‘The Smash-Up,’ by Ali Benjamin: An Excerpt

What happened?

Everyone asked the question, had been asking since the election. They asked while watching the news, that storm of headlines, jump-cut footage of marches and speeches and hand-sharpied cardboard, an endless, swirling blizzard—a siege, really—of protests and counterprotests, action and reaction, people screaming at one another in the street, neighbor versus neighbor, friend versus friend. (Or too often: friends no more. We were in new territory. People had their limits.)

What happened? Reporters asked in small-town diners over $7.50 lunch specials, BLTs cut into neat wedges and Heinz bottles perched like microphones atop scratched Formica tables.

What happened? People asked one another in church basements, community centers, gyms, coffee shops, living rooms where they came together to weep, process, scrawl on placards, plan the revolution.

What happened? Parents snapped off NPR mid-story, not wanting to answer questions from the backseat. College students organized walkouts, staged sit-ins, blocked freeways. A giant inflatable chicken appeared behind the White House lawn, some sort of protest that no one entirely understood. Everything was some sort of protest now.

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What happened what happened what happened what

Everyone had their answers, and as is generally the case in these situations, everyone’s version of the story was a little different. It was impossible, it was inevitable, it was surreal, it was unreal, it was scandal, sea change, enthralling, a coup. It was some bad sort of smash-up: just the right-or-wrong elements at just the right-or- wrong time: anger and alienation, misinformation and disinformation, resentment and rage, hucksters and hackers, bots and Nazis (literal Nazis! As if they hadn’t been the unequivocal villains in every film for the last half century! For heaven’s sake, hadn’t these people ever even seen Indiana Jones?). It was all of these things, it was none of these things, it made no goddamned sense, that’s the point, and the only thing any of us knew for sure was this: on the eighth day of the eleventh month of the year of our lord two thousand and sixteen, our nation—and with it the world we’d known—had turned upside down.

Once, a lifetime ago it seems now, I interviewed a geologist. This was in the Before—before the world smashed to pieces, back when we could count on tomorrow unfolding more or less like it had today, which of course was more or less like yesterday and all the days before that. Find something interesting, my editor had told me. He’d said it vaguely, with a wave of his hand. Make geology relevant.

The geologist I’d interviewed was athletic and lean, pale as parchment. For two hours, she and I sat together in a windowless basement office in the science building of a mid-sized college campus. She explained that the Earth’s crust is always in motion, tectonic plates shifting endlessly, like jigsaw puzzle pieces shuffled around a table. The plates move so slowly that changes are largely imperceptible.

But sometimes the jagged edges snag. The plates can’t get free, so they push against each other, like lovers who can neither separate nor get close enough. Pressure mounts, moment upon moment, decade upon decade. Eventually the planet cracks open, and nothing is ever the same again. We think of an earthquake as a single moment in time, the geologist told me that day, when in fact it’s a centuries-long event. It happens bit by bit by bit, then all at once.

She shared other things in that conversation—that the Americas and Asia will someday be a single landmass, one enormous supercontinent. That our oceans sometimes belch enormous boulders into open sky; recently, a stone two and a half times the weight of the Statue of Liberty was hurled from the sea off the coast of Ireland. It sailed hundreds of feet through the air, then landed, to the bewilderment of locals, smack-dab in the middle of an open field.

But it was the earthquake part that I found myself thinking about in those days of what happened.

Bit by bit by bit, then all at once. That was how it felt: like pressure we hadn’t even noticed building had cracked wide open the ground we’d been standing on. Only after fissures had become chasms did we realize they’d been there all along. Sometimes the people who had been next to us just moments ago were now on the other side of a sharp divide, a canyon no one could cross.

It ripped people apart, this thing that happened. That’s what I’m saying. It tore entire lives asunder.


Maybe you’re standing in the shadows. Near that old spruce tree, probably. Maybe needles poke the back of your neck, and there’s a leash in your hand, and at the other end of the leash is an arthritic dog. She’s patient, the old mutt—a little confused, perhaps, about why you’ve taken to standing in this particular spot at this particular time of night, but not so confused as to make a fuss. She wags her tail a few times, then lowers herself, resigned, into a sit position.

Good girl.

Maybe it’s a Tuesday night, late September, and you’re standing on the Ledge.

The Ledge isn’t a real ledge, not any sort of cliff. It is, instead, a tiny dip near the bottom of Schoolhouse Hill Road. Here, after a steady half-mile downward slope, the pavement rises ever so slightly before dropping, sharp and steep, into its final, vertiginous descent. When drivers hit the Ledge too fast, it can feel like the car is flying off the road altogether. Kids love the sensation: the unexpected weightlessness, the stomach drop, free fall, whoosh, like a roller coaster, almost.

