered him a pill saying, you can be happy in one minute, but he turned her down. It was good stuff, bought from a Dutch tourist who didn’t know what he had, she insisted, but he shook his head, as if he still needed his wits to go to work in the morning. She didn’t really think he was a banker ruined by the sub-prime lending practices leading to a mortgage crisis, but she hung around him anyway. It was only for one night.
She introduced him to Avi, a pierced, but not tattooed scribe, who made fake prayer scrolls, miniature ones that fit into small cases nailed to doorposts that no one ever opened. He had more work than he could handle, and Burton wrote down his number when he thought Zenia wasn’t looking. Burton vaguely remembered flickering alephs, lightning rod lameds, or corral-like samechs from his childhood, but in this area he was a self-professed ignoramus.
“Twenty-two lines of seven hundred and thirteen letters, the probability that anyone will ever find out you’re not a certified Sofer is just about nil. You use black ink and a quill if you want. That’s optional.” Avi explained. “Purchased at your own expense. I provide one prayer for you to copy from, the slips of parchment, yes, I throw those in, too. Think about it. This is a good offer.”
“How do they trust you with all that metal-work on your face?’ Burton pointed to the rings on Avi’s eyebrows, lips and plugs in his ears. “It would seem to me in this line of work you would have to have a different appearance.”
Avi shrugged, and Burton felt like the kind of old man who always sends the soup back at the deli, irritated and clueless, never seeing more than the excess of salt directly in front of him.
“You know this prayer?” Avi took a sample scroll from his pocket and unrolled it under Burton’s nose. He couldn’t believe he was doing this right in the middle of a cluster of dark rooms named for an island known for its perpetual ice that hid the bones of wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. He looked around for Zenia who had disappeared. He wasn’t exactly in the middle of Lyakhov; they were in a dark corner, of which the place had many, but still. Some particle of Burton believed if there were angels floating around, and they were watching this prayer pulled out of a guy’s pocket, produced only to promote a swindle, then a private sink hole with his name on it waited, hungry on Surf Avenue.
“I’ve heard it,” Burton answered.
“Of course you have, but it doesn’t matter. You just copy what I give you. Fifty dollars a prayer. Not bad if you what you got in the bank is zilch. Work is work, you know what I’m saying? And words are words, when you consider, what does it matter how they were written or who did the penmanship? How can it be fake?”
Zenia returned and put her arm through Burton’s. He looked out at the people milling around, shouting over loud music, and for a moment felt glad he hadn’t jumped off his fire escape. The man in the houndstooth jacket who might have been a Dutch dealer, a man who kept looking at his illuminated watch: if Nachmann hadn’t come along at the second he did, if he’d fallen past Mrs. Katan’s window, then they’d all be just as oblivious to him as they were now, but he’d never have met the girl in the olive skirt or the man who offered him a job. In a few hours Zenia would learn the truth about him and bow out, studying her messages, then going outside for a better signal. Burton would begin the tedium of copying scrolls for some guy working out of a basement, and was already wondering how fast he could write, maybe five whole prayers a day. But for the moment he felt he had landed on solid ground, and he was free to believe a narrow range of probability might remain solid forever.
Nachmann remained on the boardwalk where he knew he would get good reception. He stared at his phone, waiting for Dina to call, to tell him that the magic card had solved her problems. He’d neglected to punch her number into his own phone, so he had no way to reach her, ever, though he knew where she lived. While he waited, staring out at the ocean Nachmann tried to estimate how long it would take for her to make the transaction. If it got to be two in the morning, then obviously she wasn’t going to call. As he paced the boardwalk, the amnesiac appeared, gray fedora perched on his head. Nachmann said hello, but the man didn’t remember him, which was no surprise.
The two of them stopped to look out at the ocean as if the Canary Islands might suddenly drift into view and fellow islanders, Coney and Canary, could wave and eventually meet. “I fished up this word, apeiron, it’s Greek for formless chaos, the infinity of formless chaos, something the Greeks feared and who wouldn’t? My memory is an example of apeiron, but if you consent to bear with me, this is what I think. It might help,” the man suggested, “if we could climb to the top of Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel, or pause at the top of the Cyclone, or even if you could scale one of these buildings, from the top we could see everything and everyone, and then you and I would know, looking at all those rooftops, windows both the lighted ones and the dark, and perhaps we each might figure out where we were meant to go next.”
Susan Daitch is the author of five novels—L.C., The Colorist, Paper Conspiracies, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir andWhite Lead—and one collection of stories, Storytown.