by Daniel Uncapher

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short fiction

The celebrated writer talks at some length about the problem of oppression and when the subject of slavery comes up he confesses that he’s no longer a real pacifist, that in fact if he were Thomas Jefferson’s slave, he would have no choice: “I would accept an early death,” says the celebrated writer, “and slit the president’s throat.”

The caterers forgot to bring coffee to the seminar so our mouths are dry and even the celebrated writer permits himself a yawn. Afterwards we’re invited to enjoy bagels and juice in the Great Hall, under the murals of Christopher Columbus descending from the Santa Maria to become Death, world-destroyer. The celebrated writer gestures grandly to the condescending portraits.

“I cry about the death of Columbus every day,” he says. “It should’ve happened sooner!”

He and I are the only two in the room to eat plain untoasted bagels with plain cream cheese, which comes as no surprise for me but, for a person of the world like the celebrated writer, comes as quite the surprise. Had he reached for a bottle of Coke to top it off I might have broken down and demanded an explanation but, true to the spirit of the day, to a fresh squeeze and migrant labor, he enjoys a cup of pulp-free orange juice.

I leave the seminar feeling dissatisfied. One thing’s for sure: I hate Christopher Columbus, and slitting Thomas Jefferson’s throat is just about the most compelling idea I’ve heard at one of these things. I have undergone something of a radicalization. Any so-called real American would radicalize overnight if Russian drones invaded our airspace. Wouldn’t Thomas Jefferson slit Thomas Jefferson’s throat? Killing the master, bombing the imperialists—these were immensely satisfying thoughts. So why do I walk home feeling dissatisfied?

(I text Xue, who still considers herself a pacifist and believes that celebrated writer is a reactionary, and ask if she’d slit the throat of Thomas Jefferson. She says: it depends on how he treats me. Surprised by her answer, I find myself wondering what role Xue would’ve had in 9/11, had she been alive to experience it.)

Due to the paralysis of my tibialis anterior from a car accident at a young age I am forced to live my life with a condition called dropfoot, which means that my right foot drags a little. I make it halfway across Leeper Park before the toe of my shoe snags on a frost-heaved edge of concrete sidewalk and I fall over, flat on my face.

Finding myself horizontal in an otherwise vertical world is always a surprise, but these things sometimes happen to people like me. Parts hurt. I take inventory: six points of contact, six sites of injury. Ankle, knee, hip, elbow, wrist, shoulder; my thigh, also, hurts.

I stay where I am and act natural. No one appears to have noticed my fall, for which I consider myself, free of the sick rush of a stranger’s useless assistance, extraordinarily fortunate. That no one has seen me fall is in fact such a lucky turn as to outweigh the misfortune of the fall in the first place, tipping the scales to and fro. I’m reminded of something the celebrated writer said, talking about craft to a room full of invested listeners: writing is a kind of walking, a constant falling-forward where each fall catches the last one until, suddenly, you’re standing upright somewhere else; a series of barely perceptible failures that perform the illusion of getting somewhere.

Picking at the grass around me, I imagine slitting Thomas Jefferson’s pasty throat. Thomas Jefferson is perhaps my favorite president. Of all the white-collar criminals that made up the revolution, Jefferson stands alone as a great man, a true intellect and polymath: politician, gardener, architect, slaver, rapist.

I roll onto my back and slash the clouds with a blade of grass, opening up Thomas Jefferson’s flabby, white neck for a closer inspection. He has all the organs of a regular man, not even a particularly great one; his voice is higher-pitched than we tend to imagine, and he smells uniquely 17th-century. But for a murder fantasy, it’ll do; the throat of Thomas Jefferson is sufficient for slitting.

There in the grass lying perfectly still I feel more ready for action than I have in years. Full-contact with the earth does me good. I feel radically healthy and decide to move but, reluctant to leave horizontality behind me, I roll through the dirt and goose droppings until I find a patch of clover by the river. Thinking of Xue, I come to a rest in the cloverpatch and begin hunting for mutants.

