The Great Zero
All this—the dust, the tarantulas, the deaths—had not come naturally. “We’ve used the land wrong,” I once heard a farmer say while I spied on my father and his Communist friends.
A farmer stood in the center of a field that was really no field at all with his hands in his pockets. Close to him lay a bawling cow half covered in dust. It had no muscles, no fat. The noises it made were abnormal, sort of muffled and pinched, as if scores of insects were crawling across the sound. We had left the Ford at the edge of the road, two wheels inching off into the dirt, the car’s original metallic gloss long blasted to a scratched and cloudy rust. The car didn’t seem to fit and didn’t seem to belong, certainly not in a desert, and my father had often lamented his purchase and cursed the man from whom he had indirectly purchased it: Henry Ford, the capitalist. My mother had said that she thought that however horrific a man he might be, he certainly made a car good enough for my father to drive every day. She said it hoping to get a rise out of him, but failed, as she inevitably did, for he had by that point stopped even listening to her. She would just leave us, retreat into the tiny bedroom, and lie quietly on the bent, sunken mattress in her blotched dress, her throat heaving heavily in the heat. We could hear it through the thin walls.
The farmer did not see us at first as we walked toward him. The cow had stopped moving. My father stopped too. “Look there,” he said.
“What,” I said.
“It’s a waste. He should’ve called me earlier. It’s too late. I can see what’s happened already. See there? The thing can’t even stand up. Starvation. Maybe encephalopathy. It’s finished. But he still thinks it might survive. So. Our job now isn’t to save it. Our job is to let him know the truth about it. I’m sure the stomachs, everything, they’re all filled up with dust. The lining’ll be dried out, worthless. The spiders are probably already at it. But we’ll let him know. Okay?”
“I told you I don’t want any ‘all right.’”
“I mean ‘yes.’ Yes.”
“Why will we tell him?”
“Because he’s a … pro-le, pro-la …”
“Proletarian. The government’s already lied to him enough. We can’t add to it. When we get closer, look at his fingernails. That’s how you’ll tell a worker. Remember, not everybody has had the chances you and I have had.”
My father rubbed his eyes. The morning dust had stopped blowing, but some still floated around in the air.
“Look at his clothes too,” he said. “Look at him. He is praying to his god.”
“Because he never heard anything else. It isn’t his fault; he just needs to be taught. Take a lesson from this. Watch everything, now.”
“Okay,” I said. And I tried, like he said, to watch everything. But it was hard. I wanted to tell him it was hard, but I was young, and he wouldn’t tolerate arguing.
We moved closer until the farmer finally looked up. My father strolled through the dust and shook the man’s hand, displaying no inkling of the unfortunate events that had brought him there. I looked at the farmer’s fingernails: they were black in the center, reddened around the edges and bottom.
“Hello, sir,” said my father—sounding a little bit like some salesman, I thought.
The farmer nodded, and glanced down at the motionless cow, its eyes bright in their final lightness, and I could see the little bit of life fighting within the sick thing flit and bound like a firefly, switching on and off from shine to dark.
“She’s had enough,” the farmer said. “I prayed for it, but nothing helped. She got sick one day and fell and didn’t get up again. I don’t know how it goes where you are, but we haven’t had rain for two months out here.”
“It’s the same our way,” my father said.
“Sorry to hear that. Well anyhow, I tried to save some of the water when it came before, but it got mixed up with dust in the bucket and got us nothing but mud,” the farmer said, spitting the words out like locusts, his eyes dry and red from years of invasive airborne dirt.
My father knelt and touched the cow’s neck. He had his small black leather bag with him, but he just laid it on the ground and did not take anything from it. He opened the creature’s mouth, drew his head back briefly in mild disgust, and looked down its throat from a distance, his eyes blinking and watering—probably the first water this dead land had seen in months. The cow’s tongue was black and dry, like the sole of a shoe. A pale vermilion froth leaked from the side of its mouth and around its neck, only to dry on its hide into a pinkish patch of paste about an inch across: thin, parched, and never to touch the ground. After a few moments my father wiped his stained hands on his dirty tan trousers and stood up, his eyes blurred to near-invisibility behind spectacles speckled with dust like a miner’s shot glass.
