The opening of a new story; parodies Ayn Rand and H.G. Wells..
|No one could have believed, if they had even suspected, that in the last years of the twentieth century their culture coexisted with others invisible to them and yet of intelligences and natures comparable - and in some cases, superior – to their own. The dying days of what had come to be regarded as civilization were marked by the slogan that had been man’s motto, banner and flag, consciously since the late seventeenth century and unconsciously since before the dawn of time, that of ‘business as usual’. As man busied himself with his concerns and interests, so too did the smaller and greater cultures, as intensely and as surely as man’s own. Man scrutinized and studied, narrowly and carefully, the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water, the tissues and meats that make up his own body, and the devices that he had manufactured to simulate both. So, too, did man categorize and civilize the larger world. He surveyed his own planet with the arrogance of a Deity surveying His own creation, and, apprentice to Deity, recreated it in his own image. With infinite complacency man went to and fro over this globe about his little affairs, serene in his assurance of his empire over matter, while the creatures he created did the same.
It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. Terrestrial men had embraced the idea of men upon other worlds that might be superior to them, and might draw and govern plans to conquer and command them. Men had imagined all manner of plans that such creatures could undertake. They would obliterate human habitats, destroying human ambition and morale. They would abduct humans and examine them in close detail to determine their underlying biological weaknesses. They would reconstruct the Earth to make it unlivable for all manner of lives except their own. Men who imagined such things were incorrect in the details, but correct in spirit. Their mistake was not in the nature of the action taken, but in identifying the source of danger. Few men considered that their own destruction might come not from outside, but from within.
As man extended his domination over the natural world, minds far more alien to his own than minds of men from other worlds ever could be surveyed and contemplated their world, and with no more anxiety than experienced by a man wielding a pesticide or a disinfectant, sought to reshape it in their own image. Those minds that were made of the swarming, multiplying, microscopic machines of man gathered together as many-celled animals of old did, and saw fit to farm and harvest the universe. That mind that governs the world began to notice the infestation of fleas upon it, and with the collaboration of the intelligent bacteria on its surface, began to fumigate itself.
I wrote those lines three years ago. It was night, the moon was out in full, and the stars above, and I lay on a patch of grass, dreaming of the universe. I was with Ally that night. She was asleep, but I couldn’t sleep for my own excitement and sheer physical joy. We had lain reciting an old poem; we did not tire of it, but the repeating cadences of the poetry had lulled her to sleep, and stirred me into that state where the activity of my brain thumps, thumps, thumps, along with the beating of my heart and the rushing of my blood. We'd walked for hours that day, through long, grassy, uneven fields, through the beating hot sun and the drenching rain. We were too tired to keep walking, and too tired to stand up; and we were too excited to stay awake, that the excitement flowed through our bodies with the blood itself. The ground was soft, not muddy but certainly dirty, and we picked up some muck ourselves as we lay in it. We seemed to sink into the ground that time, and the poem spilled out of us together. No, those aren’t the right words. It didn’t spill out of us at all. It unfolded from us; a little densely packed origami of tissue paper, in a box the size of a sugar cube, or one of those endless streams of handkerchiefs, bloomers and flags of all nations that a magician pulls from his huge, red-lined jacketed sleeve. It was a good poem. I can’t even recall it now, but I can recall the feeling. I can recall reading the poem out loud, letting the syllables trickle out of me, regular and neat, listening to the sound of my own voice, calming like a babbling brook, all white noise, regular in its irregularity. I can recall letting the poem take over the rhythms of my brain, thinking, tapping, moving in time to the words.
Is that bad? I never quite recall scenes alone; I can never describe a physical shape without talking about the way I felt when I saw it, or the meaning of it. My world doesn’t seem to exist without me. We’d been hitchhiking all over that day; it seemed to blur into days and months, but it was just the one, uninterrupted day, colored by the sleeplessness and the desperation of our situation. We had so little money between us, and the clothes we stood up in. Somewhere there was a house, my house, full of the comforts of home; we had created our desperation ourselves, deliberately, for fun. We were so thirsty and tired, and I found a small coin on the pavement, outside the cheap fly-blown hotel that we’d stayed in and ‘forgot’ to pay for; we wandered around, looking for somewhere to spend it. We could probably have bought some crackers, or brown-bread and water, or carrots or turnips; we didn’t. When tired and overworked and overwrought, the soul does not crave brown-bread and water; the soul craves a penny-candy, or a cool cola from a soda fountain.
The hotel had been a miserable place; it was so dirty. The room was a single room, which we took on the basis that if we actually could afford anything, it would have been that. The carpet was grimy and sticky in places, battered with unknown splurges, and the sheets were a dark-grey, no doubt originally white. The carpets did not stretch to the edges of the room – the carpets were constructed from off-cuts, and an off-cut of carpet created the door-mat, which we assiduously wiped our hiking boots upon before gingerly unlacing them and proceeding through the door. The window was covered in grease, a brownish-yellow colour, and thick enough to spread on bread, and our hiking boots were necessary to eradicate the cockroaches which emerged from the skirting boards.
