As Levi waited at baggage claim, he listened to a phone conversation he’d recorded with his girlfriend, Alice. She was teaching him a “good luck” saying she’d learned from Vladimir, her Russian lab mate:
Alice: I say, “Ni puha ni pera,” which literally means “not down and not feathers.” And then you’ll say, “K chiortu.”
Levi: What does that mean?
Alice: “To the devil.”
Alice: So, say it.
“To the devil,” Levi mouthed silently to himself as he grabbed his backpack off the carousel. Outside the airport he saw a white girl with dreads in a T-shirt with the Rising Phoenix logo — a bird with wings on fire. She’d even written his name with a Sharpie on a piece of paper, along with the word MEDIA, which is what he’d claimed to be. He held his microphone out to her, and she reached over and petted its gray, furry windscreen as if it were a cat’s head, sending a loud rustle into his headphones. She said her name was Nancy and that she’d be giving him a ride to the Rising Phoenix base camp on the back of her motorcycle. He’d never been on a motorcycle before, but he wrapped his arms around her waist and tried to lean when she did to avoid throwing them off balance with his large backpack.
The trees in the swamps near the airport had been torn out by the roots and were lying on their sides. It was very beautiful, the clusters of long, gray, recumbent trees. They reminded him of those nineteenth-century paintings of nude, reclining women. He shouted in her ear, asking if they could pull over. She stopped on the shoulder, and he got his recorder out of the backpack as cars whizzed past. Then he awkwardly held the microphone out to her.
“Can you describe what you’re seeing?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“These trees.” He pointed the microphone at the trees.
“You want me to describe the trees?”
Maybe if he’d had more resolve or experience, he could’ve waited her out, but he didn’t know how not to fill a silence. So he described the trees on the side of the road himself: “We’re standing off the highway near the airport next to trees that the storm has ripped out by the roots. They’re dead and gray. They look like bodies.”
Nancy made a face, and he quickly turned off the microphone. Where was the line between documenting the aftermath of a hurricane, which was what he’d come here to do, and aestheticizing or sensationalizing it? It was not entirely clear to him.
They got back on the motorcycle. He looked at the side of Nancy’s face and wondered if she was judging him, but she didn’t seem to be thinking about him at all. She was gesturing at something. The road swerved, and then he could see from the top of the exit ramp the tarped roof of the Superdome in the distance, like an enormous blue marble.
They drove for blocks and blocks, through neighborhoods that must have recently contained houses but now contained only debris, until they got to the Rising Phoenix base camp in the parking lot of a gutted-out church. A woman with a long braid introduced herself as the volunteer coordinator and led Levi into a green army tent with rows of cots, two to each parking space. A dirty-looking, red-haired man and a child were drawing pictures on the pavement between the cots. Levi stood for a moment watching them, pointing his microphone toward the sounds of chalk scraping on asphalt, but he could sense that the man was keeping his back turned because he didn’t want to be recorded.
“This is a nonhierarchical organization,” the volunteer coordinator kept repeating as she showed Levi the rest of the base camp. “If tomorrow you decided you wanted to be doing my job, you could.”
Levi asked where she was from, and she ran the tip of her braid over her lips. “I’d rather not get into all that.”
The volunteer coordinator walked him to the dinner line, then wandered away. Levi stood, fiddling with his recorder and feeling shy. A guy with an acoustic guitar came up to him and began playing an earnest song about somebody’s body being a wonderland. Levi was relieved when he saw Nancy approach.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she said, and she led him over to a white man sitting on the hood of a blue pickup truck, smoking. The man shook Levi’s hand with a strong grip, like his calluses and blisters had solidified into a glove of confidence. This was John Darbinger, the self-appointed head of media relations.
Darbinger rubbed his knuckles over his heart-shaped chin and stared at the digital recorder hanging on a strap around Levi’s chest.
“Whatcha got there?” he said into Levi’s microphone.
