Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
“You should invest it,” Monica said. They were sitting in the backyard of Olivia’s new rental house in Monticello on a summer afternoon. Not the famous Monticello in Virginia, the Monticello in upstate New York with the boarded-up main street, the giant Walmart, the army/navy/marine recruitment offices, the stores that sold prosthetic limbs, the racetrack. Olivia had rented a little house on the outskirts. The house had previously been part of a bungalow colony. It was tiny and needed a new roof, but it was a pleasure to leave the city and come here. The backyard felt tropical in the August heat, greenery exploding in the humidity, and that particular afternoon with Monica, she’d been drifting on the edge of sleep. Her blood sugar problems wouldn’t be diagnosed for another year, but she’d noticed the correlation between eating carbohydrates and difficulty staying awake an hour or two later. She’d started doing it on purpose for the pleasure of drowsing on a chaise longue in the late afternoons. On this occasion, though, she took a long draft of strong iced tea, trying to bring herself back with caffeine and ice, because Monica had told her a few years ago that she felt Olivia wasn’t a good listener and that being unlistened-to made Monica feel small. Olivia remembered this only after the bagel, and felt bad for purposefully making herself sleepy.
“How does one go about…how does a person invest?” Money was mysterious to Olivia, but Monica had been a lawyer before she retired and had a much better grasp of the logistics of daily life.
“Well, there are different ways of going about it,” Monica said, “but I recently invested some money with a guy my friend Gary met at his club.”
Olivia wouldn’t have described herself as an overly superstitious person, but she’d always believed in messages from the universe, and she liked to pay attention to patterns and signs. Surely it meant something that the man with whom Monica had invested her savings was Lucas’s brother.
“You won’t remember me,” she said to Jonathan when she called him, and immediately wished she’d said something different. The trouble with that line was that it had worked when she was young because when she was young she was beautiful, also fierce in a calculated manner that she’d believed to be attractive, which had lent a certain irony to the suggestion that anyone could have possibly forgotten her—
Oh, you know, just another gorgeous magnetic fresh young talent with gallery representation
—but lately she’d found that the line sometimes elicited a tactful silence, and she’d realized that often people did not, in fact, remember her. (Idea for a ghost story: a woman gets old and falls out of time and realizes that she’s become invisible.)
“We met at the gallery with Lucas,” he said softly. “The night it snowed.”
The night it snowed,
Olivia thought, and to her amazement, her eyes filled with tears. She hadn’t cried when Lucas died. She’d felt a little sad about it, obviously, she wasn’t a monster, it’s just that she was perpetually distracted and they’d hardly known one another. But all these decades later, the pity of it overcame her: in a version of New York so different that it might as well have been a foreign city, she’d stepped out of the cold night and into the brilliance of the gallery, which memory had transformed from a den of petty jealousies and grubby desperation into a palace of art and light, sheer brilliance in every sense of the word, walls vibrating with color, artists vibrating with genius and youth, where Lucas—so young, so talented, so doomed—and little Jonathan—who must have been, what, twelve?—awaited her arrival.
“You have a remarkable memory,” she said.
“Well, you were memorable. You were the beautiful woman who didn’t like my brother’s paintings.”
“I wish I hadn’t said so. I should’ve been kinder.” And then, on impulse, although she’d only meant to ask for a few minutes of his time over the phone: “Would you like to meet up for lunch sometime? I’ve come into some money, and I could use a little investment advice.”
“I would be delighted,” he said.
They saw one another a few times over the years that followed. She’d stop by his office sometimes, or they’d meet up for lunch. She looked forward to these lunches immensely; he was a warm, interested person, a good conversationalist, and he always picked up the check. He liked talking about Lucas and wanted to hear everything she remembered about his mysterious life in New York. “My brother was a decade older than me,” he said. “I loved him, but when you’re a kid, a decade is like the space between galaxies. I never felt that I knew him very well.”
“Do you know,” she said, “my sister and I are only three years apart, and I’ve never felt I knew her very well either.”
“It’s always possible to fail to know the people closest to us. But I’m fairly confident you knew my brother better than I did.”
“That’s a sad thought,” Olivia said. “I hope he had people in his life who really knew him.”
“Me too. But you knew him well enough to paint him.”
“We posed for each other, it’s true.”
“He painted you, then? I wondered about that.”
