A luminescent sludge glides by lazily on the wet black grime covering the street. His rusted leather boots sink in slightly with every step and they rise again with a slight shlitch of resistance. Indistinct creatures barely distinguish themselves from the fog as they move swiftly past. Wires hang low from the invisible sky and drip ceaselessly down into the pools of their own creation where grey lizards silently sip and scatter, sip and scatter. The alley narrows in a play of filth and tarps, of shadows and shapes and humans. A few sickly refugees crouch in the damp by the glow of a fenced lcd screen where clouds drift across an empty almost liquid azure sky. Weakly little clouds of smoke puff from their mumbling lips, as they constantly stir and settle like cats in garbage. Sharing a single glaseptic nebulizer between them like a broken jewel. Each taking careful calculated puffs and exhaling no smoke at all. Just then, a short weaselly figure weaves through the fog like a pike in murky water and addresses his ear in a high-pitched whisper, look what it has reduced them to.. the figure weaves out of sight. He walks on unconcerned. Laced… with amyl nitrate, comes the voice again, silky, persuasive in his ear. I can get you the real stuff. The creeping figure inhales deeply. Aaaiiir… the voice says airily, a great cloud of smoke emanating from its mouth shrouding the walking man’s head. He squints, his hood shifting to reveal a black steel mask covering his nose and mouth. A faint smokeless hiss escapes through a circular valve on its side. And the high-pitched whisper is not heard of again.
The sombre alley brightens up again for a moment as he walks past the invasive glow of another advertisement of cloud and azure sky. A commotion ahead suddenly breaks the stillness of the air. A man blindly stumbles out of the shadows, thrashing wildly, desperate to outrun the beacon behind his eyes. Children scurry away and a cruel twist of a children’s game begins to take shape. No one else can see the fiery glow, though they have all dreamed of it before.
The red pox.
Shit shit shit, comes the barking raucous. Hide meee! Hiiide me, pleading now. Someone! He sweeps right and left, hurtling into the debris and garbage lining the alley. Someone? By now, every soul in the alley has long since withdrawn into shelter. Hiding like so many translucent deep-sea creatures from the glare of the sun. Cowards! He growls disappearing momentarily in the thick smoke of his own erratic breathing, coughing, his hands like tentacles viciously grasping the air for something to hold onto.
Shlitch shlitch, the walking man moves on unconcerned.
The frail man quietens.
Hello?, comes his measly voice.
Shlitch shlitch, comes his answer. And in one swift disoriented motion, he desperately lunges for the walking man’s heels, narrowly missing them and landing with a sickly thud onto the pavement. The walking man’s cape lifts with the sudden gush of wind and his steps carry on.
A single ring of blue light appears from the smoggy opaqueness above, lowering, hasteless. Two peace officers step off, a white cloud badge stitched on their left shoulder. The man lying in the streets is reduced to a faint quiver. He says nothing as he is removed by the officers. Ref19035, contraband. Air. A cold breeze travels the alley as the verdict is passed. The man simply sniffles. The pod flies off in a ring of blue light, unhurriedly into the unseen above.
The alley lingers a while in the quiet aftermath, a few heads surfacing here and there, avoiding eye contact or speech. For what words indeed could overpower their nameless shame?