I’ve never found a four-leaf clover before, and I’m someone who generally keeps an eye on the ground, at my feet. Xue, on the other hand—someone who as a rule looks skywards—has never had a problem finding four-leaf clovers. Sometimes she’ll come home with two or three of them, ready to be tamped down in scotch tape and pinned to the Corkboard of Minor Recognition, which has itself turned into something of a cloverpatch right there in the middle of the kitchen.

(On the rare but entirely unsurprising occasion that Xue comes home with a five- or even six-leafed clover it gets pinned to the Corkboard of Major Recognition, which we keep in the privacy of our bedroom.)

I twirl my finger around a stem of clover that doesn’t want to pluck. The refusal to pluck is as jarring an interruption as if someone threw open the emergency door on an airplane at 40,000 feet and I curl up around the discovery with great curiosity. What I find is difficult to parse at first, almost blurry, until something more familiar comes into shape: not a clover at all, but the frayed end of a red thread sticking steadfastly out of the dirt.

I ball it into a fist and pull harder, and this time it rips up, cutting through the dirt like a wire through clay. I sit up, pulling as I go, and then stand; the thread comes with me all the way, with just enough tug that I can use it to stabilize myself; the right side of my body aches all over from its six major points of impact, which go deeper through my core than I initially suspected, and my dropfoot is suddenly worse than ever. In my way I enjoy the handicap, for it lends itself to the mystery of this new thread, it gives it an air of inherent conflict, of something like pathos—with which I’ve always felt I’ve lived a life quite rich, but a little more never hurts.

I follow the thread. I pull it out, winding it around first my finger and then my wrist. I advance through the park with total devotion, ripping up the soft topsoil and imagining the act in all its variations: the knife against Thomas Jefferson’s powdery throat, the prow of the Santa Maria against the middle Atlantic, the twin thin lines against a hazy, metropolitan horizon. My progress is real and substantial and, in the ecstasy of progress, I start to feel the first twinge of achievement deep inside me, starting in my anus and spreading warmly outwards. This thread is definitely going on the Corkboard of Minor Recognition when I get home, I think to myself, feeling, for the first time all day, somewhat satisfied.

A little girl with rakish black eyes stares at me from the swings.

“What are you up to, angry man?”

“I’m not angry,” I say, startled by the epithet. “Do I look angry? I’m just focused on my work.”

“Are you a surveyor?”

“A what? No. I’m part of the exploratory committee. And I’ve made something of a discovery here, no thanks to anyone else I might add.”

“Do you need any help?”

“Shouldn’t you be at school?”

“It’s Saturday,” she says.

“What’s your name?”

“Xue X, and my parents don’t get home until 8.”

“You can come,” I say, “But that doesn’t mean I need your help. This is a one-man operation.”

“But look,” says Xue X. “Can’t you see it’s getting bigger?”

To my surprise she’s right. I meet resistance in the thread, which appears to have split, or even multiplied, into multiple parallel strands. The ball of thread around my fist is almost the size of a softball now. I double my efforts, transferring the thread from my wrist to my arm, and put my entire, aching body into it.

“This is getting out of hand,” says Xue X. “Let go, before you hurt yourself.”

“I’ve already hurt myself,” I say. “Besides, aren’t you curious?”

“Curious about what?”

“What this thing is, where it goes?”

“I think you’re getting ahead of yourself a little bit,” she says, and suddenly I distrust her. Why would she say a thing like that?

Normally, as a matter of personal and professional principle, I never draw attention to someone’s name, and I would never in something like 10 million years think to make fun of someone’s name. But let’s be clear about something here: Xue X is not a usual name for someone in my part of the country. Xue X is, at the very least, a sophisticated name, and my part of the country isn’t known for harboring sophisticates.

“Who named you, anyway?”

“I named myself,” she says. “I’m a known nomenclate.”

Now I know she’s toying with me and the schoolboy in me wants to push her or something, but before I can eject her from our private enterprise a fisherman hails us from the shore of the river, which has been running parallel to us for some time.

“You’re disturbing the fish with all that racket,” he says.

“We’re onto something pretty significant over here,” I call back. “Why don’t you put down your net and come give me a hand?”

His curiosity gets the best of him and he joins me, leaving his tackle and net in the trunk of his repurposed Crown Vic.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, staring at my bound-up arm. “What kind of no-brain situation is this?”

