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.
“Talked to Margaret recently?”
Sober, Rich was passably human, even charming in his sad way. We walked through the park (almost grown too huge and verdant to be a park, too nearly-wild) eating hot dogs and drinking cokes. I was abusing my lunch hour, and Rich had no lunch hour anymore. Used to be we could walk through the park in half an hour. Now I think it would take at least twice that, judging from the size of the trees and length of the grass. Overhead, birds discussed our fashion sense, chittering laughter at Rich’s worn and sallow sportsjacket.
I shook my head. “No. I don’t know how to reach her.”
“You’ve got her number, right?”
He was quiet, then, wondering what that meant. Why people always wanted your relationship to work out, I had no idea.
You couldn’t see the gently drifting buildings from the park anymore, and I wondered, briefly, if maybe the park would overtake the city and devour it, leaving us to live in the hollows and trees, behind rocks. It didn’t seem likely, unfortunately. It was just keeping pace.
“I’ll tell you, Harrigan, the scariest part about it all is that I’m starting to enjoy it.”
I looked at him. In the right light Rich positively crackled with positive energy, an aura of good which clashed unreasonably with the rest of the world. Everyone else, including myself, had maggots in our blood, eating away, we walked about with the soft-bodied slump of the doomed. Rich was straight and tall because although he carried unemployed doom around with him, he hadn’t internalized it. He still had hope in his heart.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Having nothing to do, having my own time.” he replied, smiling. “I don’t want to get a job. I don’t want to have things to do.”
I studied the way the gently drifting trees had come to resemble the buildings from far, distant midtown: huge and looming, domineering. Eventually, I thought it likely we would hollow out the trees to make office space, since the buildings would be far apart, soon. “That’s the most peculiarly brave thing I think anyone’s ever said.” I told Rich. He looked at me and I clapped him on the shoulder.
“The one thing that scares most of us,” I told him carefully, “is having nothing to do. That’s why we waste our time in bars, at restaurants, watching TV. We’re terrified of having time on our hands.” I squeezed his shoulder companionably. “If you really aren’t afraid of it anymore, you’re a better man than me.”
Rich laughed. Unlike Tommy, Rich had a fine, deep laugh. “Fuck, Harrigan, you’re the weirdest guy I know.” He shrugged. “But, I like you. You say startling things, sometimes, and I feel like I ought to be writing it all down.”
It was the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me, and I told him so.
The bus ride into work was hours long, now, long boring intervals between buildings and the quiet great distance lends anything, even cities. I got cramped and bored waiting. I wondered if eventually the buses wouldn’t have enough gas to make it through their whole route, I wondered if people would stop riding them altogether. There already seemed to be fewer people every morning.
In my office, I stood at my window and stared out at the nothing around us. In the distance, obscured by fog and made tiny, I could barely see the faint, drifting outlines of buildings. I picked up the telephone and the dial tone was faint and full of static; I supposed the lines were stretched to their to their limit, and soon there would be no phones at all.
On the spur of the moment I took Louise Pennler out to lunch.
We’d slept together once, long before, and had been avoiding each other in the halls ever since. We strolled outside in the breathtaking emptiness, drinking coffee. The horizon was eating away at everything; I could barely see the spikes of the trees in the park, so far away.
“Why now, all of a sudden?” she asked, shyly.
“We might be too far apart, soon.”
She just seemed to accept that.
After lunch I began to realize that the buildings had begun to expand as well. There was no other explanation for the long walk through deserted halls back to my office. I sat at my desk and listened to the quiet for a while, studying my hands for any signs that I might be growing larger as well, to take up the new space opening up. There were none.
I thought of Margaret, I thought about her the way I usually did, about the way I still had little idea what had gone wrong between us. I still had her number, it was a burning coal in my wallet that I carried everywhere. Sometimes, when I told people like Rich that I didn’t, it was wishful thinking.
Putting aside the dim hesitancy that had marked me of late, I snatched up the phone to call her, and paused. The receiver was silent. There was no dial tone. The phones had drifted too far.
The subways, perhaps because they were underground, had remained the same size. As a result, when I got off at my stop I was still a long walk from home. My heels echoed mountainously on the long, empty pavement, and the occasional person I managed to glimpse off in the distance of the other side of the street usually cowered and ducked away. I wondered if, at a distance, I appeared somehow intimidating or fearsome.
My neighborhood had grown increasingly quiet as the time had gone by, and I now found that I missed my neighbors, men and women I had no affection and less tolerance for. All I had for company was the wind and myself, a dead phone and a pack of cigarettes. I stood at the big window in the living room because it looked directly out onto another apartments fire escape, and the three tenants were always out there, lounging, staring. It made me uncomfortable. Now I missed them, the whole insolent bunch.
