From reading diaries to eavesdropping on neighbors, spying on drug dealers to deciphering spooks, four writers revel in the treachery and titillation of espionage.
On My Block
By Isaac Butler
Here is what I know about the drug dealers on my block:
I know that they use three cars — a black Dodge, a black Nissan Elantra and a green Ford Explorer. I know the license plate numbers of all three of these cars. The two men who drive the cars are Puerto Rican. They grew up in the neighborhood, in the Gowanus Houses, and have known Alan, the custodian who lives across from us, since they were kids. The main one — we’ll call him The Boss — has a three-year-old daughter. He often stashes the drugs that he is going to distribute to his underlings under her car seat. Sometimes, The Boss has her run money and other things from his car to his partner’s. She skips down the block, playing a game her father has invented for her. Several times, he has pretended that his car is having some sort of mysterious trouble, trouble that requires him and his identically-clad lieutenants to gather around it all day, putting things in their pockets before walking off.
I know that when they are outside our apartment, the drug dealers’ cars are never empty, never off. Their hours are unpredictable. They do not obey a set schedule. On the sixth of December, the Dodge was parked out front from 12:45 p.m. until three p.m. It returned at 4:45. On the ninth of December, it was outside of our apartment starting at 11:30 a.m., and was joined by the Nissan at 12:30 p.m. They both left at 1:30 p.m. Their drivers returned in a third car — the Ford Explorer — at 4:30 p.m..
I know that at 4:30 p.m. the driver of the Ford Explorer handed off a package to a middle-aged woman walking a small white dog. The three-year-old was in the backseat. It then drove off, only to return at 5:30 p.m.
I know that they have one member of their crew, a large loudmouth in his late fifties who is clearly the low-status chump. He makes jokes and likes to talk tough but you can feel the collective eye-roll whenever he opens his mouth.
I know that, despite living in a gentrified area of Brooklyn, our neighborhood drug dealers feel comfortable coming and going and distributing drugs directly underneath my living room. Thus they have turned me into a spy, forever looking outside my window with the lights off and the blinds carefully angled so that I can see down to the street.
I know that my wife and neighbors and I talk about the drug dealers constantly, piecing together theories based on our “evidence,” discussing whether we should get a microphone, a high-powered camera, a video recorder, or maybe just a sign that warns that we have all of this, to try to get rid of them.
I know that we are ridiculous, that our efforts are doomed. Our calls to the police go unanswered; the multiple discussions I’ve had with a DEA case officer have left the impression that I’m unhealthily obsessed.
I know that I am unhealthily obsessed. My theories about the drug dealers spiral out, ever more ornate. Are they paying off the cops? The owners of the laundromat? The bodega on the corner? Are there lookouts everywhere? Can anyone be trusted?
I know that, like all obsessions, mine is born out of failure. None of my spying, my keeping track of their movements, my calling the cops, has helped. Instead, the last time I looked down at The Boss from my window, he sat in his Dodge Charger with the tinted windows and the Puerto Rican flag medallion hanging from the rearview mirror and one of his lieutenants ducked into the window to discuss something. What they were saying was just audible enough that I could barely make it out, could scarcely hear something, maybe something incriminating, something that would make me understand what was happening and how to rid our block of them. Then I saw The Boss’s head incline in a quick nod indicating look up, look up, and the lieutenant looked at my window and the only thing I understood was that he and I were making eye contact and if I was a spy I had just been made and there was nothing to do but step away.
Isaac Butler is a writer and theatre director living in Brooklyn and Hopewell Junction. His work has appeared in PANK, Thought Catalog, Rain Taxi, The Fiddelback, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Hooded Utilitarian, American Theatre, Time Out New York and others.
* * *
His Father The Spy
By Anna Shults
My boyfriend Richard can’t help but sound a little shifty when asked where he’s from. His answer is typically, “I went to high school in New Mexico.” The fuller explanation is much more complicated. He was born in Tokyo and lived all over the world, which imbued him with a certain restlessness I’m not sure he’ll ever shake.
