The cab driver wouldn’t drop her where she’d asked to go. Not so proper a lady, and not at this time of night. When she addressed the matter in his native Marathi, however, and pulled from her wallet a bill that she folded into a crude jet shape and flew through the window of their Plexiglas partition, his concern for her safety began to soften. Her destination, she’d told him, wasn’t a specific place. Rather, it was a specific kind of place: “I want to go where there’s blood on the sidewalks.” Eventually, after refusal and acquiescence and then an extended period of quiet protest in which he seemingly sought every stop sign and red light that might delay his delivery of her, the driver deposited Veena at the dark east end of Marathon Street.
She walked for twenty minutes, chic in a designer blouse and crop pants—clothing delivered to her in a monthly fashion box whose subscription service really was that rare example of invaluable Western excess. Down alleys and the spaces between shuttered shops that were too narrow even to be called alleys, Veena walked, until she stumbled upon the kind of scene she’d imagined.
When she saw the boy, she stopped. Veena, hidden in the dark space between street lamps. He, advancing and retreating in the buzz of those lamps’ glow, in and out of the lighted arc at the base of a tenement’s porch steps, unaware of her, comporting himself with a carriage of approximated confidence.
That he was unimpressive was her first thought, cagy in a way that belied something more fundamental than youth, though he was certainly young. It was security that he projected. Station, even. The unconscious tell of one who has something to lose. Affluent boys certainly didn’t risk their futures by peddling on after-hours streets, but in the toughness he affected to hide his fear, he told the truth of this rich country: that even the lowest rung of this society’s ladder was insulated with rights and protections. In her career, Veena had witnessed genuine poverty. She’d seen boys younger than this one, hard-eyed and motivated to risk machine gun fire by the base understanding that to not do so was to guarantee survival as impossible. Young traffickers she’d known in Morocco, to name only one case, moving drugs and electronics and dish soap with a fatal risk in every transaction, the gallantry of each tiny hand extended for payment, their actual lives endangered sale by sale.
On the sidewalk, the boy attracted a client. Veena studied the tautness between them as the client approached, the way they played in unison against that tension like practiced hands on musical strings. It was genuinely artful, their seconds-long transaction. When it was done, the boy followed the client into the lamplight, a single step forward like some wife in a long-ago sitcom advancing to the doorframe that was her world’s terminus to wave off her husband on his daily journey into whatever lay beyond.
From her wallet, Veena pulled a twenty, crumpled it into her palm then hung that loaded hand at the end of an arm, casual and discreet. She managed a single step forward before drawing the boy’s attention. She halted. What was it Bachman had called her? A professional voyeur? Well, yes, now that she found herself so hesitant to approach this boy, she supposed she would have to allow him that. She’d spent her life in proximity to dangerous characters, far more so than this American teenager. But only ever as a witness, passive as a window curtain. She felt the sinking doubt of a sports writer who was suddenly passed the ball, a supposed expert now charged with demonstrating their purported authority. For all the decades she’d spent interpreting the lives of others, she felt the unexpected panic of having no agency in her own.
“What’re you doing down there, skulking?” called the boy’s husky voice.
It was expectation that hurried her toward him, a kind of performative response to his scrutiny that might just as likely have led her to turn and run the way she’d come. In a few steps, the bill fell from her palm. She stooped, retrieved it, palmed it again, and continued forward. Sidewalk and cork heels met to steadily applaud her coming failure. After all her imaginings of this moment, she’d come to see too late that she wasn’t equipped to handle it. It should have been obvious, foolish woman. She’d never purchased drugs in her life, after all, and hadn’t been high in ages. Not since Yemen, where her mornings were spent with female contacts as they cultivated Celastraceae leaves, joining in with them in the afternoons as they sat in a semi-circle chewing the qat that resulted from their labors. This was the subject of her fourth and most successful book, popular because it was misunderstood as a cock-eyes feminist manifesto rather than the sober ethnography she intended it to be, focusing as it did on these women’s forced entry into the once exclusive male hallucinatory ritual.
“I don’t know what you think you doing with that,” the boy said as she shuttered to a stop, his eyes indicating the hand that held the twenty. He was handsome close up, dark skin and a broad beautiful mouth and eyes that tipped down toward his nose. They were eyes built for crying, she thought in the floral prose she’d perfected over thirty years of writing, weighted down at the points of their large tear ducts as if overfull and desperate to spill, eyes that were wasted on a face that aspired to be as hardened as this boy’s face aspired to be.
“I,” Veena began.
