Selim the half-wit hoarded everything—that was the story they told me my first day in waste management. Selim had lost his wife, and I guess everyone figured he took up hoarding as a way to fill the void. It started out with stuff his wife might have liked—small earrings, a tea set, owl statuettes—picked out of garbage bins. Well, Selim ended up with a house packed to the rafters with trash he thought was gold. He tucked it onto shelves and into stacks, put it in cupboards, crammed it under floorboards, couch cushions, and the mattress, until there was no space left but overhead. Then he installed a system of boards and beams into the frame of the house, with maybe two or three inches of clearance from his head, in order to pile trash above him. More and more he took from the waste bins: old, tattered books, bicycle bits, apple cores, orange peels, broken printers, smashed-up furniture, crumpled cartons and boxes, hundreds of pounds of paper, pens, eyeglasses, eggshells, water bottles, shoes with holes, sleeping bags with urine stains, jackets too small, jackets too large, bed frames, filing cabinets, coffee mugs, coffee grounds—on and on an impossible list of trash weighed down on those boards and beams until at last, while his dreams of finding his wife in all this waste were licking the night sky, the house’s framing broke and the collected works of the city’s refuse crashed down upon Selim the half-wit, killing him not instantaneously, but swiftly enough to confuse him into believing in his deliverance.
The garbagemen laughed at the end of the story, and then the oldest one, without a hint of jest, indeed with genuine concern, said to me: “And you are doubly at risk, because a woman hoards more than a man.”
And the other garbagemen stopped their laughing and nodded solemnly. The nearest to me said: “We make light of a truth; it is easy to find the merits in another’s garbage if only because it reminds us of the mortality of our own legacies.”
I smiled and laughed and so did they, and they all went out to their tasks. I found my assignment: a truck helmed by two men named Hamdi and Mehmet. I hopped into the cab. The older man, Hamdi, drove us off to our route, and as he did Mehmet said that I shouldn’t take anything the others said seriously. “Garbagemen, for who knows why, make up myths and tales more readily than any other profession. Still, it is not good to take from the trash. Once you start, there’s no stopping. Eventually you’ll find yourself buried under it.”
A day became a week, became a month, became a year, as it happens. Mehmet and Hamdi made me go down the thinnest alleys of Beyoğlu because they had round bellies they couldn’t squeeze between the buildings, and they laughed at themselves so that their laughter accentuated their jiggling bellies. They gave me a slender handcart to navigate and said, So long, we’ll see you at the end of the maze.
I went down the alleys because I was the thinnest, but it’s not hard to be the thinnest garbageman when you’re a woman. My small handcart scraped its sides against brick and stucco and stone—sometimes my shoulders, too, would scrape the walls, and I worried that over time I might erode a small, Fatima-shaped tunnel into the alley, or worse, that the alley would grind me down into a rectangle.
I stopped at the back doors and loading zones, the garbage bins always stuffed to overflowing, but really only half full because people are very bad at the economy of space. I emptied the bins into my handcart and continued on to the next little station, on and on all afternoon until I came out the other end of the labyrinthine alleyways soiled and sweating and reeking. Then I waited for Mehmet and Hamdi to finish their route in the truck and pick me up. They didn’t make me squeeze between them in the cab. Always whoever was in the passenger seat moved over to let me sit by the rolled-down window.
In a sunny corner crooked between a kuaför and a pizza place was a bin packed with sheet music. Every day it was full up with sheets, not the kind printed in a book and tossed out by someone quitting the piano but handwritten compositions, sometimes crumpled in disappointment, sometimes scribbled over with one, two, three layers of corrections. The man who lived on the second floor was a composer, that explained it. I knew little about listening to music and even less about reading it. But you can tell a lot about someone by the way their trash comes to occupy a bin. From the state in which I found the pages, I could tell the man was tortured by the impossibility of translating what swirled around his soul into a symphony that would render the same swirlings to the soul of a listener, and that was enough for me to know that his music was beautiful. I told Mehmet about the composer, even showed him a few sheets of music, and Mehmet shrugged. “Or else a piano teacher, or else a student, or else a lunatic. How can you know if you don’t read music?” He went back to arguing with Hamdi over the reinstatement of the death penalty.
