CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
I was talking with a friend about real estate. We’d just finished volleyball practice and we were feeling robust. “That neighborhood’s overspeculated,” he was saying. “The best deals now are further south. The trains have been rerouted, they’re all express now, and a new private park is being built across the former tenement rooftops.”
A waiter came around to take our order and piped in. “Did you hear,” he said, “they’re diverting the river to flow through the old railroad yards on the western city limits. They’ll pump it full of mackerel and make a neighborhood of houseboats on the eastern shore. If there’s anywhere to buy, it’s there—buy now and open up a bait shop so you’ll have the market cornered when the levee blows.”
“From what I’ve heard,” I said, “up north is finally opening up. They’re shutting down that nuclear power plant and converting it to a factory for pine-scented additives to household cleaners. They have one of those in Charlotte, it’s supposed to smell fantastic. What’s more, the wilderness preserves around it are finally deregulated, on account of they no longer need them as a buffer against radioactive contamination. So the trees are coming down and the neighborhoods are going up. I’ll have the grapefruit salad.”
“People say there are deals to be had in the East,” said my volleyball friend. The waiter pursed his lips, perhaps too patiently.
“The East is still a risk,” I said.
The waiter nodded. “Would you like to hear the specials again?” he asked.
“Not at all,” said my volleyball friend. “I’ll have the leg of lamb.”
We were in one of those restaurants not too far from downtown, in the new district of old factory buildings. From the rooftop terrace, we could watch the moonlight glint of newly minted skyscrapers and hear the aluminum cathedral bells toll the hour in the Historical Towne Centre. On the streets below, rows of cars—late workers and early revelers—wound lights of red and white between the squat brick buildings. The horizon hummed with the crowding glow of nine o’clock as streetlights switched on and air conditioners went into hibernate mode. The city’s brightness curved out with the roundness of the earth on all sides but the East, which was inkblot-black with occasional brilliant bursts of gunfire.
I saw my wife come walking over the bridge which links the East to the rest of the city. “Where have you been?” I asked her.
“The fairgrounds,” she said.
I knew that she was lying. Not only do the fairgrounds belong to the West, the very western limits of our city, beyond all rail and bus lines, inaccessible except by car (which I had lately denied my wife the use of), but, furthermore, no fair had been advertised in the city at that time. The fairgrounds were empty. They had been for ages.
“Filthy liar,” I said.
She walked away from me, toward the old water mill. When our city was just a small town on a large river, that same waterwheel, or its original replica, first brought electrical power to the butcher shop and the ice-cream parlor. These days, the mill is wired backward; the power company provides the current to turn the wheel and keep the river’s fetid water flowing. We enjoy the sense of constancy that only running water can afford, and the roar and kick of the wheel on the water we find soothing, if deafening. With all the noise, of course, one must often shout to be sure that one’s walking companions can hear one’s attempts at conversation. To a passerby at a great distance from the mill wheel but not so far from me, ignorant of the difficulty in making oneself heard in proximity to the mill wheel, I might have seemed unreasonably loud. In fact, I was only doing what I could to ensure that my wife understood my sentiments.
“What are you trying to tear down this time?” I called after her. Still she ignored me, walking on toward the mill wheel—which necessitated an ever greater rise in the pitch of my voice. “The state? Our economic system? The very walls of this city?”
A few years ago, our mayor bought the ancient walls of Verona, Italy, that tragic city of love. In a feat of engineering, we rebuilt them here, encircling the better established neighborhoods, and we barbed and electrified them to protect the citizenry from night theft and undesired vagrancy. A plot to destroy the walls was known to have its headquarters in the East.
“Why do you ignore my questions?” I finally shouted. I yelled with all the strength in my body, so I could be sure that she was only pretending not to hear me, rather than actually not hearing me. “If you asked me anything—anything!—I would answer it.”
