My third novel is out to alpha readers (many thanks goes to them). It took four years and four months to research and write with a 19-month hiatus in the middle. That’s nearly double the time it took to write the others. I’m grateful to all the places I sat writing in the notebook, usually at a bar or bookshop somewhere in the city (before COVID-19). I’m especially grateful to the following people for their inspiration: Ricardo Piglia (specifically Target in the Night), Esperanza Marie, Esther Vigil, Chris Dire, Roberto Bolaño (specifically The Unknown University), Chris Ransick, The Ancient Mariner, and the town of Salida, Colorado.
The books you sent
lie on the shelf
I don’t read them
Austen and Maugham
books on old films
furry with dust
lies, all of it
histories of French kings
by church-going luminaries
not to be gifted or donated
sentenced to a life unread
dandies and rich bitches
dogs in human form
biographies of propagandists
revered by some but
books not worth the flame
not worth time
lying books to lie decoratively
(like all lies)
as long as I control
[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold; he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.
At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.
Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.
 Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.
 Ibid: 183-184.
Son … I write you in your fifteenth year. I’m writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege and even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015: 9-10.
 Ibid, 103-104.
American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.
Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.
In the heat of our pursuit for fundamental human rights, Black people have been continually cautioned to be patient. We are advised that as long as we remain faithful to the existing democratic order, the glorious moment will eventually arrive when we will come into our own as full-fledged human beings.
But having been taught by bitter experience, we know that there is a glaring incongruity between democracy and the capitalist economy that is the source of our ills.
There is a distinct and qualitative difference between one breaking a law for one’s own individual self-interest and violating it in the interests of a class or a people whose oppression is expressed either directly or indirectly through that particular law. The former might be called a criminal, but the latter, as a reformist or revolutionary, is interested in universal social change. Captured, he or she is a political prisoner.
The offense of the political prisoner is his/her boldness, persistent challenging—legally or extra-legally—of fundamental social wrongs fostered and reinforced by the state. He/she has opposed unjust laws and exploitative, racist social conditions in general, with the ultimate aim of transforming these laws and this society into an order harmonious with the material and spiritual needs and interests of the vast majority of its members.
In Black communities, wherever they are located, there exists an ever-present reminder that our universe must remain stable in its drabness, its poverty, its brutality. From Birmingham to Harlem to Watts, Black ghettoes are occupied, patrolled and often attacked by massive deployments of police. The police, domestic caretakers of violence, are the oppressor’s emissaries, charged with the task of containing us within the boundaries of our oppression.
The announced function of the police, to protect and serve the people, becomes the grotesque caricature of protecting and preserving the interests of our oppressors and serving us nothing but injustice. They are there to intimidate and persuade Blacks with their violence that we are powerless to alter the conditions of our lives.
They encircle the community with a shield of violence, too often forcing the natural aggression of the Black community inwards. The courts not only consistently abstain from prosecuting criminal behavior on the part of the police, but they convict, on the basis of biased police testimony, countless Black men and women.
The [current] movement is presently at a critical juncture. Fascist methods of repression threaten to physically decapitate and obliterate the movement. Dangerous ideological tendencies from within threaten to isolate the movement and diminish its revolutionary impact. Both menaces must be counteracted in order to ensure our survival. Revolutionary Blacks must spearhead and provide leadership for a broad anti-fascist movement.
Davis, Angela. Political Prisoners, Prisons and Black Liberation, written from Marin County Jail, May 1971. From If They Come in the Morning…Voices of Resistance. Verso Books, London, 2016: 27-43. First published by The Third Press, 1971.
A surprise of being around police is how much they touch you. The purpose of touching by police is to make persons touchable. Touch readies more touch. It is preparatory.
The sudden violent arrest at a protest is almost never sudden if you have been watching the officer and the longer sequence.
In recent decades, African Americans have made proverbial the facetious offenses that police seem to be pursuing: “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and walking while black.” The history of racial terrorism by whites is old. Police have gradually taken up its responsibilities in a process that goes back more than a century. Police departments’ role in racial terror has survived even where racism has waned and their forces have integrated nonwhite officers. Racial terrorism is simply part of the job for local and metropolitan police forces in America – any policing at the level of the city, broadly construed.
Racial terror creates enormous complications for any ordinary theory of what American police do, just as it carves a fundamental division between the experience and the expectations that non-African American citizens have of police and those held by African Americans.
