A while back I discovered a part of town I hadn’t known. This was odd because I live in a small city. We’re surrounded by farmer’s fields, they press upon the city walls. Farms and farms, their fumes invade every spring and summer, heralded by legions of pillaging flies, forcing our retreat block by block, week by week, until we find ourselves by August or September in the last green oasis for hundreds of pesticide-ravaged miles, which is the city park, a tangle of briars and downed trees, a green confusion which is never easy to find, perhaps never even in the same place.
I hesitated to say anything about my discovery for months, because I was afraid that the news would make me and everyone else who grew up here look stupid, misplacing, for god’s sake, an entire neighborhood.
Of course, my aunt ignored the gist of what I told her to resume arguing that we’ve not only lived here all our lives, but for all eternity. She repeated the argument daily, and said she was condemned to repeat it the next day, too. She would say time is a loop of dramas, sitcoms, tragedies, and other forms of farce, one following the other, the same characters, the same punch lines, but you’d need to have a perspective like hers, spanning billions of years, to notice that you’ve played these roles before. The theory alone was good enough to make my aunt feel trapped in a giant hamster wheel, panting for air. That was her preferred state of mind, anyways, favoring the stability of a known horror over any unsuspected risk, no matter how small, which is why the deep silos of her eyes glowed bloodshot red, and why she tirelessly scanned the world for confirmation of her worst fears, so she could blow them out of all proportion, and feel moderately relieved when her worry proved exaggerated.
It was a preemptive claustrophobia that rebounded in a momentary illusion of spaciousness.
That’s why she was the quaint subject of gossip in our family, but only from a distance of more than 200 miles.
Still, the amount I saved in room and board convinced me to hide my contempt.
On the other hand, her breadth of vision made her a forgiving soul. The thief who stole her oxygen tank was only another hamster, all of us helpless victims of an enclosed universe. Besides, all she had to do was go down to the good will store and borrow another one (stolen the night before from her neighbor).
It was the same thing more or less every day.
The sheriff was less astrological in his thinking, eagerly blaming the individual for their own misfortunes. He’d gladly arrest babies on the delivery table for disturbing the peace if he had his way. So every morning in passing he would shout a litany of abuse at me and at all the other listless hooligans lounging away the lengthy Siestas, an appropriated tradition that my northern town embraced with as much vigor as it embraced drug addiction.
To think that we finally emerged from all those torturous centuries harnessed to the work ethic, only to end up in a torturous Siesta without end, racked to our couches, with our feet hoisted on worn cushions, and with splayed arms reaching for the bottle and the joint.
But he delivered the same litany of abuse every morning, I’m quite sure, because it had a regular cadence, and always started with the same phrase and gesture of the digit: “there goes that fucking mamma’s boy….”
And I couldn’t exactly protest that she’s my aunt.
Besides he wouldn’t hear me, and I couldn’t hear him very well either, over the clatter of the hoofs.
But I only lived at night till recently anyways, and there’s only one fat sheriff, and everybody more or less robs the same things from the same people, giving a portion of what we rob to charity, or good will, keeping what we need for our families, who compose the same general population we rob. A balanced economy of sorts, otherwise we’d rob the sheriff’s family and the families of the town council, who already rob the rest of us through tax fraud, obligatory alms and infrastructure decline and so on. So in return for letting them rob us, they don’t send any cops, only this fat sheriff, who abuses us verbally but refrains from placing his swollen leg on the scales of justice, which he knows would imbalance the whole intricate system.
But our neighborhoods are shrinking, as the town council’s families swell and fester with indolence, forcing us to “build up”, so to speak, constructing ever taller bunk beds or cozy corners in an aunt’s attic.
As soon as I mention my aunt I forget what I’m talking about. I was saying I found a hidden part of town. I would have thought this would interest somebody, since we’re all starving for space. But I hesitated to share this information because it only made me look stupid.
I mean, it’s only one block from my attic room, and then you turn down a short, moss-covered garden path – how could I have missed it? — and then down some broad stone steps, and you come to an empty, colorless neighborhood, surrounding a cluster of leaning 3 story apartments over what must have been shops of bakers and butchers, I don’t know, the writing has faded, and churches with leaning steeples, and a government building too, with its massive dome caved in, and the buildings look like corpses that have dried too long in the sun. Everything is ash-gray, even the leafless trees, their hard, white trunks cool and smooth like old bones.