“Take this garden trowel,” I told my volleyball friend. “The tip is sharp and new. With it, one could make fertile even the most unpromising plot. One could turn dry soil, tear out rocks and weeds and bits of buried garbage, plant new seeds. Or, one could pierce a man’s gut, same as the surface of the earth, twist, and take his life. The point is that you have this choice. That’s what I like about a trowel. That’s why I always have one with me. Just in case.”
Out walking one day, I met the waiter from the rooftop restaurant. “You’re that waiter,” I said.
“I’m more than a waiter,” he said. “In my spare time, I’m a freelance political scientist.”
“Let me guess,” I joked. “International relations. You certainly seemed like an authority on that wine list. The lingering reds of Italy, the well-kept secrets of remote Argentine cellars …” I slapped him playfully on the back.
“What I do is purely theoretical,” he said. “I employ thought experiments, like the great scientific thinkers of our age. I find that the essential truths of politics are best understood in the context of real-life scenarios.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well, here’s an example. I call it the ‘three dogs and a cat’ dilemma. Say you have three dogs, all of them bored and restless on a mild summer afternoon. They live in three different yards surrounding a small cul-de-sac. Now, say a cat comes walking into the cul-de-sac, right under the noses of the three bored dogs. By the time they see the cat, the dogs form equidistant points on the circumference of a circle, the cat being the center of the circle. Assuming all three dogs notice the cat at the same time, and assuming no electrified fences. You’re the cat. Which way do you run?”
I thought for a while. “Up a tree?”
“Precisely,” he said. “That’s my first point. But assuming no tree. All the trees were leveled when this neighborhood was built. There’s no greenery bigger than a shrub.”
Again I paused. “Maybe stay where I am, then,” I finally said, “And try to get the dogs to chase each other? I mean, who knows if they work well together.”
“You’re great at this,” the waiter said. “You’ve never studied political science?”
Blushing, I replied that I hadn’t.
“Well, you’re a natural. That was my second point. But assuming they can work together, and they’re vicious, bloodthirsty dogs, and what they want more than anything else is to corner you and mutilate you, and if not kill you at least teach you never to come into their territory again. What about it, then?”
“Well,” I said, after a moment of thought, “Then I’m doomed. There’s no way out for that cat.”
“Fantastic!” the waiter said. “That’s my third point. It’s the thesis really. That cat is finished.”
I had errands to do, so I told the waiter I hoped to run into him again. Seeing him had lifted my spirits slightly; I love to do well on tests.
One drawback of my neighborhood is the brightness of the streetlights, shining at great intensity day and night, so that even with shades drawn my bedroom is fully illuminated. Otherwise, the neighborhood is quaint and quiet—no large neon advertisements, no crowds, no lack of fragrant, manicured sidewalks down which to stroll at evening with a pet or spouse or child. After several years of living here, however, I’ve found myself less and less inclined to go out walking—possibly because the wattage hurts my eyes, or perhaps because the glare makes it impossible to spy inside the windows of my neighbors. If the houses themselves weren’t all so white, thus tending to reflect light baldly and painfully at all hours of the day, the nuisance might be diminished. I’ve even been tempted to pin thick black sheets across my window, as my wife has done in her room, to muffle the streetlights and create a private and perpetual night. Then I wonder: how many of my neighbors have taken this same tack? Is it a wall of light or a curtain of darkness that shields their private spaces from my eyes? Am I the only one left with nothing to hide?
In a subbasement of City Hall, my wife has told me, a large map serves as visual record for all planning and zoning decisions carried out by the council. No one guards the map. It has no apparent caretaker, yet it consistently reflects, in three dimensions, the most insignificant changes in the landscape of our city. She told me all this, of course, before she stopped talking to me, and before I learned to doubt every word she said.