“It’s done. No water, nothing can live without water. You know that. You shouldn’t have prayed there, old-timer. You should have let me know earlier. I would have brought something.”
“Well, sir, my pockets are empty.” The farmer turned them out in a cartoonish, almost frightening gesture, and they flapped in the wind, a couple of bunched white flags. “No pay, you know. I couldn’t really give you anything for it.”
“So why you sending me out here now?” my father asked, to no response. “I’m sure you had something. Any little bit you had would have been fine,” he said, checking and rewinding his watch, squinting in the blinding sun. “Anyway I guess money doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“Well I got nothing. This cow here, I mean, that’s all.” The farmer seemed distracted, his voice coming from somewhere far away. “I don’t have anything much and like I said, I prayed about it.”
Something changed in my father’s face. I had seen it before; this look had come over him when he listened to the President on the radio or spoke with the men who came to our house and talked about Communism, their voices sharp as knives, whispering in the pidgin Russian they’d learned from secondhand dictionaries as they brandished old hardcover books spattered with Cyrillic and thrust them toward one another while proving some point. I was allowed to sit quietly and listen before bedtime, and sometimes I would grab a volume at random from the bookshelf and put it above my head and yell, “Long live the Workers!” I was not supposed to speak, but my father always laughed and rubbed my hair, even though he probably knew I didn’t really know what I was saying at the time.
“Praying won’t do you any good, old-timer,” he said. “It’s wasted time and wasted energy. Do you understand?” he asked, picking up his bag and handing it to me. “What problems you have were caused by other men and must be solved by other men. If God has spared you when others around here have died, that means God wanted them to die. And a God like that, none of us need. Okay? So do this poor creature a favor and shoot it and put it out of its misery and stop waiting for some nonexistent spirit to solve your problems. Shoot it now.”
The farmer said nothing.
“Okay? Just take your gun and—”
“I heard you.”
The farmer and my father stood in the dust, four feet apart, wordless, staunch and immovable like two battling nations, the dying cow between them. My father offered the farmer a cigarette. He reached over and took it and lit it with a splintered, ancient match. They smoked in silence for some time. The hour was late and the setting sun in its cloudless sky melted over the plain and the dust kicked up and moved about our ankles and knees and stopped and moved and stopped again in its amorphous traffic. And that was all there was around us: nothing, nothing, no trees and no hills and no grass and no lakes and no rivers. The summers set fire to our lungs and we froze to death in the black winter nights, colder than hell, as though outer space itself was slipping through the atmosphere to touch the ground. Men went off on solitary depressive walks sometimes, all liquored up, only to get lost in the great zero and die gasping in the dust. It got everywhere. It got in your eyes and in your mouth and in your clothing and in your hair and in your food and made everything the same for all five senses. Someone in Deuel County had the bright idea to hire vagrants to go out and plant different-colored posts at intervals to serve as landmarks since the trees were gone, but the workers stopped after two weeks and just took off when they realized they would never be paid: the county had lied, there was no money left. The dust eventually knocked over and buried the posts they had managed to place. A new desert was in the process of being born, just like the Sahara must have looked thousands of years before, just as the living dirt turned to dying dust and finally dead sand.
The farmer tossed his cigarette butt and ground it in the dust with his boot. My father offered him another cigarette, which he took and lit, far more quickly than the previous one. He smoked it nervously.
“This can’t last forever,” the farmer said, almost frantically.
“Maybe not, but it can last a long time.” My father tossed his cigarette. “The prairie took a million years to get how it was. It might take a million years more to get back, you know?”
The farmer said nothing.
Then the cow’s head began to jerk erratically, as if being yanked with fishing wire. It slammed its neck into the dirt once, and then again and again, each strike accompanied by a sickening crack. Its black tongue lolled around in the dust.
“Jesus Christ, hand me that bag,” said my father. He seemed angry, and I hesitated, afraid I had done something wrong. The cow screamed; I could hear no difference between its yell and a man’s. I was scared. The farmer jumped back and threw his left hand over his mouth. His straw hat fell to the ground, twirling and flipping in the low wind. My father yanked the bag out of my hand and took out some kind of rod, black and metal and harsh. He struck the cow in the head with it and its blood, unnaturally black from a lack of oxygen, spilled out and was swallowed up entirely within seconds by the desiccated earth. Soon the cow was quiet. My father’s breath blew louder than the wind, thicker and wetter, and finally diminished.