He turns a corner into a busy street. Out of the shadows and into a world ablaze. Multi-levelled and bustling. He steps back into the shadow again and leans against a grimy pipe. He watches on a minute as his eyes adjust to the overwhelming light. Taking in the industriousness of it all. How life festers, unceasing. A figure dressed in yellow climbs up translucent stairs, his sandals leave a neon afterglow where the step momentarily is then isn’t. He slips and disappears into a small group awaiting the transit above. Another figure follows after him holding firm his daughter’s hand. Veins of sort pulse dully through her black coat in fading bursts of red chasing yellow chasing red and downwards to where they slowly drip from her sleeve and onto the street. From the alley, he traces back her colourful trail. The road stretches on as straight as a dime’s edge. He squints. A sign in the distance advertises oxygen massage, oxygen sleep, feel the warmth of health. His eyes jump back ahead to a hunched cloaked figure pushing a wincing cart upon which a few pale dumplings are dancing slightly in a shallow pool of murky oil. The elderly vagrant grunts and motions at the dumplings with his chin. The man shifts his gaze away. The wincing picks up and moves on. Above, the little girl is blankly staring in his direction. The dripping from her dress is pooling at her feet onto the invisible platform. Her guardian follows her fixed gaze into the alley. His face is indistinguishable behind a curtain of his greying matte hair. A neon ray catches the silver rim of his glasses, here uncovered, here concealed behind a strand of hair. When the micro-vessel gliding in their direction nears, its rear end swerves slightly leaving an eel of electric afterglow weaving in its tow. The group on the platform shuffles and he leaves the alley unnoticed. A damp wind carries distant wailing to his ear. Commotion is afoot. People on bicycles, motorcycles, makeshift hovergear, on foot, a few bots patrolling overhead. Business is being gone about as usual and a trickle of rain begins to filter through the crowded street. The air changes with it, the smells, the sounds. The wetted filth on the street reflects the distorted neon wizardry above. Air. Sold in all its variants. Pure, Sourced, Spiced, Laced, Concentrated, Filtered, Hexo-filtered, Enhanced… A few umbrellas fly open like startled birds.
At the corner a preacher stands crooked, high on a stool, prophesying a doom that has already come to pass. His silhouette counterpointing wickedly against the sky-and-cloud monitor behind him. A crowd of drunks has formed around him, leaning heavily against one another, swaying to his words. Meanwhile, the Citizens of the Sky, says he, the preacher, with great bravado, pointing at the sky. Up Theirs!, yells the crowd in chorus, as per custom. Like a bless-you to a sneeze. A great deal of smoke rises from their filthy mouths. They! They have done this to us! The Priest takes a deep breath and exhales a puff of smoke into the sky. All watch after it pensively, as it rises into the smog above. A side effect they call it! A side-effect of the chemical they use to make the post-world air breathable! The preacher pauses briefly for effect. The audacity! The crowd echoes these last words though mostly echolalically. While the truth, the TRUTH! The truth, he whispers as the crowd huddles in, is that they have used this toxic chemical to keep..us..submissive! The crowd erupts, he can hear their drunken banter in the distance, slowly fading to the sound of rain and the swish of passing tires.
The food district looms dimly at the end of the street. A feeble lighthouse for the hungry. The muffled chatter, the sizzling of the oils, the crackling of the charcoal, the emptying of buckets, the guts landing on the floor, the reticent flowing of open sewers, the dissection of meat. The stench of swine, of sauces, of spices, of fats, of fish, of burning flesh, of vinegar, of overripe fruit, of rotten vegetables, of urine, of human sweat, of burning garbage. He carries on. The food district is a smouldering undersea volcano, harbouring an unlikely mix of life in the cold darkly depths of the post-world.
At the very end of the district he finds a small dimly lit stall, a solitary few are having a quiet meal under its dripping awning. The stiff leather of his coat creaks as he settles onto the weatherworn stool. Next to him sits a young tidy woman smoking an air-filter. A nostalgic red ember comes alive at its tip with her every draw. She lets the clean air flow out through her nose, invisible. A purely aesthetic act. The cook is bent over her work in her cramped improvised kitchen. She hums soundlessly to herself. When finally she turns around holding two bowls of noodle soup in her hands. And four chopsticks. She hands the one in her left hand to the tidy woman who accepts it with both her hands, waits to be offered the chopsticks, which she receives with her right thumb, and then deposits the bowl lightly onto the table bowing slightly in respect. The cook watches and is satisfied. As for the bowl in her right hand, it hovers in wait.
You going to eat with that thing on?
The man’s gaze rises in slow defiance from his pending meal into the cook’s stolid eyes. Her eyebrows lift in slight insistence. An unseen smile crosses his lips. He bows imperceptibly at her display of motherly resilience; in acquiescence of her unquestionable reign within the confines of her tiny noodle shop; in respect of her trembling hand; and with sweeping sorrow at the sight of the thin whisks of smoke leaving her pale lips. A lone drop of sweat travels her ghostly cheek. Her love, unyielding and harsh, is the truest love a man can know. The bowl lands with a muffled clamour onto the placemat before him, sending a wave through its cloudy contents. A drop washes over the brim and lands with a discreet splash. The man bows slightly in respect. The young woman at his side stares unflinchingly forward. She is watching the interaction with great indifference and curiosity. She yawns.