To relative strangers, he explains himself as a “diplo-brat,” and, when pushed, says his dad works for the State Department. It took me a while to understand the secret code, that when “State Department” is not further qualified, it means intelligence. Spies.
When I first met his dad, I was too preoccupied with meeting my new boyfriend’s parents to be intimidated by his career, first as a CIA operative and then as Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence for the Department of Energy. It was just before Richard and I graduated from college. We met at a wine bar in New Orleans, packed with soon-to-be alumni and their parents. The long mahogany bar exuded just enough maturity to suggest adulthood, even though most of the students knew it for its cheap wine-by-the-glass deals.
Among the dads, Bruce blended in, his demeanor understated. He made gentle jokes at his son’s expense, emitting a blithe, fatherly pride in his accomplishments. I sat up too straight and didn’t eat enough.
When we got back to Richard’s apartment later that night, I mentioned how his father didn’t seem that scary for being a spy, that it was hard to imagine such a normal dad as an undercover operative.
“Maybe it’s just been a while,” Richard said. “Maybe he’s cooled down.”
“I don’t know,” his roommate chimed in. “Does she know about the whole decapitation thing?”
Within a minute, I had a computer in my lap opened to a Wikipedia page detailing a lawsuit brought against Bruce’s former employer by a whistleblower. I scrolled down to the highlighted portion, reading part of the testimony about the termination hearing, when Bruce was said to have shouted: “[You’re] lucky you have such understanding management … if you worked for me, I would decapitate you! There would at least be blood all over the office!”
“During the subsequent court case,” continues Wikipedia, “[Bruce] testified that he did use the word ‘decapitate,’ and, while he did not recall using the word ‘blood,’ would not contest it. He also apologized.”
“That’s my favorite part,” said Richard, pointing to the screen. “‘He also apologized.’”
* * *
A month later, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of their D.C. condo. It had just been remodeled, with dark wood floors and watery granite countertops. Aside from two bar stools, there were no chairs in the living room, just a low wooden table on a red carpet. Richard and his younger brother were hanging scrolls from their trip to Japan the week before, while Bruce kidded me about our first meeting.
“You just looked so nervous!”
“I was nervous! I wanted to make a good first impression. I think that’s normal.”
Bruce started preparing sashimi, only asking me if I ate it as an afterthought. I hadn’t before, but said I had, peering at the gelatinous ikura.
“When we lived in Japan, I was eating sushi with some Yakuza guys,” he said. “They brought out live shrimp, and I didn’t want to lose face, so I popped one in my mouth totally alive. They started laughing and said usually they found it better to kill their food before they ate it.”
Most of the stories I would hear from his spy days were like that: jokes, with casual references to risky situations. Every once in a while, I saw the evidence of the other kind of stories, the ones you would expect to hear from war zones. Richard would become overtaken by something tragic he’d seen as a young kid, and I’d grab him insistently, crawling in his lap. “There are physiological benefits to human contact,” I’d say, wrapping myself around him until our breathing matched and we fell asleep.
Most of those stories I don’t know, mostly because they’re classified, but also because they’re horrifying. There is a persistent darkness at the edge of confidential intelligence. With an excess of information ranging from his own personal secrets to those of weapons labs and federal governments, the open stories burst as if they were pressurized, Bruce’s standard pragmatism punctuated with brightness.
“Well, you know that’s our family motto,” Richard said. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Anna Shults is a writer and editor based in Boston.
* * *
By Nicholas Soodik
Just a few weeks after moving into my building, I rode the elevator with an old woman carrying home a dead chicken. Two stiff pink legs and claw-like feet jutted out from the woman’s plastic bag. It was winter, and we were both bundled for the cold. I had been out doing some shopping, and so, apparently, had she. I returned with a roll of Mentos and a pint of non-dairy creamer; she came home with a dead chicken.
Even though I hadn’t met this woman before, I knew what apartment she lived in. I knew the color of her kitchen, where she kept the big pot in which she’d boil the bird, and that the cabinet above the kitchen sink was missing a door. I knew all of these things because I spy on my neighbors, and I’d already watched her.
