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Zero K(9)
Don DeLillo

He poured carefully, an amount he liked to call a fingerbreadth. His glass, then mine.

“First for Artis, of course. For the woman she is, for what she means to me. Then the leap into total acceptance. The conviction, the principle.”

Think of it this way, he told me. Think of your life span measured in years and then measured in seconds. Years, eighty years. Sounds okay by current standards. And then seconds, he said. Your life in seconds. What’s the equivalent of eighty years?

He paused, maybe running the numbers. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades.

Seconds, he said. Start counting. Your life in seconds. Think of the age of the earth, the geologic eras, oceans appearing and disappearing. Think of the age of the galaxy, the age of the universe. All those billions of years. And us, you and me. We live and die in a flash.

Seconds, he said. We can measure our time in seconds.

He wore a blue dress shirt, no tie, top two buttons undone. I played with the idea that the shirt’s color matched one of the hall doors of my recent experience. Maybe I was trying to undermine the discourse, a form of self-defense.

He took off his glasses and set them down. He looked tired, he looked older. I watched him drink and then pour and I waved off the thrust bottle.

I said, “If someone had told me all this, weeks ago, this place, these ideas, someone I trust completely, I guess I would have believed it. But I’m here, and it’s all around me, and I have trouble believing it.”

“You need a good night’s sleep.”

“Bishkek. Is that it?”

“And Almaty. But at a considerable distance, both. And to the north somewhere, way up, far up, that’s where the Soviets tested their nuclear bombs.”

We thought about this.

“You have to get beyond your experience,” he said. “Beyond your limitations.”

“I need a window to look out of. That’s my limitation.”

He raised his glass and waited for me to match the gesture.

“I took you to the playground, that old ruin of a playground where we were living then. I put you on the swing and I pushed and waited and pushed,” he said. “The swing flew out, the swing came back. I put you on the seesaw. I stood on the other side of the balancing bar and pushed down slowly on my end of the plank. You went up in the air, your hands fastened to the grip. Then I raised the plank at my end and watched you drop down. Up and down. A little faster now. Up and down, up and down. I made sure you held tight to the handgrip. I said, See-saw, see-saw.”

I paused a moment and then raised my glass, waiting for whatever was next.

•  •  •

I stood before the screen in the long hallway. Nothing but sky at first, then an intimation of threat, treetops leaning, unnatural light. Soon, in seconds, a rotating column of wind, dirt and debris. It began to fill the frame, a staggered funnel, dark and bent, soundless, and then another, down left, in the far distance, rising from the horizon line. This was flat land, view unobstructed, the screen all tornado now, an awed silence that I thought would break into open roar.

Here was our climate enfolding us. I’d seen many tornadoes on TV news reports and waited for the footage of the rubbled storm path, the aftermath, houses in a shattered line, roofs blown off, siding in collapse.

It appeared, yes, whole streets leveled, school bus on its side, but also people coming this way, in slow motion, nearly out of the screen and into the hall, carrying what they’d salvaged, a troop of men and women, black and white, in solemn march, and the dead arrayed on ravaged floorboards in front yards. The camera lingered on the bodies. The detailwork of their violent end was hard to watch. But I watched, feeling obligated to something or someone, the victims perhaps, and thinking of myself as lone witness, sworn to the task.

Now, somewhere else, another town, another time of day, a young woman on a bicycle pedaling past, foreground, oddly comic motion, quick and jittery, one end of the screen to the other, with a mile-wide storm, a vortex, still far off, crawling up out of the seam of earth and sky, and then cut to an obese man lurching down basement steps, ultra-real, families huddled in garages, faces in the dark, and the girl on the bike again, pedaling the other way now, carefree, without urgency, a scene in an old silent movie, she is Buster Keaton in nitwit innocence, and then a reddish flash of light and the thing was right here, touching down massively, sucking up half a house, pure power, truck and barn squarely in the path.

White screen, while I stood waiting.

Total wasteland now, a sheared landscape, the image persisting, the silence as well. I stood in place for some minutes, waiting, houses gone, girl on bike gone, nothing, finished, done. The same drained screen.

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