Without any reason, I promised myself I’d find something to convince Mehmet it was a beautiful composer’s trash bin. But the next week I found nothing in the bin, and the week after that, nothing again. Not so much as a single note scratched onto a napkin, or a used-up resin block, or even a banana peel with fret marks pressed into its skin from distractedly being eaten during practice. No, the old man must be sick, I thought, come down with a summer cold. It was a shame; I enjoyed collecting the composer’s trash if only for the reprieve of tending to something precious, of being entrusted with the death of the beloved machinations of someone’s art. You look for small grandeurs in my line of work. A month here and you’d be singing odes to those rare crumbless toasters.
Trash, just trash, unadorned, unloved. Scorned because it announces decay and decay is the product of time, and time is the fear of all living things. Layer, layer, layer, layer.
“Do you think he’s died?” I asked Mehmet. We were in the cab of the truck, watching Hamdi drag a large bin full of sardine tins across the street.
“The old composer.”
“Old men are in the habit of dying,” he said.
Somewhere a faucet was loosing dribbles of water over the flagstones of the alley, and above, the muezzin’s call to prayer slid over the grooves of the sky. The heat had me with my uniform off and over my head. My undershirt was soiled, the cuffs of my trousers slicked by the puddles. I dragged my cart behind me to the next bin: the composer’s. I lifted the lid, expecting to find nothing once more, and so resigned to my worst fears, but instead, deep in the receptacle, I spied a small instrument laid gingerly over a pile of clean newspapers, more precious than a pair of china cups in packaging.
I pulled the instrument up and knew at once to save it from the trash, knew at once to commit the only sin of a garbageman and keep this piece. The violin had obviously been loved. I took the instrument into my arms. The patina held that precious luster of esteem that seems to catch the light in even the darkest nooks—a compass for the sun, as liquid as the glow of a freshly skinned onion.
I had before prized a few items I’d found discarded, keeping them in a pocket or sneaking them into the cab of the truck only to find them broken and dingy in the light of my apartment, and so I’d later place them in my own trash bin or leave them along the side of a road or buried under the retaining wall of a cemetery. But when you come across a truly unbroken thing, it is a miracle, blessed, pure.
There was a new instrument in the composer’s trash bin each week. I would, excited as a young girl on her birthday, run up to his bin, peel off the lid, poke my snout inside, and fish out either an immaculate violin, or a viola, or a bow, or a hand-carved music stand, or once even a cello, always placed delicately on a bed of clean newspaper. Mostly, it was easy sneaking them home—I was the last person to put anything in the back of our truck, and would hop out of the cab as fast as an eel when we arrived to the dump so that I could retrieve my newspaper-wrapped treasure before anyone saw it. Then it was quick goodbyes, see-you-tomorrows, and I was off for home with my bundle in the seat beside me.
I lived in a closet turned studio in an old Ottoman mansion that had been partitioned into apartments many decades ago. There wasn’t space enough in there for me and my thoughts at once; however, one claustrophobic afternoon, while cleaning each crevice and corner in my studio, I found a small hatch. It was in the top of my wall, behind a layer of wood panels that were under a covering of stucco. I pulled down the hatch, revealing a ladder. The ladder led me up into the framing of the old house, what you might call an attic if there had been anything but timber and shingles, indeed if there had even been a few floorboards. I crawled from beam to beam like an insect. It was a cramped little attic, spreading out over only a small portion of the center of the mansion—most of the upstairs rooms had the roof of the building as their ceiling. Only in the very center was the space tall enough for me to sit upright. I resolved to make the attic the home for my collection of string instruments, and over the next few days, I took up a few plywood panels and a box of nails. “Quite a racket the birds are making on the roof,” said a neighbor. I agreed and speculated it might instead be a large owl or a rodent or even a child climbing around. Over the weekend, I cleaned away the cobwebs and dust, brought up a battery-powered lamp, and constructed a display case. As soon as I finished my renovations, I tucked the instruments into neat and tidy order. I spent my evenings after work sneaking up into the attic to pull one instrument down and back into my studio, where I studied it for hours, with no thought in my head other than to marvel in its beauty.