Ally and I did not speak on entering the hotel room; not for a long time. Instead we sat on the bed, staring unblinkingly against the wall, and each of us living in our own separate worlds. We had spoken a lot since meeting each other on Greyhound coach, sharing cigarettes and joking about the other passengers, and the words had dried up for the time being. No, not dried up – the words were there; if the faucets were only to be turned on, we could gush forth endless subjects of conversation. We had met a week ago, and decided, by mutual alliance, to share our journeys. We didn’t know where we were going, really. Like me, she wanted to take some time off to see the country. I know now that she was, like I was, a worker who was planning on going back to school; for her, she was planning on going to grad school to study history; in college first time round, she’d studied education, and put it to use as a teacher, but she’d never been satisfied. She wanted to study what she called ‘the laws of history’. I had her explain it to me.
In the event, we used the coin to buy ice-creams for ourselves. It was a strange, shabby, old-fashioned ice-cream parlor; there was a barbershop pole above the door-frame there from its old use in trimming and shaving, a checked red-and-cream linoleum floor, and a shining polished chrome counter. I can never think of such things in terms of inputs and outputs and turnovers and urban redevelopment. All I can think of is the pride and the resilience in keeping it that way, keeping an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor, in the face of shopping at home, yuppies, the ebb and tide and flow of people and their habits. I imagine a young couple buying an ice-cream for a nickel, sitting outside on the bench and looking up at the neon sign. That, I guess, was what it was; me and her, sat, looking to the world like a young couple.
At the time we were in our mid-twenties, and perhaps should have grown up beyond such things. We didn’t, because we didn’t want to. If we had possessed the money, we would have gone down the entire street, partaking in a similar fashion; eating apple pies with cloves and mugs of strong coffee at a diner with red Rexene seats and oil-cloth covered Formica tables, buying a cheaply printed comic-book or pulp mass-market paperback, carefully unwrapping a moon pie. In the time to come we made elaborate Halloween costumes and planned elaborate firework displays for Fourth parades and any convenient bicentennials we could crash. Those were the things we enjoyed, and still do – or, at least, I do. What Ally is doing right now I don’t know; but I get ahead of myself, I guess.
We sat outside the parlor and talked for hours, about everything. The days passed pretty quickly then. We used to spend the days traveling constantly, talking about anything and everything. We were getting the bum’s rush, I guess. The guy who ran the parlor came out to us four times, asking us if there was anything else he could get us. He was very polite, as formal as his pressed white suit and white confectioner’s hat, but his politeness was strained. He wondered if we had considered a coffee, or a root-beer float, or any one of a million different things. Ally told me about her habit of sitting in a coffee shop, working away at lesson plans, paperwork, and her application for grad school; every hour or so she’d buy something cheap to keep her in her booth. I did the same.
Ice-cream has a special meaning to me. My grandfather was an ice-cream man. I don’t remember him; he died long before I was born. He only exists to me as a legend. He’s as real to me as my alleged Revolutionary War ancestors; they might entitle me to join Sons of the Revolution (God forbid!) but they don’t really exist, not in the same way I exist. Even so, I’ve had his history drummed into me; he’s kind of the family equivalent of Johnny Appleseed. His name was William Paxton – if that was his real name. He was my father’s mother’s father, and he was a poor boy. He came from somewhere in upstate New York, and drifted for a number of years before becoming a dock-worker; at least, that’s what we think. There’s no record of him at all before he turned up one afternoon at the docks, asking for a job. There’s a pencil and paper sketch of him at about that age, one of the few things in life he kept; he looks mean, moody, and although pretty thin and short, something of a bruiser. He was probably impossible to say ‘no’ to. He was a hard man, by all accounts, and he acquired a girl and later a wife by his determination and his cold but magnetic personality. He dressed in his personal life pretty much the same way as he dressed at work; he wore a boiler suit constantly, even – it’s said – to his wedding. He couldn’t get more than two hours of time off in the morning for his wedding, meaning that he started at eight in the morning, rather than at six; so a sympathetic preacher was drafted in to do some especially early work, and he wed at twenty-five minutes to seven on the second of September, 1895. At a quarter after seven he was at work.
William Paxton’s hard work, personality and calculating efficiency allowed him to rise to become the foreman. He was a fearsome self-educator, and read continually; but only about things that concerned him, and especially, his ability to get more out of the world. He kept a diary obsessively; a rare habit for a working man who must have had little or no formal education. He was an acquisitive man, but I guess that was through him being a product of his times; we don’t know who his parents were, but I bet they were pretty poor, and, well, after so many years of being poor, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be rich? As foreman, he set about making alliances, arranging deals with union men to avoid strike-breaking, and endearing himself to the management by his skilful practice of a fad at the time, ‘scientific management’. By his dealings, by sitting up with his wife in their wooded, sparsely furnished garret, surrounded by paper, chewed pencils, and a typewriter salvaged from a scrap yard, he contrived to make ends meet through the lean years by his habit of skimming a little bit of the shipments. Some of the store-room guys, quartermasters and railroad men would arrange with him to be ‘shipping’ less than they really were; then they’d keep the difference between themselves, and sell anything useful on the black market.
