a short story by Scott Nicholson
illustrated by Paul Marquis
The city had eyes.
It watched Elise from the glass squares set into its walls, walls that were sheer cliff faces of mortar and brick. She held her breath, waiting for them to blink. No, not eyes, only windows. She kept walking.
And the street was not a tongue, a long black ribbon of asphalt flesh that would roll her into the city's hot jaws at any second. The parking meter poles were not needly teeth, eager to gnash. The city would not swallow her, here in front of everybody. The city kept its secrets.
And the people on the sidewalk- how much did they know? Were they enemy agents or blissful cattle? The man in the charcoal-gray London Fog trenchcoat, the Times tucked under his elbow, dark head down and hands in pockets. A gesture of submission or a crafted stance of neutrality?
The blue-haired lady in the chinchilla wrap, her turquoise eyeliner making her look like a psychedelic raccoon. Was the lady colorblind or had she adopted a clever disguise? And were her mincing high-heeled steps carrying her to a midlevel townhouse or was she on some municipal mission?
That round-faced cabdriver, his black mustache brushing the bleached peg of his cigarette, the tires of his battered yellow cab nudged against the curb. Were his eyes scanning the passersby in hopes of a fare, or was he scouting for plump prey?
Elise tugged on her belt, wrapping her coat more tightly around her waist. The thinner one looked the better. Not that she had to rely on illusion. Her appetite had been buried with the other things of her old blind life, ordinary pleasures like window shopping and jogging. She had once traveled these streets voluntarily.
Best not to think of the past. Best to pack the pieces of it away like old toys in a closet. Perhaps someday she could open that door, shed some light, blow off the dust, oil the squeaky parts, and resume living. But for now, living must be traded for surviving.
She sucked in her cheeks, hoping she looked as gaunt as she felt. The wisp of breeze that blew up the street, more carbon monoxide than oxygen, was not even strong enough to ruffle the fringe on the awning above that shoeshop. But she felt as if the breeze might sweep her across the broken concrete, sending her tumbling and skittering like a cellophane candy wrapper. Sweeping her toward the city's throat.
She dared a glance up at the twenty-story tower of glass to her right. Eyes, eyes, eyes. Show no fear. Stare the monster in the face. It thinks itself invisible.
What a perfectly blatant masquerade. The city was rising from the earth, steel beams and guywire and cinderblock assembling right before their human eyes. Growing bold and hard and reaching for the sky, always bigger, bigger. How could everyone be so easily fooled?
Forget it, Elise. Maybe it reads minds. And you don't want to let it know what you're up to. You can keep a secret as well as it can.
She turned her gaze down to the tips of her shoes. There, just like a good city dweller is supposed to do. Count the cracks. Blend in. Be small.
Ignore the windowfront of the adult bookstore you pass. Don't see the leather whips, the rude plastic rods that gleam like eager rockets, the burlesque mockery of human flesh displayed on the placards. And the next window, plywooded and barred like an abandoned prison, "Liquor" hand-painted in dull green letters across the dented steel door beside it.
All to keep us drugged, dazed with easy pleasure. Elise knew. If it let us have our little amusements, then we wouldn't flee. We'd stay and graze on lust and drunkenness, growing fat and sleepy and tired and dull.
She flicked her eyes to the sky overhead, ignoring the sharp spears of the building-tops, with their antennae for ears. The low red haze meant that night was falling. The city constantly exhaled smog, so thick now that the sun barely peeped down onto the atrocities that were committed under its yellow eye. Even from the vigilant universe, the city kept its secrets.
Elise felt only dimly aware of the traffic that clogged the streets. Not streets. The arteries of the city. The cars rattled past, with raspy breath and an occasional growl of impatience. In the distance, somewhere on the far side of the city, sirens wailed. Sirens, or the screams of victims, face-to-face with the horrible thing that had crouched around them for years, cold and stone-silent one moment but alive and hungry the next.
Can't waste pity on them. The unwritten code of city life. Inbred indifference. Ignorance is bliss. A natural social instinct developed from decades of being piled atop one another like coldcuts in a grocer's counter. Or was the code taught, learned by rote, instilled upon them by a stern master who had its own best interests at heart?
