Presenting excerpts from an illuminating work of contemporary fiction. A noted author gambles with the power of his protagonist's voice to transform a cataclysm from raw current event to a tragedy at once visceral and mythical. Unafraid to show his traumatized characters' constant groping for plain cheese pizza, the noted author demonstrates once again that he is one of the few contemporary writers willing to risk slapstick in order to address great questions of truth, love and beauty.
Oskar McCallister is a precocious nine year old trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, confronting life in New York City on his own, and the prime target of two bad men.
What about the Talkboy? What if they made a Talkboy that you didn’t have to talk into first, so it had everyone’s voice already in it? Then you could press a button and call up anyone’s voice, even if they were dead. Maybe you could even choose what they were going to say, in case you needed them to say goodnight or to wake you up or even to curse at you about wrecking their room.
What about birds? Birds fly all the time, or most of them do. Not all birds can fly. Everyone knows about the penguin and the ostrich, but I also know about the Auckland Teal and the Flightless Cormorant and the Invisible Rail. That’s a strange name for a bird, but they really exist and they don’t fly. They stay on the ground, where they run into things at low speeds. Most birds fly though, like the ones the Bird Lady in the park feeds. They only fly where they want to fly and they don’t have to worry about people making them fly places they’re not supposed to, or into other things and even if a bird exploded it probably wouldn’t be a very big explosion and people wouldn’t be trapped by the flaming wreckage.
When people are dead, sometimes people who aren’t dead will say that they "passed away." That’s a euphemism, which is something people say when they’re trying to be polite. I was raised to be polite so sometimes I speak euphemistically, which is speaking using euphemisms. Sometimes I think of myself as an heir, or even as a scion. Those are euphemisms. Other times I’m wearing heavy boots and I think of myself as a sole survivor.
I left the toy store. It was cold outside, and I buttoned up my jacket and pulled my hat down even though there wasn’t anyone to remind me to do it. I had the turtledoves in my front pocket, and thinking about all the people I didn’t have to give one to was giving me heavy boots. I was all alone, maybe with the heaviest boots I’d ever had. Then I wasn’t alone, but I still had heavy boots. Two people walked up behind me. I didn’t turn around because maybe they were just standing behind me for some reason that had nothing to do with me. But then one of them said "Hiya, pal!" and I recognized the voice. It was Harry. Harry and his partner Marv had tried to rob the family jewelry business and I had stopped them by hitting them with objects or lighting them on fire or just making them fall down. They didn’t appreciate it at the time. I turned around and looked up. They were smiling, which I knew meant they were supposed to be happy, but that didn’t make any sense. I was confused but also extremely scared, so I screamed and ran away.
They ran after me. Running past Bloomingdale’s I saw Muhammad behind his table. He sold jewelry like my dad had sold jewelry, except instead of a store with doors and glass cabinets and a mirror I wasn’t supposed to touch, Muhammad had a table covered with a red sheet. Muhammad is the most common name in the entire world, but he was the only one I knew. Muhammad was a doctor in Nairobi, which is in Kenya, which is in Africa. But being a doctor in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa must not be the same as being a doctor in New York, New York, America, because now he sold jewelry from behind a table. I bought some pearls and kept running. When I got across the street I broke the necklaces and spilled all the pearls onto the ground. One time Grandma had told me "senseless destruction is for senseless people," but now she was dead and besides this wasn’t senseless. Harry and Marv were so focused on me that they didn’t see the pearls on the ground, and because the frictional coefficient of pearls is a lot lower than the frictional coefficient of concrete they slipped and flew into the air. They landed flat on their backs and the air rushed out of them. You wouldn’t think that I knew about frictional coefficients because I’m only 8, but I’m very quirky so I know that they range from almost zero to more than one and you use the Greek letter µ to describe them. When I saw Harry and Marv hit the ground I felt like 100 dollars. I kept running.
When I got to the hotel the concierge was smiling, even though he wasn’t glad to see me. I wasn’t sure if everyone had changed what a smile meant without telling me, it was getting incredibly confusing. I told him there were two guys after me and he told me I had stolen my family’s credit card. I had used it to check in because no one else was going to use it because they were all dead and if I stayed at home in our empty apartment my boots were so heavy I could barely walk, which is why I was at the hotel. The concierge said he was going to call the police. Even though two guys were trying to kill me I didn’t want him to call the police. I’m only 8 and sometimes my decisions don’t make sense. I ran into the hotel, dodged more staff members, and slid into the elevator. I got up to my room and was stuffing my things into my bag when I heard the concierge and everyone else burst into the room. The night before I had watched Angels with Even Filthier Souls, which is a movie about gangsters and not angels. Angels don’t actually have souls, so I’m not sure what the person who named the movie was trying to say.