In my wife’s unlikely story, she was referred to the wrong department in search of the death certificate of one of her comrades. She stumbled into the subbasement accidentally and found it empty but for the enormous map. She marveled at the detail of the paperboard replicas, and she easily spotted our house, with our tiny, blue-trimmed four-wheel-drive outside, her little flowers in their pots, and a miniature me in a miniature shower, masturbating into her bottle of facial scrub. She walked eastward from our house along the tiny boulevards, crushing some minor landmarks beneath her tread, until, about a mile east of downtown, the map ended abruptly at the subbasement wall. Some buildings half protruded from the cement, as if the map predated the construction of the wall or even of the entire building. My wife imagined that, beyond the wall, the map of the East might continue interminably (for none of us know how far our actual, aboveground city extends eastward), perhaps through the very foundations of the city, beneath the government district and into the financial and industrial zones. Overcome by curiosity, she began to dig at the wall, first with her heels and then with the sharp tip of a skyscraper plucked from downtown. The wall began to fall away in dust and fragments. Soon, however, she struck clear through the cement, and when she removed the skyscraper from the hole she’d made, light poured in through it. She crouched to peer inside, expecting a second room with an extension of the map.
Instead, she was shocked to find the office she had originally sought: the subdepartment of mortuary certification. A file clerk came down on his hands and knees to take her request, conferred with his superiors, and finally told her to go to the main lobby to pick up the file within the half hour. She insists that there was no other entry to the file room, that the mortuary clerks toiled in an underground chamber of four solid walls.
I went to a movie theater with the waiter. We talked all through the show, which was a dull remake of an older movie I hadn’t cared for.
“Every time I enter a room and turn on the lights, I long for the primacy of fire,” I told him.
Beside me in the dark, the waiter nodded. “Why not the sun?” he asked.
The sun had not occurred to me. “It must be beyond my imagination,” I said.
The waiter put his hand on my leg. We sat like that in silence for a while, watching the images flicker on the screen, thinking of solar eclipses, electrical current coursing through sheetrock and cinderblock, and the evolutionary impasse of the moth.
“When do you think they will learn?” I asked him, still thinking of moths.
He turned and looked at me. He had the eyes of a waiter, confident and expectant. “Maybe never,” he said.
“Your hands,” I said, gesturing at the one resting on my thigh. “How many plates can you balance?”
“Four,” he said. “In each.”
Onscreen, above us, a chase scene was beginning. I detached myself from the waiter’s gaze. Watching the movie, I suddenly identified with the villain, who was being hunted. I saw myself in him and in the plates the waiter carried, and also in the moth, drawn to the brightest center of the city, the tall shafts of light that exist for no reason other than to dominate the night sky. My heart spun like a plate, wobbled and shattered, then metamorphosed, swarmed together out of tiny fragments, a ghostly, palpitating cloud of white light reflected. Like the waiter’s hand, I felt myself reaching, stained with broth and bone and gristle, hungry for something purer, paler, something centerless, incorporeal, licked clean.
After a series of evasions and epiphanies, the screen finally went black. The house lights came up, and the waiter’s hand withdrew. I blinked my eyes at the sudden brightness, thinking of certain mornings of my childhood, when my father would wake me early to sit with him on our rooftop and watch morning break over the East. He would cackle mysteriously, thrusting his index finger out at the shanty neighborhoods, making queer exclamations like, “Now who’s running the show?” or “Nothing lasts forever, kemosabes.” At sunset, conversely, my father usually withdrew, shutting the blinds, turning on the lights, and watching television. I would run out to the backyard just to escape his awful moods, and there watch the fat, accusing orb sink away to dusk.
I must have been still a very long time. When I came to, the waiter was gone. He had taken my popcorn and soda to the trash bins and wiped down the place where we had been sitting. I rose and stumbled out, into the actual night.
I was leading my volleyball friend around town on a leash. “Look at all these citizens,” I said. “Bred for disaster, wary as wolves. Same teeth, too.”