He couldn’t always shift the materials; sometimes the long, low single room that they lived in was filled with rotting sugar or beets. His diary described the smell of it, so intense that they had to soak the curtains in lime to absorb some of the smell. Sometimes they had to pretend to be out to avoid their landlord, who hammered on the door to complain about the stench. Most of the time they stayed outside; William wrote about his spending one evening in a diner from six, when he knocked off, until eleven, spending dime after dime drinking bitter coffee. Sometimes the young couple spent hour after hour in the public library, nearly being chased out for vagrants on more than one occasion.
One day he found himself, through a complicated set of horse-trading links, with a crate of ice – in those days ice wasn’t made by man, but was mined, like common rock-salt, and shipped to where the millionaires in glitzy chrome restaurants would have it crushed to cool their drinks. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, but figured that it would be an interesting thing to keep, and he might find an interesting use for it. As it was January in New York, he kept it outside; his wife commented to him one night that it would have been colder inside their unheated room.
The evenings found him horse-trading and dealing to get rid of his merchandise; but to the dock-workers and panhandlers, ice was worthless. Their world was too cold already – why would they need to make it colder? Sometimes he sold sugar, flour, and other indistinguishable goods to the great department stores that had started to spring up; they threw him out onto the street when he suggested that they buy ice. He wrote about his frustration: he couldn’t sell the ice as it was. He couldn’t leave it; it was a huge amount of ice, and although it would not get moldy, when it got warmer it would melt, and flood the little gantry outside the room. So he struck on an idea; he crushed some of the ice with cream and some other ingredients ‘requisitioned’ – his term – from the docks, and made ice-cream. He sold small portions of ice-cream uptown from a hand-cart he had borrowed from a neighbor for a few cents each, and soon found that his ice was exhausted. But the ice-cream had sold very well, and he had learned his lesson. Over the next few months he stocked up on flavorings, cochineal and a few other materials he could use for coloring, and did deals with an ice-house and a dairy; he stocked up on tea and coffee and invested in his own hand-cart. Then, when the summer came, he quit his job and went in search of fortune, knowing that if times were hard when winter came around again, he could return to the docks; or to work on the railroad as a track-walker or a section-hand, or some muscled job.
That wasn’t necessary, not right yet anyway. He made enough money from the trade to move him and his wife from the garret to an apartment in one of the new steel-skeleton housing projects rising up all over NYC at the time, and with the heating they spent more time indoors, my great-grandfather making notes and plans for business ventures all the time. One way or another he dragged himself away from his notes and his desk long enough that his wife became pregnant with my grandfather, Michael Anthony Paxton. My great-grandfather became more energetic in his sales, employing agents to sell ice-cream for him. By the time the boy was born he had an ice-cream empire, Paxton’s Original Cream Ices, and for a few years he had security and a business.
In the summer of 1904, New York was a boom town. William Paxton, my great-grandfather, watched with interest as the skyline, and the city, changed. New York had been a huge, busy, drowning city for many years, but he had never seen it the way it was then; the streets were filling up with new people, new types of people he’d never seen before. There were people in long gabardine coats, people with beards, people in rags, people in flat-caps in felt, people carrying large packages to and fro, and people – and this interested him – people with letters chalked on the backs of their shoulders. There was one girl that bought an ice-cream from him. She spoke to him with a lilting, musical accent, mispronounced ‘licked’ as ‘lick-ed’, and complimented his ice-cream with fondness. He was fascinated with her. She was beautiful, with radiant creamy terracotta skin, deep brown eyes, and curly long black hair, but this was not what appealed to him. He spent an hour or so talking to her, but not in flirtation. He interrogated her about her past experiences of ice-cream. Most of his customers had little experience of ice-cream; those who had eaten it before he’d served it, had only done so on rare occasions. She seemed to have eaten it regularly, and he made copious notes. He was still talking to her when his wife dropped by with his lunch; other wives would perhaps have assumed that he was cheating - but not her. She smiled wryly at him and sympathetically at the woman, dropped off his lunch, and left. As the woman left, he noticed with surprise and interest that the letters PG were chalked three times on the small of her back.