I grabbed the remote and hit play and for a minute the man on the television had a conversation with the concierge, who couldn’t tell the difference between a live voice and one on the television and never thought to cross the room and look into the other room where I was with the television. The man on television started firing his tommy gun and the concierge ran away because he also couldn’t tell the difference between live rounds of ammunition and ones on the television. The tommy gun was invented in 1919 and it’s named after its inventor, John T. Thompson. For a while I thought it was just named Tommy and that all guns had names. Back then I thought that an Oskar gun would be quirky but now I think that it would just have one bullet in the place where lots of bullets should go.
I ran down the stairs, which I could do because it was only four floors and not eighty-five. Eighty-five floors is too many for an entire family to run down. They can’t make it. I made it though, but when I jumped off the loading dock Harry and Marv were waiting for me. They each grabbed an arm and marched me down the street. They thought that because my family had owned a jewelry store we would have lots of money, and so they wanted to rob my apartment. We got to the corner and I realized we were standing behind an incredibly pretty lady. I reached out and pinched her derriere, which is French for ass, which is something I’m not supposed to say. She turned around and she punched Marv in the face. I said, "He did it!" and I pointed to Harry. Lie #68. Harry was holding my arm so hard he was going to give me a bruise, so even though I told lie #68 I didn’t have to give myself one. She punched him in the face too. I thanked her and ran away.
Marv was in the front, where a staple gun was shooting him in the derriere. Harry went around back, where I had placed some traps. Some people might say they were Goldbergian, which is a reference to Rube Goldberg, who is a guy who drew a lot of crazy things but didn’t actually invent them. I bet that if he invented them they would have been a lot simpler, because you always have a limited budget or amount of space or sometimes you might just need to keep things simple because who knows, you might die in a huge explosion tomorrow. Anyway, my traps existed in real life so they were better than Rube Goldberg. Harry was climbing onto a garbage can in the alley. I heard him leap for the fire escape. I had spread soap over the bottom rung, making the µ extremely low. His hands slipped off the rung and he hit the ground, hard. I could hear him grumble as he climbed the staircase. I finished tying a string to the doorknob and ran farther into the house. He heard me running and yelled, "You’ll have to do better than that, kid!" I bet he wouldn’t know a µ from a δ, which I did because I know a lot of things it doesn’t make any sense for an 8 year old to know. He yanked the door open, pulling the cord I had tied to the doorknob, which ran up and over the door to a bag full of tools I had tied above the stoop. The zipper opened and the tools fell on his head. They made thunks and plunks and plinks. After a one second delay, one last something fell from the bag and hit his head.
A 586 gram pair of tongue-and-groove pliers, falling from ten feet in the air to hit Harry as he lay on the ground would fall for approximately .620408 seconds. It would reach a velocity of approximately 6.08 meters per second and land with approximately 7.9886 foot pounds of force. (I am ignoring wind resistance because I am 8.) Fracturing a skull requires approximately 33 foot pounds of force, so Harry got up.
Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to fracture anyone’s skull. I tried setting Harry and Marv on fire, but I was still bored. I wasn’t going to die and the whole thing just seemed pointless. I left the house and called the police and ran into the park. Central Park is a reasonable place for an 8 year old to run if people are trying to kill him. The cops came. The bird lady helped me defeat Harry and Marv. I asked her if she was schizophrenic and she said no. I told her she might be without knowing it, and that it's possible that the family she told me about was a hallucination that never existed. She said I might be a hallucination that never existed, and that gave me heavy boots because I really wished it were true.
What about a new kind of building? One that could defend itself, no matter how big it was or what you tried to do to it? It could lift up a corner of its foundation and drop it on someone's toes, maybe. Or when someone rang the doorbell it scanned their fingerprint and checked against the FBI database and if they were a dangerous person instead of opening the door would just flatten them? What if when you tried to crash something really big into the building the middle of it turned to rubber except for one bit that stayed steel, and whatever you were trying to crash would just come to halt but because objects in motion stay in motion you would keep flying forward until acted upon by an outside force. The steel part would hit the would-be crasher in the nuts. That's the outside force. Everyone else gets outside force from their seat belts, which they fashioned securely when the pilot told them to. How different would things be, in a building like that?