“He did.” In languid memory, she sat naked on his yellow sofa in the heat of a July afternoon. “Do you know, I’ve no idea what became of his painting of me?”
He smiled. “Really?”
“Really. He completed his painting of me in a single afternoon and sold it at some group art show a couple months later. It was pretty small, maybe a foot square, so he wouldn’t have sold it for much. I don’t know who bought it.”
“That means you can imagine it anywhere you want,” he said. “Anyone you can think of, it could be hanging in their house.”
“My favorite Hollywood actor,” she said, enjoying this idea.
“Sure, why not?”
“Well, thank you, Jonathan, I’ll enjoy the vision of that painting on display in Angelina Jolie’s living room.”
“I have to tell you something,” he said.
“I bought your painting of Lucas,” he said.
She had been eating salad; she put the fork down carefully, afraid she might drop it. “You did?”
“Just last month. I tracked down the guy who bought it at auction, and he was willing to sell. It was a little painful at first,” he said, “seeing how unhealthy he looked, those bruises on his arms. But I spent some time with the painting, and I realized that I love it. You captured something about him that accords with my memories. It’s hanging in my Manhattan apartment.”
“I’m glad you have it,” Olivia said. She wouldn’t have imagined that she’d be so moved.
Sometime in 2003, he arrived at lunch without a wedding ring. He’d been married to Suzanne for a long time, decades, but Olivia had never met her. Although, when had she last seen him? Over a year had passed since their last lunch, she realized.
“You’re not wearing a ring,” she said.
“Oh. Yes.” He was quiet for a moment. “I decided it was finally time to take it off.” There was something in his tone, in the way he looked at his ringless hand, and she understood that Suzanne was dead.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Thank you.” A small, pained smile, and he turned his attention to the menu. “Forgive me, but it’s still difficult to talk about. Have you tried the halibut at this place?”
Three months before Jonathan Alkaitis was arrested, he invited her along on a trip on his yacht. This was September of 2008. They were sailing from New York to Charleston. It was her first time meeting Jonathan’s second wife, Vincent, who turned out to be an elegant and friendly person with a talent for mixing cocktails.
“She’s delightful,” Olivia said to Jonathan, when they were alone on deck after dinner. Vincent had gone in to make drinks. The sunset was fading.
“Isn’t she? I’m very happy.”
“Where did you find her?”
“A hotel bar in British Columbia,” he said. “She was the bartender.”
“I suppose that explains why she’s so good at mixed drinks.”
“I think she’d be good at anything she set out to do.”
Olivia wasn’t sure what to say to this, so she only nodded, and for a moment they just listened to the waves and the engines. They were passing alongside a quiet part of North Carolina, only a few scattered lights on the shore.
“What a fortunate thing,” Olivia said finally, “being good at everything.” She herself had only ever been good at one thing, and possibly not even that. Few sales had followed
Lucas with Shadows.
No one seemed interested in any of the work she’d done after the fifties, and the truth was that she hadn’t painted in a long time. Painting was something that had grabbed hold of her for a while, decades, but now it had let go and she had no further interest in it, or it had no further interest in her. All things end, she’d told herself, there was always going to be a last painting, but if she wasn’t a painter, what was she? It was a troubling question.
“I walked into the bar and saw her,” Alkaitis said, “and I thought,
She’s very pretty.
“Then I found I enjoyed talking with her, and I thought,
You know, if you don’t have to be alone, then maybe you shouldn’t be.”
Olivia, who was almost always alone, couldn’t think of anything to say to this.
“It’s interesting,” he said, “she’s got a very particular kind of gift.”
“She sees what a given situation requires, and she adapts herself accordingly.”
“So she’s an actress?” The conversation was beginning to make Olivia a little uneasy. It seemed to her that Jonathan was describing a woman who’d dissolved into his life and become what he wanted. A disappearing act, essentially.
“Not acting, exactly. More like a kind of pragmatism, driven by willpower. She decided to be a certain kind of person, and she achieved it.”
“Interesting,” Olivia said, to be polite, although she couldn’t actually think of anything less interesting than a chameleon. Vincent was lovely but not, Olivia had decided, a serious person. Since her late teens she had been mentally dividing people into categories: either you’re a serious person, she’d long ago decided, or you’re not. A difficulty of her current life was that she was no longer sure which category she fell into. Vincent was returning now with another round of cocktails. The lights of the Carolinas slipped past on the shore.
