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Authors: William Stamp

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BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
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After picking off the toppings—and without having touched the yogurt—she was done. I threw it away, feeling some guilt over the waste of food and money. I reminded myself this was a pittance compared to what I spent on alcohol and tobacco, but for some reason that failed to improve my mood. Neither did the fact that I wasn't the one paying for it. I tracked my tutoring expenses and invoiced the Felkins' accountant at the end of every month.

On the subway, Elly told me about the book she'd been reading. It was called
She wanted to know what the name was for people who studied volcanoes. They were called geologists, I told her, and she said that's what she wanted to be when she grew up.

We emerged from the subway like a couple of Morlocks and turned onto the West Village block where Elly and her family lived. The street had escaped the worst ravages of the Panic, and strolling down it was like walking into the past. On either side, a row of dignified, four story brownstones, inside of which you could see the refined accoutrements of the city's professional class. Not the ostentatious displays of wealth of Liberty Bell looters, but the tasteful displays of culture amassed by doctors, software developers, and lawyers. People with money to spare, but not so much as to make them careless. The sidewalks were wide and well-kept, and they were lined with actual trees. Old elms—all but extinct in the rest of the city—with full, luscious branches, and not the starved toothpicks found everywhere else. This was my dream, and I'd promised myself I'd buy my way into happiness when I made my founder's million.

Even though these people had the safest occupations imaginable, every time Liberty Bell acquired a major corporation “For Sale” signs sprouted like dandelions on a fresh grave. One block over a string of houses had been demolished, replaced by the spare steel frame of a condo building under construction. The rot spread even into my fantasies.

Elly tugged on my hand. “Cliff?”

“Yeah Elly?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”


Deep-thought look. She asked, “When I grow up I want to marry you.”

I laughed. “I thought you were going to marry your dad.”

“Ewwww. No way.”

“You're the one who said it.”

“That's 'cause I was little. I'm older now.”

“You'll have to ask your parents.”

We came to the Felkins' home, another brownstone affair. Inside, I helped Elly put away her shoes. Once they were off she ran to let Skittles, her adolescent Papillon, out of his cage.

Her post-school curriculum was stored on a remotely updated tablet stuck to a velcro pad on the refrigerator amongst assorted emergency telephone numbers—written on paper and held up by magnets—and Elly's numerous drawings of her family (and one of me, a flurry of orange lines and black circles). There was also a digital picture frame, loaded with thousands of images of the Felkins. It had broken, however, shortly after I began tutoring Elly, and was stuck showing a photograph of Ryan and his father from the year before he joined the military. They were standing on a dock and holding fishing poles. His father had on a life jacket; Ryan did not.

I saw this picture five times a week, marveling each time at how cleanly everything had moved on without him. In their lives there was no material difference between the silence following his enlistment and that of his disappearance. Six months after his death Helen had asked if I would like to stay in his room. As a sort adoptive big brother for Elly, I think. I'd turned down the offer without a second thought. It had been too generous, and besides I'd wanted to avoid the inevitable loss of liberty entailed by closer supervision, regardless of whatever promises were or were not made.

Today the Expert's software had arranged exercises in both French and Spanish for Elly, followed by a lesson on Renaissance-era painting and sculpture. Languages were a constant, but the art history was new. I tabbed through the schedule: over the next few weeks we would be studying various artistic movements, diverse in both time and geography. Two days were blocked out for neo-barbaric a-retinal videography. I groaned—I hated “Art,” anything created in the 21
century made my stomach drop.

My last encounter with that peculiar world was when I'd taken a girl to the Liberty Bell Museum of Modern Art to see their featured exhibit: a series of metal pipes oozing soap suds from their tops. It had been called “Puncturing Punctuated Equilibrium,” and was such an immense hit we'd barely been able to push through the entrance hall, packed as it was by a thicket of trendy art students with sketchbooks and charcoal pencils. The sight of them had boggled my mind, since I'd thought the whole point was that the thing had no static form. My date had been unimpressed with my reasoning, and I failed to lure her back to my place. I've never been able to escape my philistine roots.

