A student near the aisle in the middle of the auditorium stood up and walked out just then, looking down at the phone in his hand, and, for that instant and as though in reverence, the little man paused in his speech and lowered his gaze. He said nothing. In that moment, in that silence, the little man wondered whether he had, finally, strayed too far from the course’s designated topic. Though he then tried to resume speaking, the little man found he couldn’t recall what he’d been planning to say next. Something about the building of the Tower of Babel, he thought; yes, it seemed likely, in that instant, that the foundations laid for the Tower of Babel had been the subject of the sentence he’d started and then abandoned, but when he looked down at his lecture notes he could not find the words “Tower” or “Babel” written anywhere in them.
In another story, all of this might have been only a dream. We are perfectly familiar, after all, with the implications of such nightmares. We have had them ourselves. In such a story, our little man would have awakened, perhaps in the middle of the night, perhaps unable to fall back asleep, and, despite himself, would have enacted, in his waking decisions, the anxieties of the night. The thing he truly feared, for which this dream had been nothing more than an unbearably pregnant symbol, would come to pass, and he would not be able to face it, and he would then think of this dream.
Or perhaps he would instead have forgotten it. Perhaps, in yet another variation of the story, the dream, mentioned at the beginning of the story, in passing—the little man waking in a cold sweat; was it something he ate? stress?—would not seem so remarkable to the little man, and, even for us, the readers, would only come to have significance on the very last page. There, the little man’s elderly and infirm father or mother, or perhaps someone else close to him would, after some disappointment or disagreement, walk out on him, as we would understand it, forever, and the little man would once again lower his gaze, finding himself speechless and powerless to act. He isn’t going to try to stop them? He isn’t going to say anything? Eventually, perhaps, it will occur to us that we have already had our answers.
And if our story is one in which the scene in the auditorium represents waking life and not a dream, then perhaps in that moment the little man would have cleared his throat, polished his glasses, or else instead remained still, storing up the quiet around him. Maybe, the little man in this other story would think, it had been an emergency, someone calling to tell the student his father was in the hospital or his brother or sister had passed away. His student hadn’t seemed panicked, but perhaps, the little man would think, his blank face had been a kind of mirage, the effect of the distance between them.
This story, though, the one we are reading, does not make the choice to follow the little man through time. Though in doing so it risks losing us, shaking us loose from its still-tenuous hold, this story leaves the little man at the podium to pull into a parking spot on a one-way street. It is the little man’s least favorite spot, too close to the hydrant and half in a pothole. In this story, at this moment, we do not know why we have landed here or what it has to do with what we’ve read so far. All we know is that, when the little man emerges, the elephant ears that were bent against the Honda brush against his side, and then, following that fleeting contact, in the neighbor’s porch light, the little man checks and rechecks his pants and his jacket for insects. Because he is so consumed with this—is his fidgeting the result of some horrific past experience, or is it only that he has imagined things crawling on him, unseen?—and because the city in which the little man lives, having more pressing budgetary concerns after the storm, no longer seems interested in keeping its streets lit all the time, the little man does not see the other man step from the shadows. The little man, shaking his jacket’s sleeve to dislodge something—is it something?—does not see the gun.
Robert, this other man says, though the little man’s name is not Robert, we have to talk.
All right, the little man says. Let’s go inside. It feels like it’s going to come down.
The little man, we understand, means rain.
So now, in this story, there is a gun. In another story, the man with the gun would be the little man’s student, perhaps the very student who got up and walked out on page one. Is it that the shorter the story, the farther the reader’s credulity must be stretched? There is no answer in our story. Indeed, our story sets both the gun and the identity of the person wielding it aside and now tells us that, as a child, the little man had been treated differently from other children. He had, we are assured, seldom asked for it, though of course we know he could not avoid asking for it at times. We all need help. He had been treated kindly, softly, as though fragile, and all of this delicate handling had intensified his sense of isolation. In reaction, he had attempted a kind of invisibility, but this had somehow only improved his charm. Our story chooses one example from among many in the little man’s past: a minor transgression, a neighbor whipped or a schoolmate suspended, the little man unpunished. He will not have asked for this forgiveness, but he will be granted it. The whole thing is summarized and thus made general through its attempted metonymy. That it happened is unexceptional, the story seems to say to us; this is not the story of that tragedy.
So, surely, we think, we’ll now return to the matter of the gun. It’s fine to give us background on our characters—we expect it, even in the shortest of stories—but if meanwhile we’re distracted by thoughts of their present, we become quite impatient. After all, if we see a stranger mugged on the street, we help or we don’t, but we don’t typically stop to wonder whether she lost a parent as a child, whether she herself has lost a child, whether she’s been abused or bullied or has been to war. And perhaps, we think, it’s important to care about the little man more than that stranger—the stranger is real, palpable, her problems before us and in our power to affect—and, only a few pages in, we can’t summon that kind of pathos yet, not for the little man, but then, telling us what the story has told us of the little man’s past hasn’t done much to develop him, and anyway ours is a very simple curiosity: What is happening? Maybe the other man ought to be the little man’s student, we think. Maybe the test of the reader’s disbelief would be worth it if it meant a more satisfying shape to the story.
