Although I knew of the curfew for days, and the strains it placed on our soldiers, and although I knew that our cops had grown harsh in responding to slights and small crimes, and although I knew, having followed the controversy, the logic behind the law’s passing, I nonetheless went outside around midnight and strolled on the banks of the river. Armed, quiet guards played sentry on the streets, and bulldogs roved around the bodegas. Loud restaurateurs chased away the teen boys who were setting the trash cans on fire. Tacked on the bus stops, over the ads, were maps of the most recent shootings, and I’d heard a rumor that a local vigilante had beaten a mole in a bar. We’d all seen photos, embedded in our news feeds, of kids in the ashes of their homes, and ABC had lost at least three correspondents in the course of that year. And I took hourlong strolls on the boardwalk and tallied up all she had done. I could add casualties, think of the totals, but that wasn’t right, not for me. Why does it seem as though families are supposed to get along?
Whoever said that? You’re idealistic. The boroughs lit up with fresh kindling. One of the brownstones crackled like tinfoil and a thermal sent a rush of hot wind.
I told the agents whatever I knew. They wanted everything I had. Although, I admitted, we are not exactly close, and I am quite leaky with memories, although it is true that our catch-ups of late have not been revealing, exactly, the truth is that I am undoubtedly her child and therefore have too much to say. When I was in high school, she used to bring me to a ranch out in western Colorado, where I fired seven-dollar buckshot at platelets she’d tossed in the air like bouquets. She made her omelets a tad undercooked in a nod to her semester in Paris. I got a C on a paper in college and the teacher got a chunk of her mind.
What does that mean? said an agent, confused. His partner made a note on her legal pad. I said she had her own figures of speech and the agent looked upwards, defeated.
Troops, a good portion of whom were still in the middle of training, flooded the tunnel to save the escape routes, front lines encumbered with riot gear. A land mine went off and the walls buckled quickly and water flowed onto the road. Fumbling through clear shields, a band of reporters clambered over a pair of steel barriers, holding their phones up high above their heads to capture some footage of the deluge. Several got to safety, but most of them drowned in the midst of recording their own deaths. Argyle and gingham sprung up in the flotsam of flak jackets bloated with sludge. And some of our best armored vehicles were soon written off beneath the waves. I wasn’t sure: was this what she wanted? I found her methods unfamiliar. At times throughout grade school, she took my toys in a show of the force of bad karma, as I’d done some taking myself, you see – I’d nabbed a board game from a friend. I was told bluntly to give it back now or else all my toys went to charity.
Back then I didn’t think I had another choice. But what was the right choice, now? I hadn’t thought of my karma for ages, and we had no arbiter, besides.
I was uncertain, as was the military. They sent a chopper regardless. They brought me up to the top of the skyline and showed me what threatened from the air. Hazy in the signal fires, hundreds of cameras hung like baskets from tear-shaped balloons. We had a party one day when day I was seven where my mother kept inhaling whiffs of helium.
I don’t know why you’re so fuzzy, the pilot said. I don’t know why you can’t help us.
I try my best, I said, uncomfortable. I know she always loved rain.
Maybe try meditating. The rooftop was shaking in my apartment when I finally got back. More cops in helmets fanned out in my district in search of a nest of munitions. There were new whispers, albeit unconfirmed, that actors and singers were arming, that one of our world-famous improv ensembles had stockpiled a cache of grenades. This was illegal, and very much discouraged, but who in their right mind would prosecute? I went back out to get a pack of fresh cream cheese and spotted new tanks on the prowl.
Anti-air batteries flowered on the shore, picking off the drones coming in. I watched them fire their missiles at the drones while I sat on a bench on the pier. I drank a soda, drafting a text while a drone exploded overhead, running when bits of charred plastic and circuitry showered the walkways and the grass. I could have said, I’m sorry I was distant, but that would only cover one charge. I had enough of a rap sheet that I couldn’t hope to atone. Filial neglect, enacted over decades, arises out of many small acts, among them short lunch dates, unredeemed gift cards and absence in times of calamity. Which means that all of us build up our ledgers and I can’t just wipe out the debt.
What do they want me to say, to repay this? Redemption, numerically, is unsound.
Walking through debris, I got too close to a child eating ice cream at a table. He dropped his cone and went running to a gas station the moment he saw who I was. They had a sign near the Premium pump that advertised a massive stock of eggs.
What did they think was our background, anyway? The Deep State are nothing if not dreamers. I’d heard that we had fought viciously at some point, or else fallen out over loans. Certain people asked me if I was concealing some dark and proportionate event. Yet what I couldn’t get them to see for themselves was that severance is born of accretion. That it is quite possible, over many years, to not call your way into blows, that I just abided by everyday pettiness and that added up into cruelty. I soldiered onward and lived my own life and that led inexorably to all this. I did no more than any bad son but that was enough, it appeared. One day in March, as the bombings first reached us, the FBI took me downtown, where I took a seat in a smoke-filled chamber with a man who was holding a cigar. He was soon told that no one could smoke there and he stubbed it out with his shoe. Among other things, he shared his worry that I had been compromised, somehow, that no one expected my loyalty to bloodline to simply go puff in the ether. They displayed maps, redacted in places, and asked if I knew how to help – inquiring if I, as the foiled smoker put it, believed that my city was family. And I said that I had exhausted my options the day she stopped answering my texts.
