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Zero K(10)
Don DeLillo

I continued to wait, expecting more. I felt a whiskey belch erupting from some deep sac. There was nowhere to go and I had no idea what time it was. My watch was fixed on North American time, eastern standard.

- 5 -

I’d seen him once before, here in the food unit, the man in the monk’s cloak. He did not look up when I entered. A meal appeared in a slot near the door and I took the plate, glass and utensils to a table positioned diagonally to his, across a narrow aisle.

He had a long face and large hands, head narrowing toward the top, hair cropped to the skull, leaving sparse gray stubble. The cloak was the same one he’d been wearing last time, old and wrinkled, purplish, with gold embellishments. It had no sleeves. What emerged from the cloak were pajama sleeves, striped.

I examined the food, took a bite and decided to assume that he spoke English.

“What is this we’re eating?”

He looked over at my plate, although not at me.

“It’s called morning plov.”

I took another bite and tried to associate the taste with the name.

“Can you tell me what that is?”

“Carrots and onions, some mutton, some rice.”

“I see the rice.”

“Oshi nahor,” he said.

We ate quietly for a time.

“What do you do here?”

“I talk to the dying.”

“You reassure them.”

“What do I reassure them of?”

“The continuation. The reawakening.”

“Do you believe that?”

“Don’t you?” I said.

“I don’t think I want to. I just talk about the end. Calmly, quietly.”

“But the idea itself. The reason behind this entire venture. You don’t accept it.”

“I want to die and be finished forever. Don’t you want to die?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?”

In his voice I tried to detect origins in some secluded bend of the English language, pitch and tone possibly hedged by time, tradition and other languages.

“What brought you here?”

He had to think about this.

“Maybe something someone said. I just drifted in. I was living in Tashkent during the unrest. Many hundreds dead all through the country. They boil people to death there. The medieval mind. I tend to enter countries in their periods of violent unrest. I was learning to speak Uzbek and helping educate the children of one of the provincial officials. I taught them English word by word and tried to minister to the man’s wife, who had been ill for several years. I performed the functions of a cleric.”

He took some food, chewed and swallowed. I did the same and waited for him to continue. The food was beginning to taste like what it was, now that he’d identified it for me. Mutton. Morning plov. It seemed he had nothing further to say.

“And are you a cleric?”

“I was a member of a post-evangelist group. We were radical breakaways from the world council. We had chapters in seven countries. The number kept changing. Five, seven, four, eight. We met in simple structures that we built ourselves. Mastabas. Inspired by tombs in very ancient Egypt.”

“Mastabas.”

“Flat roof, sloped walls, rectangular base.”

“You met in tombs.”

“We were fiercely awaiting the year, the day, the moment.”

“Something would happen.”

“What would it be? A meteoroid, a solid mass of stone or metal. An asteroid falling from space, two hundred kilometers in diameter. We knew the astrophysics. An object striking the earth.”

“You wanted it to happen.”

“We lusted after it. We prayed for it incessantly. It would come from out there, the great expanse of the galaxies, the infinite reach that contains every particle of matter. All the mysteries.”

“Then it happened.”

“Things fall into the ocean. Satellites falling out of orbit, space probes, space debris, pieces of space junk, man-made. Always the ocean,” he said. “Then it happened. A thing hits skimmingly.”

“Chelyabinsk,” I said.

He let the name dangle. The name itself was a justification. Such events really happen. Those who devote themselves to the occurrence of such events, whatever the scale, whatever the damage, are not dealing in make-believe.

He said, “Siberia was put there to catch these things.”

I understood that he did not see the person he was talking to. He had the drifter’s inclination to be impervious to names and faces. These were interchangeable components room to room, country to country. He did not talk so much as narrate. He traced a wavy line, his, and there was usually someone willing to be the random body that he told his stories to.

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