“I’ve also noticed,” he called back as he trotted ahead of me, “the changes in the people of our city. More nervous when they greet you, hairier brows. Curling up in the fetal position at random, howling at the moon. Staring attentively at the skies, as if waiting for someone to return for them. Running in circles, chasing after their own tails.”
“I blame it on the East,” I told him. “The constant threats of vengeance, the blood spilt in the aquifer. The killing sprees in petting zoos on full-mooned nights, this new custom of biting a fellow’s ears when once a handshake was enough …”
“We all must change with the times,” my volleyball friend said, pausing to urinate on a tree.
“I, for one, shake hands,” I said, emphatically. “Like my father did, and his father before him. This sniffing at each other’s groins, it’s uncivilized.”
“Let’s not be unfair,” cautioned my volleyball friend, nuzzling his head against my leg. “People just have different ways of doing things.”
For a moment I felt overwhelmed at this display of affection, and I was suddenly grateful to have a friend like him. “You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I offered him my hand. “Sniff it or shake it, I don’t mind either way.”
He sniffed for a moment, then bit it off.
“Christ,” I said. “You just bit my hand off!”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I take it back.”
“But my hand is gone,” I said. “I need that hand for volleyball!”
“Look,” he said, “We all make mistakes. I crossed the line. What’s done is done. I’ve swallowed your hand, there’s no getting it back.”
“There, there,” he continued. “You’re a fantastic volleyball player. You’ll do fine without one measly hand. There’s such a thing as prosthetics, you know.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I admitted. For a moment I felt very powerful, capable of anything. Later, I learned that this is a typical short-term psychological reaction to the loss of an extremity.
“You’ll be better than when you had a real hand. Your fist will always be clenched, ready,” said my volleyball friend, beginning to sniff my crotch.
“That’s enough,” I said.
“No problem,” he said, returning his nose to the pavement. “You see, I listen. That’s what friends do.”
“I understand your silence,” I told my wife. “You believe that all language admits defeat. By the act of speaking, the speaker surrenders her convictions to the listener, concedes her object to the categories and associations of thought.”
My wife was silent.
“But how will you defend truthfulness in any language?” I asked her. “How will you exhort the ignorant to join your precious struggle?”
My wife was silent.
“Is not silence itself the language of defeat?” I countered. “Historically, is it not the surest way to know that an idea, a nation, or a race has been overwhelmed?”
She sat staring at me. In the thick evening of our kitchen, over the hum of our appliances and the appliances of our neighbors, I listened for the silence of the Arian heresy. I listened for the silence of Carthage, that city’s famous poems and songs. I listened for the silence of the buffalo beyond the suburbs, and the silence of the Apache galloping after it.
My volleyball friend works as a tour guide out of City Hall. His work is both dangerous and vital. When waxing metaphorical, he describes our city, which has come into maturity since the end of the mechanical age, as more grid than engine, an ever-changing field by which we define our own function. Like the memory device of a computer, he says, or even a human brain—every square foot of street and sidewalk holds some important, if scattered, mnemonic information, which is eventually synthesized by the group in a self-reinforcing program of preservation and expansion. Naturally, visitors pose a great threat to our uninterrupted function as a civic unity, as they alone are useless elements, free radicals, unknowns.
Years ago, the mayor’s office would corral all entering visitors and force them through a sort of debriefing program. These days, visitors present themselves cheerfully and voluntarily at kiosks around the city, where civil servants like my volleyball friend can lead them from one site of interest to another, forbidding unnecessary detours.
My volleyball friend tells a story to illustrate the importance of the safeguard that he and his colleagues provide. One morning, a mentally erratic coworker of his led a tour group—a German family, two itinerant workers, and a census officer—deep into the eastern portion of our city, which is normally excluded from such tours. In the typically winding alleys of that district, the visitors lost their way, and their disturbed guide abandoned them, ducking into some den of vice where he was finally discovered weeks later. His misdeed was recognized immediately, however, and my volleyball friend was put in charge of rescuing the visitors.