But you’ve never much liked roller coasters, have you?

Besides, you’re on foot tonight. And as it happens, if you pause here, the Ledge offers the clearest view of downtown Starkfield, Massachusetts, a person will find anywhere. That’s where you look now: at three figures standing on the village green.

No, actually; that’s not quite right. There might be three figures down there, but your eyes are fixed on just one: the girl.

Blue hair. Yellow streetlight.

The girl brings something to her lips. Inhales. She holds her breath, count of five. When she exhales, wisps of smoke rise toward the sky. Diaphanous, that breath, like a prayer, or a spirit escaping the body. It’s unclear where her breath ends and the dark night begins.

The girl hands whatever she’s smoking (oh, who are you kidding? You know exactly what she’s smoking and you wouldn’t mind a little yourself, thankyouverymuch) to one of the two guys. Tall drink of water, this kid: clean-shaven, in too-short khakis and an old-man cardigan. Looks pimply, too, with hi-tops that seem too big for his stick legs. Skinny Pimple takes the joint, and just for a moment, you allow yourself to imagine that you’re him, that you’re curling your lips over the place where Maddy’s had just been. You picture lipstick marks on white paper: purple, maybe, or cherry red, the color of a beating heart.

Thumping music from the Flats bar, AC/DC. What is it, 10:30?

10:45? Must be damn near last call by now.

Somewhere else—in Brooklyn, say, which you called home a lifetime ago—the night is just getting started. In those places, people are leaving apartments. They’re stepping into the street, ready to eat, drink, dance, fuck.

Here in Starkfield, most of the windows have already gone black.

Skinny takes a toke, passes the joint to the other guy. This kid, the one you recognize, is more compact, almost stocky, with a beard that’s trimmer and darker than yours. Not a speck of gray in his.

Perhaps you reach up to feel your salt-and-pepper tangle—more salt than pepper, actually—its length nearly to your sternum.

You don’t head down the hill, don’t even consider approaching those kids. Come on, you’re no dummy. You know exactly what people—neighbors, say, or even your wife—would assume if you were to get any closer. They’d think you desperate. Some middle-aged fool. A modern-day Prufrock, pathetic in his longing.

But for the record, they’d be wrong: That’s not who you are. It’s not who you’ve ever been. This thing that’s happening now—the thing that’s brought you here tonight, and all the other nights—is something else altogether, something you haven’t yet put into words. Whatever it is, it feels important, urgent. The one thing you know for sure is this: it’s only on these nights, these walks, that you can finally breathe.

My God. It feels good to breathe, doesn’t it?

A screech owl. A guitar wail. This clear, cool night.

The hour is coming—if we’re counting hours, we’re down to the double digits now, and the clock is ticking fast—when this view won’t be so peaceful. Mere days from now, an observer standing exactly where you are will be witness to a different scene entirely. But that all lies in the future. The unknown future, the impossible future.

In. Out.

Maybe that’s when the phone call comes.

The phone. Shit.

Ethan jams his hand into the pocket of his fleece, flicks his phone to silent. The sudden motion startles Hypatia. The dog rises, collar jingling. Her wagging tail makes a soft swish against the branches. Ethan brings his finger to his lips, as if the animal could possibly understand. Shh, he wills.

He lifts his hand, the signal to sit, and she does. Good dog.

Did they hear anything, those three down there? Inside the circle of light, the blue-haired girl throws her head back, laughing. Some joke Ethan didn’t get to hear. No one looks up.

Inside the bar, AC/DC gives way to Guns N’ Roses.

Not long ago, trees would have blocked this view. When Ethan and Zo moved to town nearly sixteen years ago, a row of massive elms flanked the bottom of Schoolhouse Hill. The trees were nearly two centuries old, miracle beasts that somehow survived the Dutch elm epidemic, only to be drowned, seven years ago, in the floods of Hurricane Irene. The town replaced the elms with blue spruces, but death came for these new trees, too, just as it did for the ornamental pears that followed, and the emerald ash after that. Last year, town officials announced they’d given up on trees altogether—Sorry, folks, the climate’s changing too fast, no hope for it, we’re in the apocalypse now, might as well enjoy the view.

[ Return to the column on “The Smash-Up.” ]

Ethan sees the bearded kid take his toke. Lean in. All greedy-like.

He knows this kid’s name: Arlo O’Shea. Son of that dot-com millionaire from Corbury, the next town over. Back in the mid- ’90s, Arlo’s dad launched and sold some mediocre-but-brilliantly-timed medical website. That was back in the days when venture capitalists hurled suitcases full of cash at any idiot with a URL. Rumor has it that Arlo’s dad, then still in his twenties, took in a cool $112 million when the company was acquired by AOL. Built himself an eight-bedroom home with killer views over on Mount Corbury and never looked back.