One morning, I showed Mehmet the latest violin from the composer’s trash. He told me the city’s orchestras and philharmonics had been ordered to compose and perform with uniquely Turkish instruments. “Every day it’s something new stolen away from us,” he said. I thought he was being dramatic but I remembered now a few things—tampons, waffle makers, coconuts—and then just as quickly reforgot them. As we rode along the Golden Horn toward the dump, we passed at the shore a building that had not been there yesterday. They must have thrown it up overnight, or else when my back was turned. Enormous, gray concrete reached from the water to the sky.
Next in the old composer’s trash, I found an oud, then a saz, then a ney. I worried what it meant that even these traditional instruments were being removed. Was it an act specifically against the old composer?
The city of Istanbul woke knowing that books were now banned. We did not talk about it; we did not complain in the markets or at the office about how much this would put us out, but we felt it right in the sockets of our hearts. We simply rose from our beds and set about adjusting, some of us living now as if completely amnesiac regarding the reality of before, drowned in a blue fluid of forgetting.
Then the morning was filled with hundreds, thousands of narrow columns of smoke creeping up through the cracks of the city to hide the sky in black. People burned their books, but not everyone. Some forgot to do it right away, they were late for work, and so burned them later at the stove while making dinner. Some didn’t want to burn them, trusting them instead to the cycle of nature, leaving them to decay in their gardens or in the gutters of Istanbul, flowing then in scraps to the Bosporus and washing away into the sea. Frugal ones used their pages as toilet paper. Not all books had been banned. The last line in the presidential decree read: “Exempting all religious books, histories of religions, works by religious figures, spy thrillers, murder mysteries, and science and mathematics textbooks unless containing lines of poetry or else whole poems.”
There rose for three days large columns of black smoke that painted the reflections in the Golden Horn very, very dark. I returned from work one evening to find the six or seven books I had space for in my studio had mysteriously disappeared. Even the cookbook that was not an actual published book but merely a folder of my mother and grandmother’s recipes was gone.
I tried picking up the bin, but it wouldn’t budge. I squatted and tried lifting with my legs, but it was no use. So I dragged the bin into the alley from its perch, scraping it over the flagstones and into the sun to have a peek. The lid popped off easily enough. Curled up inside, with his knees into his chest and blinking quickly in the light, was the old composer.
“I’m the trash today,” said the old man.
“All right,” I said. “But climb on out and get in my cart yourself or I’ll hurt my back lifting you.”
The old man did as I told him, and after some huffing and grunting he was tucked into my handcart, not saying a word as I continued on my route, not complaining in the least as I made my stops and piled more trash atop him. We went like that until the rubbish was up to his neck, only his pointed head poking over the pile. Though he didn’t complain, he wore a harsh frown, one that doubtless took great effort and concentration to maintain. I’d just collected the last bin of the day when the old man said: “Well, off to the incinerator, I suppose.”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose.”
“Will it be quite hot?”
“Oh yes, quite hot,” I told him, and this seemed to bring him relief.
“It’s just been so damn cold in my apartment. I could do with a change of temperature.”
“You might not fit through the slot.”
“I’m not so fat,” he said. He was very slim.
“It’s a narrow slot at the incinerator.”
The old man nodded with a strange sadness. He must have shrugged his shoulders, because some of the trash around his neck curled over and fell out of the cart.
“It’s terribly hot in my attic,” I said, trying to console him. “You could go there instead.” This struck me as a perfectly logical suggestion, in part because while we had been going along, I had grown nervous over explaining to Mehmet and Hamdi, as well as to our supervisor, why there was a live body in my handcart. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing people wouldn’t notice, or that they would ignore. And just how had I planned to stuff him in the incinerator anyway? The more I went like that down the alley with the old man in my cart, the more I realized he’d become a big headache, because though I admit I’m not very cognizant of the goings-on in my country, I didn’t think having a composer in my trash heap was a good thing. That’s the way Turkey seemed nowadays—it was impossible to keep track of what could get you in trouble. I resolved then to pile trash all over the old man, to hide him from Mehmet and Hamdi when they picked me up. I loaded him into the back of the truck myself, telling him to stay quiet, and I offered to drive the truck back to the dump, dropping Mehmet and Hamdi off at their homes on my way. It took some extra care at the dump, but mostly nobody pays much attention to trash, and so with a quick bit of shuffling and waiting for the right heads to turn away, I had the old composer in the trunk of my car as I zipped home through the hills over Beyoğlu and into Kuştepe.
