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American Innovations

A short-story collection from one of America’s brightest young talents.In one of these intensely imaginative stories a young woman’s furniture walks out on her. In another, the narrator feels compelled to deliver a takeout order that has incorrectly been phoned in to her. In a third, the petty details of a property transaction illuminate the complicated dependences and loves of a family.Following spiralling paths towards utterly logical, entirely absurd conclusions, Galchen’s creations occupy a dreamlike dimension, where time is fluid and identities are best defined by the qualities they lack. The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, allowing the reader the pleasure of discovering familiar favourites in new guises. Here ‘The Lost Order’ covertly recapitulates James Thurber’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, while ‘The Region of Unlikeness’ playfully mirrors Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘The Aleph’.By turns realistic, fantastical and lyrical, all these marvellously uneasy stories share a deeply emotional core and are written in dryly witty, pitch-perfect prose. Whether exploring the tensions in a mother-daughter relationship or the finer points of time travel, Galchen is a writer of eye-opening ingenuity.

American Innovations


   Fourth Estate

   An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

   1 London Bridge Street,

   London SE1 9GF


   First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate in 2014

   First published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014

   Copyright © Rivka Galchen 2014

   Cover photograph © Samantha T. Photography/Getty Images

   Rivka Galchen asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

   These stories previously appeared, in slightly different form, in the following publications: Harper’s Magazine (‘Once an Empire’), New Yorker (‘The Lost Order’, ‘The Region of Unlikeness’, ‘Sticker Shock’ as ‘Appreciation’, The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire’ and ‘The Late Novels of Gene Hackman’), Open City (‘Wild Berry Blue’) and The Walrus (‘Real Estate’).

   A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

   This collection is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

   All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

   Source ISBN: 9780007548781

   Ebook Edition © May 2014 ISBN: 9780007548798

   Version: 2015-05-26

   For Georgie and Yosefa




















   I was at home, not making spaghetti. I was trying to eat a little less often, it’s true. A yogurt in the morning, a yogurt at lunchtime, ginger candies in between, and a normal dinner. I don’t think of myself as someone with a “weight issue,” but I had somehow put on a number of pounds just four months into my unemployment, and when I realized that this had happened—I never weigh myself; my brother just said to me, on a visit, “I don’t recognize your legs”—I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it. Because at least I had something that I knew it wouldn’t be a mistake to really dedicate myself to. I could be like those people who by trying to quit smoking or drinking manage to fit an accomplishment, or at least an attempt at an accomplishment, into every day. Just by aiming to not do something. This particular morning, there was no yogurt left for my breakfast. I could go get some? I could treat myself to maple. Although the maple yogurt was always full cream. But maybe full cream was fine, because it was just a tiny—

   My phone is ringing.

   The caller ID reads “Unavailable.”

   I tend not to answer calls identified as Unavailable. But sometimes Unavailable shows up because someone is calling from, say, the hospital.

   “One garlic chicken,” a man’s voice is saying. “One side of salad, with the ginger-miso dressing. Also one white rice. White, not brown. This isn’t for pickup,” he says. “It’s for delivery.”

   He probably has the wrong number, I figure. I mean, of course he has the wrong—

   “Not the lemon chicken,” he is going on. “I don’t want the lemon. What I want—”

   “OK. I get it—”

   “Last time you delivered the wrong thing—”

   “Lemon chicken—”

   “Garlic chicken—”


   “I know you,” he says.


   “Don’t just say ‘OK’ and then bring me the wrong order. OK, OK, OK. Don’t just say ‘OK.’” He starts dictating his address. I have no pencil in hand.

   “OK,” I say. “I mean, all right.” I’ve lost track of whether it was the lemon chicken or the garlic he wanted. Wanting and not wanting. Which tap is hot and which is cold. I still have trouble with left and right.

   “How long?” he asks.

   “Thirty minutes?”

   He hangs up.

   Ack. Why couldn’t I admit that I wasn’t going to be bringing him any chicken at all? Now I’m wronging a hungry man. One tries not to do too many wrong things in life. But I can’t call him back: he’s Unavailable!

   Just forget it.


   Forgetting is work, though. I returned to not making spaghetti, a task to which I had added not setting out to buy yogurt. Then it struck me that getting dressed would be a good idea. It was 10:40 a.m. Early for chicken. Yes, I should and would get dressed. Unfortunately, on the issue of getting dressed I consistently find myself wishing that I were a man. I don’t mean that in an ineluctable gender disturbance way, it’s not that; it’s that I think I would have an easier time choosing an outfit. Though having a body is problematic no matter what. Even for our dog. One summer we thought we would do her a favor by shaving her fur, but then afterward she hung her head and was inconsolable. Poor girl. The key is to not have time to think about your body, and dogs—most dogs anyhow—have a lot of free time. So do I, I guess. Although, I don’t feel like I have a lot of time; I feel constantly pressed for time; even though when I had a job, I felt like I had plenty of time. But even then getting dressed was difficult. For a while it was my conviction that pairing tuxedo-like pants with any of several inexpensive white T-shirts would solve the getting-dressed problem for me for at least a decade, maybe for the rest of my life. I bought the tuxedo-like pants! Two pairs. And some men’s undershirts. But it turned out that I looked even more sloppy than usual. And by sloppy I mostly just mean female, with curves, which can be OK, even great, in many circumstances, sure, but a tidy look for a female body, feminine or not feminine, is elusive and unstable. Dressing as a woman is like working with color instead of with black and white. Or like drawing a circle freehand. They say that Giotto got his job painting St. Peter’s based solely on the pope’s being shown a red circle he’d painted with a single brushstroke. That’s how difficult circles are. In the seven hundred years since Giotto, probably still—

   I found myself back in the kitchen, still not making spaghetti, and wearing a T-shirt. Not the one I had woken up in, but still a T-shirt that would be best described as pajamas and that I wasn’t feeling too good or masculine or flat-chested in, either. Giotto? It was 11:22 a.m. Making lemon chicken for that man would have been a better way to spend my time, I thought. Or garlic chicken. Whichever. I felt as if there were some important responsibility that I was neglecting so wholly that I couldn’t even admit to myself that it was there. Was I really taking that man’s delivery order so seriously?

   At least I wasn’t eating.

   I decided to not surf the Internet.

   Then to not watch a television show.

   Hugging my favorite throw pillow, I lay down on the sofa, and thought, Just count backward from one hundred. This is something I do that calms me down. What’s weird is that I don’t recall ever having made it to the number one. Sometimes I fall asleep before I reach one—that’s not so mysterious—but more often I just get lost. I take some sort of turn away from counting, without realizing it, and only then, far away even from whatever the turn was, do I realize I am elsewhere.