A couple days after moving in, I sat at my desk in our office, looking out a back window. The view here reminds me a little of “Rear Window,” except the grassy back courtyards of Hitchcock’s film have been replaced by the neighboring building’s garbage collection area. Dozens of black plastic sacks sit stacked there, along with two metal grocery carts, some wooden planks and a number of broken mops, snow shovels, and those wide fringy brooms used to sweep gyms.
What the view lacks in scenery, it makes up for in opportunities to see into other apartments. From the desk, I see into a dozen different living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Many of the neighbors must be aware of the exposure; they keep their curtains drawn and their blinds closed. But a few don’t and I’ve taken note.
One of New York City’s gifts is the chance to find privacy in very public places. The city also provides the curious an opportunity to eavesdrop with abandon, and everyone who lives here, I’m convinced, does so. We overhear lovers quarrel on a park bench and catch the insider chat of businessmen at lunch. Once, while sitting with a sandwich on the steps in front of the Met, I listened to a young woman explain her job. “I don’t want to give up dancing,” she said. “I want to dance forever.”
In my neighbors, I’ve found the delight of eavesdropping even at home. What I’ve seen is not the X-rated and illicit, mind you. I’ve been touched, instead, by the everyday and the common: neighbors watering plants, cleaning grime from their windows, preparing dinner; the stuff of everyday life. I watch the two guys directly across from me play video games while drinking vodka. I know the young woman to my right uses her sofa as a desk and sits on the floor while typing. On some dark nights, I’ve discovered an outstretched arm from a window two stories below and the glowing ember of a midnight cigarette.
One April evening a few months after moving in, I noticed something especially unusual. The curtains were pulled shut, but where they met I could barely make out what looked like a ribbon of flesh — a thigh, maybe, or a stomach — lying on a bed next to the window. Only one time before had I glimpsed anything approaching nudity — a bald, mustached man folding laundry without a shirt on.
I called in my wife to watch with me, and we shut off the light in our office to avoid being seen. There was movement on the bed, and we could occasionally see two hands rubbing the body. I noticed that the bed had metal railings, like something found in a hospital, and as we watched the hands work on the prone body, we began to make out what we were seeing. A home health-care aide, dressed in one of those starchy pink uniforms, was massaging an older woman, likely in an effort to help circulate her blood.
It was the last time I called to my wife to watch something from our office window.
When we brought home our newborn daughter a few months later, an older neighbor held open the door as we came in and smiled at us. “Avocado?” she asked.
“No, a little girl,” I thought. “Just born.”
“My son brought me a dozen,” the neighbor said, unaware of the new bundle we carried, “and I need to get rid of a few.” She reached into a small shopping bag and handed us an avocado. We thanked her and went upstairs. For the first time, we put our daughter in her basinet to sleep, and my wife and I, without speaking, watched her breathe for a long time. My wife lay down for a nap, and I went to the kitchen to make guacamole.
We had no tortilla chips or bread in the house, and I was starving, so I ate the guacamole out of the bowl with a spoon. It had been a couple of days since the last time I checked email, and I sat at my desk in the office to read and send some messages.
Something in the window where we had seen the woman getting massaged caught my eye. The drapes were pulled back, and there were two uniformed men moving in the room. The bed where the woman had once lain was empty. In the middle of the room on the floor was a long black sack with a zipper in the middle, and I knew at once why it was called a body bag. I noticed two raised points — the woman’s feet, jutting stiff and upright — at the end of the bag where the zipper began. I watched the men hoist the bag from handles on both ends, laying it on a gurney and then wheeling it out of the room. I thought about what I had seen and what would happen to the bag wheeled from the room.
I closed my laptop, pulled down the blinds in the office, and went to the bedroom, where I watched our new daughter breathe.
Nicholas Soodik is a high school English teacher in Brooklyn.