Now, apparently, the lucky millionaire’s son has decided to slum it in Starkfield. And for the record, he’s standing way too fucking close to Maddy.

Also, the sugar maples. They’re dying too.

Ethan’s phone vibrates in his pocket. Two calls in a row. Must be Zo, clearing her own mind of some to-do item by passing it on to him. Did you write that tuition check yet? Or: Faucet leaking again, ugh. Or: Need paper towels!

Except: no. That can’t be right. Zo’s women’s group was still at the house when Ethan left, and they didn’t look anywhere near ready to leave. When the women are meeting (and let’s be honest: even when they’re not), Zo’s not thinking about Ethan at all.

When his phone comes to life a third time, Ethan takes a look: Not Zo. It’s Randy. His old Bränd partner. Finally returning his calls.

Damn, he really has to take this one.

Ethan takes a few steps up the hill, to the far the side of the spruce. Hypatia follows dutifully. When she sits again, her back rounds, head droops, like she’s an infrequently watered houseplant just barely hanging on.

“Randy,” Ethan whispers into his phone. He’ll make this quick, keep it friendly, find out why the last couple of checks from Bränd haven’t arrived. It’s been two whole quarters, half a fricking year, who does Randy think Ethan is, anyway? Randy will be filled with excuses—Sorry, had to fire the finance guy, or Screw-up in the accounting software, you know how it is. Or even— maybe more likely—something that sounds like a scene from a bad movie. Sorry, was on Richard Branson’s private island, some things you don’t say no to. Randy’s been filled with excuses ever since they met at Kenyon, which was—Ethan does a quick calculation— nearly three decades ago.

Jesus. Longer than Maddy’s been alive.

“E!” Randy’s voice in Ethan’s ear is loud, insistent. “They’re coming for me!”

Ethan sighs. There are a few things he’s come to expect from Randy’s calls. First and foremost is theatrics, some kind of urgent, pulsing drama.

They’re coming for me. Drama: check.

The next thing that’s going to happen, Ethan knows, will be some sort of name-dropping. Randy loves mentioning all the famous people who run in his circle: On my way home from a premiere, Cate Blanchett’s in the limo with me, hey Cate, say hi to my buddy E.

Or: I’m at an after-party. Britney Spears is here, chatting with Salman Rushdie, is that some kind of whacked-out convergence or what?

What’s Randy going to say this time? Hanging with Leo D. and Bradley Cooper. Bastards keep trying to get me to do more shots. In spite of himself, Ethan smiles. Randy’s exhausting, but his theatrics have their own sort of charm. Besides, everything Ethan has—including the freedom to stand here watching some twentysomethings smoke weed while Axl Rose sings about wanting to go where the grass is green and the girls are pretty—is due in part to the swirling maelstrom that is Randy Riverstone.

So, okay. Whatever it takes. He just needs his money. “Who’s coming for you this time, Randy?”

Through the branches, Ethan can still see Maddy. He can tell by the way her hands are in her pockets, the little jumps she’s starting to make, that she’s getting cold. The temperature must be, what, in the high forties? Not yet October, but winter’s coming. It’s not so far away now.

“The women. They’re coming for me.” There’s something about Randy’s voice. A strain, just a little too high in pitch. Ah, so this is the other version of his friend: the ranting, hysterical Randy. “They’re after me, E. Oh God, I’m freaking out here.”

“Randy,” Ethan says. “Slow down, man.”

“It’s my turn,” Randy says. “My fucking turn, and I’m gonna need your help.”

“Your turn for what, Rand?” Just like that, Ethan’s back in his old role. The soother. The fixer. The rational one. The straight- man foil to Randy, ever the entertainer.

“For the firing squad, E. Word on the street is that Bränd is next. I’m next, my balls on the chopping block. Gavin says they’re out for blood.”

Gavin. Ethan has to think. Gavin is Randy’s agent. Or maybe his publicist? Manager? What’s the difference between an agent, a publicist, and a manager, anyway? All these roles—like the fitness trainer, the nutritionist, the personal attorney, the one Randy calls his “money guy”—are all “AE”—After Ethan. They showed up after Randy and Ethan decided to part ways—or more precisely, after Zo refused to follow Ethan to Los Angeles, which meant Ethan sold off most of his personal stake in the company he’d co-founded just before it began making money hand-over-fist.

“Back up, Randy,” Ethan says. His voice is even. It’s his job to reassure, to get Randy un-spooked. “How exactly are your balls on the chopping block?”