   The throw pillow has matryoshka dolls on it. I started counting down. Ninety-six, ninety-five, ninety-four …

   The phone is ringing.

   It’s Unavailable.

   I hate my phone. I hate all phones.

   Why should I have to deal with this hungry man’s problems, these problems that stem from a past to which I don’t belong? Not my fucking jurisdiction.

   Although admittedly, the fact that our paths are now entangled—that part kind of is my fault.

   “OK?” I say, into the phone.

   “I think I know where it is,” a familiar male voice says.

   “It’s not even on its way yet,” I confess. “I’m sorry.”

   “What’s not on its way? Are you asleep?”

   I locate the voice more precisely. The voice belongs to my husband.

   “Sorry, sorry. I’m here now.”

   “I’m saying I think I know where it is. I think I lost it when I was in the courtyard with Monkey, tossing tennis balls for her.” Our dog’s name is Monkey. One of the reasons I was lonelier than usual was that Monkey was on a kind of dog holiday in the country, with my in-laws. “My hands were really cold. I had bought an icy water bottle.”

   “OK,” I say.

   “You know how it is, when your hand gets cold; your fingers shrink. So maybe that’s when the ring fell off. I’m almost sure of it. It’s supposed to rain later today, and I’m worried the rain will just wash the ring right into a gutter. I’m sorry to put this on you, but would you mind taking a look around for it?”

   He is talking about: a couple of weeks earlier I had very briefly gone away, to my uncle’s funeral, and when I returned, my husband was no longer wearing his wedding ring. It’s such an unimportant thing that to be honest, I didn’t even notice he was no longer wearing it. And he hadn’t noticed, either. We’re not symbol people. We didn’t realize that his ring was gone until we were at dinner with a friend visiting from Chicago and she asked to see both of our rings. Then my husband was a little weird about it. I guess he had simultaneously known and not known. Meaning he had known. A part of him had. And had worried enough about it to pretend that it hadn’t happened. Poor guy.

   “I’m not going to go look for it,” I find myself saying into the phone. It’s not really a decision, it’s more like a discovery. I’m not going to be a woman hopelessly searching for a wedding ring in a public courtyard. Even if the situation does not in fact carry the metaphorical weight it misleadingly seems to carry. Still no. I had recently seen a photograph of Susan Sontag wearing a bear costume but with a serious expression on her face; you could see that she felt uneasy.

   “Just go and even try not looking for it,” my husband is saying. “Just give the courtyard a little visit. Please.”

   “There’s no way it’s still—”

   “You really can’t do this one little thing?”

   “This is my fault?”

   “I’m on hour twenty-nine of my shift here.”

   “I’m not doing nothing,” I say. I find I’ve neither raised nor lowered my voice, though I feel like I have done both. “You think I’m not capable, but that’s not right. You just don’t understand my position. You see me all wrong. It’s not fair, it’s not right—”

   “I’m so sorry, my love,” he is saying. His voice has hairpin-turned to tender. Which is alarming. “I’m on your side,” he says. “I really do love you so much. You know that, right? You know I love you so much.”

   We hadn’t always conversed in a way that sounded like advanced ESL students trying to share emotions, but recently that was happening to us; I think we were just trying to keep a steady course through an inevitable and insignificant strait in our relationship.

   “I’m sorry, Boo,” I say. “I’m the one who should apologize.” I am suddenly missing him very badly, as if I have been woken from one of those dreams where the dead are still with us. Being awake feels awful. I language along, and then at some point in my ramblings he says to me, “I have to go now,” and then he is gone.


   The daytime hours in this neighborhood belong almost exclusively to deliverymen and nannies. The deliverymen are all men. And the nannies are all women. And the women are all dark-skinned. I had not given much thought to my neighborhood’s socioeconomic or gender clustering before I became a daylight ghost. I mean, sure, I knew about it vaguely, but there it was—under cover of day, one saw, or at least it seemed as if one saw, that decades of feminism and civil rights advances had never happened. This was appalling. Yet there was not no comfort for me in the idea that men had strong calves, and carried things, and that it was each toddler’s destiny to fall in love with another woman. Was it my fault that these feelings lived inside me? Maybe.

   I had not always—had not even long—been a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed and someone who considered eating less a valid primary goal. I had been a fairly busy environmental lawyer, an accidental expert of sorts in toxic mold litigation—litigation concerning alleged damage to property and persons by reason of exposure to toxic mold. I handled the first toxic mold case that came into the firm, so when the second case turned up, shortly thereafter, I was the go-to girl. A Texas jury had made an award of thirty-two million dollars in a case in 2001, and that had set a lot of hearts to dreaming. But the Texas case was really an insurance case, and so not a precedent for toxic mold cases. Most people don’t understand that. An insurance company had failed to pay promptly for repairs to leaking pipes in a twenty-two-room mansion that subsequently became moldy; all claims relating to personal injuries from toxic mold were dismissed, and an award was made only for property damage, punitive damages, mental anguish, and to cover plaintiff’s legal fees of nearly nine million dollars. But since the case was on the evening news, it was, predictably, radically misrepresented. Hence, toxic mold–litigation fever. It has been established that mold, like dust, is environmentally pervasive; some of us are allergic to some molds, just as some of us are allergic to dust, though whether any mold can damage our health in a lasting or severe way is unlikely, and certainly not scientifically proven. Also clear is that basic maintenance is an essential duty of a property owner. But beyond that … I handled quite a large number of mold cases. I filled out the quiet fields of forms. I dispatched environmental testers. The job was more satisfying than it sounds, I can tell you. To have any variety of expertise, and to deploy it, can feel like a happy dream.

   But one day I woke up and heard myself saying, I am a fork being used to eat cereal. I am not a spoon. I am a fork. And I can’t help people eat cereal any longer.

   I judged my sentiment foolish, sure, but it captained me nevertheless. I laid no plan, but that afternoon I found myself saying to the managing partner, “I’m afraid I’ll need to tender my resignation.” I used that word, “tender.”

   I could have rescinded all those words, of course.

   But that night, after the tender word, I said to Boo, “I think I’m leaving my job.”

   He set down his handheld technology.

   “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll find some other work.”

   “No, it’s really OK,” he said. “You don’t have to work at all. If you don’t want to. Or you could work at a bakery. Why not? You’ll figure it out. Under no time pressure, OK? I like my work. We can live from that.”

   My husband is a pretty understanding guy; nevertheless, I found myself thinking of an old Japanese movie where the father gets stomach cancer but the family keep it a secret from him, and are all just very kind to him. “But you might wake up one day and not like your work anymore,” I said.