“You need to keep walking, lady.” He stood for a moment, peacocking, then stepped away from her, up onto the lowest porch step, seeking authority through height and shadow. Instead, the motion affect retreat, a reminder to Veena that he was merely a child and that she was not as ineffectual as her doubts would have her believe. Those doubts that had overwhelmed her in waves since Bachman’s broadcast, her public excoriation.
“Here, now,” she said, raising her hand to indicate her intent to buy. “Just give me what I came for.”
He’d started into a fretful pacing on the dark step. “And what was it exactly that you come for?”
This she didn’t know. She’d come for whatever it was that broken people used these days to anesthetize that part of themselves that whispered failures and regrets. “Let’s just do this,” she said by way of deflection. She took a step forward and the boy stopped his pacing, freezing in a broad-legged stance as if prepared to tackle her should she continue to advance.
“Who you buying for, coming here dressed like that?”
“That’s none of you concern,” Veena said.
“Bullshit,” the boy said, incongruously. He stepped down to the sidewalk and stood very near her, bending and then raising his body to make a show of looking her over. “What you want it for?” He pronounced this last word as ‘foe,’ one of a million graceful dialectical subversions that Veena had come to appreciate in the languages of the world’s impoverished people, the economy of communication, as she’d come the think of it.
She stared at him for some long seconds, meaningfully, into his tilted eyes. Finally, she said, “I want to die.”
Those lovely eyes widened, narrowed. “You want to,” he began, then completed the thought with a puff of breath blown indignantly toward her. “I ain’t trying to help no old lady off herself. I don’t want to be an accessory to none of that. You go and get your misguided ass on out of here, grandma.”
“My money,” Veena said with an immediate desperation in her voice, “is as good as anyone’s.” She raised the twenty to him and the boy reached and cupped her hand and pushed it away. She pulled her arm back and then threw the bill at him, hitting him in the space between his nose and lips, just as a siren from the street blurted a single bleat and a spotlight flashed on to illuminate the ball of cash as it arced down to land on the sidewalk between them.
The boy didn’t freeze or jump with alarm. He simply fled in steady, determined strides, long gone around a distant corner by the time the female officer joined Veena on the sidewalk.
Solicitation. Only a crime because of that damned crumpled twenty. A woman of Veena’s standing could fight it, of course, presuming she could rally her instinct for self-preservation.
In the backseat of the squad car, she rested her cheek on the upholstery and closed her eyes. Grandma, the boy had called her.
A few years prior, when she was still respected in her field, long before Bachman publically tied her to war crimes, an ethnomusicological colleague had told her this: Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were specifically responsible for redefining age in the Western world. According to his theory, when Veena was twenty, forty became the new thirty. At thirty, she was thirty, but continued to be until after she turned forty. Now that she was sixty, the rockers had made eighty the new sixty, which meant by simple extrapolation that she was forty again and therefore too young to be a grandma and so that little punk could just go fuck himself.
“Veena, I trust you won’t think me out of line for pointing out your good fortunate that I didn’t pass this off as a joke. I mean, my god, what are you playing at?”
“Give it a rest, Oscar,” Veena said, taking possession of her wallet and hotel room key from the intake officer. “And before you get the itch to judge me—remember, I once saw you drink whiskey from an athletic cup.”
Upon being processed and delivered to a dented, old-fashioned wall phone, it had occurred to Veena that, without her mobile’s address book, she knew the number of not a single contact she’d made in the digital age. So, with only the truncated hesitation that her circumstance allowed, she reluctantly dialed a number from her past and waited in Holding for Oscar to arrive.
He owed her this anyway, she reasoned. In 1979, when they were graduate students, Veena had loaned him $300 that had never been repaid. Later, it had been Oscar who introduced her to Charles Sayer, whom Veena ultimately married, leading him to the erroneous belief that they were square. Factoring the debt now, with forty years of interest, and the steep penalty she applied for her eventual messy divorce from Charles, Veena estimated that what Oscar owed her was well above the trifle the city was asking for her bail.
When they were on the sidewalk in front of the Market Street police station, he insisted they share a cab and, once in the cab, that she accompany him to a basement bar called The Midnight Room. It was, after all, “the only island of light in this god-forsaken neighborhood you’ve forced me to come to.” She accepted his invitation, and allowed him to further chip away at his long-standing debt, one firefly and water at a time.
Oscar had gotten old and fat and tenure had rendered him pompous. It took two amber ales to soften his professorial bluster to a point where she felt capable of communicating with him. “Forgive me for being dense,” he said, “but how is it that a woman of your…renown…gets arrested for solicitation? I’m assuming my concern is justified?”
“It’s complicated, Oscar. How’s Beth?”