I pulled down the ladder to my attic and shoved him up the rungs. He was taking his role as garbage very seriously and hardly employed his legs or arms; his movements were half-hearted. When he stepped up into the attic, though, everything in him changed. The lights were out—the space was made darker by the single cataract of sunshine coming from the transom on the far wall. I pulled the hatch closed behind us and heard, in the darkness, the small sounds of secretive, embarrassed weeping.
“You are safe here,” I said, trying to console the old man, but he shook his head and slumped to the floorboards, reaching his arms out in front of him.
I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get to the light switch. When I threw it on, I found the old man bent over one of the violins.
“My violin,” he said. He held it to his chest, clutching it fast and wiping his tears away. “I thought it had been burned, or broken, or compacted into a small cube. My violin . . . ”
His two cellos, the other violin, the viola, the saz, the oud, the ney—they were there, waiting for him in the dark, waiting for him to notice each of them in turn and display the same tenderness in their reunion ritual. He did so, not quite petting them, but running his hand over their bends and grains the way one reassures a lover of one’s presence.
Mehmet had been saying for weeks now that it was dangerous. I never listened to him. It’s strange to me, how much people want to talk when they are nervous. But then the grocer started saying it, and my neighbor in the stairwell, and the postman, and the baker—it was dangerous to keep some things. They had all seen people taken by the police for having hidden things they should have discarded. They all swore they were witnessing more crimes. The baker said someone was smashing her windows. The neighbor said someone had mugged him. Maybe Mehmet was right, the city was becoming dangerous. He said it with a nervousness of the vocal cords, a chirp in their vibrations like the scrape of a coin over a cello’s string.
The composer didn’t stop playing. Even in his sleep (which was infrequent and often upright in his chair), he made faint gestures of bow over strings. All week his was hurried, ravishing playing, making up for lost time, which of course is an impossible game, especially for the elderly. The old man went about his life as garbage in my attic as though nothing had changed. He asked for paper and pencils, and then for the rest of his instruments, something I could not do because he was no longer in his apartment throwing them out. We speculated that perhaps the government (who had thrown him into the trash bin) might return to his apartment (maybe when they went to seal it up) and throw away the rest of his instruments, but until then he would have to be happy pent up in my attic, bent over and cramped with his remaining instruments. That was until, when making my route through the veins of Beyoğlu, I came upon a violinist in a trash bin. Just as the composer had been, she sat hugging her knees to her chest. She said: “Hello, I am the violinist of the building. They’ve thrown me out.”
Then in other trash bins I found other wonders. A glittering snare drum, two honey violins, a dented oboe.
It was like that for weeks; I found more and more musicians and instruments in the trash and stuffed my attic full with them. They all hunched under the pitched roof; only the cellist could stand with her back straight in the low attic.
One Saturday afternoon I took a nice meze up to the attic to have a little celebration with the musicians. When I stepped up into the space, an incredible symphony picked me up and swallowed me. Loud, oh so loud, as if I were directly behind the conductor at a concert hall. It was a brooding piece with heavy brass (where had they found a trombonist and a trombone?), and as they played I felt I’d been made incredibly small. The walls of the cramped room sighed out and folded back a little. The musicians floated up from their seats. The objects of the room shrugged off gravity. Even divorced from its function, each instrument was a masterpiece, but I learned now that especially in use they were devices of great beauty, expressing their songs into a growing bubble that threatened to consume the musicians and the composer and the meze and even me into its membrane. But I rubbed my eyes and the illusion dropped away, and seated at a stool right in front of me, the old composer spun the music out into a magnificent tapestry.
“Please,” I said, setting the tray of food aside, “the house is very old. The walls are thin as silk. Everyone will hear you. The whole neighborhood will hear you.” But why hadn’t I heard them as I put together the meze?
The musicians understood, and nodded with somber faces. “But please, we have nothing else to do.” The composer did not acknowledge me in any way. I felt a shift in my stomach and wanted to leave the musicians in peace. I descended the ladder as they returned to their music that shook loose the silt in the canals of my soul, but as I pulled the rope down, the trapdoor closed and made silent throughout the whole mansion what was in fact a dramatic symphony in C.
