Do you and your boyfriend talk shit about me? I asked my wife over the phone. No, not really, she said. Maybe a little? I asked. A little, she said. What do you say about me? I asked. Just that you could be a lot of work sometimes, she said. It’s not really about you, she added. It’s more me. What I wasn’t getting. My needs not being addressed. And what needs were those? I asked. I could hear the hiss in my words, like a grain of rice converting to a puff of steam. Sexual needs, said my wife.

From this line of questioning there could be no escape. I would ask awful questions until my brain uncoiled from exhaustion.

My wife was in Europe and I was in the ruins of the old apartment, surrounded by wedding presents and the clothes she hadn’t taken with her. Her shoes formed a cairn by the doorway. The shower drain was still clogged with her hair. She’d been gone for two months now, but her stuff seemed to be taking up more space all the time, in a slow, moss-like creep of personal effects. Mountains of her books were toppled over in the hallway. An avalanche of unopened mail had plummeted from her desk onto the bedroom floor. Her abandoned possessions formed an ankle-high maze through which I navigated, stubbing my toes in the dark. With most of the ground covered, I had been forced to forge desire paths through the miscellanea, snaking avenues leading circuitously to the bathroom, the fridge, the sofa. My new job was sapping my energy. I couldn’t motivate myself to clean up, and so the entropy of the apartment proceeded apace.

So what did you get up to today? I asked my wife. Oh, not much, she said. I went to the outdoor market and got this really delicious fish paste and some Lebanese bread and just sat outside for a few hours. I got some reading done at a little cafe. That sounds nice,
I said. The question on the tip of my tongue was: How much more do you enjoy having sex with your boyfriend than you did with me? But before I went over the ledge another call came in. I’ve got to go, I said to my wife. Work stuff. I love you, she said. I love you too, I said, and switched to the other line.

It was Nikki Krasnik. She was waiting out front with the car. I’m here with coffee, she said. I wanted to talk longer with my wife about life with her boyfriend in Europe but I had to go shoot rats with Nikki from the roof of the Marriott downtown. I needed to make my quota for the month or I’d lose my job as a vermin sniper for the city, and
I couldn’t risk my life falling apart any more than it already had.

Downtown opened up like a hole in the ground as Nikki and I came over the exit ramp. Ever since the city had voted to cut off power to the street and traffic lights in the center, the only points of reference were the dull red-and-white marquee glows of the CVS, a few bodegas, check-cashing joints – the dying stars suspended in the dead center of the metro area’s shrinking universe. The Marriott was the tallest building next to the towering parking garages and the empty insurance company headquarters, and even though half the hotel was closed for repairs that were never going to happen, it was still the most easily accessible roof in the area and an ideal spotters’ nest, affording 360-degree views of the asphalt void around it.

Nikki was having an argument with her husband, one hand on the wheel, the other holding the phone under her chin on speaker. For 410,000 you really should have someone come and crack it open, she said. Otherwise what a fucking crazy waste of money, Bear.

Bear was Nikki’s nickname for her husband, whose size, appetite and sleeping schedule were indeed bearlike, although in my experience he lacked the loping, magisterial ease and intelligence I had always associated with the genuine animal, so that at the end of the day what he most embodied was a fat, slow, mostly useless human being. He worked as a sniper too. Rules forbade relatives and romantic partners from doing fieldwork together, and sometimes it seemed like this was one of the bigger reasons Nikki had signed on. We’d been teamed up for about a month now and our kill count, while modest by the standards of the more gung-ho pros, looked positively elite next to Bear’s barrel-scraping performance. The rats were big but not that big, and Bear, who was really called something like Brett or Brent, would have been challenged to hit his namesake at point-blank range with a grenade so hopeless were his aim and work ethic.

Look, Bear, I’ve got to hang up now, said Nikki as we turned onto the deserted main drag. We’ll talk when I get home or tomorrow, but seriously don’t do anything stupid before then, OK? Bear said something that sounded like potato chips being force-fed into the mouthpiece. Love you, said Nikki. Byeeee. She ended the call and dropped the phone unceremoniously into the cupholder. I cannot fucking believe this, she said. Her eyes bored through the crud on the windshield. Bear buys this ridiculous million-pound drill-resistant hard-plate safe like a year ago for fuck knows what reason, puts all our important documents in it, and today, when we need my passport for this bank thing, he has no idea what the fucking combination is, never wrote it down, and now he’s talking about getting our neighbor to dynamite it down at the end of the road. I’m like really, Bear, really?

The life Nikki described with Bear often sounded so exorbitantly miserable and strange that it pushed the limits of credibility. I of course could not say for sure what did or did not go down in the Krasnik household. Nikki, at the very least, seemed to take seriously enough the unending crisis of her husband’s stupidity.

OK, I was a little bit in love with her too. Meaning not in in love with her. Just that my wife was gone with another man and Nikki was one of the only women I knew who wasn’t an old off-limits female friend, and so my mind just went there, to the gutter and the bedroom and the altar on momentary mental vacations with Nikki Krasnik. Sometimes when we were shooting from the roof, she’d pop a squat by the ledge and balance her rifle barrel on the railing to steady her aim, and I, a few feet away with my eye down the sights, would let my gaze drift over to her lower back as her jacket rode up and stare for an asphyxiating second at the lacy waistband of her underwear until I creeped myself out and had to fire a shot off just to cover up for it. Once I actually hit a rat right after, by accident. I shot into the dark and heard a startled squeak, that eggshell crack of skull and the squicky patter of rats dispersing. I must have opened up a whole nest of them.

What do you mean dynamite it? I asked. We parked in front of the Marriott, under the canopy in the bus lane. I mean Terry, this guy who lives at the end of our street, is like a demolitions expert, said Nikki. Demolitions expert, she chimed in air quotes. Will it work? I asked. She handed me a rifle and pack from the trunk. All I’ve got to say, she said, is if Bear paid 410,000 for that thing it better not work. Point taken, I said. I’m just going to call the safe company on Monday, she said. They can fucking deal with it.


A Prize
The Kabul Markhor