The cook drags a damp cloth from her shoulder and falls to work on the drying rack, casting unashamed knowing eyes, at the much subtler interaction unfolding before her. At the slowest dance of all. A short hiss of air travels the quiet night as he wordlessly removes the steel mask. Sweat pearls glimmer on his shaven upper lip. There, the cook says, satisfied. She offers him a set of chopsticks. His eyes close for a moment as he breathes deeply in the thick midnight air. He exhales a smoke-filled sigh into the smog above. He quietly accepts his chopsticks and begins fixing his noodle soup with the precision of a mechanic or that of a junky. Eggs, seeds, sauces, spices, pastes, herbs, greens, his hands expertly finding and dosing the fixings to the exact chaos of his liking. The cook reaches far under the counter upsetting many glass jars and surfaces holding two dark wooden pepper mills. The rain recedes a bit. Then altogether. The shop comes alive again with its soft orchestra of slurps, mouths & the dull sound of wood against ceramic.
My boy works hard getting these you know?, she remarks to him over the sound of grinding of exoskeleton, limbs and antlers. From the other end of the street comes another outcry of approval. The man lifts his eyes from his steaming bowl and nods expressionlessly in the direction of the noise.
All day he stands there, says the cook, answering the wordless inquiry. His words do far more to keep people dumb and submissive than the air we breathe. The man slurps on. The cook leans in while her eyes patrol wearily upwards, towards the City in the Sky. She lowers her voice. I say he works for.. works for them. Don’t seem like a refugee to me. She leans back with a sly smile, obviously satisfied with her gossip of defiance. A dry crack of glass comes from the edge of the stall accompanied by a deep inhale, and a second one follows immediately behind it as her drying cloth snaps but a few inches away from the junkie’s face, who tumbles off his stool in surprise. A coughing bout takes over him, and, for a moment, the air sporadically exiting his mouth is invisible.
There’ll be none of that here, comes the dry menacing tone of the cook.
The junky begins to scamper away as his breath turns to smoke again. The man sets down his chopsticks and begins to rise with a great creaking complaint from his stool.
Don’t waste your breath, comes the cook’s voice, relaxed again and final. He pauses for a second, considering his next action, then sits back down. Probably wasn’t going to pay anyway, she adds dispassionately.
It’s not the air, you know, or whatever it is they lace it with. What bothers me is the idea.. idea of escape. Poisonous. She pauses, considers who she is speaking with, then picks another bowl from the disorderly pile and polishes it dry in silence. The rain picks up again. An alley cat finds shelter at their feet. Its breath rises to them in scattered bubbles of white smoke, as though from the cold. The shop becomes busy again and the cook falls to work. Her two guests are left to themselves. The young woman slurps her plain noodles, simply elegant in her motions. The man carries on eating hungrily. The silence drawing them into a world of their own. The fading warmth of the broth notes the passing of time. Her feet are cold, she rests her chopsticks on the corner of the bowl. He tips his bowl to the corner of his mouth and empties its final contents. The cook lays four vapour buns, two at each end of a long rectangular plate before them. He reaches out and sweeps his into his empty bowl with his hand. She reaches for one with her chopsticks and deftly brings it back to her empty bowl. The soft white skin parts easily exposing its colourful steaming inside. Sweet red bean paste for her, minced pork for him. They eat on in silence. The stall quiets down again. The cat licks a few fallen crumbs. She slides her second bun towards his end of the plate, picks up her air filter and draws a few slow drafts of clean air. The cook’s lips part in a warm half-concealed smile for the unfaltering observance of ritual. He sweeps it into his plate. A kettle burbles and tea is served for three.
The rain lingers, then passes. The little steaming island that is the noodle shop suddenly reappears into the night. A last patron drops a few silver coins onto the counter with a clang and slips away into the dark. The cook reaches over and absently swipes them into her apron, then bending stiffly at the waist, pries open a trap door and disappears into the unlit gloom below. The cat follows suit as though sentient to the innocuous ploys of an old heart.
