Amanda surprised me when she said we had to move. I’d barely got in the door, barely been in the hallway of our apartment a second, when she passed in and out of my peripheral vision, catching sight of me, I guess, and making her announcement. I’d been planning to take off my shoes and flop down on the couch with a cup of coffee to watch the news on TV—one blast of terrible news after another. I didn’t know what the terrible news would be today, but I knew it’d be terrible. Car crashes would be the least of it. Accidental ones, anyway. It had become common for people in cars to mow other people down. But that wasn’t the only thing. There were terrorists and gun battles in shopping malls. Locals and tourists in Malaysia and Mali and London and Paris fleeing, stampeding, as soldiers ducked behind jewelry displays and fast-food counters, hunting down militants in one boutique after another. Bombs were often involved. We’d all become familiar with acronyms like I.E.D. Long guns—that was another term we were necessarily familiar with. Boom, they’d go, these I.E.D.s, in churches, synagogues, mosques, concert halls, and the aforementioned shopping malls. Movie theatres, too. Strip malls. Scattered and maimed bodies, an outward gyre of victims propelled from the explosion. Or the perpetrator (or perpetrators) might arrive with military-style weapons loaded with clips or magazines of hundreds of rounds. Like that goofy-looking white kid who went to a church meeting, where those prayerful African-Americans welcomed him, and he listened to them read the Bible, and then he stood up and started shooting them.
Something is up. That’s what I think. Something is up.
Anyway, back to the cars. Or maybe not. I don’t want to forget the pundits, who come on right after the shootings or the bombings, as regular as clockwork, these experts, talking heads, network contributors on national security or terrorism or profiling the criminal mind. Lone wolf or affiliated? A bomb goes off and these experts weigh in, a banner below them broadcasting their names and specialties. I find the fact that they show up consoling, the way they chart a course through the mayhem.
Anyway, I came in the door eager to get settled in front of the terrible news. I’d grown addicted, you might say. “Dependent” was probably closer. I had come to feel that it was important for me to pay attention to it all. It seemed the responsible thing to do.
A gun, a bomb, or a car, the instrument was always in the hands of a person or people overcome by the power of this very powerful idea, this irresistible idea—at least to them—that killing a bunch of strangers would solve whatever problem they thought they couldn’t solve in any other way. The problem might be personal—a lost job, a failed marriage. Or it might be cosmic, with supernatural imperatives. Some astrophysical battle between light and dark. This religion or that one. Or this one over that one. But the solution was always the same. Dead strangers. Sometimes these terrible news events were deemed to be terrorist events—bloodshed with a political motive. Sometimes the deaths were the result of rage or simple insanity. Not that the factors couldn’t be combined. And then there were storms, floods, tornadoes. Those received some attention, too. Entire small towns wiped out. Overturned double-wides. That kind of thing. But I have to say that bad weather was a relief when compared with all the other pieces of terrible news, because it didn’t have a human behind it. Unless it was due to our ignorance, greed, indifference, self-delusion. Everybody argued, “Climate change this and that.” But not this one environmentalist. With dark, stricken eyes, he said that calling it “climate change” was wrong, because it should be called “climate suffocation.” That was what would happen once the oceans stopped making oxygen, which was already happening, with dead zones and oxygen declines. The oceans were suffocating. And after they stopped producing oxygen the trees would stop, too. And the fish and sea life would suffocate; the animals would all suffocate.
When I caught up with Amanda, I told her that I liked our apartment. I hadn’t known we were thinking of moving. But she had everything arranged, she said. The movers were on their way up. I went to the window and there were cars and people on the street, but no moving van. Then I heard loud knocking, and she yelled at me to “let them in,” and when I failed to move, pretending I was captivated by things outside, she ran past me, shouting that she didn’t understand why she had to do everything. I said I didn’t know why, either. They came in, six big men in uniforms, with their names embroidered on their shirts in red stitching, right above the chest pocket—Brett and Tom and Buck were three of the names. Actually, it was seven men. And when I counted again there were eight. There was a logo of a truck on the back of their jackets. They were laughing and pushing one another, like cowboys or football players. They started taking our furniture—two of them to the armchair, three to the couch. Several were dismantling the television.
