On her back in the supermarket, the smell of applesauce everywhere and a far-off seeming throb in her ankle barely registering, Natasha had an epiphany. She misheard the mumble of the older fellow in the red smock saying “Twisted, she’s all twisted” because of all the crunching glass and the fwapping shoeflats. “Trickster, she’s a trickster.” Natasha decided Yes, that sounds good.
The main difficulty with being a trickster is that tricksters tend to lack a source of either regular income or a store of wealth upon which to draw. Postmodern America doesn’t have much in the way of godly ambrosia, and simply wandering the country riding backwards on a donkey could lead to both economic and legal problems — few people wished to take in a stranger for the night these days.
Simply summoning up immense wealth is even more problematic: figures like Batman never rise to the level of trickster because Bruce Wayne’s billions give him too much of a stake in the status quo, even as it funds the Batarangs and rubber suits with built-in Bat-nipples. When was the last time Batman dangled a Pope or President from a city rooftop and demanded information? Never, probably thought Natasha. Natasha’s ruminations understandably drifted in this direction as she was lifted up – poor procedure on the part of the stock boys and their manager — and turned to face a wall of Waffle Crisp cereal boxes, all featuring the famed character. Though, as it turns out, being so lifted exacerbated Natasha’s ankle injury, and compelled the supermarket to settle for 150% more than it usually does in trip-and-fall cases, so the main difficulty with becoming a trickster was solved. The rent and bills were paid.
Natasha then had to deal with the secondary difficulty of becoming a trickster, which is that the social world in which she lived wasn’t quite so stagnant as pre-modern agricultural political economies, and not quite so bureaucratized and soulless as the movies would have it. All the wrong people needed the shaking up a trickster could provide. Once, Natasha dated an actuary with a R. Crumb devil girl tattooed on his hip, right by his penis. Natasha certainly hadn’t been expecting that. On the other hand, Antigone, Natasha’s grandmother, had stopped spitting years ago whenever she said something nice about Natasha. “I’m not a peasant anymore,” she’d said by way of explanation at Easter. This also explained why she had just ordered food in rather than making a lamb. Of course, she’d also stopped saying nice things about Natasha, at least when Natasha was in earshot. Mostly yiayia just complained about the ring in her granddaughter’s nose and the occasional splashes of purple in her curls.
“Why do you keep making that ptui ptui noise, yiayia?” Natasha, a wincing eight-year-old, had asked.
“To protect you from vaskania, the evil eye!” Antigone beat on Natasha’s hair with a brush, hoping that the annoyance of grooming it would keep her from accidentally complimenting it again.
“Who is going to put the evil eye on me?”
“Well,” Antigone said, after a moment, “I am. If you say too many good things, or think too many good things, if it sounds like jealousy, the vaskania comes. So I spit to show that I don’t think too much of you.” Natasha hadn’t been sure how to feel about that: pleased that she was pretty, unhappy that her own grandmother was jealous, grossed-out by the idea of being spit on even if it was imaginary spit, worried that the evil eye would get her anyway and do something awful…later, it was all just quaint, and Natasha missed the spitting when it was gone.
Ah, thought Natasha after her reverie, that would be a good gimmick. She called the guy with the devil girl tattoo.
* * *
“So, you’re serious,” Robert said.
“As serious as one can be about this sort of thing,” Natasha said.
“Why are you calling me? I mean, I’m happy to hear from you…” Robert trailed off. Natasha realized that he was still mooning over her. She wondered if that stupid tattoo interfered with his relationships, or did it get him enough novelty sex that he didn’t care.
“I just thought it was something you’d be into, you know—”
“Well, hypothetically, sure. I mean, my first instinct is to target Paris Hilton or somebody like that, but no. Too trivial.”
“Lame!” Natasha agreed.
“Plus, every little ah-choo is so heavily reported that it would be hard to pick out the statistically significant alteration of reality you’re trying to accomplish. Not that you can, of course. Same with politicians or the war; the risks are so high and public scrutiny so intense that any ‘evil eye’ effect would just be drowned out in the night and fog of war.”
“I need something good, but almost forgotten.”
“And something you legitimately like as well.”
“So…what are you doing this weekend, Nat?” Robert asked.
“Thinking good thoughts.”
Three days later, over a dozen cases of e.coli illnesses were traced back to the butter used to make saltwater taffy on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Among the infected was the stepdaughter of New Jersey’s interim lieutenant governor. Investigations were launched, mob figures and freeholders implicated in a labyrinthine graft for concessions scheme – both the feds and the Star-Ledger had been working on the story when the bad taffy hit, giving them both the break they needed — and only one person died from the infection.
* * *
“I killed someone,” Natasha said to Robert. They’d agreed to meet in person again, by Robert’s office in Chelsea.
“E.coli killed someone, and it happens. Plus, some good was done anyway.”
Natasha just stared.
“I have to take the long view, professionally.”