By the end of the night, my friend had located all of them, save the German oma, who was presumed dead. Even so, great damage had been done. The two workers, one a bricklayer and the other a tile setter, had found day labor and provoked a spasm of construction across the eastern region, spreading into the north and northwest. Families returned home to find new garages attached to their homes; bachelors found second and third bathrooms added to their studio apartments; and the penthouses of our tallest luxury hotels were expanded without corresponding alterations to the lower structures, giving rise to an anxious and lopsided skyline. That evening, everyone hungered for schnitzel without knowing what it was, and more than one child bid his parents guten nacht. Our population briefly jumped by 25%, literacy dropped by half that rate, and the percentage of people who said that, overall, the city was moving in the right direction climbed to an inexplicable 138%.
“At first, I enjoyed your silence,” I told my wife, reaching for some snacks that I keep hidden in a high pantry. “Now, I miss asking you for things. The reliability of your refusals had become a comfort. Will you just answer me one question?”
She gestured at the freshly sharpened trowel tucked into my belt.
“This is a gardening tool!” I reminded her, tearing open the cellophane that sheathed my tray of treats. “There’s nothing better than this for tilling soil. Just because we haven’t got a garden—yet—that isn’t any reason why I shouldn’t have a tool at the ready. Some men walk with canes long before their legs weaken enough to make it a necessity. One wants to be prepared, not only insofar as equipment is concerned, but also with habits, commonplaces.”
My wife made a wide gesture, as if what I had just said was a perfect explanation for her refusal to communicate with me.
“But why prepare for silence?” I asked her, furious, spitting crumbs. “There will be time enough for silence when silence is the law. Up until that moment you ought to be shouting whatever it is you want heard straight into the ear of whomever it is you want to hear it.”
My wife put her hands around her mouth as if to amplify her voice, then said nothing.
“When you visit the East, do you speak?” I asked. I licked my fingers one by one. “Is it a matter of audience? Is it just me that you won’t speak to, me and people like myself?”
She looked at me slackly. I suddenly saw myself as she must have seen me: fleshy, overeager, balding, cocoa powder smeared across my teeth. I tried to return the gaze, suggesting silently that she had lost her girlish figure, that what she wore as confidence came off as insolence, that her presence set even the most amiable person on edge, that her emotional instability attracted others with the same trait and fueled a vicious circle of perspectiveless moral hysteria. She did not indicate whether she understood me or not.
“Are you not my wife? Have I imprisoned you wrongly, thinking it was my right, mistaking you for her?”
Ours is a small city on the very edge of America. It’s not the sort of place one would visit if one did not have business here, but, thankfully, so many do have business here.
Some cities are famous for what their factories or stockyards produce. Other cities are distinguished, even to people who have never lived there, by a lifestyle native to the architecture or climate. The names of some cities mean more than just a place. Ours is not one of those cities.
Sometimes a rotten smell rises from the river and we imagine ourselves a shipping city. Sometimes a harsh, unceasing wind comes off the plain and we are pioneers, an outpost in an expanse of cruel wilderness. Sometimes fog creeps down from the mountains and we are a city lost in time, nostalgia victims, bound for gorgeous ruin and collapse. Sometimes a weatherless sun shines on us for weeks and we are brand-new, well packaged, an artless metropole without mystery or flaw. Once, in the dark of night, we might have been any city, until the night became a province of the East.
The waiter invited me to meet him one evening on the bridge by the old water mill. Considering the invitation scandalous, what with the bridge’s proximity to the eastern district, I refused. Late that night, however, I left my house and went to the bridge in search of him. I could not find him.
Walking alone for the first time in ages, I was struck by the darkness at the edge of the river and by the privacy afforded by the roaring water mill. I walked out onto the bridge, only halfway so as to avoid the charge that I had actually set foot in the East. I rested my arms on the cool stone railing of the bridge and looked out at the cliff of lights that describe the river’s southward course.