Elly appeared in the kitchen entryway carrying Skittles's leash. The dog trotted behind her with a stupid, blank look on his face. I grabbed the leash—it was pink—from her and knelt down. The dog bellied towards me, tail wagging, and I lifted him into my lap. When I'd I put it on I patted him on the head and set him down. I grabbed a poop bag as we left.

He peed on the tree closest to the door, walked further down the street, and crapped. Elly congratulated him on a job well done and he barked. The more she told him what a good boy he was, how special he was, the louder and shriller he became. I put my hand into the biodegradable bag and scooped up his gift. American dog culture is absurd. You followed this animal around, fed it, cleaned its messes, until it became so attached to you that it ripped up the carpet when you left. Then you gave it pills. Our society engineered the most efficient affection machine it could, then overdid it. It's a raw deal for the dogs, who live comfortably and from whom nothing is expected except for their unconditional happiness when their owner comes home from work. The attention they lavish on their owners far exceeds what they receive in return (the dog will, after all, eventually die) and they are caught in a vicious cycle of half-requited love. I've never heard of a man who died for his dog. We are the inferior species and deserve only cats.

We took Skittles to a dog park. I let him off his leash and he dashed after Elly. The two played catch-me-if-you-can while I watched from a bench in the shade, next to an athletic black man with a shaved head. He had on dark sunglasses and a tight t-shirt with Japanese characters embroidered in powder-blue. His partner, a tall man with a heavy Eastern European accent, was playing with a Great Dane and calling to “Ray” every few minutes. Ray looked familiar, and when they left a few minutes later I overheard a two women whispering about it while two dachshunds chased one another around their feet: he was a famous musician. His significant other was a basketball player.

Once Elly and Skittles slowed down I called them over so we could all head home. Skittles laid down and refused to budge once we left the park. I carried him until we hit the Felkin's block, where he squirmed loose and ran to their door. He barked at us until Elly let him in.

She went to get him a treat and I pulled up the lesson on her tablet. We sat at the dining room table. The set had been hand-crafted by some woman squatting in a warehouse upstate. I didn't see what made her furniture so great, but it had cost more than what I made in a year. Honest Abe had scooped her for sedition not long after the Felkins bought it, and it had surely appreciated in value several times over since then.

Skittles settled under Elly's chair, just beneath the arc of her swinging legs.

“Ready for some language exercises?” I asked.


“French or Spanish?”

“Spanish.” I set the tablet flat on the table and we listened to the software-curated conversations. Each exercise consisted of a piece of audio and an incomplete transcription, which Elly filled in. She never saw whether her answers were correct; in the new pedagogy an algorithm judged her proficiency after each question and adjusted the next one to be in line with her ability. It was supposed to improve her language skills at a constant, incremental rate without causing her any stress.

“Exercise one-hundred and forty-seven,” the tablet said.

Elly readied her stylus. A toneless, feminine voice read the paragraph, paused for five seconds, then read it again. Elly began to write, but didn't finish before the next exercise began, and the screen changed while she was in the middle of writing a word. She might not know if her transcriptions were correct, but she did know she was missing over half the questions because she didn't have enough time.

“I hate this,” she said.

“I know, but there are only two left.”

“My hand hurts.”

“How about you tell me what to write and I'll do it for you.”

Her Spanish was quite good—vestiges of being raised by a Dominican nanny until she was five—but I couldn't write as quickly as she spoke, and I was equally unable to complete the exercise before the screen changed.

“Good job,” I said when the next exercise ended and the screen went blank. “Let's move on to French.”

“Don't be a slave driver,” she whined.

“What do you propose?”

“Snack break?” she asked, her eyes as wide and innocent as she could muster.

“Fine. What do you want?”

“Hmmm.” Deep-thought. “Milk and cookies?”

“What flavor?”