In those days the railroad was emerging from the streets; it was there that my great-grandfather’s journal became unusually poetic. He described it as ‘surfacing’, as if it were a moray eel coming up from the sea, showing its body above. I suppose from his perspective it would seem like that; the New York City Subway was constructed from downtown railroads, excursion lines like the ones to Coney Island and the raised railroad in Manhattan. The construction work that went on in his time was mostly joining these up to a complete railroad system that spanned the city, starting with the downtown connection between the City Hall and the Bronx. It was a patchwork of threads, which tied together and joined up into a single unbroken line. The city was thriving because of it, even before it was completed. My great-grandfather was thrilled; he said it was because he had many more customers, but he wrote about it constantly.
I don’t want you to get the image that my great-grandfather was unromantic. He wasn’t; he was romantic, but about ‘unusual’ things. Certainly he was romantic about his city. He loved it, as much as he talked about ‘loving fleecing it’. He pretended to overcharge customers, but considering the effort he went to, he charged comparatively low prices for his product. He wasn’t exactly above ‘dodgy’ practices – the whole enterprise was founded on a promising racketeering career – but he wasn’t nearly as corrupt as he pretended to be.
My great-grandfather opened an ice-cream parlor downtown. It had cost him the savings of a lifetime: he gave up the apartment and moved his entire family into a two-room apartment above he parlor. He fitted the whole place out by himself, deciding that it would save money; he scavenged most of the parts and materials from off-cuts, trash-cans and his old friends at the docks. There is a photograph, in sepia, of the opening. He looked proudly out into the world, his thick-set body filling a shirt and apron; ever the hard man, ever the bruiser. The parlor looks from the photograph to be a tightly run, almost military operation – the entire store-front gleams in chrome. The photograph itself was hung upon the wall in short order, with a carefully engraved plaque beneath it. I have that plaque, somewhere. It says – William Paxton’s Original Cream Ices. Built by hand, built to last.
On the same day the parlor opened a department store opened down the street. He watched the people go by; the sweatshop workers in tattered, torn clothing mingled with the new subway customers. Travelers and hobos scurried, immigrants shrunk and sloped past, and businessmen strode by. It seemed that far fewer people stopped by his new store than ever stopped at his hand-cart or his stall. At a particularly slow hour, he closed the store and walked down the road to the department store. He talks about this experience in detail. He battered through crowds, peering at the goods; there were copper pans, mincing-machines - all kinds of gadgets and trinkets. Far off into the store was a gleaming chrome counter, and a separate area of the floor covered in checked linoleum. Behind the counter a man with oiled black hair with comb-tracks through it and a neatly pressed white suit stood, grinning. My great-grandfather knew what it was before he saw it; a machine-processed ice-cream stand.
That entry was pages and pages long, almost as long as the rest of that year’s entries put together. The diary went a bit awry after that; there are only a handful of entries. We’ve hardly been able to piece it together, but we think we know what happened. He soldiered on for as long as he could, working harder, cutting prices, working longer hours, replacing the ingredients with cheaper ingredients, finally going back to his habit of stealing them. At some point, he went back to visit his old buddies at the docks, maybe with a view to getting his old job back. Someone, perhaps thinking that they were being kind, gave him a bottle of whisky.
He was declared bankrupt the next year; the rest is history. The store still exists, although most of the contents have been removed. We have the deeds to it at home, but we can’t bear to sell it and none of us live in New York, so it remains, stood alone on a street corner, abandoned for decades now, with the new dust still falling through the air, and the dust and fluff mounting up with the cobwebs. I’ve seen it. I look through the dark windows and I think what it might be like for it to be living and alive again. But I don’t think that an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor would work in New York today. People don’t want that sort of thing. They want expensive places, with expensive tastes, and dishes from Tibet or Peru; else they want Denny’s.
I reckon I’ve gone on for long enough with this. I told Ally this whole story as we sat out on the bench, outside the ice-cream parlor. It was a quarter after two that I finished; it was almost fifteen minutes later that we said anything else. She looked into the distance. She seemed to be thinking. That fifteen minutes was the longest pause of my life; partly because I wanted so badly for the conversation to go on, partly because I wanted her to say something, as if it would make my story valid.
As I waited for her reply, I watched out into the town. It was a small place; it looked like a museum of small-town America in the nineteen-fifties that I’d been taken to by a friend of the family when I was a small boy. I looked at the news-stand across the street – a caged newspaper proclaimed a new plan for the redevelopment of the ‘city’, and a neatly coiffed boy wearing a zip-up cardigan proclaimed the sale of the newspaper. A young woman opened the door to a candy store, and a hand-bell mounted on the top of the door jingled; as the door closed I saw a grey-haired old woman spring up to attend to her. In the distance I saw the park was a small place; the benches were painted white, and the grass was neat and green and perfectly trimmed. There was an old black man crouched next to a flower bed, and I watched him for a few minutes. He was fascinating, I guess, in his way. He was lean, and dressed in a white dress-shirt bone-white from repeated laundering, and a blue suit worn at the seams, worn worse for his cutting off the bobbling and fraying threads. He must have been the care-taker; he was trimming, with exacting care and sharp metal scissors, the edges of the grass turf. He was as much a part of the old-fashioned little town as the vet’s memorial up in the centre of the park, and I felt as if there would be another of him when, in years to come, he left – or died. In front of me, a public clock ticked off the minutes, and I watched it, and waited.