We were in the cab of the truck coming back from our route, with the windows down and listening to the birds hang their songs on the breeze, when Mehmet said that we’d be busy tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. He said they might even assign a fourth person to our truck, but where would we put them? He said the government had issued another, even more austere decree, and so people would have no choice but to throw away half of their lives. I asked Mehmet if I would have to throw away anything.
He and Hamdi both laughed. “You don’t own anything,” said Mehmet. “I, on the other hand, will have to burn a few of my books. A pity, to have saved them only for this.”
“You didn’t throw them away?” said Hamdi.
“No, but some went missing anyway, as if vanished by a ghost, and I wept all night for them.”
Hamdi, easily nervous, realized he, too, had kept some books, a few exempted spy thrillers, but it didn’t matter to him. He should have burned them all, he said. He knew better than anyone about hoarding, which he defined as any attachment at all to an object. “Everything is eventually trash. It is the natural order. I shouldn’t try to intervene.” Hamdi’s thoughts, like an oil tanker, did not change course easily, so he spiraled down a whirlpool of worry and proverbs.
“I’m afraid for my books,” said Mehmet. He had hidden in his apartment, even from his wife, a few very special books, things he said were worth collecting, worth holding on to if only to allow another generation to view them. He went very quiet telling me that they were more than books, instead masterpieces of space, magnificent to behold.
“I didn’t know you could read,” I said, only partially in jest.
Disregarding my teasing, he said: “It is not about reading only.”
I took only a few of Mehmet’s books at first. I promised they would be safe with me. I didn’t tell him about my own books going missing. Since the attic seemed to have been spared the disappearings, I didn’t think that was important. I placed the volumes on top of the display cases I’d built for the instruments. The musicians immediately began to read. In fact, the composer complained to me that now all his musicians were reading instead of playing their instruments. I told him not to worry, there’s only a few books, they’ll finish them soon, and they did, but then they asked me if there were any more. “These are marvelous, I haven’t seen books like this in months. Haven’t you got any more?” Instead, I brought back a few more instruments, and another musician. No one was throwing away books anymore. The musicians eventually went back to their symphonies, and the composer was happy again. He seemed to think life was better for him after his removal from the world. Still, I smuggled in an odd book or two from Mehmet, if only to give the poor creatures something more to do than play their songs. I worried somehow the word would spread that I had a tiny library in my attic alongside the concert hall. The musicians, you see, were very loud in their discussions of the books, and who knows how it is that the government finds you. Sometimes I held my breath just to escape the anxiety. But the attic proved immune to the police raids that were now a regular occurrence for Istanbul’s population.
While I was away on my route, the composer had managed, don’t ask me how, to install an upright piano in my attic.
“The floorboards are bowing,” said the old man.
“They’re only plywood.”
“Plywood this strong, eh?” he said, happy.
I worried my orchestra was escaping. I worried someone would see.
From my window over the kitchenette sink, with a small cup of coffee at my lips, I watched three policemen get out of their van, saunter over to the median shaded by a long row of Judas trees, and handcuff the nearest one. They stood there, one of the policemen with his wrist in one loop of the handcuffs and the other loop around the lowest branch of the Judas tree, waiting for the municipal forestry department to send out a couple of men with a chain saw. I spent the afternoon at the window as the men from the forestry department set to work felling the tree. The policemen took over from there and stuffed the tree into the back of their van, but not before informing it of its rights.
I prepared a tray of boiled eggs, slices of white cheese, olives, and loaves of fresh bread. I balanced the tray on my head as I crawled up the ladder and through the trapdoor into the attic, where I found not only the old composer and his orchestra but also a dozen strangers. While I was away, the musicians had descended from the attic and into the streets, taking up as many things as they could. Already the only air in this tight space came from the lungs of the person next to you, and now there were so many more lungs thirsty for breath.
