Online Exclusive

The City
We had each taken our turns at the board games, lacking that basic urgency required for the game to have been consuming, the Connect 4 scaffolding not quite snapping whole, its pieces tumbling out when stacked taller than three-high, the Life spinner that became stuck in place with each whirl, its cards splitting at the edges, pegs gnawed at ends that couldn’t quite perch in their slots, teetering with each move, Chess pawns replaced by malachite-crusted pennies and plastic army men, overconfident despite snapped rifle tips. We poured out puzzles on a throw rug with circles and triangles in yellow, blue, red, each shape’s name and color printed in block letters within its boundaries, names and concepts that would have enchanted us at the beginning of the summer, but now stifled, now signaled stasis, as we lay prone, our bellies pressed across the wide musky throw, always somehow dusty yet damp, sticky to the touch, scrutinizing the images of the Eiffel Tower, of Buzz and Woody, of Monet's lilies, with pieces long since tucked under a bookshelf during clean up, or tossed in the garbage among the orange slices, wax-coated Dixie cups, residual apple juice, and soiled paper towels, or carried home in a coat pocket, or stashed in the cubby that, long ago, belonged to a child who’d since moved on to other multipurpose rooms, other day camps, creating gaps in the picture, the nasty rug peeking through, making us feel as if we hadn’t really finished anything at all, and, the rain continuing to come down, we'd even removed the bins of strange disfigured dolls, their limbs bent, their faces scuffed and dour, and swallowed or perhaps embraced our horror as we lined them up against the plastic dinosaurs, with whom they battled, first with guns, imaginary save our staccato hissing, then in football, the dinosaurs dominating to such a degree that a draft became necessary to redistribute talent, captained by T-Rex and Stegosaurus, a draft which we executed with meticulous care, allowing a neutral party to prepare lots which we drew from a baseball hat, found in a strange-scented dress-up bin, bleachy and floral, our fingers grazing the folded paper, blind, tumbling onward. But once the teams were settled, it seemed there was no more contest, the dolls’ faces now vacant once more, the rain still coming down, the dinosaurs studying the ticking hands of a clock that was, it appeared, not ticking at all, the rain, visible in the window glass beyond the turtle tank, with its rank cloudy water, in which Gretchen and her small hard white growths puttered, slowly, back and forth, back and forth, the only reassurance that time was in fact passing.

A rupture. Snack time. We’d been saved. Observing ritual, we formed a line at the sink, placing, when our turn came, hands under the running faucet, pushing down the plastic soap trigger, watching the pink ooze, perhaps not soap but liquid Jurassic plastic, as it dripped down beneath our fingers, which we then returned under the stream of water before giving two quick, close-palmed rubs, presenting our hands to the observing adult, if they were an adult, and not a teenager, if they were in fact observing at all and not stealing glances at one another, their thoughts adrift in lives conducted out there somewhere in the rain, at high schools we could only imagine as extending without limit, spanning blocks on end, cafeterias larger than our elementary schools, hallways that meandered like mall concourses, a great horrifying chatter as the waves of busy feet moved purposefully from one classroom to the next, some kind of villainy having emerged between our age and theirs, something horrible and yet exciting that we both hoped we would never grow inside of us and yet anticipated with a kind of feeling like that of having eaten too much candy, a numb sweet sting. We grabbed first a single paper towel, folded in half for greater drying agency, this learned much earlier in the summer when we had all felt fresh and new, when the day camp’s strange toys and faces glinted possibility, then one more paper towel to be carried to our scuffed hard seats, placing them in front of us on the folding table, ready to receive offerings. Had this been a sunnier day, we’d have been abuzz with conversation. But the rain continued to come down and, our bottled energy having dissipated, we now sat in silence as the adult made rounds with an oversize bag of Goldfish crackers, scooped and portioned by Dixie cup, poured out onto our paper towels. We ate slowly, studying the frozen clock digits, watching in the window beyond Gretchen’s tank, the splatter pool where the pavement dipped under the basketball hoop, the slide slicked with sheets of rain that gushed from its base. We imagined the soaked wood chips underfoot, the soft yield. We imagined bending to pluck a choice chip, and chewing it slowly, its fibers becoming lodged in our gums. And then the Goldfish were gone.

We returned to the throw, this time with oversize blocks, with which we would build a tower that might scrape the ceiling, might break through the roof and let the rain come pouring in, might force us outside, force us home, force us to return to that pulsing normalcy through which we were so accustomed to race. We placed the last block and the tower topped out no taller than ourselves.

So we turned to the Hot Wheels, built great highways of track, which mounted block towers and circumnavigated tables, which burrowed deep through long tunnels of chair legs, which could do nothing but circle, lap the multipurpose room, no matter the combination of track segment, no matter the particular racer, carrying along without purpose, returning, inevitably, right back where they started.