* * *
The Monster Down The Hall
By Niesha Davis
Chicken à la King. That is what we had for dinner the weekend I moved in with my father and his new wife, Jeanette, for good. It was August of 1998 and I had just been informed that I would not be living with my mother anymore. My father took me on a drive around the perimeter of Roxboro Middle School that Saturday afternoon. “This is going to be your new school,” he told me as I peered out the window.
My father had just gotten a new position as a correctional officer with the city of Cleveland and things would be different. Things had been difficult since the divorce. My mother and I moved around a lot. We got evicted a few times, shared a mattress on the floor of a spare room in a distant aunt’s house, and finally landed somewhat on our feet in the form of a one-bedroom apartment in Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland. My mother got the bedroom; I slept on the pull-out couch in the living room. My father and Jeanette were buying a house.
“How does having your very own room sound?” he asked.
It sounded great. I was ecstatic. But I was nervous about Jeanette.
Deep down I always got the impression that she didn’t like me very much. The two of us were cordial at best. That night I went home and plopped myself on the bed ready to write about the day’s events in my diary. I loved writing. I didn’t have many friends to talk to so it was such a release for me; it was the only place I could write about all of my dreams, desires, fears and anxieties. I chronicled all sorts of things, like the grown men who had started looking at me strangely since I began wearing a training bra, and Jeanette’s sub-par cooking skills. I wrote about my uncertain feelings for my stepmother. As I reached inside of my nightstand in search of my diary, my heart started beating faster. It wasn’t there. I searched every inch of my bedroom, digging through the closet and tearing through half-unpacked bags, but my diary was gone.
Things were tense later that evening at dinner. My father was working the late shift, so it was just the three of us: Jeanette, myself, and her nine-year-old daughter Monique. As we picked over her tasteless chicken à la king, Jeanette side-eyed me, as though daring me to complain about the food. After dinner she called me into her room. Laying on her side with her hand holding up her head, she had a question for me:
“Seeing as how you don’t like my cooking, was tonight’s meal to your liking?”
I averted my eyes. Shit, I thought to myself. Had she read it all? Why was she doing this to me? How could I be so stupid to leave it in such an obvious place? Finally, my eyes met hers.
“It was okay,” I said.
The next day my father gave me a talk about how I shouldn’t write bad things about people in my diary. I nodded my head but I couldn’t understand — why had she read it in the first place? Why couldn’t I be free with my thoughts without having to worry about what others thought about them? After that, Jeanette and I grew even more distant and any chance of us being one big happy family went completely out the window.
One morning before school, I found a piece of paper in my shoe: a photocopy of a page from my diary. I felt like crawling inside of myself. She was taunting me with my own words. My father and Jeanette drove me to school that morning. I got out of the car and gave a solemn goodbye, which prompted Jeanette to tell me, “You know, if you don’t want to speak to me, Niesha, then you don’t have to.”
Throughout the rest of the fall and winter I continued to find folded-up pieces of paper in not-so-random places. One morning it might be under my pillow. Another day a flat sheet might be layered in between my homework. A few weeks would pass without a note and then I would open up the pages of a favorite book and find one. I grew more irritated and nervous around the house. I hated being at home but where else could I go? My grades began to suffer as concentrating became a challenge all of its own.
Finally, the tension exploded and Jeanette tried to explain herself. I was a brat, she said. You have your father “wrapped around your finger” she said, and she wanted to take me down a peg.
“But why my journal?” I whined. “ Those were my private thoughts.”
“The only privacy you get in this house is in the bathroom.”
After that year I didn’t write anymore. Even after my father divorced Jeanette when I was fifteen, I didn’t write. Until I went to college, it didn’t feel safe. I learned not to trust anyone. I spent the rest of my childhood, teenage years and young adult life putting up barriers so people wouldn’t get too close to me. It’s a habit that I’m just starting to unlearn now.
* * *
Niesha Davis is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has written for Time Out Amsterdam, XoJane, Clutch Magazine, Bust, Bitch, and others. She received a BA in Theater and Literary Studies from The New School. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Niesha has lived in San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, and soon South Korea. Keep up with her on twitter @nieshasharay.
Audrey Helen Weber makes drawings and quilts in Brooklyn, New York.