I always wondered where our center of town was supposed to be. Lacking that center of gravity the bond holding us in this communal pattern started breaking, dislodging the ones among us who had no ties to family and friends, squeezing them out of our compressed quarters, and flinging them beyond the city walls, like excrement, ever farther into farmer’s fields, where their shacks get plowed under to enrich the soil.
And when I told my friends about this missing center of town they scoffed their cigarette smoke into the gray air and one scraped his bare foot back and forth, back and forth, and the other bounced his cowboy boot rhythmically against an empty oil drum, seething like defeated Visigoths, eager for retreat, when the real brutality would begin, compelled by some vague sense of shame to hide their bloody tracks under piles of new corpses, even if it’s just the acid speaking. But still, I feel the need to shrug away my own conviction in order to safely share in that evening’s bounty of alchemical plunder, which produces a momentary illusion of spaciousness, rebounding only later in a terrifying claustrophobia.
So maybe my aunt was right, and it was all the same hamster wheel. But among the Visigoths, I do as they do.
But it’s not just them. It’s me too. Every time I tried to raise the topic I picked the least opportune moment, two weeks into a month-long Siesta. Or I yelled the news at an empty theater and then pulled the alarm and ran.
Even my aunt, who was forever rummaging in the newspaper for reasons to panic, yawned when I told her that I was almost afraid to touch the buildings because I thought they might collapse into cigarette ash.
All she did was take the oxygen mask off her face long enough to say “pass me the Camels.”
But eventually I found myself idling down the mossy lane more frequently and looking through the gap in the hedge, where the stone steps descend. I couldn’t see the blood-drained heart of our town from where I stood on the path, but there’s a boulder not far from the steps that I climbed one day and from which I saw the whole hypnotizing panorama.
I spent the night there looking at the dark hole at the center of our town, our own neighborhood reduced to a thin ring of light, followed by a thicker ring of brighter light extending to the city walls, which were the neighborhoods of the bloated families of the town council. I hadn’t seen the stars for years, behind this thick haze. But I’ve seen pictures, and it reminded me of the rings of Saturn, minus the planet. Or like an exploded supernova, with its concentric waves of upchucked matter.
When dawn came, I recognized my friends’ house perched at the very edge of the colorless zone. In fact, the back portion of their house and of several houses perched at the edge of the gray oval, was already paintless and leaning. The trees too, which always looked so lushly leafed, were already half dead from this side.
So I went to their house with the full intention of making them look out a back window directly into the heart of the gray zone.
But when I reached their house, a peculiar lethargy took hold. I forgot why I’d come and sat on the front steps smoking a cigarette. Hours later my friend nudged me with his cowboy boot and handed me a beer. What’s up? He asked. The thought of making small talk made me nauseous. I guzzled the beer and headed home.
But when I reached the end of the street I remembered the image of his house from the boulder and turned around. This time I made it into the front room, where I was handed another beer. Without speaking we went upstairs to his room, which was a walk-in closet in his brother’s bedroom, a room his brother shared with a girlfriend. The brother and the young woman were still sprawled out naked on the bed snoring lightly. We tiptoed past them and into the closet, pushing aside some musty clothes and sitting against the wall.
We shared a joint and I felt a peculiar tightness in my chest, and started breathing heavily. He looked at me oddly and took another hit, passing it to me. I held it at arm’s length, watching the ash slowly grow.
He took the joint from my fingers and tapped out the ash before taking another hit. There was something I wanted to say, but words felt like stale gum in my mouth, and I wanted to spit it out, spit out the capacity for language itself, and crawl back inside the wordless night, watching the cloud of smoke.
When I got home my aunt was coughing violently, holding her oxygen mask in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I accidentally knocked over her half-finished bottle of wine, and took the cigarette from her hand, while she lay there panting and talking to herself. That was the difference between me and my aunt: when I lost my senses, I got quiet, but when she lost her senses, she talked even more.
