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Excerpt: 'Estrellas y Rascacielos'


Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.

The anarchists were drinking victory shots and making toasts because even though they'd never met with success before they surely knew it when they saw it or it found them. Snapcase, his beard effulgent with spilled drink, had become certain that school was out forever. He'd tossed Jessica's survey of art history, his Norton Shakespeare, and somebody's copy of Derrida's The Gift of Death into the fire pit they had dug in their backyard. The shallow hole was surrounded by salvaged chairs and shaded by a blue canvas canopy they had stolen from some resort because property was always already theft and anyway they had really wanted a canopy. The books were doused with whiskey from a bottle of Fleischmann's. Snapcase lit a hand-rolled cigarette with a match from a bar he favored. He tossed the lit match into the shallow pit. It went out in the air so he lit another match and placed it gingerly in a little pool of whiskey. It snuffed there. Someone said something about lighting three matches in a row. Somebody else said no, the expression was no three on a match. And how that expression had come from World War I, because if you lit three cigarettes off one match in your foxhole or trench the enemy in his foxhole or trench had three pins of light to triangulate your location and then he blew up everything or maybe just shot you and your two buddies.

"Knock off the history book shit," Snapcase said, "and where are the history books anyway?" His fire was still unlit. The other anarchists who'd been watching were disappointed. "I have to be at work in an hour," one said. Snapcase went back into the house for the history books and another round.

"Besides," David said, grabbing his dog-eared copy of The Antichrist back from Snapcase, "I like Nietzsche." Though no less certain in his convictions, David was not prepared to burn his Dictionary of Critical Theory and the books to which that book was a kind of skeleton key.

"Yeah, but if," Snapcase said.

"Why do you call yourself Snapcase," someone said.

"Dude, it's a band, don't you know anything about hardcore," someone else said.

David gave Snapcase his copy of The Prophet Armed because Trotsky had ordered the Russian anarchists shot down like partridges. Snapcase went away. David eyed Estrella. She was finishing a rum and soda, going to pour herself some more rum, discovering there was no more rum, cursing. The label was ridged with silver like pirate booty. The captain leaned on his sword. The TV was on.

They didn't have cable, but it wasn't a statement. Why should the decision to opt out of the news cycle and the endless infomercials be treated as some sort of aberration? Maybe the statement was being made by the people who parted with their slave wages monthly for the privilege of Wolf Blitzer. Maybe. Today it didn't matter because there was only one piece of news and it was on all the stations. A clip had been looping for hours. With the left rabbit ear twisted down so it touched the thick steel strings of their red electric bass, they were able to tune in to a local broadcast. It was a bottle of light rum that was empty. Hakim Bey and Pirate Utopias notwithstanding, none of them had much the stomach for dark.

Estrella was the loudest anarchist of them all. Estrella's band had a song that went, We'll tear down fucking everything / Till stars are the reigning light / Estrellas y rascacielos / Burning in the ungoverned night. The bassist wrote the lyrics and she sang them. He loved it when she sang the line he wrote with her name in it and she did too. She loved singing her own name. The bassist always said he wrote the line in homage to the great Spanish anarchists, such as whoever. Actually it was because he loved her. When she sang her own name as part of his lyric it was like she had let him name her. She could sing so fucking loud. The band was a hardcore band. Her guitar roared like a certain kind of sermon. His bass rattled the windows and doors. There were big gigs coming soon; he just knew it. He was passed out under the kitchen table. The TV screen filled again.

David asked to see Estrella's new tattoo. She lifted her black hoodie from the bottom, though it had a zipper. A circled A nested between her breasts, which were too small to hang but would have hung if they'd been bigger since Estrella knew that bras were just more bullshit, though sometimes she would put on a sports bra if she guessed they were probably going to be running away from something before their night was over.

"I thought it would be cool to get it on my nipple," she said, "but the guy said if I did that I might never breastfeed."

"What," David said.

Snapcase gathered dead leaves and put them into the pit and then lit those and finally the art books and other ones caught fire.

"It's gonna rain," someone said.

"It's gonna pour," someone else said and that person was correct. It had been raining earlier but that had been a mere warm-up compared to what would come — that is, with what came.

"I like it," David said to Estrella, "but it's too bad."

He meant about her breasts, and not being able to get the nipples tattooed on, or pierced even. He thought of the phrase women's troubles. The silver ring centered on her lower lip gave her a pouty look, or rather accented the pout of her dark eyes and dark hair and the donned hood of the hoodie and the fact that she was frequently pouting. Her dreadlocks were wild and attractive. When she did push the hood back, as she had done, the dreadlocks made her seem more dangerous or unpredictable, but less severe. David wondered if her kiss had a metallic aftertaste owing to the lip ring and stud in her tongue, or if the salt and wet of her would just overwhelm everything else, even stainless steel.

They drank some whiskey and watched the fire burn until the downpour drowned the flames in the shallow pit. Then everyone went back inside to the TV. They watched and watched. Someone said for smokers to use the front porch and someone else said we should be able to smoke inside on account of the rain and the occasion.

"We're out of rum and I don't want any more whiskey," Estrella said.