The air is still in the wake of her presence, and for a moment, there is no one else in the world but the two of them. Tea steams as not a word is spoken. Nor is a word thought. She sips a discrete sip and the ardent tea glides its luscious warmth into her chilled limbs. A few vague rummaging sounds escape the underground. The cook takes a seat in the wooden stairs, concealed yet in view of her patrons’ legs. She unwraps a thin jelly sandwich and observes the space between them. Come on girl, she words without a sound. The cat joins her side. The old woman takes a bite and wonders. Step out… out of yourself girl. The cat settles in her lap. She sees her immaculate black stockings, dancing feet, his loose laces, shredded pant hem. She sees children. Give her something to step on. Catch her.. catch her fall. She rips a corner of sandwich, hands it to the cat who lazily declines the offer.
The world above is motionless. The woman pulls the warm teacup closer to her heart. The moment is about to pass. He reaches deep into his coat and brusquely breaks the stillness with the landing of an opaque black orb onto the counter. Startled by the sound, the cook climbs up the stairs, and the sudden effort sends her into a bout of laborious coughing. The tiny kitchen is soon enshrouded in a thick white smoke. The woman is the first to react, at once repurposing her air-filter to clear the air from the smoke. The air gradually clears and the man leans forward to offer his mask to the reappearing wheezing cook. The cook reaches for it, then pushes it away. Get… get that goddamn thing away… away from me! Her voice is raw, unforgiving. Both her guests stand leaning over the counter disquieted, unsure. The cook grabs her forgotten cup of tea, empties its lukewarm medicine and gathers herself. I’m alright, she says to them. I’m alright, she repeats to herself. The woman lays her air-filter quietly down next to her cup. She closes her eyes, then softly, she lifts her hands. And for a moment they rest poised in mid-air with every ounce the grace of a musical conductor. Commanding, majestic. A gentle wave travels the length of her fingers setting in motion a subtle dance of style and minutiae. Her company instantly quietens. Her thumbs imperceptibly reach the tip of each finger and the invisible play of their choreography suddenly comes to life in trails of many colours. The intricate design of her movements cuts luminous through the damp chill of the air, blazing, wondrous. The vibrant tracings reflecting in the six dark globes of their entranced eyes. The cook’s tattered breathing gradually deepens and eases. The man sits back awed. The rhythmic swish of her sleeves against her wrists lulls as her hands whisk and whisk and whisk. At its peak the brightness becomes over-powering, eclipsing the world with its shine. The space between them becomes pure ocular stimuli. Just then the hand motions change. The lady ever gradually begins to gather and spool the unspun luminous yarn into a ball. She speeds up for the last few yards and casts it to soar and fade into the nebulous reaches above.
The cook wakes first. She looks about for a rag with which to resume her role in the world but instead finds her empty teacup. She gathers all three, tips the spout of the kettle into each and redistributes them. She then sits back peacefully and sips.
The lady wakes second. She extracts a forest green linen kit from the inner pocket of her burgundy dress coat and unrolls it onto the counter before her. With a set of tiny steel pincers she extracts the ember from the tip of her air filter, examines its bright amber glow, and drops it into a muddy puddle at her feet. The water steams and burbles, and then the ember withers, dims and disappears.
The man wakes last and for a moment is stirred, confused. As he regains his bearings, a shadow crosses his face. Unaccustomed to the loosening of his grasp over reality.
Reality, the old woman words thoughtfully into the air her eyes following the smoke as it rises and dissipates. She opens her hand and studies its worn wisdom. She half smiles to herself. There is a flash of vulnerability, honest and valiant in the soft glow of her eyes. Then it’s gone. She empties her glass and submerses it into a basin of dark soapy water. The air is sharp in her battered lungs.
We all escape.
With these words, the fabric of their meeting comes undone. The man rises and casts the first stone with the clang of change against the metal counter. He sweeps his mask back into his coat, then he turns and leaves, slipping back into the humid starless night.
The cook washes on. The woman waits, lets her cup rests upon the counter. She breathes in. The remnants of his smell still linger, she gazes into the distance that has swallowed him, her face pale, mournful. Give him time, the voice flows warmly through the air, but by the time the cook turns around, her guest is gone.