“You.” He paused to catch his breath. “You, you damned fool. Why didn’t I bring the gun out here?” he muttered, while staring down at the lifeless cow. “I forgot the gun,” he said, and laughed to himself.
The farmer sat down cross-legged in the dust and said nothing. I turned away; I could not look at him or the cow, and I did not immediately understand what happened next.
The dead cow moved. Its legs shifted. My father went stiff as though the rod he held in his hand had transmitted its qualities through his body.
“Oh my god,” he said. His voice was like a small child’s. He sounds like me, I thought, insanely. I cannot fail him now, I thought.
“Shut up,” he blurted, as he knelt down by the dead cow’s stomach. “Get over here.”
I had seen things born before; you could hardly exist for a week on a farm without seeing it happen. The emotional and physical qualities of birth didn’t really seem to fit together to me: what a horrifying thing it was to witness, I thought, full of blood and screaming, so much like a murder; and the joy radiating off all involved despite this, the squeals of the women and the slightly embarrassed, winking smiles of the men, did not sit right with me. I hated it. I cried and shut my eyes and covered my ears, running to hide behind a shed as my family entreated me fruitlessly to watch, but the birth-sounds packed themselves into my skull no matter how hard I pressed my palms against the sides of my head. I could feel the wormy tongues of calves wet and tingle my earlobes and felt the mother’s blood dripping into my eyes. But then I would feel a hand upon mine, the uncomfortable warmth of an arm around my shoulder, as I was led visionless through the dust and sun and nothing to the clumsy calf sprawled in the straw wailing for mother and swiveling its slicked-back hammerlike head around at the terrifying newness of everything. I would swallow my fear and caress its wet skull, not to comfort it, but to try to channel what it was thinking—but what could it possibly be thinking?
“Okay, okay,” my father chanted under his breath. He removed two black gloves from the bag and put them on, almost tenderly. Corpse handlers, he called them. His spectacles were shallow cups full of sweat. Hold the legs, he told me, turning behind him to look at the farmer, who was staring in the opposite direction at nothing. “Help us,” my father said. The farmer did not move, did not speak. “Fuck!” my father screamed, a word that I knew was code, a word directed at me, a word that at least temporarily designated me an honorary adult, and therefore not subject to any of the onerous restrictions normally placed upon children in times of crisis, for all that was left was him and me, alone. He spoke without speaking. It was a contract. And then it all happened very quickly.
The thing that came out of the cow had no skin and half a head. Its movements seemed wrong, poorly allocated, and more crustacean than mammal. My father could not hold on to it and the red bleeding thing collapsed onto the dusty ground and began to drag itself away, its mistaken life burning itself out in utter pain and confusion. Night was falling then, and the mutant calf would die of exposure, but this could simply not be allowed: it was still a living thing despite itself, and the thought of its birth and death in such a way made us both sick, and it just could not be left alive; and even though in those times I was sure there was no God, since my father told me so, to leave such a creature alive was an insult to something, and if not God, then … then something. I turned away, hearing a dull thump.
I knew we would never speak of it. It was part of our contract. We went back to the Ford, silent. The thing would not eat me, did not want me. I was alive. I was not dust. Lived in dust, yes, but was not dust, was a person, and would grow to be a man like other men—that, at least, was what my father said. And I suppose he would have known, being a doctor.
After the dusters came spiders and rabbits and locusts. I remember waking up in the dark to the feel of something furry and pointed sliding around on my foot; screaming, I jumped out of my rusted cot and grabbed at my mother’s apron as she lit the lantern, which tossed a diffuse yellow light downward and revealed a black tarantula almost the size of a hubcap hissing and skittering around on my sweat-soaked sheets. My mother jumped back and I fainted, waking up several moments later to my father striking me in the face and cursing my cowardice in broken Russian, which he had been practicing earlier that day. The spider had disappeared.
