When The New Yorker published a short story by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh in 2010, it marked the emergence of a startling new voice in fiction. In this astonishing book, Sayrafiezadeh conjures up a nameless American city and its unmoored denizens: a call-center employee jealous of the attention lavished on a co-worker newly returned from a foreign war; a history teacher dealing with a classroom of maliciously indifferent students; a grocery store janitor caught up in a romantic relationship with a kleptomaniac customer. These men’s struggles and fleeting triumphs—with women, with cruel bosses, with the morning commute—are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange. Sometimes the effect is hilarious, as when a would-be suitor tries to take his sheltered, religious date on a tunnel of love carnival ride. Other times it’s devastating, as in the unforgettable story that gives the book its title: A soldier on his last routine patrol on a deserted mountain path finally encounters “the enemy” he’s long sought a glimpse of.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut work of fiction.
The winter the bus drivers went on strike I was twenty-three years old and living on the edge of the city in a neighborhood that was on the verge of becoming a ghetto. The parks had closed, and so had the supermarket, and also the elementary school, and every night the streetlights appeared to have gotten dimmer. The easiest way into and out of the neighborhood was by crossing through an underpass, but everyone had stopped using that. Instead, we took the long way up the hill and over the thoroughfare that ran six lanes. It was no longer a surprise to pick up the morning newspaper and learn that there had been yet another regrettable occurrence in the neighborhood the previous day. In the middle of the night, I would be jolted out of my dreams sometimes by the sound of police sirens or fire engines or car alarms or once even the voice of a man, just beneath my bedroom window, cooing submissively, “Please take my wallet.”
Earlier that fall, things had taken a turn for the worse when I had been fired from a good job as a cartographer in a design studio that I had worked in for only about four months. The owner of the firm was a tubby, bearded, gregarious, well-read man named Ned Frost, who had large white teeth and a habit of vigorously rubbing his hands together when he laughed, as if he were attempting to start a fire with his palms. He wore tweed jackets, had bad breath, and fancied himself a poet. “I am the state’s leading poet,” he had announced once to everyone in the office—this despite having never been published.
When I had first met him, he seemed pleasant, unassuming, charming even, and on my third day of work he had taken me out to a special lunch, and then a few days later out to a special dinner to discuss “the work that lies ahead.” He seemed to find many of the things I said delightful, and a few times he leaned back in his chair and laughed and rubbed his hands together. His interest in me gave me confidence that I was someone who might have a bright future after all. But no more than three weeks after I had started working for him, he informed me that I was a closeted gay man and that if only I had the courage to admit this, then the two of us could be together. During the day, instead of doing work, he would compose long, meandering letters to me that began with “My Dearest Rex” and included phrases such as “and yes, yes, I saw you standing there, yes” or “there is a leaning into warmth, a leaningintoness that only eyes know.” I could hear him typing away in the adjacent office, and I would know that the printer beside my desk would soon begin to hum and out would come five, six, seven single-spaced pages. An hour or so later, he would enter and stand by my desk, hovering, shifting from foot to foot, his hands deep in his pockets jingling coins, pretending to busy himself with files, waiting for me to initiate conversation.
I had learned from a female intern that I was just one in a succession of young men whom Ned Frost had hired, courted, and then, when they rebuffed him, fired. I wanted to keep the job, of course, so I tried my best to pretend things were normal and aboveboard. My only identifiable skill was apparently an ability—recognized by Ned Frost—to design maps, and I envisioned myself as a great failure if I allowed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at a vocation to slip away. “You have to walk through the doors when they’ve been opened for you,” my father often counseled. Sometimes I would wonder if I was imagining Ned Frost’s advances, if I was exaggerating the nature of his interest in me. “Perhaps I am overplaying all of this,” I would reason with myself, and it would help me to feel calm and even hopeful. But one afternoon any ambiguity was finally put to rest when, at the end of an immense sixteen-page letter about the movie E.T.—particularly the scene in which the alien presses his throbbing finger against the young boy—Ned Frost signed off, “My cock feels full with the thought of you in my heart.”
