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Authors: William Stamp

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BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
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“So where'd it go? Are you telling me you lost it all? Not a dime remains?”

The condo he'd lost to the city—his building had been on the new waterline, and the day after construction on the pumps started he'd mailed his keys to the bank and moved uptown. He claimed he had other assets still, plenty of them. Worth more than what I'd make in a lifetime, he assured me. There were liquidity issues though—real estate developments delayed by red tape, international accounts frozen by capital controls, promissory notes from Liberty Bell for the stocks of companies they'd placed in receivership, redeemable at an unspecified point in the future. “They're worse than the Mafia. With them, you get in good with one guy and everything's golden. But Liberty Bell and the government have so many goddamn committees and subcommittees. I'll be sucking dick for twenty years.”

“How terrible,” I said, not really caring. Four years without seeing him, and an hour in I was already cursing my younger self's careless promises.

“You think I'd crash out here in the boonies if I had any money? Come on Cliff, I thought you were supposed to be smart.” He grinned. It conveyed its own message:
yeah I said that. What you gonna do? Like I give a shit
.

“I'm joking man,” he said. “You on your period?” I shrugged and, not getting whatever reaction he was seeking, he shifted gears. “How about you. What've you been up to?”

“I have a gig with this family in Manhattan. I tutor their daughter.” I left out the fact that she was the sister of a former classmate and friend of ours, now deceased.

“What do her parents do?” he asked.

“The mom's the executive editor of
Le Flaneur
. You know, the snooty culture website? The dad's a partner at some white shoe law firm.”

“Which one?”

I told him.

“Never heard of it. What's his specialty?”

“He crafts appeals to block eminent domain seizures.”

“That's hopeless.”

“It's been years since they won a case.”

“But if he can delay the execution by a year... that's a lot of money. And this dope trusts you to teach his precious starflower how to read? Shit, I bet I could do a better job, but it wouldn't be worth the opportunity cost. Wait, I know.” He banged on the table. “You're her mom's plaything. I'd fuck her better too,” he winked.

“Can we get the check?” I waved my card at the waitress, who was still on her phone. She punched our order into the computer and brought over a paper receipt. It was part of the place's quaint charm.

James snatched it away from me. “Shit, they're charging this for that?” he said, gesturing at his plate. “Why go somewhere that rips you off so hard?”

I left a generous tip, to piss him off.

“Yo Cliff. She was awful. Maybe the worst service I ever had.” He didn't bother to keep his voice down, and she openly glared at him. “Whatever. If you want to waste your money, it's none of my business.”

I stopped at the bodega on the corner to buy a pouch of loose tobacco and some rolling papers. James asked if I could also get a six-pack and ice cream. He didn't have the money and needed me to spot him.

“Pay you back next week. I promise.”

“Yeah, right,” I said, but nodded at the cashier to ring them up. Outside, I offered to roll him a cigarette.

“Fuck no, man. Those things kill you.”

“Not like your snack. Right fatty?” I joked, slapping his belly.

“I've gone to shit. I know.” He slumped his shoulders and stared at his feet. His shoes were a ragged pair of sneakers, once neon. I recognized the designer; he was dead, and if the shoes had been in better shape they would have been worth quite a bit. He had not, I realized, come straight to me after being thrown to the curb, but had in all likelihood bounced around for some time, staying with friends or former lovers until he wore out his welcome which, his personality being what it was, wouldn't have taken long. Despite everything about him that screamed douchebag, despite his lack of a single excuse for sympathy or pity, I wished I could offer him more than a couch to sleep on and a busted old tablet on which to check his mail.

“Hey James,” I said.

“What?”

“You remember Freshmen year, when you lost that girl's notes? For Calculus, right?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Well,” I sidled away from him, just out of reach. “I threw them away. Because I had a crush on her and then you two hooked up.”

“You weasely piece of shit.”

“Just thought you should know.”

He pounced at me and swung wide, nicking the top of my shoulder. His heart wasn't behind it though, and I hardly felt the punch.

“Christ. If you liked her why not tell me?”

“Would it've stopped you?” I asked.

“Of course. I'm not into that petty shit.”