I no longer went to school; even our most good-hearted local schoolmarm, Mrs. Jonas, had joined her fellow instructors and quit after going to the general store and finding that the badly printed county-issued scrip they were being paid with was now completely worthless. She came to our home to explain why she’d decided to leave the county and ended up going away in tears after hearing a few choice words from my father about the inevitability of what happens when education serves the interests of the top 5 percent: not man but Mammon, as he put it. The capitalist system is breaking down, he said almost giddily after she left. He spoke with all the prideful didacticism of someone who had been heretofore disbelieved and then proved right by inescapable fact.
The unending dust drove some people mad. One afternoon I came home from school (this was when we still had school) to see a skeletal, blood-soaked, naked man, pale as ice cream despite the sun, methodically slitting our pigs’ (this was when we still had pigs) throats, sidling up to each absurd pink trundling body and cradling its head, whispering to it before jabbing a serrated knife into its neck and yanking it to the left or right, nearly tearing the head off, leaving the pig to stagger comically about the pen with a jiggling head hanging on by a flap of skin for four or five interminable seconds before slumping over. I stood silent, not understanding it. When he saw me, he ran. The sheriff found his corpse two weeks later, a mile from our farm. He had died from exposure. Nobody knew who he was. My father took me out to see the ravaged body, over my mother’s protests. “Now would you look at that,” he said. I still do not understand it.
A woman in Chappell drugged her six children to temporary unconsciousness and buried them alive with Bibles in two locked coffins, three children per box under a sliding dune. When the coffins were opened the children were found destroyed, having torn both the books and each other to pieces upon awakening in the choking dark.
The same week, an unmarried teenage couple, twenty miles west near Brownson, purchased two pistols and shot each other in the mouth simultaneously, their arms intertwined in a human caduceus. The girl was found to have been pregnant, the three-month-old fetus already malformed and blackened by dust.
My mother refused to listen to these stories, leaving the room without a word whenever one of my father’s many visiting “political” friends, as she called them, brought them up happily as evidence of America’s inevitable decline. “Those things don’t mean anything other than themselves,” she said. “Things just happen and they don’t mean anything, and people are lying if they say different. Or they’re trying to sell you something.”
“Fifty dollars, chief. Do you know what that means?” my father asked one evening, two weeks after the unspoken incident.
“Half there.” He smiled, and went back to reading an issue of Pravda. Mother said nothing, occupied as she was with removing the dust-blocking towels that lined what seemed like every inch of our house in order to resoak them in what little water we were able to save in the drought. A dust dune had pushed itself up against our shed outside like a drunken man leaning upon a wall, and she stared out the window at it.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“It’s simple enough,” my father replied, without taking his eyes from his paper. “The government should have never lied to these people, should never have told them that the land could support this kind of intensive agriculture. It can’t, and they killed it.”
“What about the Indians?” I asked.
“They never raped the land. They never lived for themselves. They lived for each other, each man playing his prescribed part in the larger social machine, understand? Seems like a good idea, huh, chief?” He threw the paper down and switched to The Times.
“Yep,” I said, but without looking up from my Sunday funnies, where Skeezix had just entered high school and was, again, feuding with Uncle Walt.
“I don’t want your damn ‘yep.’ Say ‘yes’ like an educated person. And stop reading that stuff. Read the Walter Duranty piece after I’m finished with it. You’ll learn something. He won the Pulitzer, you know.”
“It’s a prize for writing well.”
“Let the boy read what he wants,” Mother said, still staring out the window, unmoving, her voice hushed and fearful as though she were hiding from someone. “I doubt those writers know any more than you or me.”
“Oh really? And what the hell do you think you know about anything? He needs to read Duranty,” my father snapped. “What else is he gonna goddamned read? Other than the funnies, there? Duranty’s the only one who knows what’s going on these days. Here.” He tossed me the paper. “Read that to me. Let’s see how you’re doing.”
“I have made … ex … exh …”
“Exhaustive.Exhaustive, son. It means ‘intensive.’ It means he performed a deep investigation.”
“I have made exhaustive inquiries about this alleged famine situation. I have inquired in Soviet commiss … commissioner.” I remember pushing my face forward toward the dirtied newsprint and turning the paper sideways slightly, as if it were a kaleidoscope, to help myself better comprehend the unfamiliar word.
“It says commissariats. Jesus Christ, give it to me.” He snatched the paper out of my hands, rolled it up, and struck me on the side of the head with it. “Your English is no better than your Russian. So what are you going to do about it?”