   “That’s not going to happen to me,” he said. “I’m just not like that.” Then he added, “I could see you were unhappy. I could see that before you could. Honestly, I feel relieved.”


   When the phone rings again—Unavailable—I pick it up right away. I had been so childish about not wanting to go look for the ring; I would tell Boo that I would go look for the ring, and then I would do that, I would go and look for it.

   “Fifty-five minutes,” he says.

   “I’m so sorry, I—”

   “You said half an hour. It’s about expectations and promises. You don’t have to make these promises. But you do. You leave people expecting. Which is why you’re not just a loser working a shit job but also a really terrible person, the very worst kind, the kind who needs everyone to think she’s so nice. I never found you attractive. I never trusted you. You say, Yes, this, and I’m Sorry, that, and Oops, Really Sorry, and We Just Want to Do What Makes You Happy, but who falls for that? I don’t fall for it. I’m the one who sees who you really are—”

   “I think you—”

   “Why do you apologize and giggle all the time? To every guy the same thing. Why do you wear that silver leotard and that ridiculous eye shadow? Your breasts look uneven in that leotard. You know what you look like? You look like a whore. Not like an escort or a call girl. You look like a ten-dollar blow job. If you think you’re ever going to pass in this city as anything other than just one more whore-cunt—”

   I hang up the phone.

   I turn off the phone.

   I pour myself a glass of water, but first I spill it and then I altogether drop it, and then I clean that up poorly. I don’t even own a silver leotard. Yet I had been called out by a small and omniscient God. I was going to be punished, and swiftly. I put on my husband’s boots and his raincoat, unintentionally creating a rubbery analogue of the clean and flat-chested look I have for years longed for. I left the apartment and headed out to the courtyard, a few blocks away; I wasn’t going to come back without that ring.


   When I get to the courtyard, I see that it is not really a courtyard, but just some concrete and a few picnic tables at the windy base of the tallest building in the neighborhood. Thinking of it as a courtyard—I guess that was a fantasy on which my husband and I had subconsciously colluded. I do see something glinting in the midday sun; it proves to be a silvery gum wrapper. There’s not even a coin on the ground. Bear suit, I’m thinking. It starts to drizzle. Then I remember: doormen are more than just people one feels one has failed to entertain. If I were in a so-called courtyard, and I found a band of gold that didn’t belong to me—

   Between the doorman and me, there at his desk, are two women. The women are dark-skinned; they are both wearing brown; they are wearing, I realize on delay, UPS uniforms. One of them is also wearing a fleecy brown vest. “The guy was totally whacked,” the vested one says.

   I feel somewhat bad because I find I am staring at these women’s asses (I think of that word as the most gentle and affectionate of the options) and I feel somewhat good because both of the asses are so attractive, though they are quite different: one is juvenile and undemanding, and the other is unembarrassedly space-occupying and reminiscent somehow of gardening—of bending over and doing things. The pants are nicely tight-fitting. I do know that I—and really everyone—am not supposed to think this way about women, or for that matter about men, because, I guess the argument goes, it reduces people to containers of sexual possibility. But I’m not sure that’s quite what is going on. Maybe I just think these women have solved the getting dressed problem. “I think that was his friend,” one of them says, “writing down the license plate number of the truck.”

   “Was someone bothering you guys?” I find myself interjecting. “This is a weirdly rough neighborhood. Even as it’s kind of a nice neighborhood, it’s also sort of a rough one—”

   “Every neighborhood is rough today—”

   “It’s iPhone day—”

   The UPS women have turned and opened their circle to me.

   “They’ve ordered two million iPhones—”

   “Someone in my neighborhood already got stabbed over a delivery.”

   “I hate phones,” I offer. “I really hate them.”

   “There’s no Apple in Russia,” the doorman says. “You can sell the phones to a Russian for fourteen hundred dollars. You buy them for six hundred; you sell them for fourteen hundred.”

   “Delivery must be terrifying,” I say to the women. “You never know what’s up with the person on the other side of the door. It’s like you knock on your own nightmare.”

   “People love their iPhones,” the vested deliverywoman says. “My daughter says it’s like they would marry their iPhones.”

   I keep not asking about Boo’s ring. “I’ve never seen a woman working UPS delivery before,” I say. “And now here you are—two of you at once. I feel like I’m seeing a unicorn. Or the Loch Ness monster. Maybe both, I guess.”

   There’s a bit of a quiet then.

   “They don’t normally travel in twos,” the doorman says. “It’s only because today is considered dangerous.”

   “There’s at least a hundred of us,” the unvested woman says, shrugging.

   “Not too many, but some.”

   “Good luck,” the doorman is saying.

   The women are walking away.

   Now it’s just me and the doorman. I am back in the familiar world again. I feel compelled to hope that he finds me attractive, and I feel angry at him, as if he were responsible for that feeling, and I find myself unzipping my husband’s raincoat and pushing back the hood, like one of those monkeys whose ovulation is not concealed. I’m looking for, I imagine myself saying to this man, a wedding ring. Oh, he says, You’re all looking for rings.

   There was no ring there. But you saw a unicorn today, I remind myself. That’s something. It’s all about keeping busy. We can just buy another ring. Why didn’t we think of that earlier? The old ring cost, maybe, three hundred dollars. We could buy a new one, nothing wrong with that, no need to think it means something it doesn’t, though it would mean something nice to have it again, I think to myself, as I find an appealing empty table in the back corner of a Peruvian chicken joint, where I order french fries. Some people save their marriages—not that our marriage needs saving, not that it’s in danger, one can’t be seduced by the semantically empty loss of a ring, I remind myself—by having adventures together. We could pull a heist. Me and Boo. Boo and … well, we’d have some Bonnie and Clyde–type name, just between ourselves. We could heist a UPS truck full of iPhones. On a rural delivery route. The guns wouldn’t need to be real, definitely not. We could then move to another country. An expensive and cold one where no one comes looking and where people leave their doors unlocked because wealth is distributed so equitably. This is not my kind of daydream, I think. This is not my sort of reverie. It is someone else’s. Maybe that’s fine. I was never a Walter Mitty myself. Though I consistently fell in love with and envied that type. But a Walter Mitty can’t be married to a Walter Mitty. It doesn’t work. There is a maximum allowance of one Walter Mitty per household. That’s just how it goes.


   “Why is your phone off? Where were you?”

   I guess hours have passed. Boo is back home. It’s dark out.

   “I got scared,” I say. “I was getting scary phone calls. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

   There’s opened mail on the table.

   Boo says, “Look, I know there’s something important that you haven’t told me.”

   My body seems to switch climates. It must be the unbreathing raincoat.