“I tried to stop them,” said the old composer. He curled up on his stool, as downtrodden as I was stupefied. The musicians had put up shelves in the far end of the space and stuffed them full with books. And now these strangers were joining them as they perused the books and discussed recommendations and prejudices. It was dangerous to have the instruments, they made sound, but this was worse! Who were these strangers, I wanted to know—who knew if they could be trusted? But was this on my mind while a bile of anger slicked my throat? More than anything I was furious that my musicians had stolen away some space from my attic that could have been used to house more of those beautiful instruments, more of those magnificent musicians, and yet, as I went to the strangers to kick them out of my attic, I found that they were a long walk away, that the piano was no longer overflowing with sheet music and musicians, that there was now a semicircle of folding chairs around a podium somehow tucked into the attic, and beside me was a table of refreshments and coffee. How had all of this fit into the attic? How had the seams of the roof not come undone? How had the eaves not shot right out of the building?
It was just an old woman at first, wrapped in a ratty blanket that maybe her mother had made decades ago. She stayed under the piano bench. But this one guest turned into two who turned into three, then five, then twelve, then an artist who had watched his portfolios being dismantled by police. “Each page of my drawings, each page of my studies. I thought they would set them on fire, but instead they took them gingerly into their own binders, marking each page and recording the contents before sealing them up in special containers they use with incredibly old documents, and that was worse, worse to know they were being preserved for the bowels of a registry. Who knows if they will use it against me one day, or else work to dismantle it in some metaphysical way, more permanent than burning.”
And then came a sculptor and a farmer and a baklava baker and two professors of literature and a French teacher and a pregnant woman and a man in a wheelchair and a family of Syrians, until the whole attic took on the strange and anticipatory pressure of a liminal station and filled each of us to the core with expectation.
They built the massive concrete structure up another level. It was so tall now one had the sense that it was growing rather than being constructed. If you blinked too long, it would expand right over you, swallowing you whole. Not a window to be found. I heard a rumor they were trying to grow space in there. They were trying to compact air so incredibly dense that you could put it into your pocket and chip away at it with a chisel anytime you needed a breath. I heard a rumor that they were storing all the things that had been banned. “What about everything that has been burned?” I had asked a gossip, but she only shrugged.
I heard a rumor that it was a catacomb they were building, with each of us assigned a shelf.
Then, and you might not have noticed anyway with all the public works under construction for the past decade, all the trees were gone from Istanbul and the city was no longer emerald and azure but instead the temper of sunbaked limestone.
I was picked up by the police in the morning, without much fuss. They found in my bag a tube of red paint I’d saved out of the garbage for the painter. It wasn’t Turkish red, they said, by which they meant it wasn’t the red of the flag, but instead a boring, lifeless red. It was on the latest ordinance’s list of banned items.
At the police station, I was delivered to a special officer in charge of the contraband division. “What’s with the paint?” he asked me.
“You an artist?”
“They are banned,” I said.
That wasn’t exactly true: old Ottoman artists and nationalist artists from the sixties were still celebrated, their works remained in museums and galleries, while contemporary artists had been rounded up, their work removed from the public eye, their tools thrown into the sea. But the officer didn’t argue the point. He sighed.
“I’ve got a drawer of paint myself,” he told me.
He shook his head. “I couldn’t paint a straight line if I dedicated my life to it. Still, just having it around makes me think I could, makes it a possibility.”
I understood him.
“Is it like that for you?” he asked, holding the tube of paint up to me.
“No,” I said honestly. “It’s just a tube of paint.”
He put the paint into his desk drawer, then pulled from a file a few pages and held them close to his face. I noticed he needed glasses but didn’t have any. I thought maybe they’d been banned. It was possible, they made people look old, weak, the opposite of what a Turk should be.
“There’s concern in the department that your neighborhood is deviant,” he said. “How’d you get the paint?”
I hadn’t heard anything about the neighborhood through the grapevine. Did he mean me? I felt incredibly naive then, stupid for having believed no one had noticed the orchestra in my attic. But perhaps they hadn’t. The officer told me about the tips they were receiving: the rumors had nothing to do with music, no one had complained of any sounds coming from my building. But it was standard to search someone’s house after picking them up—there were probably police in my apartment now looking for the attic, or else just looking for anything. Undoubtedly, the musicians were playing, the artists were painting and hammering and molding, and the intellectuals were debating and laughing and writing, and the whole attic was a racket, racket, racket just a few inches over the heads of a half-dozen policemen.