“A Marantz PMD661.” Levi had spent several afternoons at the law firm where he temped researching the best recorder to get. It was what the professionals had, and though he wasn’t a professional, saying those letters and numbers made him feel like he could pass for one.
Darbinger seemed to approve. “The Rising Phoenix needs more media exposure. You’re the guy that went to Harvard?”
Levi nodded. Say “Harvard,” even to anarchists, and you can hear the creak of doors opening. None of the doors he’d opened with it so far had been worth opening, but whose fault was that? “I don’t know if what I’m making will be a ‘news story’ exactly,” he said.
Darbinger squinted at him through the cigarette smoke. “You mean maybe something longer form?”
Levi nodded because to say it might end up as “sound art” sounded frivolous. Since Alice had left to work in a lab in Estonia, he’d been recording compulsively. At first he’d thought that it would be a way to send his life to Alice so that the ocean between them wouldn’t force them apart. “Listen to it when you fall asleep,” he’d said, “or when you’re walking around. It’ll feel like you’re here with me.” But who knew if she listened at all — unedited raw tape was basically unlistenable. And yet recording seemed to have taken on its own purpose.
“A documentary about what we’re doing out here might be even better,” Darbinger said to Nancy, and she laughed and wiped some ash off his shirt, an intimate gesture that he openly ignored.
“You’re probably hungry,” Darbinger said, taking Levi’s plate of cold chickpeas and dropping them in the trash. “Get in the truck. We’ll get some real food.” He didn’t invite Nancy, who stood there with her long arms hanging at her sides as she watched them drive away.
Darbinger took Levi over the bridge to get fried chicken at a gas station. The station must have been running off a generator, because there were no other lights on anywhere — at least, not on this side of the city. Darbinger ate the chicken as he drove, using his wrists to turn the steering wheel, his greasy fingers glinting in the dark. All the traffic lights were out. Darbinger’s headlights illuminated some that hung from partially severed cords or lay shattered on the road. He was telling Levi how, when he’d gotten there, the city had been barricaded. Darbinger had been one of the few people trying to get in, wading neck-deep in dirty water, seeing bodies float by and getting shot at. He had come in to help a friend who hadn’t evacuated — Darbinger rolled down his window to toss out a chicken bone — a dear friend he hadn’t been able to reach because the phone lines were down. The friend was old and frail and had spent the last thirty years in solitary for a crime he hadn’t committed. Through all that, the man had managed to keep his sanity, and now that he was finally out, this happens. Darbinger got choked up when he said that last part. He described the way his friend had looked, huddled on the roof of his house, sunburnt and dehydrated. “I swam through all that shit, literally shit, to get to him,” Darbinger said. He didn’t say how they’d become friends, what had brought them into each other’s orbit.
“He’s in Arkansas now,” Darbinger said, throwing out the last of the chicken bones and wiping his hands on a napkin. They were crossing back over the bridge.
A few blocks from base camp, Darbinger pulled up to a gutted-out house that was illuminated from inside with a camping lantern. Instead of a front window there was clear plastic sheeting. A woman was standing behind it, looking out at them.
“And what brought you here?” Darbinger asked, though his attention was already on the woman in the house.
“I was visiting my girlfriend in Estonia, and we were traveling through Russia when the storm hit. We were in this big department store in Saint Petersburg because I was trying to buy her a bikini—”
Darbinger snorted at this detail and let go of the keys in the ignition.
“We got lost and ended up in the electronics department, and there, on a bank of televisions, was news coverage of the storm, except it was in Russian, which I don’t speak, so it took me a while to figure out what was happening. It was horrible.” He remembered seeing on many screens at once: a body floating facedown, tied to a telephone pole; then a crying woman holding a baby, sitting inside the crowded stadium, the suffering in Warholian duplication with a newscaster’s voice dubbing over any meaning. And then, in the background of one of the shots, Levi saw the Superdome and felt a jolt because his abstract and philosophical musings had smacked up against the lip of reality — this was New Orleans, a city he’d visited on a family vacation — and the suffering instantly became more concrete. Remembering this made him blush with shame. Why should suffering be any more real because it’s closer to home?