   “I know you’re scared,” he is saying. “I know you’re scared of lots of things. I don’t want to catch you out. I’m tired of catching out. I don’t want to be a catcher-outer. I just want to be told. Just tell me the thing that you’ve been hiding from me. This could be a good day for us. You could tell me, and then I will feel like I can begin to trust you more again, because I’ll know you can tell me things even when it is scary and difficult to tell.”

   I see that along with the mail, there is a shoebox full of my papers on the table. “I was just out,” I hear myself saying. Is this something to do with the guy calling for delivery? “I was just lonely in the house, and spooked, and so I went out,” I go on. “I had a salad. I guess various things happen in a day. I guess one can always share more. But I can’t think of anything I would call a secret.”

   There is a long pause now. As if, I’m thinking, I’d made an awkward, outsize observation, like calling him the Loch Ness monster, or a unicorn. He is my unicorn, though. I forgot that I used to say that; that’s how I felt falling in love with him, as if I’d found a creature of myth. He was less practical then, more dreamy. He had an old belt with a little pony on it; the pony was always upside down.

   “Please,” he says. “I’m asking as nicely as I can. Don’t you have something you want to say to me?”

   “I went out and looked for the ring,” I say. “I wanted to tell you that. I didn’t find the ring. But I did look for it. We should just buy another one.”

   “A severance check arrived for you,” he says. “Actually, I’ve found three of your severance checks.”

   “That’s odd,” I am saying.

   “None of them have been cashed, of course.”

   The unicorn suddenly has a lot to say. Why couldn’t I just tell him that I was fired? he is saying. Or he is saying something like that. I really and truly and genuinely don’t know what he is talking about. I am saying that I said I resigned because I did resign. I really do remember using that word, “tender,” in offering my resignation. And there’s been a lot of misdirected mail lately, I say. Even misdirected calls. I have been meaning to mention that to him.

   He is saying that lots of people lie, but why do I tell lies that don’t even help me? It’s just fucking weird, he is saying. Also something about the rent, and about health insurance. “And I don’t even really care that much about any of those things,” he says. “I just care that even when you’re in this room with me, you’re not here. Even when you’re here, you’re gone. You’re just in some la-la. Go back out the door and it’ll be just the same: you’re somewhere else and I’m here alone—”

   I think this goes on for quite a while. Accusations. Analyses. I feel something like a kind of happiness, shy but arrived. A faint fleeting smile, in front of the firing squad. All my vague and shifting self-loathings are streamlining into brightly delineated wrongs. This particular trial—it feels so angular and specific. So lovable. At least lovable by me. Maybe I’m the dreamer in the relationship after all. Maybe I’m the man.

   Some people would consider Jacob a physicist, others might say he’s a philosopher, or simply a “time expert,” but I tend to think of him in less reverent terms. Though not terms of hatred. Ilan used to call Jacob “my cousin from Outer Swabia.” That obscure little joke, which I heard Ilan make a number of times, probably without realizing how many times he’d made it before, always seemed to me to imply a distant blood relation between the two of them. I guess I had the sense (back then) that Jacob and Ilan were shirttail cousins of a kind. But later I came to believe, at least intermittently, that actually Ilan’s little phrase was both a misdirection and a sort of clue, one that hinted at an enormous secret, one that they’d never let me in on. Not a dully personal secret, like an affair or a small crime or, say, a missing testicle—but a scientific secret, that rare kind of secret that, in our current age, still manages to bend our knee.

   I met Ilan and Jacob by chance. Sitting at the table next to mine in a small Moroccan coffee shop on the Upper West Side, they were discussing Wuthering Heights too loudly, having the kind of reference-laden conversation that unfortunately never fails to attract me. Jacob looked about forty-five; he was overweight, he was munching obsessively on these unappetizing green leaf-shaped cookies, and he kept saying “obviously.” Ilan was good-looking, and he said that the tragedy of Heathcliff was that he was essentially, on account of his lack of property rights, a woman. Jacob then extolled Catherine’s proclaiming, “I am Heathcliff.” Something about passion was said. And about digging up graves. And a bearded young man next to them moved to a more distant table. Jacob and Ilan talked on, unoffended, praising Brontë, and at some point Ilan added, “But since Jane Austen’s usually the token woman on university syllabi, it’s understandable if your average undergraduate has a hard time shaking the idea that women are half-wits, moved only by the terror that a man might not be as rich as he seems.”

   Not necessarily warmly, I chimed in with something. Ilan laughed. Jacob refined Ilan’s statement to “straight women.” Then to straight women “in the Western tradition.” Then the three of us spoke for a long time. That hadn’t been my intention. But there was something about Ilan—manic, fragile, fidgety, womanizing (I imagined) Ilan—that was all at once like fancy coffee and bright-colored smutty flyers. He had a great deal to say, with a steady gaze into my eyes, about my reading the New York Post, which he interpreted as a sign of a highly satiric yet demotically moral intelligence. Jacob nodded. I let the flattery go straight to my heart, despite the fact that I didn’t read the Post; it had simply been left on my table by a previous customer. Ilan called Post writers naive Nabokovs. Yes, I said. The headline, I remember, read “Axis of Weasel.” Somehow this led to Jacob’s saying something vague about Proust, and violence, and perception.

   “Jacob’s a boor, isn’t he?” Ilan said. Or maybe he said “bore” and I heard “boor” because Ilan’s way of talking seemed so antiquated to me. I had so few operating sources of pride at that time. I was tutoring and making my lonely way through graduate school in civil engineering, where my main sense of joy came from trying to silently outdo the boys—they still played video games—in my courses. I started going to that coffee shop every day.


   Everyone I knew seemed to find my new companions arrogant and pathetic, but whenever they called me, I ran to join them. Ilan and Jacob were both at least twenty years older than me, and they called themselves philosophers, although only Jacob seemed to have an actual academic position, and maybe a tenuous one, I couldn’t quite tell. I was happy not to care about those things. Jacob had a wife and daughter, too, though I never met them. It was always just the three of us. We would get together and Ilan would go on about Heidegger and “thrownness,” or about Will Ferrell, and Jacob would come up with some way to disagree, and I would mostly just listen and eat baklava and drink lots of coffee. Then we’d go for a long walk, and Ilan might have some argument in defense of, say, fascist architecture, and Jacob would say something about the striated and the smooth, and then a pretty girl would walk by and they would talk about her outfit for a long time. Jacob and Ilan always had something to say, which gave me the mistaken impression that I did, too.