And we assembled golf courses with the blocks and tables, the throw rug our sand trap, wadded paper for a ball, a yard stick our putter, and calculated handicaps, conducted tournaments whose elaborate brackets became populated and championed for what seemed an eternity. Still the rain came down.

And it seemed the rain might let up as we shuffled the Uno cards, which we dealt and hustled, flicking the cards against one another, our hands growing and shrinking, the game listing on and on and, no, the rain had not let up, and one of us was down to a single card but could not play it. We watched their hands grow. We watched their hands swell to nearly half the deck as they chided our shuffling, and we might’ve laughed at this some other time, but still the rain persisted and the adult had replaced the clock’s batteries but its hands declined movement, still, and the adult said that, No, that it was not nearly time for lunch.

So we drifted across the multipurpose room to its far side, where the younger children played, where the air was riper with sweat and snot, with the piss-stained floor of the bathroom, which, on this end, had no door, just a hanging curtain, through which an adult might assess the various daily emergencies, and we observed their joyless skittering, their doll hair combing, their idle coloring with dwindled crayon nubs, which we had hoped might yield us some spark, their innocent play, but offered us no joy. They too had succumbed to the wet and the gray, to the morning’s yawning length. It seemed each minute grew longer than the one previous, that each moment of inactivity expanded the capacity of the units of passing time. And we returned to our side of the multipurpose room, placing our faces against the slick glass of Gretchen’s tank, where we could feel the warmth of her heat lamp and study the sick hard gloss of her growths. Were these mold or bone or cancer? What wrongness had gotten inside of her?

We felt a drop. Or perhaps it was that we needed to feel something and what we felt was the semblance of a drop. So we walked once more between the folding tables, our shoes squeaking across the stained tile, rustling against the throw, our necks bent backward, studying the spotted ceiling tile, our hands extended with open palms, searching fruitlessly for the drip, until shaken from this vigil by a crunch underfoot.

It seemed we had stepped on someone’s drawing. There were tears. We had found our way to Johnson’s corner, where Johnson entertained himself as if each day was today, where Johnson elected to take his snack and lunch, where Johnson passed his seclusion in a state where calm, joy and misery were interchangeable.

What we had done was trample on Johnson’s city, four sheets of paper, loosely placed side by side, with buildings growing in no particular visual perspective, some upwards, some in profile, some in three dimensions but others in blueprint, and this, we felt intuitively, was a triumph of Johnson’s city, or would-be city, it’s resistance to confinement, its ability to transcend.

And we sat with Johnson. We consoled. We patted Johnson on the back and said that we might rebuild it, that it could be rebuilt. That it could be better and that we could help.

We collected the roll of white butcher paper from its mount and unfurled it across the linoleum, gathered the colored pencils, the crayons and scented markers and watercolors and even the Sharpies we’d hidden in our cubbies. We collected scissors and Scotch tape, and began to connect the sheets of paper, for there would be no limit to what we could design.

First we remade Johnson’s city: the tallest skyscraper, some 500 stories, which reached not quite the stars or heavens, but glanced their roots, which punched through the cloud cover, beyond the rain and gloom into clear blue skies, inside of which lived some million people, who dined at gleaming indoor and outdoor terraces, walked long promenades which spanned up and down the tower’s sides behind windproof netting, fresh air drifting pleasantly through secreted vents, and a train station with some 100 set tracks, from which, by ultraspeed electric bullet train, one could arrive anywhere within the hour, anywhere, anywhere at all. And a great underground race track, whose tunnel pulsed between subway line and sewer, between catacombs, decorated with the stacked skulls and rib bones of the city’s past inhabitants, this city that had always been and would always be, networks of caves, some of which housed great sprawling rivers that could be floated during any season, the caves’ interiors always 75 degrees, and a deceptively small cafe, a pleasant blue and white cottage with seating for only twelve, at which each city resident was granted one meal per year, through whose swiveling kitchen doors one must descend down into a great basin that contained the world’s largest kitchen and the world’s greatest chef, who might make, to order, any delicacy, any dish, the ingredients limitless and fresh and cooked to something just short enough of perfection to leave one satisfied, who might accent a classic with a stroke of insight arrived at by the grace of the waiter, who acted as vessel for the diner’s interiority and unconscious desire, so that the chef might know exactly not what the diner wanted but what they needed, be it pasta carbonara exactly as it was or shrimp étouffée as it might be, and of course the vast complex of stadiums which housed the city’s many teams, which played against only each other, so talented that any attempt at extramural competition would be unfair, where tickets were always free, and all the seats offered proximity and vantage, without advertisements or grating music.