“I saw the paint in the trash,” I said.
“You’re a garbageman.”
“It’s a habit,” I said.
“You have a habit of taking things from the trash.”
I invited only suspicion with my answers. What did he know about me from that file there? What did he know about my apartment?
“Not my habit. I mean, it’s sort of an understood nature of garbagemen. We warn each other not to take things. It becomes hoarding quickly.”
“And the paint?”
“My first transgression,” I said, trying not to sound any particular way, trying very hard to sound like I wasn’t trying at all.
He nodded. I remembered the few books I’d owned that had disappeared from my apartment. Surely he knew, maybe he was the one who ordered them taken, and had them now in a desk drawer to show me. Maybe he knew about the attic. I was struck by the horrible idea that he had let the attic operate as a trap. I told myself that they wouldn’t waste time like that. If they knew about the attic, this wouldn’t be an interview. This wouldn’t be about paint. I would be in handcuffs in an interrogation room rather than at a chair across the desk from the special officer.
“And where were you taking it?”
“Home,” I said.
“You haven’t got even a windowsill to put it on.”
I nodded. Were there still police in my apartment? Would the attic, now unbearably packed with people and things discarded, come crashing down on them?
“Two years can feel like a long time,” he said. “It would be a shame to spend it in jail if there were someone else who belonged there instead.”
I didn’t bother answering. The officer seemed somewhat relieved. I’d spared him some extra work, I thought.
He put all the papers back in the file and said that because of my inability to reduce my life along the guidelines of presidential decrees, I would be sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. He told me that with the nature of everything there would be no trial, but there would be a court date set at which I could issue a formal statement for the record. I would be provided a lawyer to help me word my statement before the judge, and then I would be taken to the prison and processed. I’d be held in the police station until my court date.
Everything went pretty much how he said it would. At my hearing, my lawyer was exasperated, no doubt swamped with court dates for people like me. Instead of offering any help, he told me not to worry so much about jail, it wasn’t so bad. All the people in there had changed. All the people outside had changed.
They put me and a dozen other people in handcuffs and drove us in a windowless van to the enormous concrete building along the shore. It was growing up the face of Istanbul, taking over the skyline like a creeper reaches up the side of a house. I looked for its shooting tendrils, its grasping fingers, but saw only straight lines, ninety-degree angles, flat concrete into the sky. How did it hoist itself up farther over the city?
Yet inside there was hardly any room for us. We stood single file in the hallway leading to the processing center. One of the guards pressed between the wall and our line to pass ahead of us. We were guided to a room with a camera in the corner. After some shuffling, one of us would stand in front of the camera while the photographer crouched beside it and took our pictures. Then in the next room a woman with an ink pad and clean sheets of paper took our fingerprints, but the room was so narrow that we stood in the hall and put our hand through the door while she did this. After processing and a shower, we were given our jumpsuits and directed toward our cells. The cell block was similarly cramped, the atrium a cross section of tightly stratified floors. The ceiling felt very close to me.
A guard escorted me down a third-story catwalk. Up ahead a young woman with her face jammed between the bars, her cheeks red from pressure, called out to me: “Do not worry. It’s your first day but don’t worry, there are more criminals out in the city than there are in here. It’s safer in here than it is in the streets.”
The guard leading me nodded his head in agreement. “I’m practically getting my bachelor’s degree just by hanging out in here—so many professors and writers, you know.”
At last we stopped at my cell. It was not all that large; in fact, when considering the space the building took up, it was surprising how small and how few the cells were. Despite its size, though, there were with me in my cell a few old women, a young man, a child, a backgammon board, a teapot, and a toy car—and I knew the items were in here with us rather than for us. In the nearby cells were a forest and a flock of academics giving lectures to each other. The guard who had escorted me was now halfway down the catwalk, stopping in front of another cell. A different guard came to him and shrugged his shoulders and relieved the first guard of his hat and his baton and his radio before locking him up behind the barred door. Then that guard continued down the catwalk, stopping before another empty cell where another guard met him and relieved him of his hat and his baton and his radio before locking him up and moving on down to another empty cell. I lost sight of anything else.