“What I like to hear.” He went back to the paper: “I have inquired in Soviet commissariats and in foreign embassies with their network of consuls, and I have tabulated information from Britons working as specialists and from my personal connections, Russian and foreign. See? This is what used to be known as journalism. None of that bullshit and propaganda nonsense about how rain follows the plow. All of this seems to me to be more trustworthy information than I could get by a brief trip through any one area … And here are the facts: there is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
“And this is where you’re taking us,” Mother said.
“He’s not talking about Russia, he’s talking about the Ukraine. Two different countries. Or didn’t you know that? They’re experimenting. Some people will, yes, inevitably fall by the wayside as … collateral damage. Listen, it’s no worse than what endless mechanical servitude for Henry Ford or growing dust on some dead farm would have done to them. And how are we doing? How are we doing?”
“We’re not dying from starvation,” Mother said.
“Right now we’re not. Don’t worry. I’m a doctor. They’ll need me, they’ll need educated people. We’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” I said.
“Yes,” my father said.
That Sunday, April the 14th, rose up bright and dustless like nothing we’d seen. Men with cracked faces stumbled up out of old farmhouses to stare at the unblocked sun, their wives following silent, their shell-shocked sons and daughters following behind them. Some of the men started rebuilding; others went straight to taverns to flush out their dusty hearts with whiskey. Mother went outside for the first time in weeks. Father drove the Ford into Brownson, taking advantage of the high visibility to administer to several children suffering from dust pneumonia.
“They’re probably dead already. I feel like a coroner, not a doctor. This won’t last,” he said, just said that and nothing else all morning until he departed, after which I flew outside, exultant, a cooped-up bird tossing itself outdoors. My hands pulsed and punched like pistons; my eyes twitched. I was in a rage. A day without dust was like a day in heaven, and each bored minute, each minute behind walls, each minute not spent indulging in activities that sent my soul out beyond myself only to yank the body forward to meet it at intervals, as though the two were connected by a rubber band—all those minutes were wasted.
Mother called out to me, but I did not listen, her voice melting into the thick sourceless ubiquitous prairie noise. I imagined not dust, but grass; not locusts, but birds; not ravenous pestilent rabbits, but squirrels and deer and bears and wildcats and beavers and whatever else. But these were only the simplistic ravings of a boy who had never once seen in the flesh any of the creatures imagined, whose only reference was dust and flatness, and who had never seen a hill except in pictures, a boy born and raised in the new Great American Desert, and I knew, vaguely, that all this had not come naturally: that our neighbors, my father, my mother, me, were somehow to blame. “We’ve used the land wrong,” I once heard a farmer say, while I spied through the crack of the dining-room door on my father and his friends, out of boredom, and the man’s guilt was just so physically there, like some fragile vase to be tiptoed around. He looked like a father who’d just been told over the phone that his son was dead from parental negligence. But that Sunday I sure didn’t feel like grieving. And then I saw Mrs. Jonas, blond-haired, severe like recent death, walking toward me with her car stopped dead behind her, her eyes challenging the dust to cross her. Her clothes were faded and full of holes. They had been patched, but the patches were poor and failing.
“Hello, young man.”
“Is your father around?”
“Nope. He’s in Brownson with the sick kids.”
“I see. And I’ll thank you to look at your elders when they’re speaking to you.”
“Sorry.” I kicked the dust, waited a second, thought of something. “But you’re not very old, Mrs. Jonas.”
She laughed, a sound I had not heard in weeks. “No,” she spat out between giggles, “I guess I’m not.” She sniffed, placed her hand over her mouth, and stifled the laughter for good, like a stuck door finally latching in place. “Still,” she said, “you have to be polite.” She looked into the sky. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? The first good one in months, it seems.”
“Did your father teach you to speak politely to strangers?”
“Yep. I mean, yes.”
“He’s an interesting man, your father. Does he talk to the farmers around here? Do they visit your home?”
“What is it that you guess?”
Something changed in her manner, as if pipes inside her head were being rerouted. She gripped her chin and thought for a while, and I sat down in the dirt pretending not to watch or care, and she knelt down so she could look me in the face and spoke to me as a child, hiding her own true self away in some impenetrable casing. I did not trust her much.