“Happy. Happy and single. We divorced two years ago. I’m with Anne now.”
“Oh,” Veena said with a superficial smile, “Anne. Let me guess: red-headed.”
“Yes!” Oscar cheered.
“And I’m inclined to say twenty-three, but time has passed, and I have to give you some credit for maturation, so I’m going to go with—twenty-six?”
Oscar slapped a hand on the table. “Twenty-seven! Twenty-eight this fall. My god, Veena, it should have been you.”
“Yes, if I were the age I was when we met and you were your age now.”
Veena raised her glass to him in ironic salute.
“Let’s not fool ourselves,” Oscar said, “you wouldn’t have had me then. I wouldn’t have been a proper fit for such an exotic beauty.”
“You were no prize,” Veena agreed.
“Yes, well, time has a way of changing perspective on these things—for one of us, at least,” he said with good-natured deference. “So, tell me, Vee: what brings you to the slums of New Jersey?”
Veena thought for a moment, drawing diamonds in the sweat that had formed on the side of her glass. “I came to end my life,” she said.
With a closed mouth, Oscar emitted a deep, slow, satisfied chuckle that grew into a full-bodied laugh. He reared back against the faux-leather that covered the booth seat and knuckled tears from him eyes. “Oh, dear, dear, Veena! Newark is no place to die! Live, yes. Get lost, certainly. But die here and this city will step on you and,” he searched the air for an end to this analogy, “not even wipe you from the tread of its shoe.” He took a long drink from his amber ale then replaced the mug on its coaster and continued to stare into it. With a somberness that read to her as performative, he then asked the question she’d expected since he’d arrived to collect her: “This is a reaction to Bachman?”
She shrugged, enacting a performance of her own. “Haven’t you heard? Lately, I only exist in relation to Bachman.”
“To be honest with you, it left me torn.” Quickly, he looked up and met her gaze and clarified, “Oh, no! Not about you. His accusations are absurd. Bachman is a propogandist, an opportunist. I only meant that I was torn that a man like Bachman—a muckraker for whom, it needn’t be said, I have no respect—was actually educating his viewers on Orientalism. In prime time, no less. Of course, he quoted Said nearly word for word, but that’s splitting hairs.”
“Not a fan of Said?” Veena asked to shift the focus from herself, then prepared for an amateur lecture from a psychology prof on the subject of her expertise.
“Oh, good heavens, girl! His theories were interesting thirty years ago, but too much has changed since then. We’re a more sophisticated and enlightened people than in Said’s day, and the impetus of his arguments have become outmoded. Still, I feel it’s appropriate to recognize Bachman for the effort, such as it was.”
“I have no issue with Bachman,” she said soberly.
“Well, you should!” Oscar bellowed. “He’s a slanderous pig! The way he used his narrow logic to implicate you, to attack your reputation—you should sue for defamation of character! Not that anyone gives credence to the opinions of that rightwing whore. Forgive me,” he added for this slur.
Veena finished the last swallow of her Firefly then considered the pale, reflected stars of light in their tabletop.“Remind me, Oscar,” she said, finally, “how did you pay for your doctoral studies?”
Oscar bristled as if offended by the personal nature of this question, but was too proud of his élite stock to refuse an answer. “Well, it was paid outright. You know that. I had the good fortune of coming from a family who could afford the investment in my future.”
“Yes,” Veena said. “And do you know how I paid for mine? With a grant. And do you know who offered me a grant in the nineteen-seventies to study Middle Eastern anthropology? A charity called the Strasberg Trust. And who would you guess funded the Strasberg Trust? Texaco. Naturally.” She paused before summarizing her point: “One of the biggest oil companies in the world paid for me to become an expert in the most oil-rich region on Earth.”
“I fail to see the relevance,” Oscar said.
“What do you think they were they making an investment in?” she continued. “I knew it, even back then. But because I knew, I felt that they couldn’t get me. That they couldn’t have me. I thought that I wasn’t really in bed with them because I saw what they were after and I thought I was working against it. All these years, I thought I was doing good work, Oscar. I let myself believe that I was making my own agenda, that I wasn’t party to any political games. I didn’t let myself see it. But the truth that even a shill like Bachman could see, is that all I’ve done for all my life is to help oil interests plan which regions to exploit and which regions to avoid, which governments to overthrow.”
“Nonsense!” Oscar said with a dismissive toss of his hand. “You make it sound as if you had no agency. You made choices, and those choices brought you success in your field. You did good work that was within the rigors of your discipline. Your scholarship was misused by the neocons. So, what? So have hundreds of other scholars. Piss on them! It doesn’t make you complicit. No matter what the Bachmans say.”