Only then, lying on the floor next to my aunt, listening to her babble, I remembered why I’d gone to my friend’s house, but the thought of going there again made me mildly nauseous. My aunt was saying “I don’t want to go to church, stop holding my hand, I want to go home, I don’t like the fountain, leave me alone…” Absent-mindedly, I reached up to turn off the radio, forgetting it was my aunt speaking.
I kept puzzling how it was possible to not know the layout of the rooms in my friends’ house, even after visiting them thousands of times since we were kids. I had a vague image of the décor of the place — piles of clothes, food wrappers, magazines and beer cans lining the stairs and scattered over everything — but no sense of the layout of the place.
This routine repeated itself for a few weeks, a steady bi-polar swing between urgency and indifference, from a mad-eyed, evangelical need for other souls to share the torment of this knowledge, or to at least confirm what minutes later I couldn’t remember or care less about.
Each day was a relentless repetition. And at home my aunt was still babbling, “I don’t want to go to church, Mommy, stop holding my hand, no fountain, leave me alone….”
I didn’t go back to the boulder for weeks, hoping I’d forget.
So I gave up talking about it, too, because no matter how determined I was when I got to their house I’d end up with a joint hanging from my mouth, watching my friend’s nude girlfriend gracefully tripping through the living room. Everything conspired to distract my attention. But you couldn’t focus on the place for long because the place itself lacked all color, motion, life, even death itself. It repelled human intention, which is why I always ended up tangled in briars and twisted metal, bleeding and confused, when I tried to get there from anywhere but the garden path. I found it on that path by accident. No fish wants to hook itself either. But once the hook is set you just keep getting reeled in. So eventually I wandered back down the garden path and into the heart of the gray zone and gave it a closer look.
Three churches opened onto the colorless village “green”. The collapsed dome of the town hall faced the green on the fourth side. And in the middle of the green stood a circular, concrete basin, which must have been a fountain. Here at last was a little color, deep burgundy stains on the concrete walls, inside and out. And there was a foul stench. And at the bottom of the fountain there was an open hole, with a hinged lid lifted vertically. It looked more like a giant toilet bowl than a typical fountain.
Surrounding the gray business district lay gray houses. The houses closest to the green might have been called mansions. Farther from the green, the houses were smaller and shabbier.
I attempted some sort of scientific analysis.
If our circular town measures approximately 20 blocks in radius, and if the outer ring of neighborhoods occupied by the town leaders was 12 blocks wide, and if the inner ring, where we all tried to fit, measured 2 blocks (that’s 14 total), then the gray zone would measure 6 blocks from the “green” to the back of my friends’ house. About a third of the town had gone missing.
I wanted to see if it would be possible to enter my friends’ house from the gray side. So I turned down the nearest street until I realized where I was. This was the street I had grown up on. I had no memory of it till now.
I stood in front of the house for a long time, feeling my way around the edge of a deep abyss of memory, more numb than scared. The cold currents that stung my eyes whispered memories. My aunt had grown up here too, it had been ours for at least 3 generations. The backyard bordered the backyard of my friends’ house. I’d run up the small incline to their back door practically every day, and all our friends would play army behind all the houses on our street. We’d take turns as prisoners, getting lined up against the fence there and pretending to get executed, and then we’d all go inside for hot cocoa and sandwiches.
But there were no whispers of my mother or father, or why we left.
That night I didn’t drink or smoke or do anything but lie on the floor next to my mumbling aunt. “I don’t want to go to church, leave me alone, I don’t like the fountain….”
It was an ancient refrain, just syllables without meaning, until that night. I listened now like a small boy, urging her silently to tell it again and again. And then I tried to speak my way softly into her feverish mind, “what’s wrong with the fountain?” She grew restless and swore. It felt wrong to pry her open like that. So I put my hand gently on her perspiring forehead and said, “it’s Ok now, you’re safe now, it’s over darling, it’s over, I got you now.”
At first, she grunted and cursed and flung her arm towards the floor feeling for a bottle. But I kept caressing her hair and talking softly until she fell asleep.
I got up early next morning with more vigor than I can ever remember.