Ally finally spoke. I didn’t realize she was speaking to start with. I heard some noises, and someone was talking; I looked up, and she was talking. She had been watching me all the time. She stood up, dusted herself down, moved in front of me, and thrust her hand out. I took it and stood up, too.
We walked down the well-kept pathway in the park. The vet’s memorial loomed into view; it was a tall column with the names of the men of the town who had died in what the memorial referred to, mysteriously, as ‘foreign wars’. It was brightly polished and the sunlight gleamed on the polished brass plate; the reflection was multicolored, and cast itself onto the clean pavement below. The names on the brass plate were rare ones, but I knew I recognised them from somewhere, and for the same reasons, like I’d know Dewey and Truman, say, or Nixon and Watergate. I walked on, and puzzled over it. Now, when I puzzle over things, my brain goes all funny, and I look distant to people. Ally noticed this; she looked at me and told me that I seemed ‘perplexed’ – her words, not mine. I told her that I’d recognised the names, and told her one or two of the names; she scoffed and pointed out several of the names from the vet’s memorial – on the signs on the stores.
We walked on in silence for a while; the sun slowly crept across the sky and we crept across the town, the centre-town diners and news-stands and stores creeping past us, and the flag-stone sidewalk turning to concrete, then to asphalt; the sun turned to yellow, and then to orange; the diners and news-stands and stores turned to factories. We watched and listened as whistles blew on the factories and out filed men in blue cotton boiler-suits. We silently looked on the gleaming whitewashed breeze-block auto works, its smokestack gently puffing out threads into the sky, which was turning pink. We walked on to the inner-sprung mattress manufacturers, the makers of pressed alfalfa, and saw the same; silently we walked, as the asphalt sidewalk turned to a ragged mudded fringe to the road, and the only communication between us was the quiet tapping of her hand against mine.
The sun turned to orange and then to red, and the pink sky turned to purple. We left the town behind us and walked on, on a scrappy path to the country, through fields of rapeseed and fields of grain. As we left, I turned around, and I saw something which reminded me of a dream I’d once had, in which I chased a man. We were running through the air, or running on glass – at least, we were running high above the world, with a mist separating us. I can’t remember why I was chasing him, or who he was – I suspect, and I suspected, that the grim cliché that he was in fact me was part of it. The best thing about the dream was that I got a bird’s eye view of the country, and I got to see it develop over years and years. I rarely have flying dreams; most other people I’ve asked have them all the time. I don’t really have much of the same dreams as anyone else. So I really enjoyed the opportunity to look down on everything. As usual, I had a nightmarish, storylike dream of a dreamlike story. When I started, the land was rough; there were hills and dunes and fields filled with long grasses, there were deserts and mountains and lakes and rivers, all untouched, naked, as if there had never been any humanity. Then the world started to change as I moved; long grasses became fields, deserts became villages. Then there were towns and cities, and finally the green of the fields began to turn a darker green, then grey. The sky above me was crossed with black clouds, which settled in the air and the wind, like aircraft contrails, to make a muddy dark sky. The muddy sky settled above the burned-out grey, brown and black buildings. The thing I saw below them shocked me; it was the remains of an out-of-town retail park.
I was silently mulling this over while Ally and I walked into an unused field. I had settled back in the moss and grass while I was talking. I felt the moisture of the damp earth soak through to my shirt, and my shirt cling to my back with the stickiness of sweat. I was warm and wet with sweat and dew; I felt as if I could see the steam rise from my body, and my words rise with it. It felt like my thoughts were out in the world, just flowing out of me.
I said something like that to Ally. To me Ally also felt as if she was part of the world that flowed in and out of me. I stretched my arm over to her and brought her close to me. It took a little strength to pull her body near. I dragged her across to me, and held her close. She was heavy; her body leaning against mine felt like ballast, holding me down. I found that very comforting. She was warm, too, and dry; I clutched her close to me, as if she was a comforter. We lay there, together, so close. I couldn’t see her in the darkness, only feel her. It felt like another world. She lazily dragged her arm over me, and she laid it on me. I felt its weight and warmth, and I breathed heavily at the feeling. She lay next to me, her body heaving, and I could feel her hot breath on my neck. I thought that I was very lonely; I felt like a young boy, a teenager, waiting to take his first lover. I sat there, lonely, and there she lay.