“Jesus, are you not watching the news?” Randy says. “Do you get the news out in Amish country? Do you even have an Internet connection out there? Or electricity? There’s a whole thing that’s been happening to guys like us.”

Like us? Ethan and Randy have almost nothing in common, not anymore. “I’m in the Berkshires, Randy. Western Mass. You know that.”

“Berkshires, Amish country, same difference, you all make your own soap. Point is, we’re in hot water here.” Randy’s words spill out, disconnected phrases in that familiar machine-gun staccato, pow-pow-pow, so quickly that even if you’re paying attention, which Ethan isn’t, not quite, you can still only catch about a third of what he says.

“Everything we built . . .”

“Never been an angel, but you know I’m . . .”

Ethan holds the phone away from his ear, watches Arlo lean in toward Maddy. Yeah, there’s definitely something about that kid that Ethan doesn’t care for.

“. . . decide they’re going to cash in . . .”

“. . . tried to fix this . . . let’s just say that backfired . . .”

Greedy: that’s how Arlo looks right now. He looks way too fucking greedy. Meanwhile, Skinny Pimple is just standing there watching them, a dopey grin on his face. Ethan’s struck with the urge to smack Skinny right in his stupid little smirk.

“. . . I’m telling you . . . could really fuck up everything.”

Jesus, he can’t think clearly with Randy in his ear like this. “Randy,” Ethan interrupts. “Come on, man. Deep breath.” It’s

like he’s playing a character in a sitcom that’s had too long of a run. The part went stale long ago, but somehow here he still is, reciting the same tired catchphrases.

God, he wishes he had some of what those kids are smoking. “Randy, listen,” Ethan tries again. “I haven’t gotten my last two

checks—” He wants to sound like he doesn’t actually need the money, hasn’t spent it already.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Randy screeches. “Everything’s on hold, that’s what I’m saying. Money’s frozen. Fucking board’s quaking in their wingtips. Bränd’s about to be the latest collateral damage in whatever the hell new war the women have declared.”

Ethan’s silence must betray his confusion.

“Seriously?” Randy asks. “Hashtag Me Too? You’ve heard of it, haven’t you?”

Oh. So that’s what this is.

Just for a moment, Ethan feels himself hurtling through space, feels the Earth spinning beneath his feet—roughly eight hundred miles per hour at this latitude if he remembers correctly. He reminds himself that gravity—that mysterious, invisible force—will keep him from flying off into the black night, alone.

“Truth is, I didn’t think anything of it at first,” Randy’s saying, “but—”

Down the hill, Pimple grinds out the joint on the pavement. “Now I’ve got New York Times journalists calling me. Swear to

God, any second now, I’m gonna pick up the phone and it’ll be Ronan Fucking Farrow on the line.”

No, Ethan decides. He’s going to stay out of this one. He doesn’t even work at Bränd anymore; the checks he receives are payment for the work he already put in, for helping found the darn company, for keeping the whole enterprise together back when he and Randy were equal partners—as equal as can be, anyway, when only one of you is able to front the cash. This whole Ethan-cleans- up-Randy’s-mess thing ended two decades ago.

Besides: Randy will land on his feet. Randy always lands on his feet.

“Randy, listen: I want to be clear. Whatever is or isn’t happening with the company has nothing to do with me. What I need is for you to release my money.”

Christ, E, that’s what I’m trying to explain! None of us are gonna get money until this thing blows over. So as a matter of fact, this does have something to do with you. And if it’s ever going to be fixed, I need you to—”

And now Maddy’s walking up the hill. Away from the others.

Toward Ethan.

“Randy, I’m gonna have to call you back,” Ethan interrupts.

Maddy’s twenty-five paces away. Her head is down, her face lit by the glow from her phone.

“You hear me, right?” Randy presses. “Because I don’t know if you’re really listening here. Doesn’t really seem like you get it.”

Twenty paces away.

“This is trouble, my friend,” Randy continues. “With a capital T and that rhymes with P, and that stands for poorhouse. You feel me?”

Fifteen paces.

“This is the motherfucking apocalypse, E. This is—”

But by now, Maddy’s almost reached the Ledge. She’s close enough that Hypatia—who’s half-blind, half-deaf these days—is already rising, tail wagging. Ethan doesn’t have a choice: he cuts off his oldest friend, his former business partner, his college roommate, with a single motion of the finger.

End call.

Hypatia strains at her leash. She barks, a single yap of greeting. Maddy startles, stops in her tracks. Then, almost as quickly, she laughs. And this time Maddy’s laughter is for Ethan alone. “Ethan!” Hand on her heart. Her lip curl is just barely visible in the dark.

“Scare the fuck out of a person, why don’t you?”

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