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Moving Kings

In an excerpt from Joshua Cohen’s new novel, David King rules his domain

Joshua Cohen
July 05, 2017
Image via Internet Book Image Archive/Flickr
'David made his way among tents, buffet tables of chafing and carving and bars—the trick was to keep on the move.'Image via Internet Book Image Archive/Flickr
Image via Internet Book Image Archive/Flickr
'David made his way among tents, buffet tables of chafing and carving and bars—the trick was to keep on the move.'Image via Internet Book Image Archive/Flickr

David (In Distraint)

Ye shall know them by their vehicles: those blue trucks that’re always cutting you off on your way to the airport, sides emblazoned with grimy white crowns, dinged bumpers stickered GOT A PROBLEM WITH MY DRIVING? CALL 1-800-212-KING!

Ye shall know them by their ads: on basic cable and drivetime radio, those billboards that’re always blocking the signs and making you miss the airport turn, with their offers of free estimates over the phone and 100% money-back guarantees.

Or maybe, like more than 180,000 other satisfied customers served in all five of the boroughs and three neighboring states since 1948, you know them as the Courtly Couriers®, or the Royal Treatment Pros®, or the Removalists with the Regal Touch™—whom you’ve let into your home to move your most precious possessions to your new home, or else to one of their six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area.

Or maybe whatever you know is wrong, because you’ve just been reading their online reviews.

King’s Moving (David King, President, Spokesman, Container of Crises, Stresses, & the Distrained) was a licensed, bonded, limited-liability-insured large small business that specialized in—one guess—moving … ’n’ storage … ’n’ parking … ’n’ towing … ’n’ salvage … ’n’ scrap, activities that demanded the bloodsweat of plus/minus 40 fulltime and 60 parttime employees, 50 vehicles, three lots, five garages, six 24-hour, security-monitored, climate-controlled storage facilities conveniently located throughout the New York Metropolitan Area—not to mention a headquarters in Jersey City, hard by the piers.

Above all, King’s Moving was a family business. Family owned, family operated. Family, family, family … Take that into account, Your Honor …


It was summer, toward the weekend of a holiday week— Moving Day (last day of the month, first day of the month), followed by Independence Day—and David King was out in the Hamptons at a birthday party for America, to which he’d been invited as a member of the Empire Club, which had required attendees to donate upward of $4K for the privilege of drinking diluted booze and eating oversauced BBQ under the auspices of the New York State Republican Committee.

Inviting him to a party and then making him pay: that was class. That was how billionaires stayed billionaires.

And David, who’d resented even the toll to the Long Island Expressway, couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d met $4K worth of people yet—he couldn’t help valuating everything: the people, the property, the Victorianized manse shadowing the pool. His phone was vibrating again in his pocket.

He canceled the call—he was working.

He was working by attending a party at which he didn’t know anyone, or knew only that he recognized: names, faces, profiles.

It was work having to restrain himself from mentioning mergers he’d only read about, acquisitions that weren’t his, a celebrity stranger’s divorce/custody negotiations still ongoing— having to endure discussions of clean ocean and beach replenishment initiatives, when all he wanted to know was: daughter or wife? when all he wanted to know was: does anyone know where our host is? It was work pretending he blended, he mixed, pretending he wasn’t sweating and had a second residence of his own and was a Hamptons vet and agreeing yes hasn’t the Meadow Lane heliport gotten so crowded lately? and yes isn’t Ray from Elite Landscapers just the best?

Because the fact remained that David had never been this far out on the Island before and not only couldn’t he tell you which of the Hamptons he was in, he couldn’t even tell you the number of Hamptons, or the differences between the Hamptons, or what made a Hampton a Hampton, singular, to begin with.

“Hope we’re not keeping you?” a lady said.

David said, “Come again?”

“You keep checking your phone.”

“I’ve got foreign business, never stops. It’s already July 5th somewhere.”

And he excused himself from that bezant of lawn and its assembly of skinny flagpole women flying dresses in red, white, and blue.

Ruth, his office manager, had been calling without leaving messages. Now she was gibberish txting: sorry sorry bill sick have take bill jr bball practice.

And then: anyway not finding passcard.

