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.
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.
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.
(in their own words)
Age 20 — marketing professional, part-time professional musician, black male, NY
50 — survivor of COVID-19, female, Mexican-American, retail worker, CA
61 — realtor, lost three family members to COVID-19, African-American male, NY
5 — loves animals and outer space, MI
28 — gave birth to triplets during pandemic, business student, multi-ethnic, VA
68 — white male, retired engineer, no known relation to COVID-19, KY
10 — female orphan, likes baseball, MI
58 — male, dead from COVID-19, postal worker, NJ
47 — cranberry and grape farmer, white male, father dead from COVID-19, WA
52 — chef, African-American male, poker genius, VA
12 — autistic girl, MO
71 — retired news reporter, white female, proud American, AK
8 — entrepreneur, female, Mexican-American, CA
50 — unemployed laborer, female, one uncle and two aunts dead from COVID-19, TN
16 — volleyball captain, African-American male, AL
49 — chief of police, African-American male, brother dead of COVID-19, AL
81 — retired salesperson, white female, husband dead of COVID-19, IN
75 — retired postal worker, Cuban-American, COVID-19-positive, FL
43 — human resources professional, Latina, OH
34 — bartender, black female, part-time professional musician, LA
67 — animal rights activist, Mexican-American male, Scrabble champion, CA
72 — war veteran, grandfather, secret government agent, mother dead of COVID-19, WI
59 — litigation attorney, Japanese-American, female, COVID-19-positive, WA
13 — social influencer, female, NY
19 — thief, male, currently hospitalized with COVID-19, MA
38 — unemployed restaurant worker, aspiring fashion designer, white female, CO
91 — no known relation to COVID-19, African-American female, MS
31 — unemployed retail worker, Phillipino-American, accomplished rapper, NY
44 — unemployed single parent, white female, blogger, KS
29 — restaurateur, trans-gender, NY
58 — electric transit vehicle operator, African-American female, CA
75 — production line specialist, Indian-American male, bookworm, MI
23 — unemployed restaurant worker, Mexican-American male, UT
61 — female, dead from COVID-19, retired dancer and entertainer, NV
90 — retired architect, white male, nephew dead from COVID-19, NY
66 — retired sales director, French citizen, Algerian, GA
84 — retired funeral home director, white female, daughter dead from COVID-19, FL
45 — unemployed construction worker, Mexican-American male, MT
78 — professional gambler, no known relation to COVID-19, black male, NJ
53 — elementary school principal, Mexican-American male, proud American, AZ
67 — retired police officer, white male, cancer survivor, dead from COVID-19, WY
76 — retired public servant, white male, positive with COVID-19, AK
37 — unemployed artist and dancer, Nepalese-American female, NY
59 — certified public accountant, white male, wife dead from COVID-19, MI
98 — retired CEO and philanthropist, two children dead from COVID-19, CA
14 — high-school student, wrestler, male, class clown, OR
43 — meat factory worker, Harley-Davidson collector, dead from COVID-19, NM
88 — retired nurse, no known relation to COVID-19, white female, HI
56 — retired colonel, African-American male, grandfather of 18, LA
26 — unemployed barista, actress, Latina, CA
61 — freelance IT consultant, greatest uncle ever, dead from COVID-19, NJ
82 — retired film studies instructor, white male, part-time chef, NE
22 — garbage disposal mechanical specialist, Colombian-American, Texan, TX
41 — police officer, positive with COVID-19, father of triplets, Chinese-American, MA
36 — retired professional athlete, entrepreneur, black male, DE
51 — professional caterer, white male, car salesman, father, lover, KY
16 — student, violinist, #gobucks, occasional eating champ, WI
48 — master carpenter, hot-rod enthusiast, white male, pet groomer, MT
47 — unemployed electrician, wine connoisseur, mestizo, NM
21 — volunteer, motivational speaker, paraplegic, white female, OH
77 — part-time poker player, retired sales manager, Native American, SD
31 — unemployed music DJ, gay, Brazilian-American, uncle dead from COVID-19, CA
18 — intern at book publisher, white male, video game enthusiast, TN
66 — retired firefighter, antique restorer, grandfather of eight, black male, LA
59 — part-time airline employee, crocheter, nanny, African-American female, IL
71 — retired real estate developer, speaker of five languages, dead from COVID-19, OR
74 — homemaker and seller of exotic fish, white female, dead from COVID-19, FL
37 — nurse, mother of four, Alaskan of the Haida people, positive for COVID-19, AK
86 — retired city services employee, positive for COVID-19, black male, WI
27 — casino employee, part-time dancer, Venezuelan-American, bad bitch, NV