Back in the apartment, he settled on the couch and opened a beer and his ice cream. The complimentary wooden spoon broke on the first scoop, and when he tried to use it sans handle I offered to get a real one from the kitchen.

“While you're up, can you throw these in the fridge?” he asked, tossing me the remaining beers. “You can have one if you want.”

“How generous of you, but I've gotta pick up Elly.”

“Huh?”

“The girl I tutor. School's over soon.”

“So she goes to school all day? And you tutor her?”

“Yeah.”

“And you make enough from that to survive?”

“Right.”

“Including rent?”

“Well, rent's not an issue.”

“Yeah?”

“It's complicated.”

“No it's not. You're a charity case,” he said.

“Look, just don't trash the house while I'm gone. No parties.”

I texted Dimitri to warn him James was staying with us, and that I'd explain later. There were enough mutual grievances between them to spark an intergenerational blood feud. However, I was sure I could smooth things over, or at least buy James the few weeks he needed to get back on his feet.

I lit another cigarette and bounced off towards the subway to shield my young charge from a fallen world.

Le Flaneur

 

Cacophony on Wall Street

by Zoe Gomez

 

On the corner of Wall St. and Water, on a recent Tuesday, I met with Frederick Williams, New York City's Assistant Director of Watershed and Pump Infrastructure. Wearing the ill-fitting, charcoal suit civil servants are buried in, and a button on his lapel reading “What Pumps Up Must Pump Down,” he offered me a seat on the bench on which he was sitting.

At least, that's what I think he was doing, as I couldn't hear him over the incessant locomotion of the pumps lining Manhattan's southern tip. Frederick Williams is responsible for keeping them working, and they are responsible for keeping a julienned slice of New York—from the Brooklyn Bridge to Battery Park—above water and preventing a repeat of the summer of Southern Revenge, when the Hurricane triplets Davis, Jackson, and Lee caused New York to become Atlantis's half-sister for the better part of a decade.

The pumps are an architectural and engineering marvel. Working in concert, they displace roughly one-hundred and eighty trillion gallons of water every day (for comparison Lake Erie, the smallest of the great lakes, contains one-hundred twenty-five trillion gallons of water total). Standing at heights varying from several dozen stories to over a hundred, any tourist who's taken a scenic boat ride cannot help but be struck at how closely these metallic obelisks resemble some sort of space age Stonehenge, built this time in honor of the gods of global climate change.

Williams and I relocate to “Voyage à Versailles” a properly stuffy cafe across the park from City Hall. He tells me how, as a boy, he assembled a steam-powered pellet gun built with parts from his father's 3D printer so he could terrorize his older brother's emotional-security alpaca...

 

...

2. The Introduction of Elly

 

Elly, my pupil, was the younger sister of Ryan, a college friend and roommate who had failed out during the first semester of our senior year and joined the military rather than face down his father's wrath. He'd had a brief, illustrious career as an Army private before his helicopter was shot down in Oaxaca and he was captured. The insurgents held him for a year before bequeathing on him a grisly, on-camera execution. A casualty in Operation Empire for Liberty, the only one I'd ever known. And if the person who shot that RPG hadn't been as good a marksman (or woman), who knows what would've happened to me?

While Ryan was a living, breathing, captive his parents shuttled back and forth from Washington, D.C. twice a week to talk with lawyers, military officials, and more lawyers. His mother, Helen, tracked me down through one of his ancient social media profiles, called an office I'd interned at years ago, and from there pieced together a bread crumb trail leading her to the drug store where I worked as an assistant manager for the night shift. She approached me out of the blue late one evening and asked if I'd like to pick up some extra work babysitting. One thing led to another: the drug store's parent company went bankrupt in an ill-conceived student debt investment scheme, Elly's therapist deemed our socialization “therapeutic,” and by the time James reappeared in my life like an outbreak of herpes I'd completed my professional transition from retail to education.

I retrieved Elly from her Montessori-style school Monday through Friday. We'd get a snack then ride the subway home, where we tended to a strict curriculum designed to fill the gaps in her self-directed education. It was calibrated to her needs by a piece of proprietary software designed by the institution's headmistress, a child psychologist who peddled her snake oil to overzealous mothers during her numerous interviews on snobby culture sites. She was a personal friend of Helen's. I referred to her as “the Expert,” which cracked Elly up and made Helen smile and tell me to stop.