David made his way among tents, buffet tables of chafing and carving and bars—the trick was to keep on the move.

Kids—put David around kids and he’d fantasize about having them and only then would he recall that he had a daughter, who was an adult now—the kids were having their faces smeared native with warpaint. They bounced around on a giant inflatable galleon, parried and thrust with balloon swords.

A breeze blew in with the dung of elephant rides.

He moved among servers who made $8.75 an hour and so who made about 14 cents, 14.5833 cents, he did the figures in his head, for each minute it took them to carve him primerib or fix him a scotch or direct him and his menthols to a smoking area.

Conversations collected, as they were conducted, in circles. About stocks, about realestate, stocks. About renovations and how draining it was to open a house for the season. Apparently, to have two houses meant always neglecting one of them, at least. About alarm systems, sprinkler systems, sump pumps, white vs. black mold. About politics.

David’s politics were aspirational, inferior: he was in favor of contacts, contracts, the right to not diet, and the right to jump lines at dessert stations.

David King was a man who if a longtime employee flaked on a commitment on short notice because her exhusband was too ill to take their son to a baseball practice that wasn’t even hardball but actually softball, or if his primerib came closer to medium than to the already spineless concession that was medium rare, or if his Dewar’s 18 turned out to be Dewar’s 15 or 12 or God forbid came with an icecube or even just an extra splash of water, or if the line for the dessert station was moving so indecisively slowly that his icecream would melt before he got to the toppings he liked—it wasn’t his fault that he was so decisive about his toppings—he’d scream, he’d have a conniption, and yet once he’d fudged his sundae with a cherry atop he had all the attention, all the guilty sated childlike attention, for being lectured by an Ivy League B student on the new model Gulfstreams (though David didn’t have his own plane), the best sailing routes (though David didn’t have his own boat), the best steeplechase courses (David didn’t even have a pony), how New York State was the most regulated state in the union, the state with the highest taxes, the state with the highest energy costs, the highest fuel costs, the highest insurance premiums, and a convoluted body of tort law that made even the Nazi justice system seem unbiased and lenient, and how so and so was really the only candidate to bet on, so and so the only candidate who had real plans both for the Middle East and for midsized American businesses (our composited Ivy League B student apparently knew his audience)—the only candidate who was legitimately “Pro-Growth,” and that was the line, or the jargon, that struck him, and brought to mind the image of a small modest neat building, like some fourfloor prewar walkup in the Village, which with every vote for a Republican grew taller by the floor, until it became this big shiny tower that clockhanded all of Manhattan, and then, by association, his mind flashed below his belt, which was on its last notch, and below his gut, which hung like a panting tongue over it, to his bloodless dick, which—as if his heart had betrayed the party platform, “Pro-Growth”—dangled limp and useless.

It was distressing—to others, but not to himself, who didn’t notice—how he’d change. How he’d let himself be lectured, talked down to. How he’d become, in certain situations, not servile exactly, but docile, tamed. A Jew. And so he’d always wind up thanking his interlocutor for the condescension, for the aeronautical, nautical, equestrian, or civic education. Just like after he’d shout at Ruth, he’d apologize and give her a raise, just like he’d always overtip his servers—even tipping them at an event like this, where accepting gratuities would get them in trouble.

David’s normal social calendar had him visiting precincts, firehouses, and school auditoria, cultivating such notable personalities as: Port Authority commissioner, State Assembly member, City Council member, Borough president, Borough Board member, Community Board member, the executive of the Teamsters Locals 560 and 831, and of the DOB, DCP, DOT, and DSNY. This occasion, however, was mayoral and beyond—it was congressional and beyond—the developers, the financiers, the waspiest machers, robust with exemptions, strong in abatements. The people who ran the energy companies, not the people who ran the fuel distribution depots and waste disposal services. The bankers who drove the interest rates and generals who earned medals, not the retired cops who drove the armored cars and former hacks who owned medallions. Mingling with this class had gotten him awkward, apprehensive. With his side of the mouth talking, his talking hands, checking his fly with sticky fingers.