The more time you spend looking at police, the more you see that the law is not a true resource for them…Police lack law…This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to avoid mess or clean it up.
Part of the reason police seem at present un-reformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. It’s possible they never have. When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought. If police don’t take stock of the Constitution, might it be because our Constitution can’t conceive of them?
Liberal and social contract theories of democracy – from Hobbes and Locke to the American Republic constituted in 1789 – do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact.
Secrecy by police in a public place always identifies them as a suspect. Yet police departments hold tightly to their capacities for secrecy and claim them to be necessary for their heroic function of detection and investigation. Insofar as as detection of crime is what police wish their job was about, police are likely always to strain for greater secrecy in a democracy.
Where sight disappears, abuse becomes possible.
Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law or eloquence. Their medium is not law. Police negotiate without any single, unitary reference or goal. Even a traffic stop becomes a negotiation.
When police eye African Americans, harass African Americans, obstruct the movements of African Americans and wind up drawing their guns and murdering African Americans – which even in the twenty-first century they do with regularity and impunity, no matter the police department or region of the United States – it’s first because America still sees racially. Kidnapping an African labor force to build the country is still the country’s unrepented sin.
Violence is given to police as a technique they alone can use, in the service of the overall nonviolence or pacification of society such that citizens need never use violence legitimately upon one another – they route it through police, so to speak. But this formal device winds up defining police by their application of violence. They wind up originating violence as a means of resolving any social deadlock. Police add violence to situations. This becomes a way of injecting testing violence or domination into the heart of society in a public way.
Our neighbors may support [police] wickedness. We may have no idea how to fix it. Still, police violence differs from other forms of violence and domination that have no visible presence, or public check. The police measure out in public what the society will tolerate, even to our shame.
Greif, Mark. Seeing Through Police, from Against Everything: On Dishonest Times. Verso Books, London, 2016: 270-285.
The investigator asked me questions into the evening, trying to dismantle my story. He leaned in over the table between us. We were almost friends. Friendship is all about time.
It was supposed to be a simple bank robbery, I said again.
Sunlight smothered the city. People convened, they shopped, they walked and ran. It was normal. Vehicles cruised past with music blaring, impatient. This was before the pandemic. Children played, fountains splashed.
It was the perfect morning to rob a bank.
My partner and I walked in waving pistols and shouting for everyone to get on the ground. We both wore masks, back before it was common.
A woman screamed, then another. The three customers in the place raised their arms above their heads. They were all senior citizens. Four workers stood frozen behind the counter, all of them like spooked deer, watching me.
It should have been an easy job.
My partner hopped the counter and grabbed the bank manager by his hair, pulling hard.
Open the vault, he said, and bullied the man downstairs to the vault. I cursed and waved the gun around and shouted for everyone to shut up and lay flat. They complied.
This will be over soon, I said, pacing, spacing out my words.
Think of your families.
No one gets hurt.
It was the only time of week the bank had no armed guard on site. Still, we had to assume an alarm was tripped. Every job you do, that’s the understanding. Two minutes and the cops are there.
I waved the gun aggressively but it wasn’t necessary.
A guy tried to enter the bank entrance but saw me with the mask and gun and ran back out the door, stumbling.
I clicked off seconds in my head. Pop music played from speakers somewhere. I should have already heard a shout of some kind from my partner downstairs.
I counted five cameras in the room.
Two of the customers had walking canes lying next to them. The place smelled of wet carpet and bleach, as if the floors had been cleaned overnight. I breathed deeply from my abdomen, forcing air upward and out through the mask.
My partner took too long downstairs and I activated Plan B. You have to plan for contingencies. You can’t overthink. You’ve got to act quickly.
All right! I shouted through the mask. Everybody out! Everybody out now!
The employees and customers rose to their feet slow and uncertain, confused, afraid. But people move when you point a gun at them.
Out! I shouted, cursing. Move it! Out! Out!
I waved the pistol and shouted until they were gone, then I flipped the deadbolt on the entrance door and sprinted downstairs to uneven concrete beneath my feet and old brick to each side of a long hallway. A single bulb hung from a string, swinging softly. I heard no music — no sound at all.
Hurry up! I shouted into the darkness. What’s taking so long?
