Among the snowy houses, a small woman in a white wool coat shoveled a path from the street to her front door. Meanwhile snow was falling, gathering slowly on the path being cleared, and on the small woman shoveling.
Each of the woman’s movements was like the second half of an echo: It seemed as if her gestures weren’t occurring now, but had been initiated some time ago. Faint, also fated. She emptied half a shovelful of snow onto a large bank, and then gathered more snow in her shovel.
We were unemployed and without a place to go, but we got up in the morning and pressed things under the iron anyhow. Our parents turned us out of their houses, telling us to Go get some fresh air!, then locked the doors they refused to give us keys to. We piled up in the streets like garbage, a dozen of us on every block, sitting open-legged on the curb in department-store suits. There was me, Mike, Paul, and all the rest of the guys we’d grown up with. We were a decade and a half past high school graduation, loaded down and barely breathing under stubble and spare tires and thick letters from Sallie Mae, but there we all were, out at the bus stop again.
In the courtyard were more of these men and women who—how should I describe them?—who still were. They didn’t do anything except exist. They sat, alone or in silent clusters. None would say yes to an interview. I circled the courtyard, asking. Most did not even say no.
Now it is just a question of what to do with Guy Gever. For extra money he works in the evenings to frighten the birds that eat the crops in the fields around the kibbutz. At night, he hunts the porcupines, the dorban, and sometimes the tiny kipod, the hedgehogs, with his brothers. But now people think he has gone mad.
Nanjing, the furnace of the Yangtse, is a city so big it swallows. I can stroll through the streets and brush by anyone, but a weight presses on me like a singular, enveloping fog that never leaves. Men gather outside my apartment building and smoke in the afternoon. On some days a neighbor calls the Chengguan—the Urban Management Enforcement. They arrive in their white van and white hats and chase the smokers off. The smokers flee like carrion birds shooed away.
Ramesh Thakur had three houses—one in Defence Colony, one in R.K. Puram, and one in Malviya Nagar. But he was not happy.
“So much dusting, Chandar. I go to each house once a week. I dust, I dust. The sofas, the tables, the mantelpiece. I do not forget anything.
“But it is hard work, Chandar. It is not easy.”
But still I was happy for him. He was retired, he needed something to do. This kept him busy. He had three houses: there was security in that. He had some place to go three days a week: this kept him busy, there was security in that as well.
The last eel of the Rio Grande grows up lonely, brown and serpentine, a river with gills and a pulse swimming inside itself, spooning the river’s oxbows eager for siblings. What the eel doesn’t know could fill a book: that hydroelectric dams keep its kind from traveling upstream to spawn; that eels live elsewhere churning by the hundreds in slicktight knots; the taste of its own firm flesh smothered in soy sauce. The last eel stays ignorant, growing fat on cigarette butts and dreams of parents, growing heavy and slow feeding on the heavy metal hodgepodge downstream of the power plants, a bully coiled up in dark water only coming out to scare smaller fish into submission. And then one day it happens: the flossy flick of a line, the hook and tug before the drag. The eel fights, but its broad, tubed muscles are lazy from afternoon sleeps. It hasn’t run swiftly through a spring flood in years. Hands pull it easily from the water, helped along by the river saying ‘take it, I don’t want this anymore.’
Living with Ricky is fine. The things you accept—they’re small things. Like the way he kicks off his shoes in the hallway at the end of the workday, leaving them there for you to nearly break your ankle on when you have to pee in the middle of the night. He has a point: if you know you’re going to trip on them, why don’t you just move them? Or also how he’ll fall asleep after work on Fridays—you both get off at five, but he always gets home first and somehow has time to be on his third Corona when you walk into the apartment, and he’s sitting in the yellow beanbag chair, half-asleep with an Angels game on, remote tucked safely under his leg. He’s happy to wake up early Saturday morning after you’ve talked the night before about sleeping in together, the weekend being the only real chance you get to wake up with him slowly, to lie in bed in that half-drowsing state that’s exactly how you’d spend your whole life if only someone would, you know, create a job for that, a job where pajamas were the uniform, a bed the office, and being snoozy and not really worrying about the clanging outside world was the main task at hand—those mornings, while you’re drooling into your pillow, Ricky will yank on his sponsor-laden clothes and go bicycling. Leaving you to wake up alone. Which isn’t so bad, but then he’ll call around noon asking you to pick him up at the local craft brewery as he’s had too many to bike home. That’s responsible, though. Calling you.
On October 24, 1956, the day I turned 9.8, my grandmother came to take me out of school in Budapest’s 6th District. We were in the middle of reviewing decimal points because of a mistake a classmate named Mary had made. Other parents and grandparents were arriving too with the same aim, although no one had come yet to get Zoli, the boy who sat beside me.
The first time I came upon Raley was in a volume of Edith Wharton’s correspondence—a short, scabrous note he wrote from Venice in the winter of 1908. When I later read his Drowned City—one of those belated NYRB Classics that seem to appear out of a hidden crack in the library of Babel—I found its rooftop phantasmagoria irresistible. Tales of an unnamed city’s last population of gnarled maniacs, scheming widows, foolish valentines, old men whose eyes are black with mascara, boatmen mooring their vessels to weathervanes, women who sell their kisses for a dry bed. The city is half-sunk in its dream and no news of the world across the spent sea. “An imagination as awkward and prophetic as Kafka’s,” says the blurb, predictably. Nobody knew about the book for a hundred years. It was privately printed in Venice in 1899—only a trunkful of copies—and remained obscure till Edward Kingsley, the Anglo-Italian philanthropist-slash-Luddite, found it in a library in Burano. James Wood’s piece in the New Republic, although not without censure (“Raley’s iambic murmur too often apes the Jacobeans … but the wry vision is his own. His world is peopled by blind self-unravelers, and we are their stunned eavesdroppers”), sent me to the bookshop, and I tore through the two hundred perfect pages in a sitting.