All his struggles were in his face. All his personas in combat: king, commoner, selfmade, incomplete. The booze and red meat and dairy. The pills ostensibly for bloodpressure and the pills ostensibly for cholesterol and the pills he wasn’t sure what they did: for anxiety. He didn’t swear by anything, just swallowed it. He never knew what to say, or knew but got his audiences crossed, got lost in the game, playing against type when he should’ve been playing to type, playing to when he should’ve been playing against. Golf with racquet sports enthusiasts and racquet sports with golfers. With a Belgian diplomat he’d discussed the chance of rain. With the CEO of a cosmetics firm he’d discussed how most people think the Iranians are Arabs. It didn’t help that most people here considered it obnoxious to mention, or to be pressured into mentioning, what they did for a living, which was who they were for a living, so that actors and actresses and uniformed military personnel aside, the only presences here whose identities were in any way legible to him were the servers, so he bantered with them, about why he was refusing to support an increase in the minimum wage, and whether or not they’d seen the host of the party, and then he’d tuck singles into their pockets and tell them to tell him if they heard anything. What he was, then, was local color, just out of his locale. They probably thought he was physically tough. They probably thought he was in with the mob.

David edged his way around the crowd, which pressed in around the dancefloor, at the center of which a professional couple of professional dancers swung and hopped and twirled. Keys, guitar, bass, and drums were locked into a jazz that turned the whole world into an elevator, the horn section rose and riffed. Makeshift baffles to either side of the bandstand held massive eagle art for raffle. The band became a drumroll, which became clapping, as the emcee made a quip about being black and then introduced the candidate.

David was already out—by the beach, an open balmy vista. Bright water, bright sand. Given the winds, it took many changes of stance, many deli matches, to light his kingsized Newport. Then he hefted his phone and dialed Ruth.



“David—hello? Are you driving?”

“Just talk. What’s the issue?”

“I can barely—if you’re driving, put up the window.”

“I’m outside—there’s no window outside.” He cupped the phone, “What’s up?”

“I told you. I can’t go.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“I’m not feeling so hot.”

“I thought it was Bill, I thought Bill Jr. Now you’re ditzing up your excuses.”

“No excuses.”

“You seriously don’t have it in you to just stock a fridge, bring over the kitchenware and like a blanket or whatever?”

“I’ve got a son with a playoff game and an exhusband stubborn and vomiting.”

“It’s just the basics, Ruthie.”

“Better you let Paul take care of it.”

“Paul’s not domestic, he’s not even housebroken. And anyway he already did me enough of a favor with the furniture, when he moved out the Bengalis.”


“They leave it decent? You were supposed to clean.”

“I’m standing in my exhusband’s house, standing in my ex-husband’s vomit, and feeling woozy myself.”

“This is a you and your Bills’ problem, but you’ve made it a you and me problem. And you’re fucking over my cousin.”

“Fuck you, David. I’m going.”

“You mean you’re going out there now?”

“I mean I’m pressing the red and hanging up on you.”

This was what happened when you relied on an office manager still entangled with her ex, or when you used to screw your office manager still entangled with her ex—the sands kept shifting, the loyalties got kinked like kelp and baited tackle. A barge floated by, laden with fireworks, and David flicked his cig in its direction as if hoping for a gust that would carry the butt ass over ember out over the water and ignite a fuse.

He stomped back through the party (grabbing a bourboned punch), crunched the clamshell drive to the front of the property (leaving his glass in the grass). A valet took his ticket and smirked, “What kind car? Bentley or Rolls?”

David said, “You know what kind. A van, cabron. A Plymouth Estupido.”

Two men were approaching, but just as they were about to take the slate steps for the manse, one paused: “Holy shit— holy shit—David King, is that you? David King The Moving King Will Move Your Mothertrucking Everything?”

The man, swimfit in a slimcut suit, loosened necktie toweled around his neck, pumped David’s hand: “That was classic. Just a total classic.”

He said to his companion, “I was clerking down in DC, but I was always coming back to New York to visit Peg,” and then he said to David, “My wife.”