For the first time, I felt lonesome. If the phones had still been working I would have called Rich and Tom and invited them out for a drink; as it was I mixed a drink for myself and then another, and as time crawled by I got drunker and drunker, thinking I would take the afternoon off the next day and stop by Margaret’s job, see if she was still showing up every day.
“You look older. Tired.”
I smiled, playing with my cigarette. “And you look lovely too.”
“No, really, you look…”
“Thin and drawn?”
She paused to consider. “Yeah. Stretched.”
We were in a bar, coincidentally the same bar Tom and Rich had chosen to play hooky in that afternoon. It was a small, smoky place, unhealthy as all hell and sparsely populated. It made it seem as if it was night out even though the day had been bright and perfect. I wondered if they had painted the windows black, or if perhaps it was the Drift (I had begun using capital letters unconsciously not log ago) having an odd effect on the place.
We spent too much of our time, really, in bars, passing drinks about and eyeing each other chummily. Time slowed down and let you look at it in bars, you could really get a feel for how the flow was going, eye every second individually. You also got left behind, if you stayed long enough. The neighborhood bars I remembered had always been full of guys who were still in the seventies, the sixties, the fifties.
“You look good.” I offered.
“Always a smoothie.” she grinned.
I didn’t like Margaret so much, but company was company and it was not wise to squander it. We’d had a love affair not so long ago, a disastrous bitter coupling we were both, I think, glad to see ended. But now I had affection for everyone, and some to spare.
We chatted, and drew Rich and Tom to us slowly. Margaret resented Rich a little for introducing her to me, but we could all, in time, get over it. He clutched his briefcase as always, stealing glances at Margaret but afraid to draw her attention to him. I watched them with amused grins playing across my face, finally attracting Tommy’s yellowed gaze.
“What are you so happy about, Har?”
I shrugged. “Good to be out with friends. We won’t be able to do this much longer.”
They looked at me strangely, and then Rich raised his glass. “Bravo!”
“You’re all a bunch of weirdos.” Margaret announced without, to her credit, much sarcasm.
“Not me.” Tommy protested. “I’m with you.”
As long as the booze is flowing anyone can sit and bear each other’s company, especially since it would take all night to walk out and find better choices, if there were any to be had. I amused myself by noting how our table grew smaller, by increments too minute to be noticed, until our knees were touching and our glasses clinking together. I wondered what decided whether a place grew with the city or shrank to make room.
We were all drunk by that point. Margaret had forgotten that she thought we were all strange, and Tommy had forgotten to disassociate himself from us. I played with the straw and ice left in my tumbler and shrugged my eyebrows at Rich whenever our eyes met. Tommy’s laugh cut through everything and smothered conversation; we could only squirm under its weight and try to breathe in sync with Tom, snatching gasps of air when he did. We were all breathing in time and the walls sagged inward when we sucked in air.
Next thing, Tommy was holding Margaret’s hand, tracing her fingers with his thumb. I watched his thick thumb moving back and forth in unimaginative, unsensual movements.
“Maybe we should get out of here.” he said, looking guilty.
I didn’t want to go; I hesitated mostly because I’d come to feel at home in the bar and doubted we’d ever find it again. It would either cave in on itself, disappearing in a quiet implosion of space, or drift into the distant city blocks, beyond our reach.
They were beyond caring what I thought. We stood up and gathered our things, made our listing way to the door. I fell behind. Tired from booze and sorry to see the place go, I turned to stare good-naturedly at the narrow lines and aged wood of the bar, thinking I might need to remember it, someday. Then I turned and stepped outside.
The sidewalk was at least a mile wide; the city was quickly becoming a place for giants, and as we exited they disappeared into whatever remote portion of the urban expanse they belonged in. At my feet lay Rich’s briefcase, as if dropped in sudden shock. The wind was howling and solid, a wall of air pushing against me. I took a moment to look around the concrete plains, flat as far as the eye could see, touched only by the wind, and lit another cigarette.
I knelt on the huge slab of sidewalk and turned the briefcase around to face me, the scrape of leather loud and gone in an instant of wind. I dragged hot smoke into my lungs and flipped the latches back. I tossed it open, curious.
There was a brief and crackling sight of newspaper, yellowed and stiff, before the wind snatched it away.
Smiling around my cigarette, I looked around the dark horizons which surrounded me. Smoke danced about before it leapt away, and with popping knees I stood up, picked a likely-looking direction, and began to walk.