Fahima Deeb looks out the window of the headmaster’s quarters of the Bishop Academy onto the glittering and changed face of New York. The light in the mornings is pale and milky but illuminates a city warped from drab concrete into a science fiction dreamscape. The map of the city is altered: office buildings repurposed for housing or torn down to provide green space, sidewalks widened to shift dominance from cars to pedestrians. Looking up shows the biggest changes: well above the ground, the air is full of traffic. Bullet-shaped public transit craft piloted by telekinetics slice the air between spires of polished onyx that gleam in the dawn light, their architecture inspired by coral growth and the mycorrhizal root structures of fungi. She’d been concerned about the likelihood of collisions. People had enough trouble not smacking into one another with two vectors; introducing a third opened up the potential for an exponential increase in accidents. What she didn’t account for was the amount of space. Every street in the city was a Grand Canyon. As long as the number of objects in the air didn’t see a massive increase, there was space enough for all above the streets.
Fahima is not the first to adopt New York City as her home and alter it indelibly. She wonders if the ones who came before her felt they’d evolved the city into its final form. Her changes are more than cosmetic. The buildings are a sign of shifts beneath. Capitalism is an inefficient engine: so much waste for such a low yield. New York was built to fuel it with bodies, huddle around its meager light, suffer the punishing heat it gave off as by-product, and choke on its noxious exhaust. The city, the country, and the economy are machines constructed of obsolete components, with necessary inputs, outputs desired and undesired. But Fahima has improved it. She dreams in machines. She’s inventing something better.
She looks down onto Lexington Avenue, where a film crew sets up lighting rigs and lays thick cable along the gutters. Trailers cordon off the block at either end. It shouldn’t worry her: this is still New York. Occasional film crews are a mix of excitement, curiosity, and inconvenience she accepts as part and parcel of living here. But she’s shaken. She picks up a Polaroid that’s been sitting on her desk since she found it taped to the window last week with 5:45 a.m. Wednesday June 8th written in black marker in the white space under the image. She holds it up, comparing it with the street below. It isn’t a perfect match; she’s twenty minutes late, and some things have moved, the light shifting with the speed it does in the early morning. But the angle is right and the parked cars are the same, the lighting rigs and the trailers that weren’t there yesterday but are here today. The photograph was taken from her apartment window this morning and stuck to the glass a week before it was taken.
Fahima dresses and starts the coffee. There’s a collective that grows strains of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe out in Nyack, creating microclimates to mimic its home, adjusting chemicals in the soil. People swear by it. There’s plastic in the palate, a burnt rubber taste as if the plants are rebelling, aware they’ve been displaced. Fahima gets Sumatran coffee in the Bed-Stuy black markets. It’s an indulgence, a confession that capitalism has perks for those in the ruling class. For all her egalitarian plans, Fahima lives in a tower.
She looks into the guest bedroom where Sarah Davenport sleeps. Some days she doesn’t wake up at all. Others she screams in the middle of the night because she doesn’t know where she is. People with small children talk about how beautiful and peaceful they look when they’re asleep, but Sarah’s rest is fitful, if prolonged. She mutters names without context, twitches like she’s being hit. Fahima quietly closes the door.
She sips her coffee as her mind rattles through lists of the people she’s about to meet. Omar gave her dossiers and a cheat sheet with names spelled phonetically, position, country of origin, and predilections. Eito Higashi, Japan’s minister of economy. Two daughters, a dog, a list of proclivities Fahima hadn’t known there were names for. Malik Antoun, low-level Saudi prince and avid horse breeder with a penchant for alcohol while abroad. Niklas Babisch, former German ambassador to the United States, now the Großonkel of the New Left in the Bundestag. On paper, Babisch is Fahima’s greatest ally out of the dozen in the group. He’ll be a pain in the ass.