When I was a kid, milk and cookies meant a glass of milk and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, but Helen didn't allow milk into her house. She'd read that humans evolved to digest milk while they were infants only, and drinking it beyond that retarded their growth due to calcium saturation. So she bought soy milk and—because of another article—cookies made from bran and rye, studded with chunks of minimally processed cocoa. When they're fresh, biting into them is like biting into a sponge. They don't have any preservatives, and after a day it's like trying to eat marble. Elly circumvented this problem by soaking them in the soy milk. The concoction had the taste and consistency of wet paper mache, but she loved it. Strong evidence that you can teach 'em anything if you get 'em when they're young.

When she finished her snack we went through the French exercises. I didn't know more than ten words in the language and neither did she. Towards the end she was filling in the first couple of blanks, then staring me down until the timer ran out. I took the stylus from her and completed the remaining exercises to the best of my ability.

Next: the art. The software brought up an album of Renaissance paintings and sculptures. There was no timer and we could scroll through the images at will, but they weren't labeled or annotated in any way. I wasn't sure what it had in mind for us to learn, but assumed it was trying to lay the foundation for Elly's inevitable backpacking trip across Europe. She asked me what each work was called and what it was about. I recognized a few, and made up names and histories for the rest.

When we were on the final painting Elly thumbed the bottom corner of the screen, which summoned a column of text with the name of the painter (Titian), the title of the work (Assumption of the Virgin), the year it was completed (1518), and two paragraphs of information providing historical context.

“Do you want to go back and look through them again?” I asked.

“It's fine,” she said. “You already told me the most important stuff.”

At six, Helen called to say she wouldn't be home until eight at the earliest, and wondered if I wouldn't mind watching Elly until she did. Robert, her husband, was in California visiting his sister. Her daughter, his niece, was graduating from UC Berkeley.

“It's not a problem,” I said.

“Thank you so much, Cliff. I don't know what we'd do without you.”

“Um... what should we do for dinner?” Elly grinned from ear to ear when she those words. The outcome was inevitable.

“What does Elly want?”

“Ells Bells. Your mother is asking what you want for dinner,” I said, cupping the phone with my hand.

“Pizza!” Her parents, or rather Helen, watched her diet carefully, emphasizing produce and fish. But when Helen left Elly with me for an extended period the suspicion that she was being a bad mother and the ensuing guilt caused her to loosen her grip, and she allowed her daughter to eat whatever she wanted. Nine times out of ten this meant pizza, specifically pizza with pepperoni and green olives, which just so happened to be my favorite as well. Six months ago the two of us went to the Met and afterwards I let her have a piece as a secret treat. It had been her go-to food ever since.

“She wants pizza.”

“Of course she does. Why do I even ask?”

“I have no idea.”

“Oh, and one more thing. Could you water the plants in my office?”

“Of course.”

“Bye Cliff.”

“Bye Helen.” I put away my phone. “Do you want to get the pizza delivered or go out?”

“Can we go to Pi?”

“Sure thing.”

Helen's office was a mess. Her desk was strewn with stacks of unorganized papers, and three enormous monitors stuck out like half-buried desert relics. Pink and yellow post-it notes were plastered everywhere. Her degree from Princeton hung prominently on the wall, flanked by an MFA from Iowa and the first cover of her magazine, featuring the novelist William Stamp in his final interview before his tragic and untimely death in Chicago.

An old-fashioned picture frame on her desk held a photograph of Helen as a young mother, holding a baby Ryan and looking gorgeous and determined, ready to take on the world. I'd seen the picture the first time I visited the house. My own mother had also succumbed to that event in Chicago and, not feeling up to seeing my father and sister, I'd been preparing to spend a lonely Thanksgiving in New York. When I told Ryan my holiday plans he insisted I have dinner with his family. I'd teased him afterwards about how hot his mom used to be.

I watered the plants—a few hypoallergenic ferns—and closed the door behind me. Skittles was playing with Elly in the kitchen, staying out of reach as she tried to grab him to put him away. After helping her and getting nowhere, I bribed him into my arms with a piece of Brie pilfered from the fridge. I put him in his cage, and he hadn't quit barking by the time we left the house.

BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
10.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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