“A developing one,” I say, defensively. Xue X giggles.

He sizes me up and I immediately cede ground to him; this is no ordinary fisherman. This is, as they say, a fisher of men. “We’re never going to make any real progress with you connected to it like that,” he says. With his pocketknife he cuts the thread off at my wrist; I yelp, as though I can feel it, and almost fall over from the release of pressure.

The fisherman continues. “We’re going to need to get serious about this, I mean really methodological, if we hope to finish this thing out, okay? Like this. You stand over there and I’ll stand over here. Take a stick like so. Grab hold of a bundle of threads there and tie them to it, and then once it’s full grab it with both hands and roll. Use your knees. We’re going to roll this thing right up like a carpet, do you understand me?”

“You’re an artist,” I say. “You’re the second one I’ve met today.” I give him total control of the project. If he gets too power-hungry, of course, I will just slit his throat.

Together we seem to achieve, for a moment, the movement of progress. The thread has indeed startled to tangle with itself now, its many winding branches catching at random and forming a web-like weave. But it grows in equal if not outlasting proportion to our efforts, always one more separating thread ahead of our embrace.

As the weave widens it pulls up whole blankets of earth, stray pieces of dirt and gravel falling between the irregular gaps in the webbing. These insignificant losses don’t bother me a bit but they seem to drive the fisherman crazy. He looks over his shoulder at Xue X and whistles between his front teeth.

“If you’re going to tag along then you’ll need to at least get your hands dirty. You’re a little picker now, do you understand me? You’re to pick up the pieces that fall through the net.”

“Weave,” I correct him. “Are you sure that’s the best allocation of our limited resources? These little pieces don’t seem like much—”

“These little pieces add up,” says the fisherman, groaning through the effort of uprooting this monstrous construction. “A net this size—”

“Weave, very different.”

“Whatever it is, it’s getting ahead of us, and we’re just going to need to take on more help. More big pushers, of course, but more little pickers, too.”

“You’re thinking big, I see,” I say. “What’re we going to pay them all with?”

“I didn’t say anything about hiring,” says the fisherman. “We’re talking pro bono. We’re talking feudal value.”

“Let me go,” says Xue X, looking with concern at her undirtied palms. “Let me get help.”

“No. We need you here, picking. We can’t afford any more losses, not at this critical juncture.”

I stop pushing forward. “Now wait just a minute,” I say. “I’m not sure I like your tone.”

The fisherman stops to confront me. “What did you just say to me?”

“I said that this thread has been here waiting for us for who-knows-how-many years, and now that you’ve sunk your hook in it you think you can boss kids around or something. What’s one more hour, huh? What’s one more body to the birds?”

The fisherman laughs, discharging the tension but raising the stakes. “You lack imagination, committeeman, and frankly I’m surprised—I mean living in a state of increasing disbelief—that a person with your constitution managed to find such a magnificent thing in the first place. If I didn’t know better I’d think perhaps you stole it. Perhaps you laid it here yourself. But no, that too would outdo you; and you’re not really much to outdo, are you?”

A headache takes shape in the front of my brain as I try not to cry. “What would you do if foreign nationals bombed your family home?”

“Excuse me?”

“I said, how many Founding Fathers have to go?”

He flashes his pocketknife at me. “Are you going to get back to work, committeeman, or do we have to step into my office?”

I back down in my usual way. We roll on in silence and the question of help, unanswered, solves itself; the help comes to us. The fisherman, who by public proclamation now goes strictly by Thinkerman-in-Charge, organizes the labor along a broad east-west axis, moving north, parallel to the river. It’s not the route I would’ve chosen; I’d rather go north-west and confront the river now, while we still have some semblance of control, rather than come to the great big bend in the city and find ourselves not just downtown, out of the safety of the Edenic park, but against the tumultuous weight of moving water.

I’m not the only critic of his plan, but I don’t cast my lot with the critics; I can see that criticism can go too far, and I don’t want any part in the ground-level logic of the act. One man, a newcomer with a vain disposition and an actual fedora on his head, watches with particular disdain as the little pickers scoop up the pieces that fall through the cracks. “This thing is full of omissions,” he sneers, and Thinkerman-in-Charge’s band of leering loyalists laugh it off.