“It was horrible, yes,” Darbinger said. “No doubt about that. Need all the help we can get. I’m gonna go in there a minute. You can wait or walk back.”
Levi watched Darbinger go in. Through the plastic sheeting he saw the woman push Darbinger away but then pick up the camping lantern from the floor and lead him deeper into the house. When they were no longer visible, Levi sat and waited a few minutes, then decided to walk back. He found a flashlight in the glove compartment and also a gun. It was surprisingly heavy, and Levi assumed this was because it was loaded full of heavy bullets.
“You said he’s from Texas. He probably has a license for it,” Alice said when Levi called her and told her about the gun. It sounded like she was blowing on something — tea, probably.
“Are they all that . . . heavy?” Alice’s relatives liked to shoot guns.
“You picked it up? God. Why did you touch it?”
He laughed. “What, you’re worried about my fingerprints being on it? He waded through shit to save people.”
“That’s what he says.”
Levi shined his flashlight through the fog, disoriented until he saw the bridge. “It’s probably true. Otherwise people would have called him out on it. He’s very charismatic. He says he still sleeps in his boots.”
“So he’s ready.”
Levi didn’t know. It was so quiet here. There were no people, no animals, not even birds. He was walking past refrigerators taped shut and set out on the sidewalk. They looked like tombs and smelled like death. The whole city was like a cemetery. The volunteer coordinator had said that they sometimes still found bodies in the houses they gutted.
“What does he look like?” Alice asked.
“I don’t know. Handsome. Rugged. Round-faced.”
“Round-faced doesn’t sound handsome or rugged. Anyway he sounds like he’s full of shit.”
Maybe Levi would have deferred to Alice if she were here, but she wasn’t — so, what did she know?
Levi stopped walking. In front of him was an old oak tree with a yellow car caught in its branches like a Mylar balloon. “There’s a car in a tree,” he said.
“It must have floated up there when the water was high and gotten stuck.”
“How would the branches hold it?” Alice asked.
Levi circled the tree, then took a few steps back and squinted up at the car’s undercarriage. “I don’t know.”
“These storms are going to keep happening.” Alice slurped her tea. “What’s the point of rebuilding the city if they’re going to go through all this again in a few years?”
Alice was a pragmatist, and this made it hard for Levi to talk to her sometimes.
“Are you recording this?” Alice finally asked because he wasn’t saying anything.
“I knew you were.”
Levi shined the flashlight at the ground. Playing cards lay scattered on the grass at his feet. Next to him were steps and a foundation, but no house.
“You got me,” he said.
“You make your voice deeper. That’s your tell.” She sounded sad.
“I do?” he said, extra deep, trying to turn it into a joke. Maybe the recordings were to blame for their disconnection. Rather than bringing his life to Alice, the constant taping had put him on the outside of both their lives.
He was near base camp now. The voices of the people around the bonfire carried through the cold, damp air. He went over and stood by the fire. A man got up and walked several paces away to take a leak. Near the big tent some women were hula-hooping in the dark. Levi recorded the sounds of the fire, the peeing, the clicking noises the ball bearings made inside the hula hoops. He would send it all to Alice, and she would hear those sounds, but what could she possibly conjure from them?
The next morning, Levi was sent to work in the distribution center, stocking donated goods and arranging them in colored bins. A family pulled up, and Levi tried to interview them. They’d just come back from evacuating to Arkansas and hadn’t been home yet. The daughter stood over a bin of donated comic books, leafing through them while the dad loaded cases of water and cleaning supplies into their trunk and Levi talked to the mom.
“I don’t know what we’re going to find,” the woman said, waving away the recorder.
At noon Nancy brought Levi lunch. Her knees were covered in dirt. Levi almost reached over to brush them off but stopped himself.
“Why do you have dirt on your knees?” he said into his microphone instead.