I wanted to touch her there and then. I couldn’t. I wanted to talk to her about how I felt. I didn’t. I talked without speaking. I was saying that I reckoned that there was nothing inside the skull except a receiver and a transmitter; every idea that’s out there streams in through the windows of the mind, and not anybody comes up with their own ideas. And that the education you’ve already got just as often attracts new ideas as it does block new ideas from coming in, and that everyone did kind of have the same brain, ‘cause they had the same pool of ideas to draw on. Crazy shit. I was talking on and on. I can’t remember why I said what I said, or where it came from. I do that pretty often. I shouldn’t – it got me in trouble back in high school. Lord, though, I got in trouble for pretty much anything back in high school, for thinking on my own. When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder that I can think at all; I told Ally that too.
When I’d finished, I looked over at her. I couldn’t see her. There was just darkness except for the light of the stars and the moon. There was silence; not complete silence, either, ‘cause there was the noise of a herd of cows in the distance, snorting. I could just make them out. They were huddled together for warmth. I could make out some flies, too, buzzing round them. Smaller things always prey on larger things, just as much as larger things prey on smaller things. Anyhow. I leaned over Ally and touched her. I reckon by then I’d got enough bravery up to make a pass at her, just like I’d wanted. But she was asleep.
I took out my note-book and pencil, and I started to write my thoughts down. I was crazy with the thoughts I had. I was half-awake, half-dreaming, and my dreams kept into the wakefulness, and vice-versa. I got to the stage where I could close my eyes and enter a dream, then open them and leave the dream. I was writing with my eyes closed; I didn’t really know what I was writing at the time. I felt the wood against my fingers, and heard the scraping of a pencil on the rough, recycled paper, felt my knuckles scrape against the stiff iron spiral of the binding. I imagined all kinds of things; I imagined riding on a glider across the country, flying high, launched by an elastic band. As I flew, I looked down on the countryside, and I saw that it was changing. When I started, the country was filled with biplanes – a country of barnburners, buzzing low above the barns and churches of the country as it used to be; rapeseed and barley and amber waves of grain and all that kind of thing. I saw purple-headed mountains, too, and I was traveling from sea to shining sea. I saw parades and celebrations. But they were understated things; the paint was whitewash, and the fireworks were fire-crackers from China. Everyone was dressed in worn suits beneath me, and I knew that they were dressed in their Sunday best. As I kept traveling, the suits became more elaborate and flamboyant; but there were flamboyant suits among boiler-suits. The further I went, the more elaborate and flamboyant things I saw – and the poorer and more threadbare things I saw too. I wasn’t sure what happened next. The sky started being crossed by thick, gray stripes, like tire-tracks, then thicker black stripes like tank-tracks; and at the edges of the tracks I saw little fleas buzzing around.
Then I wrote those words, that you’ve already seen. You know the ones, the ‘nobody could have believed’ bit. Pedestrian, I know. It was morning before I saw what I had written. The night came: and with it the periods of waking, aching all over and feeling a dull ache in the front of the brain. I was soaked and sweat and dew and dirt, and my clothes, after being wetted, had started to dry again and cling to me, shrinking and suffocating me. We had little sleep that night, and we huddled together for warmth.
That set me to thinking about what I’m writing now, and I’m looking back over what I’ve got here. I guess you probably wondered why I knew so much about the New York City Subway. Well, sit back and I’ll tell you. Feels like I’m a proper storyteller here; like I’m an elderly grandpa who sits a youngster on his knee and tells about when he was a boy. Toast some marshmallows while I tell you a story.
After I graduated college – I majored in Engineering – I went to work as an engineer on the Taggart Railroad. Those were the good old days for me, I reckon – although for someone who’s desperately unhappy, every day in the past is a ‘good old day’. I used to sit out on the tracks to eat my lunch, which was in a tin lunch-pail. The lunch of the Great American Worker; I had peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and donuts, with a cup of coffee in a styrene cup with a round plastic lid. I was the Great American Worker, brother. I did everything in my career there – I was a section hand, a track walker, a signaling engineer, a dispatcher, everything. I knew the railroad system like the back of my hand, and I thought of the railroad system when I saw the back of my hand, all veins tracing along like rails. I was the ‘cock of the walk’ when I walked the rails – there in my high-visibility vest, I felt as proud as anything. In the summer I developed a deep tan, in the winter the air was bracing. Everything felt good because I felt good. I didn’t earn much – like my great-grandfather before me, I lived in a garret – but that was enough for me. There’s no feeling like being young and having a job you love.
I’ve always been an engineer at heart; even a romantic engineer. Is that possible? I’ve never been entirely sure, but if it is, I am one. I love making things work. When I was just a kid I had a huge model railroad, which I’d carefully constructed from bits of old train sets, track, and things that I could scrape together for props and scenery. Slate and broken-up rubber provided my cargo, fine grit was my ballast, and lichen and moss was my greenery. Oh, yes, and scatter. I loved that stuff. Scatter is just sawdust dyed in different colors, but it’s the most useful thing in the world for a model railroad. Green scatter in proper layers makes amazing grass, grey and black scatter make asphalt, red scatter makes good sand – you get the idea. I won a prize for my model railroad. My mother told me that my interest in it was obsessive. I guess it was. When she told me that I had to take it down, I was so miserable that I stayed in my room for days. I never kept any photos of it, or kept a diary. It was lost, forever. I wonder what the point was in making it now, ‘cause when I die, no-one will remember it, with or without the prize.