The man broke the shake to rub his forehead, go wistful: “Anyway, she’d be going to sleep early, Peg would, she was still doing the morning show then, WFAN, so I’d be up late at night alone, just me and my briefs and Channel J—you know Channel J? Was it only in the city? Public access. Madness. 1-900 partylines, psychic chatshows, neighborhood forums you called into with bulletins that advised about blizzards or where your polls were. None of it exists anymore. You had this one commercial where a family’s sitting around a table, mother and daughter talking about their day with the father sitting up at the head on a throne, and the movers come in and just pick him up and take him away and they do it so slick, nobody notices— that was great. That was your own family, David? I always had the feeling. How are they?”

David smiled tight—he was vain. Since that commercial, since he’d dumped that wife, he’d gotten hair implants and replaced his teeth.

He said, “Family’s fine, thanks. But I’ve done a lot since. What about you? Staying awake with any of my new spots?”

The man laughed and his companion said, “So you enjoyed the speech, I gather? The Senator can count on your vote?”

David tried to feign that he’d been joking, telling the Senator, “Sorry, Senator, I was joking.”

The Senator said, “Of course,” and nodded to his companion, who hadn’t laughed. “Let me introduce you to our host.”

The hand that now shook David’s belonged, like so much else in New York, to Fraunces Bower—of the Corn Exchange, Dodgemoor Estates, 1 Bryant, and 388 Greenwich Bowers, the redeveloper of Roosevelt and Governors Islands and the coowner of Rockefeller Center Bowers—the same Bowers who’d strewn shoppingcenters and subsidized housingprojects across every borough of the city and held all that paper on so many acres of distressed property out in the bleak reaches that if that superfluity of land were ever strung together, contiguous, and dropped on Manhattan, it’d cover Central Park.

Fraunces Bower, who was properly Fraunces Bower III— now installed as principal of Bower Asset Management—was tall and thinlimbed, thinframed, in seersucker. A ray of sun put a shine on his head that prevented David from gauging the degree of his baldness.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bower.”

“Fraunces, please,” he said and kept wringing David’s hand like he was going to make a glove out of it.

The Senator said, “Your chariot awaits.”

And so it did, there was no denying: that bruised blue van, its white letters molting, KIN OVING.

The valet jingled the keys, as David took out his wallet and chose among bills: a single or hundreds. He chose $100.

There wasn’t any traffic—no one was heading his direction, no one would ever. Because his direction was a circle, or would be, counterclockwise, looping him cross-Island, Queens to Brooklyn, Manhattan then Jersey, only to turn back around again, Brooklyn to Queens.

Or else he’d drive up from Jersey and hazard Staten Island.

A punitive, regurgitative route. Thanks Ruthie. He was still slightly drunk and it felt like rain. He put a cig in his mouth just to suck.

Waiting at a light, before the bridge into Manhattan, he checked his phone: his cousin’s flight had just departed, on time.

A guy stood out by the turn to Canal Street—neither a vendor nor a squeegeeist, and if he seemed not just jobless but also homeless in abscess and rags he didn’t seem to be panhandling, though he held a cardboard boxflap sign, SAVE THE HUDSON, and then flipped it around, PAVE THE HUDSON, and then flipped it again—and David wondered whether this wasn’t just another candidate campaigning, and whether the opposing sides of the sign weren’t the same: you saved a river by paving it over, letting the water flow beneath untouched.

He raised his window.

To emerge from the tunnel was to be born again, soaked in the sullage of the marshes—coming out headfirst past Liberty and Ellis Islands, Where it all began, as David liked to remark to himself, as if that were the wetlands’ brand, even though that’s not Where it all began, because David’s father had arrived in the States only after the war, and while Liberty had loitered on her soggy corner immortally, Ellis had already been mothballed and the boat that’d brought his father had docked in Jersey. Exit 14A, David was always accelerating into turns. He lowered his window again, lowered all the windows, to get the stench, the way the methane rushed in like a fart. Port Jersey to Colony Road: a sparsely lit and sodden strip joining reedy islets, which you’d only drive if you owned or worked for a business located on it or were lost, slowly sinking into the darkness. The desolation stifled, especially in heat. To the right were the yards, their shippingcontainers like bulky ridged cinderblocks stacked into barracks, so many of the blues from Korea, but lately more of the German greens, the Chinese reds and yellows. To the left were the piers, their solemn cranes saluting the tankers slipping by. Below, down in the murk, that’s where you got rid of the murders and of the guns that turned people into murders. That’s where your hotwired Buick was ditched, in an underwater parkinglot of broken boilers, leaky microwaves, and all the AA batteries.