And what would its heart be like? The sewers, raw black sludge snaking through its veins? The hot coal furnaces that huffed away in basements, leaking steam from corroded pipes? Or the electrical plant, a Gorgon's wig of wire sprouting from its roof, sending its veins into the apartments and office towers and factories so that no part of the city was untouched?
Or was it, as she suspected, heartless? Just a giant meat-eating cement slab of instinct?
She had walked ten blocks now. Not hurriedly, but steadily and with purpose. Perhaps like a thirty-year-old woman out for a leisurely stroll, headed to the park to watch from a bench while the sun set smugly over the jagged skyline. Maybe out to the theater, for an early seat at a second-rate staging of Waiting For Godot. Not like someone who was trying to escape.
No. Don't think about it.
She hadn't meant to, but now that the thought had risen from the murky swamp of subconsciousness, she turned it over in her mind, mentally fingering it like a mechanic checking out a carburetor.
No one escaped. At least no one she knew. They all slid, bloody and soft and bawling, from their mother's wombs into the arms of the city. Fed on love and hopes and dreams. Fed on lies.
She had considered taking a cab, hunching down in the back seat until the city became only a speck in the rear-view mirror. But she had seen the faces of the cabbies. They were too robust, too thick-jowled. Such as they should have been taken long ago. No, they were in on it.
And she had shuddered at the thought of stepping onto a city bus, hearing the hissing of the airbrakes and the door closing behind her like a squealing mouth. Delivering her not to the outskirts, but to the belly of the beast. They were city buses, after all.
Walking was the only way. So she walked. And the night fell around her, in broken scraps at first, furry shadows and gray insubstantial wedges. Lights came on in the buildings around her, soft pale globes and amber specks and opalescent blue stars and yellow-green windowsquares. Pretty baubles to pacify the masses.
She felt the walls slide toward her, closing in on her under the cloak of darkness. Don't panic, she told herself. Eyes straight ahead. You don't need to look to know the scenery. Sheer concrete, double-doors drooling with glass and rubber, geometrical orifices secreting the noxious effluence of consumption.
She thought perhaps she was safe. She was thin. But her sister Leanna had been thin. So thin she had been desired as a model, wearing long sleek gowns and leaning into the greedy eye of the camera, or preening in bathing suits on mock-up beaches in highrise studios. So wonderfully waifish that she had graced the covers of the magazines that lined the checkout racks. Such a fine sliver of flesh that she had been lured to Los Angeles on the promise of acting work.
They said that she'd hopped on a plane to sunny California, was lounging around swimming pools and getting to know all the right people. Elise had received letters in which Leanna told about the palm trees and open skies, about mountains and moonlit bays. About the bit part she'd gotten in a movie, not much but a start.
Elise had gone to see the movie. She sat in a shabby, gum-tarred seat, the soles of her shoes sticking to the sloping cement floor. There she'd seen Leanna, up on the big screen, walking and talking and doing all the things that she used to do back when she was alive. Leanna, pale and ravishing and now forever young and two-dimensional.
Oh, but putting her in a film could be easily faked, just like the letters. A city that could control and herd a million people would go to such lengths to keep its secrets. All she knew was that Leanna was gone, gobbled up by some manhole or doorway or the hydraulic jaws of a sanitation truck.
And she knew others who had gone missing. Out to the country, they said. Away on vacation. Business trips. Weddings and funerals to attend. But never heard from again. Some of them overweight, some healthy, some muscular, some withered.
So being thin was no guarantee. But she suspected that it helped her chances. If only she was light enough that the sidewalk didn't measure her footsteps.
She'd reached unfamiliar territory now. A strange part of the city. But wasn't it all strange? Alien caves, too precise to be man-made? Elevators, metal boxes dangling at the ends of rusty spiderwebs? Storm grates grinning and leering from street corners? Lampposts bending like alloyed preying mantises?
The faces of the few pedestrians out at that hour were clouded with shadows. Did the white arrowtips of their eyes flick ever so slightly at her as she passed? Did they sense a traitor in their midst? Were they glaring jealously at her tiny bones, the skin stretched taut around her skull, her meatless appearance?