   Evenings we’d go to the movies, or eat at an overpriced restaurant, or lie around Ilan’s spacious and oddly neglected apartment. He had no bed frame, nothing hung on the walls, and in his bathroom there was just a single white towel and a TWA mini toothbrush. But he had a two-hundred-dollar pair of leather gloves. One day, when I went shopping with the two of them, I found myself buying a simple striped sweater so expensive that I couldn’t get to sleep that night.

   None of this behavior—the laziness, the happiness, the subservience, even the pretentiousness—was “like me.” I was accustomed to using a day planner and eating my lunch alone, in fifteen minutes; I bought my socks at street fairs. But when I was with them, I felt like, well, a girl. Or “the girl.” I would see us from the outside and recognize that I was, in an old-fashioned and maybe even demeaning way, the sidekick, the mascot, the decoration; it was thrilling. And it didn’t hurt that Ilan was so generous with his praise. I fixed his leaking shower, and he declared me a genius. Same when I roasted a chicken with lemons. When I wore orange socks with jeans, he kissed my feet. Jacob told Ilan to behave with more dignity.

   It’s not as if Jacob wasn’t lovable in his own abstruse and awkward way. I admired how much he read—probably more than Ilan, certainly more than me (he made this as clear as he could)—but Jacob struck me as pedantic, and I thought he would do well to button his shirts a couple of buttons higher. Once we were all at the movies—I had bought a soda for four dollars—and Jacob and I were waiting wordlessly for Ilan to return from the men’s room. It felt like a very long wait. Several times I had to switch the hand I was holding the soda in because the waxy cup was so cold. “He’s taking such a long time,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders, just to throw a ripple into the strange quiet between us.

   “You know what they say about time,” Jacob said idly. “It’s what happens even when nothing else does.”

   “OK,” I said. The only thing that came to my mind was the old joke that time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana. I couldn’t bear to say it. It was as if without Ilan we couldn’t even pretend to have a conversation.

   Though there were, I should admit, things about Ilan (in particular) that didn’t make me feel so good about myself. For example, once I thought he was pointing a gun at me, but it turned out to be a remarkably good fake. Occasionally when he poured me a drink, he would claim he was trying to poison me. One night I even became very sick, and wondered. Another evening—maybe the only time Jacob wasn’t with us; he said his daughter had appendicitis—Ilan and I lay on his mattress watching TV. For years watching TV had made me sick with a sense of dissoluteness, but now suddenly it seemed really great. That night Ilan took hold of one of my hands and started idly to kiss my fingers, and I felt—well, I felt I’d give up the rest of my life just for that. Then Ilan got up and turned off the television. Then he fell asleep, and the hand kissing never came up again.

   Ilan frequently called me his dusty librarian. And once he called me his Inner Swabian, and this struck him as very funny, and even Jacob didn’t seem to understand why. Ilan made a lot of jokes that I didn’t understand. But he had that handsome face, and his pants fit him just so, and he liked to lecture Jacob about how smart I was after I’d, say, nervously folded up my napkin in a way he found charming. I got absolutely no work done while I was friends with those guys. And hardly any reading, either. What I mean to say is that those were the happiest days of my entire life.


   Then we fell apart. I just stopped hearing from them. Ilan didn’t return my calls. I waited and waited. But I was remarkably poised about the whole thing. I assumed that Ilan had simply found a replacement mascot. And that Jacob—in love with Ilan, in his way—hardly registered the swapping out of one girl for another. Suddenly it seemed a mystery to me that I had ever wanted to spend time with them. Ilan was just a charming parrot. And Jacob the parrot’s parrot. And if Jacob was married and had a child, wasn’t it time for him to grow up and spend his days like a responsible adult? That, anyway, was the disorganized crowd of my thoughts. Several months passed, and I almost convinced myself that I was glad to be alone again. I took on more tutoring.

   Then one day I ran randomly (OK, not so randomly; I was haunting our old spots like the most unredeemed of ghosts) into Jacob.

   For the duration of two iced teas, Jacob sat with me, repeatedly noting that sadly, he really had no time at all, he really would have to be going. We chatted about this and that and about the tasteless yet uncanny ad campaign for a B movie called Silent Hill (the poster image was of a child normal in all respects except for the absence of a mouth), and Jacob went on and on about how much some prominent philosopher adored him, and about how deeply unmutual the feeling was, and about the burden of unsolicited love, until finally, my heart a hummingbird, I asked, “And how is Ilan?”

   Jacob’s face went the proverbial white. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen that happen to anyone. “I’m not supposed to tell you,” he said.

   Not saying anything seemed my best hope for remaining composed.

   “I don’t want your feelings to be hurt,” Jacob went on. “I’m sure Ilan wouldn’t have wanted them hurt, either.”

   After a long pause, I said, “Jacob, I’m not some disastrous heroine.” It was a bad imitation of something Ilan might have said. “Just tell me.”

   “Well, let’s see. He died.”


   “He had, well, so it is, well, he had stomach cancer. Inoperable, obviously. He kept it a secret. Told only family.”

   I recalled the cousin from Outer Swabia line. Also, I felt certain—somehow really certain—that I was being lied to. That Ilan was actually still alive. Just tired of me. Or something. “He isn’t dead,” I said, trying to deny the creeping sense of humiliation gathering at my liver’s portal vein.

   “Well, this is very awkward,” Jacob said flatly. “I feel suddenly that my whole purpose on earth is to tell you the news of Ilan—that this is my most singular and fervent mission. Here I am, failing, and yet still I feel as though this job were, somehow, my deepest essence, who I really—”

   “Why do you talk like that?” I interrupted. I had never, in all our time together, asked Jacob (or Ilan) such a thing.

   “You’re in shock—”

   “What does Ilan even do?” I asked, ashamed of this kind of ignorance above all. “Does he come from money? What was he working on? I never understood. He always seemed to me like some kind of stranded time traveler, from an era when you really could get away with just being good at conversation—”

   “Time traveler. Funny that you say that.” Jacob shook extra sugar onto the dregs of his iced tea and then slurped at it. “Ilan may have been right about you. Though honestly I could never see it myself. Well, I need to get going.”

   “Why do you have to be so obscure?” I asked. “Why can’t you just be sincere?”

   “Sincere. Huh. Let’s not take such a genial view of social circumstances so as to uphold sincerity as a primary value,” he said, with affected distraction, stirring his remaining ice with his straw. “Who you really are—very bourgeois myth, that. Obviously an anxiety about social mobility.”

   I could have cried, trying to control that conversation. Maybe Jacob could see that. Finally, looking at me directly, and with his tone of voice softened, he said, “I really am very sorry for you to have heard like this.” He patted my hand in what seemed like a genuine attempt at tenderness. “I imagine I’ll make this up to you, in time. But listen, sweetheart, I really do have to head off. I have to pick my wife up from the dentist and my kid from school, and there you go, that’s what life is like. I would advise you to seriously consider avoiding it—life, I mean—altogether. I’ll call you. Later this week. I promise.”