Grabbing my shoes before one of the movers took them, I headed for the door.
The new apartment was a big disappointment. Too small to be a real warehouse, it had that feeling of vast emptiness one finds in a warehouse. Amanda kept saying that it was perfect. She ran from room to room, shouting, “I like it! I like it! It’s perfect!” I still didn’t understand why we’d had to leave our old place. I really didn’t like the new neighborhood. And we had this new roommate. I could tell the minute I saw him that I disliked him and he disliked me. Amanda said that we’d get used to each other. She said that it would work out and that it would save money. We’d been living frugally but nicely, I thought. Money didn’t seem to be a problem. At least, not more of a problem than it was for most middle-of-the-road people. So I was completely confused by what she said. I could tell that the kids were unhappy, too, wandering about barefoot, in clothes that needed to be washed.
I told Amanda that I didn’t like the new apartment or the new neighborhood. She gave me her patented fed-up headshake, which left no doubt that I’d just confirmed something she knew about me and could barely tolerate. The point here was that, although the new neighborhood wasn’t that far from the old one, it was drastically different. Our old place was on a wide, beautiful street running along the crest of a hill. Below it was another street running parallel to the crest of the hill. And below that another parallel street, and so on, for five streets down, each one getting narrower, more potholed, and dirtier. Desolate and chaotic would be a good way to evoke the lonely, abandoned mood of the last street, the fifth street, where the new apartment was. Almost no one had a car and nearly everyone you saw was bedraggled and despondent. The amount of trash adrift in the wind and kicked by these dispirited people steadily grew. It wasn’t a class system, Amanda said, but just the way things were.
I’d gone out to look around and get a better feel for the new neighborhood when it suddenly got dark, and there were no street lights. I was on one of the side streets that ran up and down the hill. It was an irritating feature of the area that the street signs disappeared as you got lower. I couldn’t remember how to get back into the new building. The door in front of me didn’t look right, but I went in anyway, and started to climb the stairs. Usually, in this type of building, there’s a door on each landing, marked with a number to indicate the floor. But this stairway didn’t offer that kind of exit or information; nor did it switch back the way most stairways do. It just kept going straight up, which meant that the building was very, very tall, and unusually wide. At last, I spied a door very far above me, a hundred yards or more. It seemed too far to go without knowing if I was in the right place. After backing down a few steps, I turned and hurried the rest of the way until I was outside, where I recognized the shabby fa?ade of our building across the street. I didn’t have a key to the front entrance yet, but one of the movers held the door open for me.
The new roommate was the first person I saw when I got to the apartment. Blond, younger than me, muscular across the shoulders, which was all I could see of him, except for his calves and the lower portion of his thighs, he trailed water on the floor, his hair sopping. He had wrapped a beach towel around himself and tucked it high under his armpits, the way women do, so the towel covered him from his armpits to his thighs. In one hand, he held a sandwich that looked like ham and cheese on white bread, gobs of mustard dripping out, and in his other hand he had a pistol, and he was walking around the way people do when they’re looking for something.
“Did you lose something?” I asked.
“You look like you’re looking for something.”
“Where’d you get that?” I nodded in the general direction of his hand and fixed my eyes on the gun.
“It’s mine,” he told me. “Don’t worry.”
“I don’t want guns in this place.”
“It’s just one.”
“I’ll get one, too. If you have one, I think I’d better have one.”
“If you want.”
“That’s what I’ll do.”
“So right now the one I have is the only one here.” He smiled icily.
“But I’m going to get one.”
He pointed the pistol at me. It was silver-plated with a long barrel and a white pearl handle.
“Don’t do that.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Why?” He put the gun against my temple. Then he pressed the barrel into my cheek. He stuck it against my stomach and my chest. He bumped my cheek with the tiny tip thing on the end of the barrel—one, two, three, four, five, too many times. He tried to poke it into my mouth. I pushed it away.