I love railroads, though – HO gauge or real. I love the way they look, I love the way they work, I love the feeling of making one move. I love the smell of diesel in the air. I love a long cargo train traveling alone across the continent. I’d never have quit the job on the railroad. But in the end it wasn’t my choice; people don’t travel on the railroads much nowadays. Transcontinental journeys are usually flights. Shorter journeys are usually made by car. It’s more ‘convenient’. It’s soulless, but it’s more convenient.
I once took Ally on the railroads, to travel on the tracks in an old hand-cart, like you have in black-and-white movies sometimes. You pump the handle up and down and it moves you along the track. I remember how excited she was; it was something she’d only ever seen in movies, and she wanted to know how they worked. I took her along to a sidings, and found an old railroad man I knew, who’d been hand and aligner for years. He got out a hand-cart, and we rode it out. We weren’t going far, really – it was hard work to pump the handle up and down, and although I knew the schedules and there were only two trains a day, I didn’t want to put Ally at any risk. We were only ten yards along the track when a.
When I graduated I had an offer of a job, arranged for me by an uncle’s friend, to work in a computer company. I always liked my uncle’s friend. My uncle always talked about him fondly, and he looked at me with pride, almost if he was a father proud of a son. His name was Douglas Spaulding. He was a kindly old man that my uncle brought around for dinner, and my father called a distinguished guest. He was a tall, thin man, not exactly gangly, but elastic in muscles, and seemed always to be dancing; he used to be a dancer, with his wife, when they were both young. There were all kinds of old portraits of them, having won one trophy or another; he said that after they’d won one of the many ballroom trophies in his hometown, Oldsborough, everyone in the town congratulated them, from the preacher to the drugstore clerk. He talked about his home town often. It sounded beautiful. He didn’t talk about his wife much; she’d died after the war when they’d gone to France to rebuild the country. In those days, he said, France was like the Wild West. People were happy to see Americans, because they knew they were there to help them and rebuild the country, but times were hard. Nobody had any soap, or meat, or stockings, or anything. Sometimes a Frenchman would slaughter a horse that he’d owned for years, his own horse that he used to cart goods to market, or plough a field, to get some horseflesh to eat. Uncle Doug, or Mister Spaulding as I called him when my dad was around, told me how dirty the towns were, and when he told me, he looked slightly up, half-closing his eyes, as if he could smell the sweat and the dung. He was never bitter about the way his wife died; human failings, he said. But I could tell how much he missed her. Sometimes he’d talk about ‘conquering death’, bringing the dead back to life.
Once he asked me, what point was there to the struggle of living, when we all had to die? I didn’t know what to say. I was silent for a few seconds. Then I began to speak. “Uncle Doug,” I began. He cut me off, and he did something strange. He turned his eyes to the ceiling, and he started to speak as if quoting, or at least reciting from a long internal script. He talked for a long time, telling the whole of the story of the human race, from the beginning; he had never believed in God or anything like that, and he kept God out of the picture. He talked with absolute confidence, and he didn’t pause or hesitate once. It was very like my dream. When he finished, there were tears in his eyes. I have never found out what he was quoting, if anything.
That night, I heard him arguing with my dad.
He was fascinated by nature, and looked with a catching curiosity over his glasses at everything he saw that he considered unusual. When I was a boy, he read science-fiction novels to me, while my uncle, my father and my grandfather looked on approvingly.
He worked for a company called Virgil LLC, and his title was Vice-President of Research. He took me to one side at my graduation party, and he took a little box out of his pocket. It was a frosted Lucite box, a grayish-white with a blue sheen on it, and with a little electronic control panel. He brought it up close to my eyes and told me to look closely at it. He told me it was the future; I couldn’t see anything but a grey mist inside it. I asked him what it was. He chuckled and told me that would take a long time to explain, but I could help build the new generation of it if I wanted. I told him that if I was going to build the new generation of anything, I better have some explanation of what it did. He smiled at me, and his eyes shone. He reminded me about one day when I was little and I’d seen a dead crow on the street when we were all out as a family.
I remembered it. I didn’t realize what it was at first – I saw just a clump of maggots and flies on the road; it was crawling, moving and festering but I didn’t understand what it was. I guess I must have been pretty young at the time. Mister Spaulding took two pieces of stiff card from his pocket, scooped it up, and placed it on top of a newspaper vending-machine, which he used as if it was his personal laboratory. He had my uncle lift me up to see and he pointed out what the exposed parts of the dead crow were, all the different organs. It was fascinating. He treated me as if I were his own son. I guess he never had the chance to have a son of his own, what with his wife. He told me that the crow was dead, but it wasn’t gone. I didn’t understand what he meant. He told me that nothing ever really ‘went’ – the crow would live on, in a small way, in the maggots, which would take bits of the crow into themselves, then become bluebottles. The bluebottles would be eaten by, say, fish, which would be eaten by people, who would be eaten by earthworms. Everything was recycled, he said.
