Excerpt

Hangman

Maya Binyam

August 17, 2023 
The following is from Maya Binyam's Hangman. Binyam is a writer whose work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, New York, Bookforum, Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Times Book Review, and in many other publications. She is a contributing editor at the Paris Review and has previously worked as an editor at Triple Canopy and the New Inquiry, and as a lecturer in the New School’s Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program.

The Yogurt Man

 Outside, there was nothing to indicate that we were welcome. The bus had deposited us in a valley that was hung up between two mountains. The mountains were drained of color, and the station, once again, had no physical structure. It was conjured only by the existence of the bus, and, surrounding it, the passengers, myself included, disembarking. I encouraged the chocolate-covered woman to descend the stairs before me, and then I followed her, worrying that through that gesture I had accidentally made it such that our journeys would be bound together for life. We walked across the road, and I prepared myself to go wherever she led me. I tried to imagine getting used to the shape of her back, which was just a rectangle with two long things hanging from either side of it.

Just as I was beginning to accept the idea of staring at an average-looking back for the rest of my life, she turned around and gave me a hug. It didn’t feel like anything. When she was done with that, she turned around again, and I watched her rectangular body board another bus. I waited for someone, a cousin or another relative, to approach me with a ticket, but no one approached me with a ticket, so when the bus pulled away, I waved goodbye to the chocolate-covered woman, who watched me through the window. Her eyes looked like they were trying to cry, but the inside of her body wouldn’t let them.

Down the road, I saw an elderly man selling yogurt. I walked to where he sat, which was, basically, in a sad-looking shelter constructed from a pile of rocks. I tried to ask the yogurt man for directions, but he was already engaged in a conversation with the chocolate cake vendor, who was trying to exchange a cup of yogurt for a slice of the elaborate chocolate cake. To me, the proposal seemed fair, but the yogurt man was explaining to the cake vendor that it wasn’t fair, because he had no particular interest in a slice of chocolate cake. The chocolate cake vendor was trying to argue with that, but he couldn’t argue with that, because the yogurt man was just making a statement about his preferences. So, the chocolate cake vendor walked away, walking as if he had no destination.

The yogurt man was listening to a news story on the radio, but the quality of the broadcast was bad, so when he noticed me, he asked me to hold the radio up. I wondered why the yogurt man didn’t hold the radio up himself, but he was old and probably expected younger people to do things for him, even if those younger people were, like me, approaching old age. He was sitting on a stool behind a bucket of yogurt, whistling. In his hand, he held a sewing needle, which he threaded back and forth through his cheeks. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to show me a trick, or if that was just a habit he had developed to cope with the boredom of selling yogurt. Anyway, he put the needle down, and asked me again to hold the radio up. I picked the radio up off the ground and pointed the antennae toward the sky, which was having a hard time delivering its message.

The dispatcher was describing the death of a man, but every time he said the dying man’s name, the broadcast was interrupted by static. The yogurt man asked me to raise the radio higher, so I held it above my head, but even then, the static continued to confuse the dispatcher’s meaning. The yogurt man had no idea what the dispatcher was trying to communicate, because he didn’t understand the dispatcher’s language. He asked me to translate. I raised the radio as high as possible, and then told him what the dispatcher was telling me, that a criminal who was awaiting charges in the country where I had become a citizen was on life support in the hospital. His wife hadn’t been allowed to see him while he was conscious, because he was technically in police custody. But now that his body was just a body, the police allowed her to visit it. A member of the city council was brought onto the radio program to assure listeners that incidents like the one caused by the man, who was brain-dead, were statistically rare. Statistically, he said, they were almost insignificant: kidnappings were more often carried out by parents or romantic partners than they were by strangers, and even foreign people, like the dying man, were usually more concerned with supporting their families than they were with terrorizing the local community. The dispatcher thanked the city council member and then asked him about his reelection campaign, which the city council member described as an ongoing success.