I heard a cry in the mist of darkness to my left, a shriek belonging to a husky woman or an effeminate man. Despite the obvious danger, I held my ground. I tried to make out a form far in the distance, on the eastern riverbank. I could not tell if the form was my waiter, a murderer, or some mutilated victim. I finally whispered, “Is that you?”
The figure walked up onto the bridge. He halted before I could see his face.
“Who are you waiting for?” he asked me gruffly.
“No one,” I said hastily. “I was walking alone. I heard a cry. I came here to investigate.”
“You heard my last victim,” said the man.
I froze. My heart sank. What a fool I had been, to worry about my reputation, about the presence or absence of the waiter, about the possibility of helping a person in need, when I might have been running for my life! Now I was doomed.
The murderer ordered me to kneel and touch my forehead to the pavement of the bridge. I did as instructed, and, with my head down, I saw only his black slacks and loafers as he walked by me. Finally, he told me to turn and face him. The city lights were all behind him, and he stood as a silhouette against them, the only dark spot in my field of vision.
“My custom is to murder my victims immediately and then sort out the spoils,” the man said, “but having seen your face, I hesitate.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Have you ever heard that old wives’ tale, that every man and woman in the city proper has a double in the East? Someone with the same voice, same face, same gait, but a more twisted mind and an infinitely blacker heart?”
“Yes,” I said. My own wife had told me this, before her silence.
“Well,” my assailant said, “It’s as if I’m looking in a mirror.”
I reeled backwards in shock. A criminal, made in my own image!
The murderer continued in an academic tone. “Given this improbability,” he said, “one would think I’d be all the more eager to kill you. I could steal your clothes, your identity, and your wife. I could masquerade as a respectful citizen of whichever district you call home, raking in your salary and sharing the company of your friends. But if I did—poor me—I’d have no time left over to be a thief and a murderer. Of course my lot would be better, but I couldn’t bear to give up the mischief. The petty crimes I’d commit against your wife and friends would be a small solace. I’d have to sacrifice the rotten life I’ve made.”
“I see,” I said. “Your dilemma is vexing.”
“The dilemma is yours,” the murderer said with a flourish. “I offer the choice to you. I could kill you now and take your life. Or, I could let you live—but only if you agree to trade identities with me. I will be the respectful citizen, and you will be a fly-by-night assassin. One day each week, we will exchange roles, so that you can see your family and I can maraud through the streets of the East. The only stipulation is that you maintain my identity with vigor. You must kill, fight, and drink. You must love crudely; you must steal without remorse.”
“Those are my only choices?” I asked, swallowing hard. “Death, or darkness?”
“Yes,” said the man. “Choose well.”
I searched for a way out of the dilemma, but I could find none. If I tried to assume his identity and set it on a better path in life, he would surely kill me. If I were somehow able to capture him alive and bring him before a court of law, I myself might be sent to the gallows. I was not confident that my wife or my friends would know me from my identical counterpart. He certainly spoke well enough to present himself as a man of my class.
Unsure of my choice, I reached behind my back and gripped the sharpened trowel I keep hidden in my belt. “Come closer,” I said. “I want to see your face.”
“Not yet,” the man said.
“I choose darkness,” I said, running my hands over the sharp tip of the garden tool. “I choose to go live in the East. Come closer.”
The man walked toward me. I steeled myself for the horrible sight of my own features twisted into the visage of a murderer. But when his face finally came into view, I broke out in laughter. So, too, did the mysterious villain—who was none other than the waiter!
“I should have known!” I cried. “That philosophical quandary was beyond the imagination of any common thief.”
“I’m surprised at your choice,” he said, raising his eyebrow.
I brought my arm out from behind my back to show the waiter my trowel, still clenched in my hand. He did not understand, so I tried to explain it to him, its significance.
I went to check on my wife at the intensive care unit of the hospital. “She’s not able to talk,” said the doctor.
“That’s nothing new,” I said.