40 — former collegiate athlete, unemployed chef, Black male, positive for COVID-19, TX
76 — retired Navy SEAL, avid bowler, father of three girls, Italian-American, PA
49 — investment manager, certified educator, defending fantasy football champion, MA
34 — unemployed baker, black female, VT
48 — grocer, investor, white, father dead from COVID-19, ND
53 — freelance proposal manager, Italian-American, Boston Celtics fan, AZ
91 — retired attorney and professor of law at BCU, white male, dead from COVID-19, MA
24 — unemployed business major, artist, musician, dead from COVID-19, AL
64 — delivery driver, proud black king, positive for COVID-19, OK
89 — retired real estate magnate, white male, no known relations to COVID-19, CO
6 — builder, Canadian superhero in training, NH
33 — data center professional, music lover, Indian-American male, WY
40 — writer, sun-poisoned, jaded, loved, not currently positive for COVID-19, CO
51 — unemployed golf course maintenance professional, part-time musician, IN
77 — retired, part-time volunteer, European immigrant, NE
56 — unemployed bus driver, positive for COVID-19, black female, AR
37 — United States Marine, brown man, Billings, MT
69 — retired veteran of military affairs, United States Army, positive for COVID-19, IL
83 — retired real estate professional, helicopter pilot, father of five, white male, PA
36 — retired adult actress, theater director, artist, FL
66 — convict, Colombian, born-again Christian, MO.
22 — pregnant, unemployed, mother of three, mixed-race female, GA
59 — medical practitioner, proud Iroquois, WI
32 — brewer, restauranteur, entrepreneur, coffee junkie, AL
29 — reporter for local TV news, positive for COVID-19, avid cyclist, spin captain, CA
84 — retired salon owner, white female, investor, MI
44 — entrepreneur, self-employed, Greek-American, father positive with COVID-19, NV
55 — unemployed bartender, Uber driver, sister dead from COVID-19, OH
20 — student researcher, poet, black female, no known relation to COVOD-19, NJ
63 – horse breeder, wine collector, doctor’s wife, white female, WY
80 — fly fisher, grandpa, gardener, white male, positive with COVID-19, WV
59 — unemployed journalist, Black American male, recent lottery winner, DE
There he was, pale faced and morose. Nobody like him anywhere. Beneath the white lamp glow, sullen there with his stack of blank papers, which would be creased or imperfect if only he didn’t fill them so quickly, if only the pages remained longer in his care, beneath his pen and his scrutiny.
What is the measure of a man? Is it in his handwriting? A person’s life displayed before the discerning reader, as if in a crystal ball. Wade’s short bursts of near-perfect proportionality were written hastily, without error, as if the author, given to spasmodic and obsessive episodes with the pen, always knew where his pen was headed. As if the pen cast a sweeping glance like headlights upon the fibers and terrain it was soon to illuminate. As if the driver of that pen, omniscient and aware of his fate, preferred to follow blindly rather than see his journey.
14 March : CAPITAL — In 1883 a crowd gathered for Karl Marx’s funeral in a London cemetery — a crowd of eleven, counting the undertaker.
The most famous of his sayings became his epitaph: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’
The prophet of global change spent his life fleeing the police and his creditors.
Regarding his masterwork, he said: ‘No one ever wrote so much about money while having so little.’ Capital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked while writing it.’
From Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, trans. by Fried, Mark. Penguin Group, New York, 2013: 85.
One night in 1619, when Rene Descartes was still quite young, he dreamed all night long.
As he told it, in the first dream he was bent over, unable to straighten up, struggling to walk against a fierce wind that propelled him toward school and church.
In the second dream a bolt of lightning knocked him out of bed and the room filled up with sparks that illuminated everything in sight.
And in the third he opened an encyclopedia, looking for a way to live his life, but those pages were missing.
*Trans. by Mark Fried
The book accomplishes a multitude of tasks, some superb, others deplorable; it dispenses knowledge and misery, illuminates and deceives, liberates and manipulates, exalts and humbles, creates or cancels the options of life. Without it, needless to say, no culture would be possible. History would disappear, and our future would be cloaked in dark, sinister clouds. Those who hate books also hate life. No matter how impressive the writings of hatred may be, the printed word for the most part tips the balance toward light and generosity. Don Quixote will always triumph over Mein Kampf. As for the humanities and the sciences, books will continue to be their ideal space, their pillars of support.