It was winter now and it was cold and the bus drivers were on strike. And the war was coming, everybody said so. Because of this confluence of events no one was sympathetic to the drivers’ cause. It was seen as a selfish act of sabotage. Each night the mayor would make an appearance on the news, explaining how this wasn’t the time for individuals to worry about personal gain. “Now is the time to come together,” he’d say. In reality, it was only poor people who needed to ride the bus, so they were essentially the ones who were affected by the strike, scrambling to get to work by any means, sometimes eight to a car. The only poor person I knew who wasn’t affected was my neighbor Frankie, a fifty-year-old man who lived across the hall from me and whose left side had been paralyzed by a stroke several years earlier. It took enormous effort for him to stand or walk, and he went outside on average twice a month, once to the bank and once to the post office. He also had a difficult time speaking, and when the news first broke of the strike, he stood in his doorway grinning at me and stammering, “I could care . . . I could care . . . less!” For him the strike had become a great equalizer, handicapping everyone, including me.
In spite of his miserable physical condition, Frankie was easygoing, affable, a man who had come to accept his lot in life. I believed I would have killed myself if I had to scrape down the stairwell like him, doing in five minutes what a two year-old could do in thirty seconds, but he never complained.
He had become adept at managing everything himself, mostly by using his right hand, and he would adamantly turn down any offers of assistance.
“I can help you with that, Frankie,” I’d say, watching him wrestle with a can opener as if it were a live fish.
“Look at me! Look at me!” he’d exclaim proudly, and the can of beans would pop open.
A lifetime of alcoholism had been responsible for his stroke, so he had only himself to blame. This seemed to be an empowering thought for him, and he repeated it often and with great intensity. “Me!” he’d say, and tap his chest. “Me!”
When I had first moved into the apartment and seen Frankie standing in the hallway in a dirty white T-shirt, leaning on his rocker, stubble and no teeth, I was frightened and repulsed. He struck me as a pervert, a degenerate, the kind of man who would have dressed in a trench coat. Then one evening he knocked on my door, handed me a few crumpled dollar bills, and asked if I would do him a big favor and buy him three boxes of M&M’s. “Two . . . two . . . peanut. And one plain.” I told him I was busy, sorry, and shut the door. Then I felt guilty, went out into the hallway to find him shuffling off in slow motion, took his money, walked six blocks to the Buy ’n’ Save and bought him what he wanted. After that he began inviting me over to share the Chinese food he would order. “I can’t . . . I can’t . . . eat all this shit,” he’d tell me. At first I took cynical advantage of his generosity, sitting on his couch, stuffing my face with chow mein, thinking the entire time that listening to him sputter on for half an hour wasn’t a bad trade-off for a good meal. But after a while I began to enjoy his company, and I would look forward to him inviting me over so I could hear his stories about working as a low-level manager in a VA hospital. “I never did . . . a damn thing!” he’d say, and his shoulders would shake with laughter. Eventually I ceased to be nauseated by the fact that he ate with his fingers, kept his false teeth in a glass on the table, blew his nose into an old pair of underpants, and pissed into an aluminum cooking pot while standing in the living room because it was too difficult to walk to the bathroom. “Pardon me,” he’d say, and unzip himself. After our meal was over, we would sit around and watch basketball on his cable. Frankie told me that he had been a star basketball player when he was in high school, a story I found hard to believe and which I kept making a point to look up but never did. “They all suck,” he’d say of the players on television.
In the beginning the experts thought the strike would last only a few days, but after two weeks it was going strong with no end in sight. A neighbor took pity on me and drove me to the supermarket, where I bought enough food to feed a family of five, but other than that, I was unable to leave the neighborhood.