No star burns forever.
Words scratched into the wall by Alkaitis’s bunk, etched so delicately and in such a spidery fashion that from any distance at all they look like a smudge or a crack in the paint, at exactly the right spot so he sees them when he turns his face to the wall. He’s never had much interest in earth science but of course he knows the sun is a star, everyone knows that, so is the point just that the world will eventually end, in which case, why not just write that? Alkaitis has limited patience for poetry.
“Oh, that was Roberts,” his cellmate tells him. “Guy here before you.” Hazelton is doing ten to fifteen for grand larceny. He talks too much. He is nervous and twitchy but seems to mean well. He’s exactly half Alkaitis’s age and likes to talk about how he still has his whole life ahead of him, when he gets out of here it’s all going to be different, etc. Roberts has come up in conversation before. “Got transferred to the hospital,” Hazelton says. “He had some kind of heart thing.”
“What was he like?”
“Roberts? Old guy, maybe sixty. Sorry. No offense.”
“None taken.” Time moves differently in prison than in Manhattan or in the Connecticut suburbs. In prison, sixty is old.
“Reasonable guy, never had problems with anybody. We called him Professor. He wore glasses. He was always reading books.”
“What kind of books?”
“The kind with Martian chicks and exploding planets on the cover.”
“I see.” Alkaitis tries to picture life as it was lived in this room before him: Roberts reading sci-fi, serious and bespectacled, disappearing into stories about alien planets while Hazelton chattered and cracked his knuckles and paced. “Why was he here?”
“He didn’t want to talk about it. Actually, he didn’t talk about anything. Real quiet guy, just sat there staring into space a lot.”
This summons an unexpected memory of his mother. For three years after Lucas died, Alkaitis used to come home from school sometimes and find his mother sitting perfectly still in the living room, staring at nothing, like she was watching a film only she could see.
“Was he depressed?” Alkaitis asks.
“Bro, it’s prison. Everyone’s depressed.”
Is Alkaitis depressed? Sure, in a manner of speaking, but his life here isn’t as bad as he thought it would be, once the initial shock wears off. He was arrested in December 2008 and six months later he arrived in his new home outside the town of Florence, South Carolina, a medium-security federal correctional institute known officially as FCI Florence Medium 1, not to be confused with FCI Florence Medium 2, which is technically the same security level but considerably harsher. Medium 1 is for the shrinking violets, as Tait memorably put it. Tait is doing a fifty-year bid for child pornography and as such would probably get killed in his first week in any other prison. Medium 1 is for prisoners who are thought to be too vulnerable for the general population: child molesters, dirty cops, the medically compromised, celebrities, fragile bespectacled hackers, and spies. There’s a maximum-security prison in the same complex, also a hospital. The hospital scares Alkaitis, because it’s the place where old men disappear.
He thinks of Roberts sometimes when he steps out into the yard. What’s striking about the yard is its terminal blandness. Green grass crisscrossed with cement pathways, the pathways designed for inmates to walk as efficiently as possible between buildings during periods of movement. There’s a separate recreation yard with a jogging track, its aesthetics equally impoverished. Everyone is dressed in khaki and gray, except the guards, who wear navy blue and black. The buildings are beige with blue accents. Outside the fence, there’s a distant tree line, all of the trees the exact same shade as the grass. There just aren’t enough colors here, that’s his first impression. It’s incomprehensible that this place exists in the same world as, say, Manhattan, so when he’s crossing the yard he sometimes pretends he’s on an alien planet.
Journalists write to him sometimes. “What does it feel like to be sentenced to 170 years?” they ask.
He doesn’t reply to this, because he knows the answer will sound insane: it feels like delirium. One morning when he was twenty-five, Alkaitis woke up with a high fever. He was living alone on 70th Street back then and had nothing in the apartment to treat a fever, so he had to stagger outside to the nearest bodega. He bought aspirin with some difficulty, too hot, the sidewalk unsteady under his feet, made it back to his building and up the stairs to the landing, where he found himself baffled by the mechanics of opening his apartment door. There was a key in his hand, and a lock on the door, and he understood in an abstract way that these two things fit together, but he couldn’t figure out how to make it work, and this was how he knew he was delirious. For how long did he stand there? Five minutes, ten, a half hour. Who knows. Eventually he made it inside.