   He left without paying.

   He had never called me sweetheart before. And he’d never so openly expressed the opinion that I had no life. He didn’t phone me that week, or the next, or the one after that. Which was OK. Maybe, in truth, Jacob and I had always disliked each other.


   I found no obituary for Ilan. If I’d been able to find any official trace of him at all, I think I might have been comforted. But he had vanished so completely that it seemed like a trick. As if for clues, I took to reading the New York Post. I learned that professional wrestlers were dying mysteriously young, that baseball players and politicians tend to have mistresses, and that a local archbishop who’d suffered a ski injury was now doing, all told, basically fine. I was fine, too, in the sense that every day I would get out of bed in the morning, walk for an hour, go to the library and work on problem sets, drink tea, eat yogurt and bananas and falafel, avoid seeing people, rent a movie, and then fall asleep watching it.

   One afternoon—it was February—a letter addressed to Ilan showed up in my mailbox. It wasn’t the first time this had happened; Ilan had often, with no explanation, directed mail to my apartment, a habit I’d assumed had something to do with evading collection agencies. But this envelope had been addressed by hand.

   Inside, I found a single sheet of paper with an elaborate diagram in Ilan’s handwriting: billiard balls and tunnels and equations heavy with Greek. At the bottom it said, straightforwardly enough, “Jacob will know.”

   This struck me as a silly, false clue—one that I figured Jacob himself had sent. I believed it signified nothing. But. My face flushed, and my heart fluttered, and I felt as if I were a morning glory vine in bloom.

   I set aside my dignity and called Jacob.

   Without telling him why, assuming that he knew, I asked him to meet me for lunch. He excused himself with my-wife-this, my-daughter-that; I insisted that I wanted to thank him for how kind he’d always been to me, and I suggested an expensive and tastelessly fashionable restaurant downtown and said it would be my treat. He again said, No.

   I hadn’t thought this would be the game he’d play.

   “I have something of Ilan’s,” I finally admitted.

   “Good for you,” he said, his voice betraying nothing but a cold.

   “I mean work. Equations. And what look like billiard ball diagrams. I really don’t know what it is. But, well, I had a feeling that you might.” I didn’t know what I should conceal, but it seemed like I should conceal something. “Maybe it will be important.”

   “Does it smell like Ilan?”

   “I think you should see it.”

   “Listen, I’ll have lunch with you, if that’s going to make you happy, but don’t be so pathetic as to start thinking you’ve found some scrap of genius. You should know that Ilan found your interest in him laughable and that his real talent was for convincing people that he was smarter than he was. Which is quite a talent, I won’t deny it. But other than that, the only smart ideas that came out of his mouth he stole from other people, usually from me, which is why most everyone, although obviously not you, preferred me—”

   Having a “real” life seemed to have worn on Jacob.

   At the appointed time and place, Ilan’s scrawl in hand, I waited and waited for him. I ordered several courses but ate only a little side of salty cucumbers. Jacob never showed. Maybe he hadn’t been the source of the letter. Or maybe he’d lost the spirit to follow through on his joke, whatever it was.


   A little detective work on my part revealed that Ilan’s diagrams had something to do with an idea often played with in science fiction, a problem of causality and time travel known as the grandfather paradox. Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible—and much in physics suggests that it is—then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore you won’t murder your grandfather, so therefore you will be born, and will be able to murder him, et cetera, ad paradox. Ilan’s billiard ball diagrams were part of a tradition (the seminal work is Feynman and Wheeler’s 1949 Advanced Absorber Theory) of mathematically analyzing a simplified version of the paradox: imagine a billiard ball enters a wormhole, and then emerges five minutes in the past, on track to hit its earlier self out of the path that sent it into the wormhole in the first place. The surprise is that just as real circles can’t be squared, and real moving matter doesn’t cross the barrier of the speed of light, the mathematical solutions to the billiard ball–wormhole scenario seem to bear out the notion that real solutions don’t generate grandfather paradoxes. The rub is that some of the solutions are exceptionally strange and involve the balls behaving in extraordinarily unlikely, but not impossible, ways. The ball may quantum tunnel, or break in half, or hit up against its earlier self at just such an angle so as to enter the wormhole in just such a way that even more unlikely events occur. But the ball won’t, and can’t, hit up against its past self in any way that would conflict with its present self’s trajectory. The mathematics simply don’t allow it. Thus no paradox. Science fiction writers have arrived at analogous solutions to the grandfather paradox: murderous grandchildren are inevitably stopped by something—faulty pistols, slippery banana peels, their own consciences—before the impossible deed can be carried out.

   Frankly, I was surprised that Ilan—if it was Ilan—was any good at math. He hadn’t seemed the type.

   Maybe I was also surprised that I spent so many days trying to understand that note. I had other things to do. Laundry. Work. I was auditing an extra course in Materials. I can’t pretend I didn’t harbor the hope that eventually—on my own—I’d prove that page some sort of important discovery. I don’t know how literally I thought this would bring Ilan back to me. But the image that came to me was that of digging up a grave.

   I kind of wanted to call Jacob just to say that he hadn’t hurt my feelings by standing me up, that I didn’t need his help, or his company, or anything.


   Time passed. Then one Thursday—it was August—I came across two (searingly dismissive) reviews of a book Jacob had written called Times and Misdemeanors. I was amazed that he had completed anything at all. And frustrated that “grandfather paradox” didn’t appear in the index. It seemed to me implied by the title, even though that meant reading the title wrongly, as literature. Though obviously the title invited that kind of “wrongness.” Which I thought was annoying and ambiguous in precisely a Jacob kind of way. I bought the book, but in some small attempt at dignity, I didn’t read it.

   The following Monday, for the first time in his life, Jacob called me up. He said he was hoping to discuss something rather delicate with me, something he’d rather not mention over the phone. “What is it?” I asked.

   “Can you meet me?” he asked.

   “But what is it?”

   “What time should we meet?”

   I refused the first three meeting times he proposed, because I could. Eventually Jacob suggested we meet at the Moroccan place at whatever time I wanted, that day or the next, but urgently, not farther in the future, please.

   “You mean the place where I first met Ilan?” This just slipped out.

   “And me. Yes. There.”

   In preparation for our meeting, I reread the negative reviews of Jacob’s book.

   And I felt so happy.