Toward the end of the strip was King’s HQ, girded by barbedwire.

David dug out his asswarmed wallet, for his passcard. He should never have given one to Ruth. But if not Ruth, who else should have one? Because who else, if the worst happened, would make sure his daughter was taken care of?

His daughter. Not Ruth’s.

He hung himself out the window, swiped the slab across the sensor, the gate slid along its track.

Harsh bugswarmed LED luminaires, grate stairs to an office of pitted brick, from which the warehouses extended like trust into the dimming.

Tim Brynks, AKA Tinks, was behind the desk, fixed in the chair, fixated on screens: one was showing porn, the other five the feeds from the CCTV.

David said, “Sorry to interrupt your jerkoff session.”

Tinks didn’t break from his screen: “I don’t jerkoff.”

“Here you don’t?”

“Ever I don’t.”


“No bullshit,” and Tinks twitched, swiveled. “I like the tension of not, it keeps me awake—I like how they don’t talk.”

David went to the minifridge, got them both Tecates.

“You’re in the office why? Your computer down at home?”

David chugged and grimaced. “To be honest,” he said, “I never understood anything with a dick in it.”

How it worked was that you signed a contract—a bill of lading. Which asserted that you assumed sole risk, and that you and your heirs, successors, executors, and subrogates did hereby agree to waive and release, indemnify and hold harmless, King’s Moving, Inc., its directors, officers, employees, and agents, from and against any and all claims, actions, causes of actions, and suits for accidental and/or negligent damage and/or loss.

Then, you packed up your belongings and moved, or had your belongings packed up and moved for you, to the nearest King’s Moving facility, to one of the blue and white precast blights in Manhattan (Downtown), Manhattan (Uptown), Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, and there they remained, there they reposed: all your outgrown babyclothes, strollers, and cribs, all your iceskates, woks, and blenders. But then say you changed your address and forgot to give notice and so fell behind on payments. Because of alimony expenses. Because of health expenses. Say you went bankrupt or to prison or just died. After six months of notifications of delinquency with interest calculated, followed by a two month grace period during which the accounting department, Ruth, would attempt to trace and bill your next of kin—who’d never be found, or if found would typically refuse or be unable to pay arrears—all your junk would be transferred here, and ownership reverted, as King’s Moving moved to recoup its losses.

This facility, Jersey City, kept the spoils: your possessions repossessed, stored inside concrete pillboxes wallowing in septic and brine.

The first warehouse’s units still hadn’t been processed and so were tagged to lot, which was freaky: they were like miniature theaters, shrinkydink stage sets. Behind their metal curtains were rooms, which were filled with other rooms: there was a 1950s livingroom (eggchair, boomerang table), neighboring a 1970s den (heavy on the teak), across the hall from a summer 1984 recroom in mintcondition replete with astroturf, a naugahyde La-Z-Boy, and a pennant from the LA Olympics—all of them containing all of the furnishings and effects of their originating locations, but just crowded now, cluttered up, because the units were small: 20′ × 20′, 15′ × 15′, 10′ × 10′. You almost expected to find the people inside. Instead you just found hints, intimations, material vestiges of mind: hubcaps, a welding rig, a treadmill, a sybian saddle. Each unit had its drama. Each was an inventory of an absent person’s life, all the stuff they hadn’t been able to live with, but weren’t prepared to lose: a unit of eviscerated photoalbums with snapshots skittering the floor, another totally vacant except for a roofless dollhouse.

The second warehouse’s units had already been processed and so were tagged to item, which was easier to deal with: they weren’t as human. The units just of shelving arranged haphazardly wall to wall, the units packed to the ceiling’s sprinklers with chests, the unit of stray drawers. Things, deprived of their relationships with their owners, and even of their relationships with their owners’ other things, were now just related to one another. To others of their kind. They’d been restored to their kind, and so sterilized, laundered, mended. Lamps among lamps. Stereo components among stereo components. This made them simpler to price and post online, in the hopes of bypassing the resalers and selling the hutchdesks and loveseats and teddybears direct to the hutchdesk and loveseat and teddybear collectors.