Given the city council member’s assessment of the general unlikelihood of kidnappings and the small population of foreign people inclined toward terrorism, it seemed to me that the dying foreign kidnapper described by the dispatcher was the same foreign kidnapper as the hospitalized foreign kidnapper I had read about at the internet café. The yogurt man’s language, which was also my language, didn’t have a word for “kidnapper,” so when I gave him my translation of the news from the radio, I supplemented it with the news I had learned from the internet. A foreign person, I told the yogurt man, had transported a woman, who people said was lovely, completely against her will. Then, once confronted by the police, he had had a heart attack. I told the yogurt man that the amount of time it took me to go from the bus depot to wherever I was now, his yogurt stand, was the same amount of time it took the foreign kidnapper to go from critical condition to brain-dead. The yogurt man seemed disturbed by the comparison, which had probably been inappropriate. Old people didn’t like to be faced with the sudden and sometimes surprise nature of death. He asked me about the foreign man’s motivations. I told him that the foreign man’s motivations were a mystery to me, to the police, to the new reporters, and probably to everyone else on planet earth. He looked at me, looking like the foreign man’s motivations were contained within my body. Too bad for him. I gave him back the radio, and then he turned it off.

The yogurt man sighed and then asked if I wanted a cup of yogurt. Unfortunately for him, I didn’t want a cup of yogurt. I just wanted to know which way to go. That was what I told him. The yogurt man, however, mistook my question about directions for a sign of my general interest in his life. Everyone around me today seemed desperate to make a confession, but that was just how people were when they encountered other people who were more reluctant to put their personalities on display. It was impossible to extract from a stranger the information you wanted without making yourself vulnerable to all the information you didn’t want but had no choice but to receive. So, I gave up, and let the yogurt man tell me all about his personal history.

Today, he said, was the anniversary of the disappearance of his father. He looked happy when he said that, as if the disappearance of his father was a wonderful holiday celebrated worldwide, like the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I said I was sorry. He told me I didn’t need to be sorry, because before his father disappeared, their family had no meaning. Their family, he said, was no different from the idea of a family. His father was a man, his mother was a woman, and he was the child who bound them together. He couldn’t detect in his parents any outward signs of desire or disgust, and when they fed him or picked him up, he felt they did so out of obligation. Accumulating obligations was how they convinced themselves that they were experiencing love. He couldn’t experience love, because he had been turned into their obligation.

One day, his father broke away from him and from his mother, tearing into a new family, which was already complete. That was what the townspeople later told him: Out of nowhere, his father had fallen in love with a stranger, and it was this twisted form of love, which relied on neither duty nor tradition, that compelled him to relinquish their shared life. His father became a collection of impulses. He slept and ate as much as he wanted, and when the interference of his wife became an insurmountable hinderance, he slipped poison into her dinner, so that she died in her sleep. Then his father fled.

The yogurt man looked really happy when he said that. Again, I told him I was sorry. He told me he was grateful to grow up without parents, because growing up without parents meant that his childhood wasn’t a childhood. It had no conventions. I congratulated him on his achievement of leading a conventionless life. Meanwhile, I prayed that his description of his murderous father and unmourned mother would somehow lead to a clear description of the direction I should walk in. I encouraged him to go on.

By the time his father disappeared, he said, he was in secondary school. Most of the teachers had no training. They were themselves recent secondary school graduates, who were able to masquerade as teachers only because they were completing the national service requirements that had been introduced by the federal government. The line between teacher and student felt thin and arbitrary, but was treated as rigid and compulsory. He was disturbed by his classmates’ willingness to accept their teachers as vessels of authority, and became altogether skeptical of formal education, which felt to him like a system designed to replicate the binding abstractions of family life.

He developed an interest in conspiracy theories, which he read about at night. He didn’t believe the conspiracy theory about evolution, because it seemed completely implausible that humans had descended from fish. But he did believe in the existence of a parallel universe that pressed against our own. This other universe was governed by opposites. In our universe, the movement of one’s life was determined by choices. Every day, all day, people were provided with two options, from which they picked one. Although people believed their choices to be governed by free will, they were in fact socially incentivized in order to ensure that people adhered to the status quo. Eventually, these incentivized choices accumulated and grew to form a pattern, which would in turn influence future decisions and give people a sense of what they liked. What they liked determined their relationships, habits, etc., and ultimately produced a specific narrative quality that they came to regard as their identity, but which was more often a reflection of the community in which they lived.