“What does it mean to be full of absence,” they say, kicking the rocks into the faces of the little pickers behind them. Nothing else is said; the critic is laughed out of the park; the subject of omission comes to an inglorious end.

Unbridled fun like this can’t last forever; eventually Xue finds me, and the shame rushes back into my face.

Here you are,” she says, her bangs sticking unevenly to her forward. She would hate that if she knew, I think. Perhaps I should point it out. “Why aren’t you answering your phone?”

“I forgot all about that thing,” I say, patting my pocket and finding it, the screen totally shattered from the fall. “So that’s why my thigh hurts so much!”

“You don’t mean you fell again, do you?”

“Well it wasn’t because of my dropfoot,” I lie. She hates it when I fall. She tells me to watch my step, to pick up my feet. I just have to walk better, she says, if I expect to stay a walker at all. How will I teach our kids to ride bikes when we’re older if I let myself fall over and break my back again before I’m 30? Xue loves to threaten me with our unborn children. She knows that I’m the only one of us who wants any children in the first place, because I’m the only one who believes in a future. Of course that’s just what the argument is; I don’t believe in the future, either.

“How was the celebrated writer at least? Did you see what he posted this morning?”

“Look, I don’t mean to be curt, but if you want to talk, and I’m not saying I don’t want to talk, we can talk, but if you want to talk right now then you’ll need to take a position and push,” I say, making space for her beside me. “Thinkerman-in-Charge doesn’t abide any lingerers. He says the stakes are too high.”

“I don’t know if I want to,” she says. “I don’t know if I like this at all. You’re completely destroying the park, you know.”

“We’re going to tear up a lot more than that by the time this thing is done, I suspect.”

“Aren’t you just a little bit remorseful about that? You’re always talking about how bad the erosion on the river is getting—well, what do you think this is?”

Xue doesn’t understand a thing sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s a cultural difference or something about our educational models, her own background in the private sector excluding her from certain domains of certainty, certain structures of reason that her critical models have hitherto failed to account for that my own background, first through philosophy and then via the intricate machinations of the exploratory committee, have adequately prepared me for.

I don’t get angry with her, though, not this time. Maybe I’m too tired for pushing; maybe I just don’t feel like losing. So I ask her something she can’t win. “Would you or would you not crack open Christopher Columbus’ skull with a hatchet?”

Xue knows I’m trying to hurt her, and she doesn’t play. “Let’s go home, okay? We’re tired.”

In my fervor to uncover the thread I’d forgotten that home, too, was on the table. “That’s one possibility,” I say. “But I still don’t think you’re getting the full picture. It’s not up to me anymore, it’s not in my hands. You’ll have to talk to Thinkerman-in-Charge.”

“Where’s this Thinkerman-in-Charge?”

I look around, surprised to find him missing. “He’s here somewhere,” I say. “If not him then talk to one of his men. They have the rights, you understand.”

“What rights?”

“I’m jealous, of course, but I can’t say I envy them. A lot of people seem to think of Thinkerman-in-Charge as a fisherman, even a kind of fisher of men, but he’s actually a professor at the business school, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. He knows asset management. Right? No surprise.”

“A fisherman? Maybe I don’t want to talk to him after all. I’ve never cared for fishing.”

“You should talk to him,” I say. “If he’s still here, that is.”

Xue X, who has been staring shamelessly at Xue this whole time, finally speaks up. “He went to get the big guns, I think.”

“The what?”

“The machines.”

“What machines?”

“The earthmovers, of course.”

The blood drains from my face, which Xue notices. She crosses her arms. “We all have our little red lines, it seems.”

I ignore her condescension. I couldn’t pay attention if I tried; I’m losing purchase with the world again, losing any sense of control, even that which I’d already ceded; losing even the ability to give something up. I check my phone in a reflexive panic, scrolling past all of Xue’s old messages—how was the seminar??where are you??hello??—and going straight to the internet. Under a picture of the night sky the celebrated writer has posted a picture of a dead Syrian child with the words, “Who is Thomas Jefferson?”