“I was planting sunflowers.”
He thought she was making a joke, but she didn’t smile, just took a bite of her peanut-butter sandwich.
“You were planting flowers?” he repeated into the microphone.
“To remediate the soil,” she replied after she was done chewing. “They pull the lead out of the ground. Then we sell the flowers to a florist uptown.”
“So people buy sunflowers full of lead? Or does the lead transform into something else?”
“I guess? I don’t know what happens to it, to be honest.” She grabbed a bottle of water off the shelf and took a long swig.
“Can lead transform into something else, or would that be alchemy?” It was the sort of thing Alice would know.
Nancy capped her water and blinked. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said. “Have you seen Darbinger?”
After Nancy left, a woman came in looking for size 11 men’s construction boots because hers had been stolen. Levi recorded his conversation with her. She was a roofer and had come down to look for work opportunities. “You see the blue tarps on the Superdome?” she said.
“I noticed them on the way in, yeah,” Levi said, watching her lace up the boots.
“I helped put those up.”
Levi liked the proud way she said this, and he was glad he’d gotten a recording of it.
“I wonder if I’ll ever look at something and think, I made that! Yeah!” Levi said. “As opposed to, like, Is it OK that I made that? Is the thing I made terrible? Is it ethical? Is it at someone else’s expense? Is it hurting them? Is it even anything worth, like, . . .”
The woman made a face as she walked back and forth, feeling the new boots. “How old are you?” she asked him.
“Twenty-two,” he said.
She shrugged. “When I was twenty-two, I was living as a man, and I also had a lot of hang-ups.”
Levi nodded. “How are the boots?”
“Good. I’ll take ’em,” she said.
After she left, nobody came in, and Levi was told he was no longer needed there. He went on a walk around base camp and called Alice. It was very early on her end, and he woke her up.
“I was just dreaming about you,” she said sleepily.
“You were?” This was heartening.
“I was about to go down on you, but your dick—” She started to laugh, and he smiled, too, expectantly into the air around him. “Your dick had turned into a fish tail, like a mermaid-type thing, but not your legs, just your dick.”
“Oh,” Levi said, not really sure what to make of this. “Did you still suck it?”
“Yeah,” she said through her laughter. “Do you think that’s, like, a fertility dream?”
“I don’t know. It was your dream.”
“So many people here who are barely older than us have children. Vladimir has a son.”
It irritated Levi to be constantly learning facts about Alice’s attractive Russian lab mate.
Not far from the tent, Levi saw Nancy getting into the truck and shouted after her, waving his recorder. “I’ll call you later,” he told Alice, quickly getting off the phone. Nancy waited for Levi to climb in and arrange himself in the back among the other volunteers, the shovels, and the wheelbarrows. They were going to gut a house.
The truck pulled up to a suburban split-level on a cul-de-sac. In the windy front yard they put on Tyvek suits over their clothes and watched Nancy demonstrate how to screw the filters into the respirators. Her movements were rote and precise, like a flight attendant’s. He remembered the dirt on her knees and blinked back the thought before it could arouse him further.
Levi tried to record the sounds of people working, but Nancy kept asking him to help carry furniture, until eventually he tucked the recorder under his suit. There was a spattering of black mold on every surface in the house. The floral couches and mattresses Levi helped carry into the front yard looked as if ink pens had exploded on them. Levi filled a wheelbarrow with a stiff mass of embroidered little pillows that had fused together and a wicker basket stuffed with disintegrating magazines and ceramic dolls.
After they finished emptying the house, he took a shovel from the truck to begin knocking out the walls. A water line circled the room at about chin level. Nancy had explained that the water had risen to eight or nine feet and that the line was where the water had stopped receding and stood stagnant. Everything below the line had to go.