“Now that you’re out of school, does your father have you read books?”
“The kind with words.”
“Don’t be smart with me,” she snapped, slipping briefly out of her shell. I did not think I was being smart at all, but I did not reply and in the end did not ever have to, because I saw my father’s car pull up behind Mrs. Jonas’s, squealing to a halt in the dust. He jumped out so quickly, I thought briefly that he was no longer under his own power, that he had been pushed, that he had finally gone too far with one of his “political” friends. The thought that for once my father might not be in control made my spine go slack, my stomach slip like a stone through hot blood. And then, careening across the prairie toward us, came his voice:
“Get in the house! Now!”
The flight home was so quick, it was as though it did not even happen. I remember my father grabbing Mrs. Jonas’s hand and dragging her across the ground when she fell. We went inside and panted and shouted and shut the door. My mother was already lying facedown on the sheetless bed and breathing heavily, which was the loudest noise in the shack, completely overriding our own rocky breaths, but not for long: I heard something else. My father’s voice, for the first time I could remember, no longer asserted its long-accepted primacy over every other sound as he said, “Look out the window!”
I did as instructed and saw a black mountain that had not been there before, moving like something tossed by a giant from beneath the earth. There are things the human mind cannot encompass, like a tree one cannot wrap one’s arms around. My father covered his mouth. Mrs. Jonas shut her eyes. I thought at the time that my father was holding back from weeping at the thing’s terrible beauty, as I remember doing, but I know now that words such as beauty and terror have no meaning in such a context. They called it a duster later, but it was too dark to be dust, too thick. It felt like flying gravel. It came up from too far below. It hit our house like something solid and burst apart and around it. I heard later of homesteaders who, convinced it was finally the end of the world (“for what in their worldview exists to convince them otherwise?” my father asked later), walked outside into the storm holding hands as an unbreakable family, shining and uncowed and unafraid of God’s black judgment, their minds pure and whole and serene as the screeching airborne earth rent them apart piece by piece to be planted in the dust miles away like seeds in the pollinating summer wind. Others were borne up into the maelstrom on the back of warped wood and scavenged steel as their homes burst apart. But our house held, groaning and shaking in the wind, while Mrs. Jonas knelt in the corner and shivered. In that storm, I saw and understood only objects: the flying metal gas can tearing through the dust outside my window, metal, sun-bleached and reddish like a pig’s head; the dusty mirror in my mother’s room; my father’s books filling up with dirt, their dust jackets torn apart. The soaked towels and wet oilcloths soon became saturated with dirt and fell backward from their wall-cracks onto the living-room floor. From the windows we saw it. We saw thin dust and thick dust, black dust and white dust. We saw the dust that mixed with what little water it could find and became mud; dust that found no water and grew drier and drier until it became sand, leaving everything as dry as the Sahara.
The blowing black mountain eventually collapsed and left nothing. The land looked as though a giant eraser had rubbed back and forth over it. Mrs. Jonas, in a shock of bundled energy, dove outside into the descending dust without saying a word. My father refused to let us follow her. A federal worker surveying the damage stumbled across the remains of a woman we assumed was Mrs. Jonas a few months later, five miles west, in the middle of nowhere.
A hundred dollars: my father counted the bills one by one and laid them out ceremonially on the scuffed, gritty desk in the living room while I watched and Mother stared out the window. We went to see the Amtorg man, to figure out how to get our tickets, our visas. Mother refused to go, her eyes blank, her lips thick and chapped and pursed like two slices of red leather. “I don’t care,” she said. “We have nothing here, we’ll have nothing there.” She went back to bed.
The Amtorg man lived in Brownson. Brownson was dead. The town’s population had dropped to almost nothing, and those remaining were either too poor or too old to leave. We chugged to town in the Ford, the machine’s engine dirty and warped like porous rock. We parked on an abandoned road near Main Street and were greeted with total silence. It was a Monday morning and nobody was out; the doors were blocked, the windows barred. Several dog skeletons were strewn across the street, the bones stark and off-white and brittle like extravagantly wrought paper. On the way to the Amtorg man’s office we passed a sign messily painted in black over white that said NIGERS DONT LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOU HERE. My father spat on the ground in front of it, the glob of mucus drying out to a dark sandy patch within seconds.
