This story was written in the early 1990s and first published in The Whirligig back in 2002. Or so my notes say. I don’t remember either thing.
In This Slowly Rising City, So Bereft of Company
by Jeffrey Somers
Ten-thirty at night after one too many whiskey-in-sodas burning holes in my soft-soled shoes and anything can happen, and usually does, if only for me. Everyone else’s life is so achingly mundane, so rooted in the tar and concrete we’re scraping ourselves off onto.
“Dreaming again, Harrigan?”
It all snaps back into focus again, the unfortunate grayscale focus of night-time in metropolis, the greatest city in the modern sense, the urban sprawl growing to engulf endless acres and unnoticed inches.
I blinked at both of them, Tom and Richie, sweaty in their work clothes. Richie clutched his briefcase to his chest, a precious piece of aged luggage with stained and frayed vinyl. Richie hadn’t worked in six months, but he carried that damn case around as if job interviews might ambush him anywhere and he’d vowed to be ready. I imagined it filled with newspapers and phone books, with advertisements circled in thick red marker. He clutched it so tightly, no doubt, to keep it from bursting open in a frightening flutter of pages escaping into the night, back to their native forests where there was no place for them any more.
“What?” I blink again.
Tom laughed, the silly, barking laugh which was easily ignored when he was sober but which increased in volume and desperation like a wild animal’s mating call when he drank. “We’re getting ready to go. You okay?”
The place was nearly empty, all the usual drunks and loudmouths had left for the bottles they kept hidden at home for emergencies such as closed bars and ended happy hours. It had that sweaty, smoky feel that bars and really good parties had after they’d ended, the washed feel of spent time. Places like this were shrinking as the city grew. Room had to be made. I looked around dumbly and it looked smaller than it had before, the bar closer to our table, the ceiling lower. I found cigarettes in my pocket but they weren’t my brand, they were unfiltered and harsh. I shrugged and shook one out, but I didn’t have any matches.
As I spoke the cigarette bounced up and down before me. “Sure. Is it three o’clock already?”
“Past.” Tom said, standing up. “The bartender’s about to call the police.”
I grinned, partly because I knew he meant it as a joke and partly because I was drunk, and partly because the police would never get there in time; the streets had shifted slightly as the concrete spread, and many of them led to different places, now, or nowhere at all.
We crowded out onto the city streets, and Tom was taking bets as to whether he would be at work on time in the morning. I pushed my hands into my pockets and breathed in the thinning air which struggled heroically to cover all the new area. I didn’t know what the argument was for: Tom was never at work on time, and it never seemed to bother him much. We walked together for a while, and then we split up, Tom laughing to himself as if everything was funny all at once and Rich just listing back and forth, struggling to keep it all straight while keeping a tight grip on his briefcase, lest it bound away from him, slipping through his fingers the way everything else in his life seemed to. I waved to them both, but they didn’t turn to see.
I stood on a street corner, waiting for the light to change. The street was at least a mile wide, the curbs pulling apart in slow tides. It yawned before me in a tempting, silent way, open and waiting. There wasn’t any need to wait on the light, there were no cars, there weren’t any people. The night air was cool and the wind had taken on the hollow whistle usually found in canyons and gullies. I leaned against a lamp post with my hands in my pockets and watched the streetlight change, red, green, yellow, red. It was even beginning to take the lights longer to change.
Getting home at night was a longer and longer journey, too, partly because of the expanse of the city, partly because I kept having this feeling that something was going to happen, and kept waiting for it to come.