The sewer grate receives the murky dishwater silently into its steamy bottomless depths. The cook slips into her overcoat and steps outside the noodle shop. She wrings her drying cloth and drags it upon the counters. With one hand, she opens her coat and sweeps the coins into her apron, then briskly she stops. Peeking over her shoulder, she swiftly enshrouds the obsidian orb and dissimulates it into her coat pocket. While she flips her hood on, her foot absently finds a lever at the base of the stools and four heavy metal curtains land with a crash to seal the stall. She walks away one hand still inside her pocket firmly around the orb.
Down the damp darkly maze of alleys, she walks swiftly in a dreamlike state, a stream of smoke drifting from her mouth in her wake. Wholly absorbed by the content of her pocket, she navigates the dark alley with heedless precision. She reaches an old courthouse and climbs the wide marble staircase. She crosses the gargantuan crumbling pillars a tiny speck of black in a world of giants. Her steps echo long against the far walls and escape with a few doves through the broken roof amidst the falling rain. She crosses the vacant hall, navigating the fallen debris rummaging with her free hand for the rusty skeleton key. Upon reaching the main staircase’s sidewall, she slides it in just below a small notch in the marble. A small door creaks, glitching into view for a split second and swallows her whole.
The old woman settles in a corner on a mattress made of cardboard boxes and worn clothes. She removes her heavy jacket and wraps it around herself. A mouse in a shoebox, she reaches inside her pocket for the precious orb. It is heavy and warm still from her hand. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. She whispers a word into it. A few faint clicking sounds come from inside the orb, and a moment later, the orb opens flat in the palm of her hand. A hologram begins to form. Her hand reaches blindly for her spectacles resting upon her nightstand. The indistinct visual chatter gradually reorganizes itself and crystallizes into the shape of a little girl, shy in her purple dress, a daisy garland in her hair. Ooh, the sound escapes the old woman’s throat involuntarily, her trembling hand adjusting her spectacles on the bridge of her nose, then rests hovering above her mouth. The little glowing figure counts herself to three and performs a pirouette. My, the old woman voices, sorrowful in her delight. Her vision begins to blur as the little figure performs a second pirouette. And, on the third, the girl missteps and falls into the many folds of her skirt. She is surprised for a second, then breaks into an uncontrollable laughter. The sound fades and the hologram begins to dissipate leaving the old woman in the lonesome darkness of her bed. The orb balls up again inside her hand. She pulls it to her heart with a shallow reverberating sigh. A few tears, cut loose from her eyes.
A.. Abi, she whispers, and the orb flattens again.
“The sun always shines above the clouds.”
Shliitch shliitch. The street is busier still. Pairs of cloud-shaped loudspeakers hover above the crowd spewing propaganda in warm comforting voices. A two-storied hologram of a playful family materializes at the centre of the street. Three young children run around passing through people, laughing, playful, while their parents watch on peaceful, smiling. Although most of the traffic carries on unfazed by the spectacle, a few people unconditionally avoid these holopeople, crossing themselves as they hurry past, aghast lest they be traversed by these apparitions from another world. The cloaked man walks on. None of this escapes his eye. Obscure markets line the streets where girls sit looking colourful like tired birds. One such girl, a teenager, and much livelier than her peers, pulls a breast out and sticks her tongue out at him. She then abruptly laughs herself into a coughing fit to the annoyance of the girls beside her, who roll their eyes, but mostly stay immobile looking vaguely flirty.
So young and already so breathless, a passer-by mutters despondently, spitting into the muck.
As he approaches the micro station where the little girl stood with her father, he notices a leak at the base of a towering billboard. A luminescent chemical glides thickly down the side of the alley where a few street kids part its flow into a series of canals and pools to keep it from escaping down into the sewer system. As he passes by, a young boy looks high, very high up at him, awed into taking a break from painting his bony legs with the colourful fluid. His boots pick up the slime and for a while, his footsteps light the sombre and empty alleyway he gradually disappears into.
He engages into worming passages and down narrow flights of stairs. The maze he negotiates is never twice the same. With every step, the filth, the disarray, the sheer chaos of the world builds and intensifies. Rusted metal, mechanical parts, buckets of oil and chemical waste, human refuse, wreckage; his downwards journey is obstructed, unclear. The air progressively clouds over. He places his mask back upon his faces, as it becomes impossible to breathe the mixture of smoke and vapour. Around him, the landscape is changing as he engages into steep stairwells, down floor after floor of throbbing engine rooms, rumbling transformers, monstrous machines, steaming valves. The way is known to him now. Nearing a bifurcation he extracts a metal marble from a pocket just below his knee and lets it loose on the floor before him. The marble instantly begins to roll forward, increasing in speed as it nears the left doorway. He marches through the right one into an empty corridor. A dense mist begins to spray from the black walls and the air suddenly cools.