“Goddamned sundown town. This is what we’re leaving,” he said. “Take a good look.”
The Amtorg man was fat. He was the fattest man I had ever seen. His suit was old and too small for him, and years of strain had unraveled the fabric at its elbows and knees, giving him the appearance of an obese marionette. The sweat stains under his arms had moved outward on both sides to meet in the middle of his chest, where he had removed his tie and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing unhealthy-looking hairless skin, alternately bright red and pale, like sweaty peppermint. When he saw us enter, he slammed a desk shut and leapt upward. Bright shiny blinking dots of liquid flew off his sweating face into the sun shining through the window and then fell back down, spattering the dusty hardwood floor like raindrops. I heard the noise of bottles clinking in the desk.
“You must be the veterinarian,” he rasped.
“Doctor,” my father said, holding out his hand.
“Yes, that’s right. I apologize.” His voice was thin, reedy, exhausted, the way the reanimated dead might sound. He took a handkerchief off a nearby drawer and covered his fingers with it, only then shaking my father’s hand. “And this must be your son. Hello there, boy. I believe I have some … candy … here, for the young man,” he said, and began to ruffle around in a different drawer than the one he had closed earlier, his weight shifting unnaturally to the left and right as though his office were a surgeon’s quarters belowdecks. After several moments of harsh breathing, he stopped moving, shut his eyes, closed his hand into a fist, and placed the thumb-side of it over his mouth. His breathing grew even heavier.
“I’m sorry. I’m … ill. You understand. Well, I shall have to apologize, young man,” said the Amtorg man. He shut the drawer. “It seems I have nothing for you.”
“I’m fine,” I said. My father looked at me and nodded, a gesture I could tell the Amtorg man was not meant to see.
The Amtorg man stood up. His eyes opened wide; while shut they seemed to have gone bloodshot. He threw his arms out, put his head down, and wobbled as though he were walking the plank. He glanced left and right, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a dull metal flask. “You don’t mind?”
“Go ahead, but, sir—” But the Amtorg man had already begun drinking before my father finished speaking. He stopped halfway through his sip, coughed and hacked and heaved and hissed, and then began to drink again, his sick yellowish eyes bugging out from fat-rimmed sockets. After finishing his drink, he screwed the flask shut, put it back in his pocket, and began to speak, to mutter: “There is, um, nothing new under the sun, all that there is and has been will be again … How does it go?” He began to whistle to himself, tapping with both index fingers on the desk. “A song, you see. I learned it a long time ago, back in school.”
My father rubbed the back of his neck with a dirty rag. “Sir—”
“I have traveled to many places, Doctor,” the Amtorg man said. “Have you ever traveled outside this once-great nation of ours?”
“No. I’ve always lived here. I went to school in Omaha, for my practice.”
“Well I have been to many places,” the Amtorg man said. “I at times have found myself in Africa, India, Europe—all those places where one would think an educated person might find solace in the shadow of ancient civilizations, great dead empires. A man is worth … two and a half dollars. I read this! In an economics journal. That is a man’s worth? Two and a half dollars? Excuse me? Man’s value is infinite! I could purchase a horse for a greater sum, a dog. I cannot describe how this makes me feel. Man is superior to all. Man is an architect as the spider is an architect, except man constructs his dreams in imagination before he does in reality. That’s Marx. That’s humanity. Same as in the Bible. You see, they are surely not so different.” He took another drink and shivered.
I thought about it. I had seen spiders of all kinds, but none that could have been architects, none that built webs. We’d had no rain, and that had brought all of them out of the ground, looking for water. They ate everything they came across. My father ordered me to kill them whenever I saw them and so, of course, I did. Whenever he saw them he set them on fire. They curled up and made minuscule black fists of themselves in the flame.
“Well, we have the money,” my father said. “That’s the important part. We’re ready. Tell me what we need to do.”
“Then,” the Amtorg man said, his eyes half shut and dim as stars behind cirrus, “let me tell you about the Soviet Union.”
After that the process moved quickly. After that our life was all papers, Mother, Father, signatures, waiting rooms, passports, queues, men’s knees, oceans, and the cold; all that and me, watchful and quiet and mostly ignored and holding tight to the thought that to dust I would never return.