"That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace."
-- William Gibson, All Tomorrow's Parties
"Shades of Shadow"

Jan 23. 2005.

"Inspired" by a drunken walk home from the O'Donnell's in the snow.

My titles are almost as bad as George Lucas's... :-)

1.

The snow piled a foot deep in places, shoved three times as high on the sides by plows and shovel. It still fell, though somehow seeming only cursorily. As if it had already blown its wad - a phrase Joe (Joey to his teachers, Joseph to his mother, Little Bastard Fuck to his brother) had heard three years ago but stuck with him, perhaps because while the meaning had been explained in exacting detail, he still felt there was some underlying connotation he failed to grasp - but not quite ready to be counted as a spent force.

Connotations, context, perspective: Things his mother talked about constantly these days, an unceasing drone in her English teacher voice, fading in and out like an underpowered radio station as she moved from one room to another in their third-floor apartment. Since she had started doing reviews for one of the local alternative rags, she would simply drop into media analysis mode without any sort of provocation. Anyway, it was better than her bitching about his dead-beat no-child-support ex-father, so he didn't complain.

Joe trudged down the middle of the street, stepping off into the snowbank when a slow-moving car would slide by. And it was here, waiting for one of the ubiquitous city cabs to pass, he noticed the side street. Now, he knew, there were side streets and then there were side streets: alleys or just space between buildings, not even big enough for you to walk through. This was his neighborhood; he had spent his entire life here, and he knew every brick, crack in the pavement, every pothole in the asphalt for a ten block radius.

This side street was new. It looked like any other, just row houses down it with cars parked up on the sidewalk so there was barely enough room to still drive through. It hadn't been here yesterday. He was positive.

So he paused, knee-deep in packed snow, and considered. The snow itself could be confusing him. Blanket enough of the world with the stuff and everything looked new, or just different enough as to be unrecognizable. Checking the immediate landmarks just confirmed his initial assessment, however: this street had not existed yesterday when he and Pete Dinunzio had walked down to the corner deli for sandwiches and to stare at the girl who worked the counter's tits.

"Get the fuck," he muttered, and pushed the hood his jacket back. Squinting into the light flurry, he stepped out of the bank and onto the mostly-unshoveled sidewalk. He could see now that the street ended in not even a cul de sac, just ran right into a brick wall with some monochrome graffiti scrawled across it.

Streets didn't just appear, and not in the middle of the city, and they definitely didn't just dead-end where his spacial sense insisted the middle of Pine St. should be.

Someone builds a building in the middle of the street overnight, it's the sort of thing he would hear about. He prided himself on his network of neighborhood informational sources, always knowing what the word was before anyone else. It extended to school, to an extent, but there it just felt like gossip, not like news. What his mother called a base and pathetic waste of time. Didn't stop her talking shit to her sisters about each other, but what could you do.

The graffiti wasn't anything he'd seen before, he could tell. Not down on South St., where new tags appeared weekly, or on the way to school. Definitely not in school, for sure. Didn't look like an art bomber or some banger tag, either. Circular, it seemed to shift from black to grey depending on how you looked at it. Lots of complex symbols wrapped around the core design, running off at random angles, like how he used to draw the sun when he was a kid.

Felt familiar, though, frustratingly so. Like when he could almost think of the word he wanted, and had to stand there, eyes locked on his shoes, until finally it came to him, out of seemingly nowhere.

He stepped off the sidewalk, into the mouth of the little street, and saw that under the patchy snow - someone had gone through with shovel after the real snow had stopped - it was cobblestone. Plenty of that around the city, so it didn't really register as an oddity. The mortar between the stones shimmering a little, but he put that down to ice and tricks of the light.

He started down the street, wanting a better look at that marking on the wall. The houses that rose up around him could have been anywhere in the city. Anywhere middle class, where the residents still kept up the block. The cars covered in snow, caked in it, so they were just outlines, and he couldn't tell the make of any of them.

No footprints in the snow, his subconscious noted. Just the shoveled snow, the banks on either side. The walks in front of the houses cleared, but with a thin layer of powder over them. No prints, nothing. The part of his brain that would have considered this weird was busy trying to remember that almost-word, right there on the tip of his tongue, tickling the back of his eyelids.

He could feel when he'd passed what should have been the far side of the block. A sense of the buildings he knew by heart now behind him, and just these new, impossible houses encasing him, hiding the city behind their tasteful, totally forgettable roofs and eaves.

Right where he knew the middle of Pine St. to be, in that city-animal way, was the brick building. Its roof seemed to both end and go on at once, into the white fog of the night, just out of sight.

Some clever trick by the architect, maybe, but how can he know it goes on when he can see it end, just above the roofs of the houses around it?

He can see the graffiti now: A circle with sharp, jagged symbols drawn around it. Some zig-zag out, fading into the brick. The paint has the same shimmer effect the mortar between the cobblestones does, like they mixed something into it, making it go from black to grey, shifting as you looked at it.

The circle itself was filled with what could be a map, straight lines in a grid pattern. Some circles with more lines radiating out from them, merging into the linear ones. The very center, though, the middle of the grid, was blank. An empty hole in some whacked-out spraypaint-artists idea of a city. Only they couldn't have used spraypaint for this, and it didn't have that stencilled-on look either.