Levi hit the wall with the side of the shovel, and the drywall bent like cardboard. He hit it again until it broke. The dust settled over his goggles, and every few hits he’d stop and wipe them off, until he realized he didn’t really need to see. He closed his eyes and felt a strange excitement as he began to smash the wall with the full force of his skinny arms. For a moment he existed simply as a current and was not observing or analyzing himself. A mouse in one of Alice’s experiments — injected full of rage hormones, behaving with atypical aggression. He stopped only when his shovel clanged against a pipe.
It took him a moment to realize that Nancy was shouting his name.
“Take a break,” she said, wiping his goggles with her sleeve and handing him a bottle of water.
Levi went outside, sat on the moldy couch, and put his head between his knees. He could feel the blood in his temples throbbing as he fished the recorder out of his Tyvek suit and slipped the headphones over his sweaty ears. He stared at his shoes, listening to himself catch his breath, then whispered into the recorder, “I just gutted a house. It feels like a metaphor. My house is rotten, and I need to gut it.” He didn’t mean the shitty apartment he shared in outer Brooklyn with three roommates, but his House with a capital H. His Self.
He sat up because something landed by his foot. A small embroidered pillow. He hadn’t heard Darbinger drive up, but there he was, standing on top of a pile of soggy insulation and carpeting, a rusty nine-iron in his hand. Levi immediately aimed his recorder at the action.
“Fore!” Darbinger called out too late. He began lining up another shot with his boot. He swung twice for practice, then swung hard, letting the club crack against a doll’s head, the porcelain splintering in the air and showering down on them.
“My bad,” Darbinger called out, and started to laugh. He jumped down off the pile of insulation and threw the club toward an overturned golf bag. There was a drop of blood where a shard of porcelain had cut his cheek. “I want to know what our organization is doing gutting the house of someone in this white suburb. Someone who plays golf. Someone who could probably afford to gut their own damn house.”
Nancy came outside, and they started arguing. She said he shouldn’t make assumptions about people, that there was a waiting list and an order. She was sick of his macho bullshit. The respirator had left a deep-red furrow across her nose and cheeks. Levi touched his own face to feel if he had the same markings.
Darbinger told her she could stay and leaf through the Ladies’ Home Journal and pick out paint samples, but he was going to go lie on the street in front of bulldozers and he needed some volunteers. She looked like she was about to shove him, but she took a deep breath and said that those houses he wanted to save would probably be condemned no matter what, and lying in front of bulldozers was pointless and dangerous and probably wouldn’t help anyone.
“Is that so?” Darbinger said evenly, and opened the passenger door of his blue pickup, gesturing for Levi to get in. “Well, that’s your opinion.”
Levi got in the truck, and Darbinger started the engine.
“A widow with lupus lives in this house!” Nancy shouted as Darbinger backed out of the driveway. She slapped the side of his truck. “You asshole.”
Darbinger waved at her and rolled up the window. Levi knew that leaving Nancy like that was an objectively shitty thing to do, but he was here to get tape. His phone buzzed on the seat next to him, but he was busy listening back to the fight he’d just recorded, checking the levels.
“Is that your Russian girlfriend?” Darbinger asked, and answered the phone before Levi could reply. “Privet, kak dela? Did I say that right?”
Levi had told Darbinger about Alice the night before, but Darbinger had listened selectively and seemed insistent on the idea that she was Russian.
“You don’t have an accent,” Darbinger said into the phone.
Levi tried to snatch it back, but Darbinger switched it to his other hand. Levi could hear the faint sounds of Alice’s confusion.
“Harvard misses you, I can tell. You should move here . . . Research? What kind of research are you doing?” He drove onto the median because there was so much debris in the road. “Rage? Why are you studying rage over there? You want to study rage, come down here. Everybody down here’s got some rage. Maybe even your boy has some rage.”
Levi reached for the phone again, but Darbinger slapped his hand away as he swerved around a tree.
“So, why do you study that? Are you an angry person? You don’t sound angry.”
Levi was pretty sure Alice was angry: with him, for not getting the phone back from Darbinger. She was probably giving Darbinger the same explanation of her research in the same tone of voice that she used with his mother and other people she considered idiots, telling him that by injecting mice with hormones that induced sudden and atypical aggression, they could begin to look for an antidote.