Down the way was the unit of clocks, from whose shutter came a raspy crippled ticking.

David swiped through to the third warehouse—letting the fluorescents sense his motion and flick on, letting them flicker and thrum along with the echoes of his pacing. Towels, linens. Bowls and plates. That’s what the house still lacked: the little domiciliary niceties.

He was trying to think what they were—what his parents’d had. What he’d had. The appliances of childhood. If he found even half that stuff, that would be enough for his cousin.

He found a wheeled pallet, piled it with flatware and stemware. He had no qualms about breaking up the sets. The sets were incomplete already. Anyway, how many knives did one guy need? How many pots and pans? He took six placesettings, figuring his cousin wouldn’t be too keen on doing dishes. He took three waterglasses, three wineglasses, and then this gleaming soup tureen whorled like a shell and capacious enough to bathe a baby in. He swaddled it in tablecloth, settled it on the pallet. It was stupid to have asked Ruth to do this. Ruth who’d been trying to get him to commit to her forever. Ruth who’d been trying to get him to settle. To have asked her to pick out everything, but the correct everything, to basically shop for a home, which would never be their home, was cruel. Still, she would’ve known what to get, she would’ve known what was appropriate. Like, what to do if his cousin kept kosher? Wouldn’t he need all this same stuff again, but separate? David backtracked, out of prudence and—automatically considering the plain porcelain and aluminum utensils more appropriate for dairy—took more lidded pots and a fryingpan for meat, meat knives with faux wood handles, and meat bowls and plates wreathed in ivy.

All that stooping to lift the shutters, to lift the loads, he ached. His goddamned lumbars.

He chocked the heaped pallet against an interior door, tapped dates into the keypad: the year his Tammy was born, followed by the year he left, or was left by, his wife. The lights here he had to toggle himself, without tripping. Black boxes hindered the way, black safes hoarded into corners. Racks of purses and leather jackets, cold storage lockers roaring with furs, the skins he’d claimed shivering on hangers. He’d gather here, annually or so, with his experts from the city. Deviants into coins and stamps and sports memorabilia, who’d pick through the bins of autographed jerseys, bats, and balls. Also, this cranky provenancer from Amish country Pennsylvania who was the leading authority on Civil War tchotchkes.

Once there’d been an urn that wound up being Egypt, New Kingdom, ca. 14th–13th century BCE, appraised at $400K, and it went for $620K, at auction.

The jewelry was in the wall.

He turned to the camera bracketed midwall and considered draping a sheet, but why should he be embarrassed? Why shouldn’t Tinks be?

He waved at Tinks. Give my regards to the lesbians.

He swiped at the vault and then keyed in the same years but reversed: his splitdate and then the birthdate, Tammy’s. Inside were trays, dark and softly cushioned.

He took a pendant necklace, let it unspool loose in his pocket.

From there, it was a hustle down the ramp to the yard, to the maintenance shed to snag a bucket and mop, then it was pushing the pallet, kicking its casters realigned and through the mire—he realized only halfway there it would’ve been better to’ve left the pallet at the top of the ramp and just backed the van on up to it.

The pumps without prices. A coil of rope asleep in a flatbed. The slumbering trucks. Tinks was gassing the van up—“So what did you say this was, so late?”

David said, “My cousin,” and took Tinks’ cig away and puffed and heeled it out. “Not while you fuel.”

Tinks clicked his tongue along with the clicking gallons.

“My cousin from Israel, he’s coming to work for us. Tomorrow. Today. I’m setting up his house.”

“Because there isn’t any work in Israel?”

“Because there aren’t any houses.”

“He can’t find anything for cheap in Palestine?”

“He just got out of the army.”

Tinks rehung the nozzle. “Sounds gay.”

“That’s what they do: everyone in Israel goes into the army, and then when they get out, they go traveling.”

“Everyone? Then who’s left in Israel? Is Israel empty? Do the Muslim nations know this?”

“It’s like to calm down, whatever.”

“From what? From killing Arabs?”

“That’s it, from killing Arabs.”

“OK, I get it—even moving sounds calmer than that.”