Not really sure why, but he pulled one of his gloves off, the right one, the one he drew with when he still did, and reached up to place his palm in the empty middle of the city. The brick felt freezing at first, which he would have expected if he had thought about it, but then it seemed to get warm. Not like it was sucking at his body heat, but like it was making its own, only it had to wake up first.

Felt like it was pulsing, too, like a heartbeat. That had to just be his imagination; his mom would say he was just projecting. Like it was his heartbeat, and he just thought it was the walls. Impossible, but couldn't he feel his own pulse, hear it in his ears through the surrealness of the whole situation? And the building's pulse, it wasn't in sync with his, hitting the beats just wrong, before or after his own heart. But then he hit felt it shift speeds, moving up to match the pounding in his ears.

It felt like electricity, whatever rode his arm from out of the brick, and he could almost see it tracing its way from the outlying symbols to the streets, circling to the heart of the map, but it was like that word he couldn't remember, only visual. He knew it was there, but didn't.

Then the wall hit the perfect pace, slipped right into sync with his pulse, and the un-electricity slammed into him, and he could remember the sort-of word, all the words, true language burning into his brain.

He didn't feel himself blown back, pushed away from the wall, detached from the map, the symbols. He could see it, though, sort of externally. Watch himself fly past the totally non-descript car-shapes, hit the street and slide through the snow. Like on TV. And that's just exactly how it was, because then everything faded to black.

2.

Theresa on the roof of her apartment building, smoking a cigarette she stole from the pack her mother wasn't supposed to have because she had quit two months ago. Smoked and stared at the lights of the city. The South Philly low-rent subsidized mass of crumbling plaster and wood under her felt like an anchor, a ball-weight in some old black-and-white movie about chain gangs.

There were plastic lawnchairs up here the old men in the building used in the summer. Their wives had an ancient claim to the porches and fire escapes, probably going generations back to when the building was first put up. Theresa figured the old men had the better part of the deal anyway, because in the summer they brought up big umbrellas and sat underneath them playing chess and talking about the old days.

Sometimes they would forget she was around when she was, and they'd talk about things she probably wasn't supposed to hear. The men they'd killed in various wars, or whores they'd been with, and how they rated in some archaic league whose rules she could almost comprehend and never explain had anyone asked, which no one ever would.

Up here in winter, though, it was just her. She'd pulled one of the chairs out from the inside landing where they kept them. Folded herself into that chair in her big black coat that came down to her ankles. On her brother, who the coat had belonged to before the day he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it had only come to his knees, which is where it was supposed to stop.

She hadn't moved, except to move her arm to smoke her cigarette, for twenty minutes or so, and the light snow had settled on her, making her even more shapeless than usual. Lost under the snow, in the coat, nothing but bangs framing her sharp face and the glowing end of the cigarette. Smoke mingling with snowflakes and lights and she unconsciously flexed her muscles like she had been taught to keep them from cramping up underneath her. Before what her mother called her brother's accident, she had taken kung fu classes forever taught by this tiny Chinese man who everyone said had fought for the North but had come out of Saigon on the last choppers anyway, whatever that meant.

You could tell he had seen too much, and a lot of it. Like how the old men looked, when a quiet mood was on them. You could also see how he could forget it all, though, when he was practicing. Not when he was teaching, because that required thought, but just going through forms. His mind just gone away, his body going through the motions like it was breathing. You could watch it wash away from his face, years and unnamed, or even unnameable, horrors fading from his grey eyes. Slipping down through the wooden boards between the mats.

After her brother caught his bullet, that was how her uncle put it, all that seemed to matter less. Part of her wanted to find that place her teacher could, and just forget it all. The funeral, the way no one really talked anymore, even to yell or complain about all the typical bullshit families always bitched about. Find that peace in the motion of the art, but a bigger part of her didn't want to forget. Couldn't.

Her mother, crying, first time Theresa had worn his coat. She had pulled it out of a box of his things, in the closet. Those boxes had disappeared, her father's quiet work. They'd never told her not to wear it; never even really questioned it.

She imagined she could still smell him, that big brother smell, at once comforting and threatening; his essence indelibly staining the stitches and fabric.

Turning the butt of the cigarette in her hand, held between thumb and middle finger. The ember facing her palm, she flicks it over the edge of the building.

Thinks about it falling into a mound of that piled up snow down on the street, and going out, instantly, from the cold, disappearing into all that white.

Just winking out, just like that.

Something makes her get up, some feeling not unlike the one that makes her wear her brother's coat. She walks to the edge of the roof and looks down, to mark the passing of the little fire, swallowed up by the world of cold.

And sees what can only be a homeless guy reach down and pick something up, putting it to his lips. He's wearing a beat-up Army jacket over a sweatshirt that's at least six sizes too big, with the hood up. Sees the smoke he exhales and knows he's finishing off the two or three drags she customarily leaves on the cigarette, why she does that she's never known. No way did it stay lit down five stories into the snow.

The homeless guy takes another long drag off it, then leans down and places it in what she knows, absolutely knows, to be the exact spot it fell.

The guy starts walking off, and probably it's just the height or something, but he doesn't seem to leave any footprints in the fresh snow. And she can tell his leg is hurt, because he drags it a little, and that should definitely leave a mark she can see, five stories or no five stories.

Especially, her veins going all to ice, that sense of oh-shit and falling twisting up her stomach, because she can see what can only be a long, pointed tail twitching out from under his ratty-ass too-long sweatshirt.

May 23, 2005 5:41 PM