This, we felt, was great. But we wondered what else Johnson’s city (or could it be our city?) was missing? And we unfurled additional spans of butcher paper, inserted between our existing sheets in criss-cross, adding now great spans of green, networks of park and forest and jungle, mountains whose tops could be reached by leisurely gondola, whose snowy peaks housed resorts with hot cocoa in green glazed ceramic mugs, with slopes for sledding, from which you could, if you so desired, return home. And in soft blues we shaded beaches and rivers, and a warm ocean whose shore formed our city’s western edge, from which fisherpeople returned with great nets of red and blue crab, mantis shrimp, and shimmering iridescent prawns that made one’s tongue glow green, with bovine tuna whose steaks fed 20, with dead-eyed sharks whose fins faded into luxurious velvet when simmered into broth, whose teeth we made into jewelry. We fashioned long greenways of orchards, in which you might forage at any season, springtime dandelion greens and garlic scrapes, wild strawberries and peaches which, it was said, you could hear hum in a quiet moment, so vibrant from the mineral-rich soil, so alive, and pepper plants with a numbing tingle, whole fields of nutty arugula that rose inexplicably to one’s shoulders, watermelons that needed four sets of hands to be carried, whose flavor was not too sweet, whose juice was said to be twice as hydrating as water.

And so too we began to erect buildings of a rich blend of architectural styles, Gothic spires that dwindled to gargoyled tops, art deco towers with rooftop patios, spiraling glass shapes that bent at great heights and returned to the ground miles from where they’d begun, Victorian mansions of inexplicable span, with thousands of rooms, each furnished with luxurious hand-carved chairs and tables of elegant limb, chilling portraits whose eyes, by some trick of the artist or nefarious scheme did, in fact, follow, with stony-gazed statues that had the ability the see through onlooker and make them become small.

We gathered more butcher paper and now raided the far side of the multipurpose room for more crayons and masking tape, glue sticks and stamp pads. We folded up the tables and stacked them against the wall, rolled up the sickly throw rug and placed it in the closet, shut the door.

There were those of us who wanted Johnson to be the mayor, but this, we all agreed in time, was not what our city needed. Because our city would be without hierarchy, without seats of power. Our city would have no council, no board. Our city would be an experiment in pure democracy, each choice arrived at by the goodness of collective will. In this way there would be no inequity. And also there would be no Johnson, and also no I or you. There would be only us. 

There was no longer us and Johnson because Johnson was now us. Of course Johnson could absolve us our rain fugue, Johnson who always had passed his days in this gray state. Or perhaps it was the opposite. Perhaps Johnson was always us and our collective psychic energy created this rain only so we might realize.

And networks of trains began to weave and bob the city’s many arteries, drifting underground, where necessary, or high above sea level on sparkling rails that clung to the sides of buildings, seemed to hang in the air, footless, in defiance of gravity, some 200 different lines, some 500 lines, each distinct, serving a precise purpose, each efficient and graceful, carbon-neutral, with glass-walled interiors that tinted on hot days but warmed with sunlight in winter, from whose vantage one could admire the city’s many faces: alleys of noodle vendors and oyster shuckers, the iron and brick of Old Town, with its cobblestone avenues and narrow rows of townhouses, the multicolored beach umbrellas dotting the shore amid the soda fountains, raspado carts, and beach fires over which hung spits of crisp-skinned roast chicken legs and cumin-spiked slabs of mutton and goat.

And so now it seemed our city was not a city but something more. Further towns were discovered on the fringe. A storm carried lost fisherpeople so far from shore they’d found a forgotten outcropping of our own kind, whose dwellings rose in great steel spires atop the ocean surface but swelled, like an iceberg, to a wide underwater city, which was quite like our own. And these people did not need trains but found their way to work in scuba gear, in glass-walled elevators from which one could study the bright fish of a busy reef, its anemones and drifting whales. And so too were found cities in the mountains where our lost cousins wore parkas year round, where butter was made from yeti and mammoth, where they ate striped purple and blue alpine roots which grew deep under the ice, so far down the soil was warmed by layers of magma, roots whose flesh was so rich, it was said, that a single bite might tickle the back of your mind. And of course smaller towns too, for those that desired, with lines of beach shanties and craftsmen homes whose yards yielded rhododendrons in violet bloom, spiked yucca, tangled fingers of ivy and blackberry.