Tinks helped David load and when they finished David said, “You think you can help me stay awake out there?”


“I haven’t asked you in a while.”

“You haven’t asked me since your coronary.”

“You don’t do that anymore?”

“I never did,” but Tinks was already glooming over to his Dodge. He foraged in a compartment by the clutch and returned with a vial.

“I’ll owe you,” David said. “Put it on my tab.”

Tinks said, “A parting tip from a pro?”

David snuffed from off the van key, “What?”

“You’re going to want to cram your foam bumpers down into the wheelwells and mat the load so nothing frags.”

The route was 440 through Bayonne—the emissions turbid in wind, the pollutants bracking the meadows. Past the natural gas plant’s twinkling, the pressure vessels rose like foreign moons roiling with oil. This was what David relied on. This was what the city relied on: the terminals, the channels and trestles, the transmission substations, the transformers and pylons. The grid behind the grid, the truth that sustained the corruption. That’s what David was always telling his daughter: without all this industry, the bistros would have to stop serving, the $6 latte stands would shut. No phones, no screens. No sweatshop thongs.

Staten Island was just a road between bridges and a drip that bittered his throat. The span heading in was so minor and hunched, the span heading out felt like a pompous suspension, multiple levels, multiple lanes. He always took the upper level, the waterward lane. He was in the midst of the bay, blowing his nose, when the sky exploded.

Streamers, fizzlers, snaps and pops. Enormous arteries of light rupturing the night, huge burst capillaries and veins. What was striking about fireworks was the expectancy involved. You were never sure if they were over. A rally would come, and the brilliance would spike, and then flatline away into vapors, and you’d tell yourself, that was it, that was the finale. But then there’d be a hiss, and you’d tell yourself, have patience, the ending is still coming.

In that way it was like getting old, or like waiting for dying.

The radio was airing some patriotic drumming and fife and bagpipe music but with a midtro rap, and David liked the beat, or he liked that he was familiar with the lyrics. He did another bump, vial to fingernail to the BQE. Then he took the necklace from his pocket and hung it from the rearview mirror, a sparkler never fading, just dangling, tinkling against the E-ZPass. He resisted the inclination to call his daughter.

He was sped up down Atlantic and making lights—past the bar where he’d last met her, which wasn’t a cool bar, she’d said, but where sometimes she subbed, then past the bars where she usually worked, which got cooler, she’d said, the farther out they were, as the neighborhoods got worse—this last, of course, was his own opinion.

Some boys clattered by on bikes and threw firecrackers.

Tammy didn’t like her father visiting her, especially not at her usuals. Where she served craft ales brewed with nutraceuticals and nanobatch liqueurs nextdoor to delis that had to post reminders about how foodstamps can’t be used to buy diapers, tampons, sanitarypads, postagestamps, or any foods precooked.

In the mornings, she wrote. Because Tammy the bartender was also employed, underemployed, as a fundraiser, a grantwriter, by a nonprofit.

According to her, David’s initial prejudice against her neighborhood was an insult, but an insult to her, because he tried to pass it off as concern. That was how he’d been raised. To be both racist and conceal it. To him, crime would always be going up and only statistics lived in Brooklyn. Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Their streets were just names on the news, associated with the city’s youngest corpses. The boys crossing him at reds, provoking him by crossing his greens, staring him down. As if his color was the wrong color. But then every color was wrong if it was his. His color was Jewish, and yet even his daughter called herself a gentrifier, and the first time he’d heard that word, he’d heard it from her, it’d sounded British, fancy and goyish, like something she couldn’t be, like something he couldn’t be accused of having fathered. Strange that the word was masculine, though the predilections it indicated were feminine, or seemed feminine to him. Ladylike, dainty. She should say ladying instead. She should call herself a ladyfier. Back after she’d gotten sober, David had offered her the house he’d now be lending out to his cousin, to her cousin, but she’d refused. She’d only live in this neighborhood. All her friends lived here, so he’d bought here, from a Hasid related to a Hasid who’d owned the land under one of David’s garages. A slumlord now hoping to offload his own brownstone and tow his bald wife and bawling kids upstate, to a secluded preserve of Talmud Torah. Tammy had the top two floors and rented out the garden apartment, which was a ladying or ladyfying euphemism for basement. The rent was hers to keep. David wasn’t sure who was living there now. What charity case was getting a discount.