We had a jeering phalanx at the ready to greet her divers on the shore. The divers tossed grappling hooks up on the pier and struggled to latch on the fence. We climbed the lampposts, my neighbors and I, and greeted them with our projectiles, using whatever we wanted to pick up to loosen their grips on their ropes. We employed doorknobs, lamps without shades, and one big pressure cooker in lock mode, as well as hundreds of obsolete keys and drawers we could lift with both arms. And I thought, here is a vital contribution, here is one Thing I Can Do. Our calls grew sparse, and I came to realize that I had to work to reach out, yet somehow I felt it was all up to her to shrug off my litany of insults. I thought our mothers, though no one quite says it, exist to soak up our complaints, and I thought this even as troops were amassing, as movements grew frightening in the east. I got the first real sense of my sin when a statue collapsed in the plaza. By that point, the bombers were roaring so loudly you couldn’t make calls out in public.
There isn’t much that a person can do when so much has already been done.
Hearsay informed us of new, fearsome weapons, of tools meant to lay us to waste. There were dark rumblings, traced to the Pentagon, of fates born in underground labs, which led to a rash of illustrated listicles, warning us of things to watch out for. We had to stop using plugs with two prongs, and heed any prickliness in our legs. And there were some people who said they’d found aliens, who said this was evidence of God. I watched a television news anchor flee from a man dressed up as Anubis. The hospitals, all of them, ran out of beds, and viscera stained all the gutters. You can’t explain to those who don’t know it why grudges are the life rafts of pain.
I wasn’t sure what was right, what was reasonable. I took a walk on the esplanade. Remnants of the hourlong fight with the divers bobbed atop the river like spume. I wandered by, looking over the edge and picking out everything we’d chosen, our doorknobs and black boots and DIY furniture and single car door without a window. And off to my left, as sturdy as always, the batteries towered like palms. Are the CIA’s voicemails correct in their assessment that I am the nucleus of blame? I didn’t tell her I loathed her or anything like it. I didn’t say that her dreamcatcher was flimsy and drab. I didn’t beg her to lend me some money when she had no money to give. At no point were we, as far as I know, in the neighborhood of what you’d call wealthy, and I figured out very early life that debt is like guilt, as the Germans say. And I have been single for a very long time so it’s not like she doesn’t like my dates.
What can a criminal do to say sorry when he himself is the crime?
I guess the criminal offers his body. A mailbox was listing, outside. Two days before, a tank had backed up and crimped its squat legs with its treads. I smoked a cigarette while reading the mail it had spilled all over the ground. Off to my right, a man was hitching up a falafel cart to the back of a minivan. He scanned the sky and furled up his umbrella, checking for bombers in the air. I tried to give him a wave, tried to greet him, but he didn’t wave back, or wouldn’t.
They said they can’t do the draft for one person. Impressment is no longer done. I cooked a dinner of peanut butter noodles by the light of my phone, hung on string. The power went off at five-thirty that evening and I used my laptop to see.
She used to bring me on trips to the zoo on the nicest weekends of the year. I had a longstanding love of flamingos and she let me linger by the pool. I stood there gawking while she stood beside me, a master of not appearing bored. And later, I wondered why I never thanked her, why I didn’t tell her she was kind. She stayed beside me for half-an-hour stretches while popsicles melted in my hands. I held her tight as she led me by the crocodiles, who frighten me even to this day. I got a scoop’s worth of sugar and cream all over her sweat-laden palms. Yet what did I say when I met her in later years, when I had a chance to catch up?
Easter, I said, is not an event, is not a reason to come home.
Water was still on the lip of the esplanade. A spare tire sank beneath the waves. Bonfires burned along the horizon, striping the air with gray smoke.
I made the call. The agents were happy. They said my choice was a good one. They pulled up images, satellite images, of mottled farmland and plains, marked up with reddish-brown, pulsating dots where they thought my mother might be. She was in a camp, or maybe her headquarters, nearby a patch of dead foliage. I saw a network of muddy brown splotches arrayed on the gray and the green. Off in the corner, someone presented a hazmat suit to the light.
What do you know about radiation? We have some intel that’s troubling. We aren’t quite certain what’s going on yet but we want our man to be safe.
I donned the suit and got into the chopper, zipping the hood around my neck. We lifted off and I looked outside through a visor I’d stained with my fingers. Up in the north, our men were in skirmishes, and bombs had been found in the subway. Gunshots went off in the theater district like minerals winking in the sunlight. I couldn’t scratch any part of my legs but I didn’t say this to my handlers. They were concerned, repeatedly asking: you sure you’re ready to do this? I said I’ve never felt ready for anything, I’ve never felt ready in my life. They were unhappy, they didn’t like this, but they didn’t chide me, not then. I watched the river pass by underneath us, and I met my mother in the east.
Thomas Beckwith is an adjunct instructor of creative writing at Johns Hopkins.