“I don’t like it here,” I said.
“I do. It’s nice.”
“I don’t like the neighborhood.”
I don’t know how long we talked like that. Amanda came back from wherever she was, and I said I needed to take a shower. She pointed me to the bathroom, and that was when I discovered that there was no shower. Just this old bathtub full of scummy water, which must have been left from the new roommate’s bath. There was rust on the faucet handles, and the tub had old-fashioned legs, like chicken legs. I started shouting that I needed a bathroom with a shower. We argued for a while. Amanda looked hurt and angry, but she kept yelling, so I kept yelling. I don’t know for how long. But when we stopped the President was on the television, shouting. He wanted revenge. He wanted to get even. He started reading from a list of names of people and countries that he liked. He had a second list of people and countries that he hated, and it was long, and eventually some of the names from the first list started showing up.
Then the front-door buzzer buzzed, indicating that somebody wanted to be let in, and when I went down and pulled the door open there was Amanda, with dirt smeared on her face and a thick black hose thing in her hands. “I got this for you,” she said.
At that instant, I heard cursing. A large, lumpy man in a ripped shirt jumped out of his car and threw open the hood. “It’s gone, goddammit!”
I looked for Amanda, but didn’t see her. Something tugged at my pants leg. She was down on her belly, and I realized that the dirty tube thing was a car part that she had stolen. “For the shower,” she said.
“For your shower.”
That was her way of saying that she’d taken the hose because I’d been upset. She explained that she hoped to rig a shower by running the car hose from the tub faucet up over this kind of towel-rack thing sticking out of the wall, so the water could pour down.
“But it will be filthy, because it’s a car part,” I told her. “You have not really thought this through.”
“No. The water will clean it out.” She looked scared, and I wanted to help her, although I was mad. I inched the hose in through the doorway, so as not to draw attention from the owner, who stomped around his car, screaming and slamming the hood.
I’d barely shut the door, with both of us safely inside, when my cell phone dinged. It was a text from PETA:
A photograph presented a tiny primate, its furry face contorted by a yearning to be friends with everyone.
Amanda and I were reading to the kids. It was a children’s book, and we all four nestled around the open pages with their energetic illustrations. A man came in. Sports coat, linen slacks, top three buttons of his shirt undone. He carried a bottle of wine. For an instant, I didn’t remember that we had a new roommate, but, even when I did, I had to ask what he was doing. He shook his head and complained about his inability to find a corkscrew. What the hell did he have to do to get along in this place? The children were waiting for the story to continue. Amanda watched the new roommate, her eyes full of concern. And then I remembered. They were having an affair. Amanda and Reed. How had I ever forgotten? It had been going on for a long time. He was over by the window looking out. His baggy trousers had baggy pockets, and there were other pockets in his coat. His pistol could have been in any one of them, and I didn’t know which, but I did know that it wasn’t in his hand. I sprang on him and got him in a choke hold from behind. He wanted to grab for his pistol, wherever it was, but he couldn’t make his hands do anything but fly up to claw at my forearm, which I’d locked around his throat. He was gurgling with a kind of pleading sound that might have been his attempt to say “Please” and “Don’t” and “Stop.” I constricted every muscle I had, so that he’d never get away. I could feel the life going out of him, and I could see the light in his eyes dimming in the full-length mirror that Amanda held up. He was too heavy for me to keep upright, so we sank to the floor, where his life continued to slip out of him.
Amanda said, “What are you doing? Let him go.”
I asked myself if I dared to do as she wanted. Or did I really want him dead? He would be my bitter enemy for as long as we lived now that I’d done this. I wished Amanda weren’t holding the mirror, because then I wouldn’t have to see his eyes. They were so lonely and hopeless. But she made sure I saw.
