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Excerpt from short story by Don DeLillo about watching the crisis unfold from a prison for financial crimes. 

“All of Europe is looking south. What do they see?”

“They see Greece.”

“They see fiscal instability, enormous debt burden, possible default.”

“Crisis is a Greek word.”

“Is Greece hiding its public debt?”

“Is the crisis spreading at lightning speed to the rest of the southern tier, to the eurozone in general, to emerging markets everywhere?”

“Does Greece need a bailout?”

“Will Greece abandon the euro?”

“Did Greece hide the nature of  its debt?”

“What is Wall Street’s role in this critical matter?”

“What is a credit-default swap?

What is a sovereign default? What is a special-purpose entity?”

“We don’t know. Do you know? Do you care?”

“What is Wall Street? Who is Wall Street?”

Tense laughter from pockets in the audience.

“Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy.”

“Stocks plunge worldwide.”

“The Dow, the NASDAQ, the euro, the pound.”

“But where are the walkouts, the work stoppages, the job actions?”

“Look at Greece. Look in the streets.”

“Riots, strikes, protests, pickets.”

“All of Europe is looking at Greece.”

“Chaos is a Greek word.”

“Canceled flights, burning flags, stones flying this way, tear gas sailing that way.”

“Workers are angry. Workers are marching.”

“Blame the worker. Bury the worker.”

“Freeze their pay. Increase their tax.”

“Steal from the worker. Screw the worker.”

“Any day now, wait and see.”

“New flags, new banners.”

“Hammer and sickle.”

“Hammer and sickle.”

Their mother had the girls delivering lines in a balanced flow, a cadence. They weren’t just reading, they were acting, showing facial expression, having serious fun. Screw the worker, Kate had said. At least their mother had assigned the vulgar line to the older girl.“

All day long the story passed through the camp, building to building, man to man. It concerned a convict on death row in Texas or Missouri or Oklahoma and the last words he’d spoken before an individual authorized by the state injected the lethal substance or activated the electric current. The words were, Kick the tires and light the fire—I’m going home. Some of us felt a chill, hearing the story. Were we shamed by it? Did we think of that man on the honed edge of his last breath as more authentic than we were, a true outlaw, worthy of the state’s most cruelly scrupulous attention?

His end was officially sanctioned, an act welcomed by some, protested by some. If he’d spent half a lifetime in prison cells, in solitary confi nement and fi nally on death row for one or two or multiple homicides, where were we and what had we done to be placed here? Did we even remember our crimes? Could we call them crimes? They were loopholes, evasions, wheedling half-assed infractions.

Some of us, less self-demeaning, simply nodded at the story, conveying credit to the man for the honor he’d brought to the moment, the back-country poetry of those words. By the third time I heard the story, or overheard it, the prison was located decisively in Texas. Forget the other places—the man, the story, and the prison all belonged in Texas. We were somewhere else, watching a children’s program on TV.

“What’s this business about hammer and sickle?”

“Means nothing. Words,” I said.

“Like Abu Dhabi.”

“The Hang Seng in Hong Kong.”


“The girls like saying it. Hammer and sickle.”

“Hammer and sickle.”

“Abu Dhabi.”

“Abu Dhabi.”

“Hang Seng.”

“Hong Kong,” I said.

We went on like that for a while. Norman was still murmuring the  names when I shut my eyes and began the long turn toward sleep.

“But I think she means it. I think she’s serious. Hammer and sickle,” he said. “She’s a serious woman with a point to make.”

Read the rest in the December 2010 issue of Harpers (scroll to page 63).