The smell of donuts wafted across her face, followed by the bittersweet tang of coffee. Her nostrils flared in arousal in spite of herself. She looked into the window of the deli. Couples were huddled at round oak tables, the steam of their drinks rising in front of them like smoke from chemical fires. They were chatting, laughing, eating from loaded plates, reading magazines, acting as if they had all the time in the world. They had tasted the lie, and found it palatable.
She tore her eyes away. They traded pleasure for inevitability. Dinner would one day be served, and they would find themselves on the plate, pale legs splayed indignantly upward, wire mesh at their heads for garnish. Well, she had no tears to spare for them. One chose one's own path.
Her path had started about a year ago, shortly before Leanna left. Not left, was taken, she reminded herself. Elise's understanding had started with the television set. The TV stood on a Formica cabinet against the sheetrock wall of her tiny apartment, flashing colorful images at her. Showing her all the things she was being offered. Brand new sedans. Dental floss and mouthwash. The other white meat. The quicker-picker-upper. The uncola.
The television made things attractive. The angle of the lighting, eye-pleasing color schemes, seductive layouts and product designs. Straight teeth cutting white lines across handsome tan faces. And behind those rigid smiles, she had seen the fear. Fear masquerading as vacuousness. Threatened puppets spouting monologues, the sales pitch of complacency.
She had found other clues. The police, for instance. Never around when one needed them. Delivery vans with unmarked sideboards, prowling at all hours. Limousines, long and dark-glassed. advertisements for conspicuous consumption. Around-the-clock convenience stores and neon billboards. A quiet conspiracy in the streets, unobserved among the bustle and noise of daily life, everyone too busy grabbing merchandise to stop and smell the slagheap acid of the roses.
But Elise had noticed. Saw how the city grew, stretching obscenely higher, ever thicker and more oppressive and powerful. And she had made the connection. The city fed itself. It was getting bloated on the human hors d'oevres that tracked across its tongue like live chocolate-covered ants.
When one knew where to look, one saw signs of its life. The pillars of filthy smoke that marked its exhalations, the iridescent ribbons of its urine that trickled through the gutters, the sweat of the city clinging to moist masonry. The gray snowy ash of its dandruff, the chipped gravel of its sloughed dead skin. The crush of the walls, squeezing in like cobbled teeth, outflanking and surrounding its prey. And all the while spinning its serenade of sonic booms and fire alarms, automobile horns and fastfood speakers, ringing cash registers and clattering jackhammers.
Elise had bided her time, staying cautious, not telling a soul. Whom could she trust? Her neighbors might have an ear pressed to the wall. The city employed thousands.
So she had hid behind her closed door, the TV turned to face the corner. Oh, she had still gone to work, leaving every weekday morning for her post at the bank. It was important to keep up appearances. But, once home, she locked herself in and pulled the windowshade. She turned on the radio, just in case the city was using its ears, but she always tuned to commercial-free classical stations. Music to eat sweets by.
Her workmates had expressed concern.
"You're nothing but skin and bones. You feeling okay?"
"You're getting split-ends, girl."
"You look a little pale. Maybe you should go to the doctor, Elise."
As if she were going to listen to them, with their new forty-dollar hairstyles every week and retirement accounts and lawyer husbands and City Council wives and panty hose and wristwatches and power ties and deodorant. Elise only smiled and shook her head and pretended. Took care of the customers and kept her accounts balanced.
And she had plotted. Steeled herself. Got up her nerve and slung her handbag over her shoulder and walked out of the bank after work and headed downtown. She kept reminding herself that she had nothing to lose.
And now she was almost free. She could taste the cleaner air, could feel the pressure of the hovering structures ease as she drew nearer to the outskirts. But now darkness descended, and she wasn't sure if that brought the city to keen-edged life or sent it fat and dull into dreamy slumber.
She passed the maw of a subway station. A few people jogged down the steps into the bright throat of the tunnel. She thought of human meat packed into the smooth silver tubes and shot through the intestines of the city.
She walked faster now, gaining confidence and strength as hope spasmed in her chest like a pigeon with a broken wing. She could see the level horizon, a beautiful black flatness only blocks ahead. Buildings skulked here and there, but they were short and squat and clumsy.