I collapsed off him. He flopped onto his back. Amanda hurried to him. She brushed his brow tenderly and placed her mouth over his. She pinched his nose shut and blew into his mouth, and I knew I’d made two terrible mistakes—one in attacking him and another in letting him go. She peeked at me out of narrow, hate-filled eyes as she established a rhythm for puffing the life back into him, until he let out a growling cough full of tears and then curled into a fetal position. After a minute, she helped him to his feet and they went off.
I’m not sure where the young woman came from. She might have come from another apartment, or from one of the many rooms in the new apartment that I hadn’t been able to look into yet. She was animated, talking to people I didn’t know, who I assumed were Amanda’s friends, or maybe the new roommate’s. There was a circle of four or five men and three women, and they talked excitedly to the young woman. They were fascinated by her, though I could tell they didn’t know why. And then she reached for some chips in a bowl. As she ate, her eyes came to rest on me. She didn’t say a word, just crossed over to where I sat in an armchair and lowered herself onto my lap. She took my hands and put them on her waist. I didn’t care if people stared at us. An elderly man in a vest and bow tie approached with a tray of party snacks. She asked for a glass of water and rocked her hips a little forward and back, causing a shiver in me, and then in her.
“Where did you come from?” I asked her, thinking I’d make idle conversation.
“Troy.” Her dark eyes had a fathomless quality, with flickering light in the irises.
My cell phone dinged, and, though I didn’t recognize the organization that was texting, I did see what it wanted to tell me: “Rabbits are screaming.” I said, “Troy? Really? The city?”
“The ancient city?”
I imagined her ship at anchor outside, where the dirty street contended with wind and debris, its square sail furled, its oars pointed skyward.
It was dark now and some men were gathered at a table in a little room off the kitchen. They were bunched around a light, and the biggest of them glowered at me. I didn’t recognize him, or any of them, but when I got closer I saw the smallish television that entranced them, their bodies warped by their angry, worried concentration. The volume was low, but I heard two sombre voices, before I saw the team of male and female newscasters.
“The President is unhappy,” the sharp-faced female anchor said.
The men at the table conferred in intense tones. “THE PRESIDENT IS UNHAPPY,” read the crawl across the bottom of the screen.
“He imagines himself happy,” the male anchor declared. “He imagines himself young. He imagines himself handsome. He imagines he is well liked by everyone in the world. He imagines he is omnipotent.”
“Day after day,” the woman said, her lucidly intelligent eyes blinking. She had straight brown hair. “Night after night. Prowling the halls.”
The men at the table were solemn, nodding at the screen and then at me in a uniform way that made me uneasy.
Duppedee-do! went my phone, delivering an e-mail with a yellow Labrador and a golden retriever looking at me mournfully, each trapped in a structure of metal rods that immobilized its head, as text explained, “These innocent dogs await the pharmaceutical experimenters who will drill holes in their skulls, in order to inject a deadly virus into their brains to kill them slowly.”
“We’re trying to help the President,” one of the men said to me. “He needs our help. No one understands him. He wants people to understand him so that they’ll like him. So we’re trying to understand him, and then like him, so we can teach everybody how to understand him and like him.”
“Oh,” I said. The man who was talking turned away, and so did the others, except for one who stared me down, his spiteful eyes full of plans. Suspicion clouded the air between us, like an oil spill.
I went off down the hall and in a door. Amanda and the new roommate were in bed. Just lying on their backs with their eyes open. They seemed to be staring at the ceiling.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Nothing,” Amanda answered.
“Not you.” He poked her. “Him.”
I left. Behind me, Amanda kept saying, “Who? Who?”
“Open your eyes, Amanda. For God’s sake, open your eyes—he was just here.”
Sinister men were waiting for me. They wore dark suits. They circled me and then moved closer. “You’re in danger,” one of them whispered. His eyes shimmered, like broken glass.
“I know,” I told him.
“We want to help you.”
“We want to warn you,” a different one said. He shoved me.
“We want to protect you,” the first one said, and he shoved me harder. I staggered back a few steps.
“Don’t trip,” another one said.
“There’s a border,” one said.
They kept shoving me every time they said something.
“There’s a border that is a boundary.”
“Don’t cross it.”