In the courtroom in Manhattan, thirty-seven years later, the judge says the number—“one hundred seventy years”—and there’s a vertiginous sensation of movement, time rushing away from him toward that impossible destination, the year 2179. He understands that he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison, but it’s the same confusion he felt in that moment of delirium in his twenties:
the rest of his life
are two pieces that don’t fit together, the lock and the key, an incomprehensible equation.
He never noticed dandelions before he came here, but in the oppressive blankness of the yard, those little bursts of yellow on the grass are almost shocking. Likewise, the birds. They’re the kind of birds that blend into the landscape on the outside, just robins and ravens and finches and such, but here there’s something extraordinary about the way they alight on the grass
and then leave again,
flitting in and out of bounds. They are emissaries from another world. The prison rulebook prohibits feeding them, but some guys surreptitiously drop crumbs on the grass.
A few guys who’ve passed through maximum security like to proclaim that FCI Florence Medium 1 is a country club, and it isn’t exactly that but it also isn’t nearly as bad as Alkaitis imagined. A fair number of the men here are elderly and have limited patience for drama, and also no one wants to get sent up to maximum. No one talks about shivs or tries to kill him in the yard. The only sinister thing that happens is when a handful of white nationalist types work out together while everyone else ignores them. They know that if they’re too obvious or cause trouble they’ll get moved to maximum, which is what happened during a nationwide roundup of Aryan Brotherhood guys a few years back, so they mostly confine their activities to synchronized push-ups and grandiose prattle about codes of honor and tribal solidarity. Elsewhere, two brothers who collaborated in a high-profile insurance fraud hold court in their favorite corner. The brothers have employees, even in prison, guys who fetch things for them and wash their clothes in exchange for commissary goods. There are always younger guys jogging around and around, clockwise, and older guys walking on the same track. Elderly mafiosos gossip in the sun.
Alkaitis jogs in circles around the yard, lifts weights, does push-ups, and within six months he’s in the best shape of his life. He isn’t one of those men who keep their days as featureless and as similar as possible to make time move faster. He respects that method of survival, but he tries to do something different every day, on principle. He applies for a job even though he doesn’t have to, given his age, and ends up sweeping the cafeteria. He figures out how the system works and pays another inmate $10 a month to deal with his laundry. He never had time to read on the outside, but here he joins a book club where they discuss
The Great Gatsby
The Beautiful and Damned
Tender Is the Night
with a fervent young professor who seems unaware that anyone other than F. Scott Fitzgerald has ever written a book. It’s possible to rest here, in the order, in the routine, in the up-at-five count-at-five-fifteen breakfast-at-six etc., one day rolling into the next. In the outside world he used to lie awake at night worrying about being sent to prison, but he sleeps fairly well here, between head counts. There is exquisite lightness in waking each morning with the knowledge that the worst has already happened.
“There’s something I can’t stop wondering about,” one of the journalists says. Her name is Julie Freeman. She’s writing a book about him, which he finds immensely flattering. “Okay, so for a long time before your arrest, decades, you had considerable resources at your disposal.”
“I did,” Alkaitis says. “I had an enormous amount of money.”
“And you told me a moment ago that you’d been expecting arrest for a very long time. You knew what was coming. So why didn’t you just flee the country before you were arrested?”
“To be honest,” he says, “it never occurred to me to flee.”
Which is not to say that he doesn’t have regrets. He wishes he’d had more appreciation for the people he was able to associate with, before prison. He never really had friends in his adult life, only investors, but some of them were people whom he genuinely enjoyed. He always very much liked Olivia, whose presence made him feel like his beloved lost brother wasn’t so far away after all, and Faisal, who could talk at fascinating length about subjects like twentieth-century British poetry and the history of jazz. (Faisal is dead now, but no need to think about that.) He’s even nostalgic for some of the investors whom he knew much less well, maybe only met once or twice. Leon Prevant, for instance, the shipping executive whom he’d had drinks with at the Hotel Caiette, the pleasure of getting into a conversation about an industry he knew nothing about, or Terrence Washington, a retired judge at the club in Miami Beach, who seemed to know everything there was to know about the history of New York City.