   Predictably, the coffee shop was the same but somehow not quite the same. Someone, not me, was reading the New York Post. Someone, not Ilan, was reading Deleuze. The fashion had made for shorter shorts on many of the women, and my lemonade came with slushy, rather than cubed, ice. But the chairs were still trimmed with chipping red paint, and the floor tile seemed, as ever, to fall just short of exhibiting a regular pattern. Jacob walked in only a few minutes late, his gaze detained by one after another set of bare legs. With an expression like someone sucking on an unpleasant cough drop, he made his way over to me.

   I offered my sincerest consolations on the poor reviews of his work.

   “Oh, time will tell,” he said. He looked uncomfortable; he didn’t even touch the green leaf cookies I’d ordered for him. Sighing, wrapping his hand tightly around the edge of the table and looking away, he said, “You know what Augustine says about time? Augustine describes time as a symptom of the world being out of order, a symptom of things in the world not being themselves, having to make their way back to themselves, by moving through time—”

   Somehow I had already ceded control of the conversation. No billiard ball diagrams. No Ilan. No reviews. Almost as if I weren’t there, Jacob went on with his unencouraged ruminations: “There’s a paradox there, of course, since what can things be but themselves? In Augustine’s view, we live in what he calls the region of unlikeness, and what we’re unlike is God. We are apart from God, who is pure being, who is himself, who is outside of time. Time is our tragedy, the substance we have to wade through as we try to move closer to God. Rivers flowing to the sea, a flame reaching upward, a bird homing: these movements are things yearning to reach their true state. As humans, our motion reflects our yearning for God, and everything we do through time comes from moving, or at least trying to move, toward God. So that we can be”—someone at a nearby table cleared his throat judgmentally, which made me think of Ilan’s also being there—“our true selves. So there’s a paradox there again, that we must submit to God, which feels deceptively like not being ourselves, in order to become ourselves. We might call this yearning love, and it’s just that we often mistake what we love. We think we love sensuality. Or admiration. Or, say, another person. But loving another person is just a confusion, an error. Even if it is the kind of error that a nice, reasonable person might make—”

   It struck me that Jacob might be manically depressed and that in addition to his career, his marriage might not be going so well, either.

   “I mean,” Jacob amended, “it’s all bullshit, of course, but aren’t I a great guy? Isn’t talking to me great? I can tell you about time and you learn all about Western civilization. Augustine’s ideas are beautiful, no? I love this thought that motion is about something, that things have a place to get to, and a person has something to become, and that thing she must become is herself. Isn’t that nice?”

   Jacob had never sounded more like Ilan. It was getting on my nerves. Maybe Jacob could read my very heart and was trying to insult, or cure, me. “You’ve never called me before,” I said. “I have a lot of work to do, you know.”

   “Nonsense,” he said, without making it clear which statement of mine he was dismissing.

   “You said that you wanted to discuss something ‘delicate.’”

   Jacob returned to the topic of Augustine; I returned to the question of why the two of us had come to sit together right then, right there. We ping-ponged in this way, until eventually Jacob said, “Well, it’s about Ilan, so you’ll like that.”

   “About the grandfather paradox?” I said, too quickly.

   “Or it could be called the father paradox. Or even the mother paradox.”

   “I guess I’ve never thought of it that way, but sure.” My happiness had dissipated; I felt angry and manipulated.

   “Not only about Ilan but about my work as well.” Jacob then began to whisper. “The thing is, I’m going to ask you to try to kill me. Don’t worry, I can assure you that you won’t succeed. But in attempting, you’ll prove a glorious, shunned truth that touches on the nature of time, free will, causal loops, and quantum theory. You’ll also probably work out some aggression you feel toward me.”

   Truth be told, through the thin haze of my disdain, I had always been envious of Jacob’s intellect; I had privately believed—despite what those reviews said, or maybe partly because of what those reviews said—that Jacob was a rare genius. Now I realized that he was just crazy.

   “I know what you’re thinking,” Jacob said. “Unfortunately, I can’t explain everything to you right here, right now. It’s too psychologically trying. For you, I mean. Listen, come over to my apartment on Saturday. My family will be away for the weekend, and I’ll explain everything to you then. Don’t be alarmed. You probably know that I’ve lost my job”—I hadn’t known that, but I should have been able to guess it—“but those morons, trust me, their falseness will become obvious. They’ll be flies at the horse’s ass. My ideas will bestride the world like a colossus. And you, too: you’ll be essential.”

   I promised to attend, fully intending not to.

   “Please,” he said.

   “Of course,” I said.

   All the rest of that week I tried to think through my decision carefully, but the more I tried to organize my thoughts, the more ludicrous I felt for thinking them at all. I thought: As a friend, isn’t it my responsibility to find out if Jacob has gone crazy? But really we’re not friends. And if I come to know too much about his madness, he may destroy me in order to preserve his psychotic worldview. But maybe I should take that risk because in drawing closer to Jacob—mad or not—I’ll learn something more of Ilan. But why do I need to know anything? And do my propositions really follow one from the other? Maybe my not going will entail Jacob’s having to destroy me in order to preserve his worldview. Or maybe Jacob is utterly levelheaded and just bored enough to play an elaborate joke on me. Or maybe, despite there never having been the least spark of sexual attraction between us, despite the fact that we could have been locked in a closet for seven hours and nothing would have happened, maybe, for some reason, Jacob is trying to seduce me. Out of nostalgia for Ilan. Or as consolation for the turn in his career. Was I really up for dealing with a desperate man?

   Or was I, in my dusty way, passing up the opportunity to be part of an idea that would, as Jacob had said, “bestride the world like a colossus”?


   Early Saturday morning I found myself knocking on Jacob’s half-open door; this was when my world began to grow strange to me—strange and yet also familiar, as if my destiny had once been known to me and I had forgotten it incompletely. Jacob’s voice invited me in.

   I’d never been to his apartment before. It was tiny, and smelled of orange rinds, and had, incongruously, behind a futon, a chalkboard; also so many piles of papers and books that the apartment seemed more like the movie set for an intellectual’s rooms than like the real McCoy. I had once visited a ninety-one-year-old great-uncle who was still conducting research on fruit flies, and his apartment was cluttered with countless hand-stoppered jars of cloned fruit flies and also hot plates for preparing some sort of agar; that apartment was what Jacob’s brought to mind. I found myself doubting that Jacob truly had a wife and child, as he had so often claimed.

   “Thank God you’ve come,” Jacob said, emerging from what appeared to be a galley kitchen but may have been simply a closet. “I knew you’d be reliable, that at least.” And then, as if reading my mind: “Natasha sleeps in the loft we built. My wife and I sleep on the futon. Although yes, it’s not much for entertaining. But can I get you something? I have this tea that one of my students gave me, exceptional stuff from Japan, harvested at high altitude—”

   “Tea, great, yes,” I said. To my surprise, I was relieved that Jacob’s ego seemed to weather his miserable surroundings just fine. Also to my surprise I felt tenderly toward him. And toward the scent of old citrus.

