Salvatore Scibona “The Kid”
Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40
June14/21 The New Yorker

The kid? He’s five years old and lost in an airport. And he’s weeping. Incessently. Gesturing and wandering, barely forming words through his tears and, later, refusing to speak at all.

Nurses and clerks and various airport personnel try communicating in an assortment of languages but eventually the boy even refuses to hold the hand of an interested woman who wants to reunite the boy with his…his what?

In just a little more than two columns, the reader is desperate to know his story. Nearly as desperate as the individuals who are attempting to unravel the mystery of The Kid.

The reader doesn’t know where the boy’s parents are either. And even when the story slips back into the past, the narrative goes so far back that The Kid simply hovers, still lost in the airport, whilst the reader meets Mom and Dad and begins to make sense of The Kid’s predicament.

Here is an excerpt which not only makes your mouth water for potato pancakes, but which also reveals the unsettling combination of the everyday with the bizarre that characterizes this story.

“She cooked potato pancakes for Elroy and the kid, who abhorred sour cream, applesauce, anything presented to him as a condiment. These are the accidental kinks of habit that become our permanent selves. Elroy, as a child, had always preferred to sleep under sheets tight enough to cramp his toes. This preference had led him to take comfort in the austerities of basic training — they break you down, they build you up again, faster, tighter — and he discovered that he had a talent for the breaking down, a talent for forgetting. And then a talent for acting on the impulse to kill.”

It’s likely a common occurrence, children getting lost in international airports. Just as it’s normal for kids to be fussy about what’s on their plates. My youngest step-daughter won’t eat anything that looks like a condiment either. And sure, we all played games with our sheets, right? I used to short-sheet my own bed because I’d read too many summer camp books.

It’s all very banal, but then things take a turn and the reader is adrift. The Kid’s Dad? He has a talent for acting on the impulse to kill. What does that mean? Where is this place he comes from where acting on the impulse to kill is viewed as a talent? And we know that he was once in the airport with The Kid, so where is he now?

Check out the author’s Q&A to find out the inspiration for this disturbing short story.

Have you read it, or perhaps his 2008 novel, The End?