I would walk around in the cold afternoons like a convict exiled to Siberia, ignored by the authorities because the region was too vast to flee. There was the empty playground, there was the Buy ’n’ Save, there was the laundromat with the ever present attendant who sat motionless like a bear in a zoo. The wind would whip across the flat land. In the evening I would sit around waiting for Frankie to knock on my door and invite me over. On the rare occasions when he didn’t, I would take out a zucchini and a carrot from the refrigerator, sauté them in a pan, and put them on top of a bed of pasta, then cover everything with an excessive amount of Parmesan cheese. As I ate, it was impossible for me to avoid reflecting on the possibility that the bus strike would never end, which led me to consider that the general condition of my life would also remain as it was.
The day after Ned Frost gave me the E.T. letter, I walked into his office unannounced and said that I didn’t want to receive any more letters like that or I would sue him for sexual harassment. It seemed like the right thing to say. From his desk he stared up at me sheepishly, silently. He looked like a balloon, as if someone had blown up a shirt and tie.
“There is a warmth I’ve felt toward you,” he said poetically.
The prospect of being entrapped in a romantic exchange unnerved me. “I don’t care about your warmth, Ned,” I said.
“And there is a warmth,” he continued as if I hadn’t said a word, “yes, that I have felt from you.”
I said nothing.
“Would you deny,” he suddenly demanded, “that you have ever had a warm thought for me?” There was accusation in his voice. I looked back at him sternly. Then he burst into tears.
“I’ve never felt as close to anyone as I do toward you,” he managed to get out.
It was hard not to be moved by this, and I felt sorry for him and wondered if I was being needlessly cruel. But I had to remain resolute—for his own good. “Just consider yourself warned,” I said.
The next day, as I was trying to map out a particularly complicated cloverleaf interchange, the printer beside me began to hum. This time it was only one page, and it contained a single line: “I cannot live one more day with hearts on edge.” An hour later I was fired.
There were no basketball games on television, so Frankie and I sat around eating orange chicken while he regaled me with stories about an old girlfriend that he had been madly in love with but had failed to marry because he couldn’t stop drinking.
“Black,” he said. “She was . . . black.” Then he paused. “I like brown skin.” He shrugged. The matter was out of his control.
We channel-surfed for a while. I kept hoping he’d stop on the spring break swimsuit movie, but all he did when we came around to it was say, “Bullshit.” We watched a bit of the local news coverage of the strike, in which the same three video clips were aired repeatedly: the transit chairman in a suit and tie, calmly laying out his side of the story, which seemed fair enough; a group of picketers dressed in hats and scarves and gloves, standing in an empty parking lot, chanting wildly as they waved their signs; and finally, a man-on-the-street interview with a soldier who’d just been called up and who said, looking directly into the camera, “I understand you want more money, but now isn’t the time.” The anchorman, who’d been delivering the news in the city for fifty years and looked near death, said that the day’s negotiations had ended “acrimoniously.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked Frankie.
“‘Acrimonious,’ what’s it mean?”
But he had landed on an old black-and-white foreign movie. “I know this!” he shouted. “I know this!”
I had never seen the film, and since it was half over and since it was foreign, I had no idea what was going on and didn’t care enough to try to figure it out. I kept waiting for Frankie to switch over to something else, but he never did, so I just sat there quietly while it played. When we got to the end, with the main character sobbing and crawling around drunkenly on his hands and knees, I snorted derisively and turned to Frankie, who was staring at the screen with tears in his eyes.
“He . . . he did it . . . to himself. To himself!”
Then, with all the energy he had, Frankie pushed himself to a standing position, unzipped his pants, and grabbed a hold of his pot. “Pardon me,” he said.
On the twenty-eighth day of the strike, I decided I couldn’t stand my confinement any longer. Early that morning I set off with a small bag of food to walk as far as I could. I crossed through the underpass quickly, without incident, and out of the neighborhood. The city, unfortunately, had not been designed for walking, and there would come times when I’d find myself trying to circumvent a freeway, or circling back from a dead-end street, or going for long stretches without a sidewalk. The air was chilly, but the sky was bright, and I could feel that spring was nearing. I kept the pace brisk and lively. But after about an hour, my energy began to wane. I pressed on, trying to ignore the nagging awareness that I would have to retrace every one of the steps I was now taking. I walked through parks and neighborhoods and shopping centers, many of which I had never seen or known existed. There were people out, but the city felt more vacant than usual. After the factories had closed, anybody who had the means picked up and moved away, leaving the city with empty smokestacks and the second oldest population in the country. What was I still doing here? I was too young to inhabit the ends of the earth.