Then for the first time since he left behind the noodle shop, he stops. A shelf slides in from an opening in the wall on his right. He removes his mask, his heavy coat, his boots and socks, his pants and shirt and undergarments and places them all upon it. The shelf disappears with its content. And a showerhead appears from the ceiling up ahead. As he showers, a network of lasers travels his body. The showerhead retracts and a warm wind begins to blow from all directions. A low shelf slides in on the left and he is handed a towel and a blue translucent ring. He slips the ring onto his index and the walls around him suddenly come alive. A red oak door appears into view. He motions for it to open, and is presented with his wardrobe. He removes the towel and sits on the low shelf. While he selects his clothes, pointing his ring finger at the various items of his choosing, a clock appears announcing the next passing train. He passes the towel through his damp hair as his clothes begin to appear neatly hung and folded.
The orbit train arrives. He steps in. He takes a seat on one of the lateral benches. Twin siblings are playing & laughing on the very rear bench of the train. Their eyes are clouded over by the alternate reality they’re experiencing. Their excitement at what they are beholding through the rear window is loud in moments. Their caretaker smiles uneasily at him and apologizes. She then looks back at the kids and yells quietly for them to settle down or else they would be forced to sit through the entire train ride unenhanced. The threat barely reaches into their world. And soon the noise resumes. The caretaker repeats her apology. Her eyes then cloud over and a pleasing expression travels her face.
The sun always shines above the clouds.
He steps off the platform.
The lighting is soft. It is night. He wonders down a few concrete stairs onto the street. The world is grey, mostly colourless. Sounds of the night surround him like a soft ambient blanket. Crickets, night birds, long grass swishing in the breeze. He walks on through the grey lifeless interface. As he reaches a first intersection he turns left through a field of astroturf. There is a faint aroma of summer nights, of flowers, overturned earth and fresh cut grass. As he makes his way through the grey plastic pillars of the neighbourhood forest he hears the familiar call of a distant eastern screech owl. A delicate melodic wave that announces the proximity of home. He can hear the leaves playing in the breeze, the trunks wincing. A pathway leads him to a series of box-shaped houses. As he reaches the third one, he turns to face it and stops. Before him there is nothing. Just a few outlines, mostly walls and steps. He sighs. If he closes his eyes he can smell his neighbour’s apple tree blossoms, the bougainvillea climbing up the side of the house. They are almost real, and he can almost see them. He sighs again and reaches into his waistcoat and extracts a tiny metal case containing his reality lenses. He puts them on. His vision turns white for a second. Then a pair of white clouds appear before him.
Loading Happiness 3
The white clouds dissipate and the world comes to life before his eyes. His lawn, the garden, the bougainvillea, he walks on towards his charming wooden house indifferent to the cinematics of it all. He reaches the front door and opens it softly. He finds a noble elderly woman sitting at the kitchen table writing in tidy cursive upon the air before her. He walks to the wall, conjures a refrigerator with a wave of his hand and selects a glass of water. The glass arrives a few seconds later and he settles on a chair in the corner. The elderly woman works on, paying him no mind. He drinks his water in silence, a wave of utter exhaustion washing over him. Feeling his soul scattered between worlds. With a few last strokes of her pen, the words & pen disappear, and at last, she focuses her attention on him. Her eyes travel the length of him where he sits, slouched in his chair. For a moment she considers lecturing him but then, catching sight of his lifeless eyes, she takes pity on him and reconsiders. Only as he escorts her to the door does she break her silence.
Why do you insist on going there?
The man weighs the question and after significant reflection answers in a low defeated voice:
It keeps me human.
The woman simply nods and bids him goodnight. He looks after her as she makes her way down the path onto the street then closes the door. He breathes deeply allowing for the day to finally end. On the way down the corridor, he stops by his daughter’s room. He finds her sound asleep, a strand of silver moonlight shining upon the garland of daisies still in her hair.
© 2020 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.