Darbinger burst out: “Sweetheart, what are you talking to me about lab mice for? I’m talking about this government’s systemic failings. I’m talking about people in their attics standing up to their necks in dirty water for days. Everyone should be angry!” He snapped the phone shut and dropped it back down on their seat.
“Watch out with the Russian girls. They’re all sluts.” Darbinger glanced at Levi. “Just teasin’. Well, some of ’em,” he added thoughtfully. “Some of ’em are probably sluts.”
They pulled up on Alvarez, where a dozen protesters were already lying in the middle of the road. Three bulldozers were idling a hundred yards away. Darbinger announced that “Press” was here, pointing to Levi, then stepped over several people and took his spot beside a woman with long brown hair — probably the woman from the other night. He took her hand and kissed her wrist, then let out a whoop. Levi crouched beside people, pointing his microphone at them, asking if they wanted to say anything. One man said that his grandfather’s house was on this block, and that the city was trying to seize it under eminent domain. He’d driven back from the evacuation site to stop them, but a lot of paperwork had been lost in the flood.
Some people started chanting. Levi recognized the guy who’d been playing guitar at the campsite. After about half an hour Darbinger stood up and squinted at the bulldozers. The drivers had left, maybe to go to lunch. Levi changed out the batteries in his recorder. Every so often the chanting would restart, then die down. Levi stopped hovering and lay on his back in the middle of the road next to the guy who was there to protect his grandfather’s house. The sky was full of well-shaped clouds. He pointed his microphone up and recorded ambient sounds of the protesters getting restless. He wondered: If he played back this tape for himself later, would it bring back this feeling of aimlessness and righteousness and a dissipating nervous energy?
When it became clear that the bulldozer drivers weren’t coming back anytime soon, Darbinger stood up, brushed off his jeans victoriously, and said there were some people he wanted Levi to meet by the public housing a few blocks away.
Even though it didn’t look like there was much damage to the high-rises, they were boarded up and overrun by stray cats. The pastor Darbinger had come to visit owned three adjacent shotgun houses facing the towers. He was an old, tall Black man and kept the tip of his white beard tucked into his overalls. He led Darbinger and Levi through his houses, which he’d recently finished gutting by himself. The first had been a community center; the second, a health clinic; and the third, his home. His wife was standing outside between their house and the FEMA trailer they were staying in, frying up some fish. She was small, and there was something wrong with one of her eyes. She nodded shyly at Levi and thanked him for coming down to help. Her movements were oddly girlish, and he could picture her hiding behind the leg of her giant husband.
The pastor hardly talked as they worked on the middle house, scrubbing the mold on the beams and studs with bleach. Levi recorded the sound of the bristly brushes on wood and Darbinger’s running monologue muffled by his mask. He kept telling the pastor that they should get an action going, get people back into their apartments, take the buildings back. The city had no right to use this tragedy to get rid of Black people. It had been trying to get rid of them all along, and that’s why it hadn’t rescued them; that’s why it had let over a thousand of them die. Levi couldn’t tell what the pastor thought about Darbinger and his lecture, but when they were done, the pastor shook their hands, and they all ate some fish.
When Darbinger went to take a phone call, Levi asked the couple if he could interview them. The pastor shrugged, but his wife blushed and nodded. “It’s about time people hear what’s really happening down here,” she said. “The rest of the country thinks things have gone back to normal. It’s not right.”
The pastor’s wife spoke into the microphone, telling Levi about the history of those buildings, the famous musicians who had come up there. The city had wanted to develop this land for some time. It was prime real estate. So even though there wasn’t much damage, the city wasn’t letting anyone back into the public housing, even to get their own belongings.
After the interview the pastor took Levi’s hand, looked into his eyes, and thanked him. It made Levi uncomfortable, being thanked like this. For what? He had done so little.
“Sure,” Levi finally managed to say.