"The liquor store was closing up when I bought the last bottle of rum," David said.

"It's only the first blow against the empire," someone said, and someone else said, "yeah, but what a blow, I mean boy man God shit, you know?"

There was a line around the block at the gas station when I walked past it, David said. Everyone was filling their tanks and buying up the canned food. I walked in and stole two big bottles of Coke and nobody noticed.

"It's on tape though," someone said. "It's in the files." Someone else said that Coca-Cola had sponsored death squads in South America and that person was correct. Coca-Cola had done that horrible thing and many other horrible things also. Environmental devastation in India, union-busting, wage-slavery, rotting the gums of anesthetized children and adults, inventing the modern image of Santa Claus as part of a nefarious plot to commoditize Christmas (actually, the modern popular Santa evolved from a series of Thomas Nast illustrations that appeared in Harper's Weekly between 1863 and 1865; the Coke Santa was done by the Swedish illustrator Haddon Sundblom in the 1930s, long after the archetype was standardized), contracting with McDonald's, sponsoring various execrable campaigns, here and abroad, sponsoring those death squads in South America, and other things too. So that person was really right for the most part when he or she said those things about the soda they were all drinking but at least had stolen.

"I bet that one store stayed open," Snapcase said, "and we could go get beer. But I don't want to go."

"I'm really leaving now," said Roger, who sometimes went by Dagger but couldn't commit to the alias. He fashioned a rain hat from a plastic bag some Chinese food had been delivered in. He was the one who'd said earlier that he had to go to work. And now he was going.

Nobody knew Estrella's real name was Anne. Even the ones that had been with her didn't know. She was that good. Sometimes she almost forgot she had a real name — she was that good. The rain beat harder on the windows, the shallow pit overflowed. David said he'd go to the store and Estrella said she'd go with him. She went to look for her boots. You can't count on being able to steal everything you need so when it comes to important things — well — the anarchists pooled their money. David got his wallet but someone said the rain would ruin the leather so he wrapped his fake ID and everyone's money in a twist of magazine paper torn from an old issue of Adbusters. He put the wallet away. Lots of people were milling around, watching TV, and deciding what they thought or already knowing or thinking that they already knew. And that was me, thinking I knew.

Angel, Snapcase, this guy they didn't really know but who had been crashing at their place for the past few days, and Jessica were all looking out the back window at the fire pit. I guess it's a book drowning instead of a book burning, Angel said, and the guy they didn't really know mentioned Prospero but then someone put a Fifteen record on and turned it up real loud. Everybody knows authority is just abuse anyway / Everybody knows it ain't no use anyway / Kill your elected official today / We will win . . . Estrella couldn't find her boots. David took his boots off as an act of solidarity.

The twist of paper was soaked and the money was soaking. Mud and street dirt squished between David's toes. He told her they needed to go faster. She ran so far ahead he almost lost her in the shifting sweeping curtains of gray water. She could prove anything. Everything was soaked. The storm was a North Florida special. They hurtled like a pair of airplanes. Water ran into his eyes. Her hood was pulled tight but her dreadlocks were soaked anyway. She stepped down on a little shard of glass. This caused her to land badly and she twisted her ankle. David caught up to her.

"Ow," she said, "I mean fuck. Fuck fuck. She shut her eyes tight because it hurt very badly and also because she didn't realize that with all the water running down her face he couldn't tell she was crying so she was safe."

Her leg quivered like it might go out. She shifted to her good foot and hopped. She landed and wobbled, steadied herself, prepared to hop again. David slid a hand under her arm and his other behind her knees. He lifted her. He carried Estrella through the rain like a husband with a wife or a monster with a cherished victim. He carried her to the nearest house that had an overhang. The sudden freedom from the rain was cold and thrilling. He helped her to sit and took her wounded foot into his hands. He knelt before her. She was sitting in a puddle but there was nothing they could do about that. The whole world was a river that day, rising — taking and bringing things. He cleaned her foot in the puddle as best he could. He wiped away the shiny trickle of blood that flowed from the cut on her sole. He suckled. It wasn't a bad cut, really. Tweezers would have sufficed if they'd had any. The blood was metallic; his mouth did not even fill with it.

"I think it's out," she said. "Did you swallow it?"

"I guess I must have," he said. "It was really pretty small."

"Is that okay?" she said. "I mean will something happen to you?"

"I didn't think about that," he said.

"Too late now," she said. His selflessness touched her. She considered what that might mean. The tender moment was ending but they'd always have it.

They set back out into the rain. Estrella hobbled, David walked. The day had been good and it was still cresting. They had made themselves party to a victory and lived by their principles, especially those of solidarity and mutual aid. The store was open. The beer was cold. Revelations waited for them like all the silent seconds on a digital alarm clock before the shrieking starts or else like a land mine. There would be time later for bilious regret and the unique poisons of whatever the bassist thought. But they weren't there yet; they were still safe and free. A pair of real anarchists, they drank on the streets as they strolled home even though it was broad daylight and still raining.

From "Estrellas y Rascacielos" by Justin Taylor, which appears in Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground edited by Dennis Cooper, © 2007. Akashic Books. Excerpted by permission.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Justin Taylor