Several cars passed me going the other way, and I considered sticking my thumb out and hitching a ride back home, but I wasn’t sure if people did that anymore.
I walked along the boulevard that divided the east side of the city from the west side, and I passed the restaurant I had worked in as a short-order cook. It wasn’t open yet for business, but the windows were already fogged with steam from the kitchen. An American flag hung in the front window next to a sign advertising half-price brick-oven pizza on Thursday nights. I remembered vividly the grueling twelve-hour shifts, the beer reward at the end of the night, the pretty waitresses, the black cooks who had gotten addicted to crack. If we wanted a meal, we had to pay for it, so I would surreptitiously cook myself food and then eat it while hiding in the bathroom stall, sitting on the toilet. At the time I thought that I had managed to even the playing field.
Two hours after I had begun my journey, I realized I was lost. I turned back the way I came, but the way I came could no longer be discerned. There were four streets curving and winding their way toward me. I chose one and followed it for ten minutes until I was certain it was the wrong one, and then I turned back around. But now I was faced with four more streets, each one looking identical and vaguely familiar. I passed through a wealthy, tree-lined neighborhood with curbside mailboxes into a neighborhood that was not so wealthy but still had trees. I walked along railroad tracks for a while.
The sun was starting to drop and it was getting colder. My feet and legs ached and I wanted to sit, but to sit at a time like this felt irresponsible. Beside me were woods, and beyond them I could make out the river. This was the true boulevard of the city that for decades had brought coal in and taken goods out. The glory years. If I waited long enough, I’d probably see a gunship float past.
I came into a neighborhood that looked like it had been abandoned. The whole place was gray and rotting and lacking any trace of life. I sat down on the steps of a two-story brick house with an addition covered in aluminum siding, and the moment I did, a wiry woman appeared on the porch across the way and looked at me. She was wearing a nightgown that she clutched around her. An old man in pajamas came and stood at her side. I took out my lunch and ate it while I watched them confer.
“There ain’t no one living in there now,” the woman said.
“That’s okay,” I said.
They conferred again.
“There ain’t no one in there now.”
“I heard you the first time,” I said.
They looked startled. The man took a step forward like he wouldn’t stand for that kind of talk. I got up and stretched my legs. My feet felt swollen. I moved on.
“Hey, mister,” the woman said as I passed. “Is the strike still on?”
“No,” I said, “it’s over.”
“What’d he say?”
“Hey, mister,” the man called, “when’s the strike going to be over?”
* * *
It was dusk, and I didn’t know what to do. I turned left and then left again. Was I going in a circle? I thought about how the cooks would be starting their shift at the restaurant. A car pulled up beside me. “Would you like a ride?” a friendly voice asked. I looked in the window and saw Ned Frost’s bearded face smiling up at me. “Were you going to walk the whole way?” he asked. Then incredulously: “You weren’t going to walk the whole way!”
There was a young man about my age sitting in the passenger seat.
“I was,” I said.
Ned guff awed. “Young legs.” Was there subtext in that? “We’re heading your way,” he said, “and we’ve got two empty seats.”
The young man got out to let me in the back. He glanced at me with a mixture of shell shock and glumness. He was tall and thin with a tie that he’d tied too short. He had razor nicks on his neck. “Nice to meet you,” he mumbled.