My voice echoed. I waved my gun like a fool and stepped beneath the bulb further into the shadows.
Hello? I said.
Hello, said a man nearby.
The bulb above flashed and burned out. I stood in complete darkness.
Hello? I said again.
I put the gun up and staggered, one palm on the brick wall at my side. Silence and darkness overwhelmed the hall. The damp air thickened and I moved through it gasping with arms out before me, each step a step into oblivion.
How is this happening? I thought.
I stopped walking, feeling the pulse race beneath my skin. My head floated off my shoulders — a balloon in the void. I kneeled to the ground to keep from losing balance and falling over. I blinked but couldn’t tell if my eyes were open.
I stood and stepped slowly to feel with my palms out but met another wall. My breaths quickened, drumming from me. I counted them: thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three. I heard breathing nearby.
Hello? I said.
I reached to my right, disoriented.
Hello? I said again, whispering, eyes wide. The pistol trembled in my hand.
The wall to my left met a right angle of brick in front of me. I reached out and touched brick to the right of, then behind me.
I shouted and fired a round into the ground and saw in a flash of light that I was surrounded by brick, entombed. The bullet ricocheted into my left calf and I cried out, slinking to the ground with my back against the brick.
I cursed, shouting into the tiny space. My echo stretched to an impossible distance. I reached up to feel brick just above my head. Sweat poured from my face.
How long until I suffocated? Am I hallucinating?
The bulb sparked back to life, swinging above my head. I blinked at the brilliance of it. The familiar brick wall appeared before me with shadowed hallway disappearing away to my right and my left. I pushed myself up onto one leg, gasping painfully.
Hello? I said, my voice absorbing echoless into the air. I shouted again and heard nothing, deafened. The ground beneath vibrated.
What’s happening to me? I thought.
I began limping down the dark hall. I didn’t know from which direction I’d come. It didn’t matter — I had to get out. The cops were probably upstairs looking for me. I took 20 paces from the bulb that became 30 paces as I staggered deeper into the shadows. I stopped and turned around, walking back to the swinging bulb, a small wavering point of light in the absence. I hobbled past it another 80 paces before stopping again. It was pointless. The hallway stretched infinitely into shadow in both directions.
Hello? I shouted, my voice ricocheting like a bullet and repeating into the distance.
I shouldn’t have taken this job, I muttered to myself, cursing. I should have trusted my instincts. I knew it was bad.
I realized I still had my mask on and I pulled it off. Suddenly I could breathe easier. I heard a scream through the brick, as if from a nearby room. It was a man.
He actually wasn’t my partner at all. He was just a guy on a bank job. I didn’t know him.
He screamed again and I shouted his name.
HELP! he shouted. HELP ME!
I heard a crack, then silence. He stopped screaming. It sounded like the crack of a club or baseball bat smashing into bone.
I muttered to myself, trembling.
Another crack echoed through the brick and another and another and another until there were no bones left to crack. Then I only heard the precise rhythm of blunt instrument smashing into inert cadaver, blasting and blasting but also increasing tempo, crushing and echoing in the hall, building feverishly to satisfy some alien murderousness.
Wow, said the investigator. Descriptive.
He stood and paced behind his metal chair, then around the table. His shoes clicked on the concrete. I watched him and glanced at the two-way mirror. I counted two cameras in the room.
He had no hair on his head. No eyebrows, no facial hair. He stopped pacing next to me and leaned into my ear and whispered, cursing: Liar.
My next decision is difficult to explain. I was afraid and not thinking clearly.
I just wanted it to be over, to be done, and I didn’t care how.
I took off running on my one good leg down the hall past the dangling light with the pistol in hand and I continued lurching forward, fearless of falling into the depths or smashing face-first into a wall in the darkness growing suddenly cold with my breath pluming crystallized before me, my arms pumping, good leg pumping, heart pumping. The hallway widened though I couldn’t see it to confirm. I felt that I’d entered a giant space but still indoors, sheltered from the sky. The grade increased and I struggled uphill, slipping on sand yet stable enough to hold my churning leg.
A faded line of horizontal light appeared over the summit and I climbed to it, struggling through deeper sand. The moonlight swelled and cleared with each upward step until it appeared in full, the glowing face of an ancient friend. I marched up with lightning snapping overhead, powering my way upward toward a sense of remoteness, alienness, as if in a sea, surrounded by water.