Wires and tubes snaked in and out of her body, as if the silent, hidden, life-supporting parts of her, the nervous, digestive and lymphatic systems, had rebelled and broken through her skin and now clung to blinking hospital machinery. She groaned.
“Where did they find you?” I asked.
I decided to answer for her. I said, “The racetrack,” because I was sure it was a lie.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“I was run over by horses,” I said. With a tinge of shame, I realized that I was amusing myself. I continued, “There was no stopping them barreling over me. They came up into the grandstand. They chased me past the betting windows, over turnstiles, into the street. It was a bloodbath.”
“Why didn’t you call me sooner?” I asked.
“I was ashamed,” I said. “I thought you might not want me anymore. I thought you’d think the way I hurt myself was wrong.”
“There’s nothing shameful about being overrun by horses,” I assured her. “The racetrack is a respectable place and accidents happen. It’s not as if you were cavorting with known insurgents, provoking the suspicion of our police investigators, withholding secrets, refusing to confess your crimes.”
“I shouldn’t be so afraid to tell you things,” I said.
“Of course not,” I said. “I’m in love with you.”
My wife groaned again and reached for my mouth. I swatted her hand away.
From certain vantage points in the city center, one can see a protuberance of earth interrupting the grim aisles of row houses stretching out into the East. Atop the mound stands a tower, perhaps one hundred feet in height and twelve in diameter. I asked my volleyball friend what he thought it was.
“Probably a sniper’s nest,” he said, sniffing the air, “or else an obelisk, monument to some forgotten god. Who do they worship?”
“I think they have churches,” I said. “On Sundays, when I walk along the river, I hear them singing.” I had been walking by the river oftener of late, sometimes hoping to see the waiter, sometimes merely hoping to be swept up in some criminal drama, like the witnessing of a band of young men crossing over the bridge from the East, so that I could act heroically by alerting the police.
“Perhaps it’s a missile silo,” said my volleyball friend. “Have you ever thought of that?”
“Theirs or ours?” I asked. I arched my body sideways like the David to let loose a tremendous frisbee toss.
“Ours, I suppose. Unless our control is really slipping, as some say it is.”
As I threw the frisbee, my prosthetic hand came unhooked from my wrist. Still gripping the frisbee, it sailed over the park, whistling through the air like a propeller.
“I’d imagined it was an enormous funeral marker,” I said.
“Who for?” called my volleyball friend, racing out in front of me.
“I don’t know. Those who fell unjustly, that sort of thing.”
My volleyball friend caught the frisbee in his teeth. The finger of my prosthetic hand pointed accusingly between his eyes. “I think it’s an exhaust pipe, like for a factory,” he said. “When you walk in the East, you smell odors that you never smell anywhere except in factories. It’s as if, underneath the pavement, the city is decomposing inside its skin. I think they’re in there, underground, rendering, building something out of all the waste that we pipe out.”
“Who’s building? Us or them?”
He dropped the frisbee at my feet. I bent to pick up and reattach my hand.
“When have you been walking in the East?” I asked.
My volleyball friend did not answer. He turned his tail and trotted off to terrorize a picnic table full of virgins on the far side of the park.
Like many men of his generation, my father was fascinated by the East. His curiosity drew him in, his need to conquer the unfamiliar by maps and legends, but the East’s essential mutability overwhelmed his caution. He was incensed beyond impatience by the ever-changing street names, the housing blocks which rose and fell to dam up failed highways or make room for new rail lines. Even the inhabitants seemed each day to be of different races, once dark-skinned old women toiling on after the violent deaths of their husbands, then dirty, large-eared blond children who could not be put to work because they stole the labor camp buses which came to round them up. They drove headlong into the river bottom, one child steering, one pushing gas and clutch as the authorities chased them down alleyways that only the children knew were not dead-ended.