Ned sped off. I marveled at the amount of distance a car could cover in such a short time. In two minutes I was back in familiar territory. I listened to the conversation going on in the front seat, but whatever was being discussed was sparse and hushed. I thought about telling Ned that he could let me out, that I could make it the rest of the way, but my legs hung from my torso like concrete poles. Soon we arrived at the young man’s home. They exchanged some words about the next day’s work, and then the young man got out and I took the front seat. We watched him walk to his building and waited until he let himself in. I wondered if Ned Frost was looking at his ass. “He’s not going to work out,” he said with genuine disappointment, driving off. “It’s too bad, but he just doesn’t have the patience for it. Cartography is a job of patience, really.”
“That’s true,” I said.
At this, Ned laughed heartily, taking his hands off the steering wheel and rubbing his palms together. Then he was silent, brooding. He drove slowly. Finally, he said, “I was actually thinking about calling to see whether you’d be interested in working in the offi ce again.” He stopped at the light and said deliberately, “There is work. You know how to do the work. The work is what speaks.”
I wondered, if I accepted his offer, whether he would still give me letters; I wondered if the letters were worth it for the job; I wondered if he expected me to sleep with him. He spoke with great enthusiasm about all the upcoming projects, and by the time we had arrived at my apartment building, I had agreed to take the job. I would start the following week, and Ned Frost would drive me to and from work as long as the strike lasted. He even offered to pay me more money. “There is money. The money is what speaks.”
We got out of the car in front of my stoop, and Ned opened the trunk. He took out a few brochures. “Your maps,” he said.
I peered at them under the feeble streetlight. They were for various things like an art fair and a business district. I ran my hand over the glossy covers and then flipped through until I found colorful images of my work.
“Nice, huh?” he said.
“Nice,” I said. I handed them back.
“No, no, take them, Rex,” Ned said. “Keep them. They’re yours.”
“Thanks,” I said, and put them in my pocket.
“See you Monday,” he said.
“See you Monday,” I said.
We shook hands, and then I grabbed Ned Frost by his jacket and pushed him. Not hard, but enough to startle him and send him stumbling backward. There was a pause as he caught his breath and righted himself, and then I grabbed his jacket again, but this time I pulled him. For being so overweight he was surprisingly light, as if made of air, and I think his feet might have even come off the ground. His bearded face was inches from mine and I could smell his breath. I pitched him from side to side, as if rocking a boat for fun, and when I let go, he went off spinning toward the ground, grunting as he landed. A small notebook and pen came out of his pocket and rolled out into the empty street. This made me feel sad, and I went and picked them up and brought them back to him. “Here you go,” I said.
He was on all fours breathing hard, the white breath coming out in bursts from his mouth and nose. I set the notebook and pen down beside him and waited until he had brought himself to a standing position. He brushed off his pants. His tweed jacket had torn in the armpit, and I wondered if he’d notice that before he wore it again, or if someone would point it out to him at work. He stooped down and picked up his pen and pad and put them back in his pocket. Once he had oriented himself, he got back in his car without looking at me. I watched him sit there for a while collecting himself, and then he drove off down the street.
That night Frankie and I were eating pizza when the basketball game was interrupted by a local news report telling us that the bus strike was over. The state supreme court had ordered the drivers back to work immediately, contract or no contract. There was a clip of the mayor saying that he felt great relief that the city would finally get itself back on its feet.
“The drivers,” Frankie said, “the drivers . . . they . . . got screwed!”
Then the basketball game came on again.
On Monday the buses were up and running. I woke early to the sound of a diesel engine just below my window. I got dressed and went downstairs to see for myself. Fifteen minutes later, sure enough, a bus came rolling around the corner and stopped and opened its doors for me. “This ride’s on us,” read a sign taped over the fare box. The driver looked as if the sign might as well have been hanging around his neck. The bus was full with everyone trying to get to work. I found a seat in the back and looked out the window as the bus crawled past the playground and the laundromat and the Buy ’n’ Save. We made a right turn, stopped to pick up some more passengers, and then headed onto the thoroughfare. I had nowhere to go, of course, but for a moment it felt as if I were free.
Excerpted from Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. Copyright © 2013 by Said Sayrafiezadeh. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.