Still, it was turning out to be a solid investment—he had to admit, his daughter had pathologies, but she also had sechel. The neighborhood was improving. Each time he drove by, the dividingline had retreated by the block—with more cops out in cruisers, on hoof and foot, up cherrypicking in guardtowers— with more cafés, kindergartens, pet kindergartens, gyms. Her street had been sprucing by the house: with bricks repointed, stucco retouched, brownstone steamed.

He pulled around the corner, pulled up to the curb. The slits between the curtains were black. He grabbed the jewelry and, leaving the van running out of stimulant profligacy, ran up the stoop, lifted the mailbox top, pendulated the necklace over the slot and dropped it in. It made a whiny clink.

Queens—through the impassive park, David’s heart beat fast and his breath fanned fast and sour. All around him was his youth. Where he’d taught Beth Shalom girls to tongue. Where he’d learned to roll joints and pound vodka stirred with Tang.

This was Flushing—or what still remained of it between Chinatown and Koreatown. Rezoned and redistributed, between one of the Chinatowns and one of the Koreatowns. On one of the dozens of wanton inordinate streets horning in between 37th and 46th Avenues. He checked his cousin’s flight again, stopped just short of a rearending.

All those long noon days sitting on the floor and picking at the grouts, which wouldn’t be picked at, because the tiles were just a print and the flooring was linoleum. All those longer nights his parents would be up arguing in the Yiddish of banged cabinets. This was the tacky tightwad pennycolored house his father went to work to get away from. Unlocking it meant bending the key, twisting so hard the key nearly broke and the vinylsiding above the doorway sloughed its trim. This was the home his mother had cleaned and Ruth was supposed to have cleaned and now David had to scrub all the grease off himself. He’d never even touched a vacuum at his own residence.

Still, it wasn’t the worst: the Bengali Bangladeshis, whose lease he’d guiltily terminated, and whose possessions he’d moved, for gratis, to a new condo in Forest Hills he’d found for them, for gratis—rather his employees had done all that for him and even tendered his regrets—hadn’t left too many traces of their tenancy, just the lingering smell of an unplaceable spray or spice, something like a furniture polish of pepper and cinnamon. He examined the furniture, touched it for dust. It wasn’t anything like what his parents had owned, but all that lot had been sold, or else had just gotten lumped in with all the other lots, in whichever warehouse, in whichever units. He wouldn’t have recognized his parents’ stuff anyway. He only recognized that his parents and his shift supervisor, under the influence of different Europes, had developed different tastes. Different deficiencies. Or maybe Jon had chosen this stuff. Or maybe Leland. His parents’ modern would never be modern again. They’d gone for chrome, earth tones, rugs made of llamas. Not wood. Not such ponderous planking. Though something about the diningroom table was familiar. Its dimensions or aridity, its chairs. Too many chairs. He swabbed at the stovetop, buffed the oven. Without a sponge, just with his hands, his fingernails, snorting rails off the table, snorting off a spoon. He stocked the cutlery drawer, decided his cousin could stock the pantry himself. Or else they’d stop together on the way back from the airport. At Stop & Shop. Or ShopRite. He climbed the mousy stairs.

It made sense that his parents’ bedroom had been furnished. The only bed had been put in the largest bedroom, about as large as a closet should be, a cell for two immigrants to spend a life in, loving, hating, grappling. Jammed up against the sleigh bed were twin nightstands and an overdrawered dresser overdressed in carvings, oak clusters. Antiques, but that wasn’t anything to recommend them. Dumpy, fusty, oppressively solid. Furnishings that prepared you for the coffin. Whoever had owned this stuff, whoever had stored and lost it, must be dead. David set his alarms, plugged in his phone, and went about laying the sheets, the fitted, the flat, the case for the pillow. “Fuck,” which he pronounced aloud like a prayer before sleep, though he wasn’t going to be able to sleep. That’s what he’d forgotten: “Fucking pillows.”


Excerpted from Moving Kings: A Novel, by Joshua Cohen. Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Cohen. Posted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.