“You’re very cold-blooded about this, considering how skeptical you were.”
“Are,” corrected Robert. “It’s also easy to be cold-blooded about a coincidence.”
“If you’re not taking this seriously,” Natasha asked, “why are you here?” She cut into her cannolo with the side of her fork and scooped up a mouthful to avoid saying anything else.
“I’m here…for you.” Robert said.
Natasha stormed up Eighth Avenue as best she could given her ankle, which dragged and clunked against the sidewalk like a square wheel. Robert followed, walking in slow mincing steps, because he knew he’d just get whacked with an elbow if he kept pace or dared shoot ahead. The streets were busy with trucks and flower arrangements and bolts of fabric spilling into the streets from the stores. There seemed to be a McDonald’s at the end of every block, and a Starbucks directly across from each McDonald’s. Natasha pivoted and walked right, toward the river and into Hell’s Kitchen.
At the lip of the West Side Highway, Robert finally asked where she was taking him.
“I’m not taking you anywhere. You decided to follow me. And we’re here already.” She nodded across the road toward the USS Intrepid, anchored like a tiny city on its own in the Hudson. Rockets and jets turned toward the brownstones and slab warehouses of the city with a sense of sudden menace. “My grandmother lived here when I was a kid. It was a rough neighborhood. She used to say that Hell’s Kitchen ‘had seen better days’ and my Dad would get mad. ‘What better days?’ he’d say. ‘The neighborhood is called Hell’s Kitchen—’ ”
“Well, the neighborhood is actually known as Clinton—”
“I knew you’d say that. Maybe you have Asperger’s Syndrome, Robert.” Natasha blew a curl out of her face, but the wind from the river put it right back on her nose. Robert shifted his weight, but managed to keep his arm from moving to reach up and tuck it behind her ear. “Anyway, as I was saying. I’d stay over here a lot, in the summertime, to see city stuff. No place is more boring than Bergen County, and the city was like a million miles way. And I was never afraid of the ‘hood or violence because of the Intrepid. I’d dream of the jets waking up on their own and flying down the streets, blasting the bad guys, or one of the big cannons going off and nailing some street gang in a big flash while leaving everything else untouched.”
They looked at one another as the traffic smoldered around them. Robert opened his mouth to say something but suddenly lost sight of Natasha. There was nothing but the dome of blue sky, then his shins and feet flashing by, then the sounds of crunching and ten thousand car horns sceaming at once. The street cracked under his back.
* * *
Natasha and Robert, under separate blankets draped over the shoulders, watery coffees serving more to warm their hands than anything else. The streets and buildings around them groaned and rained mortar dust. The night was gray and still, like every bird and car battery had just died.
“Go ahead,” Natasha said flatly.
“Everyone knows that there is a major fault line under the Hudson. It’s been on the cover of New York Magazine for Christ’s sake.”
“It’s been dormant for centuries.”
“That just means we were due.”
“Due…the very second I was thinking about how great the aircraft carrier was. Due, the very second the vaskania was due to hit an indestructible 9000-ton ship.”
“How did you know it was 9000 tons?”
“I told you, I was a fan. I used to go there all the time. I had pamphlets and stuff.”
The Intrepid itself was listing heavily, smoke easing out of the twisted holes in its hull.
“Maybe it’s a good thing you don’t like me at all then. I’d hate to see what would happen to a person you loved.”
And then Natasha remembered yiayia in that rickety five-story walkup, the one where the staircases tilted dangerously to the left, where plaster fell in teacups in flakes from the ceiling. She looked at Robert, her face an explosion, and he understood. His arm crooked under her shoulder, excuses muttered and pocket money flashed, they scrambled, three-legged up cracked streets, tree roots and jagged peaks of concrete and asphalt reaching for them.
They couldn’t make it to the building. A red wall of fire trucks through which threaded bored-looking police officers, barred the way. In the distance something steamed, but Natasha couldn’t tell if it was her grandmother’s building, or if it even mattered. She laughed.
“What the hell?” said Robert.
“I was just picturing it. Maybe it was the building next to hers that collapsed, and she was in the kitchen, carried backwards by the quake, and is hanging on to some pipe or something, kicking the air and screaming ‘Get me down, you malac-chee-ehs!’ ” There were no voices then, except for the tinny crackle of the walkie-talkie on the firefighter brushing past.
“This is no time for stupid shit,” Robert said.
Natasha turned to him, grabbed the collar of his windbreaker and shoved her tongue past his teeth. When she finished she pushed him away and said, “It’s always time. Now I get it. This is the freedom. To think of your own dead grandmother and laugh.”
And blocks away the waters of the Hudson bubbled and from the river shot out a gigantic shining torch, held aloft by a greenish bronze hand.
Nick Mamatas is the author of two novels, Move Under Ground and Under My Roof. His recent short fiction will be collected in You Might Sleep… by Prime Books in late summer of 2008. Nick lives near, but not in, Boston, Mass.