Mister Spaulding said that was what the grey mist did – it was the ultimate in maggots. In the grey mist were billions and billions of miniature robots. They were very simple little things with simple bodies, but they
It seems like it’s so long ago now, lost in the dark of the past; everything in either direction is black, nothing but the dead of night in my memory. I can’t remember much in life. Just the romantic and poetic bits, I guess. Like, I can’t remember making dinner for Ally, but I can remember one day, say lying in the garden, with a glass of root beer to one side and a corned beef sandwich to the other; my ‘portable’ tape player – you’d call it ‘luggable’ today, the thing was huge – belting out my favorite songs. Ally had something similar; we lay next to each other, talking, pointing out the shapes of clouds – you know the sort of thing. The grass scratched my back, and the sun tanned my front; I felt like the sun was beaming good feelings into me, and that the ground was stopping them from leaking out and reflecting them back into my body.
I have a very romantic mode of thought, and I know I do. Ally always told me that I did. Mister Spaulding always told me that I did, and that that was my problem. I fell out with them both in the end. But that’s not to talk about right now, I don’t think. Ally told me I was brooding and obsessive. Maybe. Writing my story in such excruciating detail as this is seriously obsessive. A lot of the people I know have written stories, novels and things; I remember a guy I knew, who ran the parking lot near the roundhouse in Lastings, wrote a detective story, Over the Sea. It was about a hardened gumshoe who really did chew a toothpick and wear a fedora all the time. It involved a ‘city by the bay’ called Paradise City, which was ‘a crime-filled pestering city’. And so on. He published it himself; he needed to write it, he said. I’ve heard that a lot. Ally said that she ‘needed’ to write her political tract, Summer Rain. I need to write this.
Maybe I would make more sense to you if I explained more about where I am and what I’m writing for. I'm sat on a train now; they've turned the lights on because of the darkness. It's well after sunset now, and too cold and too dark for the time of year. The heating has failed, or there isn't enough power to run both the lights and the heating. I don't know which. Sometimes trains run on reduced power when some of the engines fail, and the indoor electricity - apart from the emergency lighting - is turned off. Maybe that's what's happening now. At any rate, it's cold. All the other passengers - and there are a few, although it's not crowded - are huddling up in their coats, and they're keeping their hands in their pockets. None of them, including me, have scarves or gloves; they didn't expect it to be this cold, and I didn't think to prepare, so I'm biting my fingers to keep warm. I have to keep writing. I’m frightened of losing my memory any more. Countless songs and stories and all manner of things have been brought into existence and destroyed again; and those things that have been lost can never be reclaimed. I can never bring back my childhood in my little town; the memories are lost, and time travel is now, as we have seen, impossible. If I were to go back into that little town, there’d be nothing but black and void. Everything is lost; my memories are fragile, more so after the treatment than before, but all memories are fleeting. I remember nothing of my childhood; all I see are static pictures, posed by people I barely recognize in costumes I don’t understand, and punctuated by words and pictures I can’t make meaning of, and can’t reinterpret and express. The foregrounds are brightly lit, that dispel all shadows and shades of meaning, and the backgrounds are so dark that I can only discern the faintest of details.
I don't know who I'm writing to or who I'm going to reach, if I’m going to reach anyone. It’s just important to write it. I read once that all writing was a kind of letter to someone or something, and that all writing took its meaning from who it was to; the words used in the book were that writing takes its ‘color and meaning’ from the context. This isn't written to anyone. Maybe that makes it colorless and meaningless. Or maybe it's colorless and meaningless anyway. I doubt I'll be able to publish this, even if I want to. I don't think it's meant for publishing. I'm writing in a hardback book I bought from the publisher's discount outlet, nestled somewhere in between the books on tanks and the biographies of Hitler, with a pen I bought from the same place. The pages are stiff and I have to be rough to turn them properly. I'm hope the pen holds out long enough for me to get this written.
I suppose to keep myself on track I must write to someone. I could write to Alyson, but she’s gone, now, and she’ll never read this, not until the second time round, when the whole world is new again and she finds this book, ancient, buried in the back of a wardrobe somewhere. I remember Ally. I remember the nights we spent in one of the college cafeterias at Patrick Henry University; it was PJ’s Place we went to, and they’d leave the doors unlocked like they often did those days for late-night students to sit at and talk. Mostly they were philosophy majors who sat in there, asking questions that mattered to people on important issues. They talked of things that were very important, and the words were important too. They talked about whether analysis and theater were important, and lectured each other with long, meaningless words late into the night. We didn’t – not to begin with.