Another story, reducing things to their barest essence, might zoom in on the scene of the little man and the man with the gun in the little man’s living room, giving each gesture, each tiny action, an outsized significance. The way the other man handles the gun would become an indication of his character—careless, laying on his lap, unhandled? aggressive, in his hand, pointing? nervous, held close to the body to prevent shaking?—and thus as much as we need to know about him and his relationship to the little man. We may decide, reading into his actions, that this is a mugging, but we may instead decide that it is only a longstanding disagreement, or else possibly just a tragic misunderstanding.
Our story, though, does not reduce. It continues to sprawl. In not focusing on this scene in the living room, in instead moving through the backstory and then throwing us into a future moment, our story is indicating that the scene in the living room is, like the whipping or the suspension, really only one incident in a much longer history. An example, yes, but one example, not the only or even the best, just the one that leads the little man, finally, to call the police and tell them about this strange relationship he and the other man have had for nearly two decades. And when the police have apprehended the other man and he is on trial, our story might give us details of the trial or even some facts about the case, but instead our story allows these things to remain implied.
In fact, our story is, generally speaking, short on explanation and careless with details. Another story would certainly have gone out of its way to explain why the other man called the little man Robert: that detail is far too interesting to simply throw away. In such a story, we would have a scene with the little man in a different car, a much larger and fancier car, a luxury sedan perhaps, accidentally sideswiping a parked Buick in a neighborhood he’d never been to before. In that story, a man will then jump into the passenger seat and tell the little man to drive, to just go. This will be our other man. The little man in that story will think at first that he is being carjacked—it is, in that story, in that scene, the 1980s, a time when, we all know, things like that happened—but this other man will explain that, after all, he is saving the little man’s life. The car the little man has hit in this other story will be this other man’s uncle’s Buick, and this uncle will be the boss of the neighborhood, and the men the little man in this other story has seen on the corner will beat the little man if he is fool enough to stick around, or so our other man will tell him. In this other story, the only thing to do—because police don’t come to this neighborhood to help and nobody there has insurance—will be for the other man to take the money for the repairs to his uncle. The little man in this story won’t have the money on him, and so the little man will, reluctantly, have to give the other man his address. And so, in this other story, it will start.
That we aren’t given that information, that backstory—how does that change how we see things in our story? How much do we miss a scene in which the other man goes to the little man’s house with an estimate written on what looks like the back of a grocery bag? We might feel, when the little man brings out the envelope with the bank logo on it, that we’ve come to know something more about the little man, about his innocence or perhaps instead about the extent of his guilt. In such a scene, in dialogue, we might also learn that, though the little man has given this other man his address and quite a bit of cash, he hasn’t given him his name. That, for the little man, words matter more, somehow.
Our story has none of this, but because it doesn’t, it is freed of the responsibility of showing us what a weak protection such behavior would be, freed, that is, from giving us yet more exposition in the form of the little man’s thoughts when, years later, after the little man has paid the other man again and again—because, well, times are tough after the hurricane and the other man doesn’t have any work and his children are going hungry—the two men once again find themselves on the little man’s back porch, the other man sweating heavily through a dark shirt, jittery, and the little man, on summer break, conscious that he is, right that moment, being paid for what sometimes seems to others nothing at all, things like reading the same page of the Bible over and over, thinking about the different ways the different translators had rendered this one passage and then, after a day at the university library or his office, relaxing in his backyard, watering tomatoes that will be eaten by insects long before they’ve ripened, his mind turning not to the classes he’ll teach but instead to these children he’s never seen, children he can’t be certain actually exist, but who, in his mind, are going hungry because of a mistake he’d made long, long before, and so, really, did it matter that the little man didn’t believe the other man’s stories? Somehow he felt his own lie, the matter of this fake name, was worse. Is our story aiming for concision in keeping such a scene from us, or is it merely being withholding?
Many versions of this story, including ours, will at least have a scene of the little man in the courtroom, at the plaintiff’s table, the bailiff reading the little man’s name—not Robert but his real name—and the other man leaning back in his chair and giving the little man a look that will at least partly explain why, midway through the trial, after the little man has testified that this other man did point a gun at him in his own living room, did demand money, the little man will nonetheless be amazed that the state has charged the other man not only with armed robbery but also with kidnapping, and he will think, the little man, These lawyers aren’t doing much to prove this man threatened me or took my money by force, much less kidnapped me. It’s my word against his. If he were a man like me, the little man in such stories will think, he could not be convicted, not on this evidence. I invited him in.