All men, powerful but not too powerful. Each one has a reason for being here that avoids the perception his country is reopening diplomatic relations with the United States. Everything is run through the Bishop Foundation, orchestrated by its executive director, Fahima Deeb. Last night she dreamed Kevin Bishop came back from the dead and saved her from having to go through with this.
She goes over the dossiers, comparing her incorrect and incomplete recollections with the facts as written, then puts them in her bag. She tucks the photo in as well, quickly, like she’s trying to pull a sleight of hand on herself. She picks out a hijab Ruth bought her in Chicago, a piece of shimmering blue cloth with whorls of deep green that coalesce into a map of the earth, spin like a globe, then sublimate back into abstraction, repeating on a hypnotic loop. Fahima thinks it’s on the nose. Ruth reminded her these are government employees and the most obvious symbolism might fly over their heads. Fahima arranges the hijab perfectly, tucking in errant strands of hair, then clasps it with a gold pin in the shape of a handshake. I might as well wear a f***ing tie-dye and beads, she thinks as she steps out her front door.
Omar Wright waits for her in the hall. His tan Yves Saint Laurent suit offsets his dark skin. Omar perpetually informs Fahima and anyone else who’ll listen about the brands of his suits and has tried to encourage Fahima to be less schlubby for big events, going as far as to pick out her outfit for this evening. Between Omar and Ruth, she feels like a doll being dressed by enthusiastic children: Muslim Barbie.
“Oh, hi,” Omar says, as if surprised to see her. Omar’s official title has never been decided. He calls himself her majordomo, but refuses to tell her what that means. He takes the edge of her hijab between his index and middle fingers and lifts it to assess. He gives a slight shrug. “Sort of on the nose,” he says.
“Ruth,” says Fahima.
“Sweet kid,” Omar says. He shimmers and divides into two identical copies of himself, each in the same Yves Saint Laurent suit. They face each other, then launch into a game of rock paper scissors that takes five rounds before one of them loses. The winner gives a triumphant hmmph and proceeds into Fahima’s apartment.
“Should it bother me that I get the loser every morning?” she asks.
Omar shakes his head. “Watching Ms. Davenport’s a cushy job,” he says. “Chances are she’ll sleep all day and he’ll sit around watching porn.”
“I was better off not knowing that,” says Fahima.
“You asked,” Omar says as he steps into the elevator.
When they redesigned the building to accommodate the new floors above the thirteenth, Fahima decided on a maglev shaft. The ride is fast and smooth, and unlike an Einstein-Rosen bridge up the building’s spine, there’s no risk of rending space-time, which is a plus.
A pack of students load in with them, conversing in the stage voices of teenagers, asserting their place in the world by sheer force of volume. Below the thirteenth, the students own the building. Fahima insisted on it. What goes on above the old headmaster’s quarters, in the new floors obsidianists built after the Armistice, might be antithetical to everything Bishop believed in, but the original building Kevin bought and loved remains a school.
“I’m telling you, I could see her down there,” says one of the kids.
“Bullshit,” another retorts.
“You have, like, a passing interest in her,” says the first. “I’m a superfan who happens to have telescopic vision. I’m a student of her work, and I am telling you I can identify Leida LaPlante by the top of her head from eight stories up.”
“We’re all sorry your ability is basically doesn’t need binoculars.”
“Five bucks says Harris used his ability to look down her shirt and jerk off.”
“No one is going to take that bet.”
“F*** every one of you and I’m telling you it’s her.”
“Who’s she even playing?”
“I heard she’s playing Ji Yeon Kim.”
“They got a white lady to play Ji Yeon Kim?”
“Not a white lady. Leida F***ing LaPlante.”
“It’s some bullshit.”
The doors slide open at the fifth-floor cafeteria with a ding, a digital approximation of the physical bells once installed on every floor. We should have left them, Fahima thinks, the tinny facsimile in her ears. We should have kept one real thing.
“You ready for this?” Omar asks once they’re alone.
“Not remotely,” says Fahima.
Copyright © 2020 by Bob Proehl. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.