“It’s a boundary that is a border.”
“I understand,” I said. “Now let me alone.”
“We’re done anyway.” They tried to speak in unison, creating noise like an out-of-kilter engine ready to explode.
I went toward the television I heard blasting. Not the little one in the room off the kitchen but the big one that I usually watched. The little one was gone. The men who’d huddled around it must have taken it. It seemed they’d taken the room, too. The kitchen was there, but the small room off the kitchen was gone.
Duppedee-do! went my phone: “Help. It’s up to you.” I hit Delete and walked away. I didn’t know where I was going. When my phone dinged again, I knew better than to look, but I did anyway, and I learned that a man, infuriated by his crying infant daughter, had stuck his finger down her throat to make her be quiet. I kept walking. I don’t know for how long I walked and walked, but I came to the small room off the kitchen. It was back, as were the little television and the men watching it. A beaming, impish man identified as a Presidential adviser announced, “The President knows more than anyone about everything.”
The interviewer, a woman with a quirky mouth, asked, “More than the scientists, who—”
“You’re saying he knows more than the scientists, who—”
“Wait. I’m speaking of people who are experts in their particular field, such as climate change. Let’s talk about that.”
“Cassandras. All of them.”
“Cassandras? Your position is that the experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are Cassandras? That those predicting disappearing glaciers, rising sea levels, and—”
“Cassandras, Cassandras, Cassandras.”
“But she was a prophetess. You know. She told the future.”
“Exactly.” His face formed a childish, doll-like grin, while his eyes disclosed cold-blooded desires that he believed no one could see. “A prophetess people didn’t listen to. If you’re a Cassandra, nobody listens to you. That’s the great part, that’s the fun part, the thrilling part—they know the future, and they tell us, but we don’t have to listen, because the President is smarter than anyone.”
Duppedee-do! went my phone: “AUSTRALIA IS ON FIRE!” Images flashed: The sky blazing with supercharged pillars of twisting flame. People retreating to a beach. A woman spraying water onto frightened alpacas, their long necks pivoting between her and the burning world.
Amanda and the new roommate were throwing my things around. Into boxes. Into piles on the floor. I didn’t know what was going on. When I first came upon them, I was too startled to speak. I stood off to the side, hoping they’d explain without my needing to ask, but they just kept throwing my things. Finally, he looked at me, clearly thinking I was the stupidest person he’d ever seen in his life. “Amanda,” he said.
“Oh, I know, he’s utterly useless.” She looked at me. “You’re in the way.” And then, to him, she said, “Don’t pay any attention to him.”
I couldn’t take it. I shouted, “What are you doing?”
“We’re throwing all this junk away,” she said.
“Those are mine,” I said.
“It’s all junk.”
“I want it. I like it.”
They laughed. “We’re getting new things,” they said, one after the other.
I picked up a short-sleeved shirt. “This is a good thing.” I grabbed a coffee cup. “I really like this. I’ve had it all my life.”
They laughed so hard they started to gasp. “He likes it. He likes it.”
“We’re getting rid of it. All of it. It’s old.”
“Her, too,” one of them said.
“Her, too,” the other one said.
And I realized that they were talking about my mother, who I remembered was in a room at the very end of the hallway, a little room you reached after almost doubling back. I’d hidden her there so they wouldn’t know, but they must have found her. “No,” I said. “You will not!” I hurried toward the hallway, aware that they were laughing uproariously behind me.
“We’ve already done it,” they shouted. “She’s gone.”
It was maybe the worst laughter I’d ever heard. This was what they’d been thinking about when they were in bed, looking at the ceiling, and I walked in. “We can keep the reading lamp,” I said, rushing back. “I think the reading lamp and some books.”
“No, it’s all going.”
“We’re moving,” he said, and she said it, too.
“But we just got here!”
“No, no, not you.”
“You’re not moving. We are.”
The moving men walked by with their stitched names, all nine of them, going into a room and shutting the door. I saw how big their feet were.
“If you’re moving,” I said, “if you’re—”