The road was devoid of traffic, the dead-end arms of the city. The streetlights thinned, casting weak cones of light every few hundred feet.
Her footsteps echoed down the empty street, bouncing into the dark canyons of the side alleys. The hollowness of the sound enhanced her sense of isolation. She felt exposed and vulnerable. Easy meat.
Her ears pricked up, tingling.
A noise behind her, out of step with her echo.
The spiteful puff of a forklift, its tines aimed for her back? A fire hydrant, hissing in anger at her audacity? The sputtering gasp of a sinuous power cable?
A rain of lightbulbs, dropping in her wake? The concrete slabs of the sidewalk, folding upon themselves like an accordion, chasing her heels? A street sign hopping after her like a crazed pogo stick?
Not now. Not when she was so close.
But did she really expect that the city would let her simply step out of its garden?
She ducked into an alley, even though the walls gathered on three sides. Instinct had driven her into the darkness. But then, why shouldn't the city control her instinct? It owned everything else.
And now it moved in for the kill, taking its due. Now she was ripe fruit to be plucked from the chaotic fields the city had sown, a harvest to be reaped by rubber belts and pulleys and metal fins.
Elise stumbled into a garbage heap, knocking over a trash can in her blindness. She fell face-first into greasy cloth and rotten paper and moldering food scraps. She felt a sting at her knee as she rolled into broken glass.
She turned on her back, resigned to her fate. She would die quietly, but she wanted to see its face. Not the face it showed to human eyes, the one of glass panes and cornerstones and sheet metal. She wanted to see its true face.
She saw a silhouette, a blacker shape against the night. A splinter of silver catching a stray strand of distant streetlight, flashing at her like a false grin. A featureless machine pressing close, its breath like stale gin and cigarette butts and warm copper.
Its voice fell from out of the thick air, not with the jarring clang of a bulldozer or the sharp rumble of tractor trailer rig, but as a harsh whisper.
"Gimme your money, bitch."
So the city had sent this puny agent after her? With all its great and awesome might, its monumental obelisks, its omnipotent industry, its cast-iron claws, its impregnable asphalt hide, its pressurized fangs, it sends this?
The city had a sense of humor. How wonderful!
She thought of that old children's story, the "Three Billy Goats Gruff," how the smaller ones had offered up the larger ones to slake the evil troll's appetite. She laughed, filling the cramped alley with her cackles. "A skinny thing like me would hardly be a mouthful for you," she said, the words squeezing out between giggles.
She felt the city's knife press against her chest, heard a quick snip, and felt her handbag being lifted from her shoulder. The straps hung like dark spaghetti, and the city tucked the purse against its belly. The city, small and dark and human.
Now she saw it. The human machine had a face the color of bleached rags, dingy mopstrings dangling down over the hot sparks of eyes. Thin wires sprouted above the coin-slot mouth. Why, he was young. The city eats its young.
"You freakin' city folks is all nuts," the city said, then ran into the street, back under the safe sane lights.
Its words hung over Elise's head, but they'd come from another world. A world of platinum and fiberglass, locomotives and razor blades. The real world. Not her world.
As the real city awoke and busied itself with its commerce and caffeine, it might have seen Elise sprawled among the rubble of a rundown neighborhood, flanked by empty wine bottles and used condoms and milk cartons graced with the photographs of anonymous children. It might have smelled her civet perfume, faint but there, which she had dabbed on her neck in an attempt to smell like everyone else. It might have heard the wind fluttering the collar of her Christian Dior blouse, bought so that she could blend in with the crowd. It might have felt the too-light weight of her frail body, wasted by a steady diet of fear. It might have tasted the human salt where tears of relief had dried on her cheeks.
It might have divined her dreams, intruded on her sleep to find goats at the wheels of steamrollers, corrugated snakes slithering as endlessly as escalators among gelatin hills, caravans of television antennas dancing across flat desert sands, and a flotilla of cellular phones on a windswept ocean of antifreeze, an owl and a pussycat in each.
If the city sensed these things, it remained silent.
The city kept its secrets.
text © Scott Nicholson 1998; art © Paul Marquis 1998
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