I reached the summit with my chest heaving and stood atop a giant dune beneath the pregnant moon with lightning attacking dangerously near —on a sand dune in an ocean of sand dunes.
Clouds like dirty snow sprinted overhead as if in time lapse. White veins lit up the alien landscape and I gazed over the endless rolling hills of sand with hot wind whipping my hair and clothes, a conqueror atop his endless spoil, absorbing the immensity and perilousness of his journey for the first time.
Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies, said the bald investigator.
A sand crab rose to the ivory surface near me.
Black and slick in the moonlight it dashed toward me and I kicked it tumbling into the wind.
Dark imperfections began spreading across the sand in the distance and I smelled them on the breeze, acrid and menacing.
Soon all the desert was alive with them, each distant crest and valley rolling outward like waves began to flower in black and the ground below bubbled porous and chaotic with the crabs climbing up from the depths, surrounding me, shrieking with snapping mandibles when I confirmed with my eyes that they weren’t crabs, they were larger and faster, more aggressive. They weren’t anything I’d seen before.
Quickly they struck and seized my ankles, biting and clawing with hot pain like liquid up my spine. The monsters dug into the meat of my thighs and continued up to my torso, slashing at my clothes and skin, overtaking my arms as I tried to slap and peel them away. There were too many of them and I struggled against the sensation of falling. I shouted pleadingly at the moon, stone-faced and indifferent to my cries.
The creatures climbed to my neck and pierced the skin, bounding onto my face with tentacles searching and I tasted them as they pulled me down into the sand with their poison coursing my brain.
Soon my lower half melted beneath the sand and I screamed with sand filling my mouth and eyes.
Then the world disappeared.
The investigator paced the interrogation room with arms folded, nodding, a smile on his face.
I don’t know how much time elapsed. I woke atop a pile of sand in the middle of a blacktop intersection in the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up.
It was a moonless night and the whole place was empty of people. Orange streetlamps lit the sidewalks and I eased myself down from the sand pile to dust myself off. My bad leg had healed and both were good again.
I looked up to the façade of my childhood apartment building. My old bedroom window on the third floor was the only window lit.
In the light I recognized the silhouette of a figure, unmistakable and familiar. I shivered in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid.
Dreamlike I wavered toward the building feeling sand in every part of me, inside me.
Across the empty street I navigated the familiar brick, concrete and asphalt panorama of my youth and entered the building past the broken elevator to the stairs as if routine, as if blindfolded and half-conscious up the threadbare staircase to apartment 303.
My hand floated to the door. Slowly it creaked open, alighting the small cluttered landing area and bookshelf. I heard my mother’s voice — she sang while cooking and I smelled the emotional aroma of her inventions there in the third-floor hallway of our project housing complex. I pressed the door and it was no longer my childhood apartment door but the vault door in the basement of Community Street Bank in Philadelphia, a summer morning in the year 2020.
The bank manager lay dead in his cheap shirt, shot twice through the chest.
You’re late, said my partner, a duffel slung over his shoulder and his pistol trained on me.
I’m sorry, he said, meeting my eyes.
We both had masks on.
He pulled the trigger but his pistol jammed. He ran past me up the stairs to the bank lobby and I looked around, incredulous and panicked. The sound of pop music melted down the stairs like syrup. I saw the dead manager on the vault floor and scuff marks on the tile around him. The gun was molten steel in my hand.
I finally shook myself awake and ran upstairs just in time —
I paused and looked at the investigator.
Just in time to meet your … people. The cops swarmed in.
The other guy wasn’t my partner. Just a guy on a bank job.
He must have got away.
The investigator sighed and nodded his head.
So here we are, he said.
He scratched his chin and looked meaningfully into the two-way mirror. He smiled.
Here we are, I said.
He sighed and sat in the chair opposite me and leaned over the table, glaring at me. He smiled.
I did not smile but watched as his grin widened. His face melted up and back and his cheeks somehow made room for the hideous growing discolored teeth. His eyes bulged and his lips squeaked like plastic as they stretched, his mouth a giant lightless cavity from which a sand monster spilled onto the steel table, its insect legs flailing in the air before it righted itself and stood, watching me.
The investigator licked his lips like a salamander and winked one mad balloon eye at me. He leaned back in his chair and looked up to the fluorescent lights laughing, laughing.