   On the main table I noticed what looked like the ragtag remains of some Physics 101 lab experiments: rusted silver balls on different inclines, distressed balloons, a stained funnel, a markered flask, a calcium-speckled Bunsen burner, iron filings and sandpaper, large magnets, and yellow batteries likely bought from a Chinese immigrant on the subway. Did I have the vague feeling that “a strange traveler” might show up and tell “extravagant stories” over a meal of fresh rabbit? I did. I also considered that Jacob’s asking me to murder him had just been an old-fashioned suicidal plea for help.

   “Here, here.” Jacob brought me tea in a cracked porcelain cup.

   I thought, somewhat fondly, of Ilan’s old inscrutable poisoning jokes. “Thanks so much,” I said. I moved away from that table of hodgepodge and sat on Jacob’s futon.

   “Well,” Jacob said gently, also sitting down.

   “Yes, well.”

   “Well, well.”

   “Yes,” I said.

   “I’m not going to hit on you,” Jacob said.

   “Of course not. You’re not going to kiss my hand.”


   The tea tasted like damp cotton.

   Jacob rose and walked over to the table, spoke to me from across the compressed distance. “I presume that you learned what you could. From those scribblings of Ilan. Yes?”

   I conceded. Both that I had learned something and that I had not learned everything. That much was still a mystery to me.

   “But you understand, at least, that in situations approaching grandfather paradoxes very strange things can become the norm. Just as if someone running begins to approach the speed of light, he grows unfathomably heavy.” He paused. “Didn’t you find it odd that you found yourself lounging so much with me and Ilan? Didn’t it seem to beg explanation, how happy the three of us—”

   “It wasn’t strange,” I insisted. I was right almost by definition. It wasn’t strange because it had already happened and so it was conceivable. Or maybe that was wrong. “I think he loved us both,” I said, confused for no reason. “And we both loved him.”

   Jacob sighed. “Yes, OK. I hope you’ll appreciate the elaborate calculations I’ve done in order to set up these demonstrations of extraordinarily unlikely events. Come over here. Please. You’ll see that we’re in a region of, well, not exactly a region of unlikeness, that would be a cheap association—very Ilan-like, though, a fitting tribute—but we’ll enter a region where things seem not to behave as themselves. In other words, a zone where events, teetering toward interfering”—I briefly felt that I was a child again, falling asleep on our scratchy blue sofa while my coughing father watched reruns of Twilight Zone—“with a fixed future, are pressured into revealing their hidden essences.”

   I felt years or miles away.

   Then this happened, which is not the crux of the story, or even the center of what was strange to me: Jacob tapped one of the silver balls and it rolled up the inclined plane; he set a flask of water on the Bunsen burner and marked the rising level of the fluid; a balloon distended unevenly; a magnet under sandpaper moved iron filings so as to spell the word “egregious.”

   Jacob turned to me, raised his eyebrows. “Astonishing, no?”

   I felt like I’d seen him wearing a dress or going to the bathroom. What he had shown me were children’s magic tricks.

   “I remember those science magic shows from childhood,” I said gently. I wasn’t not afraid. “I always loved those spooky caves they advertised on highway billboards.” Cousin or no cousin, Ilan had clearly run away from Jacob, not from me.

   “I can see you’re resistant,” Jacob said. “Which I understand, and even respect. Maybe I scared you, with that killing me talk, which you weren’t ready for. We’ll return to it. I’ll order us in some food. We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll talk, and I’ll let you absorb the news slowly. You’re an engineer, for God’s sake. You’ll put the pieces together. Sometimes sleep helps, sometimes spearmint—just little ways of sharpening a mind’s ability to synthesize. You take your time.”


   Jacob transferred greasy Chinese food into marginally clean bowls, “for a more homey feel.” There at the table, that shabby impromptu lab, I found myself eating slowly. Jacob seemed to need something from me, something more, even, than just a modicum of belief. He had paid for the takeout. Halfway through a bowl of wide beef-flavored noodles—we had actually been comfortable in the quiet, at ease—Jacob said, “Didn’t you find Ilan’s ideas uncannily fashionable? Always a nose ahead? Even how he started wearing pink before everyone else?”

   “He was fashionable in all sorts of ways,” I agreed, surprised by my appetite for the slippery and unpleasant food. “Not that it ever got him very far, always running after the next new thing. Sometimes I’d copy what he said, and it would sound dumb coming out of my mouth, so maybe it was dumb in the first place. Just said with charm.” Never before had I spoken aloud anything unkind about Ilan.

   “You don’t understand,” Jacob said. “I guess I should tell you that Ilan is my as yet unborn son, who visited me—us—from the future.” He took a metal ball between two greasy fingers, dropped it twice, and then once again demonstrated it rolling up the inclined plane. “The two of us, Ilan and I, we collaborate.” Jacob explained that part of what Ilan had established in his travels, which were repeated and varied, was that contrary to popular movies, travel into the past didn’t alter the future, or, rather, that the future was already altered, or, rather, that it was all far more complicated than that. “I, too, was reluctant to believe,” Jacob insisted. “Extremely reluctant. And he’s my son. A pain in the ass, but also my beloved child.” Jacob ate a dumpling in one bite. “A bit too much of a moralist, though. Not a good business partner, in that sense.”

   I no longer felt intimidated by Jacob. How could I? He had looped the loop. “If Ilan was from the future, that means he could tell you about your future,” I said.

   “Sure, yes. A little.” Jacob blushed like a schoolgirl. “It’s not important. But certain things he did know. Yes. Being my son and all.”

   “Ah, so.” I, too, ate a dumpling whole. Which isn’t the kind of thing I normally do. “What about my future? Did he know anything about my future?”

   Jacob shook his head. I couldn’t tell if he was answering my question or just disapproving of it. “Right now we have my career to save,” he said. I saw that he was sweating, even along his exposed collarbone. “Can I tell you what I’m thinking? What I’m thinking is that we perform the impossibility of my dying before fathering Ilan. A little stunt show of sorts, but for real. With real guns and rope and poison and maybe some blindfolded throwing of knives. Real life. And this can drum up a bit of publicity for my work.” I felt myself getting sleepy during this speech of his, getting sleepy and thinking of circuses and of childhood trips to Las Vegas and of Ilan’s mattress and of the time a small binder clip landed on my head when I was walking outside. “I mean, it’s a bit lowbrow, but lowbrow is the new highbrow, of course, or maybe the old highbrow. It’ll be fantastic. Maybe we can go on Letterman.

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