“The death toll is estimated to be in the thousands,” Veena said. “And those are only the official numbers. It could be in the many tens of thousands.”
“The American government does what it does, and it would have found justification whether you’d written those papers or not. We depose leaders with anti-capitalist agendas. We partner with violent regimes willing to foment military coups. You need me to tell you this? We chase oil like a horny frat boy chases tail. And the decisions we make in that chase are equally poor and the outcomes, equally regrettable. It’s been our way since time out of mind, and I don’t see any reason to place that burden on your shoulders. Period, end of story.” He lifted his tumbler to his lips and waited as the dregs ran toward them.
Three years earlier, Veena had spent six weeks travelling with a small band of revolutionaries who became the subject of three essays published in the journal, American Anthropologist. They were powerless when she’d known them, too small to pick the fight they so desperately wanted. Twenty-four months after she published, however, the group was at the forefront of an uprising—armed and aided, it was speculated, by first world actors. After a protracted struggle, the dissidents seized control of their government, and Veena’s writing found its way into a dossier on the desk of the American president, one that ultimately informed his decision to strike them militarily. Certainly, the American government had eyes on this group long before her scholarship, but if their name was known to any U.S. citizen outside the DOD, DHS, or CIA, it was likely because of Veena.
She realized during a pause in their conversation that her body was starting to numb. The Fireflies had begun their work on her fingers and toes.
Oscar raised his hand to signal a passing waitress. “Two more, my dear. We are past due.” The waitress nodded. There was a muffled tone from under the table and Oscar responded by pulling a mobile phone from his pocket. “Anne,” he chuckled, before hunting and pecking a message on the phone’s flat screen. The modern look of the device made his fingers seem particularly old and imprecise.
“You’re texting now,” Veena said.
With his attention still on the phone, Oscar said, “I’m a modern man, Vee. We must move with the times lest we be buried by them.” The final words of this response were drawn out, as he reread his composition. “She wants to know when I’ll be home. Misses me,” he mused.
“Isn’t that sweet. Afraid of the dark?”
“Infatuated. I’m a hard habit to overcome.”
“The ever-increasing legion of ex-Mrs. Boses might suggest otherwise.”
“Extraordinary women, all. Your logic is unfounded.” The waitress replaced their dead glasses with fresh drinks. With an appraising smile at the look she’d intended as aloof, Oscar said, “So, you came to New Jersey to die, but instead you fumble a drug buy and get arrested. It doesn’t take a man of my paygrade to see that as a cry for help.”
“I didn’t plan to get arrested, Oscar. I meant to pull it off.”
“Consciously, of course you did. But let’s imagine that stunning brain of yours quietly arranging these events with your well-being as its primary concern. Let’s consider that it knew precisely what it was doing. Perhaps even to the point of being saved by an old friend in the city where you first met him.”
She couldn’t be sure, not in her current state, but Veena believed she saw a flicker of desire in Oscar’s eyes. “I think you’re wrong,” Veena said. “After all, it’s getting to be time you went home to tuck in your wife. Then I’ll be alone again. There’s plenty more trouble I can get myself into.”
But, after Oscar finished his drink and grudgingly left her, the most harm she did herself that night was a half-finished Tom Collins taken alone at some other bar, followed by a drunken patrolling of empty streets in shoes that were ill-fashioned for walking.
Sometime before dawn, Veena found herself in front of her hotel, stranded just outside the reach of the light that leaked from its glass lobby doors. Entering would mean accepting defeat. She’d begun this day expecting that it would bring her to an end. Something common and cheap to undo the decades of respect and professional accolades that she’d accepted but maybe never deserved, a scandal bound in a blood red ribbon with a tag that read, ‘To Perry Bachman.’ Bachman was an idiot. But so to was Oscar. What she knew, in those final hours before dawn, was that somewhere in her past Veena had sneezed and incited a hurricane that now enveloped her from half a world away. Each of these idiot men judged her differently for this, and it might be that one was as wrong as the other. Maybe she was simply fallible and rightly sad for having inflicted the pain of her own imperfection on anyone anywhere. Or, perhaps, she was a monster. One who’d correctly awoken to see the danger she posed, but who’d predictably fucked up the resolution she’d intended. It seemed reasonable to think that this feeling might pass, but also that it possibly never would. She took a single step toward that lobby door, her shoes hooked on two fingers like some girl in the movies, confused and looking forward to sleep. But looking forward, at least.
M.C. Schmidt is the author of two novels. His recent short fiction has appeared in Spectrum Literary Journal, BULL, Litro Online, Every Day Fiction, and Abstract Magazine, among other publications.