There is a spot in Leeper Park where, just for a moment, the ridge obscures the city skyline to the right and the trees obscure the industrial park to the left, and the river comes into view, moving rapidly along, and the sky opens up, and the feeling sets in that one could be somewhere far outside of the city, somewhere far outside of time at all, a feeling only made possible by not just the height of the trees but the particular appearance of one tree, felled by the recent 100-year-floods (fresh on the heel of a 60-year flood), that blocks out, if just for that moment, the sight of the smokestack. Without the downed tree this illusion would break, and it would be impossible to leave the city in Leeper Park.

I drop the thread.

It keeps rolling without me, new hands stepping in as if I’d never left. My absence isn’t noticed at all.

“What’re you doing?”

“I’m done,” I say.

Xue shakes her head. “What, just like that?”

“Like what? Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I mean, just like—I don’t understand how you can just give it up like that, like you don’t even care what it is, where it’s going. Like, do you even care about what you’ve done?’

“I don’t care about this thread at all, and I don’t see why anyone should. Maybe it goes all the way, wraps up the world like something that blind guy Borges would write. Maybe it goes to a pot of gold, wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe it gets everyone drowned in Lake Michigan. So what? Thomas Jefferson died of diarrhea at 83 and Chris Columbus died thinking he’d been to Asia all along; America literally didn’t exist for the man who destroyed it. And you know what they say about George Walker Bush!”

“What do they say about Bush?”

“He paints selfies in his underwear!”

Xue X tugs at my sleeve. “I met President Bush once. He liked my handshake.”

I don’t believe her.

“Anyway,” I continue, “I’ve got my souvenir, that’s really all I came for.” I wave around my original ball of thread, still bundled around my fist. “We can pin it to the Corkboard of Minor Recognition when we get home.”

Xue smiles politely, thinly. “Do you think that’s necessary?”

The ruckus of the weave is getting away from us now, the dust settling in their wake. In the distance, noise; the machines are coming to life, bearing down with their full carbon footprint on the mysteries of this world.

I kneel down. Now that it’s time to say goodbye, I’m suddenly filled with immense tenderness and affection. I realize how much Xue X means to me. “You should catch up with them,” I say. “You can still get a piece of this thing in the end.”

I open my arms for a hug but she makes a face and runs away, neither towards me nor towards the weave but in a new direction, hopefully home. I’m genuinely sad to see her go. She has spirit, which so many of us lack.

“Xue X is the future,” I say.

“Since when do you believe in the future?”

Her words are harsher than ever in the relative silence of the now-empty park. “Why are you on the offensive today?”

I’m on the offensive? Look at you! You’re bleeding from the side of the head. Do you even know that you’re bleeding?”

I resist the instinct to touch my head and check. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you wouldn’t do it anyway, so snap out of it.”

“Do what?”

“Slit the president’s throat.”

“I’d think about it every day.”

“No you wouldn’t,” she says, looking at me; I look at my feet.

“How do you know?”

“Because until today you didn’t, and after today you won’t.”

I regret surrendering my premier position at the thread. I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the wreckage in the distance, encroaching on the city now; the people, the bulldozers, the cranes, the helicopters; and in a blimp above it all, suspended by a single red line, the headquarters of Thinkerman-in-Charge, who now and then dispenses $100 bills by the bushel upon the people below.

(Xue doesn’t seem to even notice the money. She is private sector, after all. She’s also color-blind, although I try not to hold that against her.)

“I can always start,” I say, imagining how rich I would be if I’d stayed with the weave, how much more disruptive Thinkerman-in-Charge has to be before I can justify popping his blimp and sending him crashing straight to the ground.

“I wish you’d look me in the eyes when you talk to me.”

I look at my feet. Xue follows my gaze.

“Oh!” She points. “A four-leaf clover!”

She plucks it up and folds it into her wallet, and by the time I finally think of something satisfying to say, something mean and reproachful, we’re back within the thin white walls of our home.

I untangle the bundle of thread from my fist and throw it into the kitchen trash while Xue pins her clover to the Corkboard of Minor Recognition, where it disappears back into the field.

Daniel Uncapher is the Sparks Fellow at Notre Dame, where he received his MFA. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, Baltimore Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Neon, and others.