As they were talking, a car pulled up, and the pastor’s wife waved at the woman driving. “You just got in?” she called.
“Just now. Drove straight from Atlanta,” the woman in the car called back.
“Go help Miss Althea,” the pastor’s wife said to Levi and her husband.
Levi was about to follow the pastor out to the car when Darbinger emerged from behind the FEMA trailer with a twitchy smile. He told Levi that the bulldozers were running now and there was a news crew down on Alvarez.
Levi watched Miss Althea take a welcome mat from the trunk and hand it to the pastor, who was tall enough to lay it over the barbed wire on the chain-link fence that surrounded the high-rises. A man who’d arrived with Miss Althea began to slowly climb the fence.
“Let’s go,” Darbinger said to Levi, shoving what was left on his plate into his mouth with small stabbing gestures. “The bulldozing’s about to start.”
“I’m going to stay,” Levi said, surprising himself. Darbinger repeated what he had said about the bulldozers almost word for word, and Levi just pretended to adjust the levels on his recorder. The pastor’s wife handed Darbinger a plastic container of fried fish for him to take home, and he thanked her and got in his truck and didn’t give Levi a second look as he peeled out. Cats scattered underfoot as Levi joined the two old men climbing over the chain-link fence.
“All right.” The man nodded at Levi after the pastor introduced him through the fence.
Levi hesitated after he climbed to the top, not sure how to drape his foot over the welcome mat so it wouldn’t slip. From up there he could see army tanks parked on the road. Below, the man’s lips seemed to be straining to hold in his loose dentures. He held his thin arms out to catch Levi if he fell.
It wasn’t that difficult to break into the high-rise. Levi pried off a board and laid it on its side. The cement stairwell smelled like piss and yeast and cat litter, but the man said that was how it always smelled. Miss Althea’s apartment was on the fourth floor.
The apartment had a leather recliner in the front room. The man sat on it and massaged his temples. “I don’t know how much of this is gonna fit in the car,” he said. The pastor sat down next to him. Levi didn’t know what to do, so he went into the bedroom, found a suitcase under the bed, and started dumping dresses and hats into it from the closet.
He called Alice back as he was doing this, getting ready to leave her a message, but she answered. “Oh,” he said. “I thought you’d be at work.”
“I left early,” she said. “One of my mice chewed off her foot. The lab doesn’t have money to euthanize them, so Vladimir took her into the other room. I heard a little thump. He must have broken her neck against the wall. He came back with her wrapped in a napkin.”
Levi looked down at the mess he’d made in the suitcase, then emptied it out so he could start over. “That’s terrible,” he said. Vladimir the reaper. Levi would not have done that for Alice — at least, he didn’t think he would have. When mice had gotten stuck on the glue trap in his apartment, Levi had left them there and gone to work. He understood that he was still responsible for their dying through his inaction, and that what he’d done was crueler than if he’d quickly crushed their skulls. But if that was true, why didn’t it feel true?
“Speaking of terrible,” she said, rolling her r, “what was with that guy you made me talk to? Was that the gun guy?”
“Yeah,” Levi said. He refolded a blouse. “That was him. I don’t know. Do you think people’s motives matter if they’re still helping people?”
Alice didn’t answer him. “When are you flying back?”
“I don’t know,” Levi said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. His return ticket was for next week — that’s how long he’d been allowed to take off work. In the other room the men had started to sing what sounded like an old hymn. “I don’t want to go back.”
“Like, at all?” Alice sounded more alarmed than he’d expected.
“I don’t know,” he said again. He thought about the house he’d gutted earlier. Maybe to have seen it as a metaphor had been immoral. What were the ethics of using someone else’s tragedy to find yourself?
Neither Levi nor Alice said anything for a while, and he recorded their silence and the muffled sound of the men in the other room singing together. Something about their singing made him feel unbalanced, like one of his hands was wet and the other was dry. He wished very much that he could join them, but he didn’t know the tune or the words.