The people he associates with now are not people he respects, for the most part. There are a few exceptions—the mafiosos who ran terrifying criminal empires, the ex-spy who was a double agent for a decade—but for every godfather and trilingual former spy there are ten guys who are basically thugs. Alkaitis is aware that there’s a hypocritical element to his snobbery, but there’s a difference between a) knowing you’re a criminal just like everyone else here and b) wanting to associate with grown men who can’t read.
“It’s like there’s two different games, moneywise,” Nemirovsky says to the table at breakfast. He’s been here sixteen years for a botched bank robbery. He has a fourth-grade education and is functionally illiterate. “There’s the game everyone knows, where you work your shitty job and get your paycheck and it’s never enough”—nods all around the cafeteria table—“but then there’s this other level, this whole other
of money, where it’s this whole other thing, like this secret
or something and only some people know how to play…”
Nemirovsky isn’t wrong, Alkaitis thinks later, while he’s jogging around the recreation yard. Money is a game he knew how to play. No, money is a country and he had the keys to the kingdom.
He doesn’t tell Julie Freeman this, but now that it’s much too late to flee, Alkaitis finds himself thinking about flight all the time. He likes to indulge in daydreams of a parallel version of events—a counterlife, if you will—in which he fled to the United Arab Emirates. Why not? He loves the UAE and Dubai in particular, the way it’s possible to live an entire life without going outdoors except to step into smooth cars, floating from beautiful interior to beautiful interior with expert drivers in between. He was last there in 2005, with Vincent. She seemed enchanted by the opulence, although in retrospect it’s begun to occur to him that she may have been acting at least part of the time. She had a significant financial stake in maintaining the appearance of happiness. Anyway. In the counterlife, the hours surrounding the holiday party are very different. When Claire comes to see him in the office on the day of the holiday party, he deflects her. He pretends he doesn’t know what she’s talking about, maintains this air of polite bafflement until she gives up and leaves. He isn’t above a little gaslighting, if that’s what it takes to stay out of prison. In the counterlife, he confesses to nothing. He does not crack. That night he goes with Vincent to the holiday party, and when they leave together, they both return to the pied-à-terre. He kisses her good night as if everything were perfectly normal, revealing nothing of his plans. He stays up when she goes to sleep, drinks some coffee and makes his preparations, stares out at the dark ocean of Central Park and the lights beyond, memorizing a view that he’ll never see again. He waits through the night for the window washers, who rise up the sheer wall of the tower on their suspended platform at dawn.
It’s early in the morning, first light over the park, and they don’t recognize him. Why would they? Over the course of the night he’s given himself a buzz cut, he’s wearing dark glasses and a baseball hat, and—crucially—he’s dressed all in white, just like them, his gym bag slung over his shoulder. He opens the window and speaks with them. “Could I get a ride down to the street?” he asks. They refuse at first, naturally, but he has $5,000 in cash in the pied-à-terre and he gives it all to them, throws in two bottles of an exquisite Grand Cru Classé from his favorite château in Bordeaux and then Vincent’s diamond bracelet and earrings—she’s in the bedroom, still asleep—and persuades them: He just wants a ride down to the street. That’s all. It’ll be over in a few minutes. No one will know. It’s a lot of money and the best wine they’re ever going to drink.
Who are they? It doesn’t matter. A and B. Let’s say they’re young guys who don’t know any better, or they know better but let’s say they have kids to feed. Window washing, that can’t be a particularly well-paying job, unless ascending the glass curtain walls of high-rises is one of those jobs that’s so terrifying no one wants to do it? Anyway, who cares, either way it’s a lot of money, so let’s say they take it. Alkaitis climbs out into the cold, and on the slow descent to the sidewalk, A and B are quiet and respectful, he senses that they’re admiring his forethought in dressing like them—not
like them, window washers don’t wear dress shirts, but enough like them that from any distance it’s just three men in white on a suspended platform, an everyday sight in the glass city, and by now the rising sun is reflecting off the tower so no one can look directly at them anyway, because that’s how brilliant his plan is, they descend in the glare and he climbs out and thanks them and hails a taxi to the airport. A few hours later he’s on a flight to Dubai, first-class obviously, in one of those reclining seats that are actually more like a private pod with bed and television. In the counterlife, he reclines the seat flat over the Atlantic and falls into a blissful sleep.