A yellow taxi circles the airport; mist over LaGuardia; rumor of improvised explosive device; a bald Nigerian hack listening to incensed propagandists on WOR, his cab merging with the vortex; and behind the Plexiglas, an entrepreneurial American capitalist half his age, iPhone perpetually to her perfect pink ear, hair dark as a tiger’s stripe. “You could cut it with a knife,” she says. Having left a message with her lover, she speaks now to her sister. “That much is definite. The bomb is speculation.”
To which big sister petulantly replies, “Everything happens to you.”
The younger woman’s lover, in a Houston high-rise, listens to the message she left, thinking—he cannot help himself—that her flight isn’t really delayed but that she no longer loves him, the churning in his gut forcing him to pace the apartment. He ignores the window’s glittering panorama for the blank frame of the smartphone in his trembling hand, daring it to ring, demanding that it ring, although her calls do not actually ring now but roar, something she did the last time they were together, replaced the familiar bell with a great cat’s growl, a sound he imagines as he inscribes in the buttery carpet a path to speak his suffering: O! O! O!
And the cabdriver, adjusting the rearview to avoid the woman’s smug, pale, lovely face, cares less about the meter than you might think. His mother is in St. Barnabas Hospital having her blood meticulously appraised, each measly component counted as it circulates not just through her body but also through a whirring contraption parked beside her bed. She eyes the white-shirted, brown-skinned technician suspiciously, he who monitors the machine, he who 12 years earlier left Cuba on a raft fashioned from inner tubes and baseball bats, lashed together with coarse rope stolen from a neighbor, Yevgeny Redondo, that bitter old Soviet apologist who last made love to a woman when he was 19 and too too too eager. The woman’s laughter was meant to be friendly, not devastating, and when she got home—a fourth-floor Havana apartment just beyond the gate to Barrio Chino—she wondered how she might make it up to that poor boy, but they had their whole lives ahead of them, didn’t they? Gaudy images rotated through her mind like the painted ponies of a carousel—extravagant wedding, house overlooking the ocean, stair-step children—while she sat beside her little brother on his narrow bed and pretended to listen to the transistor radio, the New York Yankees, bottom of the eighth and Otero on the mound, up from the minors for the third time that year, runners lapping the bases like stock cars at Daytona, sweat and pomade trickling down his neck. O, how Otero had dominated those Triple-A hitters in Columbus, Ohio, where he had seemed destined for greatness on the mound and almost certainly enough money to end the cycle of debt and despondency passed from generation to generation in his family like an heirloom.
The woman in the taxi insists on another spin, waiting for the gods of LaGuardia to reopen runways, secretly hoping (secret even to herself) she can just go home, big sister, who cannot find equilibrium in her life, still on the cell, her terrible taste in men a recurring topic, the one-bedroom she rents in Atlanta going for a fraction of the other’s walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen, where—when big sister last visited—a good-looking man whistled a tune so elaborate and convoluted that when it ended in the traditional wolf call, the southern sister was nonetheless charmed. She might have let him lead her away, but he was whistling at the wrong sibling, and that sister, circling now in a cab, would not even slow her angry stride until they were at the door to a tiny Indian restaurant on Ninth Avenue, and one of the sisters (who can remember?) said to the other, Holy good God almighty, I’m sorry, which prompted the waitress, a girl from Kolkata, to flatten her hands together and raise them to her mouth, as if in prayer, the scar on her right arm snaking free, the product of her father’s exhaustion—three jobs and this daughter who wanted to live in the U.S., her bag packed and in the trunk, a wire holding the lid shut, and near the end of the drive, his handsome head nodding, eyes closing, the car sliding free of the roundabout, crashing into a great banyan tree, 239 years old, its multitude of trunks a holy mystery, and if the tourist who found them had not known CPR, the waitress’s father would have died, head against the steering wheel, the mist of his lungs’ exertion staining his shirt, red stars in a wrinkled gray universe.
When big sister finally says goodbye, the woman in the taxi tries her boyfriend again, and in that faraway high-rise he picks up. “I’m still in the cab,” she says. “They won’t let us park, and the cell lot is chained. No one can do anything but circle. I want to see you. I really do. You have to believe me,” she tells him, consciously dreading the trip now, his insistent desire driven by something more than love and less than lust, requiring sex the second she walks in the door. (Unwillingly, she recalls the time he began undressing her in the elevator.) He demands proof, insists she hand the phone to the cabbie, who is so sick of these pissy prissy white people playacting at life while his mother’s body is coldly quantified by an enormous machine, her remaining time on Earth calculated like the dates printed on yogurt cups. And since that traitor Obama reopened relations with Cuba, the white-shirted, brown-skinned technician swears he will never vote for another Democrat. The world needs order. About this the cabbie and the technician, if they knew each other, would agree. Not compassion but order. With order, the driver’s mother would have the best care available without bankrupting the family, but no, goddamn it, no. Screw the crybabies. In the miniature voice receptacle of the woman’s shiny iPhone (these people are I-everything, I, I, I, me, me, me), he says, “She getting big meter ride. Round and round go we.”