And we began also to populate our central tower and its 500 floors, its many condos and patioed terraces, its fountains and courtyard and ballrooms. There were sleek living quarters in which one could not discern where a cabinet ended and the floor began, and other units with vintage stand-mixers and wood-fired stoves. Some residents worked inside the tower, too, which contained offices but also arboretums, greenhouse farms, swimming pools that spanned multiple stories, connected by tunnels constructed with small offset rooms, in which one could surface for air, or enjoy a sweet drink, and malls unlike the ones we were accustomed to, vertical malls, seven of them, each 50 stories, inside of which all manner of curio could be had, at, of course, no cost; dried bat wings, for tea, the eyes of rare lizards, for soup, or the mummified feet of giants that had lived long ago, where psychics told you versions of your future so you might elect which path to travel, knife throwers who never missed but sometimes still killed, and antique airplanes which one might use to fly from one floor to another, hangers separated by distances of 100 floors, or books with no names and no text on their pages, that told a different story to each reader. And there was the floating garden, our city’s true pride, which spanned out in all directions from the 250th floor, which was said to be limitless, which was said to be so vast one could never catalog the entirety of its flora and geography, which was, in fact, so large and varied and healthy that new plant species were constantly appearing via mingling roots and cross pollination, raspberry melons and palm ferns, gnarled bonsai cactus, towering redwoods that fruited something not quite pawpaw, not quite pepper. And what was most miraculous about the garden was this—that somehow the sunlight filtered through unfettered, and yet also the garden shielded us from the rain. 

The rain which had, of course, ceased.

Dusky sunlight glancing sideways and refracting in the glass of Gretchen’s tank, the slide framed by the orange marsh of the evening sky.

And we were collected, one by one, by parents and nannies and babysitters, spirited away to our various separate dwellings.

I was one of the last. I was always one of the last to go.

I would watch the sky darken through the windows, watch as the adults began to spray down toys and table tops, to collect the bleach bottles and mucky rags, time expanding with each passing second, with each subsequent departure from our ranks, as the multipurpose room grew larger, unpopulated, vacant.

Johnson and I carefully folded our city. But that wasn’t quite right, no. So we unfolded the parchments, rolled each sheet of butcher paper into delicate scrolls, which we placed carefully into Johnson’s cubby.

And then they came for Johnson. And then they came for me.

Had we known it was Johnson’s last day of day camp, his long awaited trip to South Padre Island now arrived, what would we have done with the city and its many papers?

And we returned, most of all of us, Johnsonless, ignorant of his departure, and waited, the sun glancing in through the window glass, the playground wide and dry and empty.

The second day we removed the city from his cubby, reassembling as nausea overcame each one of us, the drawing just that. A drawing. Flat.
Carefully, carefully, we rolled the city back up, and returned to it to Johnson’s cubby.

And the rest of the summer passed. Did it again rain? Did one of us take the city home? Did we divide it among ourselves? Was it placed, at the end of summer, in the dumpster, as we carried on back in the thick of our lives, returned to normalcy, to pattern and routine?

Sometimes, when it’s raining, I can’t help but look out my office window at the street below, the black umbrellas shuffling along, rain pooling caddy corner near the intersection of 4th and Pike, headlight beams illuminating the mist, starting, stopping, puttering adrift, and I think about our city, about that multipurpose room, but mostly our city, our ambition, all so alive and now all so very dead. I don’t remember any of their names but Johnson’s—Johnson who went to engineering school, his mother and my own having run into one another at the grocery store, promising to have the other over, knowing full well it would never come to pass. It seemed Johnson never married. I can’t remember his face. I don’t remember any of their faces. I have what seem not memories but the shape of memories, red shoulders, scraggly blonde hair, a smell of pink soap and sweat and carpet. I remember tracing my hand along the lines of my cubby, thinking about what was mine and what was theirs, the division. I remember us, all of us, it seemed, together with our crayons and tape shaping something meaningful. What I remember is us, our thoughts, our plans, our collective dreaming. Someday our skyscrapers would rise, our subway tunnels carved, our canals dug. We would grow and build a city to fit ourselves. We would do better. There was no question of this. And I think about how, as we taped together the sheets of paper, as the city grew, as our ideas pooled and swelled, how completely I could see it, how time and place dissolved.

It was like I was in both places at once, the multipurpose room, the city, and so too maybe this city where I live now, so distant from that multipurpose room, this office, this window that once made my scalp tingle with pride in the knowledge it was mine, that suggested a whole world flush with possibility, and yet also all that has become set in stone, all that could have been but wasn’t, while I sit here in an ugly ergonomic chair with still so much work to get done before I might leave, the afternoon slowing to a crawl, and it seems I am an incapable of doing anything but gazing out at the world beyond, studying the arteries of rain drifting downhill where the road meets the sidewalk, my eyes losing focus. It is only now three o’clock but in the winter rain, already the day grows dark.  

Matt Greene teaches writing in Central Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, the Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Santa Monica Review, and Wigleaf, among others.