Which is not to say that the little man is so naive as not to expect that the jury will convict the other man, and when, in all versions of this story, they do, he does not feel vindicated. In our story, this is when the look the other man gives the little man is described—in a flashback, a single sentence—and then immediately we jump back to the end of the trial and our little man walking out of the courtroom, regretting calling the police in the first place, thinking about the other man’s family and the looks they, too, had given him.
Our story, restless as ever, will then tell us that, at some point during the decades of this extortion, the little man had stopped lecturing on his subject of expertise, stopped talking about it almost altogether. Instead, in our story, he will create what he will think of, simply, as stories—perhaps instructive, perhaps not—delivering them instead of his lectures. In our story, the chair will interview the little man’s students, the little man’s colleagues. The little man’s colleagues will think he is simply testing the limits of tenure. They will plot ways to get back at him, though for what, exactly, they will never be able to agree on. His students, it turns out, will be just as puzzled as his colleagues, though they will pass on word that there are few assignments in the class, that all you have to do is show up and listen to this little guy tell weird stories about the world and history and then summarize those things in your papers and you’ll pass.
In our story, things will go on in this way. We will wonder whether this has been the thrust of the story all along. The little man will no longer imagine his life headed in any other direction. Everyone in our story will accept that this has always been his fate. They will not, in other words, wonder that he is alone, that he is, seemingly permanently, stalled in his position, that he is never seen at social functions, that he is happy or unhappy, that he may have intended something quite different for himself. He will have become, to them, a fact of life, not quite invisible but also not worth thinking about. Perhaps in another story, all this would be given a scene, but our story, we know, resists this kind of narrative strategy. At what point will we finally lose patience?
Our story, teasing us, now gives us the tiniest hint of one of the little man’s story-lectures. Finally, some bit of detail. Are we back at the beginning? The little man is at the podium, and now we have actual reported speech, words that we think have come from the little man’s mouth: While it is common to think of the Tower of Babel as an aspiring to Godhood on the part of man, it isn’t always presented that way, the little man says. Though its builders do intend that the Tower reach the heavens, they don’t always seem to mean for it to rival those heavens, the little man says. After all, a finger pointing at the stars does nothing to approximate those stars. The Tower seems, in some translations, to be little more than a beacon or a landmark, a tether for the men of the world, a place to congregate, like the temples of the Mayans or the mounds of the Native Americans. It is only the God of some translations of the story that introduces the element of hubris, of rivalry. What if we instead imagine that this interpretation is a mark of the cowardice of the writer or writers witnessing the destruction, the little man asks. What if we instead see that destruction as merely the natural result of some inescapable design flaw, a structural defect, the way we’d see it today? Instead of a jealous god, just a basic and all-pervasive incompetence; instead of a pernicious scrambling of the mother tongue, a beneficent screen drawn ever so slowly between peoples?
In this story, his students will write, as his previous students have written, the things he has said in his story-lecture. They will not cite him as a source, nor will they transform what he’s said or take issue with it. They will simply present it to him as though it were their own, and, in this way, remind him of the fragility of knowledge, of the frangibility of fact. When he passes away at the end of our story, his teachings, such as they are, will live on under other names, smuggled into consciousness every now and again as though mental contraband, perhaps even then completely inscrutable to those in possession of them.
In this story, the police will break down the little man’s door after a neighbor complains of the smell. They will find long lists of money paid to the other man—dollar amounts, followed by short descriptions of the reason for the payouts—written on the backs of student papers. They will shake their heads at the gullibility thus displayed. Some people, they will say. They will say that the little man could have retired early on this money, could have gone on dozens of expensive vacations, bought a better house in the city and a camp on Lake Borgne or Grand Isle. What they would have done with it! When added up, it will be more or less incomprehensible to those doing the adding that the little man didn’t turn in this other man much sooner, that, after the other man got out of jail and resumed this strange relationship, the little man didn’t turn him in yet again, that the little man instead started giving him even more money. One of the investigators will make a joke about Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
These police will also, of course, find the little man, on the kitchen floor. He will have been dead for several days. In another story, there will be a gunshot wound in his body, because the gun, having been introduced, ought to go off, but in our story, the little man will have died peacefully. Another detail, discarded. In another story, his papers will say something profound, something about his life, his conflicted charity, but in ours, there will be no papers, not written by the little man. There will be only the papers of his students, and, on the back of these papers, the little man’s accounts.
At the top of the most recent stack, a date from two weeks before, an amount in the hundreds, and the words “sister, dialysis.” On the other side of this paper, one of the little man’s students will remind us that the Tower was not built in Babel, it was built in Shinar. That, after the destruction of the Tower, the city was renamed Babel, that this is a pun, because, in Hebrew as in English, the word Babel resembles the word babble, which is to say, a confusion of sound, an almost-nonsense that nevertheless indicates that another person, a beating heart and a mind at work, is close by, some human being within earshot that we nevertheless find we cannot understand.