My father helped to build the bridge which spans the river, but before his death he was the first to advocate destroying it. He died in the East, leading a cavalry of vigilantes against the unknown murderers of our city’s beloved planning and zoning director, whose four limbs were found far-flung in the northern, southern, western, and central districts of our city. My father sought the victim’s head, and he died atop a bulldozer, half his face painted black, a phalanx of demolitionists churning behind him in an unsuccessful charge to tear down the East and dig a reservoir to take its place. My father’s death catalyzed those among us who would gladly destroy the entire district, hand out cash settlements to the surviving inhabitants, and make some better use of all that land.
We tried. Once, we built a major airport in the East, clearing out whole ghettos in the process, but the people moved in and built shanty towns along the sides of the runways, selling livestock and contraband athletic wear in stalls outside the gates. Then we seized it back through eminent domain and sold it to a developer, who designed an orderly grid of streets with docile names taken from nature, lined with identical houses complete with back patios and basement dens. But the families who lived there made unregulated alterations, split the clapboard mansions into subdivided apartments, built latrines, and dug canals and wells.
One night, the city was beset by hailstorms and tornados. We residents of the better districts boarded up our windows, shut our doors, and went to sleep praying that nature herself would root out that intransigent district. In the morning, we were disappointed—the flimsy houses of the East had been lifted, tossed, and swept away by wind and water, but all had landed in new plots without extensive damage. The only true casualty of the storm was our street plan. Modular homes now choked up intersections, and shotguns lined up, improbably, in a long row, so that one standing at the river’s edge could see clear through open front and back doors all the way to distant pastureland, far outside the city. Other homes clustered in polygonal blocks, and tall apartment buildings lay on their backs, toilets transformed into urinals, concrete balconies into garden walls.
The city finally lost its will, and the East expanded in all directions. Now we wonder if we will even know it when we ourselves have been swallowed up.
I followed my wife home from the hospital one night. She escaped by tying bed sheets together, wrapping them around her neck, and attempting to hang herself from a lighting fixture. When the sympathetic nurses discovered her, they gave in to her pleas for a discharge, against the orders of the doctors and the precinct captain.
I’d often sit outside the hospital at night, listening to songs on the radio and awaiting signs of her death or her escape. That night, I watched her leave, and I followed at a low speed in my car. My wife took an unusual route, veering near the river despite its distance from the house we share. If she noticed my engine behind her, she gave no indication.
When she turned to cross the bridge near the old mill wheel, I began to suspect that she was not walking toward our house after all. I followed her halfway across, mine the only car on the bridge, then I stopped and called to her. She did not respond, marching resolutely eastward. I got out of the car and called to her again. “Go to hell!” I said.
She did not turn around. She walked on, past the eastern foot of the bridge and into the darkness beyond. At last, I followed her.
In the East, the night was dark, but the streets teemed with people. My wife led me to a large crowd that opened up as we approached. At the center of the crowd, on the sidewalk, lay a dying man who looked exactly like me. When I came close enough to look into his eyes, I saw how, in his face, my familiar features were distorted not by malice but by fear.
My wife gestured to the dying man. Then she gestured to my hands, which held the garden trowel. “Use it,” she said.
I knelt beside the man and made an incision in his stomach. I pulled apart the flaps of skin and peered inside. His body cavity was full of street crud, splintered brick from collapsed houses, broken telephone wires and traffic flares. At my wife’s direction, I began scooping out the trash piece by piece. She held a compost bag to receive each shard of styrofoam, each broken bulb. Soon the man was empty. He breathed deeply and with great pain. I looked at my wife; she nodded.
I cut into my own stomach. I pulled out my intestines in a long thread, folding them into the dying man’s belly. I emptied out my other insides, too. My wife and I arranged the organs in the body of the dying man—liver, kidneys, pancreas, and spleen. She sewed him up, and, as soon as she finished, he rose and took off running to the West. I laid myself down to take his place on the sidewalk, clutching my stomach, my chest, my head.