Anyway, said the yogurt man, in the parallel universe, we were presented with the same two options, but always chose the opposite of what we had chosen in our present universe, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable. If we were one day presented with who we had become in the parallel universe, we would regard ourselves as strangers, because it would be impossible to incorporate all the choices we could have made, but had not made, into a stable and singular ego. That was why people sometimes dissociated when looking in the mirror. The parallel universe, he said, liked to hide behind glass.

I asked him about the logistics of that, hoping that the logistics of the parallel universe would somehow lead to the logistics of getting to the town where I was expected. He said that what the hijackers had done was a tragedy, but that he didn’t think anyone was flying the planes. I didn’t understand how that related to my question, but I let him go on. From his calculations, he said, the planes had hit the buildings right in their center, which a human wouldn’t have been able to do, unless that human were flying the plane via remote control. So, yes, it was a tragedy, especially given that everyone had entrusted political officials with disseminating the truth, when, in fact, the political officials had gotten the details all wrong. He always wondered if the passengers had caught a glimpse of themselves in the parallel universe, where they survived, before they died. The buildings that killed them were made of glass.

The yogurt man said that he always wondered what people thought about in the moments before they died, because the moments before they died were the only moments when they could think their thoughts without the pressure of society bearing down on them. He hoped he would one day talk with a dead person about the process of dying. He looked at me when he said that. I waited for him to tell me more about his aspirational conversations with a dead person, whom he planned to treat as a diplomat for all dead people. But he had reached the end of his story, so he just stopped talking.

The yogurt man went back to threading the needle through his cheek. I thanked him for sharing his perspective about evolution, the existence of an alternate universe, and the physical science of hijacking a plane, and then asked him once again for directions, wondering what kind of directions I was likely to get from a self-identified conspiracy theorist with an exceptionally high pain tolerance. He looked at me, looking as if he was deciding whether or not to give me that information. To the left, he said, putting down the needle, was a town that sat atop a grouping of rocks. He said that the town was beautiful but extremely difficult to inhabit. People built houses and storefronts with pieces broken from the rocks, but the rocks didn’t want to be houses and storefronts. They wanted to be rocks. Eventually, they fell apart. It was a big problem for the townspeople, he said, and one that would likely never be solved. Even the buildings made from modern materials eventually collapsed, sometimes killing their inhabitants in the process.

I was trying to think about what the yogurt man was telling me. The issue he was describing seemed ridiculous and had nothing whatsoever to do with the principles of physical science. People had been living in houses made from stone, wood, and clay since the dawn of time, and, as far as I knew, no one in this specific town had been killed or even harmed by the sudden collapse of a built structure. But I was desperate for any excuse not to go to the town he was describing, a town that I had once lived in and believed I still knew very well. I thought that potential death might serve as an adequate excuse.

I asked the yogurt man how often it was that people were killed because of these sudden collapses. He thanked me for my question and told me that the answer didn’t concern me. To me, it seemed that the prospect of death concerned all people who were still living, which is what I told the yogurt man when I asked him my question again. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have anything else to say on the subject, most likely because his description was an elaborate conspiracy invented to justify the potential collapse of his own poorly constructed yogurt shelter.

I thanked the yogurt man for his help and gave him some change, whatever amount seemed appropriate for a cup of yogurt plus an unasked-for and completely useless description of a town that was already familiar to me. He reached out his hand, and when he touched mine, he closed his eyes. I didn’t understand the meaning of his gesture, but I figured he might be expressing his gratitude, so I was happy to give him temporary possession of my hand, even though, at this rate, our expressions of gratitude might go back and forth until forever.

However, they didn’t go back and forth until forever. Eventually, the yogurt man opened his eyes, removed his hand from our miniature embrace, and gave me a cup of yogurt. I thanked him, being sure to express only a verbal thanks. I crossed the street again, and when the yogurt man wasn’t looking, I threw the cup of yogurt away.

Anyway, it was night. I was sure that somewhere, some family member was waiting for me, probably in the place that I least expected. I tried to imagine the experience of being surprised, but I didn’t want to be surprised, so I decided to move on with my life before I was forced to endure that experience. To the left, I was now sure, was the place where my brother lay dying. To the right, there was nothing. I decided to walk in the direction of that.

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From Hangman by Maya Binyam. Used with permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Maya Binyam.




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