James's arrival had caused me to miss my usual train, and I was thirty minutes later than normal picking Elly up. She was sitting on the fanned stairs leading up to the school, her yellow bumblebee backpack tucked between her legs and her face obscured by curly black hair. Whatever she was reading on her tablet absorbed her completely, and she didn't notice me walk up.

The Expert was with her. When she saw me her face wrinkled as if I were preceded by a peasant stench. I think my existence offended her world view, as I scored zero of three for a nanny's proper race, gender, and primary language. I understood her feelings, if not her logic, as I returned every quanta of disgust in equal measure. Her frizzy gray hair, the black glasses with thin frames, the demure scarves, the Yin-Yang earrings: she had every progressive affectation, but she favored her newfangled ideas only for the authority they allowed her to wield over others, disguised all the while as being for the good of the children. She was an evolutionary triumph: a child-loathing, emotionally repressed schoolteacher adapted to an environment overpopulated by indulgent parents with guilty consciences and money to burn.

Her message was simple. Ignore me at your peril. Will those new cars you bought with the money saved by sending your child to a cheaper school seem worth it when she ends up at a state university?

“Hi Ells Bells,” I said. When she saw me she squealed, then ran down the stairs to give me a hug.

“Hello, Mr. Mukavetz,” the Expert said. Elly had left her backpack on the stairs and rushed back to get it.

“Hiya.”

“You're late.”

“I'm here now. Ma'am.”

“Elizabeth's education shouldn't suffer for your immaturity.” Elly stopped halfway down the stairs, looking at each of us in turn.

“Maybe we'll skip the ice cream. Hit the books straightaway,” I said, in my best attempt at biting my tongue. I wanted to tell her to shove it, I wasn't a member of her cult and half an hour wasted wouldn't elicit a lifetime ban from the ivies for this eight year old.

“What? Why?” Elly whined. She twisted up her face to cry, an attempt at manipulation requiring a level of chutzpah only a child could muster. I winked at her and she giggled.

“Very funny, Mr. Mukavetz. But being professional doesn't make you a monster.”

“Of course, Ma'am. We need to get going before Elly's education suffers any further. Say goodbye to your teacher.”

“Ms. Felkins will hear about this.”

We departed beneath the Expert's x-ray stare. Elly held my hand as we crossed the street; the city's a dangerous place. She chose for her afterschool treat, as always, Orange Orange, a frozen yogurt joint decorated with disorienting neon swirls that made me feel like I was trapped inside a psychedelic barber's pole. Elly liked it because her mother liked it and her mother liked it because they used zero calorie artificial sweeteners in everything. It was gross and probably carcinogenic, but who was I to interfere with a child's adoration of her parents?

The cashier greeted us with a familiar “hello.” Elly ordered a small cup with dehydrated blueberries and strawberries. I had water.

We sat at a bright red table with neon green chairs.

“Is the Expert mad at you?” Elly asked.

“You shouldn't call her that.”

“But you do.”

“Yeah, but she's not my teacher. No, she's not mad at me. She's just... she's concerned about your future. The Expert is much more responsible than me.”

Elly scowled as she considered this. Her mother called it her deep-thought look. A blueberry rolled down the frozen yogurt and caught on the cup's lip. She took it between her fingers and plopped it into her mouth. Then she asked, “What's responsible mean?”

“Mmm. It means... Well you see, a responsible person does what they're supposed to. They follow the rules—like your parents. An irresponsible person doesn't. So when I was late today I was breaking the rules. Instead of being responsible I was irresponsible.”

“So when Skittles pees on the rug he's being eeerie-sponsible?”

“Exactly.”

We continued this game while she ate. She'd ask what a word meant, I'd tell her, and she'd have to come up with an example. We went through “daring,” “tome,” and “slave driver,” in reference to the Expert. If I was lucky she might remember one; she'd asked about daring at least once before. But you had to start somewhere, even if it wasn't on the Expert's curriculum.

BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
12.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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