Is the boyfriend satisfied, this man who has not been a boy for 50 years, his liaison with a younger woman having suddenly turned a corner? He understands that he is not, as he claims to his friends, in charge of his emotions, the young woman’s faults as visible to him as ever, but he needs to see her, has to encircle her in his arms, and the bitter rounded thing—once tough as the hide of an antelope—he calls his heart has softened like a carefully oiled first baseman’s mitt, bound and forgotten in a closet.
When did the tables turn?
The call drops (Did she just click off?), and he puts a record on his brand-new retro turntable and pours himself a vodka gimlet, a drink introduced to him by his (at that time) father-in-law, who claimed it was good for circulation, and who once, ages ago, argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, back before the Supreme Court was a joke, before Wichita industrialists owned half of Congress, before selling loose cigarettes was a capital crime.
Across the street, from a third-floor dormer, a young black man watches the white man’s window, speculating on the reasons for the old guy’s pacing, imagining that it’s about money. What else do bastards like that think about? The young man is a social worker and about to become a thief. When the woman’s flight is rescheduled and she finally touches down in Houston, he will steal her away from that sad old white-haired white man, source of all the trouble on this godless planet. “She came to H‑town for the express purpose of standing in that window for me to see,” the young man will say later, after they are married, his own life reformatted entirely by the love of a woman for whom he would die, given half a chance, and with whom he makes a family, children as lovely as a moonlit Texas evening, like that long-ago night when white boys on a Galveston beach called him Sambo, and what was that stone doing on the ground if not to fit his hand and arc across the Caucasian-colored sand, striking the back of a white boy’s head, and straight down he collapsed like that building no one talks about, the edifice no plane penetrated on that September morning the young man slept through while the world turned upside down.
He does not know whether the white boy ever got up from the sand, and knows nothing of the taxi driver and his mother’s silent death under the scrupulous gaze of a vast apparatus. He does not know that the relief pitcher Otero, long out of the game, works now in a bodega owned by his ex-wife’s uncle, who never refers to him by name, only by the sarcastic spitting of pitcher. Or that the girl from Kolkata will be fired by the manager’s wife for flirting (upon request, she showed her boss the pink serpent ringing her arm), that she loses her lease and discovers that her cousin’s friend in Queens is a bastard, but no one will believe her when she calls it rape (she was sleeping in his apartment, wasn’t she?), not even her father, convalescing in Behala Balananda Brahmachari Hospital, about whom, to this point, she’d never had a negative thought.
And what of her cousin, a metal container in his carry-on, water from the Ganges, fewer than 100 milliliters, he insists, perfectly legal in a baggie alongside a miniature Head & Shoulders, tiny Scope, partially squeezed Crest, this sealed pot that he will not surrender, his accented English turning balm to bomb in the mind of the security officer who grew up speaking Spanish in El Paso and resents that she has to wear a tie like the men, the irises of her eyes slightly different colors, which encouraged the boys of her youth to compare her to a Siberian husky, the teacher consoling her with a warm hand on her back and the whispered “It means you can see heaven and Earth at the same time.” The kindness of this teacher flashes through the security officer’s mind as her misunderstanding locks down the airport, Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s alike made to whirl in the LaGuardia sky like the great obscene vultures she recalls from the Chihuahuan Desert, zeroing in on a carcass.
The young black Houstonian will know none of this, but he will hear every excruciating detail after his wife’s ex-lover hangs himself in his high-rise, the rope tied to a sturdy annular Art Deco light fixture manufactured in 1927 in Asheville, North Carolina, a small doomed family factory that would not exploit its workers and could not compete with the factories that did. It seals their love, this man dangling in a homemade noose beneath a factory-made halo, locks them in a liaison that must endure to justify the suicide, the body hauled out in a bag black like his former lover’s hair.
Such is the future. The present is yet circling in a shroud and under a curse, on the ground and in the air alike, and neither shroud nor curse will lift, the connections among people surprisingly, inexorably sketchy. “I can hear you,” says the woman in the cab, “but I can’t understand what you’re saying,” their voices beamed to a satellite and bounced back in pieces, the satellite itself assembled by the dexterous fingers of Indian women with children to feed, the parts brought to them by a wide assembly belt, which loops 24/7, like the communications satellite orbiting the blue planet, the taxi circumnavigating LaGuardia’s asphalt wheel, the high-flying aircraft ringing their port, or those well-dressed tigers sprinting around the apocryphal brown boy, the labor of those great mammals transforming them into ghee—liquid gold the boy sells by the bowl.