The red-stained fountain drew me towards it. I must have walked around that concrete bowl for an hour before I carefully made my way through the ruins of the town hall. Apart from the absence of color the offices that hadn’t collapsed looked almost busy, with pens lying on half-finished documents, as if the workers had just stepped out to the bathroom or to consult with a colleague. I was leaving when a list of names caught my eye. The title of the document was “Fountain Ceremony, Sunday, April 12.” When I lifted the page, it fell into unreadable fragments.
That night I got my aunt drunk, a rare generosity that always made her weepy and sentimental. And as she started to babble, I held her hand. My intention was to manipulate her into talking, but the more I listened and the longer I felt her soft, gray skin, the more I remembered. I remembered how she held my hand when I was thrashing and wailing, how she led me away from the church that morning and up through the garden path to this very house. I was no more than 8 or 9, but crying like a toddler. She was saying, “it’s OK now, you’re safe now, it’s over, I got you now.” And then I realized I was crying.
She opened her eyes and said, “it’s OK now, you’re safe now, it’s over, I got you now.” That was part of her old babbling refrain, but she was looking at me soberly and tenderly. “See? It all just keeps repeating, just like I was saying.”
And then she started telling me about the fountain, how the town got too crowded, and how the acres of corn had kept pressing relentlessly against the city walls, causing disease and disruption, and how it all became a sacred rite. They called themselves the “far seeing ones”, the Farraseeum — the town council, the sheriff, and the church leaders. They wouldn’t have liked Jesus, she said. They wanted him hoisted too, but on a pedestal, not mingling on the bare dirt with the rest of the outcasts, where they’d trample him for his quiet refusal to take part in a lie.
The council argued that it was the natural order of life, that all living things had to excrete waste or sicken and die. The ministers concurred but inserted into the public record their opposition to the rather dirty language proposed by the council, preferring “excommunication” and “inquisition” over “in-duction” and “excremation” — preferring, after all, the pious terminology of a prior Dark Age. They were Romantics, they laughed. But if their objections were recorded, they would give their blessings.
And then, how would they define the “excrement”, the ones suitable for “induction”? Surprisingly, the rebellious groups weren’t the first ones to go, for rebellion presumes its own subjugated stance, forever seeking something possessed by the leaders, and thus confirming the leaders’ status.
No, the ones they selected weren’t even the poorest, who presented no real threat. But Harry, there, the cabinet maker, he wouldn’t lower his eyes or smile when he was addressed. He emasculated them with his indifference. Or Bonny, the flower shop owner, who refused to donate her arrangements.
And the anxious survivors went to church more regularly and attended the Baptism at the fountain with great solemnity, until they were selected.
And so it went from week to week, each body following a reductive orbit around the perimeter of the fountain, sprinkled with holy water as it floated past, until it was flushed into the ducts that carried the city waste all the way to the sea.
And then my aunt described how it happened to her father and mother at a certain age, and then to mine, although they’d raise monuments to glorify the dead, and how street by street the city bled itself dry, until the drain clogged with bodies and the stench became unbearable.
We got up early the next morning, sober as church mice, and I wheeled her down the garden path and into the Green, where she drank lemonade, while I closed the fountain lid and went back and got water, brushes and soap and started cleaning the blood off the fountain.
After a few weeks, my three friends saw me from a back window, and came down to help. And it was easier for them, because they weren’t alone.
And we found a bell from one of the broken steeples, about a foot in diameter. “What would happen if we rang the bell?” I asked. “Would anyone hear it?”
“They’ll never find us here,” my friend’s fiancé said, even though she was dressed like a flower. “They won’t notice what they can’t admit.”
So we built a fire, and saw the stars emerge at last from the smoke. And I thought about the bell and the difference between death and murder, how we only know the full tone of the bell in its completion, and how they had tried to break that bell, and annihilate sound itself.
As if reading my mind, my friend nudged me with his cowboy boot and said “it matters how you die.”
And little by little the town green sprouted leaflets of grass, and flies landed on the bloody concrete and carried pieces of it away to their offspring, and spiders came back to feast on a few of the flies, and the birds came back to eat some of the spiders, and wildcats came back to eat a few of the birds. An expanding spiral of life, not a diminishing coil of inanimate control.
“I don’t think this happened before,” my aunt said, even though the stars were still rising and setting.